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Digitalization Begins To Innovate Insurance Industry: What Does That Mean For Cannabis?

By Marguerite Arnold
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Munich, Germany- In a darkened movie studio on the east end of town, the Digital Insurance Agenda or DIA, the largest insurtech conference in the world, kicked off its annual event in mid-November. The sold-out event attracted about 1,000 top insurance executives from 40 countries and all six continents.

CannabisIndustryJournal attended from the perspective of investigating the overall status of digitalization in the industry. However, there were a couple of things we were on the hunt for. The first was to see how and where blockchain has begun to penetrate the industry. This revolutionary processing and identification layer of digital communications is coming – and fast – to the insurance industry everywhere.

All image credits: MedPayRx (Instagram)

We were also there of course to see if cannabis was anywhere on the agenda. Digitized or not.

By way of disclosure, I am also a high tech entrepreneur with my own insurtech, blockchain-based start-up that we are in the process of launching. MedPayRx is intended to be the first insurance product that will help patients access their meds facing nothing but their co-pay and help insurers automate the approvals process for all prescription drugs and medical devices.

By definition, in Germany, this includes medical cannabis.

Ultimately, our mission is to take the paper and the pain of all reimbursement out of the prescription process. At present, as anyone with a chronic condition knows, many medications and medical devices must be paid for out of pocket first and then reimbursed via a claims process that is paper-based, laborious and expensive. This is not a model that works for anyone. Certainly not poor and chronically ill patients who face this process at least monthly. And certainly not insurers who are now facing higher drug costs if not more claims reimbursements for the same from an aging population.

In a country like Germany where 90% of the population is covered by public health insurance, the situation also poses quandaries of a kind that are rocking the fundamental concept of inclusive public healthcare.

The Impact of Digitalization On The Insurance Industry

As one insurance executive and speaker mentioned from the stage during DIA, there are few industries that are more universally despised than insurance in general. And few verticals where the existing mantra is “you cannot do it worse.” The insurance industry is well aware of that. Further, for all insurances that are not “mandatory” the competition is fierce for consumers’ bucks. Particularly in places like Europe where insurance is also seen as a kind of savings scheme.

If you are a private insurer, of any kind, or offering services to both end consumers and B2B services, you are out of the game if you are not now thinking how to streamline and upgrade all aspects of your business in the digital era. There are many start-ups now tackling what is euphemistically called “cloud2cloud” integrations.

What does that mean?

According to DIA co-founders Reggy de Feniks and Roger Peverelli, the influence of tech in general is here to stay and is now driving widespread innovation across the industry. “The DIA line-up and the massive response among the audience show that insurtech is now mainstream,” says de Feniks. “This edition clearly showed the…ever growing attention for artificial intelligence, machine learning and other shapes of advanced analytics.”

“Platform thinking, thinking beyond insurance and creating new insurtech enabled services will be the next challenge for insurers,” added Peverelli.

Subtext? Insurers want your data. They want to use tech to analyse and understand it. The technology is here. But is the regulation? Specifically, in an industry that wants to know everything about you, how is privacy understood and implemented with revolutionary tech?

A Cloud-Based Future

Paper is rapidly becoming an old-fashioned concept in insurance, much like it has in banking. And like banking, insurance has a strong “financial” side to it. Germans, for example, tend to use insurance policies as retirement accounts, (the idea of a 401K is almost unheard of here). And by far, the most dynamic and digitalized part of the industry tends to be in areas unrelated to healthcare.

Some of the most interesting start-ups at DIA were actually weather-based.

The challenges of these types of insurtechs of convincing both regulators and the industry that such services are not only feasible but needed, pale in comparison however, to the challenge now facing all public health insurers.

And while they were certainly present at DIA, this industry segment was underrepresented at the November gathering. There is a reason for this. The real threat to consumer medical privacy is only growing, not receding in an era where data can be seamlessly transferred globally and digitally.

For that reason, blockchain has many uses and applications in this part of the vertical.

MedPayRx – even as a pre-seed start-up, was not, even this year, the only blockchain-based service we found in attendance at DIA. Next year look for even more.

Blockchain might be the next new “buzzy” tech, but in the insurance industry, there is a real reason for it.

What Was The Response To A Cannabis-Themed “Insurtech?”

As readers in the United States know, health insurance and cannabis is a loaded subject. And while insurance services are beginning to be available as high-risk commercial services for the industry, inclusive health insurance is still off the table because of the lack of federal reform.

Other places, however, the issue is taking a fascinating turn. And in Germany, right now, the situation so far has shaped up to be cannabis vs. public health insurance. It is a mainstreaming trial drug in other words. For that reason, beyond any lingering but rapidly fading stigma, it is a fertile time to be in the middle of it, with a tech solution.

It is also perfect timing from the digitalization and privacy perspective. Unlike the U.S., Germany in particular has tended to keep its insurance services, certainly on the health front, undigitalized because of privacy concerns. That is no longer feasible from a cost perspective. It is also increasingly one that has to be dealt with from a tech and regulatory one.

Why Is CannabisIndustryJournal At DIA?

My nametag identifying me as both “media” and of a certain green source, was the source of endless discussion with everyone I talked to. Many attendees were extremely curious about why a cannabis industry publication was at an insurance conference. And most people, certainly the non-Germans in attendance, were unaware that per federal law, cannabis is now, at least in theory, covered by public health insurance here.

Medical insurance that treats cannabis just like “any other drug” is a discussion at the forefront of the medical community in Europe. Even if not at health insurance industry events like DIA. Yet. In the last year, in fact, Dutch insurers have started refusing to cover the drug as the German government moved forward on mandating coverage.

In other places, like Australia, Israel and Canada, the conversation is also proceeding, albeit slowly within the context of public health coverage.

However compliance and tracking of the drug itself, not to mention the need for research on how cannabis interacts with other drugs mandates a consideration of how digital health records, privacy and tracking can exist in the same conversation. And further, can be accessed by the insurance industry, the government and policy makers as reform moves into its 2.0 iteration – namely federal recognition of the drug as a legitimate medicine.

We at MedPayRx think we have one answer. And next year, we hope to present from the stage as we continue to move forward with engaging the insurance industry here on all such fronts. Not to mention helping move the conversation forward in other places. And of course, launching services.

Soapbox

Poland Legalizes Medical Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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Poland has now legalized cannabis for medical purposes.

That said, it will be some time before patients have access to the drug. While Poles can now technically access medical pot, the scheme approved by the Polish Parliament that went into effect on November 1st is regressive, to say the least. Certainly compared with even other countries in Europe that are now finally admitting that cannabis is a drug with medical efficacy, the Polish experiment looks “old-fashioned.”

What Does Medical Cannabis Reform Look Like in Poland?

Like most conservative countries, Poland is sticking with a highly restrictive approach that still puts patients in the hot seat. In addition to getting a doctor’s prescription, the chronically ill must be approved by a state authority – a regional pharmaceutical inspector. They must get a license first, in other words. They must then find about $500 a month to pay for cannabis. To put this in perspective, that is roughly the total amount such patients get from the state to live on each month.

Warsaw, Poland
Image: Nikos Roussos, Flickr

The multiple steps mean that only patients with financial resources– and an illness which is chronic but still allows them to negotiate the many government hurdles, including cost –will now be able to access medical cannabis. Unlike Germany which makes no such distinctions, Polish law now recognizes the drug as an effective form of treatment only for chronic pain, chemo-induced nausea, MS and drug-resistant epilepsy.

The heavily amended legislation also outlaws home growing. And while 90% of pharmacies will be able to dispense the drug, this is again, a technicality. Where will the pharmacies get the cannabis in the first place?

So the question remains: will this step really mean reform? There is no medical cultivation planned. And no companies (yet) have been licensed to import the drug.

This is what is clear. Much like the conversation in Georgia and other southern American states several years ago, legislators are bowing to popular demand if not scientific evidence, to legalize medical use. But patients still cannot get it – even if they jump through all the hoops.

In Poland, patients who cannot find legal cannabis in the country (which is all of them at this point) now do have the right to travel to other EU countries in search of medicine. But the unanswered question in all of this is still present. How, exactly is this supposed to work? Patients must come up with the money to pay for their medical cannabis (at local prices) plus regular transportation costs. Then they must pay sky high fees to access local doctors (if they can find them) at “retail cost” uncovered by any insurance.

The issue of countries legalizing cannabis on paper, but not in action, is a problem now facing legalization advocates in the EUThe most obvious route for Polish patients with resources and the ability to travel is Germany. The catch? Medical cannabis costs Just on this front, the idea of regular country hopping for script refills – even if “just” across the border – is ludicrous. And who protect such patients legally if caught at the border, with a three month supply?

Poland, in other words, has adopted something very similar to Georgia’s regulations circa 2015. Medical cannabis is now technically legal but still inaccessible because of cost and logistics. Reform, Polish-style, appears to actually just be more window-dressing.

And while it is an obvious step for the country to start issuing import licenses to Canadian, Israeli and Australian exporters, how long will that take?

The Next Step Of Reform – Unfettered Patient Access

While things are still bad in Poland, right across the border in Germany where presumably Polish patients could theoretically buy their medical cannabis, all is still not copacetic. Even for the “locals.” Germany’s situation remains dire. But even before legalization in March, Germany was importing bud cannabis from Holland and began a trickle of imports last summer from Canada. That trickle has now expanded considerably with new import licences this year. And presumably, although nobody is sure, there will be some kind of domestic cultivation by 2019.

At Deutsche Hanfverband’s Cannabis Normal activist’s conference in Berlin held on the same weekend as Poland decided to legalize medical cannabis, a Gen X patient expressed his frustration with the situation of legalization in general. Oliver Waack-Jurgensen is now suing his German public insurer. He expects to wait another year and a half before he wins. In the meantime, he is organizing other patients. “They [political representatives] are bowing to political expediency but completely ignoring patient needs,” says Waack-Jurgensen. “How long is this conversation going to take? I am tired of it. Really, really tired of this.”

The issue of countries legalizing cannabis on paper, but not in action, is a problem now facing legalization advocates in the EU and elsewhere who have achieved legislative victories, but still realize this is an unfinished battle. Germany is the only country in Europe with a federal mandate to cover the drug under insurance (for Germans only). And that process is taking time to implement.But even in Germany, patients are having to sue their insurance companies

Germany, Italy and Turkey are also the only countries in Europe as of now with any plans to grow the drug domestically under a federally mandated regulation scheme. Import from Holland, Canada and even Australia appears to be the next step in delaying full and unfettered reform in Europe. See Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia. How Spanish or Portuguese-grown cannabis will play into this discussion is also an open question mark. Asking Polish patients suffering from cancer to “commute” to Portugal is also clearly unfeasible.

Unlike the United States, however, European countries do have public healthcare systems, which are supposed to cover the majority of the population. What gives? And what is likely to happen?

A Brewing Battle At The EU Human Rights Court?

While the Polish decision to “legalize” medical use is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. If the idea is to halt the black market trade, giving patients real access is a good idea. But even in Germany, patients are having to sue their insurance companies. And are now doing so in large numbers. In a region where lawsuits are much less common than the U.S., this is shocking enough.

But the situation is so widespread and likely to continue for some time, that class action lawsuits – and on the basis of human rights violations over lack of access to a life-saving drug – may finally come to the continent and at an EU (international) level court.

Patients are literally dying in the meantime. And those who aren’t are joining the calls for hunger strikes and other direct civil action. Sound far-fetched? There is legal precedent. See Mexico.

And while Poland may or may not be the trigger for this kind of concerted legal action, this idea is clearly gathering steam in advocacy circles across Europe.

On The Cusp of Revolution: 9th IACM Conference on Cannabinoids in Medicine

By Marguerite Arnold
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As cannabis conference backdrops go, Cologne (or Köln as it looks to the locals) has some major plusses. Cologne is a German city that has all sorts of both historical and cutting edge things to explore. Plus of course there is the timing. This part of the world just pre-Oktoberfest is a refreshing splash of multi-hued natural colors populated by people who wear lederhosen and dirndls in public (and with great enthusiasm).

Beyond its postcard settings, Cologne is a German center of medical research, as well as public policy making. The intricacies of pre and post war, not to mention post reunification politics, have made this whole region (which includes both Düsseldorf and Bonn) a major powerhouse in both deciding how things get done and then making sure they do. Including on all things scientific and medically focussed.

Overview of the Conference

Where German geographical proximity intersects with the global cannabis research and medical community is the work of the people who have made the International Association for Cannabis Medicines (IACM) one of the leading international scientific and medical cannabis conferences in the world. One look at the speakers list confirms that the top people in the cannabis research world came, spoke and even discussed unpublished research. Yes, that is the mark of a real academic conference. But in a world where medical efficacy is still being challenged, it is worth saying.

Even if you were not old enough to know about cannabis or well read, and had just showed up for the day, the subject matter and presentations were clear, easy to understand and stunning both individually and altogether.

Doctors Janice, Jessica and Rachel Knox, founders of the American Cannabinoid Clincs

Topics and abstracts ranged from trial data to changing legislation. Peppered between those were visions of where cannabis as medicine is clearly going as well as a far greater understanding of the role of the endocannabinoid system.

As a medical doctor, researcher, public policy expert or medical cannabis distributor, in other words, it is already a must-attend event. It is also packed with investors, not only from Europe but far from its shores.

If there was a message beyond the fact that the cannabis industry is now jumping the shark and going global, it was that the industry has now arrived in Europe and there is no turning back. On any front.

Most Interesting Highlights

It is very hard to pick which was the most ground-breaking research. It all is at this point and it is all fascinating. One of the most heartening abstracts was submitted from Montana. It was just a single patient study. However it showed visual evidence of a stage 1A malignant melanoma completely resolving after 60 days of treatment both topically and orally. Research out of Tel Aviv (of course) was presented showing that low doses of THC might even reverse age-associated cognitive impairments.

All of the genetic research into the plant not to mention new knowledge about terpenes was, literally, spell-binding to those who follow the science. Some of the presentations about ingestion technology in particular, were a clear indication of how much this world will be impacted by tech, where it is not already.

It was stunning just to sit and listen to ground-breaking science that is being produced by globally-known scholars at internationally renowned universities, but still ignored in every place where medical cannabis is not only still illegal, but out of reach of patients.

The current dire situation facing German medical users, of course, was frequently mentioned throughout the conference, and even from the presenting stage, as a human rights crisis.

The Ambassador Program

The conference was, by definition, not only an exchange of information and research, but also a gathering of the scientific cannabinoid community with a global reach. It was also clearly a gathering of academics and scientists on a mission. The dire need to educate both doctors and patients as the details and kinks get worked out on the ground is well recognized here. The IACM at least is also trying to do something about it.

On Friday night, the first full day of the conference, IACM organizers invited conference participants to a side meeting they at first wanted to limit to 30. The idea was to discuss the launch of an ongoing “Ambassador” program as well as a pilot project to help doctors and researchers communicate with each other. More than 60 people showed up and stayed, even if it meant standing against the wall for several hours.

The mood was helpful and light. Dr. Franjo Grotenherman, the best known and leading cannabis advocacy doctor in Germany, kicked off the gathering by serving food to guests before opening the floor to attendees to introduce themselves.

The idea clearly here, is to spread the word, no matter how, as quickly as possible.

An Intimate, Science-Based Networking Event

The event has a different vibe from purely “industry” events. While the industry was clearly in attendance, in other words, it was clearly there in a supportive role. The star of the show was the unbelievable wealth of scientific knowledge that spilled from the stage.

That is not to say that there was not a lot of business conducted here. On all levels. The networking is terrific. And this being the cannabis industry, most people are friendly, open and willing to give a polite stranger a few minutes of their time.

This is an absolutely intriguing event to consider, particularly for Americans who do not have much insight into the European medical or scientific worlds when it comes to cannabis. That includes cannabis clinics in legalizing states to prescribing doctors looking for medical evidence of using CBD in treating their patients. Canadians, Israelis and Swiss were here in force, beyond the locals with representatives from most countries in Europe. If looking to network with an international crowd of doctors, scientists and companies on the cutting edge of cannabis globally, this is absolutely one of the best places on the planet to be.

Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council Launches Education Program

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC) is an interesting nonprofit that recently launched an educational campaign, called Consume Responsibly Massachusetts. For many cannabis advocates who watched their states legalize the drug, consumer education is a very important part of moving forward. As states across the East Coast implement regulatory frameworks for the cannabis industry, there is a sense of urgency to make sure the rules are right the first time, and that cannabis businesses become responsible stewards of their new market.

In the wake of pesticide recalls in the west and related public health concerns, the issues surrounding consumer safety and how states protect that are now front and center. “The purpose of Consume Responsibly Massachusetts is to keep adult-consumers informed of their rights in the state,” says Jefferson. “It’s also an ongoing effort to bring consumers into the world of cannabis politics and science.”

The MRCC’s mission is to help protect the safety of recreational cannabis consumers by bridging the information gap between businesses, legislators and communities. “We work at the state and local level advocating for sensible recreational marijuana policy and regulations,” reads a press release. According to Kamani Jefferson, president of the MRCC, bridging that gap requires a lot of community engagement. “I was a field organizer on the Campaign to Tax and Regulate Marijuana here in Massachusetts so this is extremely important to me,” says Jefferson. “MRCC participated in this year’s Cambridge 5K Freedom Run.” He says getting out in the community like this is one of many ways to help provide educational opportunities, help promote local cannabis businesses and get rid of the “lazy stoner stigma.”

Kamani Jefferson, president of the MRCC

For the MRCC, the issue of craft cannabis is a significant part of the organization’s philosophy, in addition to product safety and others. “Craft Cannabis will benefit the consumer in an entirely new way,” says Jefferson. “Members of the community will have a chance to provide products and directly affect the economy.” Because local owners tend to be more involved in their towns, Jefferson says residents will get to make more of an impact than nonlocal owners. And he’s right- small, local businesses contribute substantially more to local economies and communities than large companies. Between 1993 and 2013, small businesses created roughly 63% of all new jobs in the United States. With the new cannabis market comes a promising opportunity for local economies.

“The Massachusetts cannabis industry is developing and growing fast,” says Jefferson. “Aside from the medical marijuana production sites, the new recreational marijuana law grants production participation in the regulated recreational marijuana industry to farmers, in the form of craft marijuana cultivator cooperative systems.” While he thinks this is a good opportunity for small businesses and communities alike to gain a foothold in the market, Jefferson is hesitant to endorse Massachusetts’ regulatory policies. “A lack of regulatory oversight from the CCC [Cannabis Control Commission] places the cannabis industry in a vulnerable position,” says Jefferson. “If we want clear, consistent standards for clean and safe products prioritized, then we need consistent testing data.” Jefferson is arguing for more regulatory oversight for safety issues, such as contaminant testing. This is one of a handful of issues they are pressing for sensible cannabis policy in Massachusetts.

Here are some of the issues they support:

  • Local Cannabis: Equitable licensing for small and medium sized local businesses from members of the community.
  • Quality Control: Access to a variety of clean and safe cannabis products in retail dispensaries, tested for harmful contaminants, mold, pesticides and fungicides.
  • Responsible + Safe Consumption: Access to educational materials about proper dosage, methods of ingestion, quality analysis, understanding product labels and general cannabis information.
  • High Potency Flowers, Edibles, & Concentrates: Access, non-restriction to high potency marijuana products of all forms.
  • Home Grow: Ability to grow at least 6 plants per person, 12 per household as stated in Question 4.
  • Social Use: The ability to consume in designated establishments outside of the household.
  • Expungement: Sentence commutation and record expungement for convictions involving non-violent marijuana charges that are now legal.
  • Research: University supported biological, behavioral and cognitive marijuana research to further our understanding and capabilities of the cannabis plant.

Consumer Education: Transparency is King

By Gabrielle Wesseldyk
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Making Cannabis Transparent: The Future of the Industry is Information and Data

The last decade has been marked by great strides in the cannabis industry, as public awareness surrounding the health benefits of marijuana-infused products has spread and products have become increasingly well researched and scientifically advanced. Despite this significant progress, however, cannabis legislation and regulations continue to vary widely between states, ultimately contributing to a lack of clarity within the industry.

This issue was at the forefront of the DispensaryNext Conference and Expo agenda held in Denver a few weeks ago. During the expo’s Consumer Safety and Education discussion, a panel of industry leaders including Kevin Gallagher, director of compliance and government affairs at Craft Concentrates and executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance (CBA); Eileen Konieczny, registered nurse and president of the American Cannabis Nurses Association; Kevin Staunton, director of business development at RM3 labs; and moderator David Kotler, a partner at Cohen Kotler P.A., highlighted a number of important issues for cannabis patients and adult-use consumers, as well as what’s next for physicians, testing labs and dispensaries across the industry. A number of common themes resonated in their discussion of opportunities and challenges, ultimately pointing to a need for increased research and data, and most notably, a growing demand for transparency industry-wide.

Medical practitioners and dispensary technicians need qualified and legitimate information.

Konieczny opened by stressing that the industry must stop calling dispensary sales associates “budtenders.” “I prefer the term ‘dispensary technician.’ These are knowledgeable people who are on the front lines, helping patients understand the products available to them. They deserve a title to reflect that our industry and their knowledge is much more than ‘bud,’” says Konieczny.

These are knowledgeable people who are on the front lines, helping patients understand the products available to them. The most prominent information gaps in the industry lie at the level of dispensary technicians and medical practitioners. The ideal scenario for patients who are looking to use cannabis as medicine is that their medical practitioner is educated about the endocannabinoid system and that the products are available locally so that a treatment plan can be developed based on their needs. But the reality is that many patients enter their local dispensary without much knowledge or support at all, relying on the professionalism of the dispensary staff to help them navigate the dizzying array of products.

Putting the patient’s safety and success first, it is imperative that everyone involved has the proper data and information to make the best choices. However, dispensary technicians should be extremely careful to avoid making health or benefit claims. As Gallagher noted, “It is not only illegal, but also unethical to make medical claims as a dispenser. There is a difference between a claim and a personal experience. A dispenser can tell their customer that a certain strain helped them personally, but they cannot tell the customer that the strain will cure their specific ailment.”

The industry needs transparency.

New cannabis consumers may have a certain degree of misunderstanding of the products they are consuming and unfortunately, manufacturers do not offer a high level of transparency in disclosing ingredients, thereby preventing these customers from becoming better informed.

While educating the public is essential, educating the industry is of equal importance.Furthermore, labels often contain small barely legible type, along with confusing and unnecessary content. According to Gallagher, the labels need to be simpler. “Products are overloaded with redundant, confusing language that most consumers don’t understand. This turns them off—especially if they’re inexperienced in this realm,” says Gallagher. When customers who are new to cannabis find products off-putting, it hurts not only the industry, but also their own health. Ill-informed consumers may have trouble understanding how cannabis can help them, and therefore they can miss the benefits it provides.

While these issues are prevalent, there are many ways they can be resolved—with transparency at the core.

Research is critical and paramount.

For cultivators or manufacturers, research and data hold the key to attracting new consumers. By providing details about what is in a product and implementing certifications to show the product is contaminant-free, manufacturers are able to provide transparency and offer differentiation.

During the panel, Konieczny pointed out another common mistake that many manufacturers make—not sharing test results. “Not many are posting their test results, and yet this is one of the leading avenues that can increase revenue,” says Konieczny. “Most people just want to feel well again, so providing test results adds a layer of legitimacy for patients who are wary to try a new product.”

With all of this in mind, it is perhaps most important to consider the way that this information is conveyed. Facts and research are useless if they are not accessible to consumers, who may not comprehend complex data. “We need to present information in plain language, keeping it clear and simple to understand,” expressed Konieczny. The simpler the delivery, the better it will be understood and knowledge is a very powerful tool for patients, consumers and the bottom line.

Educating the educators.

While educating the public is essential, educating the industry is of equal importance. For instance, thoroughly training dispensary technicians to ask the correct questions and identify first-time users will ensure consumer safety while avoiding improper use.

The industry as a whole depends on transparencyEducating professionals on better product labeling is another critical way that the industry is working to improve itself. There has recently been a push at the manufacturing level for standardization in product labeling, as establishing a clear standard can aid customers in successfully using cannabis. “In working groups with Colorado’s MED (Marijuana Enforcement Division), we aim to standardize specific product categories, remove irrelevant names, and harmonize medical and retail labeling regulations,” says Gallagher. “Ultimately, we want to consolidate language and make it more transparent in promoting public health and safety so that it can be easily read and understood.”

All panelists agreed transparency is paramount for the future of the cannabis industry and for growing a brand. Using lab data can provide value, setting a brand apart and building loyalty among consumers looking for someone they can trust.

“Transparency is king,” Gallagher urges. “The more we educate consumers and professionals, the more clarity we will see at all levels, ultimately minimizing risk and creating greater demand among those consumers. The industry as a whole depends on transparency.”

Soapbox

The Problem With Puerto Rico’s Medical Cannabis

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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Recently Puerto Rico approved the law that regulates the production, manufacturing, dispensing and consumption of medical cannabis. Although medical cannabis was already “legal” through an executive order and was “supervised” by local regulation, there was no law to back up the industry and protect investors.

The creation and approval of laws resides in the hands of elected individuals. Expecting absolute knowledge is unrealistic, especially when we refer to cannabis as a medicine. Sadly, the lack of knowledge is affecting the patients, and an emerging industry that can be the solution to the Island’s current economic crisis.

I am in no way insinuating that Puerto Rico is the only example. I have seen this type of faulty thinking in many places, but cannabis is the perfect manifestation of this human defect. Check some of your laws, and you will find a few that nearly qualify for the same characterization.

As we can see, lack of knowledge can be dangerous. Objective, factual information needs to be shared, and our leaders need a formal education program. Patients need them to have a formal education program to better understand and regulate the drug.

The approval of this law is a significant step for the Island. Still, many Puerto Ricans are not happy with the result. The lack of legitimate information coupled with conservative views made the process an excruciating one. It took many hearings, lots of discussions and created tensions between the government and population, not because of the law, but for the reasons behind the proposed controls. Yes, it was finally approved, but with onerous restrictions that only serve as a detriment to the patient’s health, proving the need for an education program designed specifically to provide data as well as an in-depth scientific analysis of the information, then, you address the issue at hand.

Let’s take a look at some of the controls implemented and the justification for each one as stated by some members of the government.

  1. Patients are not allowed to smoke the flower in its natural state unless it is a terminal patient, or a state-designated committee approves it. Why? Because the flower is not intended for medical use (just for recreational) and the risks associated with lung cancer are too high. Vaporize it.
  2. It was proposed to ban edibles because the packaging makes it attractive for children. Edibles made it, but with the condition that the packaging is monochromatic (the use of one color), yes, insert rolling eyes here.
  3. It only allows licensed pharmacists to dispense medical cannabis at the dispensary (bud tending). The rationale? Academic Background.
  4. The new law requires a bona fide relationship between the doctor and the patient to be able to recommend medical cannabis, even if the doctor is qualified by the state and is a legitimate physician. This is contrary to their policy with other controlled substances, where a record is not required.

When there are different beliefs on a particular topic like it is with medical cannabis, you are not only dealing with the technical details of the subject; there is an emotional side to it too. Paradigms, stigma, stereotypes, beliefs and feelings affect the way we think. We let our judgment get in the way of common sense. When emotions, morals and previous knowledge are hurting objectivity, then we have to rely on scientific data and facts to issue resolution. However, when the conflict comes from opinions, we rely on common sense, and this one is scarce.

Now education: what can education do with beliefs, morals and emotional responses?

David Burns in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy discusses ten thinking errors that could explain, to those like me that want to believe this is a legitimate mistake, that there are cognitive distortions that affect the result of ours thoughts.

Now let’s analyze …

  1. There are many things wrong with this prohibition. First, the flower is natural and organic. It is the easiest to produce and the cheapest alternative for patients; there are more than 500 compounds all interdependent to make sick people feel better. There are seas of data, anecdotal information, serious studies collecting information for decades and opinions of highly educated individuals that support the consumption of flower in its natural state for medical purposes. The benefits are discarded, and personal opinions take the lead. Based on Burns’s work this is a textbook case of Disqualifying the Positive: dismissing or ignoring any positive facts. Moreover, let’s not forget the benefit for illegal growers and distributors.
  2. Keep out of reach of children, does it ring a bell? For years and years, we have consumed controlled substances, have manipulated detergent pods, bleach and so many other products that can be fatal. The warning is enough, just like is done with other hazardous Here we can notice how we can fall into the Fortune Teller Error, which believes that they know what will happen, without evidence.
  3. Not even the largest drug stores in the USA have this requirement. There is one pharmacist per shift, and a licensed pharmacist supervises pharmacy technicians. Medical cannabis is not even mentioned in current Pharmacy’s BA curricula. Most pharmacists take external courses in training institutes. On the other hand, bud tenders go through a very comprehensive certification process that covers from customer service to cash management and safety and of course all technical knowledge. If anything, a botanist (plant scientist) makes more sense. What a splendid example of magnification (make small things much larger than they deserve). This is an unnecessary requirement.
  4. The relationship between a certified doctor and patient has to be bona fide (real, honest). In practical terms, the doctor has to treat the patient for some time (sometimes six months) and have a history of the patient. Even though this sounds logical, not all doctors are certified to recommend cannabis, but all can diagnose. Are we penalizing the doctor or the patient? The only thing that you need to qualify as a patient is the condition. Besides, I had prescriptions filled for controlled medications at the drug store with no history. Why are we overgeneralizing Do we think that all doctors are frauds?

Is There a Medical Cannabis Crisis Brewing in Germany?

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

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

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

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

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

Unintended Effects & Consequences

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

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

Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Causing The Situation?

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

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

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

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

What Gives On Good Old German Efficiency?

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

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

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

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

What Is The Upshot For Patients?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soapbox

Cannabis Industry Needs Leadership, Not Pesticides

By Ben Ward
4 Comments

The medical cannabis sector is currently attracting increased attention, as patients, doctors, regulators and investors take a closer look at our industry. There is a lot for them to learn and to benefit from as our industry matures under the glare of the proverbial spotlight. And there’s a lot for those of us in the industry to be proud of. We’re helping patients manage pain, for example. We’re helping them get their lives back.

But that same spotlight is also revealing some problems in our industry.

Take ingredients for example. When I look at the ingredient list in my natural medicines, I don’t expect to see Myclobutanil, Piperonyl Butoxide, Pyrethrin, Bifenezate, and Avermectin listed. Yet, that’s exactly what some licensed producers of cannabis in Canada and some cultivators in California have been selling to their patients. You have to ask yourself why, when pesticides are the only toxic substances released intentionally into our environment to kill living things. Patients don’t take cannabis to harm themselves. They do it to improve their quality of life.

Yet some cannabis companies have violated their patients’ trust in supplying them with something that could harm them. Indeed, recalls for cannabis, unfortunately, are now becoming somewhat commonplace on both sides of the border. These licensed producers – audited and approved by government – are entrusted to produce safe, reliable, consistent medicine for patients. They are entrusted to put safety at the core of their business at all times. But that is clearly not the case in certain circumstances.

In the past year, a few of the 52 licensed producers in Canada have been found to have pesticide contamination in their cannabis products. From what I can see, the explanations given for the presence of these pesticides don’t make sense. Pyrethrin, for instance, has been found on some medical cannabis products shipped out of certain growing facilities. However, pyrethrin does not naturally appear on plants. It has to be intentionally applied, accidentally or otherwise.

That means, in cases where this pesticide has been found on products after they left the growing facility, two things had to have happened. First, someone introduced it onto the plants to deal with an insect infestation. And second, lax quality control standards – perhaps influenced by a short-term focus on profits over patients – allowed infected products to enter their supply chain and, in many cases, to be consumed by patients.

When revealed, those responsible for companies using pesticides such as pyrethrin say they are “shocked”, publicly declaring that they have no clue as to how these toxic substances entered their cultivation processes. The fact is, if you don’t test your inputs, if you fail to test your outputs, and if you manage your business for short-term profits, you shouldn’t be producing cannabis.

There’s no place in healthcare for people who disregard a patient’s well being, because – from a patient’s perspective – what you don’t know could hurt you. No one who grows something can absolutely guarantee that a mistake will never be made, granted. But as the cannabis sector expands, experienced cannabis firms know there’s a direct correlation between attention and leadership: as the world pays more attention to our sector, the onus on us to be stewards in and for our industry also rises.

That means putting patient safety at the centre of everything we do. And that means ensuring patients are consuming safe cannabis produced by licensed companies that are committed to the long-term health and prospects of our growing industry.

Greenhouse Ventures, Thomas Jefferson University’s Lambert Center Launch Education Series

By Aaron G. Biros
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Greenhouse Ventures, a startup accelerator for ancillary businesses in the cannabis space, announced today the launch of a series of educational events throughout Pennsylvania, partnering with The Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University. According to the press release, the series of talks will be focused on Pennsylvania’s legislation regarding medical cannabis.

“The PA Medicinal Cannabis Education Tour seeks to rectify the current lack of education on medicinal cannabis by providing current, reliable information on medicinal marijuana and its uses,” reads the press release. The events come at an opportune time: Pennsylvania recently announced qualifying permit applications for growers and dispensaries. As the state moves forward with their plan to fully implement a medical cannabis program by 2018, those looking to learn more about the regulations can attend these talks throughout the state.

The PA Medicinal Cannabis Education Tour will make stops in six cities, one for each of the regions set by the Department of Health: Tuesday, July 25th in Philadelphia; Wednesday, July 26th in Allentown; Tuesday, August 1st in Pittsburgh; Wednesday, August 2nd in Erie; Tuesday, September 26th in Harrisburg and Wednesday, September 27th in State College. The educational content is developed by the Lambert Center at Thomas Jefferson, the only such program dedicated to cannabinoid therapy. “These programs will educate healthcare professionals on the basic science underlying the pharmacologic and therapeutic options associated with medical cannabis in patient care, clinical insights on the use of medicinal cannabis, and provide information on legislative measures of Pennsylvania state law on the use, recommendation and dispensing of medical marijuana for medical conditions,” reads the press release.

Charles V. Pollack, Jr., MD, director of the Lambert Center

Last year, The Lambert Center hosted an accredited CME course as part of Greenhouse Ventures’ industry conference, Innovation in the Cannabis Industry: Future Outlook. “The Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University is proud to support and participate in the PA Medicinal Cannabis Education Tour,” says Charles V. Pollack, Jr., MD, director of the Lambert Center. “The Lambert Center is the only comprehensive academic resource for education, research, and practice for the therapeutic use of cannabinoids to be based in a US health sciences university. We view the PA Tour as an essential education piece to prepare Pennsylvania doctors and assist in a smooth rollout of Pennsylvania’s Medical Cannabis industry.”

Sara Jane Ward, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Center for Substance Abuse and Research at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and one of the course instructors on the education tour. She says a large part of the event series is to settle old misconceptions about cannabis. “There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings on cannabis as a medicine in the medical community, because historically medical students are not taught about cannabis and the endocannabinoid system,” says Ward. “I’m looking forward to working with Greenhouse Ventures and The Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp, to educate healthcare professionals across Pennsylvania on the health benefits of cannabis.”

“A common setback for states that are implementing medical cannabis regulations is the lack of interest and sign ups from doctors and patients,” says Kevin Provost, executive officer of Greenhouse Ventures. “With reputable medical institutions like Thomas Jefferson University providing entry level education on medicinal cannabis and the endocannabinoid system, hopefully healthcare professionals across the state will realize this is real medicine, that can bring significant medical benefits to thousands of patients, and that now is the time for them to learn, before the industry is open in Pennsylvania.”

The first event in the educational series will be in Center City, Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 25th in the Bluemle Life Sciences Building at Thomas Jefferson University.

European Cannabis News Roundup- Summer 2017

By Marguerite Arnold
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Obstacles to American cannabis reform are creating a quirky if valuable market. Cannabis is still a “Schedule I” drug. From a practical perspective, this has created a multi-billion dollar industry that as of yet, cannot get reliable banking services. It also means that patients cannot get the drug covered under health insurance. There are no national safety requirements for growing, packaging, labelling or consumption.

This is certainly not the case elsewhere. Other countries are rapidly outpacing the U.S. in such regards even if their commercial markets are not (yet) of the same size. Outside of Canada right now, Europe is the place where most of these things are happening.

Just as in the U.S., however, there is no one single path to reform.

Who Is Interesting In Europe?

This is an evolving question, but here, for the moment are the market leaders and what is going on locally:

Germany. Cannareform auf Deutsch currently underway makes this the most exciting country in Europe right now. The country is basically the “California of the EU” as it were, with about 20 million more people.

German Parliament Building
Photo: NH53

As of January 19, the lower house of the German parliament voted unanimously to legalize cannabis for medical use. Further, they voted to cover it under public health insurance which covers 90% of Germans. Yes, this is a system in process. Yes, there are problems. Health insurance companies appear to have launched a tepid attempt to slow this down, but just as in Canada, they are already facing court challenges. It is a losing battle here. Both legal and legislative mandate are very clear.

This is an industry that will also begin to grow, per government estimates, at between 5-10,000 patients per year for the next couple of years. It could grow faster than that. With over 1 million potential patients already, and a high interest in plant-based and natural medicine, this is a market more than ready for cannabis products. There are now up to ten growing bids up for grabs here and those who have applied are waiting anxiously as the government is set to announce the winners this summer. The big push right now on the ground is doctor and patient education as well as getting patients signed up for trials.

Recreational reform is also far from dead here. The medical question, in fact, has only inspired activists to redouble their efforts to get recreational reform finalized sooner than later. Especially given developments elsewhere, including locally.

Bern, the capital of Switzerland
Photo: martin_vmorris

Switzerland. The Swiss are approaching the question of legalization in another unique way not seen anywhere else. That said, they are clearly inspired by events in other places. Since 2011, low-THC cannabis has been for sale in regular shops. However in the last quarter of 2016 and into the first of this year, the market all of a sudden seems to have woken up. There are now over 160 shops either selling the drug or applying to sell it. This is all product that is taxable.

Thanks to this, reformers are now pushing a bill federally that would legalize and tax the sales of all THC products – no matter their concentration. In effect, in other words, the Swiss are looking at tax revenue first. If they succeed, they will be the first country to enter the market this way. It will also push other countries, starting with their closest neighbours, to examine the question of legalization just on this front. The economic justification alone is compelling. Expect Austria to also look at the problem this way.

Spain. The country is widely billed as the “next Holland.” Why? Cannabis reform has been very similar procedurally. Due to loopholes in the current law, the Spanish have been able to establish a thriving “cannabis club” market. These clubs are member-driven and non-profit. However locals who are over the age of 21 can sign up and smoke in “semi-private.” Legislation now pending in the Spanish legislature would focus on better regulation of both the clubs and the existing grows that support them. The way the Spanish seem to be approaching the issue is to give larger cities and regions direct control over regulation of the industry. However for now, this is a market that is steadfastly resistant to commercial development on the scale seen in other places. Investors – especially from overseas, are avoiding the market because of this uncertainty.

De Wallen (Red Light District) in Amsterdam, where a number of cannabis shops are.
Photo: Bert Kaufmann

Holland. Generation X reformers are used to the idea of the grey market created by the unique nature of Dutch culture and the plant. For the better part of 40 years, the entire industry here has been based on a unique market of seed producers and growers. That, in turn, supports the coffee shop culture. There are many proposals to change the law here, and the industry will probably begin to better regulate – starting with cultivation, as the rest of Europe turns its attention to this issue. It was Holland after all, that started this. What is next for Holland 2.0? It is likely that regional developments will also shape this market too. It is still part of the EU.

Italy. While a bit of an outlier, the Italians are also in the game now. How further reform will proceed here, however is anyone’s guess. The Italian military began growing and distributing cannabis to pharmacies last year. The first medically focused canna café has now opened in Rome.

The Eastern Bloc

Eastern European countries are all over the map on legalization – although most are approaching this as a medical issue. In Czech Republic, legalization has moved forward here steadily in large part because of existing national drug policy. Croatia began importing from Canada last year in the form of cannabis concentrates. Both of those countries have digital prescription systems to integrate with medical cannabis, as part of the legislation legalizing medical use in 2015. This digital dispensation system is also unique so far in Europe, although other countries will be entering this area quickly. Even Turkey has begun to implement reform, allowing producers to begin to grow the plant domestically for local medical use.