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Flower-Side Chats Part 7: A Q&A with Max Goldstein, CEO of Union Electric and Founding Partner at OpenNest Labs

By Aaron Green
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In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulations, supply chain and consumer demand.

The California legal flower market is the largest in North America. According to recent BDSA data, monthly cannabis sales in January 2021 were $243.5 million. Flower sales represented 35.6% of overall sales, or about $87 million, representing a $1 billion yearly run rate for 2021 flower sales in California.

Union Electric was founded in California in 2020 as one of OpenNest Labs’ first incubator brands. Its model is uniquely asset-light, and focused on filling an area of opportunity with a consumer-first approach, aimed at an underserved market: the working-class customer. The name Union Electric was inspired by the punching-in and punching-out aspect of working a union job — more specifically, the average cannabis user’s job. The name also represents the brand’s union of stakeholders: Customers, cultivators and retailers alike, working together to provide affordable, quality products.

Max Goldstein is the CEO of Union Electric and Founding Partner at OpenNest Labs. Max incubated Union Electric at OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio he helped co-found, and launched the brand in 2020 the day after COVID lockdowns began in California. Prior to Union Electric, Max worked at Google managing a 90 person, 12-market partnerships team.

Aaron Green: How did you get into the cannabis industry?

Max Goldstein: I’ve had a fun entrepreneurial and professional journey.  I started my career in my 20s with Google working in the marketing department sitting at the intersection of new product development and customers. During that time, I really learned the ins and outs of bringing products to market and building brands. I had to understand how to value and champion the customer, or the user. At Google, I was sitting at the intersection of people building products that are affecting billions of people’s lives and users and customers that potentially have really cool insights and feedback. It was an incredible learning experience. I was able to focus on what I’m good at, which is that early stage of businesses and most importantly, listening to the consumer and developing products and services that they ultimately really want.

Max Goldstein, CEO of Union Electric and Founding Partner at OpenNest Labs

Near the end of 2018, I co-founded OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio. We came together as a four-person partnership to form OpenNest, as an assortment of skill sets, with all of us contributing an area of focus that we could really combine our experiences to take focused and concerted efforts at building brands that resonate with different consumers across various form factors in cannabis and health. My partner Tyler Wakstein has been in the cannabis industry for several years and helped launch the brand, hmbldt (which is now Dosist) and a number of other projects in the cannabis space.

Green: Was Union Electric an incubation project out of OpenNest?

Goldstein: Yes. Union Electric is the first project we incubated out of OpenNest. We launched the day after the pandemic. So, it was interesting timing.

At Union Electric we’re focused on the core, everyday consumer of cannabis. I think a lot of folks, particularly the new money that have come into the industry, have often focused on new form factors or things that they think the new cannabis consumer is going to enjoy or appreciate. Because quite frankly, that’s their level of familiarity with the industry. For us at Union Electric, we want to hit the end of the market with exactly what they want and that is high-potency, affordable flower with a brand that really stands for something and has values.

Union Electric is positioned as an advocate for the legal cannabis industry as a whole. We look at the stakeholders and the work that needs to be done across the board. The idea of just being one member of the value chain and not trying to ultimately uplift and elevate everyone in that value chain, it’s just not going to work in cannabis. We’ve seen a lot of people trying to go at this alone and I think the pandemic, if anything, showed that you’re only as good as your partners. We truly believe that the investment in our partners, in the local communities and everyone that’s really touching this industry is critical to ultimately building success for one company because a rising tide raises all ships.

Green: How did you settle on the name Union Electric?

Goldstein: One of the things that we wanted to do was focus the brand on who we see as the core consumer, which is somebody that is working hard, like a shift worker punching in and punching out and putting in the long hours on a daily basis and using cannabis as a critical part of their personal wellness and relief. There are elements of that which we certainly want to tap into. The “Union” represents our stakeholder approach, which is, all of us are in this together and our tagline “roll together” represents that. The “Electric” part is what we’ve seen cannabis sort of representing culturally, and for people more broadly. This is an exciting product that’s going to change a lot of people’s lives and, and I just don’t think there’s anything else in our lifetimes that we’re necessarily going to be able to work on from a consumer-packaged goods perspective, that’s going to change as many people’s lives. It’s electric. That’s how we came up with the name.

The coloring and a lot of the brand elements that we focused on were about providing transparency and simplicity to the marketplace: big font and bold colors. There are little nuances with our packaging, like providing a window just so people can see the flower on our bags. We look at the details and made sure that we’re ultimately out of the way of the consumer and what they want, but providing that vehicle that they’re really comfortable with.

Green: You have an asset-light business model, focusing on brand and partnerships. How did you come to that model?

Goldstein: I think everyone who’s operating and working in cannabis right now is looking at strategy and what the model is that’s going to work for them. We’re ultimately going to find out what works, which is why this industry is so fun and exciting. Our specific approach is really under the assumption that vertical integration in a market that’s maturing as quickly as California is going to be hard, if not impossible – it’s just too competitive. There are too many things going on in order to be successful in California. You have to be really good at cultivation, really good at manufacturing, really good at distribution, and then ultimately, you have to be able to tell a story of that process to ensure sell-through and that you really resonate with the consumer.

I think the big, missed opportunities that we’re seeing are that a lot of great cultivators are not marketers or storytellers. They really do need people that are there to help amplify and provide transparency to their stories. There are amazing stories out there of sacrifice and what cultivators have done to create a new strain. We all enjoy Gelato. What’s the process to make that happen or to create any other new strain? It’s fascinating. It’s too hard for a lot of these cultivators to go out and tell that story themselves. So, we act as a sales and marketing layer on top of the supply chain to provide visibility, transparency and trust with the consumer so that they know who grew their product, how it was grown, when it was cultivated and that they can build a real strong relationship with that cultivator as well.

It’s also hard to be a brand that’s using 19 different suppliers, selling the same genetics and expecting the same results. As an example, we’ve gotten Fatso from one of our partners, Natura. We’ve also gotten Fatso from Kind Op Corp (fka POSIBL). We renamed one of the strains – by adding a number on the end – just so that the consumer knew that we’re not saying that this is the same product, because it’s not. It’s from a different farmer and there’s going to be differences. While it does create a little bit more complexity for the consumer, we ultimately believe that every consumer has a right and will expect to know that type of information in the future.

Green: You launched Union Electric one day after the COVID lockdowns began in California. How did you navigate that landscape?

OpenNest Labs Logo

Goldstein: A lot of praying to the cannabis gods! It was really an incredibly challenging and difficult time. We were all concerned about the impacts of the virus. There were moments where we didn’t even know if dispensaries would be open, particularly in states that just legalized. You went from something being completely illegal to an essential business in 12 months. As a team, we were just trying to hold on to our hats and focus on product and partnerships.

Fortunately, with a brand like ours and the price point that we’re operating at, we just needed to consistently be on the shelves and available, and to be present with the bud tenders. So, we focused on that and shoring up our supply chain and just trying to wait it out. COVID forced a lot of cannabis companies to make a lot of decisions quickly and I think in some ways, because we have not been in the market for 24 months under one paradigm, we were pretty quick to be able to adjust and keep the team super lean to fit the emerging and rapidly changing environment. We learned a lot. We focused on partnerships and we leaned into the model that we set out to build which is being asset-light and focusing on the sell-through.

Green: I understand you have a 2% giveback program. Tell me about that.

Goldstein: The 2% giveback program was something that we wanted to put on the bag from day one. It’s on every bag that we made and put out into the market. We’ve seen a lot of cannabis companies come in and invest tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure. Then, month 24 they realize “oh, crap, I gotta figure out what I’m going to do to get back and actually tap into the issues that are most important to cannabis consumers.” These are issues like social equity, equitable development of the industry, and ensuring that cannabis companies and its owners are active, responsible members of society.

What we’re going to focus on with our giveback program is working with our supply chain partners. We highlight the local communities, because when you look at the landscape in California, two thirds of its municipalities still don’t allow cannabis operations. We’re in a heart and minds battle still, even here in California, just proving that the operators here are not criminals and that they’re not going to bring negativity to local communities.

As we scale in California and scale to other states, the giveback program for us is a platform and a medium to work with our supply chain partners to make sure that we’re giving back and investing every step of the way. As founders and operators, it’s how we show that we are being mindful of the importance of equitable development of the industry. Ultimately, prosperity is going to come if everyone is getting a piece of the pie.

Green: What are you most interested in learning about?

Goldstein: I’m a student of history (I was a history major) and I was very fortunate to be part of a big evolution of technology development starting in 2011 working at Google and other tech companies. In some ways, this is the second generational industry that I’ve been a part of, and I have a lot of regrets about how the first one developed – not that I necessarily was the chief decision maker. The idea that large tech companies would always act responsibly (i.e. “Don’t be evil”) didn’t really pan out. I think it was an ignorant thought process as a person in my young 20s.

What I’m most interested in learning is: Can the cannabis industry develop consciously? Can you keep the greed and the things that bring industries down at bay? How can I, as an operator, be the best facilitator of that future? I’m always thinking how I can continue to bring in the people around us and around me as the CEO of Union Electric to ensure that we’re always focused on that.

Green: Great, that concludes the interview. Thank you, Max.

Goldstein: Thanks Aaron. 

From Union Electric: Union Electric Cannabis will be offering their first Regulation CF crowdfund raise in an effort to give everyday consumers a stake in one of California’s fast growing cannabis brands. Due to the ever-evolving legal status of cannabis in the US, there have been very few opportunities for individuals to invest early on in American cannabis brands. This decision to give everyday cannabis smokers access to investing in their favorite cannabis brand (for as little as $100) is a natural manifestation of Union Electric’s mission: Collective power and championing accessibility for the plant. You can learn more about their raise by visiting https://republic.co/union-electric

photo of outdoor grow operation

The 2020 Global Cannabis Regulatory Roundup

By Marguerite Arnold
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photo of outdoor grow operation

As a strange year heads to a final, painful finish, there have been some major (and some less so) changes afoot in the global world of cannabis regulation. These developments have also undoubtedly been influenced by recent events, such as the recent elections in the United States, state votes for adult use reform in the U.S. and the overall global temperature towards reform. And while all are broadly positive, they have not actually accomplished very much altogether.

Here is a brief overview of the same.

The UN Vote On Cannabis
Despite a wide celebration in the cannabis press, along with proclamations of an unprecedented victory by large Canadian companies who are more interested in keeping their stock prices high than anything else, the December 2 vote on cannabis was actually fairly indecisive.

Following the WHO recommendations to reschedule cannabis, the UN voted in favor of the symbolic move. Despite removing cannabinoids from Schedule IV globally, a regulatory label designed for highly addictive, prescription drugs (like Valium), the actual results on the ground for the average company and patient will be inconclusive.

The first issue is that the UN did not remove cannabinoids themselves, or the plant, from Schedule I designation. This essentially means that countries and regions will be on the front lines to create more local, sovereign policies. This is not likely to change for at least the next several years (more likely decade) as the globe comes to terms with not just a reality post-COVID-19, but one which is very much pro-cannabis.

In the meantime, however, the ruling will make it easier for research to be conducted, for patient access (for the long term), and more difficult for insurers to turn down in jurisdictions where the supposed “danger” of cannabis has been used as an excuse to deny coverage. See Germany as a perfect example of the same.

It is also a boon for the CBD business, no matter where it is. Between this decision and the recent victory in Europe about whether CBD is a narcotic or not (see below), this is another nail in the coffin for those who want to use semantic excuses to restrain the obvious global desire for cannabinoids, with or without THC.

The U.S. Vote On The MORE Act

While undoubtedly a “victory” in the overall cannabis debate, the MORE Act actually means less rather than more. It will not become law as the Senate version of the bill is unlikely to even get to the floor of the chamber before the end of the session – which ends at the end of this year.

The House voted 228 to 164 to pass the MORE Act.

That said, the vote is significant in that it is a test of the current trends and views towards big issues within the overall discussion, beginning with decriminalization and a reform of current criminal and social justice issues inherent in the same. The Biden Administration, while plagued with a multitude of issues, beginning with the pandemic and its immediate aftershocks, will not be able to push both off the radar. Given the intersection of minority rights’ issues, the growing legality of the drug and acceptance thereof, as well as the growing non-partisan position on cannabis use of both the medical and adult use kind, and the economy, expect issues like banking to also have a hope of reform in the next several years.

Cannabis may be taking a back seat to COVID, in other words, but as the legalization of the industry is bound up, inextricably, in economic issues now front and center for every economy, it will be in the headlines a great deal. This makes it an unavoidable issue for the majority of the next four years and on a federal level.

Prognosis in other words? It’s a good next federal step that is safe, but far from enough.

The European Commission (EC) Has Finally Seen The Light On CBD

One of the most immediately positive and impactful decisions of the last month was absolutely the EC decision on whether CBD is a narcotic or not.

This combined with the UN rescheduling, will actually be the huge boost the CBD industry has been waiting for here, with one big and still major overhanging caveat – namely whether the plant is a “novel” one or not. It is unlikely as the situation continues to cook, that Cannabis Sativa L, when it hits a court of law, will ever be actually found as such. It has inhabited the region and been used by its residents for thousands of years.

However, beyond this, important regulatory guidance will need to fall somewhere on the matter of processing and extraction. It is in fact in the processing and extraction part of the debate that this discussion about Novel Food actually means something, beyond the political jockeying and hay made so far.

Beyond this of course, the marketing of CBD now allowed by this decision, will absolutely move the topic of cannabinoids front and center in the overall public sphere. That linked with sovereign experiments on adult use markets of the THC kind (see Holland, Luxembourg and Denmark as well as Portugal and Spain right after that), is far from a null sum game.

Legal Challenges Of Note

The European Court of Human Rights

Against this changing regulatory schemata, court cases and legal decisions remain very important as they also add flavor to how regulations are interpreted and followed. The most important court case in Europe right now is the one now waiting to be decided in the Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg regarding the human rights implications of accessing the plant.

Beyond that, in Germany, recent case law at a regional social benefits court (LSG) has begun to establish that the cannabis discussion is ultimately between doctors and their patients. While this still does not solve the problem of doctor reluctance to prescribe the drug, barriers are indeed coming down thanks to legal challenges.

Bottom line, the industry has been handed a nice whiff of confidence, but there is a still high and thorny bramble remaining to get through – and it will not happen overnight, or indeed even over the next several years.

european union states

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

By Marguerite Arnold
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european union states

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then of course there is Italy.

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

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

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

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

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

What Does This Mean For 2021 And Beyond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The WHO Vote In December Is A Massive Global Benchmark

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

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

The New Zealand Recreational Vote Is Also Highly Important

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

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

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

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

Regional Reform Is Shaping Up In Europe

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

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

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

Former Vice Chancellor of Germany Joins Swiss Company Board

By Marguerite Arnold
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Dr. Philipp Rösler, the former federal Minister of Economics and Technology and Vice Chancellor of Germany from 2011-2013 has just joined the board of Swiss cannabis company Pure Holding AG.

The move is interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it signals how political currents are moving in Germany, if not Europe beyond that.

To American eyes, Pure Holding looks like a very organized, corporate farm and cannabis manufacturer, organized to produce and test high quality cannabis, extracts and white label products for the coming storm of interest – no matter where European regulatory winds may temporarily go on hemp extracts.

Geopolitics At Play
The fact that the farm is on the Swiss side of the border is also a signal that many Germans (at least) expect the EU to drag its feet on what kind of animal even low-THC and THC-free cannabinoids are while consumers vote with their pocket books across the continent and buy online imports.

The fact that Rösler is politically associated with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) of which he was also chair, is another indication that Germans in general are deeply upset about the slow movement of the CDU party (the Christian Democratic Union) on this issue (just like many others).

The FDP, like all other parties (except the extreme right wing Alternativ für Deutschland or Afd) has been much more forward about cannabis reform. That said, the party currently at the helm of the ruling coalition (CDU) has also been repeatedly accused of dragging its feet on the issue – no matter that medical cannabis was approved here as a therapy mandated for coverage by public health insurers.

The difficulties however that most patients have had to go through is not over. Reform has come here, but still for most, in name only.

The fact that Rössler was also a cardiothoracic surgeon before his stint in national politics is also a sign that the medical community is taking notice of the health effects of cannabis. That he was also federal minister of health of Germany (between 2009 and 2011 in Angela Merkel’s second cabinet) is also a clear indication that the topic of more cannabis reform is on the agenda at home in Germany, including Europe beyond that.

Even if, right now, certainly compared to what is developing in the UK, on a much slower boat to at least commercially accessible, low THC reform.

Philipp Rösler, former vice chancellor of Germany

The Current Debacle Over Hemp In The EU

It is unclear what the fate of hemp is in the EU at present. With the region’s administrators coming to a legally non-binding and decidedly non-scientific holding pattern on “CBD,” (namely that it is a narcotic) it could very well be that the Swiss, English and importers from the rest of the world bring in flower, extracts and products that the region cannot keep out, but is not quite copacetic about embracing, just yet.

That said, with major health food producers now stocking hemp seed extract on the stores of major German grocery stores, it is clear that the worm is turning, one former politician and now board member at a time.

Why The Fuss Over Hemp At All?

The bigger debate is actually a scientific one. It boils down to parsing cannabinoids from the same plant correctly, while also understanding the role that they play together.

That this is now happening, roughly twenty years after the discovery of the human endocannabinoid system – and the recognition that the human body itself creates cannabinoids that are mimicked by external phyto (or plant sourced) cannabinoids, is a victory, even if a late one.

It also signals that at a high level, the debate about cannabis as a drug if not a tool for maintaining overall body wellness, is not abating, but indeed proceeding even as the debate stymies politically at a country-by-country if not regional level.

What Will Reform In The EU Look Like?

While the analogy is not exactly the same, and for a variety of reasons starting with the fact that European countries are sovereign and independent states of Europe and not part of a single federal country, it appears that cannabis reform will look very similar to the progress of the same as it has unfolded so far in the United States.

Spanish Cannabis Approved for Import to Germany

By Marguerite Arnold
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It is official. BfArM, the German version of the Food and Drug Administration and the federal agency with oversight of the national cannabis program, has approved Spanish medical cannabis imports into the country. Indeed, three German companies are now finalizing their paperwork to allow the transfer to be completed.

As Cannabis Industry Journal has learned, at least one of the companies on the Spanish side of the equation is the ever-interesting Alcaliber (Linneo Health). So far, the privately funded company has made smart, strategic business moves through a challenging transition period. With one of the few EU GMP-recognized licenses in Spain, it is a logical choice for German distributors in search of foreign-produced, but up-to-snuff product.

This is a positive and widely predicted turn of events as Germany begins to institutionalize its cannabis program at the next level. As of this fall, three producers will begin to distribute domestically grown cannabis in Germany. However, there is a clear need for a vibrant import market here and there will be for a long time to come.

Domestically grown cannabis, by design at least so far, was never intended to serve the entire base of medical cannabis patients in Germany. And Spain has been, from the beginning of the discussion, along with Portugal, Greece, Poland, Eastern Europe and of course Italy, an attractive market to produce high quality cannabis for export to (at minimum) Germany.

The European Ex Im Market Is Opening

While the Canadians still have an outsize impact on this market, that is clearly a period of time that is coming to an end. Indeed, Canadian produced cannabis is being turned down at the German border for quality issues linked to certification.

This is not a new issue. It has haunted the German market since 2017 and the beginning of the discussion about the German cultivation bid. But now it is official. Beyond Holland, and even Canada, in other words, lower cost cannabis is now entering the German market and from other European countries.

While Portugal and Denmark beat Spain to the punch, however, this is likely to be an impactful development for not only patients, but the entire price discussion. Distributors are clearly on the front lines of not only obtaining high quality cannabis (from somewhere), but meeting a price that is increasingly on the downward slide, just from the pressures of domestic production and the price structure created around the same by the German government.

Producers have been feeling the pinch, no matter where they are based, for at least the last 12 months.

The Impact On The Spanish Cannabis Discussion

It is unlikely that this development will not be duplicated by other Spanish companies vying for entry into the European and German markets. Spain has a thriving grey market cannabis economy in the form of Cannabis Clubs. It also, like Holland, has allowed a semi legitimate market as well as a distribution network to spring up around the same.

However, the times are also clearly changing. Holland is in the midst of regulating even its coffee shop cultivation economy as it becomes one of the most important exporters of medical cannabis to Germany. Expect the same trend in Spain, especially as Europe increasingly comes to the same conclusion as everywhere else. The regulated medical cannabis industry is great for economic development, especially for countries like Spain, with great weather and perhaps an overreliance on the tourism industry.

The Other European Producers Now In View
Beyond Spain, Portugal and Denmark have the right to import medical cannabis to Germany. This list is expected to continue to expand as patient numbers grow. Because of the price restraints now placed on the entire market by the German government, however, entering the country with an attractively priced product that will pass muster, not only with regulators but doctors and insurers, is now absolutely the name of the game.

And that is of course, before the recreational and CBD topic even enters the discussion – and both are clearly on the agenda now, across Europe.

The Changing Landscape of CBD in the UK

By Mike Barnes
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Reports estimate that up to 8 million people in the UK use CBD for its variety of wellness benefits. The market is currently worth £300 million, a figure which is expected to more than triple in the next five years.

Sales of CBD already outstrip those of Vitamin C at £301 million vs £119 million and given that almost 90 percent of users in the UK purchase CBD online, new investments into omnichannel and e-commerce capabilities are likely to lead to even more growth.

Yet, for all this excitement, the truth is the UK’s CBD industry is facing a bit of a roadblock.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

Until this year, CBD has been in a period of regulatory uncertainty and the industry faced understandable criticism when high profile cannabis probes found that over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD promised on the label. On February 13, 2020, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) unveiled new plans to better regulate the industry and announced a deadline of March 31, 2021 for the submission of a valid application for novel food licence for businesses selling food and food supplements containing CBD in the UK. Contained in the announcement was a warning to all CBD companies that failure to comply may result in products being taken off the shelves.

Consumers are also advised by the FSA to “think carefully” about taking CBD, and not to consume more than 70mg a day, making the UK the first country in the world to set recommended limits for CBD consumption, despite no scientific basis for the 70mg recommended limit.

Whilst it is undeniable that the CBD market requires some form of regulation and standards need to be raised for CBD products, to ensure consumers are receiving safe, legal and quality products, this will be a complex and costly process. CBD companies, particularly smaller CBD brands, will need to ensure they have the necessary infrastructure, expertise and resources to meet this deadline.

The deadline is fast approaching, and no extension has been granted despite of the difficulties caused by COVID-19. This will put all businesses under pressure, as the process for applying for Novel Food status requires supplying a large amount of data from rigorous testing. For larger players, this will likely be nothing more than a costly inconvenience, but for smaller, nascent businesses, these costs may put their longevity at risk. There are hundreds of CBD start-ups which have done great work to future-proof their businesses and create safe, high-quality products. Now, instead of preserving costs to try and stay afloat during the pandemic, these businesses must put a significant amount of precious resource and funds into finalising their applications in time.

Improving end user confidence in CBD products and understanding the process from seed to shelf is crucially important in this developing industry, however, I firmly believe these regulations are suffocating the market. I fear that on April 1, 2021, many smaller firms who haven’t managed to achieve Novel Food status yet have a superior product, will suddenly find themselves unable to legally trade.

On the other hand, there is the argument that the FSA ruling may increase the importation of CBD products from firms based outside of Europe. So far, the large cannabis firms in North America, which have the budget and expertise to meet FSA standards, have held back on importing CBD products to the UK. This may well have to do with the slightly dubious legal status CBD has so far had in the UK, so it will be interesting to see whether this changes in April next year and which players will enter the market. The CBD market will continue to grow and diversify but it will be essential that this leads to increasing consumer choice rather than confusion.

In my opinion, the only way the UK will be able to fully harness the potential of CBD is to create an independent, self-sufficient industry that not only helps consumers but contributes to the wider economy through jobs, skills and investment. The pandemic has done well to put a spotlight on the huge access issues cannabis patients face in the UK, bolstering the case to ‘onshore’ the industry.

Whilst this would require a streamlining and simplification of the licensing laws around growing cannabis, the development of a UK-based industry would have endless benefits. Not only would medical cannabis patients see improved access to their medication, CBD firms would no longer have to ship oil in from the dominating wholesale nations such as Poland, Czechia and Italy, this in turn having huge economic benefits. The development of a UK industry should involve the creation of a new regulatory system specifically designed for cannabis products and preferably for a new regulatory body, similar to the Office of Medicinal Cannabis in the Netherlands, to oversee all cannabis regulation, licensing, importation and approvals. This would mean a move away from the current solution of forcing CBD products into the Novel Food category and subjecting them to inappropriate regulations which will soon begin to smother the market with unnecessary red tape.

People are increasingly turning to more natural health and wellness solutions, so as Britons become better informed about CBD products and as the market matures, demand will certainly increase. Yet with both Brexit and standardisation of cannabinoid regulations occurring in parallel, the future and scale of the CBD market is still to be determined. A huge UK market could potentially help push it in a positive direction, facilitating processes for CBD producers.

The cannabis industry is resilient and until this point, has managed to grow at an exponential rate despite regulatory uncertainty. As acceptance and demand continues to increase, so the case for an independent UK industry will strengthen and regulatory roadblocks finally overcome.

Could CBD Standards Become Global?

By Marguerite Arnold
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Here is the good news: There are beginning to be regional- and country-specific guidelines on at least one widely grown cannabis crop internationally. This includes a range of regs on the medical side (GMPs) but they are also expanding for the “other” cannabis crop too. Namely, hemp.

Now, here is the bad news: The regulation that is developing in different regions is frustratingly not uniform, and can still differ greatly in critical areas. Most notably, for some reason, while the U.S. Farm Bill of 2018 created a new national standard for the amount of THC that could be contained in American hemp crops (0.3%), the same conversation in Europe during the same period of time led to a decision to set the level of allowable THC in hemp plants and products at a slightly lower one: 0.2%. As a further confusing muddle, Switzerland has set its THC limits at 0.1% (Switzerland is not in the European Union), and other countries across the region have also attempted to limit the THC in industrial hemp production to no more than this level, no matter what regulators rule at the EU level.

Just some of the many CBD products on the market today.

Beyond a lack of scientific reasoning obvious in the same, by definition, this creates a natural trade barrier between hemispheres. If U.S. farmers are looking for export opportunities to Europe (for example) not to mention other states, they have to worry about both local as well as destination standards – which on the surface at least, are currently incompatible.

It is also creating some frustrating issues for anyone who is in the market for hemp as either a buyer or seller.

Other Issues In The Mix
Markets are driven by many factors – including regulations but also cost and of course consumer demand for a product within a certain price range. Certainly, the CBD industry if not the recreational THC one right behind it (even in Europe now) desperately wants to attract those who are known euphemistically as “daily consumers.”

This means that both the price point and consumer opportunities must hit a mainstream distribution norm. While the recreational market will continue to be distorted by delayed, but inevitable discussions about reform across Europe, the medical market is beginning to set some groundwork that is also bleeding into the entire discussion. Namely, that extracts will play a large role here.

What does this wrinkle mean in a world where the agricultural cultivation standards are different?

Biomass And Extracts Are Gaining In Importance
For those in the strictly “flower” game, the market at least in the U.S., will remain a place where pretty flower crops will gain premium prices as long as they meet local spec.

european union statesHowever, this is a limited proposition, even now – especially in the CBD business. The edibles market, for one, has created a huge potential for vast quantities of industrially produced, outdoor grown hemp, bound for extraction and downstream, a vast variety of end products across a wide spectrum of niches – from wellness to purely cosmetic. So is the burgeoning medical market in Europe.

This means two things. The first is that consumer-facing products with any amount of cannabinoid (take your pick) can be produced to order, no matter the cannabinoid concentrations of the original plant. The second, by definition, means that biomass bound for extraction, particularly export, will gain an increasingly larger share of the wholesale market.

Does it really matter, in other words, to a European extractor, that the source product is of higher THC concentrate than is allowed for B2C sale in Europe? No. Indeed, all it means is that they have to buy lower amounts of biomass. The rest is merely a mechanical problem.

Playing The Regulatory Game
For an increasingly competitive hemp market in the United States, in other words, foreign exports are absolutely an intriguing option for revenue right now, and will continue to be as long as price competitiveness and overall quality issues remain high. Furthermore, there will be almost no pressure to regulate the market globally to the same standards, particularly if CBD itself is descheduled in December by the WHO.

In other words, the regulatory disconnect between the U.S. and Europe right now, and certainly for certain kinds of unfinished bulk product, could therefore open a new niche in the market that is unlikely to be “fixed” anytime soon.

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Shakeups In The German Cannabis Market

By Marguerite Arnold
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As Germany begins to enter a summer where life seems ever more normal, there are fairly major shakeups underway in the German cannabis market. These are structural but will have a profound impact on the entire market going forward.

A Mass Of Distribution Licenses
It is an interesting metric to understand that before 2015, there were no specialty cannabis importer/distributors in Germany. As of July 2020, there are rumors that this number has now shot to close to 80 (either licensed or in the process to become licensed). That is a huge number. So was the last amazing number (40) as of the beginning of this year. Just the previous estimate would mean, literally, 1 specialty cannabis distributor for every 2 million Germans. That obviously is not sustainable. What it does indicate is the huge surge of interest in medical cannabis not to mention acceptance, as well as the amount of money actually now beginning to slosh around in the domestic market.

And that spells good news for both patients and insurers. The rest of the industry, however, will be under further pressure to reduce cultivation and operation costs to meet the challenge.How many of these distributors will survive is another question, particularly in an environment where the government is looking for just one to fulfil the needs of all of Germany’s pharmacies from what is grown domestically. This does not of course mean the end of specialty distribution. Indeed, far from it. There is not enough cannabis entering the market, presumably this fall, that is grown here to even come close to meeting demand.

No surprises here. This has been one of the enduring criticisms of the entire process, if not the bid itself since 2017.

However, one thing this does mean is that distribution fees, like pharmacy fees for processing the plant before them, are finally hitting a price adjustment phase.

This is also going to be good not only for patients, but also health insurers.

For all the standardization of the industry, including fees and mark-ups, one of the strangest things about the German cannabis market is how widely cannabis prices can differ even between pharmacies. This is as true of flower as it is of dronabinol.

The Wholesale Price Of Medical Cannabis Is Dropping
Again, no surprise here, the government will end up buying more cannabis than contracted for under the original bid. This was actually anticipated in the language of the contract that currently exists between the government and the three bid winners. Namely, an automatic 50% reduction in price is mandated for any cannabis sold beyond the 120% agreed upon qualities.

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Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

The growers domestically, in other words, who won the bid will be under a severe price restriction. This may have been the ultimate strategy of the government to begin with (namely to attract foreign capital and expertise but then begin to reign in the sky-high prices of medical cannabis so far.)

This means that the price of €2.30 a gram will undoubtedly fall. Where it will float is anyone’s guess, but right now it appears on course to hit about €1.87. Or about the same price that other governments across Europe (notably Italy) had previously negotiated with the big Canadian cannabis companies (notably on this one, Aurora’s military contract in Italy).

Implications For The Import Market
With domestic producers under the gun, this also means that all imports will begin to feel the price squeeze too. And that will also have a significant impact on point of sale cannabis prices.

And that spells good news for both patients and insurers. The rest of the industry, however, will be under further pressure to reduce cultivation and operation costs to meet the challenge.

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A Snapshot of The German Cannabis Market: Year 3

By Marguerite Arnold
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Despite the limitations and privations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Germany’s market is “up” in terms of sales and overall insurance approvals. For all the victories however, there are still many kinks along the way. That is of course, not just on the medical front (where flower is yet again in short supply this summer), but also in the CBD space.

There is also clearly a drumbeat for more reform afoot in a country which has bested the COVID-19 pandemic like few others in the world. And like France as well as other countries in Europe, the conversation across the region has turned to including cannabis in recovery efforts, and in multiple ways. That includes not only relying on a new crop and industry for economic revitalization, but also of course, on the topic of further reform.

A Brief Overview Of The “Modern” German Cannabis Market
Germany kicked off the entire cannabis discussion in a big way in Europe in the first quarter of 2017. The government got sued by patients and changed the law mandating that public insurers had to reimburse the drug. They also kicked off a cultivation tender bid which promptly became mired in several rounds of lawsuits and squabbles. The first German grown cannabis will hit pharmacies this fall, but it is not clear when, and the unofficial rumour is that the pandemic will delay distribution. The German distribution tender has been delayed three times so far this year.

In the meantime, the German market has developed into the world’s most lucrative target for global exporters, particularly (but not limited) to GMP and other certifiable high-grade cannabis (and in all its forms).

The German Parliament Building

Other Issues, Problems and Wrinkles

Nothing about cannabis legalization is ever going to be easy, and Germany has been no exception.

The first problem on the ground is that the supply chain here has had several major hits, from the beginning. This is even though the supply has come from ostensibly otherwise reliable sources. Companies in Canada and in Holland have all had different kinds of problems with delivery (for different reasons) throughout this period.

Right now, there is a major reorganization afoot in Holland which may also be affecting the recent decision on the Dutch side to reorganize how the government picks (private) German narcotics distributors. Aurora also had product pulled last fall because of labelling and processing issues. But these, no matter how momentous momentarily, are also just waves in a cannabis ocean that is still choppy. Domestic sales continue to expand and foreign producers can still find a foothold in a still fairly open market.

As a result, even with a new dronabinol competitor, Israel, Australia and South Africa as well as multiple European countries now in advanced export schemes, the supply problem is still a thorny one, but not quite as thorny as it used to be.

However, On The CBD Front…

Things have gotten even more complicated since the repeated decisions on Novel Food at the EU level. Namely, last year’s decision that the only CBD extract that is not “Novel” is extracted from seeds, has thrown the entire industry into a major fluff. Especially when such decisions begin to filter down via a federal and regional approach. This has begun to happen. Indeed, the city of Cologne, in Germany’s most populous state just banned all CBD that is not labelled per an EU (although admittedly) non-binding resolution on the issue.

This in turn is leading to a renewed push for the obvious: recreational cannabis.

Where Is the Recreational Discussion Auf Deutschland?
The recreational movement, generally, has been handed several black eyes for the last three years. Namely, that greater reform was not preserved in the first cannabis legalization that passed, albeit unanimously, in the German Parliament in 2017. However, as many recognized, the first, most important hurdle had just been broached. And indeed, that cautious strategy has created a steadily increasing, high quality (at least for the most part) medical market that is unmatched anywhere in the world except perhaps Israel.

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Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

Now, however, there are other issues in the room. The CBD discussion is mired in endless hypocrisy and meddling at both the state country level and the EU. There are many Germans who are keen to try cannabis beyond any idea of cannabis as therapy. Remember that Germany has largely managed to contain the outbreak, despite the emergence of several recent but isolated hotspots of late. In Frankfurt, for example, with the exception of more people on kurzarbeit (which is not visible), most street traffic proceeds apace these days with masks on, but with that exception or two, feels pretty much back to “normal.” And of course, economic development in the form of exports is one of Germany’s favorite pastimes.

Beyond that, the needle has absolutely moved across Europe. Several countries, including Greece and Portugal as well as the UK’s Channel Islands, have already jumped on the cannabis economic development bandwagon, and this is only going to encourage the Germans as well as other similar conversations across the region. It has even showed up in France.

And of course, it is not like the implications of Luxembourg and Switzerland as well as recent efforts in Holland to better regulate the recreational industry there, have not been blatantly obvious to those in Europe’s largest medical market.

Look for new shoots and leaves, in other words of the next stage of cannabis reform to take hold auf Deutschland. And soon. It is inevitable.