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German Court Stops Pending Cannabis Cultivation Bid On Technical Fault

By Marguerite Arnold
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In a move that seems to shed more doubt than certainty on domestic cannabis cultivation and the date that it will start auf Deutschland, the Higher Regional Court (or OLG) in Dusseldorf formally stopped the pending bid procedure for the first crop on March 28th. BfArM, the federal agency in charge of regulating all narcotic drugs, initiated that procurement bid. The tender bid was launched after the German Parliament and federal legislators changed the law last year to mandate that cannabis be available via prescription, and further that public health insurers were required to cover it.

That bid announcement was supposed to come as early as last September. Criticisms about the process and requirements began immediately thereafter. For starters, the bid’s requirements excluded all German-only respondents to the bid and left both Canadian and Israeli firms in the front positions to obtain these valuable licenses. However, there were other gripes, including the fact that the amount of cannabis requested (about 6.6 tonnes) was far too low to even begin to meet real demand. Namely, there are easily 1 million German patients who could qualify for the drug.

In the space of the last year, in fact, the number of “official” German cannabinoid patients has shot up from 1,000 to about 15,000. That said, the top three covering insurers also report a mere 64% approval rate. This means that there are more doctors writing prescriptions than insurers are covering.

That, at least for patients and their advocates is a bit of good news despite the blow that any delay in domestic production has created. Doctor resistance to prescribing cannabinoids even when there are no other alternatives has been used as an excuse in many media reports for the speed of market development. That clearly is not true. The attitude on the ground in Deutschland is rapidly changing.

That bid announcement was supposed to come as early as last September. At that point, however,the agency was then forced to extend the response date, which it did, but apparently not for long enough.

Throughout the fall, it was impossible to understand, from any direction, what was going on. Four lawsuits against the bid were launched around September, each with differing complaints that ranged from criticizing the agency for the lack of extension and response time to monopolistic business practices.

The OLG dismissed all but the criticism about the extension.what this decision has done most clearly is slowed down the production of domestically grown medical cannabinoids

The one clear thing to come out of Düsseldorf? BfArM has been banned from awarding its contract to anyone to produce medical cannabis in Germany starting in 2019. The first letters to bid finalists announcing the bid had been canceledbegan arriving the day after the court’s decision.

Reading Between the Lines

There have been rumors since last fall that the bid would end up in such waters. However,all the major producers widely suspected to have applied for the bid also began announcing themselves as finalists in press releases. For this reason, the official line from everyone that the bid was still, in fact, on track.

Nobody could understand why anyone would want or even be able to halt the production of direly needed, locally sourced, high-gradecannabis. That includes BfArM, which made an impassioned response, via their attorney to the OLG in Dusseldorf. Attorney Heike Dahs warned the court that any interruption of the bid was “very bad for the care of patients.”  He was similarly pessimistic about the ability to begin production domestically by the previously set 2019 deadline.

In fact, what this decision has done most clearly is slowed down the production of domestically grown medical cannabinoids (although potentially not by much) while giving officials at BfArM a rather nasty black eye that might yet lead to further legal action.

It also means that there will be another bid process. In the meantime, the ex-im market is, if anything, taking off.

This is a Shock And Opportunity – but not a Surprise

No matter the opinionated emails and IM’ing going on in several languages all over the world right now about the implications legally in the future, the major producers are all taking this in stride. And appear to be well positioned to respond.

According to Dr. Pierre Debs, the managing director of Spektrum Cannabis (the global medical brand of Canopy and based just south of Frankfurt), who responded to CannabisIndustryJournal a day after the court decision, the company is not affected by this development. “Spektrum has a steady and constant supply and we do not anticipate any problems supplying patients through their pharmacies,” he says. Debs received the first German medical import license to bring Canadian cannabis into the country a mere two years ago and has continued to carve a leading path in the discussion across Europe. “In addition to our supply from Canopy Growth Corp, our partnership supply agreement with Alcaliber in Spain will see Spektrum importing sun-grown medical cannabis products starting towards the end of the summer,” says Debs.

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Dr. Pierre Debs, managing director of Spektrum Cannabis
Photo: ICBC, Berlin

But it is not just the big guys in the mix anymore. And there are many who see opportunityto a situation, which is frustrating.“As the second-largest country by population in Europe and a leader within the EU, the German market represents a new frontier for the cannabis industry in general in the region,” says Zlatko Keskovski, chief executive officer of NYSK Holdings, a Macedonian firm now in its second harvest of GMP-certified cannabis and holding EU export rights.

For such firms, even though NYSK is a surprise entrant to the conversation this year and outside the EU, the current situation represents an unbelievable chance to enter a market literally starving for qualifiedproduct. The firm is currently looking for German distributors who cannot access medical grade cannabinoids via other routes including attending the ICBC in Berlin in April. “This year’s ICBC looks to be a seminal moment for NYSK,” says Keskovski. “We have taken the appropriate steps to ensure our high-quality standards have led to products that our customers, and eventually patients, can rely on. We look forward to the chance to showcase our achievements that we’ve worked so hard for. The ICBC will also present us with the opportunity to meet with potential distributors and future partners.”

German Patients are Going to be on the Front Lines of This Discussion

The difficulties that German patients have already faced in obtaining a drug that is now legal in their own country for medical use (and even for recreational purposes across an open border in Holland) are legion. While to a certain extent, German patients are in the same boat as patients elsewhere and their problems, in fact, there are still huge access issues that remain. For starters, the drug is much more expensive here, so those without health insurance approval face bills of about $3,000 per month. Why the eye-watering price? All medical grade cannabis is still imported, although increasingly this is now just via other EU countries, not just from Canada.

“One of the reasons we organized the national German Patient Roundtable is to give patients a voice in all of this supply and demand discussion and to help BfArM and others formulate workable solutions for all,” responded Philip Cenedella IV when reached for a response by CIJ. Cenedella, an American expat and the organizer of the Roundtable, a nationally focussed, umbrella group that is kicking off its campaign this year, spoke for many who are far from court and boardrooms where the decisions are being made.

Philip Cenedella
Philip Cenedella, pictured left, at the Deutsche Hanfverband (DHV) conference in Berlin last November.
Photo: @MedPayRx, Instagram

“While there are very talented firms who will now take up this discussion with the government and reissue a response for the tender, what we continue to see on the ground is that patients simply do not have the access granted them in the law which was passed over a year ago,” Cenedella says, with more than a note of frustration. “We again are calling on all government officials, industry executives and patient advocates to band together to immediately establish workable protocols that directly help the patients.”

Indeed, despite the frustration and delay, if not new costs and opportunities that this decision creates, one thing is very clear on the ground here. The current status quo is unacceptable. That alone should also put pressure on the powers that be to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. And via several routes, including widening import quotas or even issuing new licenses as a new solution to domestic cultivation is implemented.

“Patients are not being served and do not have access to a medicine that has been proven to improve lives,” says Cenedella. “Our simple request is for BfArM to finally invite patients into their discussions, to work with patients to formulate workable cultivation and distribution solutions, and we humbly request that this happen now before they go down another dead-end road, ending in another court defeat, and resulting in even more delays to the patients that are still lacking the care afforded them by the German Federal Court’s decision of 2017.”

German Media Reports Dramatic Increase in Cannabis Patients Covered by Insurance

By Marguerite Arnold
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German media is now reporting that in the first 10 months of medical cannabis reform, over 13,000 applications for medical cannabis have been received by the largest three public health insurance companies. Most of the applications were received (and processed) by AOK who received 7,600 applications. Barmer received 3,200 applications. Krankenkassen Techniker (or TK as it is widely referred to here) received approximately 2,200 applications.

The reality is that most patients still rely on the black market.Between 62-64% of those who applied at the big three were also reimbursed. That means that there are already close to 10,000 patients, if not slightly more, covered under some kind of reimbursed cannabis scheme in Germany (where cannabis costs only $10 per month as a co-paid expense). When cannabis is not covered by health insurance, however, patients must pay out of pocket for the drug which can run as much as $3,000 for a single month’s supply.

This information is also being released, fascinatingly, not from the government, insurance companies or even advocacy groups. Instead it comes from a report produced by local media (the Rheinische Post in Dusseldorf). The media outlet surveyed the three top largest health insurance companies on the number of cannabis-as-medicine applications they have received since the cannabis law was reformed last year.

Home cultivation and recreational use, except in a few city trials now underway in places like Bremen, is still outlawed on a federal level. The new law also specifically prohibits patients from growing their own. And since the reform law passed last year, the prevailing story from patients is the difficulties they have had in not only finding a doctor willing to prescribe cannabis, but also getting their health insurers to reimburse them for huge out of pocket expenses that most of the chronically ill can never hope to afford.

The reality is that most patients still rely on the black market. It is still easier to get cannabis this way. And far cheaper – unless of course approved by health insurance.

What Does This Mean For The Bigger Picture?

Despite the fact that many in the mainstream German media are still highly sceptical of the medical efficacy of cannabis, the tide is turning here too, rather dramatically. According to recent polls, about 57% of the country is ready for recreational reform. That means in the last four to five years, the majority of public opinion has also shifted. It is also clear that medical cannabis cannot be as easily dismissed as it once was. Here or anywhere.

What makes this even more interesting is the impact this now moving situation will have on the debate, particularly domestically, but also internationally.

The first is that Germany clearly has a huge number of potential patients. Local advocates put the real number here north of 1 million for conditions the drug is commonly prescribed for in other places. At the present time, the only doctors who are allowed to prescribe the drug must also have a special license to dispense such restricted “narcotics” as cannabis is now classified auf Deutsch. And the only “on-label” condition for cannabis is still Multiple Sclerosis. That means that cancer, AIDS, chronic pain and movement disorder patients, along with those who manage to get approved for PTSD, ADD, depression and other “psychological” disorders only get the drug approved as a measure of “last resort.” In other words, after all other drugs fail. That is a high bar to pass.

The second, as a result, is that these numbers appear artificially low for another reason. The government claimed upon passage of the cannabis reform legislation last year that it expected only 10,000 new patients a year for the first few years (and before domestic cultivation began). As these results already prove, there are clearly far more patients who want the drug than those who can get it. There are also more patients whose doctors are willing to write prescriptions for the drug than are getting reimbursed by public health insurance.Bottom line? No matter how slow it is in getting started, the medical cannabis market has arrived in Germany. The numbers will only grow from here.

Third, this entire debate is now happening at a time when Germany is re-examining its own health insurance policies. While 90% of the country is on much cheaper public healthcare, 10% of the country, mostly the self-employed, foreigners and high earners, have private coverage. This is highly expensive, and ends up trapping even Germans in a system that is unaffordable as they age. In fact, the issue is a big one in Berlin right now as particularly the SPD is pushing Chancellor Merkel and the CDU to finally address a growing problem.

The law last year mandated that public health insurance must cover cannabis if prescribed under the right conditions. That means that private health insurers have to cover it too.

On the cannabis front specifically, what this may indicate, however, is that the public health insurers are being tasked to only approve a certain pre-identified number of patients nationally in the early part of the cannabis program. Especially as all of the medical cannabis in the country is still imported – and most of that is still coming from Canada.

What these numbers clearly show however, beyond all the caveats, is that demand is starting to pick up. Cannabis as medicine has not entirely caught on in the mainstream, although Germans are clearly interested in the idea. Especially given all the noise and news from abroad on this front.

It also means that no matter how “anaemic” these numbers may seem in early 2018, it is a respectable kick-off to what many in the industry view as one of the world’s most lucrative medical cannabis markets. Counting the approximately 1,000 patients who received medical cannabis before the law changed last year, it is safe to say that the market is now up and running.

Bottom line? No matter how slow it is in getting started, the medical cannabis market has arrived in Germany. The numbers will only grow from here.

How Does This Compare To Other Countries?

But how does the German patient ramp up compare to other countries after significant reform has been passed?

In Canada, the cannabis-as-medication discussion is clearly mainstream as the country prepares to launch its recreational program later this summer. The medical program began in 2014. The most recently released figures as of the beginning of January 2018, show that medical cannabis has clearly caught on. Health Canada’s most recent figures show that by September of last year, there were 235,621 registered cannabis patients in the country. Significantly, this is also up dramatically from 174,503 registered patients as of just April 2017. The previous year, the total number of cannabis patients literally tripled in 2016. To put this in “historical perspective,” as of Q1 2015, about a year into the new medical law in Canada, there were “only” 23,930 patients (or about twice the number in Germany as of now). This growth is all the more impressive when one considers that there is no mandate for insurance coverage of the drug in Canada. That said, cannabis is far cheaper in Canada. It is of course covered domestically. Plus the licensed producers can mail order it directly to patients.

Israel’s path to medical cannabis access has been slower off the ground in terms of overall numbers, but it is has still dramatically expanded over the past decade too. In 2012, there were about 10,000 cannabis patients in Israel. That number more than doubled by 2016 to over 23,000 patients. This will continue to increase too. Israel’s medical cannabis is covered under national health insurance and patients must pay about $100 a month for their meds.

What Is The Official German Government Response To This News?

Marlene Mortler, German drug commissioner for the federal government and affiliated with the CSU, has issued comments that seem to be supportive of the continued program in Germany. “The growing number of permits shows how important it was to launch this law last year,” she said, while warning that medical cannabis is not a panacea.