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How Coronavirus is Affecting the International Cannabis Industry

By Marguerite Arnold
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Frankfurt: Germany right now is not the worst place to be as a global pandemic closes borders and leads predictably to mass change overnight, which is unparalleled during peacetime. But it is still eerie. Berlin and Cologne are starting to close public spaces (like restaurants, bars and clubs).

The grocery stores and pharmacies are still stocked and open however- it is a national priority.

On Germany’s borders, Europe is closing in a way it has not since WWII. The EU is considering banning all non EU “foreigners” from entering the region for nonessential reasons for the next 30 days – albeit in an environment where leaders are also concerned about making sure supplies get through to those who need them.

It also feels like wartime – only this time the “enemy” is a virus. It is called COVID-19, and it is spreading. It cannot be “stopped” although authorities are now doing everything they can to slow it down. At risk are not only populations but also vulnerable health care systems. The goal here is to prevent masses of sick people showing up at hospital. There will not be enough space for everyone if the rapid spread of the virus is not stopped, starting with beds and ventilators. In Italy, doctors are already triaging patients (deciding, in an overwhelming influx of sick patients, who has a chance of living and who does not), because there is a shortage of staff, beds and medical devices for those who need the most care.

The German government, in particular, is clearly prioritizing slowing down the spread and mitigating the load on a system that is strong, but also vulnerable to this kind of existential overload. Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister, sounded the alarm early about mass gatherings. The country’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has promised to throw “Germany’s arsenal” (funding) to help German organizations hit hardest.

But that is just one country. Italy is in lockdown, Spain is on its way this week, and many others are closing borders. In Switzerland, as of this weekend, the only shops that were open were pharmacies and grocery stores. To get in, you must wait in line outside, spaced 1 meter from other people, and use hand sanitizer as you enter.

These are not privations that any generation alive today remembers viscerally. The closest is stories, perhaps second or third hand, of what life was like here during wartime.

Both China and now Germany have sent medical supplies to Italy (the worst affected country in Europe so far), and a German company is on the front lines of producing a vaccine which is likely to be ready for human trials as of June.

What Is The Impact On The Cannabis Industry Specifically?

But how does all of this impact the global cannabis industry, especially as it is an industry still very much and by design, built on international imports? Throughout the world, including the United States, cannabis-related trade shows, expos and conferences are all being either cancelled or rescheduled to June at the earliest. President Trump also instituted a European travel ban, although this will not have much effect on the industry here, since Germany imports cannabis from Canada, not the U.S. for its medical market.

The connection to the industry from the threat of the virus itself is also on display. In Illinois, for example, some dispensaries are giving priority to their medical patients, shutting the doors to recreational customers. Just months after legalizing recreational sales, the state is now telling dispensaries to discourage crowds and prevent customers from lining up. That is not so far the case in Europe where cannabis is slowly being normalized into the regular pharmacy system. But pharmacies are also on the front lines of this epidemic – not only in that they serve front-line customers, but also deliver medicines to retirement homes.

German authorities have already suggested that they nationalize medical supply chains from Asia for vital medical supplies, including presumably vaccines and other medications as well as medical equipment, like ventilators.

Clinical trials, fast-tracked vaccine production and new drug approvals are evidence of how quickly governments can work to produce new treatment options. Countries still hampered by the slow pace of cannabis reform should look at how a global health crisis has allowed governments to bypass certain areas of red tape, untethered by high prices in developing supply chains. While cannabis reform is indeed not the same as a global pandemic, it has the ability to save lives regardless. That ability should be enough impetus for quick reform, much like actions taken by governments so far during this crisis. Not to mention the fact that many cannabis patients are also the demographic of who is most vulnerable in this epidemic – the chronically ill and the elderly.

The International Cannabis Business Is Built on Global Supply Chains

In the U.S. right now, there is a significant concern about sourcing of the vaping industry (the vast majority come from Asia). In Europe this is of course far less of an issue. The only vapes of medical designation produced here are made by German Storz and Bickel.

However, there are other considerations. Right now, more cannabis is being imported than grown in Germany legally, Europe’s still largest medical market. And so far, most of the cannabis here is coming in from Canada, Holland or Portugal although domestic production has now been seeded from Greece and Malta to countries further east. There is only one entity (the former Wayland in partnership with the German Demecan) who is now even certified to produce in Germany.

Wash your hands, limit social interaction and cancel large events. Stock markets around the globe are in free fall as investors fear the crisis will plunge the global economy into a recession. This obviously affects publicly traded companies, as well as companies looking for capital. Expect the larger cannabis companies to continue taking bigger hits on their stock price.

But while borders are being closed all over Europe to people, emergency medical supplies and the like will increasingly be given priority.

How countries begin to view cannabis in this kind of epidemic is another question. It is certainly a drug of last resort right now, highly expensive and in many cases going to the elderly and those in palliative care. For this reason alone, cannabis companies need to step up to the plate. This industry is being built to serve the chronically ill. In other words, those people who are already most vulnerable to this virus.

But how to do that? Dronabinol (manufactured in Germany) is no longer the only option now available. It was patented as a direct response to the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. But in a country with other options now, this is also on the plate.

So what can cannabis companies do during this time of crisis? For starters, read the guidelines on how companies can do their part to mitigate the spread of disease. Wash your hands, limit social interaction and cancel large events. Consider using in-store pickup or delivery options, where legal. And use telecommunications platforms like Skype or other remote cloud solutions to manage your workforce remotely.

Cannabis companies ought to have the wherewithal to do their part in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. As the global pandemic continues to spread outside of China (the only place where new infections are now levelling off), it’s increasingly important to monitor the situation and take extra precautions to mitigate the spread.

The Ultimate Guide to Intellectual Property Protection for Cannabis Businesses

By Roger Bora
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As of this writing, one cannot register trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for cannabis products and services that “touch” the cannabis plant (i.e., cultivate, manufacture or dispense cannabis products), with the recent exception for certain hemp-based products and services, because use of trademarks must be lawful under federal law for federal trademark registration eligibility. Brand owners may, however, secure federal trademark registration protection for their brand names for certain cannabis-related products and services that are currently legal under federal law in advance of what could be the full legalization of cannabis at the state and federal levels.

Federal trademark registration provides brand owners with valuable benefits beyond common law (unregistered) and state registered trademark rights, including the preservation of national expansion rights and presumption of trademark ownership and validity. For those reasons, securing federal trademark registration protection for trademarks is a prudent business strategy.

This article summarizes certain laws and regulations for securing federal trademark registration protection for cannabis products (including cannabidiol (CBD) products) and services. It also identifies other forms of intellectual property protection for  cannabis businesses.

What Are Cannabis, Marijuana, Hemp and CBD?

  • Cannabis is a plant of the Cannabaceae family and contains many biologically active chemical compounds, including the well-known delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) compounds.
  • Parts of the Cannabis sativa plant are controlled under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) under the drug class “marijuana.” The CSA is a federal law that regulates drug policy for the manufacture, importation, possession, use and distribution of certain substances. Marijuana is currently listed as an illegal Schedule I drug under the CSA, along with cocaine and heroin, due to its high potential for abuse, which is attributable mainly to the psychoactive effects of THC and the absence of a currently accepted medical use in the United States.
  • Marijuana, a term the CSA uses, is the dried leaves of the cannabis plant. It is derived from the cannabis sativa and cannabis indica species and is used primarily as a psychoactive drug.
  • Hemp is derived only from the cannabis sativa species and has historically been grown primarily for its strong fibers used for industrial purposes, including for making fabrics, clothing and rope.
  • There is a significant difference between marijuana and hemp with respect to their concentration of THC, which gives the plant its psychoactive effect. While marijuana can reach THC levels of 30%, THC levels in hemp are typically 0.3% or less.
  • The low level of THC in hemp is a reason why federal authorities recently removed it from the legal definition of marijuana, which means that cannabis plants and derivatives such as CBD derived from hemp that contain 0.3% or less of THC on a dry-weight basis are no longer considered controlled substances under the CSA.
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) is an active ingredient in the cannabis plant and is derived primarily from the hemp plant. CBD has been touted for its many health benefits, including for the treatment of insomnia, pain and anxiety, and it has become a widely used ingredient in many types of products, including foods, cosmetics, building materials, industrial oils, plastics and textiles.

Relevant Laws and Regulations

Controlled Substances Act (CSA)

Under the CSA, the drug class marijuana is defined as “all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds or resin” (subject to certain exceptions). 21 U.S.C. §802(16).

The CSA prohibits, among other things, manufacturing, distributing, dispensing or possessing cannabis that meets the definition of marijuana, including CBD derived from marijuana.

2018 Farm Bill Removes Hemp from the Definition of Marijuana

The 2018 Farm Bill signed into law on December 20, 2018, amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 and changed certain federal laws and regulations concerning the production and marketing of “hemp,” defined as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol [THC] concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

  • Those changes included removing hemp from the CSA’s definition of marijuana, which means that hemp and its derivatives, such as CBD derived from hemp, that contain no more than 0.3% THC on a dry-weight basis, are no longer controlled substances under the CSA.
  • The recent change in the classification of hemp allows brand owners that legally manufacture and sell certain hemp-based products, including certain hemp-derived CBD products, to federally register their associated trademarks.
  • However, the 2018 Farm Bill explicitly preserved FDA’s authority to regulate certain products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds, even if derived from hemp, including CBD derived from hemp. Thus, federal laws, including FDA regulations, must still be considered for product legality before introducing products into commerce.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Even with the removal of hemp from the CSA’s definition of marijuana, not all hemp-derived products are lawful following passage of the 2018 Farm Bill because certain products may still violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. For example, certain hemp-derived CBD products, including human foods, beverages, dietary supplements and animal foods, still violate FDA laws absent FDA approval.

The FDA monitors and investigates the sale of products that violate FDA laws, including CBD products promoted for therapeutic uses and treating diseases. When the FDA detects such violations, it may send warning letters to the violating parties as a first step in the enforcement process.

On December 20, 2018, the then FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. made the following statement on that point:

“We’ll take enforcement action needed to protect public health against companies illegally selling cannabis and cannabis-derived products that can put consumers at risk and are being marketed in violation of the FDA’s authorities. The FDA has sent warning letters in the past to companies illegally selling CBD products that claimed to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure serious diseases, such as cancer. Some of these products were in further violation of the FD&C Act because they were marketed as dietary supplements or because they involved the addition of CBD to food.”

Furthermore, in a recent letter to a company selling CBD products, the FTC sent a joint letter with the FDA, and that letter included the following statements and warnings:

  • “The FTC strongly urges you to review all claims for your products and ensure that those claims are supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.  Violations of the FTC Act may result in legal action seeking a Federal District Court injunction or Administrative Cease and Desist Order.  An order also may require that you pay back money to consumers.

  • You should take prompt action to correct the violations cited in this letter. Failure to promptly correct violations may result in legal action without further notice, including, without limitation, seizure and/or injunction.”

What about using hulled hemp seed, hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil in human food?

  • In December 2018, the FDA generally recognized as safe (GRAS) hulled hemp seed, hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil. Accordingly, the FDA’s current position suggests that those products may legally be marketed in human foods for the uses described in the notices, provided they comply with all other requirements. To date, the FDA has not received any GRAS notices for the use of hemp-derived ingredients in animal food.
  • Hemp seeds are the seeds of the Cannabis sativa plant. They do not naturally contain THC or CBD. The hemp seed-derived ingredients that are the subjects of the GRAS notices contain only trace amounts of CBD and THC. The FDA has reported that “[c]onsumption of these hemp seed-derived ingredients is not capable of making consumers ‘high.’”
  • Those GRAS conclusions do not affect the FDA’s position on the addition of CBD and THC to food.

U.S. Trademark Registration Eligibility

Trademarks Must Be Used for Lawful Activities

A trademark’s use must be lawful under federal law for federal trademark registration eligibility. Whether activities associated with cannabis and/or cannabis-related goods or services are lawful under federal law requires review of various federal laws, including the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Federal law controls federal trademark registration eligibility, period.

If a trademark application is filed for goods or services that violate federal laws, including for marijuana products and/or services or certain products that feature CBD, such as foods and nutritional supplements, the USPTO Examiner should refuse the application. Furthermore, filing an “intent-to-use” trademark application cannot obviate that refusal.

What does that mean? It means that filing a trademark application based on an “intent to use” the trademark “in the future” in anticipation of federal law legalizing cannabis still violates current law (the law as of the application filing date), and thus the application should be rejected because the applicant does not and cannot have a “bona fide intent” to use the applied-for mark for a legal purpose.

The USPTO Examination Guide 1-19 for examining cannabis marks states that:

“[r]egistration 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.”

The following is an excerpt from an issued Trademark Office action refusing registration of a mark on the basis the listed cannabis goods are unlawful:

“Registration is refused because applicant does not have a bona fide intent to lawfully use the applied-for mark in commerce.

To qualify for federal trademark/service mark registration, the use of a mark in commerce must be lawful. Gray v. Daffy Dan’s Bargaintown, 823 F.2d 522, 526, 3 USPQ2d 1306, 1308 (Fed. Cir. 1987) (stating that “[a] valid application cannot be filed at all for registration of a mark without ‘lawful use in commerce’”); TMEP §907; see In re Stellar Int’l, Inc., 159 USPQ 48, 50-51 (TTAB 1968); Coahoma Chemical Co., Inc. v. Smith, 113 USPQ 413 (Com’r Pat. & Trademarks 1957) (concluding that “use of a mark in connection with unlawful shipments in interstate commerce is not use of a mark in commerce which the [Office] may recognize.”). Thus, the goods and/or services to which the mark is applied must comply with all applicable federal laws. See In re Brown, 119 USPQ2d 1350, 1351 (TTAB 2016) (citing In re Midwest Tennis & Track Co., 29 USPQ2d 1386, 1386 n.2 (TTAB 1993) (noting that “[i]t is settled that the Trademark Act’s requirement of ‘use in commerce,’ means a ‘lawful use in commerce’”)); In re Pepcom Indus., Inc., 192 USPQ 400, 401 (TTAB 1976); TMEP §907.

Here, the items or activities to which the proposed mark will be applied are unlawful under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 21 U.S.C. §§801-971.”

USPTO Guidelines for Marijuana and Hemp Products: Key Takeaways

  • Trademark registrations for marijuana and marijuana by-products, including CBD derived from marijuana, are still unavailable.
  • Trademark registrations for certain hemp products are available. If an applicant’s goods are derived from hemp, as defined in the 2018 Farm Bill, the identification of goods must specify that they are derived from hemp and that the products contain less than 0.3% THC. Thus, the scope of the resulting registration will be limited to goods compliant with federal law.
  • Trademark applications covering certain CBD infused products, including foods, beverages, dietary supplements and pet foods, are still refused, even if derived from hemp, because such goods may not be introduced lawfully into commerce without FDA approval.
  • The USPTO is currently approving trademarks for skin care preparations and cosmetics that feature hemp ingredients, including CBD derived from hemp, as long as the application complies with the 2018 Farm Bill and USPTO filing requirements.
  • If a pending application’s filing date is prior to December 20, 2018 (the effective date of the 2018 Farm Bill), the applicant must amend the filing date to a date later than December 20, 2018 before the application may proceed. Once the date has been amended, a new search is conducted for any prior pending confusingly similar marks.
  • Trademark applications for hemp cultivation and production, if allowed, will require proof of authorization and licensure in accordance with a plan approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Federal Trademark Registration Considerations and Options

Although marijuana products and services (i.e., products and services that “touch the plant”) and certain hemp-based products are currently illegal under federal law, making their associated marks ineligible for federal trademark registration protection, there are still certain cannabis-related activities that are legal and thus eligible for federal trademark registration.

Examples of legal activities include:

  • Providing informational services related to cannabis or marijuana-related goods and services.
  • Clothing, including t-shirts and hats, featuring a cannabis-related trademark.
  • Educational programs in the fields of cannabis and CBD, including for health benefits and therapeutic uses of medical cannabis and CBD.
  • Providing an internet news portal featuring links to current events, information, commentary, non-downloadable publications in the nature of brochures, articles, and non-downloadable multimedia files containing video, audio or text in the fields of cannabis or cannabis news.
  • Online journals, namely blogs featuring information about cannabis.
  • Entertainment services, namely, providing podcasts featuring medical and industry experts in the field of cannabis and medical marijuana.

If a brand owner secures federal trademark registration protection for marks for legal activities, including those listed above, those trademark registrations and rights may arguably preserve future product and service expansion under the same registered mark for “related” goods and/or services that are unlawful as of the trademark application filing date, but later become lawful, including CBD infused foods and nutritional supplements and marijuana itself.

Why? Because trademark law protects consumers from “source confusion.”

  • For example, if a brand owner adopts the trademark N-DuraRun for running shoes, another party may not adopt the same or confusingly similar mark for running pants because consumers would likely be confused as to the source of running shoes and running pants if offered under the same trademark by different parties.
    • It is not confusion as to what a consumer is buying (“I thought I was buying running shoes… instead I mistakenly purchased running pants…”). Rather, it is confusion as to the source of the products (“I purchased EnDuraRun brand running pants because I thought they were made by the same company that makes N-DuraRun brand running shoes!”).
    • A question to ask is “Would the average consumer reasonably believe that the parties’ respective goods are of the type that would originate from the same source?”
      • If the answer is “yes” and if the parties’ respective marks are confusingly similar, there may be a likelihood of consumer confusion as to the source of the parties’ respective goods.

For example, if a company provides informational services in the field of cannabis and cannabis derivatives, including CBD infused foods, and/or provides foods and nutritional supplements featuring hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil, and it secures federal trademark registration protection for its trademark for those goods and/or services, that existing federal trademark registration and rights may arguably preserve the brand owner’s right to use and register the same mark for “related” goods and services, which could include CBD-infused foods and nutritional supplements if/when those goods become legal. That is so because the average consumer would arguably believe that informational services about CBD infused foods and CBD infused foods themselves would originate from the same source and also believe that foods and nutritional supplements featuring hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil and foods and nutritional supplements featuring hemp-derived CBD would originate from the same source.

Source confusion is the crux of trademark law.

Therefore, securing federal trademark registration protection now for goods and services that are lawful can preserve future trademark rights for cannabis-related products and services that are currently unlawful and may avoid losing valuable trademark rights to third parties.

As companies prepare for the potential federal legalization of all forms of cannabis, securing federal trademark registration now for brand names for goods and services that are currently legal is vital for protecting valuable company assets, current and future business opportunities, and future growth, and it is possible as long as brand owners understand the current status of the regulatory landscape and the intricacies of trademark law.

Other Forms of Intellectual Property Protection

In addition to trademark and federal trademark registration protection, there are other intellectual property protections available for marijuana, hemp and cannabis businesses, including:

  • State trademark filings. In states that have legalized cannabis, state trademark registrations may be available.
  • Common law trademark rights. In states that have legalized cannabis, common law trademark rights may be available.
  • Patent protection. Patent protection may be secured for various inventions, including plants, such as new strains of the cannabis plant, and methods of cannabis hydration and lighting.
  • Trade secrets. Trade secrets can protect certain aspects of a business, including formulas, processes or methods, that are not generally known or reasonably ascertainable by others and that can help a business obtain an economic advantage over competitors or customers. To be eligible as trade secrets, however, a business owner must take the necessary steps to legally protect them or they will be lost.
  • Copyrights. Copyright protection may be secured for certain company creative works, including trademark logos (artwork), written materials, photographs and software.

As the laws governing the cannabis industry continue to evolve, including trademark, FDA and banking laws and regulations, all interested parties, including cannabis business owners, law firms and investors, must stay abreast of the rapidly changing legal landscape to maximize business growth opportunities, ensure proper legal and regulatory compliance, and avoid having their businesses go up in smoke.


Notice: This article is for educational purposes only, is not legal advice and should not be substituted for retaining an attorney.

Khiron Life Sciences Makes Strategic Moves In South America

By Marguerite Arnold
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Khiron Life Sciences Corp. has played an interesting game globally for some time now. Far from a “high flier” in the first tiers of Canadian cannabis companies to watch, that may be changing. Not to mention, this fall, what exactly do these labels mean right now as almost all the first movers retrench and reconsider?

How and where Khiron’s influence will be felt however, is still very much a question in the air.

The big news? The company has obtained authorization from the Colombian government to commercialize high-THC cannabis, and further, for both domestic and international consumption.

There are several interesting things about this announcement.

The first is that Khiron inevitably got its domestic license to supply a 15,000-patient trial “at home” in Columbia (and for the prestigious Latin American Institute of Neurology and the Nervous System).

The second is that the company will also be exporting – and to where.

Uruguay is at the top of that list – starting with the fact that the country has had a “recreational market” that actually predates Canada’s. To import medical cannabis here in other words, is also an interesting statement in and of itself. Namely, what is wrong with domestically produced Uruguayan product? Even and especially in this case, for the medical market? (The answer of course has more to do with U.S. banking law than product quality).

The second is the UK where the company will also supply the patient trial there – Project Twenty21. This is even more intriguing considering that the NHS has just denied the efficacy of cannabis for treating neurological conditions and pain and only recently agreed that Sativex was “cost effective” after negotiating a lower bulk price with GW Pharmaceuticals made possible by the new NICE guidelines.

The third is Brazil – a growingly valuable market now firmly on the radar of those watching all things cannabis-related in the hemisphere.

Regardless, it shows that the lights are on in the executive suite at Khiron. The question is, will this early mover advantage pay off – and more interestingly, where?

A Hemispheric Play – But In Which Long Term Direction?

While the UK at least seems to be Brexiting itself off a cliff of free trade agreements with the world (and expect cannabis to be in the early room of conversation about commodities in this regard), is Latin American cannabis really price impactful in low price per gram Europe long term? Especially given the inclinations of a company whose CEO admits in press statements that he wants to be a “Starbucks of Cannabis” – selling not coffee beans at “80 cents a pound…” but rather a cup of coffee “for four dollars.”

That is a still-to-be answered question. Especially in an environment where the German government has announced its essential reference wholesale price for floss at €2.30 per gram (around four dollars American). Not to mention what is going on domestically in countries across the continent from Denmark and Portugal to Poland.

However, what all this positioning also does of course, is pose questions for Khiron’s intentions throughout the American hemispheres, both more locally and of course north of the Rio Grande (in the U.S. market) not to mention Canada.

This is the kind of reverse hemisphere play of course that everyone in North America has been expecting since Uruguay’s early market movement earlier in the decade. The great South American fruit and veg market is finally allowed to turn to legal production in the form of cannabis.

Is the “Drug War” finally in its last, dying days? The answer appears to be yes. Trade wars, inevitably, however, are looming. Protectionism in the cannabis industry may be a new flavour of the day but not in any other agricultural or indeed any other kind of commodity. And on this front, things are also likely to be fierce.

Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logo

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

By Marguerite Arnold
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Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logo

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.