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The UK Steps Up On Medical Cannabis Use

By Marguerite Arnold
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British Home Secretary Sajid Javid appears to have become the most high ranking cannabis advocate in the British government. He has just launched a review into medicinal uses of cannabis in the UK. However, this dramatic change in policy has only come after a series of high profile campaigns and escalating battles for access waged by patients and their families against a government which has remained stubbornly intransigent in the face of growing evidence of medical efficacy and reform elsewhere. In fact, the cannabis “Battle of Britain” has come to resemble the contretemps in Israel over the same issue four years ago that led to a national review of medical use and greater patient access.

GW Pharma said their product Epidiolex (for the treatment of childhood epilepsy) is being considered by the European Medicines Agency

It is expected that this recent turn of events will open better access for more British medical users. The fact that the timing of all of this comes as GW Pharma has received the right to distribute Epidiolex in the U.S. as the first FDA-approved cannabis-based medicine is not only part of the irony but the underlying problematic politics surrounding all of this. Starting with the timing of who has access to what, and under what circumstances. As it stands, Epidiolex is also the only cannabis-based drug now eligible in the United States for healthcare coverage. The rest of the market is so-far excluded from it. Unlike, it should be pointed out the situation in the UK, the rest of the Commonwealth, and of course, the EU. Starting with Germany.

A Major Win for Patients

Celebrate one for Alfie! Alfie Dingley that is – the British 6 year old with epilepsy who has become one of the most well-known faces of medical justice for cannabis users in the UK. Dingley and his parents waged a battle since last fall over his right to consume low THC cannabis oil that allows him to manage his epilepsy. He has just been granted an emergency license to import the oil from the Netherlands.

But this is also a victory for Billy Caldwell, the twelve-year-old who ended up in emergency care in hospital recently after his medical oil (from Canada) was confiscated at the border. Video of border control agents at Heathrow Airport removing the oil from the Caldwells caused a national outcry in the UK. Caldwell’s mother, Charlotte, has also waged a high profile battle for access, including at the doors of the hospital her son was admitted to last week. She has also started her own CBD company named after her son.

Like the rest of Europe, which the UK still technically is part of until Brexit, the focus here has very much been on medical use.And of course, this new indication in change of policy is seen as a major victory if not step forward for literally thousands if not millions of Britains who suffer from chronic conditions that are still drug resistant (like Epilepsy but not limited to the same.)

As he addressed the House of Commons on the issue of medicinal cannabis use, Javid said “It has become clear to me since becoming home secretary that the position that we find ourselves in currently is not satisfactory…I have now come to the conclusion that it is time to review the scheduling of cannabis.” As in the US, cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug in the UK – with supposedly no medical efficacy. This new development clearly challenges that scheduling – but where and how?

Recreational Is Still Not On The Table

Like the rest of Europe, which the UK still technically is part of until Brexit, the focus here has very much been on medical use. This is for several reasons, including a much better and more inclusive public health system – despite imminent fears about the longevity of the British National Health Service (NHS).

UKflagIn the UK, however, further reform is not likely to move fast. Unlike anywhere else, cannabis production is essentially limited to one company – GW Pharmaceuticals – who themselves have high standing political connections that continue to oppose reform. This is not based on science but rather profit. Despite the fact that the British Isles are the largest exporter of medical cannabinoid pharmaceuticals in the world, British patients are still largely excluded from access. The only reason that these children and their parents were able to pierce the wall of privilege and profit that has driven the debate here since the late 90’s is that GW Pharmaceutical’s cannabinoid concoctions do not work on this kind of epilepsy. Plus the failure of a recent trial of their new drug (shamefully in Europe, not even conducted in the UK).

As a result, GW Pharmaceuticals and the well placed scions of British society who have profited directly and personally from this situation have little choice but to back down – but not by much. As soon as Javid announced his intention to do a review of British policy, former Tory (conservative) leader Lord William Hague called for full legalization. An initiative that as of June 19 was rejected by the government.

Is Medical Finally About To Get Its Due?

In Europe, politically, the frustration is clearly growing. And much like in the United States circa 2012, activists and advocates realize that medical access is the first step towards full reform. However here there is a marked difference to what is going on in both the U.S. and Canada. And in turn, this may bring a long overdue focus on the medical issue that has continually been obscured and overlooked by the industry itself as soon as recreational seems it is in reach.

When real and regulated medical markets are allowed to flourish, the first beneficiaries are both children and women, not middle-aged men. That is clearly the face of the “average” German patient now that the data of the first year has come in. It is also likely to be the case of the British patient as well as Europeans across the continent.In Europe, politically, the frustration is clearly growing

Further, as cannabis has become more of an accepted treatment, this is in turn forcing governments (and even the industry itself) to begin, for the first time, to consider funding widespread trials – and of the raw plant itself along with extracts and other forms the drug can be consumed in.

What does this really herald, in fact then besides relief for chronically ill patients? The first widespread scientific inquiry into the efficacy of cannabinoids outside of Israel.

And that too, is cause for celebration. Congrats Alfie and Billie! And all the people who helped move the issue forward.

Canada Legalizes Recreational Use of Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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In what has already been called an “historic” vote, the Canadian Senate voted to legalize cannabis on June 19.

C-45 – or the Cannabis Act, passed overwhelmingly in the Senate by a vote of 52-29. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has subsequently announced that the legislation will pass into law on October 17. The intent behind the legalization effort was to cripple organized crime and protect minors.

Only one other country in the world has taken such a dramatic step – Uruguay.

Now what?

The Medical Discussion Is Just Getting Underway

While legalization advocates and the increasingly corporate industry have everything to celebrate, this does not necessarily change the other conversation on the ground – in fact it only strengthens it.

Clearly this is a blow against prohibition still in force just south of the border in the U.S. This move alone is also likely to drive the debate in an environment where California and other states are clearly thumbing their noses at the federal government and proceeding apace with its own (and largest) U.S.-based marketplace.

However, there is another topic floating around this conversation. If cannabis is “harmless” enough for recreational use, its use for medical purposes has become the third rail that is now driving the conversation in other places – most certainly Europe.In the meantime, Canadian firms are in an unparalleled position to enter global markets (as they have already begun to do) and set the tone and debate.

Here, full legalization is absolutely off the table as policymakers and scientists begin to seriously contemplate integration of cannabinoids into comprehensive health systems. This week’s dramatic announcement in the UK to that effect, which came the same day as the Canadian vote, is one indication of that. Germany’s own cautious foray into medical use is another. The change in the law last year mandating public health insurance coverage of the same has created a population of 15,000 patients in the last year with many more lining up to obtain it. This population of patients will reliably use more cannabis every month than even the most dedicated recreational consumer.

What Comes Next?

Four and a half years after Colorado took the plunge, the world of cannabis acceptance has clearly changed – and for good.

But what is the next step? Clearly the pressure is now on in the U.S. to consider rescheduling to at least a Schedule II if not Schedule III drug. Marinol, the synthetic version of the drug, became a Schedule III drug in 2010. Epidiolex, GW Pharma’s drug derived from cannabis, just received FDA approval too.  GW Pharma is the only British company allowed to develop cannabinoid medications. Let’s see how long that flag flies in the new commonwealth, with Canada fast behind the UK now as the two compete for the title of largest canna exporter. Globally.

The drug war, in other words, is finally coming to close for cannabisHowever full legalization – even in the United States and most certainly in Europe – is at least several years away.

In the meantime, Canadian firms are in an unparalleled position to enter global markets (as they have already begun to do) and set the tone and debate. How they will position themselves – as medical pharmaceutical or recreational companies – is another discussion that is still unfolding. Particularly because cannabis is a hybrid substance. And further, it is not entirely understood (nor has of course it been studied) where cannabis stops becoming a drug. If a consumer uses CBD, for example, as part of a wellness routine but  also heads off a more serious condition, is the use of the plant “medical” or “recreational?”

These are all questions now on the table. But at least they are.

The drug war, in other words, is finally coming to close for cannabis. But the horizons beyond that, widely unexplored, promise blue ocean opportunities for decades to come. And not “just” in recreational use, but in the amazing worlds of science, technology and medicine that now lie within reach.

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.

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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.

Marguerite Arnold

Carry On Cannabis: UK Parliament Debates Reform (Again)

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

The British Parliament considered a new right last Friday – the right of chronically ill patients to treat their conditions with cannabinoids. The bill to reform the law and allow medical use, the Legalisation of Cannabis (Medicinal Purposes) Bill 2017-19 was also re-read. It was first introduced last October.

While reformers at this point are loath to do any more than publicly hope, events in the UK continue to unfold in favour of reform.

This time, it is in the wake of a highly upsetting and embarrassing incident that further highlights the human toll of prohibition. When the British Home Office (a combination of the State Department, Homeland Security and a few other federal U.S. agencies) refuses cannabis oil to six year-old Britons with epilepsy named Alfie, don’t expect the famed stiff upper lip in response.

Not anymore.Why on earth would a home-grown company deny treatment to a British kid with epilepsy? 

Especially not when the rest of the EU is moving forward, Canada and Australia (both countries are a part of the British Commonwealth) are now firmly in the medical camp with Canada moving ahead with recreational use this summer. Not to mention continuing reform on both fronts in many U.S. states. Even with setbacks that include the Trump White House and Justice Department (the recently dismissed federal case in New York being just the latest casualty), recreational reform in California is an international beacon of change that will not go quietly into the night. Not now.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Dingley case in the UK, in sharp contrast, is how fast Parliament responded to the plight of the six-year-old and his mother. Not only has Dingley’s medical import license been reconsidered in Parliament, but the matter appears to have finally galvanized significant numbers of the British elected class to do something about an appalling situation that affects hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Brits too.

Cannabis Medical Refugees

Medical refugee policy, especially around cannabinoids, is at least as controversial as the other kind. In Europe and the rest of the world, just like cannabis reform itself, these are national, not state issues as they have been in the U.S., (where the issue of cannabis patient state “refugees” has nonetheless been an issue for most of this decade).

Outside of the U.S., however, it is still the case that national governments can be embarrassed into reform with the right case (or groups of them).

epidiolex
GW Pharma said their product Epidiolex (for the treatment of childhood epilepsy) is being considered by the European Medicines Agency

That was certainly true in Israel in 2014, when the so-called “15 Families” threatened to emigrate from Israel to Colorado unless the government allowed them to treat their sick kids (federal government policy was changed within a month). Not to mention an internal, state to state migration of families in the United States to Colorado around the same time.

It may also be true in this latest British case. The Home Office has been embroiled in a few embarrassing take backs of late, mostly on the topic of immigration of people. The Alfie-Dingley cannabis case hits both medical cannabis reform and lingering buyer’s remorse over Brexit where the British people actually live (and on topics they actually care about).

Refusing at least medical cannabis rights in the UK might also well tip the scales in favour of a redo on Brexit. Or at least capture the support of people who still dream of that possibility. While the UK is still part of the continent, British citizens also have the right to travel freely, with medical rights intact, to other countries and get treatment. The British are no strangers to this idea (in fact, many British retirees end up in Spain and Greece for precisely this reason). Add cannabis to the mix, and current British policy looks even more out of step with reality and the wishes of the British people. Even the older, more conservative and “middle class” (read: American working if not blue-collar class) ones.

Local Production and Prohibition

And then of course, there is this irony. GW Pharmaceuticals, one of the oldest, cannabis companies in the world, is located in the UK. It even grows its own crops there, and has a special license from the British government to do so.

Worse, in this particular situation, it also is busy bringing several cannabinoid-based anti-epileptic drugs (for children and adults) to the market.GW logo

Why on earth would a home-grown company deny treatment to a British kid with epilepsy? And how could a government grant a license to a company to develop the plant for profit, but not a child who desperately needs the drug to live?

In a move that seems more than coincidence, GW Pharma also reported this week that their product Epidiolex (for the treatment of childhood epilepsy) is being considered by the European Medicines Agency, while a separate drug also bound for the epilepsy market called GWP42006 had just failed a Phase IIa trial for focal seizures.

The business press of course, has mostly reported that the only impact of this development so far of course, is that the company took a hit on share price.

It might do a bit more than that. Starting with legislative reform and ending with the sparking of significant home-grown (and legal) competition.

The combined impact of a failed trial in Eastern Europe by the only British company licensed and qualified to produce medicinal cannabinoids for any reason, and the plight of a British boy at home who needs precisely this kind of drug (and has so far been denied it), might in fact be the tinder match that lights political and market reform if not the development of a cannabis industry (finally) in Great Britain.

If this doesn’t, probably nothing will.

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.

What Is Going On With Germany’s Cannabis Bid?

By Marguerite Arnold
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Germany is proceeding down the path to officially grow its own medical cannabis crops. Medical use became legal this year, along with a federal mandate for cheap access. That means that public health insurance companies, which cover 90% of Germans, are now firmly on the hook if not front line of the cannabis efficacy issue. As such, Germany’s medical market is potentially one of the most lucrative cannabis markets in the world, with a total dollar amount to at least challenge, if not rival, even California’s recreational market. Some say Canada’s too.

However, before “home grow” enthusiasts get too excited, this legislative move was an attempt to stymie everything but commercial, albeit medical production. Not to mention shut off the recreational discussion for at least another four years.

How successful that foray into legalization will be – especially given the chronic shortages now facing patients – are an open question. Not to mention other infrastructural issues – like doctor unfamiliarity with or resistance to prescribing cannabinoids. Or the public insurers’ so-far reluctance to cover it even though now federally mandated to do so.

Regardless, Germany decided to legalize medical use in 2017 and further to begin a sanctioned domestic cultivation for this market. The decision in the Bundestag to legalize the drug was unanimous. And the idea to follow UN regulations to establish this vertical is cautiously conservative but defendable. Very predictably German in other words.

Since then, however, the path has been far from smooth. Much less efficient.

Trouble in Germany’s Medical Cannabis Paradise

In April the government released its tender bid. And no matter how exciting it was to be in the middle of an industry who finally saw a crack of light, there were also clouds to this silver lining that promised early and frequent thunderstorms on the horizon.

By the time the tender bid application was due in June, it was already clear who the top firms were likely to beIn fact, by the end of the ICBC conference, which held its first annual gathering in Berlin at the same time the bid tender was announced, the controversy was already bubbling. The requirements of the bid, for a laughably small amount of cannabis (2,000 kg), mandated experience producing high qualities of medical marijuana in a federally legitimate market. By definition that excluded all German hopefuls, and set up Canada and Holland as the only countries who could provide such experience, capital and backlog of crop as the growing gets started.

The grumbling from Germans started then.

However, so did an amazingly public race to gain access to the German market directly – by acquisition or capital expenditures that are not refundable easily (like real estate or even buyouts). The common theme? They were large amounts of money being spent, and made by major Canadian Licensed Producers who had the right qualifications to meet the standards of the bid. In fact, by the time the tender bid application was due in June, it was already clear who the top firms were likely to be. They were the only ones who qualified under the judging qualifications.

And while nobody would commit publicly, news of the final decision was expected by August. Several Canadian LPs even issued press releases stating that they were finalists in the bid. But still no news was forthcoming about the official list.

Delay, Delay and More Delay

A month later, as of September, and there was still no official pronouncement. Nor was anybody talking. BfArM, the regulatory agency that is supervising this rollout as well as the regulation of all narcotic drugs (sort of like a German version of the FDA) has been issuing non-statement statements since the late summer. Aurora, however, one of the top contenders for cultivation here, was quietly issued an ex-im license by both Canadian and German authorities. Publicly, this has been described as an effort to help stem the now chronic cannabis shortage facing patients who attempt to go through legitimate, prescribed channels. On the German side, intriguingly, this appears to be a provisional license. Privately, some wondered if this was the beginning of a backdoor approval process for the top scoring bid applicants for cultivation. Although why that might be remains unclear.

Whispered rumours by industry sources that wish to remain anonymous, have suggested that the entire bid is still hanging in jeopardy. Late in the month, rumours began to fly that there were now lawsuits against the bid process. Nobody had much detail. Not to mention specifics. But CannabisIndustryJournal can now confirm in fact that there have been two lawsuits (so far).

The summary of the complaints? It appears that two parties, filing with the “Bundeskartellamt” (or regulatory office focusing on monopolies and unfair business practices) did not think the bid process or scoring system was fair. And both parties also lost.

But as of mid-October, there is still no public decision on the bids. What gives?

Whispered rumours by industry sources that wish to remain anonymous, have suggested that the entire bid is still hanging in jeopardy. Even though the plaintiffs failed, some have suggested that the German government might force a complete redo. Others hint that it will likely be slightly revised to be more inclusive but the regulatory standards must remain. If a redo is in the cards, will the German government decide to increase the total amount of yearly cannabis to be delivered? At this point, it is only calling for 2,000 kg per year by 2019. And that, as everyone knows, is far too little for a market that is exploding no matter the many other obstacles, like insurance companies refusing to compensate patients.

What Is Behind The Continued Delays?

There are several theories circulating the higher levels of the cannabis industry internationally right now even if no one is willing to be quoted. The first is that the total number of successful applicants, including the recent litigants, will be slightly expanded, but stay more or less the same. There is a high standard here for the import of medical cannabis that the Germans intend on duplicating domestically.

The Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA – the often controversial free trade alliance between Europe and Canada) is still in the final stages of approval.The second is that the German government will take its time on announcing the final winners and just open the doors to more imported product. This will not be popular with German insurers, who are on the hook to pay the difference. However with Tilray now on track to open a processing facility in Portugal and Canopy now aligned with Alcaliber in Spain, cross-continent import might be one option the government is also weighing as a stop-gap provision. Tilray, who publicly denied in the German press that they were participating in the cultivation license during the summer, just issued a press release in October announcing a national distribution deal to pharmacies with a German partner – for cannabis oil.

But then there is another possibility behind the delay. The government might also be waiting for another issue to resolve – one that has nothing to do with cannabis specifically, but in fact is now right in the middle of the discussion.

The Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA – the often controversial free trade alliance between Europe and Canada) is still in the final stages of approval. In fact, on September 19, a prominent German politician, Sigmar Gabriel of the Social Democrats (SPD) made a major statement about his party’s willingness to support Germany’s backing of the deal. It might be in fact, that the German government, which is supportive of CETA, got spooked about the cannabis lawsuits as test trials against not cannabis legalization, but a threat to the treaty itself.

Quality control, namely pesticides when it comes to plant matter, and the right of companies to sue governments are two of the most controversial aspects of this trade deal. And both appear to have risen, like old bong smoke, right at the final leg of closing the cannabis cultivation bid.

Will cannabis be seen as a flagship test for the seaworthiness of CETA? On a very interesting level, that answer may be yes. And will CETA in turn create a different discussion about regulatory compliance in an industry that has been, from the beginning of this year, decidedly Canadian-Deutsch? That is also on the table. And of great concern to those who follow the regulatory issues inherent in all. Not to mention, of course, the industry itself.

Conclusions?

Right now, there are none to be had.

However at present, the German bid process is several months behind schedule as Canadian producers themselves face a new wrinkle at home – the regulation of the recreational crop in the provinces.

It is also clear that there are a lot of questions and not a whole lot of answers. Not to mention a timeline when the smoke will clear.