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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.

mgc-pharma

MGC Pharma Makes Its Slovenian Moves More Final

By Marguerite Arnold
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Right now the map of Europe, from a cannabis cultivation perspective at least, is shaping up to be very much like a game of Risk. Throw the dice, move your armies (or more accurately line up your financing), and apply for federal import and cultivation licenses.

In the process, all sorts of interesting strategic plays are popping up. And as a result, here is a new and actually pretty cool “alternative” reality that is easy to verify in several different ways. Medical cannabis is being cultivated in multiple countries across Europe as of 2018, however unbelievable this was even four years ago. Even though it is still cleary just early days. And those cultivators are already international, operating across federal jurisdictions in Europe and across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

With all the excitement and attention paid to the American hemisphere and the European moves of big Canadian LPs (and they are pretty amazing), there are still other moves afoot that are absolutely of note. Specifically, Australian firms and MGC Pharma in particular, have been moving steadily to establish both distribution and cultivation presence on the ground in Europe.

CannEpil MGC
CannEpil, the company’s first pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis product for the treatment of refractory epilepsy.

The latest news? MGC’s production facility in Slovenia was officially inspected by authorities and issued an interim license for its production plant in January, before presumably being given a green light of approval permanently. The company is also moving forward with the production of CannEpil, the company’s first pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis product for the treatment of refractory epilepsy.

Refractory epilepsy affects about 30% of all those who suffer from the condition. Refractory is one of those words however, that hides its real meaning. Translation for those without an MD? This is “drug resistant” epilepsy. Resistant to all drugs before, of course, except cannabinoids.

And that is a welcome relief for patients domestically and throughout Europe. It is also a note to investors looking for savvy Euro plays right now.For all manufacturers now considering entering this market, this is a complicated environment to begin negotiating

This is a major win for MGC. Not to mention a vibrant medical market. No matter where specialty drugs are now going to be sourced from.

A Treatment-Driven “Branded” Pharma Market

What more traditional American pharmaceutical companies have known for a long time (certainly since the 1950’s) is now a fact also facing all cannabis brands coming to the European market and Germany in particular. The regulatory environment is hostile to the extreme for Auslanders in particular. Specifically, the development of “branded” or “name brand” drugs runs economically and philosophically counter to the concept of public health insurance itself even as their market accessibility is required by the same. This is even more the case for foreign firms with such ideas.

Here is the problem. Name brands are expensive. They are also usually outlier drugs for specific, relatively rare conditions. This is also the place where new drugs enter the market, no matter what they are.mgc-pharma

In an environment where the government negotiates bulk contracts for common drugs and these can be bought at every apotheke (pharmacy) for 10 euros and a doctors rezept (prescription), the chronically ill and those with drug resistant conditions are left out of the discussion. They face steep and usually inaccessible bills up front for all meds not in bulk purchase categories. And that as of last year in Germany specifically, includes cannabis. That is the case even though technically the government is now buying cannabis in bulk and making purchase commitments to foreign companies for the same. Insurance companies, however, are still forcing patients to pay the entire out of pocket cost up front and wait to reimbursed.

“Generic” Brands For Off label Chronic Conditions

However medical cannabis is clearly not just another drug. Cannabis falls on both sides of every fence in this discussion.

The first problem is that the providers (importers and soon to be domestic cultivators) are private companies. All of them are foreign helmed at this point, with a well-developed bench of branded products. That makes all cannabis drugs, oil and flower, by definition, fall into the “expensive” branded category immediately. The German, Italian, and Danish governments appear to be now negotiating bulk buys during a licensing season that is well on the way to domestic cultivation too. That alone will affect domestic prices and new products. But again, this is now several years behind other countries – notably MGC in Slovenia, Tilray in Portugal, all things now afoot in Denmark and clearly, Greece.

Next, cannabis’s status as a still imported, speciality, semi-trial status in the EU means it is in the most restricted categories of drugs to begin with (no matter the name or strength of the cannabinoid in particular). And because it can be bought as bud, in an “unprocessed” form as well as processed oils or other medicine, this is throwing yet another spanner into the mix.

Look for distribution deals all over Europe as a result, starting with PolandThen there is this wrinkle. Cannabis (even CBD) is currently considered a narcotic within the EU and even more specifically the largest continental drug market – Germany. The German regulatory system in particular, also imposes its own peculiarities. But basically what this means in sum is that the legal cannabis community including distributors and pharmas at this point, have to educate doctors in an environment where cannabis itself is a new “brand.” Who manufactures what, for the purposes of German law, at least, is irrelevant. It is what that drug is specifically for that matters.

For all manufacturers now considering entering this market, this is a complicated environment to begin negotiating. This is sure not how things are back home.

What this also means is that low cost, speciality cannabis products will continue to be imported across Europe for the German and other developing, regulated sovereign markets here as doctors learn about cannabis from condition treatments. And that is what makes the news about MGC even more interesting.

Look for distribution deals all over Europe as a result, starting with Poland. And, despite the many well-connected and qualified hopefuls from Canada, a little competition in the German market too.

MS is the only “on-label” drug at present for cannabis treatment in Germany. As a result, particularly when it comes to paediatric treatment for drug resistant epilepsy, this is the kind of strategic presence that will create a competitive source for highly condition-branded medication for a very specific audience of patients. It is also what the German market, for one, if not the EU is shaping up to be at least in the near term.

As this interesting abstract from 2006 clearly shows, this kind of epilepsy is also high on the German radar from a public policy and healthcare-cost containment perspective. The costs of treatment per patient were between 2,600 and 4,200 euros for three months a decade ago, and not only have those risen, but so have the absolute number of people in similar kinds of situations.

Further, with indirect costs far higher than direct costs including early retirement and permanent semi disability, MGC’s market move into an adjacent (and cheaper) production market might be just what the German doctors if not policymakers now looking at such issues, will order.

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Aurora Leads Cannabis Import Race in Italy by Winning (Mostly) Exclusive Rights

By Marguerite Arnold
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aurora logo

Just as the dust had settled on the news that Canadian LP Aurora had signed agreements to finance a major growing facility in Denmark, the company also added another European feather to its cannabis cap.

On January 18, the company announced that it is the sole and exclusive winner of an EU-wide tender bid to begin to supply medical cannabis to the Italian government through the Ministry of Defense. Why is this federal agency in charge instead of the federal ministry of health? So far, the Italian cannabis program has been overseen exclusively by the Italian military.

pedanios cannabis
Pedanios cannabis, produced in Canada and imported through Germany

But the military just isn’t cut out to cultivate cannabis for the entire medical needs of a country, which should seem obvious. And that is where the Canadian LPs apparently are coming into play.

There were two stages to the bid, with Pedanios, Aurora’s German-based arm prequalifying in the first. In the final round, Pedianos won exclusive rights to begin supplying the government with medical cannabis.

What is interesting, however, is what this says not only about the potential growth of the cannabis market in Italy, but beyond that, Germany.

A German-Canadian Sourced Italian Product?

Pedanios, who won the bid, is the German-based arm of Aurora, one of Canada’s largest LPs. And Italian medical cannabis is now about to be routed by them from Canada, via Berlin, to market locally via pharmacies. It is certainly one of the stranger paths to market globally.

This announcement is even more interesting given that Aurora is widely suspected to be one of the top contenders in the still-pending German bid.aurora logo

Could this herald a German-sourced cannabis crop for an Italian neighbour?

And what does this say about the sheer amount of volume potentially needed for cultivation next door (or even in Italy) as Germany begins its own cultivation program, presumably this year, to source an already undersupplied domestic market where growing numbers of patients are getting their medical cannabis covered under public health insurance?

Will Germany further antagonize its neighbours over a cannabis trade imbalance? Or does this mean that a spurt of domestic Italian cannabis production is also about to start?

There are 80 million Germans and about 60 million Italians. Who will be the cannabis company to supply them?

Nuuvera Also Makes Italian Moves

Less widely reported, however, was the news that Aurora/Pedanios would not be the only private supplier to the Italian market. Nuuvera, which just announced that they had become finalists in the competitive Germany cultivation bid, also just acquired an import license to Italy for medical cannabis by buying Genoa based FL Group.Nuuvera logo

One thing is clear. The pattern of establishing presence here by the foreign (mostly Canadian) firms has been one of acquisition and financing partnerships for the past 2 years.

Import until you cultivate is also clearly the guiding policy of legalizing EU countries on the canna front.

The question really is at this point, how long can the import over cultivation preference continue? Especially given the expense of imported cannabis. Not to mention the cannabis farms now popping up all over the EU at a time when the Canadian market will have enough volume from recreational sales to keep all the large (and small) LPs at production capacity for years to come.

In the next year, in fact, look for this reality to start changing. No matter who has import licenses now with flower and oil crossing oceans at this point, within the next 18-24 months, look for this pattern to switch.

The distributors will be the same of course. But the brand (and source) of their product will be from European soil.

Foreign Invasions, Domestic Cultivation Rights & More

ICBC logoOne of the more interesting professional conferences this year globally will clearly be the ICBC in Berlin, where all of these swirling competitions and companies come together for what is shaping up to be the most influential cannabis business conference in Europe outside of Spannabis (and with a slightly different approach). Nowhere else in the world now are international companies (from bases in Canada, Australia and Israel primarily) competing in such close proximity for so many foreign cannabis markets and cultivation rights to go with them.

With the average cultivation facility in Europe going for about USD $30-40 million a pop in terms of sheer capital requirements plus the additional capital to finance the inevitable delays, such market presence does not come cheap.

It is increasingly clear that the only business here will also be of the highly regulated, controlled medical variety for some time to come.

That said, when the move towards recreational does come, and within the next four years or so, the global players who have opened these markets on the medical side, will be well positioned to provide product for a consumer base that is already being primed at the pump. Even if for now, the only access is via a doctor’s prescription.

Nevada Testing Lab Licenses Suspended, Then Reinstated

By Aaron G. Biros
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When Nevada legalized adult use sales this past summer, the market exploded and undoubtedly flooded licensed testing labs with samples to get products on shelves. In August, roughly a month after the start of adult use sales, a Las Vegas cannabis-testing lab, G3 Labs, had their license suspended for an unknown compliance issue.

“We can’t disclose the details of the suspension, including anything about penalties,” said Klapstein. “Under NRS 360.255, the information is confidential.”Then in late December, the Nevada Department of Taxation, one of the bodies tasked with regulating the state’s industry, announced in an email they suspended two more cannabis testing lab licenses. Certified Ag Lab in Sparks, Nevada and Cannex Nevada, LLC, in Las Vegas (also known as RSR Analytical Laboratories) both had their licenses suspended on December 22 and December 26 respectively.

Stephanie Klapstein, spokeswoman for the Department of Taxation, told the Reno Gazette Journal that both of those labs were not following proper protocols. “During separate, routine inspections, Department inspectors discovered that these two labs were not following proper lab procedures and good laboratory practices,” says Klapstein. “Their licenses were suspended until those deficiencies were corrected.”

According to the Reno Gazette Journal, both of those labs had their licenses reinstated and have since resumed normal business. During their license suspension, the labs were not allowed to operate and the department directed licensed cannabis businesses to submit samples to other labs. The department also directed the suspended labs in the email to coordinate with their clients who had samples in for testing; to either have their samples transferred to a different lab or a new sample taken for another lab to test. They did note that no product recalls were deemed necessary because of the suspension.

In that same email, the department directed licensed cannabis businesses to state-licensed labs in good standing, including 374 Labs, ACE Analytical Laboratory, DB Labs, Digipath Labs, MM Lab and NV CANN Lab. But on the department’s website, it says there are 11 licensed testing labs.

Back in September when we reported on the first lab license suspension, Klapstein told CIJ that under state law they couldn’t discuss any reasons behind why they suspended licenses. “We can’t disclose the details of the suspension, including anything about penalties,” said Klapstein. “Under NRS 360.255, the information is confidential.”

Because of that confidentiality, there are a number of questions left unanswered: With three lab licenses suspended in the first six months of the Nevada’s adult use market being open, how are testing labs keeping up with the market’s pace? What did those suspended labs do wrong? Do the regulations adequately protect public health and safety?

Mainstream Media Picks Up On Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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The British online newspaper, The Guardian, has just begun to cover cannabis. The regular feature, part of their “society” section, is clearly attempting to cover cannabis a bit more consistently and regularly as the California rec market begins to gain (legal) steam.

The writer now helmed to lead this effort is Alex Halperin, a business journalist in the U.S., who landed the gig apparently on the success of Weedweek – a highly cryptic weekly summary blog of mostly U.S.-based industry events and updates.How the Guardian will cover the industry and related issues will be interesting to follow.

This is also not The Guardian’s first foray into the topic. The media outlet, which got its start in the 1800’s in Northern England and expanded dramatically to reach a global digital audience over the past decade, has covered cannabis legalization on a fairly regular basis for the last four years. This new focus also comes at an interesting time. Apart from events in the U.S., Canada is moving forward with recreational this summer. And in Europe, the medical discussion continues apace. That said, it appears the Guardian is going to focus on the U.S. market, at least initially.

It will be interesting to see if that focus shifts (and if they allow other journalists outside of the U.S. to participate in the expanded coverage). While California might well be the largest state economy in general, the Canadian market is already larger and more developed, being regulated nationally across multiple provinces.

Another Mainstream Media Cannabis Column?

This is hardly news. The Guardian is actually treading on ground established already by most of the big news and business publications – including niche publications, blogs and of course, the trade press.

How the Guardian will cover the industry and related issues will be interesting to follow.

The purpose of the column apparently is to spark an “adult conversation” about cannabis – and how it is “changing modern life.” The initial focus on the U.S. market (and California in particular) may have seemed to make sense to a media outlet looking for outrageous stories. But as everyone knows, the U.S. is only one market – and further one still without federal protection.

However, the Guardian is also now competing with other business and mainstream publications that are already in this space. Main Street, the online business ‘zine helmed by Jim Cramer, created one of the first mainstream specialty cannabis sections almost four years ago with the coincidence of the Colorado rec market. Other notable publications and media outlets have significantly increased their coverage of cannabis as well. CNN has been reporting consistently on cannabis topics like legalization and U.S. federal reform efforts for some time now. Business Insider and Forbes have covered ongoing and growing investments and the financial side of things for several years. The Denver Post has its own entirely cannabis-focused subsidiary, The Cannabist.

And as public companies, in both the U.S. and elsewhere have begun to move through the legal thickets of legalization, business-focussed journals and blogs are even beginning to cover cannabis stocks. Starting with Motley Fool and Seeking Alpha (although again, most of this coverage is of companies outside the United States). Specialty publications are also of course, flourishing online, particularly with the beginning of an advertising market that is also beginning to establish itself, albeit around some still thorny regulatory issues.

In general, although the Guardian has a reputation as critical of the British monarchy, with strong left-leaning tendencies, its coverage of the industry has been fairly mainstream – so far at least.

Will that begin to change? And what will really be tackled and covered? And while the ostensible focus is what is going on in the world of cannabis in California (and presumably other foreign markets) could the Guardian’s ostensible new feature also be geared to drive reform at home? The U.K. has yet to even approach the topic of criminalization.

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.

Jeff Sessions and Eric Holder

Jeff Sessions Rescinds Cole Memo

By Aaron G. Biros
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Jeff Sessions and Eric Holder

According to The Associated Press, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo today, an Obama-era policy barring Department of Justice officials from going after state-legal cannabis businesses. This move comes just after California, the nation’s most populous state, legalized adult use sales of cannabis. Previously, the Cole Memo has served as a kind of stopgap for states to conduct legal cannabis markets, giving them peace of mind that the federal government wouldn’t interfere.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Ushering in 2018 with a bang, California’s cannabis businesses finally celebrated their new market launch on New Year’s Day. Even CNN rang in the New Year with copious amounts of cannabis, sending journalist Randi Kaye to Denver where she was passed joints and even donned a gas mask bong.

One fifth of the entire United States population now live in states where adult use cannabis sales are legal. A majority of states in the country have some form of cannabis legalization law on the books.

According to The Associated Press, AG Sessions’ new policy will leave it up to federal prosecutors to determine how they wish to enforce federal law and the controlled substances act. Sessions has been historically conflicted with federal policy surrounding legal cannabis and has repeatedly expressed his disdain for the drug.

But his back and forth on policy directives has been largely symbolic until now. In January last year, Sessions said he would uphold federal law but expressed openness to ending the conflict between state and federal laws. In February of last year, he tied legal cannabis to violence in a press conference where he alluded to greater enforcement. But flip-flopping again in March of last year, he said the Cole Memo is valid and appropriate after a speech.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO)
Image: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

The Trump Administration’s confusing and often-unclear stance on cannabis has only fueled more speculation, worries and fear that cannabis businesses are no longer safe from federal prosecution.

The cannabis industry and politicians around the country were quick to respond to the AG’s new policy shift. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said he would be holding up DoJ nominees, “until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.” The Cannabis Control Commission of Massachusetts, the regulatory body tasked with overseeing the state’s legal cannabis industry, says “nothing has changed” and that it will continue their work to legalize and regulate the cannabis industry.

Steve Schain, Esq. practicing at the Hoban law Group

Steve Schain, Esq., an attorney with Hoban Law Group, a prominent cannabis law firm, says this only fuels the confusion. “With Jeff Sessions threatening to singlehandedly crush $7.2 billion legalized marijuana industry spanning 30 states, generating millions in taxes and providing tens of thousands of jobs, much confusion abounds,” says Schain. “While unclear if merely a ‘knee jerk reaction’ to California program’s launch breadth of coverage, unless and until the United States Department of Justice provides an official statement, publication, or other specific information, neither legalized marijuana’s current status – nor the Federal Government lack of Congressional mandate or funds to derail state programs – has changed.”

Omar Figueroa, a well-known California cannabis attorney, urges clients and friends to start getting informed. “Which district is your ‘commercial cannabis activity’ operation(s) located? Who is the US Attorney for that district? What is that US Attorney’s cannabis policy? The answers to these questions just became extremely important. Please contact us for legal advice and representation.”

Advocates and activists were also very quick to condemn Sessions’ move, including Matthew Schweich, interim executive director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). “This extremely misguided action will enable a federal crackdown on states’ rights with regard to marijuana policy,” says Schweich. “Attorney General Sessions has decided to use the power of the federal government to attack the ability of states to decide their own laws. A majority of Americans support legalization, and Sessions has simply decided to ignore their views. In the states where marijuana is legal, voters approved those legalization policies at the ballot box. This is a direct attack on the will of the people.”

National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Executive Director Aaron Smith gave the following statement in a press release:

“This news from the Department of Justice is disturbing, especially in light of the fact that 73% of voters oppose federal interference with state cannabis laws. But, the rescinding of this memo does not necessarily mean that any major change in enforcement policy is on the horizon. This has been, and still will be, a matter of prosecutorial discretion. We therefore hope that Department of Justice officials, including U.S. Attorneys, will continue to uphold President Trump’s campaign promise to not interfere with state cannabis programs, which have been overwhelmingly successful in undercutting the criminal market.

In addition to safely regulating the production and sale of cannabis, state-based cannabis programs have created tens of thousands of jobs and generated more than a billion dollars in state and local tax revenue to date. Any significant change in federal enforcement policy will result in higher unemployment and will take funds away from education and other beneficial programs. Those revenues will instead go back to drug cartels and other criminal actors.”

Could this move be a genuine policy shift that will cause a crackdown on the legal cannabis industry? One action that could prevent the DoJ’s ability to target cannabis businesses relies on a Senate vote passing the Leahy Amendment as part of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill. That amendment would prevent the DoJ from using resources to go after state-legal medical cannabis laws, but does not exactly protect companies operating under adult use and recreational laws.

Is it possible that this is just the Trump Administration moving public eyes away from the bombshell revelations in Michael Wolff’s book and Trump’s feud with Steve Bannon? The current administration has a history of creating headlines amidst unrelated controversy, deflecting a public relations crisis from the public eye.

Open For Business: California Market Launches

By Aaron G. Biros
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California’s full legal cannabis market officially opened its doors for business on January 1st, 2018. Following a relatively short time frame when they announced the first licenses awarded less than a month ago, retail stores were open for business in counties throughout California. Customers came out in full force, with long lines on the opening day, with some hundreds deep stretching around blocks.

For the quick turn around time between implementing regulations and awarding temporary licenses, the grand opening of the cannabis market in the nation’s most populous state proceeded smoothly. Only a handful of minor hiccups associated with the launch were reported throughout the state. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a pretty good job for a new regulatory agency (The Bureau) tasked with regulating such a massive fledgling market.

One major and definitely foreseeable hiccup in the launch of California’s new medical and adult use markets was the failure to implement tracking software. According to Michael Blood with The Associated Press, licensed businesses are being asked by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to manually document sales and transfers of cannabis with paper invoices.

Los Angeles
Image: Kevin Stanchfield, Flickr

While the Department said the traceability system was implemented Tuesday, Blood says, cannabis businesses are not required to use it and will be trained on how to operate it before it becomes required to use later in 2018.

Local control regulations in California means that businesses must first seek approval from local authorities before attaining a temporary license from the state to operate. That coupled with the rolling process of awarding licenses meant that only some cannabis businesses could officially open their doors. Municipalities throughout California handle regulating cannabis differently.

The handful of adult use dispensaries with temporary licenses in the Los Angeles area received a massive influx of customers on opening day. Residents of LA came in droves to the four West Hollywood dispensaries open for adult use business.

The Great Cannabis Branding Conundrum in Europe

By Marguerite Arnold
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Cannabranding is buzzy. In the United States and in Canada, it is a vertical that is developing fast along with the multi-billion dollar legitimizing cannabis market. In both the United States and Canada, digital marketing to promote brands is a hot topic.

Social media has firmly rolled over traditional advertising barriers even as it still remains a landmine. And if there were ever a “fun” brand to be associated with, cannabis carries a lot of plusses. Starting with the rapidly fading stigma. According to Adweek, there were 170 advertising and marketing agencies picking up national cannabis business in the United States, with additional firms serving smaller firms or markets at the beginning of the year.

Yet battles that should be dated with the year 2017 in the mirror, are still raging and underway even in these jurisdictions. No matter what or where, advertising remains complicated. Beyond the American hemisphere, the issue of branding is a still-slumbering giant that may yet awake in the second part of the next decade. For the most part, that will have to await the advent of recreational use, at least within Europe.Are there successful brands already established in the world of cannabis? Of course.

How brands enter the market in the EU in fact, based on their social media and internet influence elsewhere, is very much a part of that discussion. So far in Europe, there has been no federal recreational reform. Medical use is still in front of legislatures. As a result, that means that more traditional social media efforts in particular, are verboten when launched in country.

With foreign firms now entering the EU market, the big question is, can such firms establish a brand presence here (or for any of their products?) Or will that too, be launched from abroad?

And how exactly will that fare in Europe, particularly in places like Germany, where the overwhelming pressure is on to treat cannabis just like another narcotic? And in particular, a generic drug.

A Brief History of Advertising in Cannabis

Hard as it is to believe, just four years ago, there was no legal, functioning recreational market anywhere. Weedmaps and Leafly were the only game in town when it came to advertising, along with growing free press coverage, in particular for small companies who were starting to establish market presence in the legalizing cannabis business. In fact Weedmaps and Leafly can be effectively credited, certainly in the United States, with putting cannabis advertising, along with dispensaries and prescribing doctors, on the map.

The impact of a California media industry on this issue, especially with state recreational legalization imminent, cannot be underestimated. However, these days, it is not the only game in town.

Fast forward to 2017, and the world of cannabranding has exploded, no surprise, in the world of social media. “Bud porn” proliferates on Instagram. In fact, an Instagram account, along with YouTube videos, Facebook posts and Twitter pictures are derigeur for pot companies these days as much as they are for anyone else. Free media is still a force.

However even here, the rules and enforcement of the same, at least in the United States, are still shadowed with uncertainty. Federal Schedule I status means that technically, even the big social media giants are in the same boat as traditional advertising mediums (like print or even internet-based media). Section 843 of the Controlled Substances Act specifically prohibits “communications facilities” from advertising Schedule I drugs. However the internet has never really been brought under FCC guidelines – and on many fronts. See “bud porn”, as the first example. Cannabis “advertising” such as it has clearly developed, is absolutely another one.

And into this gap have poured cannabis-branding initiatives galore. One of the most corporately ambitious so far? Netflix, with not only pot-branded entertainment, but its own brands of cannabis. It is far from the only one. Google Adwords also changed its policies with regard to medical advertising this year. The advent of a recreational market in California will absolutely drive this issue globally. But beyond California state borders, how will more local laws be enforced? And by whom? Is anyone at the FCC or Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department considering the national impact of any cannabis branding launched in California, for example? And where would they start? Would corporate advertising that is present at national conferences be targeted too? Along with the growing cannabisHow will such firms establish branding in a world so totally off-limits to “brand” advertising? conference economy itself which is already multi-state? The situation is already slippery. Abroad, could or would BfArM, the German federal agency overseeing the regulation of narcotic drugs (including cannabis), bring suit against Facebook for distributing California-sourced advertising for an Australian firm now doing business in Europe?

Clearly, there are landmines everywhere one looks. And not just for the big guys. The path is still littered with issues and problems for smaller, U.S.-based initiatives. Accounts can be blocked arbitrarily on social media and have been, such as on Facebook. In sum, however, it is also very clear that the preponderance of a tide is shifting. The industry as well as internet-based branding, is winning.

Especially as recreational reform blooms in Canada and California.

Advertising, in a digital world, has no borders. And cannabis branding is about to test exactly how accurate that mantra is. Or at least how much the location of one’s server counts. And it may be that because of this issue, the entire enchilada is about to jump the shark, if not a few international borders.

The Awakening Canadian Giant

North of the American border, the great Canadian recreational cannabis experiment is more than just in the offing. The train is puffing with steam at the station. The impact of a federally legal, recreational market that Canada will become as of next summer, cannot be underestimated from the advertising and branding front.

First, it means that Canadian companies will be able to advertise and promote their brands to at least a domestic audience. Granted, they will undoubtedly face the same issues as liquor companies in some ways. But promoting specific brands and labels has already hit the Canadian social media universe. See the efforts of all the major pot-producing companies with domestic server and corporate presence.

In turn, this has further opened another question. If digital and social media has no boundaries, what does that mean for the rest of the world? Particularly those countries now also watching the larger Canadian corporates establish both growing and distribution presence within their borders, and with strict advertising bans on cannabis domestically. That includes bans on advertising marijuana as medicine.

The Most Compelling Cannabis Brand Remains Legalization

Are there successful brands already established in the world of cannabis? Of course. Think only of the many celebrity-backed brands (even for medical) that you have probably heard of in the last few years. There are likely to be more.

However the reality is that in many jurisdictions, starting with Germany, such branding theoretically at least, stops at the border. The many firms who are establishing presence here on the distribution and potentially cultivation side, do nothing more than promote their company names at industry events.

How will such firms establish branding in a world so totally off-limits to “brand” advertising?

For now, one of those answers is to establish a presence as a serious pharmaceutical company. Another of course, is to become more vocal over the need for further reform and patient access. So far, that issue has remained one mostly vocalized by reform groups on the ground. That could change, particularly with further delays in implementing medical programs in Europe. Celebrity-backed appearances in media on this issue go far.

And for the meantime? Branding specialists will have to hope that advertising campaigns developed off-shore begin to meet targeted European patient groups.

Even if the first message is the concept of cannabis as legitimate medicine.