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.
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.”
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.
The French have always been known for possessing a certain national savoire faire. In English, that translates to a phrase meaning innate understanding of how to do things with a certain amount of panache, if not bonhomie. International diplomacy was long conducted in French as a result.
However, when it comes to the famed French silver tongue or sophistication on the cannabis issue, and well, not so much. As is widely acknowledged, even by the French, the country is stuck in the Dark Ages when it comes to cannabis. Almost literally. Including having the strictest and harshest penalties for possession anywhere in Europe. Such penalties do not include a stint in the Bastille. But they can involve prison time, and they are ridiculously harsh. Quelle Horreure! Not mention, Vive la Revolution!
Nobody has said (yet) “Let them eat spice cake.” But France is now clearly an outlier in a continent moving towards cannabis reform of (at least) the medical and decriminalized kind.The most recent statistics suggest that 17 million French people have tried cannabis.
And herein lies the French paradox. Despite the highest per capita usage of any European country, French cannabis consumers have not turned into effective advocates on the political front.
How High Are The French?
The most recent statistics suggest that 17 million French people have tried cannabis. 1.4 million use it regularly, about half of those on a daily basis. And here is the exciting (read: terrifying part). Users (not dealers) face up to a year in prison on the first offense, plus a fine of 3,750 euros (about $4,000).
Mon Dieu! Who on earth do the French think they are? A southern American state? One that probably actually banned “French” fries during a dull day at the state ‘lege when politically inspired to do so a few years back?
But even that epithet doesn’t cut it anymore in an environment where Florida is getting in on the action, and the first medical dispensary just opened in Texas.
It is also not like the French big wigs also do not know they are out of step. France’s boyish president, now in office for about a year, Emmanuel Macron, promised decriminalization by the end of 2017 (it didn’t happen). Now a new parliamentary report, released, fittingly on Valentine’s Day, recommends swapping out the current draconian punishments for a fixed fine of between 150-200 euros ($250) per offense. The report also specifically concludes that current legislation is not working.
In 2015, there were 64,000 drug related convictions in France. 40,000 were for use, not dealing. While just over 3,000 of those convicted actually served a prison sentence, even the more conservative aspects of French society have had enough.
don’t expect this current diplomatic impass to hold for long, even if it gains enough traction to get passed into federal law.In an environment where political gridlock is the name of the game, however, it is very clear that cannabis is just one more issue dropped into a toxic mix that also includes topics like “what’s up in the EU.” Not to mention the nascent separatist and populist sentiments of neighbours like Spain and Germany. Countries, ironically, also far ahead of France on the cannabis front.
The hope of French activists on the ground is that cannabis is actually caught on the right side of history now. Even if, finally, it is changing the law to decriminalize the drug and only penalize patients (and others) with a ticket.
That too, is unlikely to succeed, as many such experiments elsewhere have failed before. That said, it is clearly a step in the right direction and an inevitable one at that.
Caught in the Middle
The great irony of this of course, is what is happening as France becomes an unwilling partner in the cross-border cannabis ménage-a-trois now afoot thanks to changing medical cannabis laws elsewhere in the EU. Namely, cannabis may remain off the reform agenda to parliamentarians and out of reach to the average French patient. That said, cross-continental transport of the drug will inevitably create a situation where a significant amount of cannabis products consumed by medical users elsewhere in the EU is trucked and or trained across France while out of reach to the locals.
Portugal and Spain are shaping up to be low-cost producers to the West. On the East, Germany, Switzerland and increasing numbers of Eastern European countries are looking for cheap product. That means there is going to be a great deal of medical grade cannabis crossing the continent by way of French territory. There is already a trickle. It is about to become a flood. What happens to reform in a country clearly caught in the middle?
As a result, don’t expect this current diplomatic impass to hold for long, even if it gains enough traction to get passed into federal law.
French cannabis policy is far from a la mode. Even to its own citizens. And on this issue, for sure, absolutely old fashioned in the most un-French way possible.
Right now the map of Europe, from a cannabis cultivation perspective at least, is shaping up to be very much like a game of Risk. Throw the dice, move your armies (or more accurately line up your financing), and apply for federal import and cultivation licenses.
In the process, all sorts of interesting strategic plays are popping up. And as a result, here is a new and actually pretty cool “alternative” reality that is easy to verify in several different ways. Medical cannabis is being cultivated in multiple countries across Europe as of 2018, however unbelievable this was even four years ago. Even though it is still cleary just early days. And those cultivators are already international, operating across federal jurisdictions in Europe and across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
With all the excitement and attention paid to the American hemisphere and the European moves of big Canadian LPs (and they are pretty amazing), there are still other moves afoot that are absolutely of note. Specifically, Australian firms and MGC Pharma in particular, have been moving steadily to establish both distribution and cultivation presence on the ground in Europe.
The latest news? MGC’s production facility in Slovenia was officially inspected by authorities and issued an interim license for its production plant in January, before presumably being given a green light of approval permanently. The company is also moving forward with the production of CannEpil, the company’s first pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis product for the treatment of refractory epilepsy.
Refractory epilepsy affects about 30% of all those who suffer from the condition. Refractory is one of those words however, that hides its real meaning. Translation for those without an MD? This is “drug resistant” epilepsy. Resistant to all drugs before, of course, except cannabinoids.
And that is a welcome relief for patients domestically and throughout Europe. It is also a note to investors looking for savvy Euro plays right now.For all manufacturers now considering entering this market, this is a complicated environment to begin negotiating
This is a major win for MGC. Not to mention a vibrant medical market. No matter where specialty drugs are now going to be sourced from.
A Treatment-Driven “Branded” Pharma Market
What more traditional American pharmaceutical companies have known for a long time (certainly since the 1950’s) is now a fact also facing all cannabis brands coming to the European market and Germany in particular. The regulatory environment is hostile to the extreme for Auslanders in particular. Specifically, the development of “branded” or “name brand” drugs runs economically and philosophically counter to the concept of public health insurance itself even as their market accessibility is required by the same. This is even more the case for foreign firms with such ideas.
Here is the problem. Name brands are expensive. They are also usually outlier drugs for specific, relatively rare conditions. This is also the place where new drugs enter the market, no matter what they are.
In an environment where the government negotiates bulk contracts for common drugs and these can be bought at every apotheke (pharmacy) for 10 euros and a doctors rezept (prescription), the chronically ill and those with drug resistant conditions are left out of the discussion. They face steep and usually inaccessible bills up front for all meds not in bulk purchase categories. And that as of last year in Germany specifically, includes cannabis. That is the case even though technically the government is now buying cannabis in bulk and making purchase commitments to foreign companies for the same. Insurance companies, however, are still forcing patients to pay the entire out of pocket cost up front and wait to reimbursed.
“Generic” Brands For Off label Chronic Conditions
However medical cannabis is clearly not just another drug. Cannabis falls on both sides of every fence in this discussion.
The first problem is that the providers (importers and soon to be domestic cultivators) are private companies. All of them are foreign helmed at this point, with a well-developed bench of branded products. That makes all cannabis drugs, oil and flower, by definition, fall into the “expensive” branded category immediately. The German, Italian, and Danish governments appear to be now negotiating bulk buys during a licensing season that is well on the way to domestic cultivation too. That alone will affect domestic prices and new products. But again, this is now several years behind other countries – notably MGC in Slovenia, Tilray in Portugal, all things now afoot in Denmark and clearly, Greece.
Next, cannabis’s status as a still imported, speciality, semi-trial status in the EU means it is in the most restricted categories of drugs to begin with (no matter the name or strength of the cannabinoid in particular). And because it can be bought as bud, in an “unprocessed” form as well as processed oils or other medicine, this is throwing yet another spanner into the mix.
Look for distribution deals all over Europe as a result, starting with PolandThen there is this wrinkle. Cannabis (even CBD) is currently considered a narcotic within the EU and even more specifically the largest continental drug market – Germany. The German regulatory system in particular, also imposes its own peculiarities. But basically what this means in sum is that the legal cannabis community including distributors and pharmas at this point, have to educate doctors in an environment where cannabis itself is a new “brand.” Who manufactures what, for the purposes of German law, at least, is irrelevant. It is what that drug is specifically for that matters.
For all manufacturers now considering entering this market, this is a complicated environment to begin negotiating. This is sure not how things are back home.
What this also means is that low cost, speciality cannabis products will continue to be imported across Europe for the German and other developing, regulated sovereign markets here as doctors learn about cannabis from condition treatments. And that is what makes the news about MGC even more interesting.
Look for distribution deals all over Europe as a result, starting with Poland. And, despite the many well-connected and qualified hopefuls from Canada, a little competition in the German market too.
MS is the only “on-label” drug at present for cannabis treatment in Germany. As a result, particularly when it comes to paediatric treatment for drug resistant epilepsy, this is the kind of strategic presence that will create a competitive source for highly condition-branded medication for a very specific audience of patients. It is also what the German market, for one, if not the EU is shaping up to be at least in the near term.
As this interesting abstract from 2006 clearly shows, this kind of epilepsy is also high on the German radar from a public policy and healthcare-cost containment perspective. The costs of treatment per patient were between 2,600 and 4,200 euros for three months a decade ago, and not only have those risen, but so have the absolute number of people in similar kinds of situations.
Further, with indirect costs far higher than direct costs including early retirement and permanent semi disability, MGC’s market move into an adjacent (and cheaper) production market might be just what the German doctors if not policymakers now looking at such issues, will order.
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.
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.
Poland has now legalized cannabis for medical purposes.
That said, it will be some time before patients have access to the drug. While Poles can now technically access medical pot, the scheme approved by the Polish Parliament that went into effect on November 1st is regressive, to say the least. Certainly compared with even other countries in Europe that are now finally admitting that cannabis is a drug with medical efficacy, the Polish experiment looks “old-fashioned.”
What Does Medical Cannabis Reform Look Like in Poland?
Like most conservative countries, Poland is sticking with a highly restrictive approach that still puts patients in the hot seat. In addition to getting a doctor’s prescription, the chronically ill must be approved by a state authority – a regional pharmaceutical inspector. They must get a license first, in other words. They must then find about $500 a month to pay for cannabis. To put this in perspective, that is roughly the total amount such patients get from the state to live on each month.
The multiple steps mean that only patients with financial resources– and an illness which is chronic but still allows them to negotiate the many government hurdles, including cost –will now be able to access medical cannabis. Unlike Germany which makes no such distinctions, Polish law now recognizes the drug as an effective form of treatment only for chronic pain, chemo-induced nausea, MS and drug-resistant epilepsy.
The heavily amended legislation also outlaws home growing. And while 90% of pharmacies will be able to dispense the drug, this is again, a technicality. Where will the pharmacies get the cannabis in the first place?
So the question remains: will this step really mean reform? There is no medical cultivation planned. And no companies (yet) have been licensed to import the drug.
This is what is clear. Much like the conversation in Georgia and other southern American states several years ago, legislators are bowing to popular demand if not scientific evidence, to legalize medical use. But patients still cannot get it – even if they jump through all the hoops.
In Poland, patients who cannot find legal cannabis in the country (which is all of them at this point) now do have the right to travel to other EU countries in search of medicine. But the unanswered question in all of this is still present. How, exactly is this supposed to work? Patients must come up with the money to pay for their medical cannabis (at local prices) plus regular transportation costs. Then they must pay sky high fees to access local doctors (if they can find them) at “retail cost” uncovered by any insurance.
The issue of countries legalizing cannabis on paper, but not in action, is a problem now facing legalization advocates in the EUThe most obvious route for Polish patients with resources and the ability to travel is Germany. The catch? Medical cannabis costs Just on this front, the idea of regular country hopping for script refills – even if “just” across the border – is ludicrous. And who protect such patients legally if caught at the border, with a three month supply?
Poland, in other words, has adopted something very similar to Georgia’s regulations circa 2015. Medical cannabis is now technically legal but still inaccessible because of cost and logistics. Reform, Polish-style, appears to actually just be more window-dressing.
And while it is an obvious step for the country to start issuing import licenses to Canadian, Israeli and Australian exporters, how long will that take?
The Next Step Of Reform – Unfettered Patient Access
While things are still bad in Poland, right across the border in Germany where presumably Polish patients could theoretically buy their medical cannabis, all is still not copacetic. Even for the “locals.” Germany’s situation remains dire. But even before legalization in March, Germany was importing bud cannabis from Holland and began a trickle of imports last summer from Canada. That trickle has now expanded considerably with new import licences this year. And presumably, although nobody is sure, there will be some kind of domestic cultivation by 2019.
At Deutsche Hanfverband’s Cannabis Normal activist’s conference in Berlin held on the same weekend as Poland decided to legalize medical cannabis, a Gen X patient expressed his frustration with the situation of legalization in general. Oliver Waack-Jurgensen is now suing his German public insurer. He expects to wait another year and a half before he wins. In the meantime, he is organizing other patients. “They [political representatives] are bowing to political expediency but completely ignoring patient needs,” says Waack-Jurgensen. “How long is this conversation going to take? I am tired of it. Really, really tired of this.”
The issue of countries legalizing cannabis on paper, but not in action, is a problem now facing legalization advocates in the EU and elsewhere who have achieved legislative victories, but still realize this is an unfinished battle. Germany is the only country in Europe with a federal mandate to cover the drug under insurance (for Germans only). And that process is taking time to implement.But even in Germany, patients are having to sue their insurance companies
Germany, Italy and Turkey are also the only countries in Europe as of now with any plans to grow the drug domestically under a federally mandated regulation scheme. Import from Holland, Canada and even Australia appears to be the next step in delaying full and unfettered reform in Europe. See Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia. How Spanish or Portuguese-grown cannabis will play into this discussion is also an open question mark. Asking Polish patients suffering from cancer to “commute” to Portugal is also clearly unfeasible.
Unlike the United States, however, European countries do have public healthcare systems, which are supposed to cover the majority of the population. What gives? And what is likely to happen?
A Brewing Battle At The EU Human Rights Court?
While the Polish decision to “legalize” medical use is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. If the idea is to halt the black market trade, giving patients real access is a good idea. But even in Germany, patients are having to sue their insurance companies. And are now doing so in large numbers. In a region where lawsuits are much less common than the U.S., this is shocking enough.
But the situation is so widespread and likely to continue for some time, that class action lawsuits – and on the basis of human rights violations over lack of access to a life-saving drug – may finally come to the continent and at an EU (international) level court.
Patients are literally dying in the meantime. And those who aren’t are joining the calls for hunger strikes and other direct civil action. Sound far-fetched? There is legal precedent. See Mexico.
And while Poland may or may not be the trigger for this kind of concerted legal action, this idea is clearly gathering steam in advocacy circles across Europe.
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