Lessthan a week after Cannabis Industry Journal reported that BfArM had finally cancelled the first German tender bid for cannabis cultivation, and after refusing to confirm the story to this outlet, the agency quietly posted the new one online, at 3.45pm Central European Time, July 19.
First Thing’s First
For those who have not seen it yet, here is a first look at the “new” bid auf Deutsch. It is basically identical to the last one. For the most part, Europe is shaping up to be a high volume ex-im market.For now, that is all that exists. However,a move is on in Europe to translate the bid into English. Why? To hold BfArM accountable. And to help educate all the foreign and for the most part, non-German speaking investors who want to know what is required to get the bid in the first place. The process last time left a great deal to be desired.
Apart from this, however, very little seems to have changed from the last time. Notably,the amount to be grown domestically is the same. This means that the government is deliberately setting production below already established demand.
As has become increasingly clear, the German government at leastdoes not want to step into the cultivation ring. Further,because they are being forced to, the government wants to proceed slowly. That means that for at least the next couple of years, barring local developments, it is actively creating a market where imports are the only kind of cannabis widely available – for any purpose. And in this case, strictly medical. With many, many restrictions. Starting with no advertising.
For the most part, Europe is shaping up to be a high volume ex-im market. This was already in the offing even last year when Tilray announced the constructionof their Portuguese facilities last summer, and Aurora and Canopy began expanding all over the continent, starting in Denmark, but hardly limited to the same.
These days it is not the extreme west of Europe (Spain and Portugal) that are the hot growingareas, but the Balkans and Greece. Cheap labour, real estate and GMP standards are the three magic words to market entry.
Can This Situation Hold?
There are several intriguing possibilities at this point. The simple answer is that the current environment is simply not sustainable.
Clearly, it is two-fold. The first is to deleverage the power of financial success as a way of legitimizing the drug if not the “movement.” Further, if Germans want to profit from the legal cannabis market it is going to be very difficult. See the bid last year beyond this new development.
That means everyone else is going to have to get creative. The industry, advocates and patients have seen similar moves before. Patient access and profitability are not necessarily the same thing.An increasing numbers of companies are finding ways around being cultivators to get their product into the country anyway.
The only problem with such strategies, just like banning German firms from competing in the bid, is that “prohibition” of this kind never works.
It will not keep cannabis out of Germany. The vast majority of the medical cannabis consumed by patients in Germany will come from the extremes – of east and western Europe – with Canadian, Dutch and even Danish stockpiles used as necessary. It will also not discourage the domestic cannabis movement here, which is critical as ever in keeping powerful feet to the fire.
It will also not discourage German firms from entering the market – in a variety of creative ways. Most German cannabis companies are not public, and most are setting themselves up as processors and distributors rather than growers.
So in summary, the bid is back. But this time, it is absolutely not as “bad” as ever. An increasing numbers of companies are finding ways around being cultivators to get their product into the country anyway.
As for raising money via public offerings? There are plenty of other countries where the publicly listed, now banned North American companies can raise funds on public exchanges (see Sweden and Denmark) as they target the cannabis fortress Deutschland.
Calls for more testing have been a watchword of both cannabis reform advocates and opponents alike for many years.
However, now is a really good time for cannabis companies to consider sponsoring medical trials across Europe for their cannabis products. This is why:
The Current Environment On The Ground
Germany is Europe’s biggest consumer of both prescription medications and medical devices dispensed by prescription. It is, as a result, Europe’s most valuable drug market. And ground zero for every international cannabis company right now as a result.Targeting Germany for your latest pharmaceutical product is difficult no matter who you are.
Here, however, are a few problems that face every pharma manufacturer, far beyond cannabis. Targeting Germany for your latest pharmaceutical product is difficult no matter who you are.
The vast majority by euro spending on all drugs and devices dispensed by prescription must be pre-approved. To add to this problem, before they can be prescribed, new drugs must get on the radar of doctors somehow. To put this in stark relief, the entire prescription drug and medical device annual spend is about 120 billion euros a year in Germany. Only 20 billion euros of that, however, may be obtained relatively easily (without pre-approval from an insurer). Preapproval also only comes when there is trialor other scientific evidence of efficacy.
There are strict rules banning the advertising of prescription drugs to patients and highly limiting this outreach to doctors.
There are strict rules prohibiting the use of the word “cannabis” to promote anything.
There is a strong reliance on what is called “evidence-based medicine.” That means that large numbers of doctors and insurance company approvers need to see hard data that this drug or device actually works better than what is currently on the market.
How then, is a new drug supposed to get on the radar of those who prescribe the drug? Or patients?
If this sounds like an impossible situation to navigate, do not despair. There is a way out.
Largely unknown outside Europe, this agency actually has a hugeinfluence on how drugs are brought into the region. Specifically, this is the EU-wide agency (aka the EMA) that both regulates all drugs within Europe, but has also, since 2016, been making clinical reports submitted by pharmaceutical companies, available to anyone who asks for them. That includes doctors, members of the public and of course, the industry itself.
In the middle of July, the agency also published a report on the success of its now three-year-old program, including the usage of its entry website. Conveniently written in English, it is possible to easily search new trial data, which, also now must be made public.
Medical trial data, in other words, that can be created by sponsored cannabis company backed trials.
It remains the best way to get patients, doctors and insurance companies familiar with new drugs. Or even new uses for old drugs in the case of cannabis.
Will Trials Move Legalization Discussions?
Of all the established cannabis companies now in operations with producton the ground, GW Pharmaceuticals has learned that this strategy can actually cut both ways.
However,there are no other cannabis companies in the position of GW Pharma – namely with a monopoly on a whole country (the UK), where it alone can legally grow cannabis crops and process the same into medication and further for very profitable export. In addition, even more disturbingly, and clearly an era that is coming to an end, the vast majority of British patients have been excluded from access to cannabis except in the case of GW Pharma products.
Other cannabis companies can take a page out of the company’s handbook. All that is required for faster market entry, is a slightly altered recipe.
By sponsoring cannabis-related trials in each country they want to enter, starting with Germany, cannabis companies can literally put themselves on the medical map.
Because doctors, patients andother researchers will be easily able to see and access country-specific medical data on each use of cannabis covered by a trial, per EU country. All made possible, of course, by the new open door policy of the EMA.
Growing the Medical Market
While this may sound like an “expensive” proposition, there are really few other alternatives. And with no advertising budget, plus a marketing budget that must include outreach to everyone in the supply chain including doctors, distributors and even pharmacies, the trial approach in the end may be the most efficacious in broadening both the demand and market. Not to mention the cheaper option.
How such a trial strategy might be coordinated at a time when domestic cultivation is still on hold is still a question. However for those companies considering market entry and cultivation bid if not domestic processing strategies for their products is an industry strategy that will pay off in spades.
Its role in the legalization of cannabis as medicine, as well as the speedier introduction of new drugs overall into the European system,cannot be underestimated, even if it is currently underutilized by the cannabis industry specifically now.
The Canadian cannabis community has just gotten a new member. Tree of Knowledge, Inc. just became Canada’s newest public cannabis company. The company is also planning on raising $10 million in private placement capital. According to the company’s most current pitch deck, the planned use of proceeds includes $6.5 million for new capex expenditures in Canada and Macedonia plus new product development. The rest is slated for patient and doctor outreach including via social media, new hires and working capital.
Who Is Tree of Knowledge Inc.?
Founded originally in Washington State in 2015, today TOK has a global market presence with CBD products on three continents and is already positioning itself to run with the big boys on the international scene, just on its CBD footprint. In the online marketplace, they are doing business as EVR CBD. That includes state markets in the United States, Europe, South America, Australia and China.
The company also has a distinguished board that includes doctors to former professional sports stars. As of April, the company engaged in a reverse merger with Courtland Capital, a Nevada subsidiary company.
And as of July 2018, the company purchased 5% of NYSK Holdings – a rapidly establishing Macedonian start-up with an eye to the European market – starting with Germany.
Who Is NYSK Holdings?
NYSK Holdings is absolutely on an upward trajectory. The company, founded by Americans with strong ties to the home country along with local partners, broke ground in Skopje, Macedonia last year.
Company principals have been exploring entry into the European market ever since (Macedonia may be in the Balkans, but it is technically not part of the EU). Significantly, this also means that producers there are used to meeting European specs for import purposes, if not hopeful EU inclusion.
Like other EU partners in the west however, (notably Spain and Portugal) labour rates are also much lower than in Germany. This creates a new avenue into the EU and the German market, which is now going to be an import-dominant one until 2020.
What is even more interesting about NYSK? They produce GMP-certified product – both THC and CBD. They have been looking for partners for most of this year. They also had a booth at the ICBC in Berlin, an experience that they found highly satisfactory.
Their strategic importance to TOK is also large. NYSK brings, for the first time, THC products and high-tech processing capacity adjacent to the European Union to a firm with a global footprint.
They might, in other words, have been Europe’s most under-priced production facility. Don’t expect that to last long.
What Is Interesting About The Move
One glance at TOK’s founders, board, andadvisors is enough to establish that this is a company of mostly older Gen X and younger Boomer heavy hitters from other industries who are pooling resources and knowledge to step into a global medical cannabis space. Smartly.
For example, the focus on dosing control, trials and an operational, GMP-certified production facility in Macedonia, plus their Canadian footprint, makes TOK and their partners well suited for “European invasion.” So does their first product – a CBD-based sleep aid.
This creates, in other words, a company with Canadian and Macedonian production, American entry and global reach, including into countries other cannabis companies have so far not breached (see China), with an interesting, low-cost, lower risk entry profile. Their expanded market entry is also occurring right at a time when Europe, including the about to be Brexited UK, is now moving forward on medical reform sans very much local production.
Perhaps this comes from the experience of the principals. TOK Cofounder Michael Caridi started his involvement in the cannabis industry in Washington State in 2014 after a successful real estate and promotions career on the East Coast (New York) and experience in ex-im. However, Caridi rapidly grew disillusioned with the state’s focus if not an obsessionon a more recreational space than medical users. He and Brian Main, now president of US operations, founded TOK a year later. Current CEO, John-Paul Gaillard, has a history that includes the creator of the Marlboro Classics brand and a stint as the CEO of Nestle Nespresso who put the idea on the map if not kitchen counters globally.
No newbies here when it comes to global market strategies, penetration and experience.
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.
British Home Secretary Sajid Javid appears to have become the most high ranking cannabis advocate in the British government. He has just launched a review into medicinal uses of cannabis in the UK. However, this dramatic change in policy has only come after a series of high profile campaigns and escalating battles for access waged by patients and their families against a government which has remained stubbornly intransigent in the face of growing evidence of medical efficacy and reform elsewhere. In fact, the cannabis “Battle of Britain” has come to resemble the contretemps in Israel over the same issue four years ago that led to a national review of medical use and greater patient access.
It is expected that this recent turn of events will open better access for more British medical users. The fact that the timing of all of this comes as GW Pharma has received the right to distribute Epidiolex in the U.S. as the first FDA-approved cannabis-based medicine is not only part of the irony but the underlying problematic politics surrounding all of this. Starting with the timing of who has access to what, and under what circumstances. As it stands, Epidiolex is also the only cannabis-based drug now eligible in the United States for healthcare coverage. The rest of the market is so-far excluded from it. Unlike, it should be pointed out the situation in the UK, the rest of the Commonwealth, and of course, the EU. Starting with Germany.
A Major Win for Patients
Celebrate one for Alfie! Alfie Dingley that is – the British 6 year old with epilepsy who has become one of the most well-known faces of medical justice for cannabis users in the UK. Dingley and his parents waged a battle since last fall over his right to consume low THC cannabis oil that allows him to manage his epilepsy. He has just been granted an emergency license to import the oil from the Netherlands.
But this is also a victory for Billy Caldwell, the twelve-year-old who ended up in emergency care in hospital recently after his medical oil (from Canada) was confiscated at the border. Video of border control agents at Heathrow Airport removing the oil from the Caldwells caused a national outcry in the UK. Caldwell’s mother, Charlotte, has also waged a high profile battle for access, including at the doors of the hospital her son was admitted to last week. She has also started her own CBD company named after her son.
Like the rest of Europe, which the UK still technically is part of until Brexit, the focus here has very much been on medical use.And of course, this new indication in change of policy is seen as a major victory if not step forward for literally thousands if not millions of Britains who suffer from chronic conditions that are still drug resistant (like Epilepsy but not limited to the same.)
As he addressed the House of Commons on the issue of medicinal cannabis use, Javid said “It has become clear to me since becoming home secretary that the position that we find ourselves in currently is not satisfactory…I have now come to the conclusion that it is time to review the scheduling of cannabis.” As in the US, cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug in the UK – with supposedly no medical efficacy. This new development clearly challenges that scheduling – but where and how?
Recreational Is Still Not On The Table
Like the rest of Europe, which the UK still technically is part of until Brexit, the focus here has very much been on medical use. This is for several reasons, including a much better and more inclusive public health system – despite imminent fears about the longevity of the British National Health Service (NHS).
In the UK, however, further reform is not likely to move fast. Unlike anywhere else, cannabis production is essentially limited to one company – GW Pharmaceuticals – who themselves have high standing political connections that continue to oppose reform. This is not based on science but rather profit. Despite the fact that the British Isles are the largest exporter of medical cannabinoid pharmaceuticals in the world, British patients are still largely excluded from access. The only reason that these children and their parents were able to pierce the wall of privilege and profit that has driven the debate here since the late 90’s is that GW Pharmaceutical’s cannabinoid concoctions do not work on this kind of epilepsy. Plus the failure of a recent trial of their new drug (shamefully in Europe, not even conducted in the UK).
As a result, GW Pharmaceuticals and the well placed scions of British society who have profited directly and personally from this situation have little choice but to back down – but not by much. As soon as Javid announced his intention to do a review of British policy, former Tory (conservative) leader Lord William Hague called for full legalization. An initiative that as of June 19 was rejected by the government.
Is Medical Finally About To Get Its Due?
In Europe, politically, the frustration is clearly growing. And much like in the United States circa 2012, activists and advocates realize that medical access is the first step towards full reform. However here there is a marked difference to what is going on in both the U.S. and Canada. And in turn, this may bring a long overdue focus on the medical issue that has continually been obscured and overlooked by the industry itself as soon as recreational seems it is in reach.
When real and regulated medical markets are allowed to flourish, the first beneficiaries are both children and women, not middle-aged men. That is clearly the face of the “average” German patient now that the data of the first year has come in. It is also likely to be the case of the British patient as well as Europeans across the continent.In Europe, politically, the frustration is clearly growing
Further, as cannabis has become more of an accepted treatment, this is in turn forcing governments (and even the industry itself) to begin, for the first time, to consider funding widespread trials – and of the raw plant itself along with extracts and other forms the drug can be consumed in.
What does this really herald, in fact then besides relief for chronically ill patients? The first widespread scientific inquiry into the efficacy of cannabinoids outside of Israel.
And that too, is cause for celebration. Congrats Alfie and Billie! And all the people who helped move the issue forward.
Techniker Krankenkassen (or TK as it is also frequently referred to) is one of Germany’s largest public or so-called “statutory” health insurance companies. It is companies like TK that provide health insurance to 90% of the German population.
TK is also on the front lines of the medical cannabis discussion. In fact, TK, along with other public health insurers AOK and Barmer, have processed the most cannabis prescriptions of all insurers so far in the first year after the law change. There are now approximately 15,000 patients who have received both a proper prescription and insurance approval coverage. That number is also up 5,000 since the beginning of just this year.
In a fascinating first look at the emerging medical market in Germany, TK, in association with the University of Bremen, has produced essentially the first accessible report on approvals, and patient demographics for this highly stigmatized drug.
Because it is in German, but also contains information critical to English-speaking audiences in countries where the medical issue is being approached more haphazardly (see the U.S. and Canada), Cannabis Industry Journal is providing a brief summary of the most important takeaways from TK’s Cannabis Report.
Most Patients Are Women
This is not exactly surprising in a system where symptomology rather than ability to pay is the driver of authorizations and care. This is also exactly the opposite trend when it comes to gender at least, that emerged in Colorado on the path to medical legalization circa 2010-2014. While chronic pain is still the most common reason for dispensation, the drug is going mostly to women, not men, in their forties, fifties and sixties.
Even Chronically Ill Patients Are Still not Getting Covered
This data is super interesting on the ground for both advocates and those who are now pushing forward on “doctor education” efforts that are springing up everywhere. The only condition for which cannabis was approved 100% was for patients suffering from terminal cancer pain from tumours. In other words, they were also either in hospice or hospital where this kind of drug can be expedited and approved quickly. Other conditions for which the drug was approved were both at far lower rates than might have been expected (see only a 70% approval rate for Epilepsy and a 33% approval rate for Depression).
Expect approval rates to change, particularly for established conditions where the drug clearly helps patients, even if there are still questions about dosing and which form of cannabis works best, along with improved research, data and even patient on boarding.
Also expect interesting data to come out of this market for patients with ADHD (or ADHS).
Imported Cannabis Is Very Expensive
TK and other public health insurers are also on the front lines of another issue not seen in any other legalizing cannabis country at the moment. An eye-wateringly high cost per patient. The biggest reason? Most of the medical cannabis in the market is being imported. This will change when more cannabis begins to enter the market from other EU countries (see Spain, the Baltics and Greece) and, yes, no matter how many elements of the German government are still fighting this one when it begins to be cultivated auf Deutschland.
Most German Patients Are Still Only Getting Dronabinol
If there was one thing that foreign investors should take a look at, it is this. One year after legalization, just over 1/3 of those who actually qualify for “medical cannabis” are in fact getting whole plant medication or a derivative (like Sativex).
This means only one thing. The market is continuing to grow exponentially over at least the next five to ten years.
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.
It is old news that Canadian companies are entering the European market. And it is also no stop-the-presses flash that Germany is a big prize in all of this. But there are other Euro markets to watch right now. Switzerland is one of them.
Look for the Canadian influx here too.
One of the more interesting entrants this month? Green Relief – a Canadian LP with a really unique twist. They are the only company in the world to produce cannabis oil from flower grown with aquaponics. This unique method creates unbelievably “clean” cannabis with no pesticides – and no residue of them.
It also sets the company up for a really unique market opportunity on the ground outside Canada. Especially as they have now just announced a partnership with two Swiss companies– Ai Fame GmbH and Ai Lab Swiss AG. Both companies have been leading European pharmaceutical companies since the turn of the century. The idea is to leverage all three company’s intellectual capital with Green Relief’s additional and first international investment with an eye to the entire European cannabis market. Ai Fame specializes in cultivation, manufacturing, sales and distribution to both the food and medical sectors. Ai Lab Swiss AG operates as a laboratory and testing facility.Less than three weeks before Green Relief publicized their European announcement, there were also strategic developments afoot at home.
From this unique perch in the Swiss canton of St Gallen, the three companies are setting up to conquer Europe.
Why Is Switzerland So Strategic?
Switzerland has been on the legalization track since 2011. As of this date, the Swiss government began allowing adults to buy and use CBD-only cannabis. Shops were allowed to obtain licenses. A trickle of sales began. However, rather suddenly, as reform hit Europe, the craze took off. Last year, for the first time, the industry generated a significant amount of revenue (close to $100 million). That is $25 million for the government via taxes- just on CBD sales. Even more intriguing for those looking for market opportunity across borders? Less than a week ago, the German-based budget discount store Lidl just announced they were carrying smokeable CBD – in Swiss grocery stores. The leap across the border is imminent.
That has opened up other conversations, including the “legalize everything” push that makes an awful lot of sense to the ever tax-aware Swiss. This is a push afoot just about everywhere across the continent, including, of course, just across the border in Germany.
The cities of Zurich and the cantons of both Winterthur and St Gallen (home of the Swiss companies behind the new venture with Green Relief) have already indicated that they will not pursue possession fines for those busted with 10 grams or less– no matter what kind and even of the THC variety.
Read between the lines, and it is clear that the cannabinoid conversation locally has begun to attract the Canadians. And not just because of the many opportunities of the Swiss CBD market – but the huge medical and THC German and European opportunities now opening beyond that.
No matter which way Green Relief and their new partners slice it, they are now in the game – and across Europe – with a unique new play and product, and further one set to enter both the medical THC and “consumer,” albeit still CBD, market now burgeoning.
A Cross Market Play
Here is the truly interesting part about this new announcement. Less than three weeks before Green Relief publicized their European announcement, there were also strategic developments afoot at home. Cannabis Growth Opportunity Corporation also just announced an investment in Green Relief. The share purchase agreement netted Green Relief $750,000 in both cash and common shares.
With this, Green Relief seems to have set sail on its European expansion. Look for more interesting turns to this developing saga soon!
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.
According to a press release, the Steep Hill team announced they are expanding internationally in a big way on Monday. Steep Hill, a well-known cannabis lab-testing and research company with roots in California, announced plans for licensing agreements in Mexico, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
The Canadian branch of the company, Steep Hill Canada, will lead the expansion efforts into Mexico and the six European Union countries. According to Martin Shefsky, chief executive officer of Steep Hill Worldwide, they are actively looking for other operating partners in new areas as well. “I’m extremely pleased at the opportunity to partner with Steep Hill to bring safe cannabis and scientific integrity to emerging international markets,” says Shefsky. “I anticipate that before long, full legalization will be implemented throughout the European Union and our presence will enable growers, producers, processors, and retailers – to offer standardized tested cannabis for patients and consumers across the European Union, while also enabling us to create a platform to share scientific and technology developments throughout the global cannabis market.”
In 2016, Steep Hill announced new licensing agreements to expand into Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. In August of 2017, they expanded to Hawaii and several months later announced their expansion into Oregon. “It is an exciting time for us and our investors, as we pursue this first-mover advantage in anticipation of new global cannabis import-export markets,” says Jmîchaeĺe Keller, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Steep Hill, Inc.
“In unregulated markets, we want to be on the ground supporting the legalization and regulatory process, helping regulators avoid making the mistakes that other jurisdictions have made in the past,” Keller says. “We believe that our role as the industry standard, allows us to leverage our world-class scientific knowledge and state of the art technology to help regulators provide confidence in the marketplace that the cannabis patients consume, is both safe and effective. We look forward to collaborating closely with Martin and his group to strive for this gold standard, across all international borders.”
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