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Marguerite Arnold

Farmako Inks Deal To Import 50 Tonnes of Polish Cannabis Into Germany

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

The ex-im cannabis map of Europe has been promising to get interesting for some time. And in March, it’s long promised potential just bloomed a little more as Frankfurt-based Farmako announced a first-of-its kind import deal of 50 tonnes of medical cannabis (and from Poland no less) over the next four years.

Farmako was just founded in September 2018. They began distribution to German pharmacies this month. They also have an office in London and cross-European aspirations.

While Farmako is the first to announce such a unique cross-border production and distribution agreement, however, they are far from the only ones planning the same. In fact at least Tilray is expected to announce that their newly-minted Portuguese crop is being processed into oil bound for German pharmacies any day now. It is also not unrealistic to expect that (at least) Canopy Growth, of the big Canadian producers at least, will soon announce the same situation for their crops in countries across the continent, starting with Spain.

Outside Germany of course, this kind of entrepreneurial endeavour is already underway. In the UK, a new import group just announced the first bulk shipment of Dutch medical cannabis into the country, distributed directly to over 1,000 pharmacies nationwide.

There still are a couple of jaw-dropping things to consider about this new German development. Namely, that the amount of just this deal over the next four years between two (relatively new, non-Canadian) companies is approximately five times the amount currently called for in the still pending domestic cultivation bid in Germany.

The second, of course, is that the Polish company on the other side of the border and this ex-im deal, PharmaCann Polska, is a uniquely positioned conglomeration of individuals with apparently Canadian and Israeli market experience. This means that they are already positioned to access the biggest two production markets in the world and are certain to be looking to exploit other Eastern European connections (at minimum). If not ones further afield than that.

One thing is absolutely certain far beyond the particulars of this one deal. The current import limitations from Canada and the Netherlands into the German market appear to be a thing of the past. And the cross-border trade for medical cannabis is now clearly entering a new phase.

Implications

Farmako clearly intends to go after the existing Canadians in the market on price, which means both Canopy Growth and Tilray. But it also means Wayland, at this point is the largest domestic certified producer (albeit with Canadian roots and partners) and an entire licensed facility in eastern Germany ready to go. That is not an insignificant threat and sets up another looming question: Which will actually be cheaper in the long run? Domestically grown German cannabis, or that imported from adjacent countries with lower paying labor markets?

This announcement also means that the “cannabis shortage” in the country is officially over as of this spring. And that won’t just come from Farmako but others already in the market and those angling now to get in via other creative means.

Regardless, what that will do to overall sales, patient numbers and overall speed is another matter.

Other Looming Problems

There are two big issues that this development does not solve of course. The first is the ability of patients to find doctors willing to prescribe the drug, and further to make sure they spend the time filling out the paperwork and negotiating with the patient’s insurer, to make sure that patients can actually get it. Starting with affording medical cannabis in the first place. Most patients on what is known as “statutory” health insurance (90% of the country) cannot afford the out of pocket cost at pharmacies without insurance approvals. Once they get them, they pay up to $12 for a month’s supply (in the case of flower, about an ounce).

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Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

The second issue is that it is currently unclear, mostly due to the lack of granularity provided by the country’s statutory health insurers, what is actually being prescribed for which kind of condition and to whom. Earlier this month, new information was made available about the overall growth of coverage of medical cannabis in Germany. While the total spending, and rough breakdown of flowers vs. product was provided, it is unclear beyond that, where this is going. There were also apparently just over 46,000 patients in Germany as of December 2018. And this is a growth trend that while clearly on an upward trajectory for the last three quarters is slow and steady as she goes. The sudden uptick in the market seen in the second quarter of last year appears to be an anomaly.

Further, understanding market price points is also hard. Flos and prepared pharmaceuticals such as Sativex are highly expensive right now. In the case of the Canadian firms, their medical exports are being sold at about twice the price of their domestic recreational sales points. Look for this to change dramatically as real competition heats up across Europe (and from more distributors than just this Frankfurt upstart).

What the news in other words about Farmako really signifies is that the price barriers in the medical market are about to come down at the point of sale- and hopefully in the short term, patients will not have to rely on the approval of their insurance companies to be able to access the drug because they will be able to afford it themselves. No matter what happens with the bid. Although this too will also serve to lower prices.

The great medical normalization race for medical cannabis in Europe is now officially “on.” And that is good news not only for patients, but of course, the industry.

British Barristers Take On Cannabis “Novel Food” Regulation In Brussels

By Marguerite Arnold
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The first thing to understand about the significance of the British barristers now challenging the EU’s classification of hemp extracts as a novel food is that this is like jumping into the middle of an action adventure by coming in at the second act. In other words, you miss the introduction and the first couple of car chases.

That said, this action movie also features a cannabis-flavored plot. Those used to the maddening hair splitting now going on just about everywhere as the industry gains legitimacy, in other words, are familiar with the larger story line.

Here are the “CBD Cliff’s Notes.”

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

It is highly significant that a major British cannabis trade organization, the Cannabis Trades Association, hired a leading law firm in London to go sue the EU over its recent decision to lump all CBD extracts into the same “novel” distinction. Up until now, only CBD sourced from cannabis had fallen prey to this strange regulation. Thus, the lawsuit. No Brexit themes involved. Yet. Although that too will play a role in all of this.

What Is This Really About?

If those in the CBD business are honest with themselves, the real reason for this segmented part of the cannabis industry to even exist in the first place is the race, desire and need to actually be allowed to operate in relative regulatory peace. No matter what the battles are on the THC front. CBD has been seen as a result, pretty much since the beginning of the new age of legalization, as the “safer” political and market entry choice by those in regions such as U.S. southern states and the burgeoning, can’t-wait-to-be-off-to-the-races, market in Europe. See the new federal hemp legalization bill in the United States as Exhibit A.

However, in Europe this has run into more than a few problems since the Swiss put “low THC” or “Cannabis Lite” on the map more locally. Starting with the whole discussion about licensing in general. And then, even more confusingly, about what to actually classify the plant. Especially when it is used in food and cosmetics as opposed to “medicine.”

Specifically, where does the cannabis plant in general, let alone its individual components, really fall when it comes to regulated human consumption?

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Member states of the European Union

For the time being- read last year when the industry in Spain was facing police busts over CBD cookies on the shelves at health stores- the conventional industry wisdom was that this whole furore was “just” over the use of concentrates, tinctures and other products made from cannabis-sourced CBD. However, given the noise that Austria managed to make over Christmas about the entire “licensing” issue (namely who has the right to produce, sell and package even CBD as a cannabinoid no matter where it is sourced), the EU also moved all CBD products and tinctures- even those made from good old hemp- into the novel food category.

This means in effect, that even CBD extracts produced from the hemp plant (which is actually the majority of such product in Europe) must now be regulated as a “novel food” too. Even though in poor old hemp’s case, it is certainly the case that health food nuts have been consuming the same in Europe long before (and certainly after) standing EU “novel food” regulations were put into place back in the late 90’s.

Thus, the lawsuit, launched from a country unsure of whether it will even be in the EU post-May (either the month or the current PM).

According to the EU at least for now, CBD itself is a “novel food” no matter from where it is sourced. And that, according to not only science but food history is an absolute fallacy.consumer safety, from factory to pharmacy or farm to table, is never far from the discussion

Likely Outcomes

Those who were hoping that CBD would remain unregulated in the EU should think again. It is highly likely that what will happen is that CBD production licensing is in the cards and just about everywhere. Think GMPs but with a consumer-food twist.

While indie producers might groan at the prospect of fees and licensing procedures, remember this is Europe. And consumer safety, from factory to pharmacy or farm to table, is never far from the discussion.

While this lawsuit, in other words, is likely to make the EU think more closely about regulating CBD in general, what is most likely to happen is that entire enchilada will be lumped under a regime to insure that high quality production, particularly of crops bound for consumption, is also extended to anything that ends up in either a food or cosmetic product.

CBD Producers Have To Keep Current On Regs

Given the current murkiness that exists, in other words at this point across Europe, in every country and for every CBD product, exports here from other places are still not a great idea.

There are labeling, licensing and of course, ultimately legislative issues that are all still in flux. And while the outcome of the lawsuit might eventually regulate and standardize things, the idea that a license-free CBD production industry is clearly now dead in the water.

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The Rise of The Cannabis Clinic Model In Europe

By Marguerite Arnold
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The opening of the UK’s first cannabis clinic is certainly cause for cheer. The effort, backed by a growing UK powerhouse that includes European Cannabis Holdings, has just opened its first private cannabis clinic in the UK, with two more on the way, including one in London by the end of the year.

The clinic will see patients who can afford to pay, in other words those who are privately insured and not covered by the NHS. The clinics will also serve those with chronic illnesses including chronic pain and epilepsy.

This development will also undoubtedly begin to increase the number of actual legal British cannabis patients, which is significant in and of itself. That count now, close to five months after cannabis became technically available via Schedule II prescription last year, is a shocking four patients. This is not a typo.

Presumably, this means that patients who enter the market this way will also be able to access newly imported Dutch cannabis which has just started to enter the country in bulk. Not to mention be able to find pharmacies who stock the drug.

For the backers of ECH (which include SOL Global), these are strategic moves indeed, which also bode well for those who can afford access.

But does this herald a new shift in the way that cannabis will be prescribed for the mainstream in the UK if not across Europe? That is not so clear.

The History of Cannabis Clinics… In Israel and Beyond

From the medical side of the world, it has been cannabis specialty pain clinics that have moved the conversation forward and served patients in places like Israel. In the latter part of the last decade, Israel slowly began to liberalize access not via dispensaries, as in the American model, but rather via specialty pain clinics paid for by the government. It was only when patient attendance at such prescription and dispensation points became flooded by applicants that the government, just a few short years ago, began to allow regular doctors to prescribe the drug and regular pharmacies to carry it.

What does this say about a British market where reform has just come, and only four patients?There are currently various initiatives sprinkled around Europe- mostly in the form of collectives of doctors who try to help get their patients cannabinoid treatments. See, for example, Kalapa Clinic in Spain. Or the “self help” group of patients in Germany loosely associated with Dr. Grotenhermann (one of the country’s best-known cannabinoid doctors).

Yet in Germany, the first country in Europe to liberalize medical use, there are as yet no cannabis clinics of either the private or public kind (although there have also been several unsuccessful attempts to do just this since 2017 in cities like Berlin and Munich). Part of the reason for the failure of the model in Germany at least is due to the fact that while specialty doctors are needed to help guide patients through the complicated approvals process, the payment for the same from the insurance companies (even private insurers) is so low it is not yet economically feasible to set up a clinic based on this model.

That said, it is clearly an idea that has occurred to more than a few entities. In Germany, however, land of (at least) 40,000 patients, this model has yet to take off. What does this say about a British market where reform has just come, and only four patients? Even as early as spring 2017, when the German government changed the law mandating insurance coverage, there were 800 German patients in the system.

Why The UK Is Likely To Be Different

Image: Flickr

Cannabis patients may actually be some of the best situated patients to ride out the Brexit crisis that will hit all drugs. Why? From the start, the strange classification of the drug is requiring bespoke solutions for niche patients. While it may not be fair, this in turn will at least start to create a core group of medical users.

Creating at least that first critical mass is also unbelievably important for greater access and reform, if not speeding it on its way. And the backers of the new clinics are well aware that impetus on this front will not come from the much-beleaguered NHS but rather private initiatives like the ones now being launched in the UK.


Disclaimer: ECH is a sponsor of the MedPayRx go to market pilot trial.

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The UK Starts Prescribing Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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It is official. British doctors as of November 1, 2018, can now write prescriptions for medical cannabis. But what does that really mean? And is this truly a victory or merely an opening in the fierce resistance to and outright battle against cannabinoids as medicine?

A Real Victory Or Another Stall?

Many in the advocacy community in Europe are profoundly split. On one hand, yes, the British decision, like other sovereign medical cannabis reforms in Europe over the last two years, is a victory. The British government, like many before it, has thrown in the towel on denying basic access to medical cannabis. But what does this mean, especially in a country which may well be facing shortages of basic food products and other kinds of medications in under half a year if things continue to blow up on Brexit and there is no “people’s vote” to save the day?

Cultivated product would, normally, be slated to come from Portugal and Spain where Tilray and Canopy in particular have set up cultivation centers. If things continue to head to a negotiated Brexit, it is inevitable that imported cannabis would fall into the same category of everything else set to come into England by boat or lorry. It is highly unlikely that the NHS would authorize full payment for cannabis flown in from Canada. Especially with British Sugar’s existing cannabis plantations in Norfolk as well as the budding cultivation deals now finally flowering all over the country if not in Ireland.There are many who expect that medical cannabis will actually save public healthcare systems a great deal of money.

Brexit Is The Bigger Worry, So What About Cannabis?

It may also seem to some that access to cannabis is the least of the country’s worries. Actually this is a discussion deeply embedded in the politics and drama in London and Brussels right now. It is also at the heart of Brexit itself. Namely the propaganda associated with European divorce that ran along the lines of “saving the NHS.”

In fact, the legalization of medical use in the UK, just as it is in countries across Europe (Germany being the best and most current ongoing example) will do much to shine a light on how creaky and outdated the medical provision system really is here. Especially when it comes to approving new drugs for large numbers of people quickly. This was, ultimately the goal of public healthcare. See penicillin, not to mention most inoculation drugs or vaccines for childhood diseases (like Polio).

One of the great ironies of cannabis legalization in Europe of course is that it is also often shining a light on how far this concept, not to mention funds for proper delivery, has been allowed to lapse. There are many who expect that medical cannabis will actually save public healthcare systems a great deal of money. That is if it can finally make its way into widespread medical distribution.

UKflagAnd cannabis is a drug like no other. Why? Despite all the pharmacization of the plant that is going on right now as producers are being forced to produce pills and oils for the medical market, cannabinoid treatments will not be pushed so easily into “orphan” status – since whole plant products can treat a range of diseases. This is important in terms of supply and negotiated prices down the road. But in the short term, cannabis is falling into a couple of strange categories created by organized public healthcare, insurance mandates (both public and private), the demands being placed on producers in this space to act more like pharmaceutical companies, limited public spending budgets, and a changing demographic where chronic conditions treated by cannabis are a whole new ballgame. Namely patients are living longer, and not necessarily old.

So while it is all very well and good for British doctors to begin to write prescriptions for cannabis, merely having one does little good for most patients. In fact, this usually means the battle is only half won.

Why?

National Healthcare Is Still Functional In Europe

As foreign as it is to most Americans, most European countries operate more or less the same way when it comes to healthcare. First of all, all of the national systems in operation in Europe today, including the UK, were set up in the aftermath of WWII to recover from devastation most Americans, especially today, never experienced personally.

These healthcare systems were set up to first and foremost be inclusive. In other words, the default is that you are covered. 90% of populations across Europe in fact, including the UK, are covered by their national healthcare systems. “Private” health insurance actually only covers about 10% of the population and in some countries, like Germany, is mandatory once annual income rises above a certain level.

However this system is also based on a very old fashioned notion of not only medical care, but treatment of chronic conditions. Namely, that most people (the mostly well) face low prices for most drugs. Further, the people first in line to get “experimental” or “last use” drugs (as cannabis is currently categorized in Europe no matter its rescheduling in the UK), are patients in hospitals. With the exception of terminal patients, of course, that is no longer the case.

Patients in the UK can expect to face the same kinds of access problems in the UK as in Germany.That is why, for example, so many disabled people began to sue the German government last year. They could not afford treatment until their insurer approved it. Monthly supplies in legal pharmacies are running around $3,000 per month for flower. Or about 8 times the total cash budget such people have to live on (in total) on a monthly basis.

In fact, because of this huge cost, approvals for drugs like cannabis do not actually happen at the front line of the insurance approving process, but are rather kicked back to regional (often state) approvals boards. As a result, approval for the right to take the drug with some or all of the cost covered by insurance, is actually limited to a much smaller pool of people right now – namely the terminally ill in hospital care. In Germany, the only people who are automatically approved for medical cannabis once a doctor writes the prescription, are the terminally ill. For everyone else it is a crapshoot. Between 35-40% of all applications in Germany are being turned down a year and a half into medical legalization. Some patients are being told they will have to wait until next year or even 2020.

And once that prescription is actually approved? Patients in the UK can expect to face the same kinds of access problems in the UK as in Germany. Namely pharmacies do not readily stock the drug in any form.

In the meantime, patients are turning back to the black market. While the online pharmacy discussion is different in the UK than Germany, which might in fact make a huge difference for the right approvals system, most patients in the UK still face a long fight for easy and affordable access covered by public healthcare.


Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold is now in negotiations for a pilot of her digital prescription and insurance pre-approvals and automization platform called MedPayRx in several European countries including the UK, Germany, and a few others.