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Berlin’s ICBC: Meeting the European Cannabis Industry

By Marguerite Arnold
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The International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC) in Berlin is now officially over. The speeches have been made, the parties have been attended. The hard-working crew behind it all has wrapped up, checked out and is off to Vancouver. And most of all, the marathon of meetings and deal discussions that were the mark of this budding and certainly by now established market are done. Even if there are still details to be ironed out in all the new business in the coming months.

As always, the dilemma for conference attendees was how to spend the limited time in this concentrated cannabis gathering. With all of the networking and excitement, people still wanted to hear the experts who spoke on topics ranging from cannabis financing to actually doing business in Germany to new medical advances. Traffic in the expo section was also heavy, as attendees visited the wide range of vendors. Producers and distributors of both plant and derived product were present, along with vape companies brave enough to compete with Storz and Bickel on their own turf, various tech solutions and of course, international consultants.

As the dust clears and the contracts get signed, what are the takeaways from the second edition of the ICBC in Berlin?

Germany Is Going Green

The simplest takeaway? The ICBC Berlin is not a market to be missed in the future for the global cannabis executive. Even if you are an American firm (and for the most part still largely excluded from a rapidly expanding worldwide trade that is establishing itself now with authority), you need to be here. The contacts you make are global, and you do not want to be left out. For foreign investors interested in this market, it is a must. For everyone else, this is a meet and greet, not to mention education, barnone. The German medical and even prosumer CBD market is attracting the world.

Yes, there have been ups and downs even in the last three weeks that include the crashing of the German bid along with news stateside that the Trump Administration is going to hang Jeff Sessions out to dry for Russia with his latest “Make American States Great For Cannabis Again” contortion.

Guenther Weiglein
Guenther Weiglein, activist patient, being interviewed in front of MedPayRx booth

But here on the other side of the Atlantic, it is clear that the federal cannabinoid horse has left the barn. There are now rumorsfloating that the bid is not yet entirely dead (now apparently in a legal purgatory of appeals and even potentially “bid amendments”) that nobody is willing to go on record to discuss. Beyond that, however, as was clear from the frenzied deal-makingon the floor and off it at the ICBC, the market is open, distributors are finding new channels to move product, and patients demanding access are not leaving the streets.

Far from it. In fact, the budding nascent umbrella national non-profit campaign designed to open access for patients and educate doctors, The German Patients Roundtable, had a huge second meeting during the conference, with both German and international attendees from countries including Israel and South Africa.

The CBD and THC genie cannot be stuffed back into the local bottle. And everyone knows it. This is federal medical reform, and even better, covered under German national public health insurance. Despite the hiccups and challenges that still remain, this is open blue water for a medical market that has never existed anywhere to date.

ICBC logoAnyone with a GMP facility, Euro cleared export rights and crop or product ready to ship will be welcome here in a market that at this point, cannot get enough plant or oil. Edibles are still a to-come discussion.

To the extent that this is also negative, it is very clear that the market is still highly inefficient. Producers who do have productare not being found by those on the ground who want to sell it to patients. That will also begin to change. But for now, many on the ground are playing a digitalized Rolodex game of “who do you know” that still consists of personal emails between conference-met colleagues if not LinkedIn contacts and impromptu (and freebie) favors. Those who hope to gain an income merely by connecting the source of product and outlets the old fashioned way are also about to be left in the dust by a market that will not be held back and activist businesses who are eyeing both the United States and Canada right now (if not Israel and Australia), and translating all of that into both euros and German.

It is also very clear that the savvy Germans who were largely left out of the bid proceedings last time do not mean to sit this party out – and are angling to get into the game however they can. This is taking some interesting forms, but processing and testing are going to be huge issues of the market here for a long time to come. And so is home-grown, high-quality CBD. The German government is even offering tax credits for growing certain kinds of hempright now. Sound familiar Kentucky?

Trends and Takeaways

It is not just the Canadians who are going to get market share. The Canadian LPs are still in a good position to dominate the early market but it is clear that there is still room for others to enter. Whether the government allows an appeal of the court’s decision to hold up, there is a quick bid “redo” for the top 10 finalists, or a second bid, the market has now arrived and is in its second year.

margueriteICBC
Marguerite Arnold presents on the impact of blockchain on the cannabis industry

CBD is going to be an important path to other kinds of provision and cultivation. Despite the widespread misconceptions about Germany being a “CBD only” market (it is not), it is clear that a consumer CBD only strategy will be an interesting path into the market here but not one for the faint of heart. The Canadian companies in particular are beginning to move into the realm of big pharma (their market caps certainly are). But it is also clear that more local competition is hip to the same. And as a result, even this part of the market will be a highly competitive one.

German firms are first at this gate, beyond the big Canadian LPs, but they are not the only ones now in the market. See Dutch, Austrian and Swiss firms, many with pharmaceutical company credits and market entry already under their belt.  Not to mention producers from both Greece and the Baltics. Everyone on the import side is eyeing the opening market and stalled bid as a fantastic opportunity. Look for products from these locales as testing and certification protocols become more effective.

Central to all of these developments? The conference is theplacefor the global cannabis industry to meet and get to know one another, put together by Alex Rogers and a seasoned, international team behind the ICBC.

Marguerite Arnold
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Paradox or Paragon? A Non-Techie Look at Blockchain, Cryptocurrency & Cannabis: Part I

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold has just raised the first funds for her blockchain-based company, MedPayRx in Germany (and via traditional investment funding, not an ICO). She will also be speaking about the impact of blockchain on the cannabis industry in Berlin in April at the International Cannabis Business Conference.


You have probably heard of cryptocurrencies, tokens and smart contracts. You might have also heard, even if you did not understand the significance, that IBM recently suggested that the Canadian government use their form of blockchain, called Hyperledger, to track the recreational cannabusiness. Or that a large LP called Aurora is also looking at this space (as are other licensed producers large and small). Or maybe you have seen an item in the mainstream news about an ICO for a cannabis company that is now also going terribly wrong.

What on earth is going on?

These are all related issues, even if highly confusing and disjointed. Blockchain technology and cryptocurrency are hot right now and getting hotter – both in the mainstream world and in the cannabis industry globally. But for all its fans, the drumbeat for caution is also growing louder the more mainstream this technology (and the legitimate cannabis industry) becomes.

The many problems the entire cannabis vertical has with banking has make this current development almost inevitableOn the technology and finance side, that is why so many big names right now are urging caution. Nouriel Roubini, professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, is just the latest to do so – and for reasons that everything to do with history. Including recent history ten years ago, when the world stood on the brink of a financial disaster thanks to unchained derivatives. The biggest worry in fact, right now, is about the financial implications of widespread adoption of the technology, beyond the tech itself and how it may (and may not) be legitimately used. Which itself is a huge question.

So why all the fuss?

This is revolutionary technology which is also being introduced into the market at a time when decentralized processing for automation is on the horizon. But also because blockchain can be used to create tokens or digital coins that act like financial instruments. And once created, such tokens can be issued much like money or even stock, to raise additional funds – for both start-ups and ongoing enterprises. The best thing though? This technology was invented to create a decentralized form of value exchange and trust-less, anonymized auditing and verification. No traditional financial institutions or even governments needed, wanted or should apply (at least in theory).

The many problems the entire cannabis vertical has with banking has make this current development almost inevitable. Not to mention accessing investment cash (although this is certainly changing outside the United States). Compliance issues in every direction are another wrinkle this tech will help solve. Starting with tracking product but also rapidly expanding to uses including protecting users’ privacy and facilitating access to high-quality, inspected product for qualified users and buyers. Not to mention other areas that are literally space-age but coming fast. Look for cool stuff coming soon involving both AI (artificial intelligence) and IoT (internet of things).

It is a fascinating, complex space. However, one aspect of this world, in particular, Initial Coin Offerings – or ICOs are getting attention right now. Why? They can be an incredibly efficient way to raise money for companies – both ones currently in business and start-ups with little more than a whitepaper or business plan and perhaps a working prototype. More and more of the successful ICOs are, however, for an existing company or are even attached to an asset, including a license, a prototype or a fund of money (or other combinations). They also rely on blockchain and alternative currency or tokens (sometimes also referred to as smart contracts) to work.

From a technology perspective, you can “mint” new coins relatively easily these days, sourced from a variety of different kinds of blockchain. Or even combinations thereof. You also can issue tokens or altcoins without an ICO.

In a world where there is vastly expanding cannabis opportunity, and many of these hopeful entrepreneurs are both digitally astute but without access to traditional capital, what could be better?

bitcoin
Bitcoin quickly became one of the more popular cryptocurrencies

From a financial and investor perspective, ICOs are a hybrid form of an IPO meets social media. “Coins,” “tokens” and “smart contracts” –or cyber currency collectively– are digital forms of cash, contracts, membership cards, discounts or even authorizations for identity. There are many ways tokens can be used, in other words. This by way of saying there are also important differences too. Not all tokens are the same. Not all are used as “money.” Some are but have assets assigned to them (like real estate). Others, particularly smart contract tokens, are strictly functional (pay funds when product is delivered and verified). The one caveat here is that the exchange of any token or altcoin will also cost money. Why? It is the electricity cost of computer processing the request for transfer. Plus access and service fees. There is no such thing as a “free” token. How tokens are priced, sold, bought, maintain value and for what purposes, is a debate if not process function that will not be solved anytime soon. Starting with the fact that some blockchains are more energy efficient (and sourced from green energy) than others.

To add to all of this confusion, not all ICOs function the same way. Some do give investors ownership in the company or specific portfolios that even include real-world assets. Others offer to use pooled funds to buy assets (like real estate or an expensive license). Many rely on the “coin” issued as a kind of discount scheme, reward mechanism and in many cases, direct discounted payment for future goods and services, of both the digital and real world kind. Many offer banking services directly, including in the very near future, the ability to exchange cyber cash for the fiat variety at even remote ATMs. Sound futuristic? It is coming and soon.

Most ICOs in the market now, however, rely on the following supposition: Issue a token with a unique name. Put up an ICO website. Encourage investors from anyplace on the planet with an internet connection, to use either crypto or fiat currency to buy tokens in the issuing startup as an investment that will give the new company funds to operate and build out services or the application (whatever that is). Also, plan to use the tokens for an exchange of some kind in the future (either for other coins or a good or service). Watch the value of the coin increase (for whatever reason) while informing investors (or contributors) that this is not really a security but a “utility” token that is expected but not guaranteed to become more valuable. Retire early with the prospect of having brokers of expensive real estate in places like London and Dubai come calling.The public tide of opinion, even if regulations are slow to move, is on the side of reform if not outright advocacy.

That will not be the case for the vast majority of ICOs, however, no matter what returns, goods or services they offer. Even if they also have vibrant communities already using their services (whatever those are). It will not be the case for most of the cryptocurrencies upon which such ICOs are based (most at the moment are based on Ethereum, NEO, Hyperledger or combinations of the three). There will be more of those too. And not every blockchain will make it (cryptocurrencies and tokens are based on an origin protocol or blockchain much like computer operating systems are either PC or Mac or mobile phones are Android or Apple). Some speak to one another well. Most do not “exchange” easily – even between themselves – let alone back into good old cash. And while nobody wants to be the Betamax of blockchain, there will, inevitably, be quite a few of them. When that happens, any economic value of the coins and even contractual relationships created with them disappear as well. Add in extreme price volatility in the current market pricing of these tokens, and you begin to get a sense of the risk profile involved in all of this.

The real hurdle, not to mention expense, comes when transferring back from the world of crypto to the one of fiat (regular money). Being a Bitcoin billionaire (there are about 1,000 individuals who own about 40% of the entire global Bitcoin issuance) is no fun if you have no place to spend it.

A Rapidly Changing Marketplace

In the past 18 months, cryptocurrency and ICOs have gotten increasing attention because of the increasing value of all kinds of cyber currency (far beyond Bitcoin). The total market cap for all forms of cryptocurrency itself zoomed past $700 billion at the turn of the year. That is impossible to ignore. You might have heard of some of these currencies too. There is ETH, Litecoin, Bitcoin Cash, Dash, even Dogecoin (created originally as a joke on an internet dog meme). Right now, in fact, at some of the most expansive exchanges, there are literally hundreds of these coins which are constantly bought and sold if not exchanged and used.

paragon advertisement
This has red flags written all over it.

And then there are the sums ICOs are bringing in some cases, flagrantly flaunting regulatory agencies and doing end runs on the global banking system that cannot keep up with them. The top ICO of 2017, a company called Block.one and registered in the Cayman Islands, so far holds the record at $700 million and counting. Filecoin, the second largest ICO last year, raised $262 million in one month from August to September. And then, of course, there is the cannabis industry-specific case of Paragon – now headed for class-action lawsuit litigation over their $70 million pre-and ICO sale intentions.

It would be logical to assume, given the eye-watering sums potentially involved not to mention the large role a smart digital media footprint has to do with an ICO’s success, beyond its service or technology offerings, that this would be a perfect place for cannapreneurs to turn for funding. The global market is opening for cannabis reform at the same time the crypto craze meets Fintech Upheaval is occurring – in fact, these two things are happening almost simultaneously.

Thanks to regulatory realities and an ongoing stigma, there is still no institutional investment in the industry in the United States (that is rapidly changing other places). These are two new industries and dreams are large.

In the legit cannabis space, so are the expenses.

The price of opening a dispensary in most U.S. states tops a million dollars right now. In Europe, the price of entry is even more expensive. A GMP compliant grow facility in Western Europe, plus the money for lawyer’s fees and negotiations for the license itself will set you back anywhere from $20 million and up, depending on the location. Even staying afloat in the industry once the doors are opened is a challenge. And loans, even for outstanding invoices, are still tough to come by in an industry where banking services of the simple business account kind are a challenge. Particularly in the United States.

The public tide of opinion, even if regulations are slow to move, is on the side of reform if not outright advocacy. Why shouldn’t a reform-group-rooted ICO aspire to own or provide ongoing business financing to a community-minded canna farm in California, Canada, Germany, Israel or Australia? Or even Greece?

However, right now, with some noted exceptions, the cannabis business remains at minimum, a dangerous place to consider issuing altcoins that act like financial instruments or raise money with them. Why and how?

Part II of this series will look at the significant liabilities of using cryptocurrency and ICOs in the cannabis industry.

israel flag

Israel’s Cannabis Export Plans Evaporate in Fire and Fury

By Marguerite Arnold
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israel flag

Trump Administration-Israeli relations had the distinct whiff of cannabis to them in the first week of February. In a development potentially just as impactful as transplanting Israel’s capital to Jerusalem, it has now emerged that Israel’s president, Benjamin Netanyahu, has effectively scotched, at least temporarily, the country’s budding medical cannabis international export plans on the eve of finally launching them.

Why? To appease the U.S. president.

What this latest act of international “diplomacy” will eventually impact in the long run is anyone’s guess. There will, however, be winners and losers out of this situation, both now and in the long term.

Who Wins

On the surface (and to gentiles) it might be hard to understand why Israel effectively shot itself in the foot from a global perspective. But cannabis falls into complicated geopolitical and religious crevices at home too. Bibi, as Netanyahu is referred to by an international Jewish audience, has just scored political points over the Jerusalem showdown. Why rock the boat over a plant that has so recently gained legitimacy just in Israel? Remember the country only partially decriminalized recreational use in 2017. However, Israel has explored legal medical cannabis for quite some time, and Tikun Olam, the country’s flagship producer, has been growing cannabis since 2007.

Tel Aviv, Israel, where Tikun Olam has a dispensary

The quote from Netanyahu that has been widely circulated in the press says a great deal. “I spoke with Trump and he told me about his general opposition to the legalization of cannabis, and I’m not sure Israel should be the export pioneer.”

The fact that apparent encouragement of this policy came from the Israeli Finance Ministry only underscores the gravity of the impact for the losing side – and what was also probably threatened. Uruguayan pharmacies, who began distributing medical cannabis legally, walked away from customers last year after their banks were first informed by U.S. partners that they would either have to cut off the pharmacies or sever ties and access to the entire U.S. banking system. The cannabis trade was estimated to be worth between $1-4 billion per year to Israeli firms.

That said, this will also be a short-lived hiccup. Netanyahu apparently wants to see more medical evidence before moving forward with the plan. That means Israel will be in the race, but not for the next 12 to 18 months (minimum).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi)
Image: Kjetil Elsebutangen, UD

This will also not affect the cannabinoid-related export of intellectual property, where Israel has also led the cannabinoid discussion and for several generations now. Recipes, breeding instructions and even seeds cross borders more easily than plants. If anything, it will merely sharpen and shape the start up nation’s many budding cannapreneurs in a slightly different focus.

Canadian, Australian and a few other exporters also win. As of 2018, there will also be multiple European countries and EU-based firms importing and exporting (even if it is to each other).

Who Loses

The U.S. legal state cannabis movement has just been served a two fisted punch in the face by the White House. The Trump administration, in fact, has doubled down, in the space of less than five weeks, on its views towards cannabis legalization.

This also means that there will be no U.S. firms in any position to join a now global and exploding legitimate cannabis industry that stretches from the American hemisphere north and south of the U.S. itself. Not only will American producers not be able to get export approvals themselves from the U.S. government, but they may well be facing federal prosecution back home.israel flag

It will also be interesting to see whether this heralds any post-Cole memo prosecutions of the many Israeli entrepreneurs already operating in the U.S. state cannabis space. American and Israeli entrepreneurs with IP to protect are also the losers here, no matter how much this is being fought on the California front right now. That is just a state battle. IP must be protected federally.

Investors in the U.S. who had already been tempted to invest in the Canadian cannabis industry, now have little incentive to invest domestically or in Israel, no matter how big and bad California is. There is clearly budding (and less politically risky) competition elsewhere.

It goes without saying, of course, that this decision also hurts consumers – both recreational consumers and medical patients.

Bottom Line

This is clearly sabre rattling of the kind intended to make news both internationally and abroad. However, in direct terms, it will have little impact to the overall growth of the industry, no matter who is doing the growing, distributing and ex-im. The cannabis industry will also clearly not stop being a political business for the near term.

Look for prosecutions this if not next year in the U.S. – potentially in California or another high profile “impact” state. We might see pressure on Netanyahu at home, and probably from abroad as well, to get Israel into the cannabis game globally.

Greece Moves Forward on Legalizing Medical Use

By Marguerite Arnold
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The Greek Parliament is finally expected to approve the medical use of cannabis – probably in the first weeks of February. The move is far from a surprise. Greek politicians announced last summer that this development was in the cards.

What is even more promising for the sector domestically, not to mention in terms of European reform, is the unflinching acceptance of this industry by the establishment and national politicians, and further as one with great economic development potential for a still-ailing economy.

A $2 Billion Injection of Capital

Deputy Agricultural Development Minister Yannis Tsironis (for one) has already publicly expressed his hope that the Greek medical program will attract beaucoups bucks from overseas.

However given the context in which this announcement has taken place, is this seriously a commitment to medical cannabis? Or is it an easy (if not slightly buzzy) way to attract foreign capital to a Mediterranean paradise still in dire need of a capital injection from any source it can get one?

Deputy Agricultural Development Minister Yannis Tsironis

Maybe it is a combination of both.

Many in Europe are forecasting that 2018 might finally be the light at the end of the tunnel for the Greek economy, which has been mired in austerity for the last decade. The Greek government is now in the process of moving forward with the final requirements of both labour reforms and receiving what is hoped to be the last bailout of its economy by foreign investors before it finally goes it alone by August 2018.

The Greek economy finally grew 1.5% last year. In 2018, in part thanks to the final package of reforms, the economy is expected to grow by 2.4%.

A foreign-financed medical cannabis business might be just what the economists have ordered. Especially if it is also open to visitors.

Medical Marijuana on Mykonos?

The development of a domestic medical cannabis industry in Greece is good news for not only medical reformers but also those who are looking for ways to expand the influence of the flower into the broader economy.

And Greece is one place where such ideas could easily and quickly take root in Europe.

Mykonos, the Greek island
Image: Maggie Meng, Flickr

Greece has long been the haven for a highly niche, international tourist audience. Tourism in general has also been on the uptick over the last two years again as particularly Europeans look for relatively cheaper beaches and sunshine. Over 30 million foreign tourists flocked to the country last summer – a number of people roughly three times the population of the country.

Again, mainstreamed medical cannabis would only add to the economic results in a way that is just as heady if not (economically) stimulating as a good sativa.

The idea of a medical tourism industry here, could also potentially create not only a Greek medical paradise, but potentially also have a growth impact on European cannabis programs too. Especially if reciprocal medical rights we

re also offered to EU citizens looking for an extended canna-friendly vacation.

Greek Cannabis Club Med?

Of all the countries in Europe, the Greek cannabis experiment offers the first real chance for a Canadian/American style cannabis industry to begin to flourish in Europe. In colder, more northern European countries, medical cannabis is still being treated as an expensive adjunct to traditional healthcare. And no matter how much citizens are moving towards acceptance of a recreational industry down the road, things are moving much slower in the rest of Europe. Germany, to put things in perspective, passed medical reform several months before the Greek decision to legalize medical use last summer. Yet now it appears that Greece might actually move into a full-fledged, domestically grown industry before its Teutonic neighbour to the north.

Parthenon, Athens, Greece
Photo: Kristoffer Trolle

And further, unlike Germany, Greece may well decide to develop its “medical cannabis industry” as an adjunct to its tourist industry.

Sure, Holland and Spain led the way in this part of the world if not internationally. Neither country, however, needs new industries now in the same dire way, nor is emerging from a national, decade-long recession.

All the elements are here, in other words, for the Greeks to turn a new page in their very long and documented history, and do something a little different.

KIND Financial Launches Canadian Payment Solution

By Aaron G. Biros
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KIND Financial, a technology and compliance software solutions provider in the cannabis industry, is launching a new e-commerce and payment processing platform in Canada. According to the press release, they are partnering with a Canadian bank to launch the KIND Seed to Payment platform, which is essentially an e-commerce gateway integrated with their compliance software, KIND’s RegTech platform.

David Dinenberg, founder and CEO of KIND Financial

David Dinenberg, founder and CEO of KIND Financial, says this is an approach to help alleviate the cannabis industry’s banking woes. “We’ve been very focused on a global vision and taking a strategic approach towards solving the cannabis industry’s largest problem – banking,” says Dinenberg. “Not only have we built a broad portfolio of finance and compliance solutions with a high-level of technical sophistication, but we’ve made a strong commitment to security and compliance, which is evident through our partnership with Microsoft.” A little over a year ago, they entered a partnership with Microsoft to utilize their cloud-based solutions for government traceability software.

According to the press release, the software has regulatory and security features built in, such as age and identity verification, which can help companies comply with security and chain of custody regulations. “Our mission is to ensure business and technological growth for all constituencies within the cannabis industry while ensuring full compliance with evolving regulations, and that’s why we’re thrilled to make these services available to our great neighbors in the north,” says Dinenberg. “We understand compliance will be a critical issue for some time to come, but with our solution, all providers and their partners can focus on the job at hand while keeping in line with regulatory mandates.”

KIND Financial has not done much work in Canada previously, but this could be a sign of a greater push for international expansion. “We’re excited to be working in a new country to boost the Canadian cannabis industry in a safe and regulated manner, and we look forward to expanding into other markets overseas,” says Dinenberg. The press release says the new platform is designed to work with different languages and foreign currencies, including the euro and Australian dollar, which could help Canadian producers enter emerging markets.

In addition to their announcement of the KIND Seed to Payment platform, the company also announced they will be rolling out a mobile payment system called KIND Pay, a digital payment option for consumers that will accept Visa and MasterCard. They anticipate that KIND Pay will launch before the end of this year.