According to a press release, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved GW Pharma’s drug Epidiolex for the treatment of rare forms of epilepsy. Just a few months ago, news broke of a very encouraging FDA panel assessment, which indicated a positive outlook for the drug’s approval.
In the press release, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D appeared to indicate an open willingness to explore the medical benefits of cannabis. “This approval serves as a reminder that advancing sound development programs that properly evaluate active ingredients contained in marijuana can lead to important medical therapies,” says Gottlieb. “And, the FDA is committed to this kind of careful scientific research and drug development.” He went on to add:
Controlled clinical trials testing the safety and efficacy of a drug, along with careful review through the FDA’s drug approval process, is the most appropriate way to bring marijuana-derived treatments to patients. Because of the adequate and well-controlled clinical studies that supported this approval, prescribers can have confidence in the drug’s uniform strength and consistent delivery that support appropriate dosing needed for treating patients with these complex and serious epilepsy syndromes. We’ll continue to support rigorous scientific research on the potential medical uses of marijuana-derived products and work with product developers who are interested in bringing patients safe and effective, high quality products. But, at the same time, we are prepared to take action when we see the illegal marketing of CBD-containing products with serious, unproven medical claims. Marketing unapproved products, with uncertain dosages and formulations can keep patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.
According to the press release, the drug was studied in three randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials with 516 patients who have either Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome, the two rare forms of epilepsy the drug is now approved to treat. Epidiolex is an anti-epilepsy drug, taken in a syrup form, with the main active ingredient being cannabidiol (CBD), and less than 0.1 % THC.
GW Pharmaceuticals scored a significant victory in the United States with its cannabis-based epilepsy drug Epidiolex in mid-April. The company received approval from a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel for its use in treating two forms of drug-resistant epilepsy.
The drug was granted “orphan drug” status in the EU a year ago.Will this be enough to move the conversation forward about cannabis as medicine in the United States?
So what does the future hold for this drug and a company, which has visited this space before? Remember Sativex?. The Company now faces real competition from a raft of companies moving into this space from just about everywhere – both from Canada and of course Europe itself.
The FDA Might be on the Verge of Approving its First Cannabis-Based Drug
It is not like this is either the FDA’s or GW Pharma’s first discussion about the medical efficacy of cannabinoids. Sativex, a mouth spray containing THC, was never granted approval in the United States for the treatment of MS – although it received such approvals in Europe.
If the FDA approves Epidiolex (made from CBD), it will be the first cannabinoid-based drug approved in the United States by the federal agency.
Will this be enough to move the conversation forward about cannabis as medicine in the United States? What will happen in the EU?
A Divergent and Highly Different Drug Market
Will the FDA finally approve at least one form of a CBD-based drug? The chances are that Epidiolex might finally move the agency to approve. However,this is not, despite the hype that the company has made in the press about this, the first cannabinoid-based drug to be approved in the United States. It might be, however, the first drug based on actual natural cannabinoids rather than synthetic ones that it approves for some purpose. Both Cesamet and Dronabinol (or Marinol) are synthetic cannabinoid drugs approved for several conditions from chronic pain caused by chemo to Parkinson’s.
But those who are hoping that this drug approval might open the floodgates at the FDA for startersshould take a pew. While Sativex was not approved in the United States, it was made available after 2011 for MS patients, particularly in Germany, which has the highest rate of MS of any European country. The problem? It was just too expensive for most people to afford – since their insurance would not cover it. And doctors were even more resistant to prescribing than they are now. So even getting a prescription was almost impossible.
That conversation was different in Europe post-2013, and there were people who managed to get a doctor to write a prescription not to mention afford the eye-watering prices sans insurance coverage.
That said, given the choice between whole plant meds, most people still prefer bud cannabis to the spray variety. And in Europe right now, that is what is on the table.
What Will This Mean in the US vs Europe?
In the US, the first thing that FDA approval will mean is drug sales for only one branded drug. That is the cynicism at play here. Furthermore, it also neatly dodges the THC issue.
In Europe? Particularly Germany? This development is not likely to make much of a dent. GW is competing with every single Canadian producer with flower-based oil – and on both the medical and non-medical CBD front. That also now includes local producers. Further, this is a market which prizes genericized drugs over name brands. In France, the distribution of Sativex was held up, primarily because of the row over cost. And who would pay.
It is also unlikely that the FDA approval in the United States will change the discussion either in the US on a federal level – or in Europe.
The most important place this news already made a dent? GW Pharma’s stock price – at least temporarily. It is also a spot of good news the company really needs. In February, the company’s GWP42006 drug designed for focal seizures (drug resistant epilepsy) failed to outperform placebo results and wiped 5% off the company’s stock.
In the United States, the idea of transporting cannabidiol (CBD), let alone medical cannabis across state lines is still verboten. As a result, a patchwork of very different state industries has sprung up across the map, with different regulatory mandates everywhere. While it is very clear that California will set the tone for the rest of the United States in the future, that is not a simple conversation. Even in-state and in the present.
In the meantime, of course, federal reform has yet to come. And everywhere else, there is a very different environment developing.
In Canada, “territorial” reform does mean there will be different quality or other regulatory guidelines depending on where you are. The main difference between the territories appears to be at point of retail – at least for now. Notably, recreational dispensaries in the East will be controlled by the government in an ABC package store model. That will not be the case across all provinces however. Look for legal challenges as the rec market gets underway.
In Europe, the conversation is already different – and based on the realities of geopolitics. Europe is a conglomeration of federally governed nation-states rather than more locally administered territories, supposedly under federal leadership and control (as in the US). That said, there is common EU law that also governs forward reform everywhere now, just as it hindered national drug reform until a few years ago on the cannabis front.
However, now, because European countries are also moving towards reform but doing so in very different ways in an environment with open borders, the market here is developing into one of the most potentially fertile (and experienced) ex-im markets for the cannabis plant anywhere. On both the consumer and medical fronts, even though these labels mean different things here than they do elsewhere.
Medical reform in Europe basically opens the conversation to a regulated transfer of both non and fully loaded narcotic product across sovereign national borders. This is already happening even between nation-states where medical (read THC infused) cannabis is not federally legal yet, but it is has been accepted (even as a highly restricted drug). This means that Europe has already begun to see transfer of both consumer and medical product between states. In the former case, this is also regulated under food and cosmetic safety laws.
Cannabis in this environment is “just another drug.”While a lot of this so far has been via the strategic rollout of the big Canadian LPs as they attempt to carve up European cannabis territory dominance and distribution like a game of Risk, it is not limited to the same.
Pharmaceutical distributors across Europe are hip to the fact, now, that the continent’s largest drug market (Germany) has changed the law to cover cannabis under insurance and track its issuance by legal prescription. So is everyone in the non-medical CBD game.
As a result, even mainstream distributors are flocking to the game in a big way. Cannabis in this environment is “just another drug.” If not, even more significantly, a consumer product.
The race for Europe is on. And further, in a way that is not being seen anywhere else in the world right now. And not just in pharmacies. When Ritter Sport begins to add cannabis to its famous chocolate (even if for now “just” CBD) for this year’s 4/20 auf Deutschland, you know there is something fundamental and mainstream going on. Lidl – a German discount grocery chain that stretches across Europe, has just introduced CBD-based cannabis edibles – in Switzerland.
As a result of this swift maturation, it is also creating from the beginning a highly professional industry that is essentially just adding cannabis to a list of pharmaceutical products already on a list. Or even just other grocery (or cosmetic) items.
In general, and even including CBD, these are also products that are produced somewhere in Europe. As of this year, however, that will include more THC from Portugal, Spain and most certainly Eastern Europe. It will also mean hemp producers from across the continent suddenly have a new market. In many different countries.
This means that the industry itself is far more sophisticated and indeed used to the language and procedures of not only big Euro pharma, but also mainstreamed distribution (straight to pharmacy and even supermarket chains).
It also means, however, understanding the shifting regulations. In general, the focus on ex-im across Europe is also beginning to standardize an industry that has been left out of the global game, on purpose, for the last 100 years. Medical cannabis, grown in Spain under the aegis of Alcaliber (a major existing opioid producer) can enter Germany thanks to the existing partnership with Spektrum and Canopy, who have a medical import license and source cannabis from several parts of Europe at this point. It also means that regular hemp producers, if they can establish the right brand and entry points, have a new opportunity that exists far outside of Switzerland, to create cross-European presence.
And all of this industry regulation is also setting a timeline, if not deadline, on other kinds of reform not seen elsewhere, anywhere, yet.
In a move that seems to shed more doubt than certainty on domestic cannabis cultivation and the date that it will start auf Deutschland, the Higher Regional Court (or OLG) in Dusseldorf formally stopped the pending bid procedure for the first crop on March 28th. BfArM, the federal agency in charge of regulating all narcotic drugs, initiated that procurement bid. The tender bid was launched after the German Parliament and federal legislators changed the law last year to mandate that cannabis be available via prescription, and further that public health insurers were required to cover it.
That bid announcement was supposed to come as early as last September. Criticisms about the process and requirements began immediately thereafter. For starters, the bid’s requirements excluded all German-only respondents to the bid and left both Canadian and Israeli firms in the front positions to obtain these valuable licenses. However, there were other gripes, including the fact that the amount of cannabis requested (about 6.6 tonnes) was far too low to even begin to meet real demand. Namely, there are easily 1 million German patients who could qualify for the drug.
In the space of the last year, in fact, the number of “official” German cannabinoid patients has shot up from 1,000 to about 15,000. That said, the top three covering insurers also report a mere 64% approval rate. This means that there are more doctors writing prescriptions than insurers are covering.
That, at least for patients and their advocates is a bit of good news despite the blow that any delay in domestic production has created. Doctor resistance to prescribing cannabinoids even when there are no other alternatives has been used as an excuse in many media reports for the speed of market development. That clearly is not true. The attitude on the ground in Deutschland is rapidly changing.
That bid announcement was supposed to come as early as last September. At that point, however,the agency was then forced to extend the response date, which it did, but apparently not for long enough.
Throughout the fall, it was impossible to understand, from any direction, what was going on. Four lawsuits against the bid were launched around September, each with differing complaints that ranged from criticizing the agency for the lack of extension and response time to monopolistic business practices.
The OLG dismissed all but the criticism about the extension.what this decision has done most clearly is slowed down the production of domestically grown medical cannabinoids
The one clear thing to come out of Düsseldorf? BfArM has been banned from awarding its contract to anyone to produce medical cannabis in Germany starting in 2019. The first letters to bid finalists announcing the bid had been canceledbegan arriving the day after the court’s decision.
Reading Between the Lines
There have been rumors since last fall that the bid would end up in such waters. However,all the major producers widely suspected to have applied for the bid also began announcing themselves as finalists in press releases. For this reason, the official line from everyone that the bid was still, in fact, on track.
Nobody could understand why anyone would want or even be able to halt the production of direly needed, locally sourced, high-gradecannabis. That includes BfArM, which made an impassioned response, via their attorney to the OLG in Dusseldorf. Attorney Heike Dahs warned the court that any interruption of the bid was “very bad for the care of patients.” He was similarly pessimistic about the ability to begin production domestically by the previously set 2019 deadline.
In fact, what this decision has done most clearly is slowed down the production of domestically grown medical cannabinoids (although potentially not by much) while giving officials at BfArM a rather nasty black eye that might yet lead to further legal action.
It also means that there will be another bid process. In the meantime, the ex-im market is, if anything, taking off.
This is a Shock And Opportunity – but not a Surprise
No matter the opinionated emails and IM’ing going on in several languages all over the world right now about the implications legally in the future, the major producers are all taking this in stride. And appear to be well positioned to respond.
According to Dr. Pierre Debs, the managing director of Spektrum Cannabis (the global medical brand of Canopy and based just south of Frankfurt), who responded to CannabisIndustryJournal a day after the court decision, the company is not affected by this development. “Spektrum has a steady and constant supply and we do not anticipate any problems supplying patients through their pharmacies,” he says. Debs received the first German medical import license to bring Canadian cannabis into the country a mere two years ago and has continued to carve a leading path in the discussion across Europe. “In addition to our supply from Canopy Growth Corp, our partnership supply agreement with Alcaliber in Spain will see Spektrum importing sun-grown medical cannabis products starting towards the end of the summer,” says Debs.
But it is not just the big guys in the mix anymore. And there are many who see opportunityto a situation, which is frustrating.“As the second-largest country by population in Europe and a leader within the EU, the German market represents a new frontier for the cannabis industry in general in the region,” says Zlatko Keskovski, chief executive officer of NYSK Holdings, a Macedonian firm now in its second harvest of GMP-certified cannabis and holding EU export rights.
For such firms, even though NYSK is a surprise entrant to the conversation this year and outside the EU, the current situation represents an unbelievable chance to enter a market literally starving for qualifiedproduct. The firm is currently looking for German distributors who cannot access medical grade cannabinoids via other routes including attending the ICBC in Berlin in April. “This year’s ICBC looks to be a seminal moment for NYSK,” says Keskovski. “We have taken the appropriate steps to ensure our high-quality standards have led to products that our customers, and eventually patients, can rely on. We look forward to the chance to showcase our achievements that we’ve worked so hard for. The ICBC will also present us with the opportunity to meet with potential distributors and future partners.”
German Patients are Going to be on the Front Lines of This Discussion
The difficulties that German patients have already faced in obtaining a drug that is now legal in their own country for medical use (and even for recreational purposes across an open border in Holland) are legion. While to a certain extent, German patients are in the same boat as patients elsewhere and their problems, in fact, there are still huge access issues that remain. For starters, the drug is much more expensive here, so those without health insurance approval face bills of about $3,000 per month. Why the eye-watering price? All medical grade cannabis is still imported, although increasingly this is now just via other EU countries, not just from Canada.
“One of the reasons we organized the national German Patient Roundtable is to give patients a voice in all of this supply and demand discussion and to help BfArM and others formulate workable solutions for all,” responded Philip Cenedella IV when reached for a response by CIJ. Cenedella, an American expat and the organizer of the Roundtable, a nationally focussed, umbrella group that is kicking off its campaign this year, spoke for many who are far from court and boardrooms where the decisions are being made.
“While there are very talented firms who will now take up this discussion with the government and reissue a response for the tender, what we continue to see on the ground is that patients simply do not have the access granted them in the law which was passed over a year ago,” Cenedella says, with more than a note of frustration. “We again are calling on all government officials, industry executives and patient advocates to band together to immediately establish workable protocols that directly help the patients.”
Indeed, despite the frustration and delay, if not new costs and opportunities that this decision creates, one thing is very clear on the ground here. The current status quo is unacceptable. That alone should also put pressure on the powers that be to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. And via several routes, including widening import quotas or even issuing new licenses as a new solution to domestic cultivation is implemented.
“Patients are not being served and do not have access to a medicine that has been proven to improve lives,” says Cenedella. “Our simple request is for BfArM to finally invite patients into their discussions, to work with patients to formulate workable cultivation and distribution solutions, and we humbly request that this happen now before they go down another dead-end road, ending in another court defeat, and resulting in even more delays to the patients that are still lacking the care afforded them by the German Federal Court’s decision of 2017.”
While reformers at this point are loath to do any more than publicly hope, events in the UK continue to unfold in favour of reform.
This time, it is in the wake of a highly upsetting and embarrassing incident that further highlights the human toll of prohibition. When the British Home Office (a combination of the State Department, Homeland Security and a few other federal U.S. agencies) refuses cannabis oil to six year-old Britons with epilepsy named Alfie, don’t expect the famed stiff upper lip in response.
Not anymore.Why on earth would a home-grown company deny treatment to a British kid with epilepsy?
Especially not when the rest of the EU is moving forward, Canada and Australia (both countries are a part of the British Commonwealth) are now firmly in the medical camp with Canada moving ahead with recreational use this summer. Not to mention continuing reform on both fronts in many U.S. states. Even with setbacks that include the Trump White House and Justice Department (the recently dismissed federal case in New York being just the latest casualty), recreational reform in California is an international beacon of change that will not go quietly into the night. Not now.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Dingley case in the UK, in sharp contrast, is how fast Parliament responded to the plight of the six-year-old and his mother. Not only has Dingley’s medical import license been reconsidered in Parliament, but the matter appears to have finally galvanized significant numbers of the British elected class to do something about an appalling situation that affects hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Brits too.
Cannabis Medical Refugees
Medical refugee policy, especially around cannabinoids, is at least as controversial as the other kind. In Europe and the rest of the world, just like cannabis reform itself, these are national, not state issues as they have been in the U.S., (where the issue of cannabis patient state “refugees” has nonetheless been an issue for most of this decade).
Outside of the U.S., however, it is still the case that national governments can be embarrassed into reform with the right case (or groups of them).
That was certainly true in Israel in 2014, when the so-called “15 Families” threatened to emigrate from Israel to Colorado unless the government allowed them to treat their sick kids (federal government policy was changed within a month). Not to mention an internal, state to state migration of families in the United States to Colorado around the same time.
It may also be true in this latest British case. The Home Office has been embroiled in a few embarrassing take backs of late, mostly on the topic of immigration of people. The Alfie-Dingley cannabis case hits both medical cannabis reform and lingering buyer’s remorse over Brexit where the British people actually live (and on topics they actually care about).
Refusing at least medical cannabis rights in the UK might also well tip the scales in favour of a redo on Brexit. Or at least capture the support of people who still dream of that possibility. While the UK is still part of the continent, British citizens also have the right to travel freely, with medical rights intact, to other countries and get treatment. The British are no strangers to this idea (in fact, many British retirees end up in Spain and Greece for precisely this reason). Add cannabis to the mix, and current British policy looks even more out of step with reality and the wishes of the British people. Even the older, more conservative and “middle class” (read: American working if not blue-collar class) ones.
Local Production and Prohibition
And then of course, there is this irony. GW Pharmaceuticals, one of the oldest, cannabis companies in the world, is located in the UK. It even grows its own crops there, and has a special license from the British government to do so.
Worse, in this particular situation, it also is busy bringing several cannabinoid-based anti-epileptic drugs (for children and adults) to the market.
Why on earth would a home-grown company deny treatment to a British kid with epilepsy? And how could a government grant a license to a company to develop the plant for profit, but not a child who desperately needs the drug to live?
In a move that seems more than coincidence, GW Pharma also reported this week that their product Epidiolex (for the treatment of childhood epilepsy) is being considered by the European Medicines Agency, while a separate drug also bound for the epilepsy market called GWP42006 had just failed a Phase IIa trial for focal seizures.
The business press of course, has mostly reported that the only impact of this development so far of course, is that the company took a hit on share price.
It might do a bit more than that. Starting with legislative reform and ending with the sparking of significant home-grown (and legal) competition.
The combined impact of a failed trial in Eastern Europe by the only British company licensed and qualified to produce medicinal cannabinoids for any reason, and the plight of a British boy at home who needs precisely this kind of drug (and has so far been denied it), might in fact be the tinder match that lights political and market reform if not the development of a cannabis industry (finally) in Great Britain.
Facing the same conundrum as police everywhere after the start of a medical market only this time with federal authorization, the head of the German police union has called for recreational use of cannabis to also be decriminalized.
On the first Monday of February, the head of the BDK – the Association of German Criminal Officers told The Bild (sort of like the New York Post but a national “tabloid” here) that his group, the largest organized union of German police officers, favoured a change in German cannabis laws. Andre Schulz argued that the current laws stigmatized those charged with minor amounts and created opportunities for “criminal careers to start.”
“The prohibition of cannabis has historically been seen as arbitrary and has not yet been implemented in an intelligent and effective manner,” says Schulz. “My prediction is that cannabis will not be banned for long in Germany.”
Why this sudden pronouncement? It is actually not all that sudden and has been long in the offing. One of the largest contingents at both the ICBC and the IACM last year (the biggest cannabis-focussed business and medical conferences in Germany) were police officers from California and Deutschland. And all were singing the same tune.
However beyond a realistic assessment of changing political reality, there are actually several other concrete reasons for not only the statement but the timing of it. In a country where patients can now pick up bud cannabis from the local apotheke (which is that easy for some, although it is still hard for most), the police have the unappetizing prospect of potentially arresting patients. On top of that, the idea of someone being arrested for CBD flower (rather than THC) gives the German polizei plenty of pause. Not to mention that they face this possibility at a time when many of them potentially could be patients themselves (or their families). The idea of arresting an activist in this situation is also one the police do not relish. Legalization rallies here get formal police protection when they march. Ask the average beat cop what they think about cannabis legalization and they tend to roll their eyes.
Then there is this: In stark contrast to the wars over prescribing medical cannabis at a state level in California in the late 90’s, here in Germany, there is a cultural commitment to the concept of sick people having a moral and civil right to obtain the medication they require. The idea of the police arresting them in the process of obtaining the same or because they might be recreational users, is as antithetic to core German sensibilities as the concept of Donald Trump as U.S. President. So is the idea of branding someone a “criminal” if not “drug user” for possession of a drug that is now used as medicine in Germany.
As has been rumoured for some time now, one of the few things that all political parties in Berlin can agree on is a change on the current cannabis laws.As a result, the very idea of both arresting the sick or labelling someone for the rest of their life with a police record for a drug “crime” that nobody considers as such anymore, causes a shock to the system. In many ways, German culture is far more conservative than the U.S. On another, there is a deeply humanistic, liberal strain to German life that also allows nudity, alternative healthcare and lifestyles to flourish (and not just all in Berlin). The current situation over cannabis, in other words, is becoming a political and legal embarrassment even to the beat officers who have to implement such laws.
And then of course there is this: One of the country’s top judges, Andreas Müller, a man well-known to the senior level of BDK, has recently written a book about the horrible situation that faces his own brother because of drug laws in Germany called “Kiffen und Kriminalität.”
Cannabis also falls into this crevice of cultural questioning if not the national zeitgeist of the moment, in multiple ways. It is, beyond the stigma, a natural medicine that is now federally recognized as such and one that the statutory health insurers (public healthcare) is required to cover. No matter that only 64% of submitted rezepts have been formally approved 11 months into Germany’s foray into this world. There are doctors writing them. And there are insurers picking up the tab.
It also means that there are at least 10,000 legal medical cannabis patients that der polizei have no wish to bother. And 10,000 German patients, who look the same as anyone else, are already too many legal users for current laws to stay in place.
Decriminalization, Cultivation & Changing Culture
There are some who say that Europe is “backwards” if not slower than the United States. Certainly those who experience German culture as Auslanders are struck by the procedural requirements of everyday life. Things do move slower here.
However when things do move, they are determinative shifts. Right now, it is impossible to live in the country and not be aware that Kiffen – a slang term for pot auf Deutsch – is legalizing in the U.S., Canada, the rest of Europe and of course other places. Further, Germans with their distrust of bureaucracy and authority and certainly currently rebellious mood, are looking to a way forward for the country in a sea of uncertainty both locally and regionally not to mention globally on any issue, no matter how “symbolic.”
As has been rumoured for some time now, one of the few things that all political parties in Berlin can agree on is a change on the current cannabis laws. The idea of decriminalization, now suggested by one of the country’s top cops, is a natural solution to political deadlock, if not a changing society.
The idea that other countries are also moving on this topic, from the now Brexiting UK to France next door, not to mention all the cultivation focused reform in many European countries, seems to indicate that decriminalization and even recreational reform are coming and now officially on the schedule, and not just to Germany but the entire continent.
Europe saw big developments on the cannabis front all year. This includes country-by-country developments that include legalization of medical use and even plans to begin domestic production, no matter how delayed such plans have turned out to be.
By far the most interesting market developments were in Germany all year. The Teutonic state has entered some interesting territory – even if its potential is still in the development rather than rollout status.
Elsewhere, however, medical acceptance is clearly starting to bloom across the continent in a way that is more reminiscent of American state development than what is about to happen in Canada.
One of the most interesting aspects of European reform however, that is in marked difference to what has happened in the U.S., is that grow facilities are being slowly established with federal authorization, even before further reform comes (see Turkey, Slovenia, Germany and even Denmark).
How reform will continue to roll out and shape the discussion however, is still a matter very much left up to individual European states. Cannabis legalization may become the first uniting issue of the new Deutsch ruling parliamentary coalition, whatever that is. In Spain, the cannabis question might yet be a play in simmering separatist tensions. Across the continent, legislatures are, for the first time in two generations, reconsidering what cannabis is, how it should be used, and what the penalties should be for those who use the drug either medicinally or recreationally.
Change is still all over the map. And it is still very, very slow.
The country’s federal legislators voted unanimously to mandate medical coverage of cannabis under public health insurance (which covers 90% of the population) on January 19th. Since then, however, forward movement has been stymied by a combination of forces and politics. While the legislation became law in March and the government established a cannabis agency, other developments have not been so clear cut. Yes, import licenses are being issued. And yes, there is a pending tender bid. However announcements of the finalists have been delayed since August due to lawsuits over qualifications of the growers, among other things. The new German government (whatever it will be) plus apparent CETA (EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement)-related complications have all added to the drama. That said, when the cannabis opera moves into its next act, as of probably early next year, expect to see domestic medical grow go forward. Importing medical supplies, even from across the continent (which is what is happening now) is ludicrously expensive. Rumours are already flying out of Berlin that further cannabis reform is one of the few things that all parties can agree to as a new government forms.
Sadly, the biggest cannabis-related “development” this year was the decision by all major health insurers to stop covering the drug, just as the German government changed its mind about the issue. Greater regulation of coffee shop grows coupled with this lack of insurance coverage means that patients are being forced into a coffee shop culture which is also commoditizing and commercializing into a high-volume affair, particularly in Amsterdam. While this might just be the new face of an old business, the laid back “coffee shop” culture of yore is an endangered species.
Catalonian independence made headlines globally this year. So did the associated bid for other freedoms of a cannabis sort – particularly in Barcelona. Club grows were set to become more regulated as of this summer. However the massive Catalonian bid for independence has further muddied the waters. Given the fact that cannabis reform appears to be at the forefront of finding political compromise elsewhere in Germany, perhaps givebacks about taxes for this industry might be one way to temper down the still-raging separatist forces afoot.
The Polish government surprised everyone this fall, and legalized the drug for medical purposes (at least in theory) in November. What this actually means for patients is another story. There are no plans to cultivate on the radar. Patients under the new law are allowed to travel to other countries to seek their medical cannabis. How they might afford it is another question. Not to mention how they will escape prosecution from personal importation if checked at a border.
Polish pharmacists will however be trained on how to make medicaments from imported cannabis. They will have to be registered with the Office for the Registration of Medical Products. This means that pharmacists must be pre-registered with the government – in a move much like the early days of the Israeli medical program. The medicine is expected to cost about $460 a month. How well this will work in serving the country’s more than 300,000 already eligible patients is another story.
Cannabis economists have long said that what the Greeks really need to heal their economy is a vibrant cannabis injection. And as of mid-November early investors in the nascent market had already staked close to $2 billion in cultivation opportunities. Senior ministers in the government have also publicly backed plans to move Greece into a strategic position to claim a piece of a global cannabis market estimated to reach 200 billion dollars a year by the end of the next decade. It means jobs. It means capital infusions. Exactly, in other words, what the Greek economy desperately needs. Expect to see further formalization of the grow program here in 2018 for sure.
It appears that quite a few countries in Europe are pushing for real cannabis reform by the end of the year, and this little EU country is joining the list. With a unanimous agreement in Parliament already to change the country’s drug policy, Lithuania’s legislators could vote to legalize the drug on December 12th of this year. All signs look promising.
MCG, an Australian-based company, made news in the fall by announcing a new cannabinoid extraction facility in the country, on track for completion this year. The company also ramped up domestic production operations in August. Real reform here still has a long way to go. However with domestic production underway, greater medical use looks promising.
The country signed a production agreement to open a new facility in Odense, the country’s third largest city with Spektrum Cannabis, the medical brand of one of the largest Canadian producers (Canopy Cannabis) now seeking a foothold in Europe late this fall. What this means for ongoing reform in Denmark is also positive. The company will import cannabis via Spektrum Denmark until all the necessary approvals are ironed out for cultivation.
While “reform” here is less of an issue than it is elsewhere (since all drugs are decriminalized), Portugal might yet play an interesting role in cross-European legalization. Tilray, another large Canadian-American firm with interests in Europe, announced the construction of a large medical cannabis facility in the country earlier this year. That plant could easily ship medical supplies across Europe as new countries legalize but do not implement grow facilities.
Next Frontier Biosciences announced the launch of their new product line, Verra Wellness, in the Colorado market this week. The products are designed with relatively new concepts for the cannabis market, including nasal, sublingual and topical administration.
The company claims their product is the first-ever cannabis nasal mist. Co-founded by biotech executives Marc Graboyes and Dr. Paul Johnson, Ph.D, Next Frontier Biosciences is developing this product line with three formulations, each with a different ratio of THC and CBD. According to a press release, Next Frontier Biosciences is focused on developing cannabis products with these new drug delivery methods, and even offering a microdosing option.
“We believe that leveraging science and research is the key to optimizing product development,” says Dr. Johnson, one of the co-founders. “With the introduction of our Verra Wellness line of products, we are reshaping the cannabis industry by offering trusted products that provide uniform composition, formulation and dosing in highly consistent modes of administration.”
Their topical salves in the Verra Wellness product line are “designed to permeate skin and muscle tissue deeply without penetrating the blood stream or causing psychoactive effects,” reads a press release. In addition to the nasal mist and topical salve, they also launched a sublingual spray.
According to Marc Graboyes, chief executive officer and co-founder of Next Frontier Biosciences, drug delivery mechanisms like a nasal mist are superior to smoking, vaporizing and edible administration. “Nasal administration is among the most effective delivery technologies due to the extensive vascularization and large surface area of the nasal cavity, allowing for rapid uptake and reliable results,” says Graboyes. “The cannabis nasal mist is a novel technology that other brands have not yet tapped into.”
He says this drug delivery mechanism is efficient, fast acting and a healthy alternative to smoking. “For many, nasal delivery is a desirable alternative delivery mechanism because it does not present the health risks associated with smoking,” says Graboyes. “In addition, as previously mentioned, the large surface area of the nasal cavity permits high drug absorption, and the fine-mist sprayer allows for accurate, consistent dosing and an excellent safety profile. Further, nasal delivery avoids first-pass metabolism by the liver, where a large fraction of orally delivered cannabinoids are inactivated.”
While the Verra Wellness product line is available in Colorado starting this week, the company has plans to expand into a number of other states as well. “We are executing a multi-state expansion, with plans to move into the California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada markets in the coming year,” says Graboyes.
Munich, Germany- In a darkened movie studio on the east end of town, the Digital Insurance Agenda or DIA, the largest insurtech conference in the world, kicked off its annual event in mid-November. The sold-out event attracted about 1,000 top insurance executives from 40 countries and all six continents.
CannabisIndustryJournal attended from the perspective of investigating the overall status of digitalization in the industry. However, there were a couple of things we were on the hunt for. The first was to see how and where blockchain has begun to penetrate the industry. This revolutionary processing and identification layer of digital communications is coming – and fast – to the insurance industry everywhere.
We were also there of course to see if cannabis was anywhere on the agenda. Digitized or not.
By way of disclosure, I am also a high tech entrepreneur with my own insurtech, blockchain-based start-up that we are in the process of launching. MedPayRx is intended to be the first insurance product that will help patients access their meds facing nothing but their co-pay and help insurers automate the approvals process for all prescription drugs and medical devices.
By definition, in Germany, this includes medical cannabis.
Ultimately, our mission is to take the paper and the pain of all reimbursement out of the prescription process. At present, as anyone with a chronic condition knows, many medications and medical devices must be paid for out of pocket first and then reimbursed via a claims process that is paper-based, laborious and expensive. This is not a model that works for anyone. Certainly not poor and chronically ill patients who face this process at least monthly. And certainly not insurers who are now facing higher drug costs if not more claims reimbursements for the same from an aging population.
In a country like Germany where 90% of the population is covered by public health insurance, the situation also poses quandaries of a kind that are rocking the fundamental concept of inclusive public healthcare.
The Impact of Digitalization On The Insurance Industry
As one insurance executive and speaker mentioned from the stage during DIA, there are few industries that are more universally despised than insurance in general. And few verticals where the existing mantra is “you cannot do it worse.” The insurance industry is well aware of that. Further, for all insurances that are not “mandatory” the competition is fierce for consumers’ bucks. Particularly in places like Europe where insurance is also seen as a kind of savings scheme.
If you are a private insurer, of any kind, or offering services to both end consumers and B2B services, you are out of the game if you are not now thinking how to streamline and upgrade all aspects of your business in the digital era. There are many start-ups now tackling what is euphemistically called “cloud2cloud” integrations.
What does that mean?
According to DIA co-founders Reggy de Feniks and Roger Peverelli, the influence of tech in general is here to stay and is now driving widespread innovation across the industry. “The DIA line-up and the massive response among the audience show that insurtech is now mainstream,” says de Feniks. “This edition clearly showed the…ever growing attention for artificial intelligence, machine learning and other shapes of advanced analytics.”
“Platform thinking, thinking beyond insurance and creating new insurtech enabled services will be the next challenge for insurers,” added Peverelli.
Subtext? Insurers want your data. They want to use tech to analyse and understand it. The technology is here. But is the regulation? Specifically, in an industry that wants to know everything about you, how is privacy understood and implemented with revolutionary tech?
A Cloud-Based Future
Paper is rapidly becoming an old-fashioned concept in insurance, much like it has in banking. And like banking, insurance has a strong “financial” side to it. Germans, for example, tend to use insurance policies as retirement accounts, (the idea of a 401K is almost unheard of here). And by far, the most dynamic and digitalized part of the industry tends to be in areas unrelated to healthcare.
Some of the most interesting start-ups at DIA were actually weather-based.
The challenges of these types of insurtechs of convincing both regulators and the industry that such services are not only feasible but needed, pale in comparison however, to the challenge now facing all public health insurers.
And while they were certainly present at DIA, this industry segment was underrepresented at the November gathering. There is a reason for this. The real threat to consumer medical privacy is only growing, not receding in an era where data can be seamlessly transferred globally and digitally.
For that reason, blockchain has many uses and applications in this part of the vertical.
MedPayRx – even as a pre-seed start-up, was not, even this year, the only blockchain-based service we found in attendance at DIA. Next year look for even more.
Blockchain might be the next new “buzzy” tech, but in the insurance industry, there is a real reason for it.
What Was The Response To A Cannabis-Themed “Insurtech?”
As readers in the United States know, health insurance and cannabis is a loaded subject. And while insurance services are beginning to be available as high-risk commercial services for the industry, inclusive health insurance is still off the table because of the lack of federal reform.
Other places, however, the issue is taking a fascinating turn. And in Germany, right now, the situation so far has shaped up to be cannabis vs. public health insurance. It is a mainstreaming trial drug in other words. For that reason, beyond any lingering but rapidly fading stigma, it is a fertile time to be in the middle of it, with a tech solution.
It is also perfect timing from the digitalization and privacy perspective. Unlike the U.S., Germany in particular has tended to keep its insurance services, certainly on the health front, undigitalized because of privacy concerns. That is no longer feasible from a cost perspective. It is also increasingly one that has to be dealt with from a tech and regulatory one.
Why Is CannabisIndustryJournal At DIA?
My nametag identifying me as both “media” and of a certain green source, was the source of endless discussion with everyone I talked to. Many attendees were extremely curious about why a cannabis industry publication was at an insurance conference. And most people, certainly the non-Germans in attendance, were unaware that per federal law, cannabis is now, at least in theory, covered by public health insurance here.
Medical insurance that treats cannabis just like “any other drug” is a discussion at the forefront of the medical community in Europe. Even if not at health insurance industry events like DIA. Yet. In the last year, in fact, Dutch insurers have started refusing to cover the drug as the German government moved forward on mandating coverage.
In other places, like Australia, Israel and Canada, the conversation is also proceeding, albeit slowly within the context of public health coverage.
However compliance and tracking of the drug itself, not to mention the need for research on how cannabis interacts with other drugs mandates a consideration of how digital health records, privacy and tracking can exist in the same conversation. And further, can be accessed by the insurance industry, the government and policy makers as reform moves into its 2.0 iteration – namely federal recognition of the drug as a legitimate medicine.
We at MedPayRx think we have one answer. And next year, we hope to present from the stage as we continue to move forward with engaging the insurance industry here on all such fronts. Not to mention helping move the conversation forward in other places. And of course, launching services.
In a memo sent throughout the Department of Justice on April 5th, attorney general Jeff Sessions outlines the establishment of the Department’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. That task force, largely focused on violent crime, is supposed to find ways that federal prosecutors can more effectively reduce illegal immigration, violent crimes and gun violence.
The task force is made up of subcommittees, according to the memo, and one of them is focused on reviewing federal cannabis policy. “Task Force subcommittees will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities,” the memo reads. “Another subcommittee will explore our use of asset forfeiture and make recommendations on any improvements needed to legal authorities, policies, and training to most effectively attack the financial infrastructure of criminal organizations.” Those existing policies that Sessions refers to in the memo could very well be the 2013 Cole Memorandum, an Obama administration decree that essentially set up a framework for states with legal cannabis laws to avoid federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.
In the past, Sessions has said he thinks the Cole Memo is valid, but remains skeptical of medical cannabis. In the last several months, comments made by Sessions and White House press secretary Sean Spicer have sparked outrage and growing fears among stakeholders in the cannabis industry, including major business players and state lawmakers. As a general feeling of uncertainty surrounding federal cannabis policy grows, many are looking for a safe haven, which could mean looking to markets outside of the U.S., like Canada, for example.
Washington State’s former Attorney General Rob McKenna, Washington State’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Moran, and Maryland’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Kay Winfree recently went on the record identifying the BioTrack THC traceability system as fully compliant with the Cole Memo. “The key to meeting the requirements of the Cole Memorandum is ‘both the existence of a strong and effective state regulatory system, and an operation’s compliance with that system’,” says the former attorney general and chief deputy attorneys general in a press release. “As described above, Washington State has a robust, comprehensive regulatory scheme that controls the entire marijuana supply chain.
The flagship component of this regulatory scheme is the WSLCB’s seed to sale inventory system, the BioTrackTHC Traceability System.” Those commendations from a former attorney general could provide some solace to business operating with the seed-to-sale traceability software.
Still though, worries in the industry are fueled by speculation and a general lack of clarity from the Trump Administration and the Department of Justice. In an email obtained by an open records request and first reported by the International Business Times, a DEA supervisor asked a Colorado prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office about a number of cannabis-related prosecutions. The DEA supervisor asked for the state docket numbers of a handful of cases, including one involving cannabis being shipped out of state, according to The Denver Post. “Some of our intel people are trying to track down info regarding some of DEA’s better marijuana investigations for the new administration,” reads the email. “Hopefully it will lead to some positive changes.” So far, only speculations have emerged pertaining to its significance or lack thereof and what this could possibly mean for the future of federal cannabis policy.
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