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Ex-Im Europe: The Face of the Current Cannabis Market

By Marguerite Arnold
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In the United States, the idea of transporting cannabidiol (CBD), let alone medical cannabis across state lines is still verboten. As a result, a patchwork of very different state industries has sprung up across the map, with different regulatory mandates everywhere. While it is very clear that California will set the tone for the rest of the United States in the future, that is not a simple conversation. Even in-state and in the present.

In the meantime, of course, federal reform has yet to come. And everywhere else, there is a very different environment developing.

In Canada, “territorial” reform does mean there will be different quality or other regulatory guidelines depending on where you are. The main difference between the territories appears to be at point of retail – at least for now. Notably, recreational dispensaries in the East will be controlled by the government in an ABC package store model. That will not be the case across all provinces however. Look for legal challenges as the rec market gets underway.

EU flagIn Europe, the conversation is already different – and based on the realities of geopolitics. Europe is a conglomeration of federally governed nation-states rather than more locally administered territories, supposedly under federal leadership and control (as in the US). That said, there is common EU law that also governs forward reform everywhere now, just as it hindered national drug reform until a few years ago on the cannabis front.

However, now, because European countries are also moving towards reform but doing so in very different ways in an environment with open borders, the market here is developing into one of the most potentially fertile (and experienced) ex-im markets for the cannabis plant anywhere. On both the consumer and medical fronts, even though these labels mean different things here than they do elsewhere.

The Drivers

Medical reform in Europe basically opens the conversation to a regulated transfer of both non and fully loaded narcotic product across sovereign national borders. This is already happening even between nation-states where medical (read THC infused) cannabis is not federally legal yet, but it is has been accepted (even as a highly restricted drug). This means that Europe has already begun to see transfer of both consumer and medical product between states. In the former case, this is also regulated under food and cosmetic safety laws.

Cannabis in this environment is “just another drug.”While a lot of this so far has been via the strategic rollout of the big Canadian LPs as they attempt to carve up European cannabis territory dominance and distribution like a game of Risk, it is not limited to the same.

Pharmaceutical distributors across Europe are hip to the fact, now, that the continent’s largest drug market (Germany) has changed the law to cover cannabis under insurance and track its issuance by legal prescription. So is everyone in the non-medical CBD game.

As a result, even mainstream distributors are flocking to the game in a big way. Cannabis in this environment is “just another drug.” If not, even more significantly, a consumer product.

Game Time

The race for Europe is on. And further, in a way that is not being seen anywhere else in the world right now. And not just in pharmacies. When Ritter Sport begins to add cannabis to its famous chocolate (even if for now “just” CBD) for this year’s 4/20 auf Deutschland, you know there is something fundamental and mainstream going on. Lidl – a German discount grocery chain that stretches across Europe, has just introduced CBD-based cannabis edibles – in Switzerland.

As a result of this swift maturation, it is also creating from the beginning a highly professional industry that is essentially just adding cannabis to a list of pharmaceutical products already on a list. Or even just other grocery (or cosmetic) items.

spektrum logo
Spektrum, Alcaliber and Canopy are part of some of the larger deals in Europe

In general, and even including CBD, these are also products that are produced somewhere in Europe. As of this year, however, that will include more THC from Portugal, Spain and most certainly Eastern Europe. It will also mean hemp producers from across the continent suddenly have a new market. In many different countries.

This means that the industry itself is far more sophisticated and indeed used to the language and procedures of not only big Euro pharma, but also mainstreamed distribution (straight to pharmacy and even supermarket chains).

It also means, however, understanding the shifting regulations. In general, the focus on ex-im across Europe is also beginning to standardize an industry that has been left out of the global game, on purpose, for the last 100 years. Medical cannabis, grown in Spain under the aegis of Alcaliber (a major existing opioid producer) can enter Germany thanks to the existing partnership with Spektrum and Canopy, who have a medical import license and source cannabis from several parts of Europe at this point. It also means that regular hemp producers, if they can establish the right brand and entry points, have a new opportunity that exists far outside of Switzerland, to create cross-European presence.

And all of this industry regulation is also setting a timeline, if not deadline, on other kinds of reform not seen elsewhere, anywhere, yet.

european union states

Q1 European Cannabis Industry Update Report

By Marguerite Arnold
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european union states

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

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

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

Germany

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

german flag
Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

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

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

Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Denmark & Holland

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

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

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

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

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

Greece

Parthenon, Athens, Greece
Photo: Kristoffer Trolle

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

Poland

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

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

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

The UK

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

European Cannabis News Roundup 2017 And Predictions For 2018

By Marguerite Arnold
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Europe saw big developments on the cannabis front all year. This includes country-by-country developments that include legalization of medical use and even plans to begin domestic production, no matter how delayed such plans have turned out to be.

By far the most interesting market developments were in Germany all year. The Teutonic state has entered some interesting territory – even if its potential is still in the development rather than rollout status.

Elsewhere, however, medical acceptance is clearly starting to bloom across the continent in a way that is more reminiscent of American state development than what is about to happen in Canada.

One of the most interesting aspects of European reform however, that is in marked difference to what has happened in the U.S., is that grow facilities are being slowly established with federal authorization, even before further reform comes (see Turkey, Slovenia, Germany and even Denmark).

How reform will continue to roll out and shape the discussion however, is still a matter very much left up to individual European states. Cannabis legalization may become the first uniting issue of the new Deutsch ruling parliamentary coalition, whatever that is. In Spain, the cannabis question might yet be a play in simmering separatist tensions. Across the continent, legislatures are, for the first time in two generations, reconsidering what cannabis is, how it should be used, and what the penalties should be for those who use the drug either medicinally or recreationally.

Change is still all over the map. And it is still very, very slow.

Germany

The country’s federal legislators voted unanimously to mandate medical coverage of cannabis under public health insurance (which covers 90% of the population) on January 19th. Since then, however, forward movement has been stymied by a combination of forces and politics. While the legislation became law in March and the government established a cannabis agency, other developments have not been so clear cut. Yes, import licenses are being issued. And yes, there is a pending tender bid. However announcements of the finalists have been delayed since August due to lawsuits over qualifications of the growers, among other things. The new German government (whatever it will be) plus apparent CETA (EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement)-related complications have all added to the drama. That said, when the cannabis opera moves into its next act, as of probably early next year, expect to see domestic medical grow go forward. Importing medical supplies, even from across the continent (which is what is happening now) is ludicrously expensive. Rumours are already flying out of Berlin that further cannabis reform is one of the few things that all parties can agree to as a new government forms.

Holland

Sadly, the biggest cannabis-related “development” this year was the decision by all major health insurers to stop covering the drug, just as the German government changed its mind about the issue. Greater regulation of coffee shop grows coupled with this lack of insurance coverage means that patients are being forced into a coffee shop culture which is also commoditizing and commercializing into a high-volume affair, particularly in Amsterdam. While this might just be the new face of an old business, the laid back “coffee shop” culture of yore is an endangered species.

Barcelona, capital of Catalonia
Photo: Bert Kaufmann

Spain

Catalonian independence made headlines globally this year. So did the associated bid for other freedoms of a cannabis sort – particularly in Barcelona. Club grows were set to become more regulated as of this summer. However the massive Catalonian bid for independence has further muddied the waters. Given the fact that cannabis reform appears to be at the forefront of finding political compromise elsewhere in Germany, perhaps givebacks about taxes for this industry might be one way to temper down the still-raging separatist forces afoot.

Poland

The Polish government surprised everyone this fall, and legalized the drug for medical purposes (at least in theory) in November. What this actually means for patients is another story. There are no plans to cultivate on the radar. Patients under the new law are allowed to travel to other countries to seek their medical cannabis. How they might afford it is another question. Not to mention how they will escape prosecution from personal importation if checked at a border.

Warsaw, Poland
Image: Nikos Roussos, Flickr

Polish pharmacists will however be trained on how to make medicaments from imported cannabis. They will have to be registered with the Office for the Registration of Medical Products. This means that pharmacists must be pre-registered with the government – in a move much like the early days of the Israeli medical program. The medicine is expected to cost about $460 a month. How well this will work in serving the country’s more than 300,000 already eligible patients is another story.

Greece

Cannabis economists have long said that what the Greeks really need to heal their economy is a vibrant cannabis injection. And as of mid-November early investors in the nascent market had already staked close to $2 billion in cultivation opportunities. Senior ministers in the government have also publicly backed plans to move Greece into a strategic position to claim a piece of a global cannabis market estimated to reach 200 billion dollars a year by the end of the next decade. It means jobs. It means capital infusions. Exactly, in other words, what the Greek economy desperately needs. Expect to see further formalization of the grow program here in 2018 for sure.

Lithuania

It appears that quite a few countries in Europe are pushing for real cannabis reform by the end of the year, and this little EU country is joining the list. With a unanimous agreement in Parliament already to change the country’s drug policy, Lithuania’s legislators could vote to legalize the drug on December 12th of this year. All signs look promising.

Slovenia

MCG, an Australian-based company, made news in the fall by announcing a new cannabinoid extraction facility in the country, on track for completion this year. The company also ramped up domestic production operations in August. Real reform here still has a long way to go. However with domestic production underway, greater medical use looks promising.

Denmark

The country signed a production agreement to open a new facility in Odense, the country’s third largest city with Spektrum Cannabis, the medical brand of one of the largest Canadian producers (Canopy Cannabis) now seeking a foothold in Europe late this fall. What this means for ongoing reform in Denmark is also positive. The company will import cannabis via Spektrum Denmark until all the necessary approvals are ironed out for cultivation.

Portugal

While “reform” here is less of an issue than it is elsewhere (since all drugs are decriminalized), Portugal might yet play an interesting role in cross-European legalization. Tilray, another large Canadian-American firm with interests in Europe, announced the construction of a large medical cannabis facility in the country earlier this year. That plant could easily ship medical supplies across Europe as new countries legalize but do not implement grow facilities.