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Shades Of Cannabis Reform & Confusion Across Europe Seem To Mirror US Progress

By Marguerite Arnold
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european union states

Cannabis reform is proceeding globally right now in some interesting places, and in an oddly syncopated schedule yet again.

Namely, in the last few weeks, change has been moving forward not only in the U.S., but Europe too. That this effort in the EU came literally weeks before the American presidential election where as of now, no matter who will occupy the White House, even more states move into the adult use camp is also surely no accident. Particularly given the results.

In South Dakota’s case, voters agreed to legalize both a medical and recreational market in a single election. In New Jersey, the referendum that passed authorized a market that is moving quickly to get implemented. This is equally intriguing. Namely that to the average person right now, no matter where they are, the continued delays and gridlock to get going, no matter the problems along the way, are increasingly unpopular politically. That too, is showing up at the ballot box.

Indeed, cannabis reform is now absolutely one of the most pressing and yet unaddressed issues in several countries at present. See New Zealand (where the voter mandate for adult use reform failed during their Presidential election last week).

Europe Seems To Be Following New Zealand’s Caution As Germany Delays Further Reform But…

Last week, a proposal on adult use cannabis reform failed in the German Bundestag (Parliament). With the exception of the far right Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), every other political party agrees that there needs to be forward motion on the topic, but nobody seems to want to fully address it. This is no surprise. Indeed, the recent appointment of a former German minister last month to a Swiss cannabis company seems, certainly in retrospect, to presage the same. As well as the many protest votes on the topic emanating from Berlin, one way or the other.

However, in the aftermath of what is expected to be a widely influential medical case here (namely the regional approvers may not interfere with a doctor’s right to prescribe to qualified patients), it may be that the government wants more time to grow its medical program while Denmark, Holland and Luxembourg (if not Spain) figure out the logistics on the ground.

French flags blowing in the wind in Le Havre
French medical trials expected to begin Q2 of 2021

Given that France has finally committed to a national medical trial to begin no later than the second quarter of next year, and further one where it punts the majority of the cost onto the industry itself, this would create a solid “medical cannabis” bloc in Europe’s most affluent states. Not to mention the first real, nationally authorized patient trial in Europe that is not commercial.

But even this is not the whole story. While dickering about the certifications and scheduling of the plant go on now at the highest international levels, let alone federal ones domestically, hemp products are clearly entering the consumer market here – from upscale CBD stores in city centers to hemp seed oil and hemp-infused mayonnaise appearing on the shelves of German mainstream grocery stores. Not to mention hemp infused alcohol of at least the vodka, gin and rum varieties.

And then of course there is Italy.

The Italian Market May Be The Dark Horse In Europe Everyone Has Been Waiting For

Within literally the month of October, all in public view, the Italian government circled on the topic of legalizing the CBD/hemp market. As of last week, the Ministry of Health finally decided that cannabidiol sourced from hemp is not a narcotic.

CBD in Italy went from widely available to banned and back to available again.

Given the fact that home grow now is not illegal, and medical cannabis is technically available, it would seem that Italy is positioning its hemp market to survive if not thrive at least domestically and further thread the needle of industry continuity against fluid and further rapidly changing European and international regulation right now.

In the meantime, like Germany, however, the country is clearly angling to create an industry infrastructure – and further beyond the pharmaceutical vertical – via “other” channels before taking the final plunge. Cannabis Lite fits that bill perfectly.

What Does This Mean For 2021 And Beyond?

No matter the official denials, it is very clear that recreational cannabis reform at the American and Canadian ballot box is moving the conversation forward globally, even if at a different pace.

With the WHO now poised to weigh in on the issue, more American states signing up, an expanding medical market across the world and adult use upstarts everywhere, 2021 is absolutely sure to be a meaningful year just about everywhere on the cannabis front.

Where Is Cannabis Reform Expected to Move by the End of 2020?

By Marguerite Arnold
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The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly impacted the cannabis industry, no matter where you are. However, the impact of a global virus outbreak and subsequent economic recession has had a mixed impact overall on the industry, and further against a backdrop where the entire conversation of reform is also now an international one.

While the big international decisions were slowed down deliberately, as a result of the pandemic, there is a clear indication almost everywhere that this might also have been taken to allow countries to catch up to the inevitable.

Even in the world of cannabis there is a level of diplomacy. The good news of course is that as a result, the topic of reform is now on official agendas, and those are now moving forward with an air of authority.

As a result, here is a look at some of the most significant events that will impact the discussion long after this fall.

The WHO Vote In December Is A Massive Global Benchmark

There is little indication that the global health organization will punt on their reclassification discussion in December. This starts with the fact that Germany, ever cognizant of things like health management leadership is moving ahead with its medical program, full steam ahead.

Further, there are indications all across Europe that the individual countries where cannabis reform has clearly landed are having an impact on their neighbors, if not a more global discussion. European countries like France are quietly announcing medical trials to begin before the end of the first quarter of next year. And Italy just added hemp to its official list of medical plants. Bureaucracies do not move unless they have to, and in this case, they are clearly in transit on the cannabis conversation well beyond the interdiction only phase.

The New Zealand Recreational Vote Is Also Highly Important

Whether the Kiwis actually take this ground-breaking recreational decision across the finish line is almost immaterial at this point. The ballot measure is being decided during a national election within a week and further set against another one (the U.S.) where it is clearly not on the agenda in the immediate future.

That said, of course if the measure does pass, and there is late breaking evidence to suggest that it might, the bar, beyond whatever the UN decides, will have clearly been set.

With recreational reform, New Zealand will also join the ranks of Canada and Uruguay when it comes to this issue. If not, Luxembourg will most likely take this spot at the end of next year if plans continue to unfold as so far promised in country.

Without it, the country will join the many who are implementing plans to integrate the drug into formal medical infrastructure, which is far from a “loss,” at any level. That said it is a sign that individual countries, rather than regional or international bodies, will lead on the issue of reform and will continue to, no matter what the WHO does.

Regional Reform Is Shaping Up In Europe

Beyond this, of course, there are also signs that the issue of cannabis access, no matter what bucket it is being lumped into, is headed for a showdown in Europe on a regional level that has never been seen before.

The state of the Spanish industry now has a date with the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg over basic access issues. If that is decided for the plaintiffs, it will mean that not only will Spain be forced to formalize its own cannabis laws, but so will countries across Europe.

What that will mean for nascent recreational reform is also unclear, but at minimum, it spells good news for those who want to participate in the industry in a new way, and with a non-profit model so far not given much official traction across Europe so far.

Turning Over A New Leaf: Faces of Courage In A Pandemic

By Marguerite Arnold
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The cannabis industry is not immune from global setbacks. Discussions about how resistant the vertical is to this (next) setback have been widely disseminated, from mainstream news to the blogosphere.

Yes, the UN punted global reform down the pike another 9 months – affecting the international industry. And so far, the entire vertical has been left out of the relief bill in the United States (although there are lobbying efforts everywhere to correct the oversight on subsequent bills now almost inevitably in the legislative hopper).

However, there are signs that the industry is actually gaining credibility if not forging new victories during a time likely to go down as this century’s “Great Depression.”

Here is a look at some of the trends afoot that are already bearing fruit and bringing relief.

Cannabis Business Is Essential Business

Some important battles have been won in many states in the U.S. as well as several other countries (including but not limited to Canada). This starts with the designation of the industry as “essential,” at least on the medical side. The issue of delivery and cashless payments have been on the front burner just about everywhere. And this time, there are few if any objections with a national lobby to voice said concerns.

In Europe of course the conversation is also different depending on where you are, but there are still signs that things are clearly changing.

In the UK, authorities have made it easier for cannabis importing. In Germany, pharmacies are on the front line in a way unseen just about anywhere else.

And in Spain, with most patients reliant on cannabis clubs, the lockdown and subsequent hardship for the most vulnerable has led to widespread calls to make deliveries a possibility. Even if the clubs are not functioning as “lounges,” their operators might not get fined for opening their doors, much less “importing” product from the outskirts of town to a central distribution point.

Pivoting To Respond In Times Of Crisis

It is impossible to forget that the emergent industry has been on the forefront of the medical industry and certified production for a long time, even if that, at least up to this point, has received little respect.

Health Canada has asked testing labs to repurpose their activities for Covid-19 testing.

Canadian and American producers are also on the front lines of providing PPE (personal protective equipment) that can be multi-purposed. Masks, gowns and gloves have all been donated from multiple companies. Others are literally repurposing ethanol used for extraction to make hand sanitizer for vulnerable populations. More than a few, including in Europe, have directly been involved in helping to fundraise for foodbanks.

GMP Licensing and Other Developments Still Cooking

While some companies waiting for certification have been stymied because of a lack of foreign travel (EU-GMP requires German inspectors to travel to Canada for example), there are other indications that global companies are finding the way through anyway.

GMPNew deals are being inked all over the planet, including international provision deals from unlikely places. This is in part because new export and sales channels are being forged – literally out of desperation. See the story of Little Green Pharma and Astral Health, an Australian company now exporting to the UK (a first). Or the New Mexico company Ultra Health, which just started to export to Israel. Not to mention the source of Israel’s other international purchase of cannabis this month –  from Uganda of all places.

Down under, things are certainly developing in an interesting way during the crisis. Indeed, New Zealand decided to proceed with its own cannabis cultivation, with signs that more reform is on the agenda for later in the year.

Back in the Northern Hemisphere, North Macedonia, home of one of the most developed cannabis economies adjacent to Europe, is literally one amendment away from entering the European and global business with flower as well as extracts (which is on the table this month as the government begins to reconvene.)

In summary, while times are tough, everywhere, the entrepreneurs who have forged their way through laws of man to create reform, are also showing up to battle against this century’s so far most emergent threat.

New Zealand Proceeds With Medical Cannabis Program

By Marguerite Arnold
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For those looking for relief from bad news in general, whether it is about the pandemic, the economic meltdown or the impact of both on the cannabis industry, there is a glimmer of hope from the Kiwis this month.

On April 1, New Zealand’s Medical Cannabis Agency opened its application process for cultivation and manufacturing. Beyond sounding the starting gun for the race to local production and imports, the new rules also create a licensing framework that is aligned with international GMP (pharmaceutical grade) quality standards now becoming the norm globally for medicinally bound product.

It is good news for the industry, but it is good for a lot of other people too.

Doctors will be able to prescribe the drug more normally and for more conditions. And patents will have more access.

That said, this will also be a strictly “pharmacized” market for now with an emphasis on dose-controlled products like pills, oils and creams. Edibles are forbidden. And while dried flower will be allowed, smoking is strictly banned.

The license fees for cannabis start-ups are ridiculously low for those used to North American and even European pricing (all in for $7,409). But, even here, it is not a business for those without deep pockets and the right connections. The GMP certification required before such approvals are issued does not come cheap.

What Is Behind the Change?

This is not an overnight edict, obviously. And the wheels have been turning here since late 2018 when palliative patients were given limited access (basically a defence against criminal prosecution for possession). The medical cannabis scheme became law in December last year, allowing doctors to prescribe in limited situations.It remains to be seen if recreational will follow just six months later here.

In opening the licensing process, New Zealand’s health agency is keeping its word about rolling out the program on time. But unlike other jurisdictions, this first step in April is also part of a rolling agenda that will probably see more cannabis reform coming to Kiwis before the end of the year. This would be a lightning quick transition indeed for a country that as of November 2018, became the last country in the world to make hemp seed fully legal for human consumption.

Cannabis was completely outlawed in 1965. That said, it is estimated that about half a million New Zealanders still use the drug either medically or recreationally every year.

But reform is in the air. Lawmakers and policy makers have been looking at other recreational models for at least the last 12 months, including sending observers to Portugal last year to observe how this famously “open” European country has dealt with the issue.

Greater Reform A Possibility In September

This is not going to be all she wrote in New Zealand this year for cannabis reform. Legalizing the personal use of cannabis is being floated as a referendum on the same day as the 2020 General Election (September 19). The referendum may not pass, although support for the measure seems to be steadily rising. Currently about 59% of New Zealanders support medical use reform. A new poll seems to also show (as of March 31), that 54% of Kiwis might  support personal recreational use.

No matter what happens, however, New Zealanders are just the next nation-state to admit that prohibition has roundly failed. 83% of New Zealanders believe that illicit cannabis is widely available anyway.

Regardless of the success of recreational reform, at least this fall, the medical market is likely to expand and the topic of greater reform is clearly in the air.

As always, no matter the geography, medical use comes first. It remains to be seen if recreational will follow just six months later here. Unless of course the general election itself is delayed because of the trailing end of the pandemic.

Is Australian Cannabis Going Corporate?

By Marguerite Arnold
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Patient numbers in Australia are going in only one way – up. As of last month, the Australian government reported that it had approved a record 3,594 cannabis prescriptions in October 2019 – or about twice as many as it had approved in only July.

As patient numbers have grown, plans have proceeded afoot Down Under to capitalize on the growing willingness in Australia to accept that cannabis is not only medicine – but can now be prescribed by regular GPs – as opposed to specialists. Not to mention exported to a global medical market suddenly looking for high quality product at affordable prices in far afield places.

Leafcann is one of the companies in that elite territory right now. The new approval by the government for the expansion of facilities to both produce and research cannabis will double the company’s facility somewhere in Adelaide (the location is not being disclosed for security reasons). The new facility will also be the first in the world to produce oil from plant genes and distribute the same to patients.

But they are not the only ones. According to the latest market report by Aussie-based Fresh Leaf Analytics, the numbers of patients domestically are set to jump dramatically again next year.

And as the Australian market mushrooms (indeed European farmers are fielding interest from distributors from the region lately), will the Aussies, rather than any EU-based rival, become the first real global competition to the Canadians first in the race on the flower front?

Don’t count on that. There are too many contenders now for quality cannabis all over Europe for low priced medical cannabis from Down Under to be able to do any more than secure a few early harvests. See the activities of Aphria in the UK for example. Or the proclivities of Lexamed and a few other distributors in Germany.

However, what this development clearly shows is that the Aussie market for oil is not only driving large and well-funded production at home, but also having a knock-on effect internationally.

Whatever else is going on, in other words, the Australians are not only gearing up to go big on the weed front domestically, but driving the market for oil just about everywhere. Starting with CBD.

Don’t Bet The Farm On Aussie Production

Looking at what is going on, in fact, by the numbers, it appears that the Australian market is getting going in ways impossible for their northern brethren. In part that has to do with both Australian federal and state legislation.

It also, when you look at the numbers, is still a market dominated by less than THC medical grade product – the vast majority of patients are still only receiving CBD and most of them in oil form. Australian cannabis bound for pharmacies is also so far clocking in far closer to European prices than Canadian – in part because Canadian companies can ship directly to patients. Australia is also following a European distribution model. And recreational is off the table for now (at least until New Zealand does it). In the meantime, the medical business is proceeding apace.

This means two things: CBD oil is going nowhere either in or outside Australia unless it is either GMP or Novel Food certified – and that takes cash up front. Regardless, will the Aussie market look financially like the salad days of Canada’s medical market? Do not count on it. The flameouts of public companies if not volatility of the public sector, not to mention the growing longevity of the legal biz is creating other paths to financing. Including the fact that most savvy investors at any rate understand that price sensitivity is in the room from the beginning.

So yes, there certainly have been and will continue to be large, well-funded, corporate Aussies – indeed that is the shape of the future just about everywhere. But don’t expect the corporate playbook to be the same as the ones played by the Canadians so far.

Marguerite Arnold

Countries Take Lessons From Others On Legalizing Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

As the German bid fiasco proves, and in spades, there is no easy transition out of prohibition. As of this April, it will be two years since the German Cannabis Agency issued its first cultivation bid. Since then, the first attempt went down in legal flames (in court) and the agency in charge, BfArM took an embarrassing hit for committing a “technical fault.” As of April, the second issuance gets its day in court. And then presumably, hopefully, cultivation can start to get going.

However, the German cultivation bid is far from the only time that government officials and regulators have created canna Frankensteins. In every legalizing market so far, in fact, from Colorado’s recreational start in 2014 to Canada, lawsuits, flubs and mistakes have been the order of the day.

There is a growing debate in Europe over how the cannabis industry should be allowed to flourish.States throughout the US continue to model their legalization frameworks off of states that have already done so. No wonder, then that as legalization rolls on, other countries are beginning to study the early movers- for tips on what to do and what to avoid.

New Zealand Takes A Look At Portugal

New Zealand is widely expected to become either the “next” country (or the one after that) to fully legalize recreational cannabis. Further it plans to do so during a national election (presumably ahead of the U.S. but that will be interesting to watch). New Zealand has jumped the gun already and put it on the electoral agenda.

That leaves the Kiwis with at least another 18 months to consider how they might pull it off. Don’t forget, it took the Canadians that long, with one failed initiation date last summer that was pushed to the fall. And that was with a medical market that was already three years old.

As of this month at least, New Zealanders are looking at several options, Portugal being one of them. Portugal gained distinction by decriminalizing all drugs at the turn of the century and has not looked back.

The country has seen a steady decline in all the bad stuff associated with the black market. Overdoses, drug crime, teen use and HIV infections have all dropped dramatically.

That said, for all Portugal’s forward motion, nobody else, yet, has quite followed suit.

Decriminalization, it should be pointed out, is also only one of the many issues facing a national change in policy. As Canada knows well.

Luxembourg Takes A Look At Canada

The Greens in Luxembourg certainly made news last year when they announced that recreational cannabis legalization was on their five-year legislative plan. In a tip to both U.S. and Canadian discussions about how legalization can increase tax revenues, Luxembourgers are also clearly looking at how to follow suit.

Auroraaurora logo cannabis so far has the only distribution agreement inked with the country to provide medical supplies, but it is unknown at this point whether Luxembourg will be content to merely import or grow its own.

One of the biggest problems Europeans will encounter immediately in looking at the Canadian transition to recreational use is that the government literally had to mandate an additional five-year period for medical use after the beginning of the recreational market. So far, at least, Luxembourgians appear to want to do this the other way around. They have already created a multi year test and study program for medical uses of the drug.

A Big Difference In Approaches

There is a growing debate in Europe over how the cannabis industry should be allowed to flourish. On one end of the discussion who see no issues with the North American model of public companies, in particular, having the greatest influence over the shape of the industry. But this is not the only discussion in the room at this point, particularly given the huge head start the Canadian public companies now have in the rest of the world.

In places like Spain and Thailand, for example, politicians are also starting to bring other models to the fore- including protectionist policies around domestic cannabis production.

Regardless, compare and contrast is a trend that is still in its infancy as the market leaders struggle with the implications of half-baked policies and those who follow seek to emulate the successes but avoid the mistakes.

Helix TCS Expands Internationally

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to a press release, Helix TCS and its subsidiary, BiotrackTHC, are expanding internationally at a rapid pace. The seed-to-sale traceability software solution now has customers in the United Kingdom, Canada, Colombia, Jamaica, Australia and New Zealand, in addition to the United States.

At home, they just successfully deployed North Dakota’s government cannabis traceability program. That program is one of nine government contracts the company has currently, where their seed-to-sale software is mandated for the state’s entire cannabis supply chain for compliance and regulatory oversight.

In addition to their international expansion and successful domestic government contracts, Helix TCS announced an exciting new addition to their leadership team. The company added former President of Mexico, Mr. Vicente Fox Quesada, to its Board of Directors, according to a press release. “A new industry is being borne, with high ethical standards, attracting massive investment in medical and health products, bringing economic growth and jobs to communities and nations,” says Fox. “I am proud to be part of it.”

According to Zachary Venegas, executive chairman and CEO of Helix TCS, Inc., Vicente Fox will help serve as a strategic advisor for their continued expansion abroad. “”We are honored to welcome former President Fox to our Board of Directors and to benefit from his strategic vision and global network,” says Venegas. “His addition is a significant multiplier in our further expansion into key production markets that we expect to become dominant cannabis export hubs that will require our full suite of services.”

According to Venegas, they are prepared to meet the needs of a globalizing cannabis economy. “As international markets develop and more countries create a legal cannabis industry, our technology and service solutions will continue to reach new markets quickly to meet the needs of businesses and regulators in any regulatory environment,” says Venegas. “We are very excited to see the progress of legal cannabis on the global stage and we look forward to continuing to play a vital role in enabling a transparent and secure supply chain.”

WHO Makes Noise About Cannabis “Rescheduling”

By Marguerite Arnold
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At this point in the end of prohibition, not even the United Nations (UN) or the World Health Organization (WHO) are immune to the great green wave sweeping the planet. Yet, lest anyone get too optimistic about developments at the nose bleed level of international drug reform, the newest round of headlines regarding “WHO cannabis reform” is hardly cause for celebration.

The Story At The International Level So Far

In documents obtained by Cannabis Industry Journal last fall, it appeared that cannabis reform of the serious kind had caught the eye of senior leaders at the WHO. Further, it also appeared that some kind of decisive action or declaration would be forthcoming by the end of the year.

Yet as reported at the end of January, such decisions appear to be headed for a tortoise speed approvals track. Yes, it appears that CBD will probably be descheduled, and from both the hemp and cannabis perspective. That should be good news to many who are caught in a raft of international standards that are confusing and all over the place on a country-by-country level. However, this will not be much of a boon to the industry in Europe, in particular, where the discussion is less over CBD but the source of it, and how distillates are used. From this perspective, the draft WHO documents will make no difference, except perhaps to speed the acceptance of CBD, and create clearer regulations around it.

On the THC front, the WHO appears to do nothing more than move cannabis squarely into international Schedule I territory. More interesting of course, is the intent of international regulators to keep cannabis very much in uncertain status while moving “pharmacized” versions of the same into Schedule III designation.

What Does The Opinion of The WHO Really Mean?

What this means is also still unclear except that those who want to sell to regulated medical and nonmedical markets have to get their products (whatever those are) registered as medicine or a legitimate consumer product in every jurisdiction and eventually at a regional level (see Europe). That is clearly underway right now by both the big Canadian and emerging Israeli entities in the market as well as savvy European players in both verticals. That said, it is also a game that is about to create a very interesting market for those who are able to produce cheap, but high-grade oils in particular.

What Does This Mean For The Future Of Flower?

On the medical front, Germany became the third country in the world to consider reimbursing flower via national healthcare. Of the three who have tried it to date so far (and it is unclear what Poland will do at this point longer term), Israel is inching away and Holland nixed the entire cannabis covered by insurance conversation at the same time Germany took it on. Where that plays out across Europe will be interesting, especially as the cost of production and end retail cost continues to drop. And doctor education includes information about “whole plant” vs. pre-prescribed “dosing” where the patient has no control. The reality in the room in Europe right now is that this drug is being used to treat people with drug resistant conditions. Dosing dramas in other words, will be in the room here for some time to come as they have in no other jurisdiction.

european union statesBeyond dosing and control issues that have as much to do with doctors as overall reform, flower is still controversial for other reasons. One, it is currently still being imported into Europe from highly remote and expensive import destinations. That will probably change this year because of both the cultivation bid and Israel’s aggressive move into the middle of the fray as well as widely expected ex-im changes that will allow imports from countries throughout Europe. However, in the meantime, this is one of the reasons that flower is so unpopular right now at the policy and insurance level. The other is that pharmacists in Germany are allowed to treat the flower as a drug that must be processed. In this case, that means that they are adding a significant surcharge, per gram, to flower because they grind it before they give it to patients.

How long this loophole will exist is unclear. However, what is also very clear is that oils in particular, will play a larger and larger role in most medical markets. Read, in other words, “pharmaceutical products.”

For this reason, the WHO recommendations, for one, are actually responding to unfolding realities on the ground, not leading or setting them.

Setting A Longer-Term Date For Widespread Recreational Reform

This conservative stance from the WHO also means, however, that in the longer run, individual country “recreational reform” particularly in places like Europe, will be on a slower than so far expected track. There are no countries in the EU who are willing to step too far ahead of the UN in general. That includes Luxembourg, which so far has made the boldest predictions about its intentions on the recreational front of any EU member. However, what this also may signal is that the UN will follow the lead set by Luxembourg. Even so, this legitimately puts a marker in the ground that at least Europe’s recreational picture is at least five years off.

In the meantime, the WHO recommendations begin to set international precedent and potentially the beginnings of guidelines around a global trade that has already challenged the UN to change its own regulations. In turn, expect these regulations to guide and help set national policy outside a few outliers (see Canada, Uruguay and potentially New Zealand) globally.

Bottom line, in other words? The latest news from the UN is not “bad” but clearly seems to say that cannabis reform is a battle that is still years in the making. That said, from the glass is half full perspective, it appears, finally, there might be the beginning of a light at the end of the international tunnel of prohibition.