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The Economics of Ex-Im In Europe

By Marguerite Arnold
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european union states

You have read the press releases. You may have heard about such ideas at a recent cannabis conference in and around the EU of late. Or you may have encountered new distributors coming into the game with a German presence and a decidedly interesting ex-im plan that sounds a bit, well, off the map.

No matter how geographically creative some of these plans are, the problem is that many of these ideas literally do not make economic sense. Either for the companies themselves (if not their investors), and certainly not for patients. Not to mention, truth be told, the looming price sensitivity issues in the European market that North Americans, for starters, seem to still just be waking up to.

Some Recent Examples….

Yes, exports from Denmark have been much in the news lately (including into both Germany and Poland). Truth be told, however, this makes about as much sense, economically, as importing ice to eskimos. Why? Denmark, for all its looser regulations and less-uptight approach to the cannabis discussion generally, is one of the most expensive labour markets in Europe. Fully automated production plants are one thing, but you can build those in other places too. Especially warmer climates, with lots of sunshine. German production, as it comes online, will also make this idea increasingly ludicrous.

Who on earth got on this bandwagon? It seems that the enthusiasm in the room began when Denmark began to import to Germany (where the disparities in wages in production are not so noticeable). However, lately, several Canadian companies with a Danish footprint have been eying Poland of late.

And on that particular topic – there are many who are doing the math and trying to figure out, as the alternatives get going, if even Canada makes much sense, or will in a few years.

Low Wage Markets With Sunshine Are Hotspots For European Cannabis Production

Like it or not, the European market is extraordinarily price sensitive – namely because it is not “just” consumers called patients picking up the tab but health insurance companies demanding proof of medical efficacy.

That starts, a bit unfortunately, with understanding wage economics across Europe. The warmer the climate, in other words and the further east on the map, wages drop precipitously. That is “good” for an industry looking to produce ever cheaper (but more compliant) product.

It is also good, at least politically, for countries whose elected leaders are being forced to admit that cannabis works, but are less than copacetic about encouraging local production. See Germany for starters, but places like Austria, Poland and most recently France (which has just embarked on a first of its kind medical cannabis trial).

Here, no matter the temporary buzz about Denmark, are the places that cannabis production makes sense:european union states

Portugal: The country is a newcomer in the cannabis discussion this fall, although in truth, the seeds of this reality were sown several seasons ago when Tilray began to build its production plant in the country in 2017. They are far from the only company who has seen the light, and these days, farmers are getting hip to the possibilities. Especially if they are already exporting crops throughout Europe.

Spain: The industry that can afford GMP certification is getting going, but everyone else is stuck in a limbo between pharmaceutical producers and the strange gray market (see the patient clubs in Barcelona). That said, political groups are beginning to discuss cultivation as an economic development tool, if not sustainable food and medication strategies.

Greece: The weather is warm, and the investment climate welcoming. Of all the countries in the EU, Greece has embraced the economic possibilities that cannabis could bring. How that will play out in the next years to come is an intriguing story.

Italy: The southern part of the country in particular is ripe for cannabis investment and it’s full of sunshine. However, as many have noted, organized crime in this part of the world is a bit fierce and starts with the letter M.

Malta: The island is a comer, but does importing cannabis from here really make economic sense? There are trade routes and economic treaties tying the island both to the apparently Brexiting British and Europe. Why not, right? Just remember that along with labour, transportation costs are in the room here too.

And Just Outside The EU…

The country now (sort of) known as North Macedonia and struggling to get into the EU if France would just get out of the way is also going to be a heavyweight in this discussion for years to come. Wages, of course, will increase as part of EU membership, but in general, this country just north of Greece is going to play a highly strategic role in exports throughout Europe.

Poland Gets Cracking (Sort Of)

By Marguerite Arnold
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One of the surest ways to understand that you are entering not just another country, but what is called an “emerging market” is when you travel from Germany to Poland by train.

There is only one “intercity” option from Berlin Hauptbahnhoff – a far cry from the modern, internet-connected, fast ICE trains that go West. This line is run by the Poles. By the time you reach Warsaw five hours later, however, it is clear at least some parts of this country are booming. The skyscraper construction in the center of town rivals London and Berlin.

Like every emerging market, there are vast disparities in wealth and income, if not opportunity here. And into this discussion, now is coming the entire cannabis discussion. Visiting, as an American, in particular, one is reminded of a city that could be East Berlin 15 years ago.

As a cannabis journalist, it feels, from this perspective, like every American state in the 1990’s. Reform is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But not quite realized yet, except for a few elites. Beyond such realities which are common in the world of cannabis, how very, well, Iron Curtain.

The difference of course, these days, is that the conversation next door in Germany, as well as other places, is finally forcing the Polish government to face reality. But it is clear, from interviews with activists and patients in particular, as well as the nascent newcomers from abroad testing the cannabis waters, that this fight is not going to be easy on the ground.

Then again, when and where has it ever been?

The Patients….

As always, real reform and market opening is driven by the sheer numbers of sick people who brave arrest to gain access to the plant. Some do it for themselves. Many do it for their children (of all ages). An elderly, boomer couple who talked to Cannabis Industry Journal about their ordeal also see it as a form of justified struggle. And Poles are no strangers to that, far from the cannabis kind.

That ethic is much in the room among the nascent industry that is also struggling to find respect. The Polish side of the discussion is looking at hemp. And growing THC illicitly, just like elsewhere.

But the budding movement here is highly organized, including on the business end, with hundreds of thousands of members. How this translates into a legal industry (besides media and hemp products) is of course, still up for grabs.

That is very much in the minds of those who brave the struggle daily. The patient collective in Warsaw is also highly organized – providing free and non-profit product to those most in need. It is an impressive operation. And further one that is increasingly distrustful of foreigners seeking “market share.” If not the already floating “suits.” Just knowing how to speak Polish, as the activists are, at least realizing, is not a guarantee that they will not be dealing with cannasharks only interested in their contacts and mailing lists. Patients over profits is a phrase you hear a lot here. This has nothing to do with not wanting to support a legit, safe industry. But when you are poor, you find ways to improvise. Including getting your medication.

The Foreign Companies…

Aurora and Canopy Growth are already in the room and there are other Canadians lining up to follow. However, these two are the only ones so far who have been able to get their products registered locally and even then, availability is still in the offing.

european union statesThese are also highly expensive products. And do not begin to compete with producers now eying the Polish market from North Macedonia and the rest of Eastern Europe.

The foreign companies, in other words, are already broadly falling into two camps. North American curiosity seekers (at this point), and companies, mostly from the East and South, who are looking to Poland to be the “next Germany.” Especially because their product is so price and geographically convenient.

A Battle For Poland’s Emerging Market

It is clear that at least the Canadian companies are already lining up against more home grown and patient interests. Just as what happened in Germany and the rest of Europe so far. And not even on purpose, but more on matters of price.

Like other pre-commoditized markets, the Polish industry is still trying to be (relatively) equal and fair, as much as there is a huge amount of positioning already just below the surface. Everyone is tired of struggling. Dreams of cannabis riches are enticing just about everywhere.

Of course, add to that, patients are dying here, and that always sets the tone – especially when only the richest and lucky few can afford to access the drug through legitimate channels. Face pain, unpleasantness or death or buy in the black market? For the Polish industry on the forefront of the debate, in other words, the stakes are high, the government is moving glacially, and those on the ground are organizing to meet the winds of change.

Foment for another kind of Green Perostroika? Perhaps.

There will, almost certainly as a result of these forces, be a call for a Polish bid – and further one that allows for local producers to enter the medical market.

But the bottom line is that this strange, and exciting and certainly new market is going to be as volatile, and wild west as any in Europe for the immediate future. Expect interesting things, if not more of the same.

Cannabis Featured At Germany’s ExpoPharm For The First Time

By Marguerite Arnold
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Expopharm is a big deal in Germany and Europe beyond that. It is the largest expo for pharmacists on the continent.

This year, there were two firsts in a convention already looking to the future with digitalization – itself a huge issue in not only the European medical space, but Germany in particular. There is a national obsession with privacy auf Deutschland that does not exist anywhere else.

Beyond digitalization, however, medical cannabis was also a major theme this year. Many of the largest producers and distributors showed up in force. So did the smaller, newer ones. There are now 19 licensed importers in the country – and quite a few of them showed up in Dusseldorf last week.

Beyond that, the expo also saw the birth of the VCA – the Verband der Cannabis versorgende Apotheken e.V (German Cannabis Pharmacists Association). This is a group of pharmacists who are on the front lines of the medical cannabis revolution on its most complicated, expensive and paper-laden end, determined to make their voices heard.

the VCA ,German Cannabis Pharmacists Association

According to Tobias Loder, the owner of Luxe 99 Apotheke in Cologne and one of the organizers of the VCA, “There is huge interest in our association.”

For those of American extraction, at least, there has yet to be such a conference anywhere in the U.S. simply because of the lack of acceptance at the federal level of cannabis as medicine. In Canada, and elsewhere, national pharmacy chains are already getting into the action.

Germany, however, remains the strange, and as a result, most interesting exception.

In Düsseldorf this year, despite added traffic and a great deal of excitement, cannabis as medicine was, as the press attendant said as he handed out the Cannabis Industry Journal press pass, “par for the course” and “no big deal.” Even though of course, the generation of all the interest and intrigue.

The drug is, while still highly stigmatized, on its way to legitimacy here. And in a decidedly normal, Deutsch weg (way).

The Inside Skinny On What Is Changing For German Pharmacists

As revealed during the Denton’s medical cannabis conference in Berlin in late September (about a day before the news hit the expo floor in fact), things are indeed changing at the last mile of the regulated cannabis path. Why?

Several reasons.

Within the next thirty days, doctors will be able to prescribe up to 100 grams of floss (dried cannabis flower) or cannabis oil by the gram per patient prescription. That means that patients can indeed go to the doctor every three months – and that there are in fact more regular users in the system. This is also an indication that the supply chain is also beginning to normalize – although there is a huge demand so far unmet by supply. And as a result, while two of the three bid winners are now getting down to cultivation, imports are still the name of the game.

On this front, things are also changing. Cannabis just came into the country from Portugal. Other countries lining up to import include not only Canadian producers, but those from Spain, Malta, Greece, Australia, South Africa, Columbia and of course, Israel.

This is also a step towards international normalization on the pharma side. Schedule II narcotics in the American system are dispensed every 90 days.

The rules about pharmacy mark-ups are also in flux. One of the reasons, for example, that medical cannabis has been so expensive is that, up until now, at least, pharmacists were required to mark up such product 100%. That is also changing. In fact, the Federal Union of German Associations of Pharmacists (ABDA) and the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Funds (GKV Spitzenenverand) have had to agree on a new surcharge that is expected to see significant and immediate savings of a projected 25 million euros.

It is not a casual argument or discussion. One of the reasons that the German pharmacy vertical has remained so strong and resistant to buyouts and consolidations is that by law, owners are limited to no more than three (and in so far one case discovered by CIJ in Bavaria) four brick and mortar pharmacies. The reduction in this preparation surcharge means that pharmacies will have to find ways to become more efficient. That is also a concern for the VCA, who, among other things, are looking to reduce their own overhead costs while gearing up to serve more patients.

Digitalization, innovation and more, in other words, is on the table. And German pharmacists, for one, are not only on the front line – but stepping up to the challenge.

european union states

Why International Trade Agreements Are Shaping The Cannabis Industry

By Marguerite Arnold
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european union states

If you have wondered over the past several years, why the big Canadian companies (in particular) are following the global strategy they are, there is actually a fairly simple answer: Newly implementing trade agreements, particularly between Europe and North America.

More specifically, they are highly technical trade agreements that are also called Mutual Recognition Agreements, (or MRAs).

In fact, look at the schedule of the MRA agreements signed between the U.S. and individual EU countries over the last several years, and it also looks like a map of the countries that have not only legalized at least medical cannabis, but where the big Canadian companies (in particular) have begun to establish operations outside of their home country.

But what is going on is actually more than just CETA-related and also will affect cannabis firms south of the Canadian-U.S. border.

All of these swirling currents are also why the most recent MRA to come into full force in July this year, between the U.S. and Europe, is so interesting from the cannabis perspective. Even before federal reform in the U.S. If this sounds like a confusing disconnect, read on.

What Are MRAs?

MRAs are actually a form of highly specialized trade agreement that allow trading countries to be certain that the pharmaceuticals they purchase from abroad are equivalent to what is produced at home. This includes not only ingredients but processing procedures, production plant hygiene, testing, labeling and more.

When it comes to the  EU-US MRA agreement, this means that individual states of the EU can now recognize the American Food and Drug Administration (or FDA) as an effective federal regulator of American pharmaceutical production that is equal to the procedures in Europe. US GMP standards, in other words, will be recognized as equal to those of EU states.

This will now also, by definition, include GMP-certified medical cannabis formulations.

What is so intriguing, however, is how this development will actually place certain American (and Canadian) manufacturers in a first place position to import cannabis into Europe ahead of the rest of the American cannabis industry.

What Are Mutual Recognition Agreements All About?

One of the most important quality and consumer safety aspects of establishing a clean supply chain is tied up in the concept of GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices). These are procedures, established by compliant producers of pharmaceuticals, to ensure seed (or source) to sale reliability of the medication they make. In the cannabis industry, particularly in the advent of Canadian-European transatlantic trade in cannabis, this has been the first high hurdle to accept and integrate on the Canadian side.

GMPIf European countries recognize a country’s GMP certifications are equivalent to its own, in other words, and cannabis is legal for export, a country can enter the international cannabis market without facing bans, in-country inspections and the like. In the interim, imported products still have to be batch tested until the agreements are fully accepted and operational.

Israel, for example, already had an MRA with the EU, and medical cannabis is legal in the country. However, Israel was prevented from selling cannabis abroad until a legislative change domestically, passed on Christmas Day.

That is why the MRA agreement between the US and EU with Canadian companies in the middle also put both Israeli and U.S. firms at an extreme disadvantage in comparison. Both in entering the market in the first place, and of course associated discussions, like the German tender bid. That is now changing- and as of this year.

A Specialized Map Of Global Medical Cannabis Exporters

Ironically, what the new US-EU MRA could also well do is create a channel for pharmaceutical cannabis from the United States to Europe (certainly on the hemp and CBD front) just as Israel is expected to enter the international cannabis export industry (later this summer or fall). It could well be also, particularly given the Trump Administration’s tendency to want to not only “put America first” if not pull off “a better deal” in general and about everything, that this is why President Trump offered the delay to Israel’s president Benjamin Netanyahu in the first place.

Regardless of the international individual developments and subtleties however, what is very clear that from the time the first bid stalled in Germany in the summer of 2017 until now, the U.S.-EU MRA has been in the room even if not named specifically as a driver.

For example, the FDA confirmed the capability of Poland and Slovenia to carry out GMP inspections in February of 2019.  It was only last fall that Aurora pulled off its licensing news in the former (on the same day licensing reform was announced by the government). Denmark was recognized in November of last year during the first year of its “medical cannabis pilot progam.” Greece was recognized in March 2018. Italy, Malta, Spain and the UK came online in November of 2017.

Overlay this timetable with a map of cannabis reform (and beyond that, cannabis production) and the logic starts to look very clear.

The upshot, in other words, is that while cannabis still may be “stigmatized” if not still “illegal” in many parts of the world, more generalized, newly negotiated and implementing, specialized global trade agreements between the US, Europe and Canada in particular have been driving the development of certain segments of the cannabis industry globally and since about 2013.

The Biggest News?

As of this year, as a result, expect at least from the GMP-certified front at least, that such international trade will also include medical cannabis from the U.S.

Want an example of the same? First on that list if not early in the game will now undoubtedly be Canadian-based Canopy Growth, with Acreage on board, headquartered in New York.

Marguerite Arnold

A Busy 4th Quarter Heralds An Amazing Cannabis Year Globally

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

In retrospect, when the cannabis history books are written, 2018 may come to represent as much of a watershed year as 2014. Much has happened this year, culminating in a situation, much like at the end of the first year of modernization, where great victories have been achieved. But a long road to true acceptance and even basic and much broader medical use still beckons. Even if the new center left ruling coalition party in Luxembourg has just announced that recreational cannabis reform is on its agenda for the next five years.

This is a quick and by no means a full review of both fourth quarter activity globally, and how that ties into gains for the year.

Canada Legalizes Rec Sales

Beyond all the other banner headlines, October 17 will go down in history as the day that Canada switched the game.

Will 1017 replace 420? Not likely. But it is significant nonetheless.

What does this mean for the rest of the industry (besides international border checks and lifetime bans for Canadian executives and presumably others traveling into the U.S. to cannabis industry conferences at present)? For starters, a well-capitalized, public industry which is building infrastructure domestically and overseas like it is going out of style.

This is important for several reasons, starting with the fact that the big Canadian LPs are clearly not counting on supplying Europe from Canada for much longer. Why? The big European grows that were set up last year are starting to come online.

So Does California…

And other significant U.S. states (see Massachusetts this month and Michigan) are following suit. However the big issue, as clearly seen at least from Canada and Europe, is there is no federal reform in sight. That opens up a raft of big complications that so far, most U.S. firms have not been able to broach. That said, this situation is starting to change this fall, with two U.S. firms entering both Greece and Denmark, but in general, a big issue. Canadian firms are still trying to figure out how to both utilize the public markets in the U.S. without getting caught in detention when crossing the border.the U.S. is continuing to be a popular place to go public for Canadian firms

Regardless, the U.S. is continuing to be a popular place to go public for Canadian firms, who are also looking for access to global capital markets and institutional capital. Right now, Frankfurt is off limits for many of them. See the Deutsche Börse. That said, with the rules already changing in Luxembourg, one firm has already set its sights for going public in Frankfurt next spring.

The German Situation

Like it or not, the situation in Germany is key to the entire EU and increasingly a global enchilada, and no matter where companies are basing their cultivation sites at this point, there are two big gems in the European cannabis crown. Deutschland is the first one because of the size of the economy, the intact nature of public healthcare and the fact that the German government decided to mandate that sick people could get medical cannabis reimbursed by their public health insurer.

german flag
Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

Ironies abound, however. In the last quarter, it is clear from the actions of the Deutsche Börse that Frankfurt is not a popular place to go public (Aurora went public on the NYSE instead in late October).

The cultivation bid was supposed to come due, but it is now likely that even the December deadline might get pushed back again, interminably at least until April when the most recent lawsuit against the entire process is due to be argued.

In the meantime, there is a lot of activity in the German market even if it does not make the news. Distribution licenses are being granted all over the country (skip Berlin as there are already too many pending). And established distributors themselves, particularly specialty distributors, are increasingly finding themselves the target of foreign buyout inquiries.

There are also increasing rumours that the German government may change its import rules to allow firms outside of Canada and Holland to import into the country.

The German market, in other words, continues to cook, but most of it is under the surface a year and a half after legalization, to figure things out.

The UK

Next to October 17, the other date of note this fall of course was November 1. The Limeys may not have figured out Brexit (yet). But cannabis for medical use somehow made it through the national political fray this summer. Hospitalized children are compelling.

UKflagNow the question is how do other patients obtain the same? The NHS is in dire straits. Patients must still find a way to import the drug (and pay for it). And with newly imposed ex-im complications coming Britain’s way soon, there is a big question as to where and how exactly, patients are supposed to import (and from where). All looming and unanswered questions at the moment.

But hey, British doctors can now write prescriptions for cannabis.

Greece and Malta

Greece and Malta are both making waves across Europe right now. Why?

The licensing process that has continued into the fall is clearly opening up inexpensive cultivation in interesting places. Greece is growing. Malta, an island nation that is strategically placed to rival Greece for Mediterranean exports across Europe is still formalizing the licensing process, but don’t expect that to last for long.

Look for some smart so and so to figure out how to beat Brexit and import from Malta through Ireland. It’s coming. And odds are, it’s going to be Malta, if not the Isle of Mann that is going to clinch this intriguing if not historical cultivation and trade route.

Poland

Just as October came to a close, the Polish government announced the beginning of medical imports. Aurora, which went public the same week in New York, also announced its first shipment to the country – to a hospital complex.

Let the ex-im and distribution games begin!

It is widely expected that the Polish market will follow in German footsteps. Including putting its cannabis cultivation bid online whenever the Polish government decides to cultivate medical supplies domestically. The country just finalized its online tender bid system in general.

Does anyone know the expression for “pending cannabis bid lawsuit in Warsaw” in Polish?

Notable Mentions

While it gets little press outside the country, the Danish four year experiment is reaching the end of its first year. While this market was first pioneered by Canopy/Spectrum, it was rapidly followed by both Canadian LPs and others entering the market. Latest entrant this quarter? A tantalizingly American-British conglomerate called Indiva Ltd. as of November 21.

Italy is also starting to establish a presence in interesting ways as multiple firms begin to establish cultivation there.

There are also increasing rumours and reports that Israel might finally be able to start exporting next year. That will also disrupt the current ecosystem.

And most of all, beyond a country-by-country advance, the World Health Organization meeting in early November and in the early part of December is likely to keep the pressure on at a global level for rescheduling and descheduling the cannabis plant.

This in turn, is likely to set the stage as well as the timeline for rec use in Luxembourg. Look for developments soon.

A busy time indeed. Not to mention a quarter to end a very intriguing year, and certainly destined to sow returns for years to come, globally.