The cannabis industry is fraught with hypocrisy. Cannabis is good medicine as has been established by the numerous patients we have seen who are now off of their opioids, benzos and sleep agents due to the addition of medical cannabis products to their regimen. We see patients using cannabis when nothing else has worked and they tell us about their decreased suffering on a daily basis and thank us profusely for staying open during the COVID-19 shutdown, due to our designation as an essential business in Maryland.
The fact that this essential business has seen an increase in business due to the anxiety surrounding Covid-19 is an indication that our society will be dealing with the ramifications of anxiety, PTSD and depression for a long time to come as we deal with the fallout from the pandemic. Our forced shutdown of the workforce has resulted in the opportunity to look deeply at our basic assumptions and policies. Policing and incarceration for what is now a medically-necessary component to society is the crime. We believe that we have the opportunity to rectify the errors of our past and release those still imprisoned for cannabis possession, use, etc.
Further, as evidenced by our country’s recovery from the great depression, the legalization of alcohol certainly helped to bolster the economy. The US has the same opportunity with the cannabis industry. Tax revenue from the legalization of cannabis nationwide is sure to add a much-needed economic boost to help us recover from the disaster of this pandemic.
Our country has had an unfortunate historical relationship with a plant that has the potential to ease suffering safely and bring about some much-needed economic stimulation. It’s high time we fix the mistakes of our past and create a kinder and more inclusive future.
On March 5, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release to the public about their work on devising a regulatory framework for cannabidiol (CBD) products. The FDA also submitted a report to Congress on their rulemaking progress.
The main theme of the report is the same story we’ve been hearing from the FDA for a while now: They are still working on figuring out how to regulate CBD products and wants to do more research before they tackle the rulemaking.
The most intriguing new development from this report is the FDA’s newfound interest in regulating CBD products like dietary supplements:
“FDA is actively considering potential pathways for certain CBD products to be marketed as dietary supplements. Under current law, CBD products cannot lawfully be marketed as dietary supplements, but FDA has the authority to create an exemption through notice-and-comment rulemaking that would allow products containing CBD to be sold legally as dietary supplements.”
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple years, here’s a recap: In June of 2018, the FDA approved GW Pharma’s drug, Epidiolex, for the treatment of rare forms of epilepsy. This allowed a drug containing CBD to go to market, but only through the agency’s drug approval process. When the 2018 Farm Bill (Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018) was signed into law in December later that year, the federal government removed cannabis (hemp) with less than 0.3% THC from the Controlled Substances Act, essentially legalizing it on a federal level. Congress tasked the FDA with figuring out how to regulate the market. Without any FDA guidance in the early days, the subsequent market growth created mass confusion for the industry and consumers alike, with no one really knowing if selling CBD products is legal or not. In May of 2019, the agency held a comment period and public hearing on CBD, which included a lot of discussion around the benefits, the risks and further research on CBD. Throughout 2019, the FDA sent a large number of warning letters to companies marketing CBD products with unsubstantiated health claims. Towards the end of 2019, Congress passed a bill mandating that the FDA update them on their progress to regulate the market within 60 days. That deadline came and went, and then the FDA issued the public update and submitted the report mentioned above to Congress last week.
The FDA says they intend to take a number of steps towards providing some market clarity, while still protecting the public from unknown risks. Firstly, they want to educate the public more about potential risks associated with CBD. “We remain focused on educating the public about the number of questions that remain regarding CBD’s safety,” reads the update. “There may be risks that need to be considered before using CBD products outside of the monitored setting of a prescription from your health care provider.” Those concerns mentioned above include potential liver injury, drug interactions, reproductive toxicity and more benign side effects like drowsiness.
The agency also wants to try and close knowledge gaps in the areas of safety and potential benefits. In this section of the update, the agency asks industry stakeholders for help. “We’re seeking reliable and high-quality data.” The agency is requesting data on sedative effects, impacts of long-term use, pharmacokinetics, safety of various drug delivery mechanisms, safety for animals, different processes for full or broad spectrum or isolate derivation, among other areas of interest. They plan to re-open the public docket from the public hearing back in May 2019, extending the comment period indefinitely as a tool for stakeholders to share information with the FDA.
As far as enforcement actions go, the agency wants to take a risk-based approach to it. While there is still no official enforcement policy, the FDA is working on it. Their biggest concern is with companies marketing CBD products using drug and health claims, which could “deter consumers from seeking proven, safe medical therapies for serious illnesses – potentially endangering their health or life.” The agency is also worried about potential contamination risk and consumer exposure to things like residual solvents and heavy metals. Their last concern in this area involves truth in labeling, like making false label claims, not listing every ingredient or incorrectly stating the amount of cannabinoids in the product.
“Our ongoing efforts related to CBD, including the steps we’re announcing today, are in line with our mission to protect the public, foster innovation and promote consumer confidence. We recognize the significant public interest in CBD and we must work together with stakeholders and industry to develop high-quality data to close the substantial knowledge gaps about the science, safety and quality of many of these products. We are committed to working efficiently to further clarify our regulatory approach to these products – as always, using science as our guide and upholding our rigorous public health standards.”
Overall, the public update and the report don’t disclose anything groundbreaking. They do, however, provide some much-needed guidance for the CBD market on how stakeholders can help the FDA’s efforts. The fact that they are investigating dietary supplements as a path toward a regulatory framework is the by far the biggest take away from all this.
Europe continues to be the new frontier of medical and wellness developments in the cannabis industry, with various sources predicting that Europe will become the world’s largest legal cannabis market over the next 5 years. Key related statistics, include:
A population of over 740 million (over double US and Canada combined)
Total cannabis market estimated to be worth up to €123 billion by 2028 (€58bn medical cannabis (47%), €65bn recreational cannabis (53%))
Over €500 million has been invested in European cannabis businesses (including significant expenditure in research and development, manufacturing and distribution)
To reiterate this belief, this month, hundreds of industry experts and delegates will be attending Cannabis Europa in Madrid, to discuss the expansion of cannabis across Europe and the challenges facing the industry across the member states of the EU and the UK.
Global mainstream leans to European strength
Since late 2018, major global operators have made substantial moves into the cannabis sector. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest beer company and maker of Budweiser, entered into a partnership to research beverages infused with two types of cannabis. Constellation, owner of Corona beer, announced a commitment for $4 billion investment in Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth. BlackRock Inc, through five actively managed BlackRock funds, has invested into Curaleaf Holdings Inc, a dispensary operator, for a not too insignificant investment sum of $11 million (as at March 2019). Such international investments prove that cannabis has moved from the fringes and into the mainstream.
When considering the impact of mainstream cannabis, it should be recognised that major European countries have approved or are planning on implementing, legalisation of medicinal cannabis. The UK, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands already have legal systems in place for medicinal cannabis and France and Spain are currently reviewing key legislative reform to align themselves with international practices. At present the German market is the third largest cannabis market (in terms of size) behind the US and Canada.
In addition to medicinal cannabis, several key European countries have systems in place, or are developing systems, or considering the reform of existing systems, to approve cannabis with THC content at a recreational level. The Netherlands already has a system and Luxembourg’s health minister in August 2019 announced the intention to legalise cannabis for Luxembourg residents. The Luxembourg government is lobbying EU member states to follow suit.
Whilst the EU has a labyrinth of laws in relation to edible CBD (as a novel food) which make the regulatory landscape complex, there has been an explosion of CBD products for vaping and cosmetics. Of course, with each of these products being subject to different local laws (some aligned between EU members states) in relation to vaping and cosmetic related regulations. The Brightfield Group has predicted a 400% increase in the European CBD market (including vaping liquid) from $318m in 2018 to $1.7 billion by 2023. There is also an expansion into applications for CBD with animals with many US manufacturers of CBD-infused pet food.
The European Parliament’s health committee has been calling for properly funded scientific research and there are motions to establish policies to seek to incentivise member states to advance the studies of medical cannabis, with a priority on scientific research and clinical studies – the first step necessary to drafting legislation, designed to better support the industry.
Where does the UK sit within cannabis?
Medicinal cannabis famously saw a legalisation, of sorts, by the then Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, who provided the authorisations for prescriptions for the high profile cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley. Subsequently, on 1 November 2018, this was codified into law by an amendment to Schedule 2 of the 2001 Misuse of Drugs Regulations. This allows clinicians to prescribe cannabis as an unlicensed medicine.
There have, of course, been some high profile licensed medicines. The UK company, GW Pharmaceuticals, is the largest exporter of legal medical cannabis in the world, cultivating medical cannabis for production of cannabis-based medicines (e.g. Epidiolex & Sativex). Epidiolex (manufactured by subsidiary Greenwich Biosciences) became the first cannabis-derived medicine approved for use in the US for treatment of seizures caused by Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes (both severe forms of epilepsy).
When considering the level of research development and investment in the medicinal field, it is no surprise that the UK is the world’s largest producer and exporter of medical cannabis. Research published by the International Narcotics Control Board indicates that the UK produces over 100,000kg a year of medicinal cannabis.
Previous guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) indicated that further research is required to demonstrate the benefit of medicinal cannabis, citing its cost versus evidenced benefit. However, there is now renewed confidence in the UK following NICE’s approval of two cannabis-based medicines produced by GW Pharmaceuticals, Epidiolex (cannabidiol) oral solution and Sativex (nabiximols), for routine reimbursement through the NHS.
Following the re-categorisation of medicinal cannabis in November 2018, a number of clinics have been established where specialised clinicians can start the process of prescribing cannabis based medicinal products (CBMPs). Whilst this route is not fast, and challenges are well documented as to the satisfaction of prescriptions made in the UK, there is momentum behind the development of this as a means for providing genuine and established medical care. A significant step in October 2019, was the CQC registration of one such cannabis clinic, Sapphire Medical Clinics Limited.
The UK medicinal cannabis sector is establishing a research-based approach to expand usage in the UK and across Europe.
How North America compares to Europe
Canada, as a first mover within the cannabis sector, has a multitude of large companies which are well-capitalised and have substantial international footprints. The Canadian exchanges have large listed companies looking to Europe with the intention of acquiring or investing into European operations. As of the date of writing, the 10 largest cannabis companies in Canada have an aggregate market cap of over $23.5 billion (and all registered cannabis companies in Canada having an aggregate market cap of over $46.5 billion).
Listed companies have had a tough time over the last 6-12 months with a slowdown in the market as a natural re-balancing occurs – part of which is due to rapid expansion and heavy investment into cultivation by all the major participants in the market. Over the next 6 -12 months we can expect to see management changes (some of which will be voluntary and some of which will be imposed by institutional pressure) to introduce different skill sets at board and senior management level to facilitate the oversight and leadership necessary for large pharmaceutical companies. Many operations have expanded into highly regulated products and complex supply chains whilst still operating with fundamentally the same team that established the operations with entrepreneurial efforts but, perhaps, a lack of experience in these sectors. The recent announcements by Aurora Cannabis and Tilray demonstrate that these restructurings and costs reductions have already commenced. However, with increased experience at board level and an improvement of profitability focused on sustainable business practices, should come new opportunities on a global scale for these North American operations.
The US market, because of the complexity of state and federal laws not being fully aligned, is closer to its infancy than the Canadian market. This is not too dissimilar to the European market. That said, there are a number of well-funded and quite large US enterprises. A limited number of these, such as Tilray, are looking to expand into Europe.
Many of the companies in the US have, and continue to, expand quickly so we can expect to see a number of mergers and acquisitions. We are likely to witness Canadian and US entities merging with one another with the potential for acquisitions for operations within Europe. It is unlikely that the North American companies will risk their capital through organic growth so would be expected to be identifying “turnkey” solutions.
One of the major challenges facing US companies is the complexity of supply and distribution. This is largely a result of the complexities for state and federal laws interacting with one another as well as international importation and exportation with US states.
How you can invest within the UK and Europe
Developments in the fields of research and development are anticipated to add further weight to the lobbying of government and regulatory bodies across Europe.The UK remains, despite the events of Brexit, a major financial hub for Europe. The London market has seen the growth of several investment and operation cannabis companies. This includes private companies such as; EMMAC Life Sciences Limited and the operations formerly trading as European Cannabis Holdings (now demerged into several new entities including NOBL and LYPHE) as well as publicly listed companies; including Sativa Group PLC (the first publically listed cannabis specific company in the UK) and World High Life Plc, both operating on the NEX Exchange.
The Medical Cannabis and Wellness Ucits ETF (CBDX), Europe’s first medical cannabis ETF fund, domiciled in Ireland, and which has been passported for sale in the UK and Italy, has also caused a renewed stir within the market with a further platform for listed investment.
As the regulatory framework evolves further there is an anticipation that more medicinal cannabis and CBD related enterprises should have the opportunity to list on public exchanges, whether in the UK or in European countries.
Despite a period of slow down following the natural rebalancing of the fast-growing North American markets for the cannabis sector, there is renewed confidence in the expansion of the industry. Developments in the fields of research and development are anticipated to add further weight to the lobbying of government and regulatory bodies across Europe.
There is an increased push for a public dialogue and consultation in relation to medicinal and recreational cannabis in the UK, backed by several mainstream media platforms. This is likely to be shaped in some parts by national debates in Luxembourg and other European countries as they consider their own domestic laws.
With European parliaments across the EU (including the UK) hopefully having time freed up to discuss other political matters now that Brexit is progressing, the next 18 months should prove an exciting time within the European cannabis sector.
Cannabis producers know that they cannot treat plant waste like common yard waste. They need to develop a detailed waste disposal plan in order get a license to operate.
Failing to follow the approved plan and improperly disposing of dry waste materials and waste products from oil extraction leads to fines, liabilities or even having your license rescinded.
Learning to deal with cannabis waste appropriately is crucial to the success of an operation. There are a number of strict controls in place for dealing with any kind of hazardous waste, which can’t just be sent to a landfill or composting facility.
In the US, the EPA and state governments provide guidelines for disposing of hazardous waste properly, and other countries have federal and local requirements as well. The EPA, like other environmental bodies, differentiates between two types of waste: solid and liquid.
Solid waste disposal: The guideline for identifying solid waste is that it’s “unrecognizable and unusable.” This means no one should be able to look at a bag of waste and know immediately that it is cannabis. Many cannabis operations have a facility on site for grinding down the waste into smaller bits. If the waste is non-hazardous, it is mixed with other non-cannabis organics such as garden trimmings and then composted or sent to the appropriate landfill. If it’s hazardous, it’s mixed with cat litter, sand, plastic or sawdust and sent to the appropriate landfill.
Liquid waste disposal: Liquid waste is a bit more complicated. It must be disposed of properly or sent to a hazardous waste treatment facility. Cannabis operations must partner with a shipping company to dispose of the hazardous waste appropriately, unless they transport it themselves.
It can be confusing to manage the risks of proper disposal of cannabis waste. Keep it simple by following these three tips:
Become an expert in all the legal restrictions – and follow them. Federal restrictions will guide you overall, but local (i.e., state and municipal) restrictions are equally important and may vary.
Seek out experienced, reputable disposal companies – and hire the best one.Look for one that is familiar with handling hazardous waste in general and cannabis waste in particular.
Familiarize yourself with the guidelines for proper tracking, transportation and sign-offs – and follow them.Completing all appropriate documentation ensures you have a paper trail to protect you in the event of an audit. Much of the documentation creates a written record so inspectors can confirm appropriate handling.
Waste disposal policies should be reviewed regularly as state and municipal regulations can change. At the same time, it would be wise to review your environmental insurance policy to ensure your business is covered for any accidental releases.
It can be tempting to take shortcuts – saving both money and time – when it comes to hazardous waste disposal. But properly disposing of hazardous materials can demonstrate your organization’s credibility and financial wellbeing, and it can also save you from unnecessary risk.
Folks from around the country and the world tuned into the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) website as they held a public hearing on Friday, May 31. Manufacturers and suppliers asked the FDA to regulate CBD like food or dietary supplements, while the FDA seemed to want more evidence on the safety of CBD products before giving the greenlight.
Background On The Hearing
For the uninitiated, after President Trump signed the Farm Bill into law back in December 2018, Scott Gottlieb, now former director of the FDA, issued a statement the same day the Farm Bill passed, clarifying the FDA’s regulatory authority. In the statement, Gottlieb explained that Congress preserved the FDA’s authority to regulate products containing cannabis and its constituents under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act).
In April 2019, around the same time he resigned from the FDA, Gottlieb issued another statement, acknowledging the quickly growing industry throughout the country and total lack of federal regulatory guidance. This time around, Gottlieb laid out a handful of steps that the FDA plans on taking to address regulations around hemp and cannabidiol (CBD). Those included scheduling the public hearing for May 31, where written and oral public comments were submitted by stakeholders, sharing “their experiences and challenges with these products [hemp and CBD products], including information and views related to product safety.”
That statement also announced the formation of an internal agency working group to “explore potential pathways for dietary supplements and/or conventional foods containing CBD to be lawfully marketed; including a consideration of what statutory or regulatory changes might be needed and what the impact of such marketing would be on the public health.”
Fast-forward to May 31, the day of the public hearing, and all eyes in the industry focused on what all these stakeholders had to say to the FDA about CBD. The day started off with about two hours of oral comments, each speaker had roughly two minutes to deliver their thoughts.
Industry stakeholders representing cannabis businesses sang much of the same tune, clamoring for wise regulations on safety, testing, banking and interstate commerce, among other standards. NCIA Policy Director Andrew Kline’s comments included running through five major positions of the industry trade organization representing CBD companies. Those included recommending the FDA act quickly in setting up regulations, stressing the massive economic impact of the industry, saying that CBD products are generally safe, clamoring for voluntary, consensus-based standards and informing consumers of any potential risks. “The bottom line is this – an overwhelming preponderance of evidence indicates that cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds present minimal health and safety concerns,” Kline told the folks at the FDA. “Time is of the essence. Hemp-derived CBD products are in very high consumer demand and the industry is eagerly awaiting FDA’s regulatory framework for these products. We strongly recommend that FDA act quickly to clarify the regulatory environment because there is significant confusion in the market.”
Anna Williams, representing the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), stressed the importance of testing for contaminants and adulterants as well as advocating for national standards on lab testing, instead of the state-by-state network of different standards.
Patients & Public Safety
After industry stakeholders had their chance to speak, the FDA allowed a group of advocacy organizations representing patients time to speak. That included representatives for the Alzheimer’s Association and the American Epilepsy Society, both of which were hesitant to throw their full support behind CBD as medicine. Kevin Chapman with the American Epilepsy Society said he wants to see clear warning labels, testing standards, more clinical trials and more studies before the group is ready to form a position on using CBD as medicine. Keith Fargo with the Alzheimer’s Association supports clinical trials to study it more, but thinks CBD is risky for patients without serious evidence of efficacy. A representative from the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance also echoed similar concerns. They want to see labeling of drug interactions on labels of CBD products.
After those comments, some organizations had the chance to speak followed by comments from retailers and distributors. Patrick Bird, owner of PMB BioTek Consulting, spoke on behalf of AOAC International, where he primarily discussed public safety. He said they want cannabis products to be regulated with food safety in mind, asking for FSMA to apply to hemp products. They want to adequately ensure product safety with things like mandating HACCP plans, recall readiness, saying hemp products should be treated just like food products.
Retailers & Distributors
Peter Matz, representing the Food Marketing Institute, the trade association for the supermarket industry, said that regulatory ambiguity is a serious issue that needs addressing. “There is mass confusion in the marketplace for the public, suppliers, retailers and state regulators,” says Matz. “Demand for CBD products in human and animal use is growing rapidly. ¼ of American have already tried it. We are fielding questions from companies seeking clarity regarding the current federal regulatory framework.” He added, what many others also mentioned, that the FDA needs to move swiftly to provide a pathway to regulation.
Next on the docket came presentations from state government entities, including state departments of agriculture, followed by healthcare professionals. The state regulators that spoke mentioned a lot about food safety, standards, testing regulations, GMPs and things like that to protect consumer safety. “Currently states are struggling with the lack of sound scientific research available in CBD and long-term health impacts,” said Pam Miles, representing the Virginia Department of Agriculture.
One interesting aspect on their talks however was telling the FDA just how large their markets have gotten already and how they need guidance on how to regulate markets in their own states. Joseph Reardon, with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, said they already have about 600 farmers growing hemp and thousands of processors working with the product in their state. “We urge the FDA to resolve the statutory issues improperly establish a legal pathway for CBD products to enter the market place,” Reardon commented. He also asked that the FDA extend the written comment period from July to August. “We are simply looking for a regulatory framework on the extraction, production and reconstitution of CBD or cannabinoid related products.”
Healthcare & Research
Healthcare providers, and physician testimony also echoed a lot of the same concerns, including the lack of research done, concerns about effects on at-risk populations and concerns about use as ingredients in dietary supplements and food. Some of the presentations also highlighted the room for nefarious activity in an unregulated marketplace. Some went as far as to mention cases where they found CBD vape juices with DXM in it (the active ingredient in cough syrup), CBD products found to contain THC, as well as synthetic cannabinoids responsible for drug overdose deaths. Some advocates in the hemp and CBD community have equated these arguments similar to reefer madness.
The major takeaway from this hearing is that everyone wants to see more data. Researchers and healthcare providers want to study the efficacy of CBD used in medicine, regulators want public safety information, patient advocates want to see data about effects on at-risk populations, trade organizations want data to back up label claims and the FDA wants to see just how safe CBD really is.
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.
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.
If 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.
The first thing to understand about the significance of the British barristers now challenging the EU’s classification of hemp extracts as a novel food is that this is like jumping into the middle of an action adventure by coming in at the second act. In other words, you miss the introduction and the first couple of car chases.
That said, this action movie also features a cannabis-flavored plot. Those used to the maddening hair splitting now going on just about everywhere as the industry gains legitimacy, in other words, are familiar with the larger story line.
Here are the “CBD Cliff’s Notes.”
It is highly significant that a major British cannabis trade organization, the Cannabis Trades Association, hired a leading law firm in London to go sue the EU over its recent decision to lump all CBD extracts into the same “novel” distinction. Up until now, only CBD sourced from cannabis had fallen prey to this strange regulation. Thus, the lawsuit. No Brexit themes involved. Yet. Although that too will play a role in all of this.
What Is This Really About?
If those in the CBD business are honest with themselves, the real reason for this segmented part of the cannabis industry to even exist in the first place is the race, desire and need to actually be allowed to operate in relative regulatory peace. No matter what the battles are on the THC front. CBD has been seen as a result, pretty much since the beginning of the new age of legalization, as the “safer” political and market entry choice by those in regions such as U.S. southern states and the burgeoning, can’t-wait-to-be-off-to-the-races, market in Europe. See the new federal hemp legalization bill in the United States as Exhibit A.
However, in Europe this has run into more than a few problems since the Swiss put “low THC” or “Cannabis Lite” on the map more locally. Starting with the whole discussion about licensing in general. And then, even more confusingly, about what to actually classify the plant. Especially when it is used in food and cosmetics as opposed to “medicine.”
Specifically, where does the cannabis plant in general, let alone its individual components, really fall when it comes to regulated human consumption?
For the time being- read last year when the industry in Spain was facing police busts over CBD cookies on the shelves at health stores- the conventional industry wisdom was that this whole furore was “just” over the use of concentrates, tinctures and other products made from cannabis-sourced CBD. However, given the noise that Austria managed to make over Christmas about the entire “licensing” issue (namely who has the right to produce, sell and package even CBD as a cannabinoid no matter where it is sourced), the EU also moved all CBD products and tinctures- even those made from good old hemp- into the novel food category.
This means in effect, that even CBD extracts produced from the hemp plant (which is actually the majority of such product in Europe) must now be regulated as a “novel food” too. Even though in poor old hemp’s case, it is certainly the case that health food nuts have been consuming the same in Europe long before (and certainly after) standing EU “novel food” regulations were put into place back in the late 90’s.
Thus, the lawsuit, launched from a country unsure of whether it will even be in the EU post-May (either the month or the current PM).
According to the EU at least for now, CBD itself is a “novel food” no matter from where it is sourced. And that, according to not only science but food history is an absolute fallacy.consumer safety, from factory to pharmacy or farm to table, is never far from the discussion
Those who were hoping that CBD would remain unregulated in the EU should think again. It is highly likely that what will happen is that CBD production licensing is in the cards and just about everywhere. Think GMPs but with a consumer-food twist.
While indie producers might groan at the prospect of fees and licensing procedures, remember this is Europe. And consumer safety, from factory to pharmacy or farm to table, is never far from the discussion.
While this lawsuit, in other words, is likely to make the EU think more closely about regulating CBD in general, what is most likely to happen is that entire enchilada will be lumped under a regime to insure that high quality production, particularly of crops bound for consumption, is also extended to anything that ends up in either a food or cosmetic product.
CBD Producers Have To Keep Current On Regs
Given the current murkiness that exists, in other words at this point across Europe, in every country and for every CBD product, exports here from other places are still not a great idea.
There are labeling, licensing and of course, ultimately legislative issues that are all still in flux. And while the outcome of the lawsuit might eventually regulate and standardize things, the idea that a license-free CBD production industry is clearly now dead in the water.
Jason Neely founded Stratos in 2014, when he and a small group of people left the pharmaceutical industry in search of a new endeavor in the cannabis marketplace. The concept was straightforward: Apply pharmaceutical methodologyof production to cannabis products. Back then, Stratos offered a range of THC-infused tabletsin the Colorado market.
Brenda Verghese, vice president of research & development, was one of five people on staff when Stratos launched. Now they have about 30 team members. Consumers were looking for a cannabis product that would be consistent and reliable every time, taking the guesswork out of infused products dosage. That’s where Brenda Verghese found her skillset useful.
Transitioning to the pharmaceutical industry right out of college, Verghese started her career as a chemist and worked her way up to the R&D business development sector. “I specializedin formulations and taking a product from concept to commercialization in the pharmaceutical space,” says Verghese. “Jason Neely approached me with the idea of a cannabis company and focusing on making products as effective and consistent as possible, so really bringing pharmaceutical science into the cannabis space. In the matter of 4 years we grew substantially, mainly focusing on the efficacy of products.”
Soon after the success of their THC products became apparent, Stratos launched a CBD line, quickly growing their portfolio to include things like tinctures and topicals as well. According to Verghese, they are hoping that what’s been established on the THC side of their business as far as reproducibility and consistency is something that consumers will also experience on the CBD side. “Quality and consistency have definitely driven our growth,” says Verghese. “That is what consumers appreciate most- the fact that every tablet, tincture or swipe of a topical product is going to be consistent and the same dose every time.” This is what speaks to their background in the pharmaceutical sciences, FDA regulation has taught the Stratos team to create really robust and consistent formulations.
Quality in manufacturing starts at the source for Stratos: their suppliers. They take a hard look at their supply of raw materials and active ingredients, making sure it meets their standards. “The supplier needs to allow us to do an initial audit and periodic audits,” says Verghese. “We require documentation to verify the purity and quality of oil. We also do internal testing upon receipt of the materials, verifying that the COAs [certificates of analysis] match their claims.”
Verghese says maintaining that attention to detail as their company grows is crucial. They implement robust SOPs and in-process quality checks in addition to process testing. They test their products 5-6 times within one production batch. Much of that is thanks to Amy Davison, director of operations and compliance, and her 15 years of experience in quality and regulatory compliance in the pharmaceutical industry.
Product testing alone cannot assess quality for an entire lot or batch of product; therefore, each step of the manufacturing process must be controlled through Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). Process validation is an aspect of GMPs used by the pharmaceutical industry to create consistency in a product’s quality, safety and efficacy. There are three main stages to process validation: process design, process qualification and continued process verification. Implementing these stages ensures that quality, including dosing accuracy, is maintained for each manufactured batch of product.
Fast forward to today and Stratos is looking at expanding their CBD products line significantly. While their THC-infused products might have a stronger brand presence in Colorado, the CBD line offers substantial growth potential, given their ability to ship nationwide as well as online ordering. “We are always evaluating different markets and looking for what suits Stratos and our consumer base,”says Verghese.
Beckley Canopy Therapeutics, based in Oxford, England has raised ₤7.4 million for the purposes of cannabinoid research and drug development. The new company is a unique partnership established between Canopy Growth Corporation and the Beckley Foundation, a research institute which examines the utilization of psychotropic drugs for the treatment of physical and mental conditions.
Studies focusing on the use of cannabinoids for the treatment of opioid addiction and cancer pain will be conducted in Europe, the UK and the US.
Why Is This Significant?
Here is the first reason: the woman behind it all. Her name is Lady Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and March. Born into a landed gentry family at Beckley Park (a Tudor hunting lodge with three towers and three moats) she also has a long history of engaging and supporting scientific endeavours that use stigmatized drugs in the treatment of both intractable disease and mental illness via the use of scientific research.
In 1998, Amanda Feilding set up the Beckley Foundation, a charitable trust which initiates, directs and supports neuroscientific and clinical research into the effects of psychoactive substances. She has also co-authored over 50 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals.
The so-called “hidden hand” behind the rebirth of psychedelic science, Fielding’s contribution to global drug policy reform has been widely acknowledged in international drug policy circles. She was named as one of the bravest men and women in the history of science in 2010 by the British Guardian.
And here is the second reason: The foundation is now partnered with Canopy Cannabis, one of the leading cannabis firms in the world, which is also working closely with Spanish opioid manufacturer Alcaliber.
In other words, this coalition is almost the mirror opposite of the approach taken by the American Sackler family, makers of Oxycontin, who have fought cannabinoids as an alternative or even transition drug in multiple state legalization campaigns. Meanwhile the death rates from overdoses have quadrupled since 1999. In 2016, opioid-related drug overdoses killed about 116 people a day (or about 42,249 for the year). It is estimated that about 11 million people in the U.S. are currently misusing or dependent on opioids.
Beyond The Politics of The Opioid-Cannabinoid War
While opioids clearly have a role particularly in chronic pain treatment, the question now at the global scientific table is this: Are cannabinoids a substitute for longer term chronic pain management? It is a fiercely battled scientific debate that has frequently, particularly in the U.S., crossed over into political drug reform questions.
The unique partnership of Beckley and Canopy is well placed both scientifically and culturally to take on a discussion which has languished for too long in the grass of political debate and reform.
Even better, it is taking place in a country where English is the first language, but outside the U.S. and further, in a country where cannabis has now been legally reclassified as a Schedule II drug.
Do not expect, in other words, the same trials and tribulations that faced noted U.S.-based researcher Sue Sisley, to slow down research, trials or findings.
Why Is A Cultural and Scientific Reset Required?
For the past forty years, since the end of the 1970s, cannabis in particular, has been pushed into a strange scientific territory in part, because of the culture surrounding the drug. This in turn, along with the schedule I classification of cannabis, has led to not only a dearth of research, but a reluctance on the part of prescribing doctors to examine its efficacy.
In the present, this means that doctors are still (beyond insurers who demand medical evidence before approving payment) the biggest hurdles in every medical system where cannabis is becoming legal. See the debate in Canada, the UK and of course, Germany, where patients frequently report asking for a drug their doctors refuse to prescribe.
This is exactly the kind of high-placed, societally influential effort in other words, that might finally break the medical taboo at the most important remaining logjam– at the point of prescription and approval for patients.
Now that governments are legalizing cannabis around the world, the question looms for cannabis businesses seeking legitimacy in the new industry: what safety standards should apply? This question is more difficult as different jurisdictions grapple with defining and implementing legal requirements and struggle to keep up with the pace of growth.
For visionary cannabis business, it makes sense to anticipate requirements – not only from governments, but also from consumers and partners. Most regulations currently focus on security and basic health issues but, in the long-term, the industry that may offer the best model for cannabis businesses isn’t pharmaceuticals, but food. Cannabis (especially edibles) share similar hazards and traceability challenges with food products, so taking the lead from the food industry will be much more applicable and could offer greater benefits.
Companies that achieve the highest and most flexible certification will enjoy a crucial competitive advantage when it comes to winning market share, popularity and consumer trust. Let’s take a quick look at the different options of food safety (and quality) certifications that cannabis businesses may consider. But first, let’s clarify two important definitions that are necessary to understand the food industry.
Basic Concepts from the Food Industry
The first acronym you should be aware of is GFSI, the Global Food Safety Initiative. GFSI is a food industry-driven global collaboration body created to advance food safety. When it comes to understanding GFSI, the important part to note is that certifications recognized by GFSI (like SQF, FSSC 22000, and BRC) are universally accepted. Companies operating under GFSI-recognized certifications open the most doors to the most markets, providing the highest potential for growth. For this reason, cannabis companies should be aware of and seriously consider seeking GFSI certifications
Secondly, many food safety programs are built around Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, or HACCP. While many people may talk about HACCP like it’s a certification in and of itself, it is not actually a certification like the others on this list, but rather a methodology that helps companies systematically identify and control biological, chemical, and physical hazards that may arise during food production, handling, and distribution. Companies that adopt this methodology end up with a HACCP plan, which must then be followed at all times to avoid and address health and safety issues. It’s often required for food businesses and is generally required in most of the world, except where ISO 22000 is more common, primarily in Europe and countries whose primary export market is European. Since HACCP plans are also incorporated into most of the other achievable certifications, developing a HACCP program early will build a strong foundation for higher levels of certification.
Certifications for the Cannabis Industry
Now that we understand the basics of GFSI and HACCP, we can see how the certifications that have been developed by and for the food industry may apply to cannabis companies – and which you should consider necessary for your business.
GMP: Good Manufacturing Practice Certification
GMP (or sometimes cGMP) certification requires that companies abide by a set of good manufacturing processes for food and beverage products, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, dietary supplements and medical devices. Since it really only covers basic sanitation and employee hygiene, it is considered the lowest level of certification in the industry. It is not recognized by GFSI, but GFSI does require all the standard benchmarks of a GMP be met before granting GFSI certification.
While GMP certification is often required, it is far below the standard that should be upheld by any serious businesses. It doesn’t cover many of the different types of hazards associated with food production – that I have argued will become increasingly relevant to cannabis producers – and doesn’t provide a systematic approach to identifying and controlling hazards like a HACCP program would. It’s really just about providing the basic procedures and checks to ensure that the facility is clean and that employees aren’t contaminating the products.
Final Verdict: Recommended, but as the bare minimum. GMP is not sufficient on its own to adequately control the risk of recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks, and it limits a company’s market potential because it lacks the GFSI worldwide stamp of approval.
Some companies consider GMP certification a good place to start if you’re on a tight deadline for distribution in markets where only GMP is required by regulators. I would argue that striving for the minimum standards will be costly in the long run. Health, safety and quality standards are the foundations upon which winning companies are built. It’s critical to develop a corporate culture that will lead to GFSI-recognized programs without major organizational overhaul. Start on the right foot and set your sights higher – obtain a certification that will stand the test of time and avoid the pain and risks of trying to change entrenched behaviors.
SQF: Safe Quality Food Program Certification
SQF is my number one recommendation as the best certification for the cannabis industry. One of the most common certifications in North America, SQF is a food safety management system recognized by retailers and consumers alike. It is administered by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and, importantly, recognized by GFSI, which gives companies a huge competitive edge. SQF focuses on the whole supply chain.
SQF was also the first to develop a cannabis program and is currently the leader in this market segment. It is also the scheme that best integrates food safety with quality. Since it is recognized worldwide, SQF provides the greatest leverage to accelerate a company’s growth. Once obtained, products with SQF certification can often jump the queue to enter different regulatory markets.
Final verdict: Highly recommended. A cannabis company with an SQF certification has the greatest advantage because it offers the broadest worldwide reach and keeps companies a step ahead of competitors. It’s also achievable – just this past April, Curaleaf Florida ostensibly became the first cannabis company to achieve SQF certification. It is tough, but fair and practical.
Other Certification Standards
SQF is the top certification that should be considered by cannabis companies, especially outside of Europe. However, the food industry has several other major types of standards that, at this time, have limited relevance to the cannabis industry today. Let’s take a quick look.
When considering GFSI-recognized programs, the main choice for food companies is between SQF, which we’ve covered, and BRC (the British Retail Consortium Certification). BRC has the most in common with SQF but, while SQF was originally developed for processed foods, BRC was developed in the UK for meat products. Today, they are quite similar, but BRC doesn’t focus quite as much on the quality component as SQF does. While BRC could be a good option, they don’t have a program for cannabis and, thus far, do not appear to be as friendly toward the cannabis industry.The food industry has a lot to offer cannabis companies that are anticipating future regulatory changes and market advantages
Across the pond, there are a few other certification standards that are more common than SQF. One of these is ISO 22000, which is the certification for the food-related standard created by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Europe. It is not recognized by GFSI but is the primary system used in Europe. If your market is exclusively in the EU, it might be a good choice for you in the future. However, to date, there is no indication that any cannabis company has achieved ISO 22000 certification. Some cannabis companies have attained certification for other ISO standards like ISO 9001:2015, which specifies requirements for quality control systems, and ISO/IEC 17025 for laboratory testing. These are generally more relevant for the pharmaceutical industry than food and beverage, but still apply to cannabis.
There is the perception that cannabis is more accepted in EU countries like the Netherlands, but the regulatory attitude to cannabis is complicated. In the Netherlands, for example, cannabis isn’t actually legal – “coffee shops” fall under a toleration policy that doesn’t include regulation. Medical cannabis in the Netherlands is all produced by one supplier and several countries in the EU allow for licensed distribution and import, but not domestic production. Various EU countries are trying to keep up with the legalization trend, however. The Czech Republic, Germany, and others all recently introduced legislation for domestic production of cannabis for medical use. For companies with their eye on the EU, it is crucial to watch which regulatory requirements will be implemented in each market and how.
The last certification standard to mention is the result of a compromise between ISO and the more HACCP oriented programs like SQF. FSSC 22000 (Food Safety System Certification) tries to address the gaps between ISO 22000 and GFSI-recognized certifications by introducing another component called PAS 220. Since it is recognized by GFSI, FSSC 22000 is starting to get more traction in the food industry because it makes products a bit easier to export to the EU. FSSC 22000 satisfies the EU ISO standards but isn’t as closely tied to HACCP. We will be keeping an eye on this one.
The food industry has a lot to offer cannabis companies that are anticipating future regulatory changes and market advantages – but it’s difficult for cannabis companies to understand all the options available and how each apply to their specific products. While markets adjust beyond the preliminary issue of legality, it’s crucial for companies to look forward and comply with safety and quality standards like SQF. Companies who strive for SQF certification (or other GFSI-recognized certifications as they become available) will find themselves far better prepared to seize market share as cannabis markets blossom.
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