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NCIA Federal Policy Update: Q&A with Aaron Smith

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Justice Department rescinding the Cole Memo, the Omnibus bill including Leahy Amendment protections, a host of potential bills for federal cannabis policy change: a lot has been happening in Washington D.C. recently with respect to cannabis business. With the National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) Cannabis Business Summit in San Jose fast approaching, as well as the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days, we thought it would be a good time to hear what NCIA has been up to recently.

We sat down with Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of NCIA, to learn what the organization is working on right now and how we might be able to make some real federal policy changes for cannabis.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

CannabisIndustryJournal: With the Department of Justice rescinding the Cole Memo, working as a group to tackle federal policy reform is now more important than ever. Can you give us a 30,000-foot view of what NCIA is doing right now to help us work together as a group and affect policy change?

Aaron Smith: So our team in D.C. consists of three full-time staff members as well as lobbying consultants, who have been really focused on the appropriations process, which is the way we’ve been able to affect change in such a dysfunctional congress by affecting the budget and restricting law enforcement activities. The medical marijuana protections, formerly known as the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, [and now known as the Leahy Amendment] prevent the Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute state-legal medical marijuana businesses and patients. Going into the fiscal year, thankfully after a lot of hard work, we were able to include protections for medical marijuana, which just happened last week. Now we are really focused on the next year’s fiscal budget, working to hopefully expand those protections to cover all state-legal marijuana activity so the Department of Justice cannot go after all state-legal cannabis businesses, including those businesses in the recreational cannabis industry, which is certainly one of our priorities right now. As Congress starts to transition into fiscal year 2019 appropriations, the D.C. team is working with Capitol Hill staff and other cannabis groups in D.C. to ensure an organized, uniformed strategy through the appropriations process.

CIJ: What are some other priorities for NCIA in the House and Senate right now? What is NCIA focusing its resources on?

Smith: Another big issue for us is the 280E section of tax code, which prevents legal cannabis businesses from deducting normal business expenses. A lot of these businesses face upwards of a 70 percent effective tax rate. Working with our champions in Congress, we are working on reforms to 280E so we can make normal deductions and be treated fairly, just like any other legal business. The Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017 addresses this issue and has bipartisan support in the House and the Senate right now, and we are working to build more support for that. This bill currently has 43 cosponsors in the House.

The other big issue for us right now is banking reform, which is a very high priority for NCIA as it affects most of our members. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act of 2017 provides a “safe harbor” and additional protections for depository institutions who provide “financial product or service” to a covered business. This bill currently has 89 cosponsors in the House. NCIA’s D.C. team and lobbying consultants continue to push for cosponsors and support on these important bills.

CIJ: I saw that the Omnibus spending package includes Leahy Amendment protections for cannabis businesses through September. Would you consider that a win in your book? How are you working to maybe extend those protections?

Smith: It was a big win for us. It doesn’t always seem like it because it is really just maintaining the status quo, but we are up against an Attorney General lobbying congress to strip those protections and the house didn’t allow us to vote on it. But by including the Leahy Amendment in the budget we are not only protecting medical marijuana patients and businesses, but we sent a clear signal to Congress that the intention is not to go backwards. We have been playing some defense recently given the current administration’s policies. But we are working with our allies in congress to negotiate those protections for recreational businesses as well. Negotiations for that are just getting started now.

The fiscal year ends September 30th so the protections are in place for now, but Congress needs to pass another budget for the next fiscal year with those protections included. It’s hard to say when the vote will be, because they haven’t been passing budgets in a timely manner, but usually it’s in May or June, right around our Lobby Days. This is what we are focused on now, getting as many of these cannabis businesses and NCIA members out there to really show Congress what the legal industry looks like.

CIJ: NCIA is hosting the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days a little more than a month from now; do you have any goals for that event? Is there anything in particular you hope to accomplish there? How can cannabis businesses get involved?

Smith: The primary purpose of Lobby Days is to show members of Congress and their staff (many of whom have never had exposure to cannabis businesses) what a responsible industry really looks like. And it lets business owners come tell Congress how current policies and laws are affecting their business. It is great for the cause and helps change minds in DC.

Last year, we came out of Lobby Days with several new co-sponsors of cannabis legislation and we hope to get that again this year. It is a great opportunity to connect and network as well; some of the top people in the industry will be there.

Marguerite Arnold
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Paradox or Paragon? A Non-Techie Look at Blockchain, Cryptocurrency & Cannabis: Part II

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold has just raised the first funds for her blockchain-based company, MedPayRx in Germany (and via traditional investment funding, not an ICO). She will also be speaking about the impact of blockchain on the cannabis industry in Berlin in April at the International Cannabis Business Conference.


To read the first part of this series, click here. The Paragon class action lawsuit is likely to shake up two industries – the cannabis world, which has been following this situation at least in the industry press since the company began to raise money – and the ICO space in general. Why? Just the combination of the two topics is a guaranteed conversation starter. In addition, given the focus on whether tokens are securities or not (or whether so-called “utility tokens” are as well, depending on how they are used and sold) far beyond cannabis, this case may well begin to set precedent on the entire subject. Even more worrying for Paragon in particular right now, beyond the federal government, coordinated efforts are underway by both law firms and consumer groups to recruit aggrieved investors as suit plaintiffs. Beyond the United States and far from the Paragon case specifically, banks in Europe have begun to set guidelines on cryptocurrency and ICOs too. It is not routinely hostile everywhere (see Switzerland if not many Asian countries). But the map is now being defined.

The dilemma that Paragon is now facing is also something that has been coming for some time both for the company and others like them – and from both the cannabis investment and crypto coin directions. Digitally astute cannapreneurs take note: Do you really want your dream business used to define precedent as a defendant in a class action? Or targeted by the new SEC cyber unit whose job is to regulate ICOs (and probably “crowd sales” too?). That regulatory glare is coming everywhere. And soon. Globally.In the world of cannabis, in particular, it is also very important to be careful.

If issuing tokens, particularly if you sell them to raise money – no matter what that money will be used for – realize what you are doing. Even if you state to the world that these are not “investment” vehicles” but “utility” tokens. If you sell them, they are by definition, even if not federally litigated and defined yet in the United States, a contract for future worth, services or other benefit. An IOU in other words. As such they are also derivative securities, which is why the regulatory agencies, barely 10 years out of the last global financial meltdown, are now starting to see parallels. So much so, in fact, that SEC Chair Jay Clayton warned in January that any attorneys who are involved in ICOs might be in breach of professional obligations. Other jurisdictions are following suit.

In the world of cannabis, in particular, it is also very important to be careful. Selling (soon to be federally if not internationally regulated) tokens or securities in general for that matter for certain services or products that can be illegal in some jurisdictions is also a space that cannapreneurs are going to find challenging. See the banking problems of the entire U.S. cannabis industry. Same issue.

This is also going to get even more complicated very soon. Particularly in a world of shifting regs and when it comes to “brand creation.” Right now, for example, a crowdfund or ICO (the terms can be used interchangeably, token issue or not) for a “global cannabis lifestyle brand” promoted and sold online is highly problematic just about everywhere. Why? You cannot transport cannabis across state lines in the U.S. Americans and Israelis also still cannot export anywhere. You also cannot sell what is considered “medical” marijuana to a European regulator if it is not GMP certified. It is, according to local definition, most certainly not “medical”. You may also not distribute cannabis online in countries like Germany. And of course, cannabis itself is still federally illegal in many places, including the United States. Issuing a token or security with the intent of engaging in such practices is ill advised at this juncture. No matter what it is labelled.

Those are also situations where investors could legitimately also sue the ICO or crowd sale holder for breach of securities laws or outright fraud.

Beyond the world of banking law, users face other quagmires, depending on your situation and how you use and issue tokens. Or you certainly will in the emerging future. If you use tokens in situations where members “vote” you may also run into other problems. Like civil liberties issues. Poll taxes (where you force people to pay before access to voting or weigh the impact of their votes on financial contributions) is illegal in many jurisdictions and even more specifically certain use cases that may not always be initially obvious. How that plays out in blockchained ecosystems is a discussion of the future, but it is coming. Along with other labour and regulatory issues surrounding the use of “smart contracts.” Which are also known as “utility tokens.” See, it gets confusing. And fast.

In the cannabis space, liabilities sprout more quickly than even the fastest growing strain.As a result, the first major issue that any cannabis business considering a token generation event (or TGE) will face, no matter whether it is state or federally legit in said jurisdiction, has nothing to do with cannabis but rather rather cryptocurrencies and ICOs – and for right now federal if not international financial law – but look for that to also change as the space develops.

For the present, in most places, token issues where monetary value is assigned or implied are considered securities or even defined outright as currency. Or they will be soon. This means that if you are issuing a new coin for any purpose that you intend to sell for any purpose, including an ICO, especially one that will supposedly be used to pay for goods or services, or even to “assetize” the token to give it a market value (the value of the asset it is assigned), you are now in the federal end of the swimming pool. And federal if not international law is not for novices or sissies much less non-lawyers when it comes to crypto coin. There are great white sharks everywhere in this often-strange digital ocean. That is even before you get to cannabis.

In the cannabis space, liabilities sprout more quickly than even the fastest growing strain.

This is also easy to illustrate – even beyond the concept of an ICO. Say you are a cannabis producer in Colorado – where much of the legal cannabis industry we know today was born. You are in business, have a license and even own your grow space and the acres of real estate that it sits on. But you also want to access additional capital (including that of the international kind) and are, as an aside, overwhelmed by the demands of your cash business. You meet an energetic young blockchain geek who says she can sign you up to her service that will create your white paper, website and even hook you up to one of the several “insta-mint” crypto coin services now available for several thousand dollars (don’t forget lawyer’s fees), plus hiring a good PR firm to manage the ICO process.

Groovy.

You issue your own coins and literally mint them for the sole purpose of assigning each coin to every dried gram of your product that you produce to test the market before potentially holding an ICO. You then “sell” this bud (at wholesale prices) to a dispensary with a wallet that will accept your coin via a smart contract that only releases the funds when the right amount and quality of product is delivered to the dispensary. As a clever marketing technique, you also agree with the recreational dispensary you are working with (who happens to be in Aspen) that you both will also now offer jointly issued coins, at a higher retail price, to any tourist with a medical card or any age-appropriate recreational user who has the ID to prove it, to “pre-buy” their cannabis on the way to après ski and have it delivered, no questions asked, at the hot tub. You advertise the service with a cannabis-friendly ski package operator and travel agent, and voila – customer base is assured. If you have any celebrity friends who are willing to promote it, even better. And why not, while you are at it, do some LinkedIn outreach.

No cash needed either. ID verification happens with coin purchase.

Easy, right? So many headaches solved with one coin to rule them all. Banking issues evaporate along with a lot of work for accountants at both ends of the conversation. And the price of the coin you issue cannot be illegally pumped and dumped because the “price” is set by the state or federal market and/or supply and demand and/or another kind of asset (like a piece of real estate designed to be a startup incubator space for which people also pay entrance fees in your tokens, to enter and use). Then you can offer these “coins” for sale, at those market prices, set by the dried bud you are growing, to anyone, anywhere, to invest in too. Right?

No ICO, even. No problem. After all, you say they aren’t securities but “utility tokens.”

Wrong.

By definition, such activity is illegal in the United States if it has anything to do with the plant for the same reasons the U.S. industry remains a mostly cash-only business. There are several U.S. start-ups trying to construct “legal” payment gateways for the industry right now in the lower 48 plus 2 (see CanPay in Hawaii) and some creative efforts in Europe. However, all of those depend on the willingness of a banking institution on the other end to allow that to happen. See Uruguay if you still remain optimistic about any American efforts right now. Not to mention the newly awoken willingness of the federal DOJ to prosecute for money laundering in a post-Cole-memo world. And that includes you too, California.

But this is an issue that is not just limited to the United States.

In other places, like Canada, Australia, Israel and the Eurozone, legitimate cannabis businesses have bank accounts. And banks are absolutely involved in both the blockchain and crypto space – see Ripple. As a simplified payment gateway, the technology is imminently useful, if still forming. But banking authorities are so concerned about ICOs that they are moving, quietly, to implement policies against them even as they are still accepting cyber currency (in limited ways and via strictly controlled channels).

Given such concerns and divided loyalties, it is unlikely that authorities in Canada will sit this one out, even though (and perhaps because), to date, the most intriguing ideas about cryptocurrency and cannabis have tended to waft from this part of the world lately given what is about to happen this summer.

Most dangerous of all to the budding crypto cannapreneur is Germany – home of legal, public health insurance covering medical cannabis. Banking regulators in Frankfurt, in particular, have taken a dim view of even just regular old crowdfunding. Add a token into the mix and the Germans are even less amused. The persistent rumor in the Fintech community in Frankfurt this March is that German banking authorities are refusing to accept any funds raised during an ICO anywhere. Verboten for any purpose. Why? Even if they know who you are, and all of your investors meet their KYC requirements, they do not know the source of the cyber currency coming from those investors. No dice. And KYC in this instance does not refer to a new brand of cannabis-flavored lubricant. It is a term that means, in the most comprehensive understanding of how it must be used, not only “know your customer” but being able to verify all points of data on a chain. Including the coin issuer, purchase conditions, currency used to purchase the same and “chain of title” downstream. If you are confused by this already, you should not be engaged in an ICO right now.Not all of these models or even the ICOs that use them are scams.

Add cannabis to this recipe, and every bank in Germany, even the one at the moment who is still more or less openly participating in ICOs, if not the rest of the European financial community, will probably walk. Even if you reach your “hard cap” (the maximum amount you hope to raise) that might be in the tens if not hundreds of millions of euros. In that case, it will probably be even harder to find a bank to accept your business. Worse, you may never raise the amount you hope for. At that point, you cannot go back to traditional venture capitalists – or anyone else – for more money. You are done. You must start over from scratch. If there was an asset of any kind involved (including a license to do business) legally, everyone who holds a coin owns a piece of it. See securities law. This is precisely why you can never raise money again against that asset or with the corporate entity that owns it. Or at least not without a lot of legal fees or begging your peeved investors for more money. Legally, at that point, they could require you to sell all assets associated with the corporate entity holding the ICO. And they probably would. For investors that is the best-case scenario. ICOs for concepts with no assets or strategic partnerships in place at the time of the “token sale,” create many lose-all scenarios for investors.

There are many pitfalls to this world – and not just from the cannabis side.Issuing a “token” that someone has to pay for that acts like cash (even if to buy goods and services in the future from other members of the ecosystem and social community that crypto coins create) that also is vulnerable to market pricing, is another quagmire. In fact, it might be, beyond any techno or financial queasiness about blockchain, the biggest reason that this industry should look, and with considerable caution, at all tokenized and ICO models that also premise their worth on the idea that such coins will inevitably increase in worth over time. There is also anti-cartel, monopoly and market discrimination to consider.

Not all of these models or even the ICOs that use them are scams. There are and will be valuable alt currencies and tokens in the future (even without a cash value assigned). All of the top start-ups in the current ICO space, in fact, are finding unique ways to create a real alternative currency with values attached that are indisputable. And not all of them will succeed.

However, that is not true of the cannabis business at this juncture. The plant, much like cryptocurrency and beyond that, blockchain itself, has not reached mainstream status yet – starting with market economics and regulation that is already international. A pot-based coin, no matter where it is issued and by whom (including a federal government), would run into multiple issues with valuation just because the price of cannabis itself right now is so volatile, not to mention unevenly priced thanks to jurisdictional restrictions and barriers. For that reason, there is no way to issue a “cannabis coin” with global relevance, much less global value.

And that, of course, is beyond the issue of subsequently selling those coins on exchanges that have been repeatedly hacked, fail to give customers access to their accounts, or are, in the case of China, banned outright (which also deemed ICOs illegal last September).

There are many pitfalls to this world – and not just from the cannabis side. Part III of this series will look at some of the biggest opportunities when cannabis integrates with the DLT (distributed ledger technology).

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.

israel flag

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.

aurora logo

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.

Marguerite Arnold

Mainstream Media Picks Up On Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

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.

Marijuana Matters

Patent Options Available for Breeding Cannabis

By David C. Kotler, Esq.
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Patent No.: 909554. Date of patent: August 4, 2015. Years from now, historians and academics may look back on this patent number and date as a watershed mark in the evolution of legal cannabis. Feel free to read the 147 pages of the patent documents but, in short, it “leads to many innovations, provides compositions and methods for breeding, production, processing and use of specialty cannabis.” It was the first time that the U.S. Patent Office (USPTO) had issued a patent for a plant containing significant amounts of THC. One USPTO spokesman recently discussed with a journalist that “there are no special statutory requirements or restrictions applied to marijuana plants.” The following is a broad, and I mean really broad, overview of the options available to protect intellectual property within the cannabis species and strain realm.

Generally speaking, to be patent eligible, an invention must be useful, it must be new, it cannot be obvious and it must be described in a manner so that people of skill in the relevant specialty can understand what the invention is, make it and use it without engaging in undue experimentation. In terms of cannabis, essentially the breeder must have created a new and non-obvious strain over what already exists that is useful such as being highly resistant to molds or having a specific concentration of CBD.

Breeders potentially have a number of options available to them, despite the common belief otherwise. In the U.S. there are five types of intellectual property protection that breeders can obtain for new plant varieties or their use of clones:

One may seek protection for seeds and tubers, known as Plant Variety Protection. A tuber is essentially a swelled root that forms a storage organ. The Plant Variety Protection Office provides this protection. To apply for Plant Variety Protection, the applicant submits information to show that the variety is new, distinct, uniform and stable.

For asexually propagated plants except for tubers, a Plant Patent may be sought. These are sought through the USPTO. This is relatively inexpensive compared with a Utility Patent covering the genetics.

Trade secrets are often used to protect inventions that will not be commercially available or cannot be reverse engineered. For example, if a new strain is invented but is only commercially available in its final form, trade secret protection may be the best form. The most important thing to remember is that a company must follow a strict set of requirements to keep the trade secret confidential.

The last patent type protection could be through a Utility Patent. A Utility Patent can be issued for any type of plant showing its utility. These are issued by the USPTO. Seeking and obtaining a Utility Patent is expensive and complex.

In addition to Patent Protection, breeders may seek Contractual Agreements restricting the use of the clones (i.e. a material use agreement). The parameters that a breeder wishes to craft can essentially be crafted into the language of any type of agreement that is drafted to memorialize the relationship and terms between the parties.

A few broad-stroke items to keep in mind with regard to patents particularly relative to the patenting of cannabis strains and the like: First, is the passage of the America Invents Act which among other changes allowed for the U.S. to transition from a First-to-Invent patent system to a system where priority is given to the first inventor to file a patent application. Second, there are the potential bars based on different types of prior use.

Any discussion about the foregoing topic should necessarily include the question: Is it really good for the cannabis industry and its evolution? The dialogue moves out of one steeped in tradition, lure of trips through mountain passages, and potentially patient benefit or in search of higher quality and into connotations of business law and big businesses sweeping in to take over. It is an expensive process. It may be inevitable. In the meantime, protect yourself as best you can and as you see fit.