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Did ABCann Lose The German Cannabis Bid?

By Marguerite Arnold
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In rather shocking news out of Germany on the cannabis front, it appears that Canadian LP ABcann has not been selected as one of the finalists in the country’s first tender bid to cultivate cannabis domestically.

As reported in the German press, the company has not been invited to submit an offer in the final award procedures. The reason per a company spokesman as quoted in the German media? The company proved it met the required qualification thresholds – namely it could deliver the required amount of product as required by the German government. However the amount it could produce was less than other firms being considered.

That is a strange statement, especially because the ten licenses on offer only called for a total of 2,000 kgs of production total by 2019 and 6600 kgs by 2022.

Who Is ABCann?

ABcann has been in business since 2014 in Canada, when it received one of the first cultivation licenses issued by the Canadian government. It has also been aggressively positioning itself in the German and European market this year – and in multiple ways. It got itself listed on both American and German stock exchanges by summer. The company established a subsidiary headquarters in Schönefeld as of August 2017. As late as October, the company also was appearing at industry conferences, like the IACM medical conference in Cologne, as an expected finalist in the first bid.

An ABCann facility in Canada

However, the company’s plans to build a $40 million, 10,000 square meter plant somewhere in Lusatia are now also reportedly on hold. The exact location of the plant is unknown, per German government requirements that grow facilities remain secret. That said, with a year and a half to complete construction, if given the green light even by early next year, it may be that this was the reason the company has apparently not made the cut. Or perhaps the German government did not believe the company was adequately funded. A September exercise of warrants netted the company an additional $45 million in operating cash. But with expansion plans in not only Canada and Europe, but Australia too, did the company pass the German test for liquidity?

Management changes are also afoot. As of October 1, Barry Fishman, a former Eli Lilly executive took over as CEO of ABCann Global. Ken Clement, founder of the company, announced in mid-October that he was stepping down from his position as Executive Chair of the Board to be replaced by Paul Lucas a former President and CEO of GlaxoSmithKline Canada. John Hoff, the Geschäftsführer (or CEO) of ABcann’s German subsidiary, has also recently left the company. When asked by CannabisIndustryJournal about his reasons for doing so at the Cannabis Normal conference in Berlin at the beginning of November, Hoff cited “management and creative differences” with ABcann Canada as the impetus for his recent departure.

However with the news of ABcann’s apparent loss of a front-runner position in the pending bid, such news appears to herald a bit more of a shakeup at the company, if not a refocussing of overall global strategy.

A source within the company who wished to remain anonymous also said this when contacted directly by CannabisIndustryJournal. “Our top priority currently is to acquire an import license. We also fully intend to pursue all of our plans in the German market, but we have no firm dates on the construction front.”

The State of Medical Cannabis Reform Auf Deutsch

The German medical cannabis question has certainly jerked forward over the past several years through several rough patches. This year it has gotten even stranger. And nobody is quite sure where it will end up.

The news about ABcann is also the latest episode in a very strange story that has continued to develop mostly out of sight of the public.

That bid process, which was expected to announce the winners by late summer, has now dragged on through the fall.Germany began moving forward quietly on the cannabis issue in the first decade of the century. Patients could only access the drug in basically trial mode. Most patients who qualified with a doctor’s prescription and a special permit to take the drug, could also access only Sativex (which is very expensive) or the synthetic form of the drug, dronabinol, manufactured domestically in a facility near Frankfurt. All bud cannabis was imported from Holland by Bedrocan. Strictly controlled not by German, but rather Dutch law on cannabis imports.

In 2014, the first German patients successfully sued the government to grow their own plants if their insurance companies refused coverage of the drug and they proved they could not afford alternatives.

This year, in January, the German government voted unanimously to change the law to mandate public health insurance. The law went into effect in March. Mainly driven by a desire to halt home-grow, the rules changed again. Post March 2017, patient grow rights have now been revoked. Now patients are theoretically allowed to get cannabis covered under public health insurance. In reality, the process has been difficult.

In April, the German government created a new “Cannabis Agency” under the auspices of BfArM. And BfArM in turn issued a tender bid for the country’s first domestic licences in April.

That bid process, which was expected to announce the winners by late summer, has now dragged on through the fall.

When Will The Winners Be Announced?

That too is unclear. It is very likely that the final announcement will not be made by the government until the beginning of the year – after the new government is formed. The so-called “Jamaica Coalition” – of the mainstream CDU, the Greens and the liberals (FDP) is under major pressure to address the issue of access. So far Chancellor Angela Merkel has signalled her resistance for additional changes to the new cannabis law. That said, the current situation in Germany, which is untenable for patients and doctors, as well as companies trying to enter the market and investing heavily, is unlikely to hold for even the next several years.

Problems with finding doctors and medical reimbursement under insurance have kept this patient population from growing the way it would otherwise.In late October, the news broke that two legal complaints had been unsuccessfully filed against the bid itself. Both parties’ complaints were dismissed. Yet there also appears to have been a third complaint that has actually devolved in to a real Klage – or lawsuit. Lexamed GmbH’s claim directly addresses issues expressed by many German-only firms this year. Namely that they were unfairly left out of the bid process because of a supposed lack of experience. As such it is likely to be closely watched by other existing German hopefuls.

This lawsuit has now formally delayed the announcements on the bid decision until at least after December 20th of this year, when the oral arguments will be heard in the case. A decision about the bid will go forward when this has been decided, by the beginning of 2018.

In the meantime? Cannabis imports are starting to enter the country. In late summer last year, Spektrum Cannabis, formerly MedCann GmbH, located just south of Frankfurt, received the first import licenses from the German government to bring medical cannabis into Germany from Canada. Both Aurora and Tilray were granted import licenses this fall.

There are 16 different kinds of cannabis on the market right now. And about 170 kilos of cannabis were imported into the country in the last year. There are also currently about 1,000 patients although this number is artificially low. Problems with finding doctors and medical reimbursement under insurance have kept this patient population from growing the way it would otherwise. There are easily a million patients in Germany right now who would qualify for cannabis if the system worked as it was originally intended in the legislation passed in January.

That said, despite the recent news that ABcann is “out” – at least for this round– apparently the pan-European bid process is still very much alive, despite many recent rumours that it was dead in the water. And plans also seem to be afoot for a separate and additional cultivation licensing round potentially as soon as next year. Details however are unclear and nobody either in the industry or the government is willing to be quoted or give any further information.

What Is Going On With Germany’s Cannabis Bid?

By Marguerite Arnold
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Germany is proceeding down the path to officially grow its own medical cannabis crops. Medical use became legal this year, along with a federal mandate for cheap access. That means that public health insurance companies, which cover 90% of Germans, are now firmly on the hook if not front line of the cannabis efficacy issue. As such, Germany’s medical market is potentially one of the most lucrative cannabis markets in the world, with a total dollar amount to at least challenge, if not rival, even California’s recreational market. Some say Canada’s too.

However, before “home grow” enthusiasts get too excited, this legislative move was an attempt to stymie everything but commercial, albeit medical production. Not to mention shut off the recreational discussion for at least another four years.

How successful that foray into legalization will be – especially given the chronic shortages now facing patients – are an open question. Not to mention other infrastructural issues – like doctor unfamiliarity with or resistance to prescribing cannabinoids. Or the public insurers’ so-far reluctance to cover it even though now federally mandated to do so.

Regardless, Germany decided to legalize medical use in 2017 and further to begin a sanctioned domestic cultivation for this market. The decision in the Bundestag to legalize the drug was unanimous. And the idea to follow UN regulations to establish this vertical is cautiously conservative but defendable. Very predictably German in other words.

Since then, however, the path has been far from smooth. Much less efficient.

Trouble in Germany’s Medical Cannabis Paradise

In April the government released its tender bid. And no matter how exciting it was to be in the middle of an industry who finally saw a crack of light, there were also clouds to this silver lining that promised early and frequent thunderstorms on the horizon.

By the time the tender bid application was due in June, it was already clear who the top firms were likely to beIn fact, by the end of the ICBC conference, which held its first annual gathering in Berlin at the same time the bid tender was announced, the controversy was already bubbling. The requirements of the bid, for a laughably small amount of cannabis (2,000 kg), mandated experience producing high qualities of medical marijuana in a federally legitimate market. By definition that excluded all German hopefuls, and set up Canada and Holland as the only countries who could provide such experience, capital and backlog of crop as the growing gets started.

The grumbling from Germans started then.

However, so did an amazingly public race to gain access to the German market directly – by acquisition or capital expenditures that are not refundable easily (like real estate or even buyouts). The common theme? They were large amounts of money being spent, and made by major Canadian Licensed Producers who had the right qualifications to meet the standards of the bid. In fact, by the time the tender bid application was due in June, it was already clear who the top firms were likely to be. They were the only ones who qualified under the judging qualifications.

And while nobody would commit publicly, news of the final decision was expected by August. Several Canadian LPs even issued press releases stating that they were finalists in the bid. But still no news was forthcoming about the official list.

Delay, Delay and More Delay

A month later, as of September, and there was still no official pronouncement. Nor was anybody talking. BfArM, the regulatory agency that is supervising this rollout as well as the regulation of all narcotic drugs (sort of like a German version of the FDA) has been issuing non-statement statements since the late summer. Aurora, however, one of the top contenders for cultivation here, was quietly issued an ex-im license by both Canadian and German authorities. Publicly, this has been described as an effort to help stem the now chronic cannabis shortage facing patients who attempt to go through legitimate, prescribed channels. On the German side, intriguingly, this appears to be a provisional license. Privately, some wondered if this was the beginning of a backdoor approval process for the top scoring bid applicants for cultivation. Although why that might be remains unclear.

Whispered rumours by industry sources that wish to remain anonymous, have suggested that the entire bid is still hanging in jeopardy. Late in the month, rumours began to fly that there were now lawsuits against the bid process. Nobody had much detail. Not to mention specifics. But CannabisIndustryJournal can now confirm in fact that there have been two lawsuits (so far).

The summary of the complaints? It appears that two parties, filing with the “Bundeskartellamt” (or regulatory office focusing on monopolies and unfair business practices) did not think the bid process or scoring system was fair. And both parties also lost.

But as of mid-October, there is still no public decision on the bids. What gives?

Whispered rumours by industry sources that wish to remain anonymous, have suggested that the entire bid is still hanging in jeopardy. Even though the plaintiffs failed, some have suggested that the German government might force a complete redo. Others hint that it will likely be slightly revised to be more inclusive but the regulatory standards must remain. If a redo is in the cards, will the German government decide to increase the total amount of yearly cannabis to be delivered? At this point, it is only calling for 2,000 kg per year by 2019. And that, as everyone knows, is far too little for a market that is exploding no matter the many other obstacles, like insurance companies refusing to compensate patients.

What Is Behind The Continued Delays?

There are several theories circulating the higher levels of the cannabis industry internationally right now even if no one is willing to be quoted. The first is that the total number of successful applicants, including the recent litigants, will be slightly expanded, but stay more or less the same. There is a high standard here for the import of medical cannabis that the Germans intend on duplicating domestically.

The Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA – the often controversial free trade alliance between Europe and Canada) is still in the final stages of approval.The second is that the German government will take its time on announcing the final winners and just open the doors to more imported product. This will not be popular with German insurers, who are on the hook to pay the difference. However with Tilray now on track to open a processing facility in Portugal and Canopy now aligned with Alcaliber in Spain, cross-continent import might be one option the government is also weighing as a stop-gap provision. Tilray, who publicly denied in the German press that they were participating in the cultivation license during the summer, just issued a press release in October announcing a national distribution deal to pharmacies with a German partner – for cannabis oil.

But then there is another possibility behind the delay. The government might also be waiting for another issue to resolve – one that has nothing to do with cannabis specifically, but in fact is now right in the middle of the discussion.

The Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA – the often controversial free trade alliance between Europe and Canada) is still in the final stages of approval. In fact, on September 19, a prominent German politician, Sigmar Gabriel of the Social Democrats (SPD) made a major statement about his party’s willingness to support Germany’s backing of the deal. It might be in fact, that the German government, which is supportive of CETA, got spooked about the cannabis lawsuits as test trials against not cannabis legalization, but a threat to the treaty itself.

Quality control, namely pesticides when it comes to plant matter, and the right of companies to sue governments are two of the most controversial aspects of this trade deal. And both appear to have risen, like old bong smoke, right at the final leg of closing the cannabis cultivation bid.

Will cannabis be seen as a flagship test for the seaworthiness of CETA? On a very interesting level, that answer may be yes. And will CETA in turn create a different discussion about regulatory compliance in an industry that has been, from the beginning of this year, decidedly Canadian-Deutsch? That is also on the table. And of great concern to those who follow the regulatory issues inherent in all. Not to mention, of course, the industry itself.

Conclusions?

Right now, there are none to be had.

However at present, the German bid process is several months behind schedule as Canadian producers themselves face a new wrinkle at home – the regulation of the recreational crop in the provinces.

It is also clear that there are a lot of questions and not a whole lot of answers. Not to mention a timeline when the smoke will clear.

Is There a Medical Cannabis Crisis Brewing in Germany?

By Marguerite Arnold
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There is a great deal to be happy about with medical cannabis legalization in Germany. This is the first country that has mandated insurance coverage of the drug – at least at the federal legislative level.

However, as the government evaluates the finalists in the first tender bid for domestically grown and regulated cannabis, a real crisis is brewing for patients on the ground. And further one that the industry not only sees but is trying to respond to.

Spektrum Cannabis GmbH, formerly MedCann GmbH began trying to address this problem when they obtained the first import license for Canadian cannabis last year. They are also one of the apparent five finalists in the pending government bid to grow the plant domestically for medical purposes. According to Dr. Sebastian Schulz, head of communications for Spektrum, “Shortly after the new cannabis law was reformed we experienced a huge increase in demand from the side of patients. We had prepared for that. The German population is very curious about cannabis as a medicine and in general very open to natural remedies.”

People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowly. Much like Israel, the government has allowed a trickle of patients to have access to cannabis by jumping through multiple, time consuming hoops. The process of getting cannabis prescribed, much less getting a pharmacy to stock it, was difficult. Patients had to pay out of pocket – a monthly cost of about $1,700. While that is expensive by American standards, to Germans, this is unheard of. The vast majority of the population – 90% – is on public health insurance. That means that most Germans get medications for $12 a month, no matter what they are. Allegedly, German patients were supposed to get about 5oz a month for this price. At least that is what the law says.

People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowlyAs in other countries, no matter what Germans think about recreational reform, the clear majority of them at this point support medical use. And at this point, both legislatively and via the courts, the government has said and been required to provide the drug to Germans patients at low cost.

Unintended Effects & Consequences

Since the law went into effect in March of this year however, things have suddenly turned very dire for patients.

The handful of people who had the right to grow at home – established under lawsuits several years ago – were suddenly told they could no longer do so. They had to go to a doctor and regular pharmacy. Even regular patients in the system found that their insurance companies, allegedly now required to pay, are refusing to reimburse claims. Doctors who prescribed the drug were abruptly informed that they would be financially responsible for every patient’s drug cost for the next two years (about $50,000 per patient).

Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

To add a final blow to an already dire situation, German pharmacies that carried the drug, then announced an additional fee. It is about $9 extra per gram, added at the pharmacy, pushing the price of legitimate cannabis north of $20 dollars per gram. This is justified as a “preparation fee.” Cannabis bud is technically marked as an “unprocessed drug.” This means the pharmacies can charge extra for “processing” the same. In reality this might be a little bud trimming. If that. The current distributors in the market already prep and pre-package the drug.

What this bodes for a future dominated by infused products, oils and concentrates is unclear. However the impact now is large, immediate and expensive in a country where patients also must still go to the pharmacy in person for all prescription drugs.

There is no mail order here, by federal law. Online pharmacies are a luxury for Auslanders.

At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow.While nobody has challenged this situation yet en masse, it is already a sore point not only for patients but across the industry. It means that an already expensive drug has gotten even more expensive. It also means that the government regulations are not working as planned.

At least not yet. For the large Canadian companies now coming into the market with multimillion-dollar investments already sunk in hard costs, Germany will be a loss-leader until the system sorts itself out.

According to Schulz, whose company is now in the thick of it, the new law is very vague. “Currently, there are almost no cannabis flowers available in German pharmacies because companies like us are not allowed to sell them,” says Schulz. “Various different regulatory demands come up that seemed to change on a monthly basis. We are ready to deliver even large amounts of cannabis for a market that might well explode soon – but we first need to overcome the regulatory nightmare that leads to the suffering of so many patients here these days.”

At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow. Black market costs for cannabis are about $10-15 a gram. In other words, exactly the situation the government was hoping to avoid.

What Is Causing The Situation?

The intended effect of the legislation was twofold, according to industry insiders: To legalize cannabis in such a way to meet a rising public demand and, in the face of a court decision, to limit the home grow movement. The latter of which, despite federal regulations, is thriving here. Germans like to grow things, and cannabis is a rewarding plant to nurture.

High attendance at the Mary Jane Grow Expo in Berlin in June is just one sign that the genie is out of this particular bottle. BfArM – the federal agency in charge of regulating narcotics and medical devices – cannot stuff it back.Patients are going back to the way things were

However home grow does not build a professional, high volume cannabis market, much less a highly regulated medical one make. The government also made clear that it is going to have strict inspections and quality controls, and will technically buy all the cannabis produced, per the terms of the bid application process.

However, it is not entirely clear when the government will start actually doing the buying. And why the buying has not started yet. If insurance companies are refusing to pay, this means the government is not reimbursing them. The same government, which has also agreed to do so, as of March 2017.

What Gives On Good Old German Efficiency?

On the streets, patients are going back to the way things were. Many are used to fighting for the only drug that makes them feel better. The euphoria in May, for example, has been replaced with weary acceptance that things might get a bit worse before they really improve.

That said, there is also a realization that more activism and lobbying are required on just about every front. If an extrapolation of data from say Colorado or California is applied to Germany, there are already at least a million eligible patients here, based on the qualifying conditions. The government is planning for an annual increase in medical patients of about 5-10,000 a year, including in the amount of cannabis they are planning on buying from the licensed producers they choose. The numbers, however, are already not matching.Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.

Added to this wrinkle is the other reality that is also looming, particularly now.

With one exception, all of the firms now apparently in contention as finalists for the German government bid will also be supplying a domestic market in Canada that is going rec next summer. One year, in other words, before the German companies even begin producing.

What Is The Upshot For Patients?

Guenther Weiglein is one of the five patients who sued for home grow rights in 2014. He is now suing again for the right to extend home grow privileges until the government figures out its process. He is not the only one. Earlier this year he was told he had to stop his home grow and integrate into the “mainstream” system. So far, he, along with other patients who are suing, including for insurance coverage, have not been able to get cannabis easily through the system, although they are starting to make progress.

Weiglein’s situation is made even more frustrating by the fluidity of the situation. As of late July, he had finally gotten agreement from his insurance company to cover the drug. But now he cannot find a doctor willing to accept the financial risk of prescribing it to him. And in the meantime he has no access to medication.

Talk to any group of advocates right now, and there is one ongoing story. Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.

And those that can’t afford it? They are out of luck. Some patients say a tragedy like someone dying will create the impetus to move this into public eye. A hunger strike here by a leading cannabis doctor earlier this summer has so far not had much impact on policy. There is a great deal of pessimism here, as promised change earlier this year has turned into a long and drawn out multiyear question mark.

If this sounds like a bubbling and untenable situation, especially before a national election, it is. The prospect of another four years of Angela Merkel does not bode well for fast cannabis reform.

That said, the German government is now in an interesting situation. The law has now clearly changed to say that sick Germans are allowed to use cannabis as a drug of choice for chronic diseases when all else fails. Further, the national government has bound the insurance industry to cover it. So far, every patient who has sued for coverage has won. That has not, however, moved the insurance industry altogether. Nor has it solved the problem with doctors prescribing the drug.

Many now ask what will? It is clear, however, that it will change. The question is when, how fast, and in what situations.

The problem will undoubtedly ease by 2019, when the first German crops are finally ready, although it will be far from completely solved.