As the cannabis industry — now estimated to be worth more than USD 200 billion — continues to erupt around the world, Europe is about to take off.
This draws a parallel with the watershed legislative events of November 2012, when Colorado Amendment 64 and Washington Initiative 502 were implemented. These two bills kicked off a wave of medical and adult use acceptance in the United States. Europe’s medical referendums which started in 2017-2018 and the recent December 2020 United Nations acceptance of medical attributes of cannabis will do the same in that continental marketplace. Europe is following science and studying popular opinion about cannabis, just like the United States nearly a decade ago.
In many ways, the American “medical” market has been a political ploy, while the European market is truly medical in every way. Distribution through pharmacies and mainstream channels is the wave of the future. This method of distribution will both increase access and taxable bases quicker than the U.S. “medical” dispensary model. People who truly need cannabis should not be hindered by any rules or regulations to get the medicine, and the U.N. has paved the way for access while the U.S. still awaits rescheduling.
The road to medical cannabis in Europe is more stringent than that of the U.S. and Canada. This is because most European markets have strict medical standards and medicines must be produced in European Union Good Manufacturing Practices (EU GMP) certified pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities. This is the same standard that all medical Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) producers are held to.
Both Canadian companies, who have just launched extraction with Canada’s “Cannabis 2.0”, and American manufacturers alike are unfamiliar with pharmaceutical API production. Some argue that food-grade GMP standards are the most similar to already-existing systems in the U.S. and Canada. However, the meaning of “medical” is clear in Europe — it means medical. Improving access for patients to products will be the central challenge for Europe over the next few years as patient growth increases.
Europe is also embracing its potential adult use markets. First came Denmark, then Luxembourg, and now the Netherlands are all beginning to engage with the question of adult use cannabis legalization. We expect Portugal will soon join this list. After all, in a post-coronavirus world, every country will be looking for a means to grapple with a devastated economy and to boost employment to widen its taxable base.
The United States was supposedly founded by Puritans escaping gregarious Europeans. Now it’s likely America will legalize cannabis within the year and Europeans will be left asking, “Why them and not us?” And it will become harder to explain why such potential for growth in employment and increased tax revenue isn’t being taken advantage of as Europe begins to emerge from lockdown. It would be shrewd to expect a wave of European adult use kick-offs in 2022.
It is clear that 2021 is setting a blistering economic pace: from mergers and acquisitions to monster capital raises, to increased debt raises to the hot special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) London Stock Exchange (LSE) up listings and initial public offering (IPO) fever. This year will be a cannabis-fueled explosion that Europe will not be able to ignore. With Canada, the U.S. and Mexico all likely to legalize cannabis in the near future, how long will it be before South and Central America follows suit? And then, how long for this wave to reach Europe?
The real answer is, it’s already here. Early adopters of cannabis overbuilt as the Canadians were given more money than they deserved, while the U.S. market was largely fueled by private equity and proved that it could be the biggest and best-run model. Europe will follow its own path by acknowledging the failures and successes of these markets, blending them to form its own unique European model.
The American dispensary will eventually pop up in Europe in a form similar to the current social clubs of Barcelona and coffee shops of Amsterdam. Possibly specialized pharmacies will carry more cannabis products, but it’s too early to call — countries are only just beginning to figure out how cannabis rules might be shaped to fit their needs and values.
There are greater issues people are dealing with in the age of COVID-19, but that will change. Economic recovery, the need to provide medicine more quickly and affordably, social reform, green projects and many more pressing issues will become thematic of a post-COVID world; a set of themes for which a cannabis-shaped solution checks many of the necessary boxes.
There is a certain misrepresentation of cannabis as a panacea, able to cure every medical ailment and remedy every social problem if only it were legalized more broadly. While cannabis certainly is not a cure-all, it can fix many issues facing governments today. People were grateful for cannabis during these troubled times with cannabis stockpiling and usage through the roof in the early stages of the pandemic. As a result, 2021 has the potential to shatter old establishment perceptions as more consumers speak out.
Now, it is only a question of how the individual and collective European nations choose to regulate expansion across the continent. And the power to create a truly world-beating cannabis model is in their hands; without the international market differences and troubles that plague the North American sector, there will be virtually no limits to cannabis expansion throughout Europe if those in charge believe it to be so.
THC as of February of 2019, certainly in the recreational sense, was not much seen in either Switzerland or much of Europe. Even in Holland, the coffee shops were getting more regulated along with the supply chain for them. In Spain, the cannabis clubs thrived in a grey area. But outside of these two very narrow exceptions, the biggest, most valuable part of the cannabis market (medical and THC) was just as fraught with similar kinds of issues. And those were occurring not in Spain, Holland or even Switzerland, but just across the border, in Germany.
In fact, the real news on the industry side in Europe, as it had been for the past few years, was not the consumer CBD market, however intriguing and potentially valuable it was in the foreseeable future, but the medical, and “other” cannabinoid universe that included THC. And the real triggering event for the beginning of the European march towards reform was certainly influenced by what happened both in the United States and Canada as much as Israel. Where it landed first and most definitively was not Holland, circa 2014, or even Switzerland or Spain soon thereafter, but rather Deutschland.
The Canadian market without a doubt, also created an impetus for European reform to begin to roll right as German legislators changed the laws about medical cannabis in 2017. But even this was a cannabis industry looking to foreign markets that they presumably knew were developing (if not had a direct hand in doing so, including in Berlin, come tender-writing time).
Divorced from inside knowledge about moving international affairs, why did Germany – certainly as opposed to its certainly more “liberal” DACH trading partner Switzerland- suddenly turn up in the summer of 2016 as the “next” hot thing for Canadian cannabis companies?
The answer is in part political, certainly economic, and absolutely strategic.
Germany is in the EU, unlike Switzerland, and is a G7 country.6 It also was, by 2016, certainly much closer to legalizing federally authorized and insurer-reimbursed medical use cannabis. This was because sick patients had by this time successfully sued the government for access (including home grow). And the government, citing concerns about the black market and unregulated cannabis production (see Canada) wanted another option.
Not to mention was a market, certainly in 2016, helped with a little CETA inspired “juice.”
The international trade treaty between Canada and the EU (if not the other big treaty, the pharmaceutically focused Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) with the U.S.) has been in the back of the room throughout the entire cannabis discussion during the expansion of the Canadian industry across Europe. It is still unclear at this writing if the juxtaposition of CETA and the start of the Canadian cannabis trade had anything to do with lengthening the process of the German cultivation bid – but given how political the plant had also become, this was at this point more than a reasonable assumption to make.
As a result so far at least, since the beginning of the real German cannabis market in 2016 (namely the beginning of an import market from not just Holland but Canada) and Europe beyond that, Canadian companies have played an outsize role (starting with bankrolling operations in the first place). The growth of the Canadian market as well as developments within it absolutely spawned if not sparked the change if not beginning of the changeover within Europe by starting, of all places, with Germany.
But again, why Germany? And why the coalescence of the industry as well as other Euro hot spots outside its borders since then?
There are several explanations for this.
One is absolutely timing and strategic positioning.
Germany had, since 2015, begun the slow process of dealing with the medical cannabis issue on a federal basis, informed if not greatly influenced not only by what was happening in events abroad in Canada and the U.S. but also Israel. At home, there was also pressure to begin to address the issue. Albeit highly uncomfortably and at least in the eyes of the majority of centrist legislators, as far at a distance as possible.
Namely, patient lawsuits against insurers began to turn in favor of patients. Technically, between the turn of the century and 2016, patients could buy cannabis in pharmacies with a doctor’s prescription in Germany. But it was hugely expensive and beyond that a cumbersome process. Only 800 patients in fact, by 2017 had both managed to find doctors willing to prescribe the drug and could afford the €1,500 (about $1,700) a month to pay for it.
Everyone else, despite nobody’s willingness to admit it, found their supplies in the grey (non-profit patient collective) or black (street and largely criminally connected) market.
Günther Weiglein, a patient from Wurzburg, a small town in Bavaria, changed all of that.
In 2015, he won his court case against his insurer, claiming that even though he qualified as a patient, he could not afford the cannabis for sale in pharmacies. With that, he and a few patients temporarily won the right to grow their own (with permission).
Weiglein is the epitome of the German “everyman.” Blond, stocky and in his fifties, he has suffered chronic pain since a devastating motorcycle crash more than two decades ago. He has also taken to the cannabis cause with a dedication and singularity of purpose that sets him apart even from most other patient activists (in Germany or elsewhere). He is fiercely independent. And not afraid of expressing his desire for a “freedom” that has not yet come.
However, in 2015, there seemed to be several intriguing possibilities.
Indeed, at the time, it seemed possible, in fact, that Germany seemed poised to tilt in the direction of Canada – namely that patient home grow would be enshrined as a kind of constitutional right.
However, it did not turn out that way. Desperate to stem the pan European black market, which is far more directly connected to terrorism of the religious extremist and Mafia kind in these waters and to avoid a situation where Berlin became the next Amsterdam, the German parliament decided on a strange compromise.
On one level, it seems so predictably orderly and German. If cannabis is a medicine, then Germans should be able to access the same through national health insurance.
In fact, however, the process has been one that is tortured and has been ever since, not to mention compounded the difficulties of just about everyone connected to the market. From patients to producers.
“In practice it has so far not evolved quite so smoothly.”Here is why. The government decided that, as of passage of a new law which took effect in March 2017, the German government would regulate the industry via BfArM, the German equivalent of the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and issue formal federal cultivation licenses.
This makes sense from a regulatory perspective too. Cannabis can be used as a medical drug. Even if its definition as a “narcotic” – even on the medical side – leaves a lot to be desired.
This is especially true on the CBD part of the equation. It is even more particularly relevant for those who use THC regularly for not only chronic pain, but as an anti-convulsive or anti-inflammatory agent.
However unlike Canada, the German federal government also chose to revoke patient grow rights while mandating that insurers cover the cost of the drug if prescribed by a doctor. In practice also spawning a specialty distributor market that is still forming.
All very nice in theory. In this abstract world, these rules make sense for a pharmacized plant if not drug beyond that. This is the route all other medicines in Germany take to get into the market if not prescribed in the first place.
In practice it has so far not evolved quite so smoothly. Indeed, while understandable for many reasons from stemming the black market to setting standards, this rapid switch from patient or collective grown cannabis to requiring patients to interact with both a doctor and a pharmacy (beyond the insurer) with no other alternative also creates its own serious problems. For everyone along the supply chain. But most seriously and problematically for both patients and doctors.
Plant genetics are an important consideration for cultivators planning to grow cannabis crops. Genetics can affect how well a plant grows in a particular environment under various conditions and have a major impact on the production of cannabinoids, terpenes as well as other molecules and traits expressed by the plant.
Front Range Biosciences is a hemp and cannabis genetics platform company, leveraging proprietary next generation breeding and Clean Stock® tissue culture nursery technologies to develop new varieties for a broad range of product applications in the hemp and cannabis industries. FRB has global reach through facilities in Colorado, California and Wisconsin, and a partnership with the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona, Spain. FRB is headquartered in Lafayette, Colorado.
We spoke with Jonathan Vaught, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences. Jonathan co-founded Front Range in 2015 after a successful career in the diagnostics and food testing industries.
Jonathan Vaught: This was a collaborative project between the BioServe group at the University of Colorado Boulder, which is a part of their aerospace engineering program. They do research on the International Space Station, and they have for quite some time. We partnered with them and another company, Space Technology Holdings, a group that’s working on applications of space travel and space research. We teamed up to send tissue culture samples to the space station and let them sit in zero gravity at the space station for about a month, and then go through the reentry process and come back to Earth. We brought them back in the lab to perform some genomic analyses and try to understand if there’s any underlying genetic changes in terms of the plants being in that environment. We wanted to know if there was anything interesting that we could learn by putting these plant stem cells and tissue cultures in an extreme environment to look for stress response, and some other possible changes that might occur to the plants by going through those conditions.
Aaron: That’s an interesting project! Are there any trends that you’re following in the industry?
Jon: We’re excited to see ongoing legalization efforts around the world. We’ve seen continued progress here in the United States. We still have a long way to go, but we’re excited to see the additional markets coming onboard and regulations moving in the right direction. Also, we’re excited to see some of the restorative justice programs that have come out.
Aaron: How did you get involved at Front Range Biosciences?
Jon: It really starts with my background and what I was doing before Front Range Biosciences. I’ve spent more than 15 years developing commercializing technologies in human diagnostics, food safety and now agriculture.
I started my career during graduate school in biotech at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I helped develop some of the core technology for a human diagnostic startup company called Somalogic here in Colorado. I went to work for them after finishing my dissertation work and spent about six years there helping them grow that company. We ended up building the world’s largest protein biomarker discovery platform primarily serving pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors, with personalized medicine and lab tests for things like early detection of chronic illness, cancer, heart disease and inflammation.
I then went to another startup company called Beacon Biotech, that was interested in food safety. There I helped develop some similar technologies for detecting food-borne illness — things like salmonella, listeria and E. coli. That was my introduction to big food and big agriculture. From there, I went to help start another company called Velocity Science that was also in the human diagnostic space.
Along the way, I started a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Mountain Flower Goat Dairy, a dairy and educational non-profit that had a community milk-share, which included summer camps and workshops for people to learn about local and sustainable agriculture. I became more and more interested in agriculture and decided to take my career in that path and that’s really what set me up to start Front Range Biosciences.
Aaron: Do you have any co-founders?
Jon: I have two other co-founders. They both played various roles over the last four years. One was another scientist, Chris Zalewski, PhD. He currently works in the R&D department and helps oversee several different parts of the company including pathology and product development. My other co-founder, Nick Hofmeister served as chief strategic officer for the last few years, and has helped raise the majority of our funding. We’ve raised over $45 million dollars, and he played a big role in that.
Aaron: What makes you different from other cannabis seed companies?
John: We’ve built the first true cannabis genetics platform. What I mean by that is we built a platform that allows us to develop and produce new plant varieties that support both the hemp and the cannabis markets. To us, it’s all cannabis. Hemp and cannabis are scientifically the same plant. They just have different regulatory environments, different products and different markets, but we stay focused on the plant. Our platform is built on several different pillars. Genetics are one of the core pieces, and by genetics I mean, everything from molecular based breeding to marker assisted breeding to large germplasm collections. We collect different varieties of germplasm, or seed, from all over the world and use those to mix and match and breed for specific traits. We also have large nursery programs. Another one of our pillars of the platform includes greenhouse nursery production — everything from flowering cannabis plants to producing cannabis seeds to cloning and producing mother plants and rooted cuttings or clones.
Then tissue culture is another part of the platform, it’s basically the laboratory version of a greenhouse nursery. It’s housed in a sterile environment and allows us to produce plants that are clean and healthy. It’s a much more effective, modern way to manage the nursery. It’s part of our clean stock program, where we start clean, stay clean, and you can finish clean. It’s really built on all of those different pieces.
We also have capabilities in analytical chemistry and pathology, that allow us to better understand what drives performance and the plants, and both different regions as well as different cannabinoid products or terpene products. All of the science and capabilities of the platform are what allow us to create new varieties faster, better, stronger.
Aaron: It sounds like you’re vertically integrated on the front-end of cannabis cultivation.
Jon: Absolutely, that’s a great way to think about it.
The last piece I’d say is that we have areas of research and development that cover the full span of multiple product lines. We think about it from an ingredient perspective. Cannabinoids and terpenes are certainly what drive a large part of the cannabis market in terms of edibles, smokable flower, vapes and extracts and the different effects and flavors that you get. We also are looking at other ingredients, like plant-based protein and hemp as a viable protein source and the ability for hemp to produce valuable fiber for textiles, as well as industrial building materials and applications.
Lastly, there are additional small molecules that we’re working on as well from a food ingredients perspective. There are all kinds of interesting compounds. Everybody talks about the cannabinoids and terpenes, but there are also things like flavonoids, and some other very interesting chemistries that we’re working on as well.
Aaron: What geographies are you currently in?
Jon: Colorado and California primarily and we have a small R&D partnership in Barcelona.
Aaron: Do you have plans for expansion beyond that?
Jon: Our current headquarters are out of Colorado, and most of our Colorado operations right now are all hemp. Our hemp business is national and international.
We work with a licensed cannabis nursery partner in California which is our primary focus for that market, but we will be expanding the cannabis genetics and nursery program into Colorado next year. From a regulated cannabis perspective, that’s the first move. Beyond that, we’re in conversations with some of the multi-state operators and cannabis brands that are emerging to talk about how to leverage our technology and our genetics platform across some of the other markets.
Aaron: How do you think about genetics in your products?
Jon: Genetics means a lot of things to different folks depending on your vantage point and where you sit in the supply chain. Our business model is based on selling plants and seeds. At the end of the day, we don’t develop oils, extracts and products specifically, but we develop the genetics behind those products.
For us, it’s not only about developing genetics that have the unique qualities or ingredients that a product company might want like CBD, or other minor cannabinoids like THCV for example, but also about making sure that those plants can be produced efficiently and effectively. The first step is to introduce the ingredient to the product. Then the second step is to make sure that growers can grow and produce the plant. That way they can stabilize their supply chain for their product line. Whether it’s for a smokable flower product, or a vape product, or an edible product, it’s really important to make sure that they can reproduce it. That’s really how we think about genetics.
Aaron: What is a smart plant? That’s something I saw on your website.
Jon: It’s really about plants that perform under specific growing regions, or growing conditions. For example, in hemp, it’s one thing to produce CBD or CBG. It’s another thing to be able to produce it efficiently in five different microclimates around the U.S. Growing hemp in Florida or Alabama down on the Gulf Coast versus growing on the Pacific Northwest coast of Washington, or Oregon are two very different growing conditions that require smart plants. Meaning they can grow and thrive in each of those conditions and still produce the intended product. Generally, the different regions don’t overlap. The genetics that you would grow in Pacific Northwest are not going to do as well as some better selected varieties for the South East.
It’s not only different outdoor growing regions, but it’s different production styles too. When you think about regulated cannabis the difference between outdoor and indoor greenhouse is mixed light production. Even with hydroponic type growing methods, there are lots of different ways to grow and produce this plant and it’s not a one size fits all. It’s really about plants that perform well, whether it’s different regions in the United States in outdoor production or different indoor greenhouses with mixed lights and production methods.
Aaron: You market CBG hemp as a product line. What made you start with CBG? Is that a pull from the market or something you guys see trending?
Jon: So I think it’s a little bit of both. We offer CBD dominant varieties and CBG dominant varieties of hemp. We also now have other cannabinoids in the pipeline that we’ll be putting out in different varieties next year. Things like CBC as well as varins, or propyl cannabinoids. Also things like CBDV, CBCV, or CBGV, which are the propylcannabinoid versions of the more familiar compounds.
There was a lot of market demand for CBG. It was a fairly easy cannabinoid to produce as a single dominant cannabinoid similar to CBD or THC. There’s a lot of up-and-coming demand for some of the other minor cannabinoids. Up until a few years ago, CBD was considered a minor cannabinoid. It wasn’t until Charlotte’s Web in the Sanjay Gupta story that it became a major cannabinoid. So I think we see some level of market pull across the category.
On the flip side of that, we have one of the world’s largest R&D teams and consolidated expertise in terms of cannabis. We see the potential for minor cannabinoids, and even terpenes and other compounds like flavonoids to have wide ranging implications in human health. Everything from wellness products, to active pharmaceutical ingredients, to recreational products. From our perspective, that’s the reason why we’re pushing these ingredients. We believe that there are a lot of good products that come out of this work and the genetics that produce these minor cannabinoids.
Aaron: Okay, great. And then last question, is there anything you’re interested in learning more about?
Jon: I think the most exciting thing for me, given my background in clinical diagnostics and human health, is to see more data around how all of these different compounds of the plant can support improved wellness, health and nutrition. I think we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg. This type of research and data collection takes years, even decades, especially to see outcomes over time of people using these products. I’m really excited to see more of that and also hopefully be able to make stronger conclusions about some of the benefits that can be had from this plant.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview, thanks Jon!
As a strange year heads to a final, painful finish, there have been some major (and some less so) changes afoot in the global world of cannabis regulation. These developments have also undoubtedly been influenced by recent events, such as the recent elections in the United States, state votes for adult use reform in the U.S. and the overall global temperature towards reform. And while all are broadly positive, they have not actually accomplished very much altogether.
Here is a brief overview of the same.
The UN Vote On Cannabis Despite a wide celebration in the cannabis press, along with proclamations of an unprecedented victory by large Canadian companies who are more interested in keeping their stock prices high than anything else, the December 2 vote on cannabis was actually fairly indecisive.
Following the WHO recommendations to reschedule cannabis, the UN voted in favor of the symbolic move. Despite removing cannabinoids from Schedule IV globally, a regulatory label designed for highly addictive, prescription drugs (like Valium), the actual results on the ground for the average company and patient will be inconclusive.
The first issue is that the UN did not remove cannabinoids themselves, or the plant, from Schedule I designation. This essentially means that countries and regions will be on the front lines to create more local, sovereign policies. This is not likely to change for at least the next several years (more likely decade) as the globe comes to terms with not just a reality post-COVID-19, but one which is very much pro-cannabis.
In the meantime, however, the ruling will make it easier for research to be conducted, for patient access (for the long term), and more difficult for insurers to turn down in jurisdictions where the supposed “danger” of cannabis has been used as an excuse to deny coverage. See Germany as a perfect example of the same.
It is also a boon for the CBD business, no matter where it is. Between this decision and the recent victory in Europe about whether CBD is a narcotic or not (see below), this is another nail in the coffin for those who want to use semantic excuses to restrain the obvious global desire for cannabinoids, with or without THC.
That said, the vote is significant in that it is a test of the current trends and views towards big issues within the overall discussion, beginning with decriminalization and a reform of current criminal and social justice issues inherent in the same. The Biden Administration, while plagued with a multitude of issues, beginning with the pandemic and its immediate aftershocks, will not be able to push both off the radar. Given the intersection of minority rights’ issues, the growing legality of the drug and acceptance thereof, as well as the growing non-partisan position on cannabis use of both the medical and adult use kind, and the economy, expect issues like banking to also have a hope of reform in the next several years.
Cannabis may be taking a back seat to COVID, in other words, but as the legalization of the industry is bound up, inextricably, in economic issues now front and center for every economy, it will be in the headlines a great deal. This makes it an unavoidable issue for the majority of the next four years and on a federal level.
Prognosis in other words? It’s a good next federal step that is safe, but far from enough.
The European Commission (EC) Has Finally Seen The Light On CBD
This combined with the UN rescheduling, will actually be the huge boost the CBD industry has been waiting for here, with one big and still major overhanging caveat – namely whether the plant is a “novel” one or not. It is unlikely as the situation continues to cook, that Cannabis Sativa L, when it hits a court of law, will ever be actually found as such. It has inhabited the region and been used by its residents for thousands of years.
However, beyond this, important regulatory guidance will need to fall somewhere on the matter of processing and extraction. It is in fact in the processing and extraction part of the debate that this discussion about Novel Food actually means something, beyond the political jockeying and hay made so far.
Beyond this of course, the marketing of CBD now allowed by this decision, will absolutely move the topic of cannabinoids front and center in the overall public sphere. That linked with sovereign experiments on adult use markets of the THC kind (see Holland, Luxembourg and Denmark as well as Portugal and Spain right after that), is far from a null sum game.
Legal Challenges Of Note
Against this changing regulatory schemata, court cases and legal decisions remain very important as they also add flavor to how regulations are interpreted and followed. The most important court case in Europe right now is the one now waiting to be decided in the Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg regarding the human rights implications of accessing the plant.
Beyond that, in Germany, recent case law at a regional social benefits court (LSG) has begun to establish that the cannabis discussion is ultimately between doctors and their patients. While this still does not solve the problem of doctor reluctance to prescribe the drug, barriers are indeed coming down thanks to legal challenges.
Bottom line, the industry has been handed a nice whiff of confidence, but there is a still high and thorny bramble remaining to get through – and it will not happen overnight, or indeed even over the next several years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is official. BfArM, the German version of the Food and Drug Administration and the federal agency with oversight of the national cannabis program, has approved Spanish medical cannabis imports into the country. Indeed, three German companies are now finalizing their paperwork to allow the transfer to be completed.
As Cannabis Industry Journal has learned, at least one of the companies on the Spanish side of the equation is the ever-interesting Alcaliber (Linneo Health). So far, the privately funded company has made smart, strategic business moves through a challenging transition period. With one of the few EU GMP-recognized licenses in Spain, it is a logical choice for German distributors in search of foreign-produced, but up-to-snuff product.
This is a positive and widely predicted turn of events as Germany begins to institutionalize its cannabis program at the next level. As of this fall, three producers will begin to distribute domestically grown cannabis in Germany. However, there is a clear need for a vibrant import market here and there will be for a long time to come.
Domestically grown cannabis, by design at least so far, was never intended to serve the entire base of medical cannabis patients in Germany. And Spain has been, from the beginning of the discussion, along with Portugal, Greece, Poland, Eastern Europe and of course Italy, an attractive market to produce high quality cannabis for export to (at minimum) Germany.
The European Ex Im Market Is Opening
While the Canadians still have an outsize impact on this market, that is clearly a period of time that is coming to an end. Indeed, Canadian produced cannabis is being turned down at the German border for quality issues linked to certification.
This is not a new issue. It has haunted the German market since 2017 and the beginning of the discussion about the German cultivation bid. But now it is official. Beyond Holland, and even Canada, in other words, lower cost cannabis is now entering the German market and from other European countries.
While Portugal and Denmark beat Spain to the punch, however, this is likely to be an impactful development for not only patients, but the entire price discussion. Distributors are clearly on the front lines of not only obtaining high quality cannabis (from somewhere), but meeting a price that is increasingly on the downward slide, just from the pressures of domestic production and the price structure created around the same by the German government.
Producers have been feeling the pinch, no matter where they are based, for at least the last 12 months.
The Impact On The Spanish Cannabis Discussion
It is unlikely that this development will not be duplicated by other Spanish companies vying for entry into the European and German markets. Spain has a thriving grey market cannabis economy in the form of Cannabis Clubs. It also, like Holland, has allowed a semi legitimate market as well as a distribution network to spring up around the same.
However, the times are also clearly changing. Holland is in the midst of regulating even its coffee shop cultivation economy as it becomes one of the most important exporters of medical cannabis to Germany. Expect the same trend in Spain, especially as Europe increasingly comes to the same conclusion as everywhere else. The regulated medical cannabis industry is great for economic development, especially for countries like Spain, with great weather and perhaps an overreliance on the tourism industry.
The Other European Producers Now In View Beyond Spain, Portugal and Denmark have the right to import medical cannabis to Germany. This list is expected to continue to expand as patient numbers grow. Because of the price restraints now placed on the entire market by the German government, however, entering the country with an attractively priced product that will pass muster, not only with regulators but doctors and insurers, is now absolutely the name of the game.
And that is of course, before the recreational and CBD topic even enters the discussion – and both are clearly on the agenda now, across Europe.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, most testing laboratories have been classified as relevant for the system or as carrying out essential activities for national governments. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain activities and optimally assess the changes that are occurring, framed within the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Analytica Alimentaria GmbH, a testing laboratory with its headquarters in Berlin, Germany and a branch office in Almeria, Spain, decided to focus its management on the analysis of events and the options available, at the legal and employment level, to ensure continuity of activities and reducing, as much as possible, the damage for the parties involved: employees and company. Accredited by the International Accreditation Service (IAS) to ISO/IEC 17025:2017, Analytica Alimentaria GmbH is required to implement risk-based thinking to identify, assess and treat risks and opportunities for the laboratory. Since March 12, 2020 a crisis committee was established, formed by the six members of the company’s management, covering general management, human resources, direction of production, finance and IT. The committee meets every day and it intends to:
Minimize the risks of contagion
Be able to continue providing the service required by our clients
ensure that the company as a whole will survive the economic impact of the crisis
Take measures that are within the legality of both countries where the laboratory operates (Spain and Germany),
Manage internal and external communication related to the crisis
To achieve correct decision making, daily meetings of the committee were established, to review the situations that were presented day after day and the actions that should be carried out. Each decision was analysed in a prioritized, objective, collaborative and global way.
The basis of the lab’s action plan was a well-developed risk assessment. In addition to the risk of getting a droplet or smear/contact infection with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (risk I) by contact with other people, psychological stress caused by changing working conditions (home office), contact options and information channels were also identified (risk II).
As a result of the risk assessment, the conclusion was that a mix of various measures is the best form of prevention:
Avoid “super spreader” events
Regular communication between managers and personnel about the current situation and possible scenarios
The risk assessment took both areas into account. The following assessment was developed together with an external specialist and focused on risk I:
Protective measures / hygiene plan
Working hours and break arrangements
Limit the gathering of people and ensure a minimum distance:
Relocated work, break and mealtimes
Create fixed groups of shift-working staff
Time gap of 20 min. between the shifts
Enable home office wherever it is possible
Third party access
Few but “well-known” visitors:
Reduce the number of visits and keep internal contacts to a minimum
Ensure the contact chain
Inform visitors about the internal rules and obtain written consent
Isolation and immediate leave of the company:
Contactless fever measurement (in case of typical symptoms)
Leave the company or stay at home
If the infection is confirmed, find contact persons (including customers or visitors) and inform them about a possible risk of infection
Contact with other persons
Traffic route from home to work
Avoid public transportation:
Take a car, bicycle or go by foot
Enable mobile work and teleworking
Always keep a sufficient distance of 2.0 m from people:
If minimum distances cannot be maintained, wear protective masks or install physical barriers (acrylic glass)
Organize traffic routes so that minimum distances can be maintained (one-way routes, floor markings indicating a distance of 2 m)
Use digital meetings instead of physical ones
Remove virus-loaded droplet as often as possible:
Provide skin-friendly liquid soaps and towel dispensers
Shorten or intensify cleaning intervals
Hang out instructions for washing hands at the sink
Include instructions for proper hand-disinfection
Canteens, tea kitchens and break rooms
One person per 10 m² = minimum:
Reduce the number of chairs per table
Informative signs in every room, indicating the maximum number of permitted persons
Diluting or removing bioaerosols (1 µm virus-droplets):
Leave as many doors open as possible
Regular and documented shock ventilation every 30 minutes or more frequently, depending on the size of window
Operate ventilation and air-conditioning systems, since the transmission risk is classified as low here
Use of work equipment
Use tools and work equipment for personal use:
Regular cleaning with changing use (PC, hand tools, coffee machine, …)
If possible, use gloves when using equipment for a larger number of users
Use of protective masks as an additional measure, indicating that this does not replace keeping distance
Recommend wearing masks in commonly used areas and explain that they do not protect yourself, but help to protect others
Give clear instructions (written and oral) on how to use a mask correctly and explain the use and purpose of different mask-types
Distribute masks freely
A number of guidelines and concrete measures addressing the risks related to health issues are already in place. Those health issues in risk group II are more closely related to the psychological effects of the crisis, however, are also more complex to mitigate. The key strategy is communication and, in particular, actively listening to all employees of the company.
Analytica’s robust company culture, based on values established in coordination with the whole staff, has been of significant help during the crisis. The some 150 staff members are organized by over 22 team coordinators. During the crisis, active communication has been intensified significantly. The crisis management team set up regular alignment meetings with all the coordinators and with individual persons with particular situations. This way, not only was it possible to explain the development of the crisis and the subsequent measures, the conversations with coordinators were also the most important source of information enabling the appropriate decisions. The coordinators, closely aligned and in sync with management, were then able to communicate with their team members with a high degree of confidence. One outcome of the communication was a measure that proved very effective in fortifying trust within the company: all measures and evaluations, as well as a chronological review, are published in a dynamic internal report and are made available, with full transparency, to all staff members. Besides the many individual and group alignment meetings (usually held by video conference), this has been a key measure to establish confidence and security within the company.
On the other hand, the company made a great effort to balance the effect of the general closure of kindergartens and schools in Spain and Germany. Each case where staff members were required to care for children at home was studied individually and agreements were established, adapting shifts and making use of time accounts, to allow childcare at home without significant loss of income.
The success of the measures is shown by the continuous work of both laboratories during the crisis. Besides the personal tragedy of a possible infection, the identified risk to the company has the consequence of a (partial) quarantine due to an infected person in contact with the staff and the consequent loss of work-power which might lead, in extreme cases, to a closure of the laboratory. According to the governmental regulation in Germany, if an infection occurs (confirmed by the health department), contact persons cat. 1 (more than 15 min. contact face to face) are identified and sent to quarantine. Other contact persons, e.g. contact persons cat. 2 (same room without face to face) must be identified quickly with the collaboration of the infected person and notified and, if necessary, sent in quarantine. In this case, there is a confirmed emergency plan that maintains the laboratory’s ability to work, defining replacements and alternative work-flow strategies.
It has been part of our strategy to validate all our measures with the relevant guidance documents made available by the official competent institutions. The German Federal Office for Public Safety and Civil Protection (Bundesamt für Bevölkerungsschutz und Katastrophenhilfe) has published a guide, “Crisis Management in Companies, 9-point Checklist” especially for critical infrastructure companies in the CoVid-19 crisis.
Having been classified as a core business enterprise (Spain) and “relevant to the system” (Germany), we consider it important to use them as a reference to confirm our level of alignment with your proposal for crisis management.
An important effect, relevant to any leader in times of crisis, is that the confirmation of all points of such a checklist provides certain peace of mind regarding the question: Have we done everything we could?
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.
New 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.
HMS Great Britain has now set forth from its European home port for another intriguing and very British escapade on the high seas.
So far the jury is out.
It could be the beginning of the next British Golden Age, Spanish Armada and all that. Or could it could end up (more likely) somewhere up the Khyber Pass (a sordid misadventure of British Imperialism that did not go well in the 19th century with global implications still reverberating to this day). For Netflix fans of The Crown, think “Suez Crisis” as a more recent and apt analogy. Starting with as much as a 6.7% reduction in domestic GDP already on the horizon.
Snarky historical analogies and nostalgia aside, how will Brexit influence and shape a global cannabis industry, starting at home?
The UK Is Not Actually in Regulatory Free Fall
The first thing to realize is that most of the puffery around Brexit was that with the exception of labor conditions, there is little free choice in the world of trade anymore. The players who get export and import licenses, for anything, have to conform to basic equivalency rules, no matter what they are called.
This applies to cannabis in a big way. No matter how the UK market develops domestically in other words, and that is a separate discussion.
Currently, shamefully, the domestic medical guidelines for prescription of cannabis exclude chronic pain patients and a few other obvious groups. The NHS medical market in other words, is a monopoly, set up by the current and previous governments, mainly serving GW Pharmaceutical patients who qualify for Sativex and Epidiolex. Not to mention company shareholders.
Everyone else, including those for whom these drugs do not work well, or work less well than other alternatives, are left in an international trade negotiation in their living rooms as they and or their children suffer.
The import barriers for cannabis – both from Europe and from Canada are absolutely in the room and in a very personal way for the British right now.
How they actually define cannabis, will also clarify. This will be driven now by the UK’s biggest import partners – namely Europe, the United States and Canada (although South Africa and Australia of course, will always be in the picture).
Which regulatory scheme the UK adapts, including for cannabis and of both the THC and CBD variety (not to mention other cannabinoids), in other words, will at minimum have to be broadly equivalent with all of the above. Not the other way around. No matter how much the Food Standards Agency (FSA) wants to fuss and fiddle with “Novel Food.” That alone is a canard.
Cannabis is a plant. It is time to start acting like that. And it is no more “novel” than tomatoes in many, easy-to-understand environments, including commercial ones. Not to mention will increasingly be regulated like commercial food crops – even if those crops are then also bound for dual purpose medical use.
The regulators will eventually get there – but not without a lot of tortuous twists and turns.
A “New” Market? Not So Much…
There is a lot of consultant palaver and baloney in the room right now. There is no more a new market in the UK as there was in Germany (or Canada or Colorado). Local producers are already organizing, and on the hemp front. The big ones are hip to regulations and are getting certified to enter it. Everyone else is being left on the dangerous sharp end of police raids, even with prior local approvals.
That said, foreign producers are of course looking at the UK right now, and in a big way. The lock GW Pharmaceuticals has on the domestic market will not hold long. European producers are absolutely in the room (starting with Tilray in Portugal and Alcaliber in Spain). Not to mention what is going on in other places right now, even if of less well-known corporate branding.
Every big Canadian company is already in the room in the UK, and many Americans are now beginning to show up in the market.
However, for the most part, such ventures are doomed outside of conference sponsorships until the regulatory questions are answered if not met.
And that includes federal certifications that are easy to find – there is no one single authority that handles cannabis internationally. And there never will be. Supply chains are already global.
A Perfect Export Market
One of the biggest, so far widely discussed questions is who in Europe will start exporting to the UK (forget Holland for the moment). Not to mention producers in Spain, Greece, Poland if not Macedonia. That conversation is also on the table now. For the first time, so is Germany, and on the medical side.
Pharmaceutical producers in particular who meet international pharma standards may be the best hope yet – although right now policy makers are still looking at cars rather than cannabis to help keep Germany’s trade export quota where it feels “comfortable” domestically.
That too will change. And fairly quickly. See Greece, if not South Africa.
The political roil of branding and politics afoot in Germany right now makes this new kind of export market idea as a part of economic development, an inevitability.
Not to mention, at least for the present, a reverse trade in regulated British CBD products – if producers are smart about regulations – throughout the continent right now.
Of all countries, outside Switzerland, the UK has the ability to develop a broad and intriguing market in the EU – but only if they are compliant with regulations in Europe.
And this is where the policy makers in Parliament and 10 Downing Street have already misjudged if not broadly misled, not in a regulatory environment of their own, but in fact in a diplomatic “room” where the rules are already set via international standards and certifications, not to mention treaties.
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