With all the fits and starts involved with getting the Startup Nation out of the box on cannabis exports, every new twist and turn of the story is intriguing. There are indeed reports that officials have suggested that the Israeli export market might finally, formally open for business as of early next year. However, and this is a big caveat, such exports can only occur if the domestic supply has been met.
And herein lies the rub. According to the Times of Israel, Israeli patients face a huge shortage of access to product, and in a story that is still universal at this juncture, turning again to the “black market.” Even though in the case of Israel, what constitutes really “black” if not “grey” is still as much in flux here as anywhere else.
Tikkun Olam, the first company to obtain a license from the Health Ministry, also reportedly lost the permit based on a police recommendation.
Who is black, grey and allowed to become legitimate appears to be on the same slippery, often fraught path here as it has been this summer in places like Canada. Or even the United States at a state level. See California.
In truth, this may signal a readiness to license more firms in Israel for both domestic consumption and export. The timing suggests that both are in the offing as the world enters not only the third decade of this century, at what is not quite yet, unbelievably the second of the legal cannabis industry everywhere outside Israel.
Not A New Problem
In truth, the dilemma facing Israel is one that has plagued governments since the beginning of not only cannabis reform on a widespread level at the earlier this decade, but market economics beyond that.
In the world of cannabis, this discussion is actually turning up in several places. It was present in Canada – indeed the biggest Canadian companies began to look to Europe as Canadian patients continued to successfully defend their right to grow in court circa the summer of 2017. It is also in the room across Europe as price economics clash with early reformers. Denmark, for example, might have welcomed outside money to kick-start their medical trial, but nobody seriously thought (at least on the Danish side) that their home-grown product would be able compete on price with say Portugal, Spain or Greece.
In a world where cannabis pricing in even Europe is starting to normalize, and higher prices and profits can be found abroad, what indeed, should cash-strapped governments do?
The answer is actually very easy as much as most governments still do not want to admit the same in most of Europe at least. Do what the Israelis appear in fact to be finally doing, which is democratizing the cultivation market. Once that occurs, the incentives for “black” market will disappear here as in other places.
The Bottom Line- Good News?
Israel has never intended to sit this issue out. The spoils on both the tech and IP fronts are just too great beyond the plant itself. The Israeli government, even with American and other foreign money, has also supported the industry for the last twenty years certainly in a way unseen anywhere else. And the modern “industry” itself, even at the small R&D end, is over fifty years old here.
The backlog of research and knowledge, beyond any individual strain or plant, in other words, is about to be let loose on the world as of next spring. And there will be no turning back.
There is certainly, in retrospect, much to be proud about in Canada – home of one of the most disruptive international cannabis industries in the world. And certainly an early mover.
That starts with having the national mojo to begin this journey in the first place, not to mention pivot and even admit faults along the way. For all the complaints and whinges, however on the ground, most Canadians are proud that they tackled the canna question at a federal level.
As the industry now does a bit of an annual review and revisit, what are some of the largest accomplishments, takeaways (and let’s be honest, major f*ckups) so far? And where is this all headed as the industry at least tries to gear up for another year, if not quite Cannabis 2.0?
The Big Bravos
Launching in the first place. Yes Full Monty Recreational was scary, and delayed a few months last year. And even though there have been many problems (retail outlets, online sales, privacy, supply chain issues in every direction, ex im, foreign markets and etc.), it is up and running.
In comparison, the Brits have been haranguing over Brexit for the last three years and are still not really there.
Further, it is also apparent that the agencies in charge of the new industry are themselves giving a bit of a shake after CannaTitanic (CannTrust). That was embarrassing for them too, although of course, while a bit of a negative compliment, the recall system seems to work.
Even if it needs a few jump starts via whistleblowing.
That in and of itself is a fact that is still in the room, although perhaps the pancaking of the stock price of most of the public industry of late was also another much needed wakeup call.
The Devil In The Details
Domestic Requirements. Health Canada is getting hip to the fact that the industry needs a bit more of a heavy hand. See the book thrown at CannTrust. No matter what, Canadians are demanding to know where their cannabis comes from, and further are also demanding that it be at least free of pesticides that can harm them.
Licensing. Many cannapreneuers are complaining, still, about the delays in licensing, particularly for retail outlets in the provinces who are taking the cannabull by the horns. That said, there are still lots of enterprises who are perfectly happy to dodge the requirements all together and sell to the black or gray market. No licensing fees, and no taxes is a wonderful dream, but that is not exactly how regulated democratic capitalism works – at least at this level.
Supply Chain Logistics and Related Technologies. Canadians are struggling to implement a regulated industry in a country where patient home grow is constitutionally protected, and in an environment where who can sell what, and to whom including online, is still evolving. Predictably, no matter how groovy the solution works at home, (or the U.S.), no it will not fly in Europe. See GDPR regs, for starters.
Seed Culture (Aka Strain Protection). No matter how much the lawyers in the colonies are gearing up to sue each other over Huey’s Half Baked, in Europe, there are tomato and pepper farmers who are laughing, literally, all the way to the bank on this one. While hip to be a “strain defender,” the reality in a medical market looking for cheap cannabinoids is rather different. Effective, clean product, which can be reproduced reliably and cheaply, is the name of the game. Girl Scout Cookies, and such ilks will be a long time in coming as anything but highly expensive, niche products you can find in a Dutch Coffee Shop.
Domestic Requirements Vs International Export. Canadian standards, so far, have been widely divergent in an environment where exports to Europe in particular are part of the story for the biggest companies. That said, GMP, and in particular EU GMP, has become at least a buzzword if not a standard to live up to.
Privacy. California might be considering its own form of GDPR (European privacy legislation) but so far, the industry has largely failed to protect consumers (from themselves). Ideas about owning huge data troves on cannabis users for someone else’s profit are still very much in the room. After all, data is the new oil, whether people know their data is being harvested or not. And just like big oil has done for most of its existence, those in the driver’s seat so far show little compunction about harvesting personal information, to become in the words of the now departed CEO of Canopy Growth Bruce Linton, “the Google of Cannabis.” Won’t happen. Starting with the fact that in not just Europe but now even California, people, far beyond pot users are tired of a world where privacy is a second class right.
While the issue first hit in Canada on the recreational side, the reality is that companies know who their clients and patients are in a way that is not only disturbing but increasingly being challenged.
Astroturfing is the practice, in political messaging and campaigns, of creating what seems to be a legitimate, grassroots inspired campaign that is actually bought and paid for by an industry lobby or other corporate interests.
It is also clear that this practice is now entering the cannabis space, certainly in the UK.
How and Where?
On August 1, the British Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group sent out a group email entitled “Strategic litigation on medical cannabis access in the UK.” The email, from the group’s senior communications manager, was to announce the kick-off of a crowdfunding campaign to defend a cannabis patient.
It’s beneficiary? A British female MS patient, Lezley Gibson, now facing prosecution for growing her own cannabis after being unable to afford what was on offer at her local pharmacy.
Here is the first flag: MS is the only condition for which Sativex (manufactured by British firm GW Pharma) is prescribed on label (in other words without special approvals).
The problem is that the NHS (along with most of the German statutory approvers) feels that Sativex is still too expensive and not effective enough. And that problem won’t be solved with either patient home grow access or a lawsuit to gain that right, but rather funded trials.
However, more disturbingly, the email referenced the supposed success of a similar legal tactic in Germany several years ago. This is to say it used a highly inaccurate analogy. In Germany, a male chronic pain patient sued the government for the right to grow his own cannabis. He won the right temporarily, but this was taken away from him after the law changed in March 2017. Now he, like every other cannabis patient in Germany, must get his cannabis from a pharmacy. German patients also must get their initial prescription approved by health insurers – which is for everyone – but particularly non MS patients – the biggest fight in the room right now on the topic of medical efficacy.
Further, the right to grow one’s own medical cannabis, no matter the condition suffered, has been removed from patients in every legal jurisdiction where there is no constitutional right to it first – namely patients sue for the same.
As such, it is entirely conceivable that as a “strategic” case, this is more likely to put pressure on the NHS to pay the sky-high price of Sativex for MS patients (which it has already refused to do) than create any other kind of access for anyone else.
When contacted by Cannabis Industry Journal, a CDPRG spokesperson said that the patient had given her support for the crowdfunding campaign and needed help.
However, there are other issues here. Namely that when selecting a strategic case (no matter how harsh this sounds to the individual patient), the entire discussion at this point – certainly from an efficacy point of view, might be better served with supporting the case of a patient who has less access because of either physical condition or economic status.
In fact, in Germany so far, thanks to the change in the law that the British group references, while there certainly are tens of thousands of cannabis patients at the moment (including many MS patients), the majority of them receive Dronabinol or Sativex. And all of them have to fight for medical access and approval from their insurers. That is of course, when they can find a doctor to prescribe in the first place. There are also estimates that there are close to a million patients in Germany who cannot get access, thanks to the change in the law created by one patient’s law suit.
Is this flavour of litigatious advocacy now afoot in the UK, in other words, the kind of lawsuit that is designed to benefit the industry more than patients looking for affordable, home-grown, if regulated product?
Astroturfing Cannabis Issues Under Brexit Colors?
No matter the real versus stated intent of the instigators of the Gibson case, or the eventual outcome of such litigation, there is no doubt that cannabis is being brought into larger political debates. And further, no surprise, “patient access” is an issue just as ripe for “issue manipulation” and astroturfing as anything else.
“Strategic” if not “crowdfunded” cause or tactical lawsuits are another form of this technique.
That foreign cannabis money is already in the room is also no surprise. The British press was alight with stories during June of the amount of money contributed to the CDPR Group from Canadian sources.
Seen within the context of Brexit itself, this is disturbing locally.There are other issues involved in this kind of challenge to the law.
Not to mention the fact that in May, none other than Arron Banks, the self-styled backer of the Leave Campaign, decided, suddenly, to throw his hat into the CBD oil ring on Twitter. Not to mention repeated the same information repeatedly, including his $4 million investment into the space during the following months so far. Plus, of course, wildly optimistic valuations of the U.S. market.
Suing For Patient Justice Or A Backdoor For Canadian and Other Corporate Interests?
There are other issues involved in this kind of challenge to the law.
The first is that in the British case this is actually not a constitutional case per se, but a human rights one. See the problems that those who are trying to define the British constitution right now on other matters (see Brexit) are running into.
The second is that while the patient in question in this case (Ms. Gibson) is undoubtedly relieved at the prospect of a legal defence for growing her own medication in the face of insurmountable cost, on the “positive” side, her case is unlikely to do much more than make impoverished patients fight NHS paperwork if they can find a doctor. See Germany, as a prime example.This lawsuit, in other words, no matter how it might get one woman out of a terrible legal situation, is not necessarily “pro-patient.”
But what it will do is something else. It may well remove the current widespread prohibition on the harvesting of cannabis flower in the UK. And while patients would face again being moved into the slow lane of NHS approvals (with lots of fights over efficacy looming and still unsolved), corporate growers and processors if not importers, already investing millions into such efforts across the UK and Ireland, benefit.
At the exclusion, also, as has been the case in Germany, of local producers who are not already large corporate interests or existing farms.
This lawsuit, in other words, no matter how it might get one woman out of a terrible legal situation, is not necessarily “pro-patient.” It also may well do everything to frustrate, slow down and further complicate medical access for those at the end of the chain, while only opening up “investment opportunities” for large companies and well-heeled interests who have nothing but profit, if not the destruction of the NHS in mind.
Given all the fuss about newly opened markets in Europe of late (see all the hullabaloo recently in the UK), it would be remiss for anyone in the industry to forget about Poland.
The Eastern European country that shares a large part of its border (if not recent history and long cultural influence) with Deutschland has been proceeding slowly into the cannabis space for the last couple of years.
There are a couple of similarities (and differences too) about the market development in the country to its Teutonic sister to the West as well as the emerging fight over access that is sparking patient revolutions all over the continent now.
A Brief History Of Polish Cannabis Reform
Like other culturally conservative places (see state reform in the United States in places like Georgia), Poland has moved towards reform in a way that may make political sense, but has left patients in much the same boat as British ones. Reform began happening without access as of late 2017.
Poland, or so the joke goes in Germany, is Deutschland’s “trailing sister,” on most things, and cannabis reform in some ways, is absolutely following that pattern. But it is not exactly analogous, starting with patient access. In fact, the first opening of the market did not touch import much less cultivation. It only authorized patients to cross borders in search of their medication. No matter the high cost involved. And of course, the still dodgy proposition of returning across a border with a highly stigmatized narcotic product.
Fast forward a year? Many of the major Canadian cannabis companies had achieved some sort of import (mostly of small amounts of the drug and mostly to single hospitals). See the announcement of Aurora last October on the same day that the Polish government announced a change in the law that they had imported in bulk to a hospital.
But what is going on now, particularly with a growth in acceptance of the medicinal impact of the drug across Europe? And will the Poles, like the Germans, launch a domestic cultivation bid anytime in the near future? Not to mention learn the lessons that so far have continued to stymie German domestic cultivation as well as frustrate a smooth supply chain if not operations on the ground?
The Market Is Coalescing
According to Andrew Makatrewicz de Roy, managing director of Bearstone Global, a market research and investigative firm moving into the cannabis space, Poland has one of the more progressive laws in Europe, but still is lagging behind other countries in terms of organisation and a political lobbying movement.
“There is a lot of vibrancy in the market, but we want to make sure that there is an initial forum where the market can meet and discuss the industry here”.There are also a few (low volume) transactions taking place.
However, as in other places (see the UK in particular), there is a lot of heat if no fire yet behind the scenes. Both individuals and companies are starting to appear who will help build a wider ecosystem in the cannabis space.
As in other countries in Europe, despite the market potential, there is still a general political lag in further development of the industry. Perhaps because of complications in the German market. And almost certainly because of complications with German reform and its own cultivation bid. There have been rumours of a Polish bid circulating for at least a year. Licensed cultivation is beginning to take place.
In response, Makatrewicz de Roy is moving to establish one of the first industry conferences in the country in October. In late July, he also held the first precursor to the same – an online streamed event that attracted 70 major thought leaders from the industry including many members of the political class, producers and distributors (including some of the biggest Canadian ones), doctors and patients.
“We want to build an ecosystem,” de Roy said. “There is a lot of vibrancy in the market, but we want to make sure that there is an initial forum where the market can meet and discuss the industry here”.
Tilray has managed to successfully import its first bulk supply of medical cannabis oil into the UK.
It was a Tilray product, in fact, that was not only confiscated at the border last year – but subsequently sparked media outrage over the denial of the same to one Billy Caldwell, an epileptic child. It was not the only outcry nor was Billy the only child endangered. And the British people, in fact, finally signalled that they had lost their stiff upper lip on this one last year.
All of this despite lingering and significant problems ever since. Not to mention an intriguing and well-timing market entry for Tilray right after things have been heating up on cannabis reform in Parliament of late.
The Tilray product, which will be imported from its new production facilities in Portugal, has already been distributed in other European countries, including Croatia and Germany.
What is significant in other words, is that the UK is starting to allow bulk orders in through customs- and they are coming not from Canada, but from Europe. Even if it is a Canadian company’s brand on the same, for now at least.
Tilray of course, is not the only company engaged in a race to get imports into the country. Right after Christmas last year, Canopy/Spektrum announced the same plans. Wayland has clearly been angling for a British outpost for some time. And of course, more locally initiated groups, including European Cannabis Holdings, have been working to initiate easier access to British markets for well over a year. Let alone more locally grown interests and pursuits now clearly lining up for market entry.
But this announcement, coming so shortly after all the recent activity on cannabis reform and calls for trials in the UK, clearly means that the doors are now opening fast for the largest players angling to get in.
Bottom line? Look for the biggest Canadians with an already established European presence, to begin making similar announcements this summer.
Being “Available” Is Only The First Hurdle
One of the biggest problems facing not only the “industry” but patients in the UK, much like elsewhere, is that doctors do not know or want to prescribe cannabis and cannabinoid medicines- and for reasons stemming from fear or ignorance about medical efficacy to insurance coverage.
Medical cannabis, in all its forms so far, however, is also highly expensive and out of reach for most unless they obtain an NHS approval (or as in Germany, statutory health insurer approval) to actually obtain the drug. And then have a place to obtain it.
This basically counts out everyone who cannot pay out of pocket and cannot find a willing doctor to sign them up via onerous and ongoing paperwork. And that, of course, is the majority of the sick people in the room.
It is this basic conundrum, which the bigger Canadians have yet to solve themselves (and it is becoming more of a recognized issue in the U.S. in the days, presumably, before the 2020 election which will hopefully set a timetable for federal reform) that has been in the room for the last two years thanks to Germany.
It is even more of an issue in the UK. Especially with a renegotiation in Britain’s diplomatic and trade relationship with the rest of the world.
That includes, as of mid-July, a downright, undiplomatic spat between the White House and Whitehall right now over leaked comments from the British Ambassador to Washington – and about matters of competency far from cannabis. Although of course, this issue is in the room.
For that reason, the Canadian as well as the European connection to imports right now (from not just Portugal but Holland) on the medical side of the ledger, spell an intriguing fall for not only cannabis, but the real shape and direction of British politics- and by extension- British trade.
Patients Are Taking It To The Streets And To Parliament
As much as patients have so far partnered with the big Canadian companies in the attempt to get the borders open, this is not the only game in town. Dutch imports, from Dutch companies, are already showing up in the UK (see Bedrocan). And both British and Irish growers are getting in on early action, even if for now “just” on the CBD side.
Furthermore, it is clear that patients are playing a large role in making sure that they are being heard, even to the point of putting pressure on doctors. In an extraordinary admission at the parliamentary level during the last week of June, lawmakers conceded that the British public was taking matters into their own hands. And furthermore, that the change in the law had led to clear expectations that were not being met.
Namely, British patients are literally demanding medical cannabis by prescription from their doctors.
And much like in Germany, with a mandate for coverage, the government is being forced to listen, and as best as it can in a severely crimped and politicized Brexit environment, respond.
While cannabis reform is hardly the Guy Fawkes, in other words, in a tinder match environment that British politics certainly is right now, it might be a kind of spark that drives a much wider conversation in the UK about current events.
Specifically the survival of a system that is poised to provide not only access to cannabis but comprehensive medical care beyond that, even for the old or chronically ill.
The British have finally decided that cannabis reform is overdue. In London at least, 63% of the population believe that recreational reform is a good idea. According to a poll by The Evening Standard, the rest of England too, is getting close to a majority when the idea of recreational reform is in the room.
It is, as usual, recreational reform that is the icing on a medical cake that has yet to be baked. But that spice brownie is well on its way to the oven too. According to the British Medical Journal as of the beginning of July, the idea of broader access to regulated medical supplies for patients is mandatory.
And in the ranks of the conservative party, Crispin Blunt founded the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group last September to lead Parliament in a long overdue discussion about the use of both medicinal and recreational cannabis use in the UK that formally “launched” during the last week of June.
But how the industry will develop here is also a big question in the room right now, especially with a country poised on the edge of one of the biggest constitutional questions in the country’s history – to Brexit or not, and how.
The North American Influence Is Controversial
While Blunt, for example, sees no issue with injecting North American capital into the debate, there are others who are not so sanguine. And while the idea of Canadian reform is popular here, including the freedom of patients (and others) to grow small amounts themselves, the idea of Canadian companies influencing national policy is not. From The Daily Mail to The Guardian, there have been front page headlines about the coming financial influence of “The North Americans.”
That this discussion is also going on at a time when the UK is considering a completely new trade agreement with the world, including on pharmaceuticals, is not insignificant. Where the country’s drugs come from, far from cannabis, is absolutely on the table. Not to mention how much they cost.
Questions of basic access are likely, in other words, to be in the room for a long time here. The barriers to obtaining and filling a prescription start at its expense – which is ₤1,100 (about $1,400) per prescription. There are few people, let alone those who are chronically ill, who can afford the same. This is far from a “normalized” drug- even of last resort- at the NHS.So far, the number of actual cannabis patients in the UK (ones who go to a doctor for a prescription and fill it) is still under 100 people.
That said, it is a start. And for the first time, as of this summer, those with the money can in fact, obtain cannabis by prescription.
But what happens to those (the vast majority) who cannot?
Patients Are Feeling Side-lined
Just as in national legalizing conversations in the United States and Canada so far, patients are being pushed aside for “the business” to take the conversation forward. But where does this business fall on matters of price and access?
So far, the number of actual cannabis patients in the UK (ones who go to a doctor for a prescription and fill it) is still under 100 people.
While patient groups are organizing, and the earliest ones to gain national attention, usually families whose children have been directly in the line of fire, are getting commercial ambitions themselves, the fact remains that patient voices are not the loudest ones in the room. Although as Blunt announced last week, he does not see recreational reform happening in the UK for the next five years.
That also means that every Canadian company entering the market (in particular) will have to continue to sing the same medical song they have been humming across Europe- at least in public.
The UK is NOT Germany – But It’s Not Canada Or The US Either…
No matter how much more “liberal” supposedly, the English people are on the whole CBD question (there is already far more CBD for sale in the UK than just about anywhere else), the UK market is still far behind Germany. Why? Since March 2017, insurance companies auf Deutschland have been required to cover the drug – from sprays and pills to floss when prescribed by a doctor.
There are, by latest calculations about 50,000 German patients.
That said, it is clear that the British do not seem to give a fig about the entire “novel food” discussion and are literally, in some cases, daring the police to raid stores and shut down establishments. The idea of rebellion against EU rules seems very obvious on the CBD front.
Beyond this, however, it is also clear that “Canadian” much less “American” cannabis reform is not necessarily the only model in town.
As the British, in other words, do finally embrace the cannabis question, it is very likely that the face of the same will be of a unique Limey strain all of its own.
The first German cannabis bid may have come to an end more or less, and with a whimper rather than a bang (not to mention the inevitable still-to-be-settled legal challenges). However even as the dust settles, one of the biggest “names” in cannabis and the company formerly expected to win at least a few of the tender lots is looking elsewhere.
Namely Canopy Growth, which was a finalist in the first round of the tender, has not shown up as a finalist firm in Germany this time (at least not so far).
However, it is clear the firm has other intentions afoot, namely U.S. expansion.
In an unprecedented move, Canopy announced its intent to buy the largest U.S. based producer of cannabis, a firm called Acreage Holdings, just before Easter. The conditional deal is being consummated in both cash ($300 million) plus stock swaps, and will not finally close until federal reform has come in the U.S. In fact, the deal makes the bet that the entire issue of U.S. federal reform will be solved within the next decade.
In the meantime, however, what this also does is place one of the world’s largest cannabis companies in the middle of what is largely seen as the world’s most valuable overall cannabis market. Further it does so in an environment where the company benefits from Acreage’s considerable market and political clout. Former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner (a fierce opponent of legalization until it was personally convenient and profitable) is on the board of Acreage.
But there are those who might still be confused about why this deal happened. Canopy after all is fond of saying that its first focus is the “more valuable” medical rather than recreational market. And the U.S. market has many challenges still, that stem from a lack of federal reform. In fact, Canopy has frequently said in the past that they would not enter the U.S. until federal reform occurs. What gives?
What The Deal Also Does…
It is not “just” entry into the U.S. recreational market, albeit still on a state level that is significant about the deal. That starts with its timing.
When trying to understand the motivations of Canadian cannabis companies, especially ones who have eschewed the U.S. market in the past (at least until federal reform passes), it is also necessary to understand that they operate in a shifting world of global strategy that is never as straightforward as one might think. And often has nothing to do with cannabis per se.
Namely, while this deal places Canopy in the middle of the U.S. state industry it also does something else. It positions Canopy as a U.S. producer just two months after a new international pharmaceutical trade deal went into force (on February 8) called an MRA.
MRA agreements, also known as Mutual Recognition Agreements, are essentially trade deals between countries to accept the equivalency of their pharmaceutical production and supply chain.
On the cannabis front, the existence of MRAs between existing countries as cannabis has become legal, has also largely dictated the new international cannabis trade (see Canada and Germany as a perfect example) although this has been held as a closely held secret by the largest cannabis company executives (some of whom have previously denied that this was driving their expansion across Europe).
However, thanks to the agreement on this MRA in February, as of July of this year, Europe and the U.S. will formally kick off a situation where the European and therefore German health authorities will formally recognize American GMP processes.
That means that on the pharma front, Canopy has also essentially re-entered the European market, albeit by a bit of a backdoor. It also means that Canopy can immediately start to import cannabis drugs at least, made in the U.S. into the European and by extension, German market.
Cannabis drugs have been going in the opposite direction across the Atlantic to the U.S. for at least a year now (see the GW Pharma’s Epidiolex adventure last year). And further over the U.S.-Canadian border if now only bound for academic research (see Tilray).
It also may mean that they can import medical cannabis itself to be used as “medicine” or processed into one in Europe.
Does This Mean That U.S. Federal Reform Is Imminent?
Not necessarily. In fact, keeping the U.S. market in general out of the global cannabis trade, while allowing the top companies to participate both in the cross-state market and the global pharmaceutical one benefits the biggest companies. Conveniently, this also allows U.S. cannabis “pharmaceutical” producers to enter the EU in force just as Israel is expected to (third quarter this year). This also puts the “deal” U.S. President Trump and Israeli President Netanyahu cut on the subject to delay Israeli sales in an entirely new light (and one that should outrage both Americans and Israelis in the industry on this front even more). Not to mention every European hopeful producer unaware of the larger game afoot.
That said, what federal U.S. legalization will do is drop the operating costs of the larger U.S. entities now engaged in multi-state operations.
Cannabis in other words is not likely to be legalized in the U.S. before the next presidential elections for reasons that have everything to do with the profits of a few – and for that reason will certainly be a major theme in the next national political race.
And in the meantime, the biggest companies, Canopy included, are not only laughing all the way to the bank (although their shareholders are another story), but setting themselves up to be at the ground floor DNA of the global cannabis business as it establishes itself in every country of the world.
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.
Aurora 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.
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.
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.
Beyond 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.
For those familiar with the tragic history of apartheid in South Africa up until the end of the 1980’s, Lesotho is a country long associated with terrible political and economic repression. Also known as the “Kingdom in the Sky” because of its stunning geography, the tiny, landlocked country is literally inside and completely surrounded by South Africa. During the apartheid regime, Lesotho was a place where “vice industries” like prostitution and gambling were allowed to flourish by a much more conservative surrounding political regime. Much like Indian reservations in the U.S., in fact.
Even today, diamonds and water are the country’s top exports although tourism, including skiing, is still a major underpinning of the country’s domestic economy.
Moving forward into the 21st century and much like American Indians, the mountainous, impoverished country is looking at the cannabis trade to create a national income of global worth. In 2017, the country became the first on the African continent to actually legalize cultivation for medical purposes, as well as export. Illicit cultivation, mostly bound for the black market, however, has boomed since the end of the apartheid regime.
The country’s high altitude and fertile soils untainted with pesticides, makes Lesotho an ideal place to grow even outdoor crops. And as a result, the country has also begun to attract foreign capital interested in the production and export of finished products rather than the raw plant material. Several big Canadian producers, in fact, have already established commercial operations.
2018 Was The “Year For Cannabis” In South Africa
As a result of Lesotho’s lead, neighboring countries are now also following suit on the legalization front. Zimbabwe, just to the north of South Africa, has also legalized cultivation for medical purposes although local farmers have been slow to seize the opportunity. Malawi is also moving towards some kind of cannabis reform along with Nigeria, Ghana and Swaziland. And of course, to the north, Morocco, already established globally for illicit cannabis and hashish production (much of it making its way into Europe as it has for literally hundreds of years at this point) is also teetering on some kind of reform.
In South Africa itself, the economic powerhouse of the continent, the personal cultivation and smoking of cannabis (for both medicinal and recreational reasons) was enshrined as a constitutional right as of September 2018. That said, commercial production and sales for recreational use remains illegal. As in other places, the licensing process in South Africa has held up the medicinal and recreational market already on the table if not in the room. And most locals cannot afford the licensing fees.
That said, there is already a commercial cannabis beer brewing company called Durban Poison which rushed into the space as soon as the constitutional question changed in South Africa. The country is the biggest beer market in Africa. And there are competitors already lining up for similar opportunities of both the medical and recreational kind.
Including South Africa, according to estimates, there are already 10,000 tons of product produced (mostly illicitly) across the continent. Much as in other places, this “green gold” has financed many of the regional wars of the last sixty years. For this reason, apart from the economic benefits that legalization brings, it may well be that the first big continental competition on the cannabis front that enters first world markets, will be African rather than Latin American (or even Chinese).
Legalization and regulation will help stamp out the illicit financing of guerrilla wars and devastation, bringing more political and economic stability. It may also provide one of the best regional economic incentives to stop rare wildlife poaching.
Medical and Recreational Opportunities Loom Large- But So Do Liabilities
But for all the potential of the future, now comes the hard part (as in other regions of the world where reform has come). Stamping out the black market and establishing licencing and other regulations (of all kinds, starting with GMP). Plus of course, because this is Africa, attracting capital at reasonable rates, and establishing legitimate distribution domestically, plus trade routes for global export. Including of course, both to Europe and Australia.
Medical research in Africa is also likely to be an interesting question especially given the impact of cannabis on infection. Africa is home to some of the more dire contagious natural diseases known to man. This plant, in other words, produced locally, might also be applied locally to help manage everything from Malaria to Ebola. If not become a staple in the medical kits distributed by foreign aid organizations. That of course, will take reform at the UN level. But even this conversation, at this point, is now moving.
That said, as 2019 gets underway, there is not a single continent of the world, much less a region, where cannabis reform has not touched.
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