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

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

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

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

Who, What, Where?

The first name in the room? Canopy Growth.Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logo

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

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

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

What Went Down At Canopy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has Nobody Seen This Coming?

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

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

Common Territories

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened At CannTrust And How Do Events Line Up?

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

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

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

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

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

Where Does This Get Interesting?

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

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

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

Is this coincidence or something else?

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

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

And further on a fairly existential basis.


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

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

Luxembourg Announces Plans For Two Year Transition To Recreational Use

By Marguerite Arnold
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For those who have been watching, Luxembourg has played an inordinately influential role on the entire cannabis discussion in Europe for the past year.

This summer, the country announced that it had plans to implement recreational use (for residents only) within two years.

Last summer, the country not only changed its medical use policy as the Deutsche Börse tried to halt the clearances of cannabis trades made in Germany (Luxembourg is the place where the stock trades clear), but set a five-year mandate and timeframe as well.

This new announcement certainly is an attempt to signal at any rate, that the government is not going to run out the clock. But, realistically, with the extra six months already in front of the start date necessary to enshrine the legislation, plus whatever complications arise after that, Luxembourg could initiate its market on January 1, 2022.

Or, as is more likely, it could not. Including rolling delays caused by everything from EU objection and internal logistical hurdles of other kinds to lack of access to product.

Refom Redux?

Will Luxembourg be the “Colorado of Europe?” Probably not.

Will Luxembourg “be the next Canada?” Probably not either. However it is also worth noting that legislators and lawmakers from Luxembourg have drawn recent inspiration via numerous fact finding trips to Canada of late.

It is also worth remembering that even Canada’s great, green, “well-oiled” cannabis machine delayed its recreational market start by months last year. And that was a scenario already a generation in the making.

Further, as some would argue this summer, certainly post CannTrust, the relative “speed” with which Canada embraced its recreational market is again being criticized for not only being precipitous but a direct cause of problems in financial compliance and tracking.

The lack of regulatory muster, in other words, that even allowed a CannTrust to happen, will not fly in Europe. Certainly not in a country where regulations, including that of the European kind, are decided upon (the other center of EU regmaking is of course Brussels).

For that reason, no matter how exciting the news to an industry fighting an uphill battle on medical efficacy, there is plenty of room to temper enthusiasm.

Luxembourg is not going to be “just like” anywhere seen so far. The needle has moved. And the conversation is morphing if not moving on.

One of the most intriguing aspects of all of this, of course, is how insurers will treat the entire discussion.

Holland Round 2?

Here is what Luxembourg also won’t be. A new tourist mecca for out of towners. At least according to the current discussion. How the government will prevent that, is of course unclear. The same grey areas exist in the law behind Barcelona’s social clubs. The Dutch have tried for most of this decade to discourage this – and have largely failed.

What it very well might be, however, is a catalyst for change.  A before and after moment if you will.

european union statesThe Swiss are moving ahead with recreational and medical trials. The British, whatever their relationship with the world after Halloween, are too.

Luxembourg, whatever it ends up being, in other words, is well timed, if nothing else, to be a reference point if not conversation starter about real reform.

Including of course, medical impact, if not, beyond that, efficacy.

Here is where Luxembourg might in fact, be much closer to the Dutch experiment than any other place. Despite the fact the country has had a coffee shop culture for over 30 years, and Dutch medical cannabis is exported to countries all over the world, here is what is missing in Holland: Medical health insurance coverage for patients. In fact, Dutch insurers, en masse, stopped reimbursing the drug as soon as Germany changed its insurance rules in March 2017.

If that is on the agenda for Luxembourg, in other words, no matter how exciting a timeline for recreational is anywhere in Europe, this will be a pyrrhic victory indeed.

CannTrust Meltdown Indicative Of Summer Of Scandal To Come

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

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

A Summary Of The Story So Far

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

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

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

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

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

A Surprise Or Inevitability?

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

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

And everyone knows it.

Accounting For Past Mistakes

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

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

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

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

Where Are The Proceedings?

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

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

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

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

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

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Frontline Pharmacy: The Battle For The Footprint of Medical Cannabis Europe

By Marguerite Arnold
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This summer, as new distributors continue to get into the cannabis game (in Germany, the UK and beyond), and at least two countries (Greece and Macedonia get GMP-certified), the battle is now on not just for cultivation and distribution licenses, but the end point of sale, pharmacies.

Pharmacies were always going to play a large role in cannabis distribution in Europe, starting with the fact that there will not be a separate “dispensary” system (as there is in the United States and Canada). Further, in some jurisdictions, notably Germany, the idea of the “apotheker” is one that is not going to go away anytime soon. No matter how intriguing the concept of online pharmacies actually are to everyone else (see the British).

Further, the shift to what is widely being referred to as “tele” or “digital” health is only going to increase in prevalence as discussions continue. Cost and access (to all medications, not just cannabis) are an issue near and dear to the average European. So is the right and consumer safety issues of being able to consult with a local pharmacist, who might even know you personally, and can advise on the health effects of the medicines they pass over the counter.

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Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

Jens Spahn, the current Health Minister of Germany, is touting a move to personal management of health records and digital prescriptions by next year. However, nobody knows exactly what that means, much less the functionality of the same.

Further, the German pharmacy situation in particular is one that has implications across Europe no matter how aggressively “digital health” solutions are implemented here. By law, no more than three (in some rare cases four) brick and mortar pharmacies can be owned by the same owner. There is no such thing as “Boots” (a British chain) or “Walgreens” (an American one).

Doc Morris, the Dutch online pharmacy, has always been an option for Germans just across the border. The problem of course is that insurers so far have been refusing to pay for critical parts of this idea. The company is currently experimenting with working with insurers- but do not expect the average chronically ill person in any country to suddenly get expedited access. So far, the only innovations in this market have hit as the privileges of the privately insured.

Second class status (and significantly lagging behind those with private healthcare) is also very much in the room as a political issue- and cannabis access has only sped this up.

If the scenario in the EU two years ago could be described as the race for import licenses and cultivation rights, this year, the focus of the big guys is very much trying to mainstream their product and get it on as many “shelves” as possible.

In Europe, however, since nobody can ship straight to the patient (as in Canada), the next most obvious step is securing access to pharmacies.

The Cannabis Industry Cometh

Even before Aphria announced its purchase of CC Pharma (one of Germany’s largest distributors)  in a deal that finally closed in January of this year, the larger companies have been looking for a more efficient supply chain situation. Owning a distributor is certainly one way to go about this.

Israeli Together bought into a large German distributor last summer.

As of May 2019, Aleafia Health and its wholly owned subsidiary, Emblem, entered a JV with Acnos Pharma GmbH – with access and reach to 20,000 German pharmacies. And Wayland announced its merger with ICC, with pharmacies across the world.

As early as October 2017, Tilray and Cronos together tried to storm the German market (by inking a deal to reach the 20k plus pharmacies in the German system). Two years later, and this still has not made a huge difference in access.

Regardless of these larger industry players, however, or perhaps so far because of their statements and the resulting continued lack of access for most patients, it is also fact, particularly in both Germany and the UK, that merely having relationships with pharmacies is not enough. This year, there is also a fairly major price drop in the cards for the cannabis industry. And while the larger players may blanket the market with relationships, actually providing access to GMP-certified medical cannabis at a decent if not competitive price, is going to continue to have an impact on every market, particularly in those situations where compliant online access can be connected to indie distribution.

It is also an environment where the advantage still does not necessarily go to the “big guys” – a strategy that Wayland, for one, has been playing strategically for the better part of the last two years better than any other Canadian in the market. Especially when supply chain issues, beyond price, are still in the room.

Right now, pharmacies are well aware of their growing influence in this space in Europe. How much of an influence they will continue to have however, also rests on how effectively they preserve their right to have such an influence on the end consumer (as in Germany) or not (see the many discussions about this issue in the UK right now).

Further, as many of these entities are also realizing, and this is true far beyond the cannabis discussion, pharmacies are increasingly caught in the middle between consumer, doctor and insurer (this is certainly the case both for cannabis and also for all expensive orphan drugs).

How the pharmacies, in other words, begin to solve other issues, beyond just having a contractual relationship with a cannabis distributor/producer, is very much a part of the conversation right now. Access to cannabis via distribution deals with a Canadian or even Israeli partner certainly helps sales but it does not guarantee them.

One thing is for certain. The impact of new privacy legislation is having an effect, so even in an environment where a distributor/producer buys a pharmacy, what they can then do with customer information they also might have been interested in purchasing, is not only highly limiting, but in the future it may be the best approach to handling liability, and from multiple directions that includes everything to access to affordable, certified product to cyber security issues.

US Patent & Trademark Office Issues Guidance for Trademarking CBD Products

By Aaron G. Biros
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Last week, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) published an Examination Guide to provide further clarity for how they assess the legitimacy of trademarks for cannabis products. For the uninitiated, the 2018 Farm Bill, which President Trump signed into law on December 20, 2018, removed hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act. In order to register a trademark in the United States, the mark must be used in a lawful setting, meaning that the USPTO does not register trademarks for products that violate federal law- even if it is legal under state law.

In their guidance document, the USPTO identifies the distinction between hemp and other cannabis varieties as the basis for either issuing or refusing a trademark registration. This means that in the trademark application, companies need to specify that the cannabis product is derived from hemp, or cannabis with less than 0.3% THC in dry weight.

The USPTO clarifies that applications for trademarks that involve CBD filed before December 20, 2018 will be refused, but if they amend the filing date to after that date, the registration will be examined. Below is a direct quote from their examination guide clarifying this:

For applications filed before December 20, 2018 that identify goods encompassing CBD or other cannabis products, registration will be refused due to the unlawful use or lack of bona fide intent to use in lawful commerce under the CSA. Such applications did not have a valid basis to support registration at the time of filing because the goods violated federal law. However, because of the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill, the goods are now potentially lawful if they are derived from “hemp” (i.e., contain less than 0.3% THC). Therefore, the examining attorney will provide such applicants the option of amending the filing date and filing basis of the application to overcome the CSA as a ground of refusal.

The USPTO’s Examination Guide explicitly mentions the authority of the FDA to regulate products derived from cannabis, much like the 2018 Farm Bill’s language. There is still some confusion in the cannabis industry surrounding the marketing and sale of hemp products under FDA regulation.

FDAlogoUnder the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), using a drug in a food or dietary supplement that is currently undergoing clinical trials is illegal (as is the case here- see Epidiolex for an example of CBD being used as an active ingredient in an FDA-approved clinical trial). According to the USPTO, this means that “registration of marks for foods, beverages, dietary supplements, or pet treats containing CBD will still be refused as unlawful under the FDCA, even if derived from hemp, as such goods may not be introduced lawfully into interstate commerce.”

Regarding trademarks for services involving “cannabis and cannabis production,” the USPTO also issued guidance. This section of the Examination Guide pertains to companies applying for a trademark that fall in the category of ancillary services, such as growing supply companies, lighting, nutrients, pest control and packaging, among other service providers. Basically, this section boils down to the same distinction the Farm Bill made between hemp and other varieties of cannabis. An applicant for a trademark needs to make clear their identification of services offered as involving cannabis containing less than 0.3% THC.

For a helpful guide breaking down what this means for cannabis companies pursuing a trademark registration, Christiane Schuman Campbell, partner at Duane Morris LLP, published this client alert about the USPTO’s examination guide.

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Why International Trade Agreements Are Shaping The Cannabis Industry

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

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

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

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

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

What Are MRAs?

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

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

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

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

What Are Mutual Recognition Agreements All About?

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

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

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

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

A Specialized Map Of Global Medical Cannabis Exporters

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

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

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

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

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

The Biggest News?

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

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

Marguerite Arnold

Canopy Growth Makes Multi-Billion Dollar Conditional Acquisition Deal

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

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.

Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logoIn 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.

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British Cannabis Firms Facilitate First Bulk Shipment of Cannabis Into UK

By Marguerite Arnold
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Move over Canopy Growth! Along with Aurora, Tilray, Wayland, Namaste and everyone else trying to break into the British cannabis market with authority. Ahead of all of them, a group of innovative start-ups just imported the first legal bulk medical shipment of cannabis into the country via a new entity designed to facilitate market access for such imports called Astral Health.

Jolly good show, as those on the ground due to benefit are no doubt thinking right now even if larger competitors are left in the proverbial cannadust for at least a few months.

That said, this is a larger gulf than it might otherwise be. Let’s not forget, Brexit, or etc. is due next month as Parliament disintegrates and Prime Minister Theresa May heads to Brussels for another fruitless round of “negotiations” that everyone except the occupants of Number 10 (Downing Street, the residence and office of the British government) seem to understand have gone nowhere for two years. What that does to firms entering the market, including in the cannabis space has yet to be understood.

On the Dutch side, the export was handled by the Office of Medical Cannabis. On the British side, the medicine will be sent to directly to pharmacies.

The cannabis will go to patients who have multiple sclerosis and chronic pain.UKflag

About The Companies Involved

Astral Health is a holding company and subsidiary of European Cannabis Holdings (ECH), which also worked alongside specialist pharmaceutical importer IPS Specials and another new start-up Grow Biotech, to bring the cannabis into the country legally.

Of all of them, ECH is perhaps the best known. It is a growingly influential investment company and one of the first (and few) “local” dedicated medical cannabis funds exclusively focused on the European space. ECH shares an office with Prohibition Partners, a cannabis consultancy and the organizer of Cannabis Europa, which just held a sell-out, standing room only conference in Paris. Both groups were also founded by Rob Reid, a Director of SOL Global, a Canadian listed cannabis company which has also made strategic investments of late – notably Greenlight Cannabis in Dublin, with a reach to 1,000 pharmacies across the UK and Ireland.

Most of the companies involved on the ground on this one, in other words, are start-ups. No matter the predominance of the larger Canadian companies in the news, the European cannabis space is starting not only to flourish, but do so in a way that is local, entrepreneurial, and in this case, ahead of the much larger, deeper-pocketed companies.

Niche Providers For Tense Times

In case anyone has forgotten, the deadline for Brexit is now in everyone’s immediate gunsights if not, before March, marked on the kitchen calendar. Even if it looks now like there might be a delay until 2021 or even another “people’s vote.”

Regardless of the outcome, the interim is going to be sticky going for some time.

And of course, imported cannabis, even from Holland, and even if fitting into “regular” unique medical ex-im categories, absolutely also faces this enormity of uncertainty as well. No matter how well the new trade pact with the United States (cunningly crafted to include pharmaceuticals) goes if and when Euro trade (including pharma and cannabis) falls off the cliff. There are also indications that the “emergency Brexit” medical stockpiles and emergency import routes now underway could conveniently aid the cannabis industry from the Euro side, as drugs and other essential medical supplies will be sourced from Belgium and sent into the UK through alternate routes to avoid Brexit delays and backlogs.

Just remember as the mess continues to devolve, no matter what happens, current British PM May is in a remarkably good position to benefit. Her husband, Philip May has been highlighted before for his financial involvement in both tech and cannabis pharmaceutical firms (see both Amazon and GW Pharmaceuticals which obtained the first medical cannabis import rights into the US for its CBD-based Epidiolex last year).

That is also why niche provision is such an interesting space in general in Europe, if not even more specifically the UK at present. No matter how unfair it also is to those who do not have the money to pay for their medication out of pocket (which is also in the cards as the NHS dithers if not disintegrates a little bit more). And in Europe that discussion is very pricey. Cannabis, without either public or private health insurance coverage to offset the cost, is unbelievably expensive. In the realm, right now, of as much as $3,000 a month at point of retail (pharmacies.) Those lucky enough to obtain pre-claim coverage however, pay as little as $12 for their monthly supplies.

In the UK right now, patients can obtain medical cannabis with a Schedule II prescription. However, just as in other legalizing countries in Europe, beyond price and approval issues, doctors have been reluctant to prescribe at all, and insurance approvals are complicated. Even before Brexit, supplies were scarce.

What happens come the end of March if the proverbial sheisehits the fan? That is a very good question. It is very likely that a patchwork of care networks will develop, driven by imports and the companies, if not families and patients behind them.

Regardless of what occurs in the daily particulars of politics, in other words, supply chain issues, particularly at the last mile, promise to be problems for some time to come. Even if all the hullaballoo over Brexit disappears in a wand waive of some Parliamentary fairy who magically appears in the nick of time and sprinkles dust over every MP making everyone come to their senses before Cliff Date arrives.

The Brexit Referendum
Image: Mick Baker, Flickr

Even in Germany, the struggle between patients and pharmacies in terms of supply, and further, supply matching prescription, are far from over two years into “legalization by insurance approval.”

It is very likely, in other words, that the specialized care required for timely import of cannabis in the UK in particular – no matter where it is sourced after Brexit – will require the unique kinds of knowledge that only British- or EU-based, highly focused start-ups can bring, at least in the immediate interim. For this reason, look for a lot of innovative “service focused” start-ups to come out of the next phase of both European and post Brexit cannabis industry developments.

And, as a result, more than a few surprise market entrant hybrids increasingly founded and sourced with both European and UK partners.


Disclaimer: ECH is a sponsor of MedPayRx’s go to market pilot program.

The Impact of The Trump-Brexit Trade Deal On The Cannabis Industry

By Marguerite Arnold
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For those in the cannabis industry who have missed the latest “Trump Trade Deal“- this time with the UK, don’t slumber too long before at least getting a summary update soon.

The implications of the agreement, which U.S. President Donald Trump sees as great for business (namely increasing access to the UK market for pricey U.S. pharmaceuticals) are not uniformly welcomed everywhere, and for various reasons.

President Donald J. Trump Image: Michael Vadon, Flickr

The impact, however, on the U.S. cannabis industry, and beyond that, both the Canadian and burgeoning European one, will be significant, no matter what happens with the details of Brexit. There are a number of scenarios that might play out at this point. And how they do will certainly direct the future of the cannabis industry as it develops in the UK.

The one piece of good news out of all of this is that the industry will also certainly continue to flourish no matter what- and no matter where the product comes from. Even a hard Brexit will not roll the prohibition clock back.

Brexit Might Not Happen
There is this recurrent fantasy still in the room that the status quo will be retained just because (fill in the blank), but generally motivated by facing realities caused by basic survival. Let’s indulge it for a moment, presuming that British Prime Minister Theresa May does not survive her leadership post and Parliament comes to its collective senses. All of the splits right now in both the Labour and Conservative parties over the looming disaster continue to complicate things. Failing a hard Brexit disaster, however, look for things like “customs unions” and all sorts of “exemptions” to make the entrance into the UK for European food and medicine a permanent backstop. See the just announced Belgian-based emergency supply drop and alt import routes into the UK as just one example of what is likely to develop no matter what. This will also conveniently prevent the UK from starving and running out of medicine.

The Brexit Referendum
Image: Mick Baker, Flickr

In other words, the trade deal will not do much to those cannabis firms who get into the market and reach end users with highly competitive pricing and smart entry strategies. U.S. producers and Canadians importing product across the Atlantic will lose on price to both homegrown British, Irish and EU produced crop. European producers will be far more competitive than U.S. firms just because pre-negotiated drug prices are not going anywhere anytime soon in the rest of Europe.

March Madness
On the EU side of things, countries are prepping for worst case Brexit. It is, after all, just next month. Which is now less than a week away from starting. This means that anything related to ex-im, no matter the “trade deals” in place, is going to face delays, problems and paperwork of the additional kind. Inevitably. Even if it is just confused customs personnel uncertain of the new rules. Whatever those are. Or even if there are new rules and routes. Borders, even without walls, are respected at least in Europe.

Short of dedicating the new runway at Heathrow exclusively to food and drug imports of the emergency kind, however there is no way to avoid a few predictable and looming shortage crises. There is friction in other words, in every direction. Cannabis producers will not get a pass.

The Deal Is Aimed At Destroying The NHS
On the British side of the discussion, the new UK-US trade deal has not been popular since it surfaced last summer. Why? The government would either significantly water down or lose entirely the ability to pre-negotiate drug prices in bulk (and thus hold drug company profits down). That means no more “public” health care. That alone may cause social unrest. Particularly given the shrewd marketing of the Leave Campaign that promised to “save” the NHS. Perhaps the criminal inquiries into the politically dodgy social media campaigning and fundraising techniques used to trigger the entire mess will manage to do in the courts what Parliament so far refuses to face. Then again, maybe not. American cannabis producers in particular face no particular “wins” here in the current regulatory environment. Cost is still going to be an issue.

The Business Bottom Line
Beyond the morality of this (let alone Trump or Brexit beyond that) there is the business analysis of the deal. It could well be good for some American pharmaceutical companies, although that is still a big if along the other ones. People have to be able to afford their meds, particularly if the NHS (or private insurers) do not pay.

That does not count out the cannabis industry at this point. See Tilray, for starters. Also remember that the first details of this deal began to be discussed last summer – right before GW Pharmaceuticals began exporting Epidiolex into the U.S.

Cannabinoids, in other words are already in the room, and might in fact have been a figleaf gesture, President to Prime Minister, where at least in the latter case, May has now personally benefitted financially, all along. No matter what happens with Brexit. Or even if there is one. This is not the first time Trump has used the cannabis card to further political means. See the delay of Israeli cannabis to the global market for two years in exchange for moving the Israeli capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem just one year ago.

The U.S. and Canada Still Face Stiff EU Cannabis Competition
How well will American (or only Canadian based producers) compete with EU-produced medical cannabis? That is now a very interesting question, not only for the European-based cannabis market but that based in the UK. It is hard to imagine pharmaceutical cannabis produced in either the U.S. or Canada right now competing with that which is more locally grown. Even the big Canadian LPs have conceded to that. Canopy, let’s not forget, is growing in Spain. Tilray is in Portugal. And that by now, is just the tip of the iceberg. Not to mention, of course, that the UK just saw its first bulk import from Holland.

Bottom line, no matter how proud President Trump and the PM are over their “deal” and indeed, whether the larger disaster will actually occur to trigger it, end users also known as patients are going to look for options based on price and accessibility. And the companies who succeed here are going to have to look for ways to address that.

Wayland Group Makes European Waves

By Marguerite Arnold
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While it is news that Wayland Group has just signed a definitive production agreement in Italy with a local CBD producer (Factory S.S. – a subsidiary of Group San Martino), it is not that Wayland has been establishing itself in Europe for the past two years.

Nor is it surprising that the new Italian plant (named CBD Italian Factory) will feature world-class cleantech production technology (fuelled by biogas). Even more intriguingly the joint venture also includes a relationship with the University of Eastern Piedmont, which is developing a research center to study the development of cannabinoid products for both animals and people.

Why not?Europe is far from the only region on Wayland’s global expansion map.

Wayland has been establishing itself in an interesting way as the company expands globally that distinguishes its corporate strategy from its other cannabis competitors. It was only April of this year, after all, that Wayland received its ex-im license to ship dried cannabis flower from Canada to Germany. At a time when the company also used to be known as Maricann. That corporate name change happened this year too, as the company continues to build its global brand in very interesting if far-flung markets.

A Busy Fall So Far

Europe is far from the only region on Wayland’s global expansion map. In the first week of November, in fact, the company also signed an agreement to buy 100% of Colma Pharmaceutical SAS, a Columbian-licensed producer of THC. This will be an outdoor THC play, and produce two crops a year. They also just announced a land acquisition in Argentina to begin cultivating cannabis there as well.

In October, the company announced not only plans to raise $50 million, but also brought on three new board members with significant European legal and business experience (including M&A and access to equity markets). This includes the company’s first female board member, Birgit Homburger, based in Berlin.

And this is on top of its record-breaking hemp harvest in Germany, which outperformed internal forecasts by a factor of 2. This is an important benchmark domestically, as German cultivation licenses will require successful firms to prove they can bring large quantities of flower to market successfully and repeatedly.

A Marked Interest In Cannatech

Like many firms, Wayland is already showing a marked interest in new cannabis technologies, in particular, innovative cultivation solutions, but not limited to the same. In August, the company unveiled its first product launch in Europe – a soft gel with 25mg of CBD that utilizes multi-patented technology allowing optimum absorption and bioavailability. Its German unveiling is significant because the insurance and medical industries here are unclear about dosing. That lack of clarity is also now holding back policy and underwriting issues, including the approval of medical cannabis in the first place.

These capsules, a non-medical product and marketed under the name “Mariplant” were first shipped to pharmacies in both the Munich and Cologne area in the late summer.It has continued to expand both its Canadian and foreign as well as tech expansions ever since.

The Road So Far

The company, which started with a facility in Langton, Canada in 2013, earned a license from Health Canada to sell cannabis extracts in early 2016. By December of that year (a good four months before the German cultivation bid was announced) Maricann GmbH was formed in Munich. By March, the month before the cultivation bid was first announced, the company began retrofitting the Ebersbach facility, near Dresden.

In April of 2017, Maricann went public. It has continued to expand both its Canadian and foreign as well as tech expansions ever since.

While not a “high flier” on the stock market (like competitors Tilray, Canopy and Aurora), the company is carefully plotting its position in a global market that is still very much a “blue ocean” opportunity.

It is also carefully plotting a path into both production and delivery systems that are optimized by tech in a universe that is rapidly upgrading not only its image, but finding ways to prove if not justify medical efficacy.