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Flower-Side Chats Part 1: A Q&A with Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected

By Aaron Green
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Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

Connected is a vertically-integrated cannabis company based out of Sacramento, CA and one of the most sought-after brands in California and Arizona. Having formed as a legacy operation in 2009, Connected has created a cult-like following over more than a decade in business. According to BDS Analytics, Connected Cannabis and their acquired brand Alien Labs now boasts the highest wholesale flower price in any major legal market – their average indoor flower wholesale price is 2x the CA average – yet also has the highest flower retail revenue.

We spoke with Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected to learn more about his transition from tech to cannabis, how Connected thinks about product and his vision for future growth. Sam joined Connected in 2018 after getting to know the founders. Prior to Connected, Sam was a co-founder at Box where he stayed on for 3 years after their successful IPO.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Sam Ghods: I originally came from the tech industry. I co-founded Box, a cloud sharing and storage company, in the mid 2000s with three other friends. We grew that from the four of us to eventually a multi-billion-dollar public offering in 2015. I stayed on a few more years after that until I took some time off trying to decide what I wanted to do next. I looked at a number of different industries and companies, but personally I always had a real passion for artisan and craft consumer goods. It’s a really big hobby of mine. Whether it’s going to Napa or learning about different kinds of premium consumer goods, I really had a deep love and never knew cannabis could be like that.

When I first met Caleb, the co-founder of Connected, he instantly got my attention by telling me that they had been selling out of their product in the volume of millions of dollars a year at more than two times what everybody else was selling for. That really piqued my interest because creating a product that has that level of consumer passion and demand is maybe the single hardest thing about building a consumer goods business. For them to have been so successful in what was a very difficult and gray market to operate in at the time – this was mid 2018 that I was speaking with him and he had been building this company since 2009 – is a really big challenge, and really impressive.

Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected

So, I started spending time with Caleb and the Connected team and learned a lot about the business. Everything I learned got me more interested and more excited. The way that they thought about the product, the way they treated it was with a reverence and level of sophistication I had no idea was possible.

I was so excited to just learn about the space. I mean, honestly, it feels like the internet in the 90’s- The sheer possibility and excitement. The only difference here is that the market already has existed for 100 years plus: the gray and underground markets for this product are actually phenomenally mature. And now we’re lifting up billions of dollars in commerce that’s already occurring and attempting to legalize all of it in one fell swoop, which creates such an interesting set of challenges.

I first got involved as an advisor on fundraising and strategy. And then a few months later, they were looking for a CEO and I joined full time as CEO in September 2018.

Aaron: What trends in the industry are you focused on?

Sam: It may seem basic, but I think product quality in the broader cannabis markets nationally and internationally is really underrated. Because of the extreme weight of the regulatory frameworks in so many different markets, it’s resulting in a lot of product being grown and sold just because it can be by the operators that are doing it. In many markets, they count the number of producers by the handful, instead of being measured in hundreds or thousands like in California or Oregon. And in that kind of environment, you’re not really having competition, and you’re not really able to see the quality that has existed in this category for years and years and years.

That’s one of the things that really sets us apart – the quality is first above all else, as well as the innovation and time that has gone into it, and not many existing brands in the legal market can say that. With some of the “premium” brands on the market, it would be comparable to just jumping into the wine industry one day and thinking that you can become a premium brand, without having any knowledge of the history of the product or the industry itself. At Connected, we have a team that’s been doing this for over a decade. We did a back of the envelope calculation: there’s over one thousand lifetime harvests between our team. We’ve also brought in specialists from Big Ag and other industries to complement that experience.

Cannabis is a very, very difficult plant to grow at a very high level. It’s much more like high-end wine or spirits than other fruit or produce. I think in the cannabis community, that’s extremely acknowledged, and appreciation for that is the reason we get by with the highest prices in the legal market. I think in the broader investor and financial community, this point hasn’t really hit home, because the limited license markets aren’t mature enough, and there isn’t enough competition in many of them.

Our focus is continuing to make the best product we can, which has fed and developed our brands [Connected and Alien Labs] into what they are today. That is our number one focus, and we think it’s pretty unique to the space of not just cultivating a great quality product, but also as far as breeding, pushing the bar higher and higher on what can be done with the genetics of the plant. 

Aaron: How do you think about choosing testing labs?

Sam: So, the number one criterion is responsibility and compliance. We must be completely confident that they’re testing accurately, safely and exactly to the specifications of the state. Then from there, it is really cultivating about a partnership. There’s a lot of nuance in the relationship with a testing lab. We note things like: Are they responsive? Are they sensitive to our needs in terms of either timelines or requirements we have? It does come down to timelines and costs to a certain extent, like who’s able to deliver the best service for the best cost, but it really is a partnership where you’re working together to deliver a great product. Reliability and consistency are big pieces as well.

Aaron: Industry estimates for illicit market activities are something like 60% of the California market. From your perspective, how do we fix that?

Sam: I think it probably comes down to funding for the efforts to discontinue those activities and opening up the barrier to entry, incentivizing “illegal” operators to make the investment in the cross-over. I think the most successful attempts to tamp it down was when there were initiatives that were well-orchestrated and well-funded, allowing for legacy growers to actually cross over to the “legal” industry. You can’t launch an industry with such an extreme amount of regulation, set a miles-high barrier to entry, and then penalize legacy growers for continuing their business as-is. If the illicit market continues to be fueled by rejection, you’re not going to achieve the tax revenue that you’re expecting to see, that we all want to see. There needs to be an attitude that every dollar put into transitioning illicit markets into regulated markets is returned many times over in tax revenue to the state’s citizens.

Aaron: So, I understand you sell wholesale. Do you sell direct to consumer?“Once they hit the shelves, we blow people away again, beyond their expectations of what they had before.”

Sam: We own and operate three retail stores, so we do sell direct to our consumers, but at this point the majority of our product is sold through third party dispensaries.

Aaron: Do you make fresh frozen?

Sam: We do. On the cultivation side we have indoor, mixed light and outdoor. We fresh freeze a portion of our outdoor harvest every year, and then we use that fresh frozen for our live resin products, for example, our recent live resin cartridge. It creates a vape experience really unlike any other because we are using our regular market-ready flower, but instead we’re taking that flower and actually extracting, not just using the distillate and mixing a batch of terpenes with it. We extract the entire plant’s content across the board, from cannabinoids to terpenoids and everything in between, and then you have our live resin cartridges.

Aaron: How do you think about brand identity and leveraging the brand to command higher prices?

Sam: The cycle we’ve effectively created is that every time we do a release of a new strain or a new batch or harvest, the quality is generally going up. That quality is released under our brands, and then the customer is able to associate that increase in quality and reputation with those brands. Then for our next launch, we have an even bigger platform to talk about the products and to ship and distribute and sell the products. Once they hit the shelves, we blow people away again, beyond their expectations of what they had before. That continuous cycle keeps fortifying the brand and fortifying the product. From our perspective the brand is built 100% on the quality of the product. The product will always be our highest priority and the brand will come downstream from that. 

Aaron: Tell me about Alien Labs.

Sam: Alien Labs was an acquisition. It was a company that had built their brand really successfully in the gray market through 2017 and Prop 215 in California and had an incredible level of quality, a really loyal and dedicated fan base, not to mention a tremendous Instagram presence and following, which is where 98% of cannabis marketing happens today. We really loved the spirit of what the founders were bringing to the table. In 2018, we decided basically to join forces with them and bring them on board, creating a partnership where they leverage our infrastructure and the systems and processes we’ve built, but still keep their way of cultivation and their product vision. To this day, Ted Lidie, one of the founders, continues as the lead brand director for Alien Labs.

Aaron: In what geographies do you currently operate?

Sam: Our primary offices and facilities are based out of Sacramento, California, but we have facilities throughout the state. Last year, for the first time we launched operations in a new state, Arizona. As you may know, you’re not allowed to take cannabis products across state lines at all, so if you want consistent product in multiple markets you really have no choice but to rebuild your entire infrastructure in each state you want to open up.

There are many brands that are expanding and launching in more markets more quickly, but they’re doing so by taking product that’s already existing and putting their brand name on it. That is something we’ve decided strategically that we will not do. We’ve spent years building a high level of trust with our customers, so we’re only going to put our brand name on products that are our genetics, our cultivation, our style, our quality of product. When we launched in Arizona, we did it with a facility that we leased and took over and now operate with our staff. We’re replicating the same exact product that you can get in California in Arizona, which is really exciting.

We launched just this past November, which has been incredibly successful. Our dispensary partner Harvest saw lines of dozens of people out the door.“We consider ourselves a flower company first and foremost, so for us, that was a very calculated strategic move.”

Aaron: Any new geographies on the horizon that you can talk about?

Sam: We’re constantly evaluating new opportunities. I don’t have anything particularly specific to announce right now, but I will say we look for states where we believe there’s a competitive environment where the product quality is going to really stand out and be appreciated.

Aaron: Do you notice any differences in consumer trends between California and Arizona that stand out?

Sam: Not too many yet. We don’t have a retail location in Arizona, so we don’t have as much direct contact. However, we have heard consistently that the Connected customer demographics – as you would imagine most interested in our product – are those looking for something special, unique, different and have a really superior quality to everything else out there. We ended up launching in Arizona with the highest price point for flower in the state, and we say that’s just the beginning. The market is still so young and immature, both nationally and internationally, that this category is going to develop into one that’s really taste-driven.

Aaron: What’s next in California?

Sam: Continued growth and product development. We want to keep blowing away our customers with more and more incredible products, different product types and categories. For example, the cartridges were a really big launch for us because we don’t really consider ourselves a vape company. We consider ourselves a flower company first and foremost, so for us, that was a very calculated strategic move. We were only going to launch the product if we could fully replicate what the consumer gets from the flower experience. We are very unlikely to ever release a distillate pen, for example.

Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?

Sam: We, as a society, really don’t know very much about the cannabis plant. Pretty much all meaningful research around cannabis stopped in the early 1900’s with prohibition. In the meantime, we’ve performed millions of dollars of studies and research on almost every other plant that we grow commercially. We understand these plants extraordinarily well. Cannabis science is stuck back in agriculture of early 1900s. The most interesting conversations I have are around how the plant works, how it doesn’t work and the ways in which it is so different from all other plants with which we are familiar. Our head of cultivation comes from Driscolls, the largest berry company in the world, and even he is frequently surprised by the way the cannabis plant reacts to things that are commonly understood in other plants. So, the way the actual plant responds to different environments is truly fascinating and something I think we’ll be learning about for decades and decades to come.

Aaron: Okay, great. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Sam!

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European Cannabis is the Emerging Market to Attract North American Investment

By Mark Wheeler
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Europe continues to be the new frontier of medical and wellness developments in the cannabis industry, with various sources predicting that Europe will become the world’s largest legal cannabis market over the next 5 years. Key related statistics, include:

  • A population of over 740 million (over double US and Canada combined)
  • Total cannabis market estimated to be worth up to €123 billion by 2028 (€58bn medical cannabis (47%), €65bn recreational cannabis (53%))
  • Over €500 million has been invested in European cannabis businesses (including significant expenditure in research and development, manufacturing and distribution)

To reiterate this belief, this month, hundreds of industry experts and delegates will be attending Cannabis Europa in Madrid, to discuss the expansion of cannabis across Europe and the challenges facing the industry across the member states of the EU and the UK.

Global mainstream leans to European strength

Since late 2018, major global operators have made substantial moves into the cannabis sector. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest beer company and maker of Budweiser, entered into a partnership to research beverages infused with two types of cannabis. Constellation, owner of Corona beer, announced a commitment for $4 billion investment in Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth. BlackRock Inc, through five actively managed BlackRock funds, has invested into Curaleaf Holdings Inc, a dispensary operator, for a not too insignificant investment sum of $11 million (as at March 2019). Such international investments prove that cannabis has moved from the fringes and into the mainstream.

When considering the impact of mainstream cannabis, it should be recognised that major European countries have approved or are planning on implementing, legalisation of medicinal cannabis. The UK, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands already have legal systems in place for medicinal cannabis and France and Spain are currently reviewing key legislative reform to align themselves with international practices. At present the German market is the third largest cannabis market (in terms of size) behind the US and Canada.

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Member states of the EU, pre-Brexit

In addition to medicinal cannabis, several key European countries have systems in place, or are developing systems, or considering the reform of existing systems, to approve cannabis with THC content at a recreational level. The Netherlands already has a system and Luxembourg’s health minister in August 2019 announced the intention to legalise cannabis for Luxembourg residents. The Luxembourg government is lobbying EU member states to follow suit.

Whilst the EU has a labyrinth of laws in relation to edible CBD (as a novel food) which make the regulatory landscape complex, there has been an explosion of CBD products for vaping and cosmetics. Of course, with each of these products being subject to different local laws (some aligned between EU members states) in relation to vaping and cosmetic related regulations. The Brightfield Group has predicted a 400% increase in the European CBD market (including vaping liquid) from $318m in 2018 to $1.7 billion by 2023. There is also an expansion into applications for CBD with animals with many US manufacturers of CBD-infused pet food.

The European Parliament’s health committee has been calling for properly funded scientific research and there are motions to establish policies to seek to incentivise member states to advance the studies of medical cannabis, with a priority on scientific research and clinical studies – the first step necessary to drafting legislation, designed to better support the industry.

Where does the UK sit within cannabis?

Medicinal cannabis famously saw a legalisation, of sorts, by the then Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, who provided the authorisations for prescriptions for the high profile cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley. Subsequently, on 1 November 2018, this was codified into law by an amendment to Schedule 2 of the 2001 Misuse of Drugs Regulations. This allows clinicians to prescribe cannabis as an unlicensed medicine.

There have, of course, been some high profile licensed medicines. The UK company, GW Pharmaceuticals, is the largest exporter of legal medical cannabis in the world, cultivating medical cannabis for production of cannabis-based medicines (e.g. Epidiolex & Sativex). Epidiolex (manufactured by subsidiary Greenwich Biosciences) became the first cannabis-derived medicine approved for use in the US for treatment of seizures caused by Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes (both severe forms of epilepsy).

When considering the level of research development and investment in the medicinal field, it is no surprise that the UK is the world’s largest producer and exporter of medical cannabis. Research published by the International Narcotics Control Board indicates that the UK produces over 100,000kg a year of medicinal cannabis.

UKflagPrevious guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) indicated that further research is required to demonstrate the benefit of medicinal cannabis, citing its cost versus evidenced benefit. However, there is now renewed confidence in the UK following NICE’s approval of two cannabis-based medicines produced by GW Pharmaceuticals,  Epidiolex (cannabidiol) oral solution and Sativex (nabiximols), for routine reimbursement through the NHS.

Following the re-categorisation of medicinal cannabis in November 2018, a number of clinics have been established where specialised clinicians can start the process of prescribing cannabis based medicinal products (CBMPs). Whilst this route is not fast, and challenges are well documented as to the satisfaction of prescriptions made in the UK, there is momentum behind the development of this as a means for providing genuine and established medical care. A significant step in October 2019, was the CQC registration of one such cannabis clinic, Sapphire Medical Clinics Limited.

In November 2019, a project backed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists was announced with the aim to be the largest trial on the drug’s use in Europe with a target of 20,000 UK patients.

The UK medicinal cannabis sector is establishing a research-based approach to expand usage in the UK and across Europe.

How North America compares to Europe

Canada

Canada, as a first mover within the cannabis sector, has a multitude of large companies which are well-capitalised and have substantial international footprints. The Canadian exchanges have large listed companies looking to Europe with the intention of acquiring or investing into European operations. As of the date of writing, the 10 largest cannabis companies in Canada have an aggregate market cap of over $23.5 billion (and all registered cannabis companies in Canada having an aggregate market cap of over $46.5 billion).

Listed companies have had a tough time over the last 6-12 months with a slowdown in the market as a natural re-balancing occurs – part of which is due to rapid expansion and heavy investment into cultivation by all the major participants in the market. Over the next 6 -12 months we can expect to see management changes (some of which will be voluntary and some of which will be imposed by institutional pressure) to introduce different skill sets at board and senior management level to facilitate the oversight and leadership necessary for large pharmaceutical companies. Many operations have expanded into highly regulated products and complex supply chains whilst still operating with fundamentally the same team that established the operations with entrepreneurial efforts but, perhaps, a lack of experience in these sectors. The recent announcements by Aurora Cannabis and Tilray demonstrate that these restructurings and costs reductions have already commenced. However, with increased experience at board level and an improvement of profitability focused on sustainable business practices, should come new opportunities on a global scale for these North American operations.

The US

The US market, because of the complexity of state and federal laws not being fully aligned, is closer to its infancy than the Canadian market. This is not too dissimilar to the European market. That said, there are a number of well-funded and quite large US enterprises. A limited number of these, such as Tilray, are looking to expand into Europe.

Many of the companies in the US have, and continue to, expand quickly so we can expect to see a number of mergers and acquisitions. We are likely to witness Canadian and US entities merging with one another with the potential for acquisitions for operations within Europe. It is unlikely that the North American companies will risk their capital through organic growth so would be expected to be identifying “turnkey” solutions.

One of the major challenges facing US companies is the complexity of supply and distribution. This is largely a result of the complexities for state and federal laws interacting with one another as well as international importation and exportation with US states.

How you can invest within the UK and Europe

Developments in the fields of research and development are anticipated to add further weight to the lobbying of government and regulatory bodies across Europe.The UK remains, despite the events of Brexit, a major financial hub for Europe. The London market has seen the growth of several investment and operation cannabis companies. This includes private companies such as; EMMAC Life Sciences Limited and the operations formerly trading as European Cannabis Holdings (now demerged into several new entities including NOBL and LYPHE) as well as publicly listed companies; including Sativa Group PLC (the first publically listed cannabis specific company in the UK) and World High Life Plc, both operating on the NEX Exchange.

The Medical Cannabis and Wellness Ucits ETF (CBDX), Europe’s first medical cannabis ETF fund, domiciled in Ireland, and which has been passported for sale in the UK and Italy, has also caused a renewed stir within the market with a further platform for listed investment.

As the regulatory framework evolves further there is an anticipation that more medicinal cannabis and CBD related enterprises should have the opportunity to list on public exchanges, whether in the UK or in European countries.

Conclusion

Despite a period of slow down following the natural rebalancing of the fast-growing North American markets for the cannabis sector, there is renewed confidence in the expansion of the industry. Developments in the fields of research and development are anticipated to add further weight to the lobbying of government and regulatory bodies across Europe.

There is an increased push for a public dialogue and consultation in relation to medicinal and recreational cannabis in the UK, backed by several mainstream media platforms. This is likely to be shaped in some parts by national debates in Luxembourg and other European countries as they consider their own domestic laws.

With European parliaments across the EU (including the UK) hopefully having time freed up to discuss other political matters now that Brexit is progressing, the next 18 months should prove an exciting time within the European cannabis sector.

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From CannTrust To Canopy: Is There A Connection To Current Cannabis Scandals?

By Marguerite Arnold
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As Europe swooned under record-breaking heat this summer, the cannabis industry also found itself in a rather existential hot seat.

The complete meltdown at CannTrust has yet to reach a conclusion. Yes, a few  jobs have been lost. However, a greater question is in the room as criminal investigatory and financial regulatory agencies on both sides of the US-Canada border (plus in Europe) are getting involved.

As events have shown, there is a great, big, green elephant in the room that is now commanding attention. Beyond CannTrust, how widespread were these problematic practices? And who so far has watched, participated, if not profited, and so far, said nothing?

Who, What, Where?

The first name in the room? Canopy Growth.Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logo

Why the immediate association? Bruce Linton, according to news reports, was fired as CEO by his board the same day, July 3, 2019, that CannTrust received its first cease and desist notice from Health Canada.

Further, there is a remarkable similarity in not only problematic practices, but timing between the two companies. This may also indicate that Canopy’s board believed that Linton’s behaviour was uncomfortably close to executive misdeeds at CannTrust. Not to mention, this was not the first scandal that Linton had been anywhere close to around acquisition time. See the Mettrum pesticide debacle, that also broke right around the time Canopy purchased the company in late 2016 as well as the purchase of MedCann GmbH in Germany.

Reorg also appears to be underway in Europe as well. As of August, Paul Steckler has been brought in as “Managing Director Europe” and is now based in Frankfurt. Given the company’s history of “co-ceo’ing” Linton out the door, is more change to come?

What Went Down At Canopy?

Last year, Canopy announced its listing on the NYSE in May. To put this in context, this was two months after the first German cultivation bid went down to legal challenge. By August 15, 2018 with a new bid in the offing, the company had closed the second of its multi-billion dollar investments from Constellation.

Bruce Linton, former CEO of Canopy Growth
Photo: Youtube, TSX

Yet by late October, after Bruce Linton skipped a public markets conference in Frankfurt where many of the leading Canadian cannabis company execs showed up to lobby Jens Spahn (the health minister of Germany) about the bid if not matters relating to the Deutsche Börse, there were two ugly rumours afoot.

Video showing dead plants at Canopy’s BC facility surfaced. Worse, according to the chatter online at least, this was the second “crop failure” at the facility in British Columbia. Even more apparently damning? This all occurred during the same  time period that the second round of lawsuits against the reconstituted German cultivation bid surfaced.

Canopy in turn issued a statement that this destruction was not caused by company incompetence but rather a delay in licensing procedures from Health Canada. Despite lingering questions of course, about why a company would even start cultivation in an unlicensed space, not once but apparently twice.  And further, what was the real impact of the destruction on the company’s bottom line?

Seen within the context of other events, it certainly poses an interesting question, particularly, in hindsight.

Canopy, which made the finals in the first German cultivation bid, was dropped in the second round – and further, apparently right as the news hit about the BC facility. Further, no matter the real reason behind the same, Canopy clearly had an issue with accounting for crops right as Canadian recreational reform was coming online and right as the second German cultivation bid was delayed by further legal action last fall.

Has Nobody Seen This Coming?

In this case, the answer is that many people have seen the writing on the wall for some time. At least in Germany, the response in general has been caution. To put this in true international perspective, these events occurred against a backdrop of the first increase in product over the border with Holland via a first-of-its kind agreement between the German health ministry and Dutch authorities. Followed just before the CannTrust scandal hit, with the announcement that the amount would be raised a second time.

German health authorities, at least, seem doubtful that Canadian companies can provide enough regulated product. Even by import. The Deutsche Börse has put the entire public Canadian and American cannabis sector under special watch since last summer.

Common Territories

By the turn of 2019, Canopy had announced its expansion into the UK (after entering the Danish market itself early last year) and New York state.

And of course by April, the company unveiled plans to buy Acreage in the U.S.

Yet less than two weeks later, Canopy announced not new cultivation facilities in Europe, but plans to buy Bionorica, the established German manufacturer of dronabinol – the widely despised (at least by those who have only this option) synthetic that is in fact, prescribed to two thirds of Germany’s roughly 50,000 cannabis patients.

By August 2019, right after the Canopy Acreage deal was approved by shareholders, Canopy announced it had lost just over $1 billion in the last three months.

Or, to put this in perspective, 20% of the total investment from Constellation about one year ago.

What Happened At CannTrust And How Do Events Line Up?

The current scandal is not the first at CannTrust either. In November 2017, CannTrust was warned by Health Canada for changing its process for creating cannabis oil without submitting the required paperwork. By March of last year however, the company was able to successfully list on the Toronto stock exchange.

Peter Aceto arrived at CannTrust as the new CEO on October 1 last year along with new board member John Kaken at the end of the month. Several days later the company also announced that it too, like other major cannabis companies including Canopy, was talking to “beverage companies.” It was around this time that illegal growing at CannTrust apparently commenced. Six weeks later, the company announces its intent to also list on the NYSE. Two days later, both the CEO and chair of the board were notified of the grow and chose not to stop it.

Apparently, their decision was even unchanged after the video and resulting online outrage about the same over the destroyed crops at the Canopy facility in BC surfaced online.

On May 10, just over a week after the Bioronica purchase in Germany, the first inklings of a scandal began to hit CannTrust in Canada. A whisteblower inside the company quit after sending a mass email to all employees about his concerns. Four days later, the company announced the successful completion of their next round of financing, and further that they had raised 25.5 million more than they hoped.

Six weeks later, on June 14, Health Canada received its warning about discrepancies at CannTrust. The question is, why did it take so long?

Where Does This Get Interesting?

The strange thing about the comparisons between CannTrust and Canopy, beyond similarities of specific events and failings, is of course their timing. That also seems to have been apparent at least to board members at Canopy – if not a cause for alarm amongst shareholders themselves. One week after Health Canada received its complaint about CannTrust, shareholders voted to approve the Canopy-Acreage merger, on June 21.

Yet eight days after that, as Health Canada issued an order to cease distribution to CannTrust, the Canopy board fired Bruce Linton.

One week after that, the Danish recipient of CannTrust’s product, also announced that they were halting distribution in Europe. By the end of August, Danish authorities were raising alarms about yet another problem – namely that they do not trust CannTrust’s assurances about delivery of pesticide-free product.

Is this coincidence or something else?

If like Danish authorities did in late August 2019, calling for a systematic overhaul of their own budding cannabis ecosystem (where both Canadian companies operate), the patterns and similarities here may prove more than that. Sit tight for at least a fall of more questions, if not investigations.

Beyond one giant cannabis conspiracy theory, in other words, the problems, behaviour and response of top executives at some of the largest companies in the business appear to be generating widespread calls – from not only regulators, but from whistle blowers and management from within the industry itself – for some serious, regulatory and even internal company overhauls. Internationally.

And further on a fairly existential basis.


EDITOR’S NOTE: CIJ reached out to Canopy Growth’s European HQ for comment by email. None was returned.

Correction: This article has been updated to show that the Danish recipient of Canntrust’s product announced they were halting distribution one week after Bruce Linton’s firing, not one day. 

CannTrust Meltdown Indicative Of Summer Of Scandal To Come

By Marguerite Arnold
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While you may not have heard of CannTrust Holdings so far, that is now about to change. A summer spectacle of double dealing and corporate greed has put this Canadian cannabis company on the global map.

Unfortunately, the current meltdown underway is indicative of more to come.

A Summary Of The Story So Far

CannTrust, a company which serves 72,000 Canadian patients and got into the game early, decided to do what it saw other companies doing all around them. That covers a lot of ground (good and bad at this point). Regardless, the most relevant recent twist to the saga came when the company hired a new CEO, Peter Aceto last October.

Aceto however, along with the now also fired co-founder and chair of the board Eric Paul, decided to continue growing and harvesting unlicensed product. Worse, this occurred while boasting in public of their productivity gains on the way to securing a hefty investment of capital this spring. $170 million. The grow rooms finally got their certification in April.

What is even more embarrassing however, is that this was a round led by the much-vaunted investors the industry has been courting assiduously for the past several years. Specifically, in this case? Institutional banks like Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Credit Suisse Securities and RBC Capital Markets.

But that is “just” the North American hemisphere. The rather unfortunately named CannTrust (certainly at this point) also had a European footprint – notably Denmark. Unlicensed cannabis ended up there too, of course. Stenocare A/S, the company at the receiving end of the same, reported receipt of product from the unlicensed rooms on July 4.

As far as such things go, however, you have to give it to CannTrust company executives. In terms of setting standards if not benchmarks and “records”, they certainly seemed to have set a few, although probably not the ones they aspired to. If not, with certainty, their investors.

A Surprise Or Inevitability?

That said, for many who have been sounding warnings for at least a year, the 2019 Summer of Canadian Cannascandal is certainly starting to confirm what many have been saying for quite some time. This is not the first time a securities exchange, for one, has sounded the alarm. Deutsche Börse delisted the entire North American public cannabis industry last summer briefly. Then they revised their policy, reluctantly, after Luxembourg changed its stance on medical use. That said, they are still watching with a standing policy of bouncing any company that runs afoul of their rules.

The problems, issues and more bubbling at the center of this cannameltdown, in other words, are not limited to just one company or country.

And everyone knows it.

Accounting For Past Mistakes

For those who are counting, the value of all of that illegally grown CannTrust product is not insignificant. Estimates are floating in the CA$50-70 million range. The problem is, of course, nobody is sure what numbers to rely on. CannTrust employees knowingly provided inaccurate information to the new CEO if not regulatory body until a whistle-blower provided a few more details.

That said, for all of the hullabaloo, one thing this story also does is point a bright spotlight on the lax enforcement of even this pretty easy-to-understand regulation.

The question, however is, if CannTrust thought it could get away with this kind of blatent flouting of the rules, if not lax oversight, are there any other companies who might have also done similiar things?

After all, even the pesticide scandal of 2016 did not occur at just one company either.

Where Are The Proceedings?

This is a rolling story, which began to break at the beginning of last month when Health Canada issued a non-compliance order to CannTrust and impounded 5,200 kg of dried cannabis that was apparently grown in unlicensed grow rooms on July 3.

There have already been some jaw dropping revelations so far (beyond the executive decision to even go down this road in the first place) no matter how attractive pimping numbers was. Starting with things like fake walls being erected to hide the grow. And then of course pictures that have been all over social media of late, of the now departed CEO Aceto being photographed directly in front of said unlicensed rooms too.

As a result, the drama has continued to unfold in a highly predictable way.

By August 1, CannTrust Holdings, a Canadian cannabis company listed on both the New York and Toronto stock exchanges, was facing a “quasi-criminal investigation” by the Canadian Joint Serious Offenses Team. This is a coalition of law enforcement agencies including the Ontario Securities Commission, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Financial Crimes Unit, and the Ontario Provincial Police Anti-Rackets Branch.

But CannTrust’s issues don’t end there. This is an international story that is just beginning. Government regulators in Europe if not elsewhere are paying attention.So are shareholders, and their lawyers.

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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.

Greece Gets Growing

By Marguerite Arnold
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The Greek government changed the law on medical cannabis as recently as February of this year. Now it has issued its first cultivation license.

Who Is The First Beneficiary?

The lucky (first but far from last) firm to receive a cultivation license? Intriguingly, a South American-Canadian cultivation company called ICC Cannabis Corp.

The most recent agreement received from the Greek government supersedes and augments its previous hemp cultivation license in the country. The license, however is not final yet but rather a conditional pre-approval for medical cannabis cultivation.Things in Greece are proceeding fast with no internal or external opposition.

The company already has secured a 16 acre grow facility in Northern Greece. ICC also has a distribution network of over 35,000 pharmacies spread across 16 countries which it says will “complement” its current Greek victory.

ICC will pay USD $200,000 in connection with the license issuance, pay a finder’s fee and issue 12 million shares.

Company executives are quick to point out that the success is a result of staff cultivating close relationships with local politicians.

The ICC of course is not the only company now engaged in solidifying their business opportunities in Greece. Hexo, a Canadian LP with about a million feet of grow space at home by end of 2018, in partnership with local Greek QNBS, is also rapidly moving to establish a 350,000 square foot growing facility in country as well. With a similar eye, it should be added on the European medical market.

European Legal Cultivation Is Exploding

Medical cultivation, in other words, is getting underway regionally, with authority. And the bulk of such crops not consumed locally, are already being primed for export to more expensive labour markets across the continent with increasing demand for high quality, low cost, medical grade.

Not only is this procedural development fast and relatively efficient, it sets up a serious competitor within the EU to provide cheap flower, oil and other processed cannabis products to a continent that is now starting to place bulk orders as individual countries struggle with the issue of how much local cultivation to allow and what patient conditions should be covered.

Even more interesting, at least so far, are a lack of punitive punishments being meted out to the country from the EU for considering this economic route to self-sufficiency again. That is not true for Albania, in direct contrast, which is being penalized with its membership to the Union on the line, for the level of black market cannabis grown in the country.

That said, it might also be the progress of Greek cultivation that has caused such a furore – led by France in Brussels within the EU. A country far behind regional leaders on reform it is worth noting. Even on medical.

A Quick History Of Cannabis Reform In Greece

Greek politicians decided fairly early as the cannabis ball got rolling in Europe that the industry was the perfect cash injection to an economy still emerging from troubled times and massive financial defaults. In fact, Greek officials are estimating that legalizing the medical industry here will inject approximately USD$2 billion into the country’s economy.

It could be, of course, much higher. Especially when exports are added to medical tourist consumption.

The amazing thing so far, for all the other issues in just about every other legalizing country within the EU of late? Things in Greece are proceeding fast with no internal or external opposition.

Who Is ICC?

The firm used to be known by the hard to pronounce Kaneh Bosm Bio Technology and Shogun Capital Corp. The firm has an interesting footprint with production in Uruguay but already exporting CBD and other derivatives to the Canadian market, including via a deal with Emblem Cannabis.

The company began trading on the TSX Venture exchange in November 2016. In late September, the company announced that it was also securing a 55-acre grow facility in Denmark, with other Canadian cannabis heavyweights like Canopy, Aurora and Green Dutchman Holdings.

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International Summer Cannabis Roundup

By Marguerite Arnold
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european union states

As August comes to a close, it is clear that it has been one busy quarter for market development – all over the place. Developments in the UK and Germany in particular, however, have been dramatic. In turn, this is also starting to bring other countries online – even as potential producers move in on the market and before real domestic medical reform has occurred (in countries ranging from Turkey to Spain).

And, say no more, Canada finally announced its “due date” in October.

How all three markets will move forward is also very interesting. They are all interrelated at this point, and even more intriguing, increasingly in synch.

This trend is also one advocates should take note of to push forward on further legislative and access issues going forward.

The EU looks poised to hop on the legalization train

In the future, no matter what happens with Brexit, developments in both the UK and Germany will continue to push the conversation forward in the EU, a region that is now the world’s most strategic (and globally accessible) cannabis market. Advocates, particularly in Canada and the U.S. right now, can also do much to support them.

Germany

Events here, while they may seem “slow” to outsiders, are in fact progressing – and as Cannabis Industry Journal has been reporting – quite fast even if the developments haven’t been (initially at least) quite as public. As this ‘zine wrote, breaking the news in July, the Federal German Drugs and Medical Devices Agency (BfArM) quietly posted the revised bid in July on a European tender site after refusing to confirm that it had sent out (undated) cancellation letters to previous hopefuls.  Applicants for the new tender have until October 22 to respond. It is expected, given the new focus on “coalitions” that there will be many more applicants from global teams.

Even more interesting is the informal “reference price” that BfArM is appearing to set for bid respondents (7 euros per gram) and the impact of that on all pricing going forward across the continent.

german flag
Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

Within a week, it also emerged that the Deutsche Borse, the organization that regulates the German stock exchanges, and working via its third party clearing arm, refused to clear any trades of any publically listed North American cannabis company that are also listed in Germany. This is an interesting development for sure – particularly now. How it will impact the biggest companies (read publicly listed Canadian LPs) is unclear, particularly because they can now raise capital via global capital markets – including the U.S.

Earlier in the summer, one of the largest public or “statutory” health insurance companies in Germany issued the “Cannabis Report.” It showed that cannabis has now moved out of “orphan drug territory” in Germany, and over 15,000 patients are now prescribed the drug. That said, over 35% of all claims are still being rejected. Most patients at this point, are also women older than 40.

The UK

It seems to be less than coincidence that the other big mover this quarter (and in fact most of the year) has been the UK. These two countries are linked by history and trade more than any other in Europe.

Epidiolex-GWAs of October, the country will not only reschedule cannabinoid-derived medicine to a Schedule II drug, but also allow more patients to access it. It is unclear how fast reform will come to a country in the throes of Brexit drama, but it is clear that this discussion is now finally on the table. What is also intriguing about this development is how far and fast this will open the door for other firms to compete, finally, with the monopoly enjoyed by GW Pharmaceuticals in the British Islands since 1998.

In one of the quarter’s biggest coups that stockholders loved but left the domestic industry with few illusions about the fight ahead, GW Pharmaceuticals also announced that it had managed (ahead of all U.S.-based producers and firms and even rescheduling in the U.S.) to gain U.S. federal government approval to import a CBD-based epilepsy drug (Epidiolex) into the United States from the UK and thus gain national distribution.

Canada

While it was more inevitable (and planned for) than developments in Euro markets, Canada also moved forward this quarter. There is now a set date for a recreational market start.

What is even more interesting is that the next formal “steps” in all three markets are now timed to coincide within weeks of each other in October this year.

Canadian producers of course are in the leading position to enter both German and British markets. Further their production centers now springing up all over Europe are supplying both their source markets and will be available for international distribution.

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The Global Price of Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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currencies around the world

Cannabis pricing, globally, is a topic that is going to remain heated if not highly fluid for some time to come. Why? Government regulation (or lack thereof), compliance and even transport along with different models for commerce and consumption are creating an odd and absolutely uneven map of commodity pricing. We live in a world where accurate information is hard to come by. Even from ostensibly “official” sources that track operational markets. Black or legit.

It may sound complex today but it used to be a lot harder. As of just 2014, the UN’s Office of Drug Control listed the price of a gram of (black market) cannabis in Lichtenstein at $1,020 (as reported by a bemused Business Insider). While this could have been a simple matter of misunderstanding that Europeans frequently use commas rather than periods as decimal points in numbers, the fact that this was later corrected to $10.13 suggests human error in transcription rather than reporting. And the world has certainly changed since then.

Yet with no international legal marketplace or even platform yet in existence to track the global price of legal cannabis in different jurisdictions, this is the kind of issue that faces not only those in the industry but those trying to analyze it.

That said, there are beginning to be data points for those who are interested and those who must have this information for professional reasons. Here is a break-down of regional (legal) prices, per gram from a selection of sources generally considered fairly accurate. This is also made a bit more difficult by the difference in measurement systems and currency fluctuations. For ease of reference, these figures are in grams and U.S. dollars. An ounce is about 28 grams.currencies around the world

Medical grade cannabis also means different things in different markets. Outside the U.S., in Canada and the EU in particular, medical grade cannabis must meet a certification process that adds to the cost of production considerably. Certainly in comparison with outdoor grows. It is still, for the most part, imported, from either Canada or Holland, although look for that to start changing this year as domestic cultivation in multiple countries finally gets seriously underway.

The U.S.

Pricing really depends on where you are. It is also dropping fairly dramatically in established markets. The most recent example of this is Oregon – which has seen its higher-than-normal state retail market begin to normalize with California, Washington and Colorado. This is the price of establishing regulatory schemes on a non-federal level. That said, the competition is so extreme at the moment that Oregon, in particular, is a buyer’s market, with recently reported prices as low as $1 and change for a gram.

Retail pricing, in particular, will remain all over the place on a national level, especially given the amount of local competition between dispensaries underway. On average, however, medical grade-ish cannabis runs between $6-30 a gram, retail.

According to the website Cannabis Benchmarks, which tracks U.S. wholesale prices, the domestic spot index of wholesale cannabis was at $1,292 per pound at the end of January. Or about $5 per gram.The theory that the legit market has to price the black market out of existence is unpopular with those who want to collect more taxes from rec sales.

Nationally, at the moment, uncertainty over how the new post-Cole Memo world will play out, plus oversupply in certain markets, is creating strange pricing. Note to consumers, particularly in recreational markets: There are deals to be had.

Canada

This market is interesting for several reasons. The first is that several of the regional governments are considering establishing a Canadian $10 per gram price for the recreational market. Medical grade runs about $8 at the moment in local currency. That means, with a 20% differential in current f/x rates, a recreational gram will be set at USD $8 and a medical gram at about $6. That said, the theory that the legit market has to price the black market out of existence is unpopular with those who want to collect more taxes from rec sales.

Theories abound about the future of recreational pricing, but for the moment, a great deal of supply and new producers will keep prices low at least through 2019. After that? It is impossible to even guess. At that point, Canadian producers will still be supplying at least German medical patients with some of their imported bud. Regardless, the country will continue to play an important role in global pricing – even if it is to set a recreational and medical standard that plays out in markets already from the EU to Australia.

Israel

Like Canada’s market, although for different reasons, the Israeli official price on legal cannabis is absolutely constant. It is set by government policy. Those who have the drug legally, in other words with a doctor’s prescription, pay about $100 for a month’s supply. That amount on average is about 28 grams. That means that a medical gram in Israel will set you back about $3.50 per. U.S. not Canadian.

Europe

Price deltas here are the most impacted by changing national laws, standards and medical legalization. There are only two semi-legitimate recreational markets at the moment that include THC. Those are Holland and Spain. In Holland, via the coffee shops, the low-end of passable bud starts at between $12-15 per gram and goes up to about $30 for the really exotic breeds. This being Holland, they exist and are obtainable. In Spain, add the cost of joining a social club (about $50), but in general, the cost of a gram is about $10.Price deltas here are the most impacted by changing national laws, standards and medical legalization.

Medical markets in places like Germany are still skewed by integration of the drug into the country’s healthcare system and the fact that it is still all imported. The horror stories are real here. Patients must pay out-of-pocket right now for cannabis flower that is also being pre-ground by local apothekes for an additional price per gram that is eye-wincingly high. However, once the price and supply normalize, look for a medical standard here of about $10 for a month’s supply. That will be about 28 grams too.

Germany, in other words, will eventually be one of the cheapest markets for patients after reimbursement by insurance. That shapes up to be about $0.50 per gram at point of sale. It could be far less for those who are able to obtain authorization for higher amounts up to five ounces per month. The flat fee stays the same. Do the math. That works out to some pretty cheap (high grade) medical relief.

Black market cannabis and hash, which is also far more common in Europe than the U.S. at least, is fairly widely available for between $12 and $20 a gram.

The rise of cannabis production in Eastern Europe and the Baltics (which is also still largely pending and based on ongoing government talks and emerging distribution and cultivation agreements) will also dramatically drive down the cost of legal cannabis in the EU within the next several years. Production in this part of the world, along with Greece, may well also source rec markets all over the continent once that happens.

Africa & Central and South America

While the African cannabis trade has yet to break out – even in the media much of yet, there is definitely something green growing in several African countries including South Africa and Ethiopia. That trade unlike most of what is going on in South America with the possible exception of Uruguay is already looking for export opportunities globally. With African cannabis going for less than a buck a gram in most places (as in about a fifth of even that), look for certified African medical cannabis in select Western markets where price is going to be a major issue. Think medical standards. On the South American front, prices are equally low. However, remember that these are not regulated markets yet. And domestic government standards, starting with GMP and both indoor and outdoor grow requirements are basically non-existent. Growers who want to export to higher regulated markets are planning accordingly.

Assorted Outliers

It goes without saying that in places where cannabis is both illegal and carries the death penalty or other harsh penal retaliation, that the price is not only much higher, but the source is black market. In the UAE for example, a gram will set you back well over $100.