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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.

european union states

Q1 European Cannabis Industry Update Report

By Marguerite Arnold
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european union states

While the American cannabis industry deals with both unparalleled opportunity and new risks, Europe is setting itself up for a spring that is going to be verdant.

The ongoing drumbeat for reform in countries across the continent is bringing both money and high-grade medical product into the market. Even if volume is still really at a trickle, it will rapidly widen to a steady stream. It is also very clear that the next two to three quarters are going to deliver news that the cannabiz has arrived, and with authority.

The following is an overview of what is happening, where, and with an eye to informing foreign investors, in particular, about new opportunities in an awakening market.

Germany

Without a doubt, the country is priming itself for a medical market that is going to be large and partially government supported, driving regulation of medical use across the continent. On top of that, the idea of selling 28 grams (1 oz) of product to end consumers who only pay about $12 for their medication has gotten the attention of global producers. Opportunities here for those who did not submit a bid for federal cultivation (see the big Canadian LPs) are still unfolding.

german flag
Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

However here is what is now on the table: an import market that cannot get enough cheap, GMP certified product. Producers from Australia to Uruguay are now actively hunting for a way in, even if cutting a supply deal for the next 18 – 24 months as the German green machine starts to kick into production-ready status. What a bad time for Israel to be so publicly out of the ex-im biz! In fact, Israeli entrepreneurs are scouring the country for opportunities into the market another way (and there are a few efforts afoot in a sleeping giant of a market waking up from a long snooze to find they cannot get enough product). Right now, however, the legal market is absolutely dominated by Canopy, Aurora, Aphria and Tilray along with Dutch Bedrocan.

The German parliament is clearly also going to do something about another piece of reform which will also drive market expansion – starting with announcement of additional cultivation possibilities (potentially this time even open to German firms). On Friday, the day after the British parliament wrangled over the same thing, the German Bundestag debated decriminalization along with a few other hot button topics (like abortion). With only the AfD (right wing) still in the “lock ‘em up camp,” and even the head of the police calling for reform, it is clear that decriminalization is on the legislative agenda this year.

Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Denmark & Holland

While it may seem presumptuous to lump all these very different countries under one label, the reality is that the level of reform is generally in a similar state (transition to medical), and that drives potential political and market risk as well as evaluation of investment decisions.

aurora logoIn Spain, federal reform has not come yet, but medical deals involving pharmaceutical companies (both exclusively cannabinoid focussed and otherwise) are afoot. Plus of course there is Barcelona (the Colorado of the country in many ways).

Italy, Portugal and Denmark are all the battlegrounds for the big Canadian (and German) companies now set on having a country-by-country footprint in opening markets across the EU (see Canopy, Aurora, Aphria and their German counterparts of Spektrum Cannabis, Pedianos and Nuuvera). Licensing is political, happening at a high level, and only for those with the bank to back deals that come with high capex attached. That said, there are lucrative opportunities for those with local contacts and liquidity.Nuuvera logo

Holland is another animal altogether, but for the most part everyone is so confused about the state of reform domestically that the only people really in position to take advantage of it are the Dutch, at least for now. That said, Dutch-based plays (in part financed by Canadian backing) for other Euro markets are absolutely underway. Who else has so much experience here, let’s be honest? Regardless, investments in these canna markets, particularly for the Euro-focussed but North American investor, for now, will tend to be through public stock acquisitions of Canadian parents or direct investments in Dutch companies (see Bedrocan, but they are not the only game in town).

Switzerland, for the most part, is setting its own pace, but reform here means the CBD market, including for medical grade imports, is a place for the savvy medical investor to look for cultivation and ex-im opportunities. Including in the home-grown, Swiss pharma space.

Greece

Parthenon, Athens, Greece
Photo: Kristoffer Trolle

The recent pronouncement of government officials that Greece was opening its doors to investment and a medical cannabis business means that there will be a federally legal, EU country that is promoting both investment and tourism opportunities just for domestic consumption, let alone export. Scouts from all the major canna companies are combing both the Greek mainland and its islands.

Poland

If there was ever such a thing as a “virgin” cannabis market, Poland might well qualify. For those distributors with cheap product that has not (yet) found a home, the country is poised to start to announce (at least) distribution deals to pharmacies with producers now establishing themselves in other markets. Medical legislation has just changed, in other words, but nothing else is in place. And with Polish patients now having, literally, to scour the continent for product not to mention foot the bill for the travel costs to get it, the next obvious step is a national pharmacy chain distribution deal or two with producers from all over the world now looking for Euro market entry possibilities. Domestic production is some time off.

The BalticsThe ongoing drumbeat for reform in countries across the continent is bringing both money and high-grade medical product into the market

If there were such a thing as the “Berlin” of the cannabis market in Europe (namely sexy but poor), it is probably going to be here. Cheap production markets and opening opportunities for export across the EU for high quality, low cost cannabis are not going unnoticed. Look for interesting plays and opportunities across the region. Scouts from the big international canna companies already are.

The UK

Britain comes last because of the political uncertainty in general, surrounding the island. However, last week Parliament appeared on the verge of being embarrassed into acting on at least medical reform. There will be a market here and of course, there is already one globally known cannabis company with a 19-year track record and a monopoly license on canna-medical research and production (GW Pharmaceuticals) that calls the British Isles home. This will be a no-brainer, particularly for foreign English-speaking investors still leery of continental Europe. However it will also be highly politically connected. Expect to see a few quick arranged marriages between such landed gentry and foreign capital – potentially even this year.

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.

European Cannabis News Roundup 2017 And Predictions For 2018

By Marguerite Arnold
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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.

Germany

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.

Holland

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.

Barcelona, capital of Catalonia
Photo: Bert Kaufmann

Spain

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.

Poland

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.

Warsaw, Poland
Image: Nikos Roussos, Flickr

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.

Greece

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.

Lithuania

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.

Slovenia

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.

Denmark

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.

Portugal

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.

Greece Legalizes Medical Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to the Independent, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced last week that Greece will legalize medical cannabis, allowing doctors to write prescriptions for it. “From now on, the country is turning its page, as Greece is now included in countries where the delivery of medical cannabis to patients in need is legal,” says Prime Minister Tsipras at a press conference.

Parthenon, Athens, Greece
Photo: Kristoffer Trolle

Greece joins six other European Union nations to legalize forms of cannabis, signaling a growing trend in Europe, where cannabis markets are just beginning to proliferate.

Barcelona, capital of Catalonia
Photo: Bert Kaufmann

Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain, legalized consumption of recreational cannabis and cannabis clubs last week. The government voted in favor of the measure with wide support after a 67,500-signature petition brought the debate to the center stage.

According to the Independent, the rules seem relatively restrictive, with measures in place to prevent the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona, from turning into a cannabis tourism capital, such as Amsterdam. One of those rules requires a waiting period for new members of clubs before they can purchase and consume cannabis. However before this measure passed the vote, cannabis clubs were in a legal gray area, with fines for public consumption. These European markets could present excellent opportunities for cannabis companies, which could cause other EU countries make the plunge into legal cannabis.