Cannabis Europa 2023 – Day 1


Cannabis Europa, the largest cannabis conference in Europe, had its ninth edition this week, returning to the Barbican Centre for the first time since it began in 2018. It attracted over a thousand business executives, important EU policymakers, and patient advocates. 

On Tuesday morning, Prohibition Partners CEO Stephen Murphy gave a warm welcome to guests at the Barbican theatre, praising the location as a “beacon for creativity” in the UK and emphasising the importance of creativity in the cannabis sector. Mr. Murphy reflected on the first Cannabis Europa in 2018, noting that there were “little to no patients, companies, or regulations” throughout the EU. While it is simple to become irritated at the industry’s lack of change and pace, he suggested we must keep in mind how far it has come in this brief amount of time. Additionally, he emphasised that the sector must continue to place patients at the core of its business models and that there is still a need for patient integration across the board. In light of this, he invited the headline sponsor of the event, Jorja Emerson Centre’s Managing Director Robin Emerson, to the stage.

After beginning his journey in cannabis as a family member of a medical cannabis patient, Mr. Emerson said during his keynote address that this was a “surreal moment” for him. He discussed his daughter Jorja and the positive changes in her life that medical cannabis had brought about, saying, “naturally I decided to make medical cannabis my life.” Next, he revealed to Cannabis Europa exclusively that Jorja’s story will soon be told in an upcoming documentary, aimed at driving greater awareness, greater access, and helping his company ‘shake up the industry’.

The first of three “State of Play” debates in the morning session focused on Germany and drew a large audience as a result of the drastic change in course that the leadership of the nation announced last month. BvCW’s Dirk Heitepriem responded to the moderator of the panel, Krautinvest Editor in Chief Moritz Förster, directly when asked how pleased the panel was with the recently released policy document. He said: “As an industry we had hoped for more, but we always knew this was a marathon, not a sprint.” He acknowledged that passing any cannabis legalisation is a step in the right direction, but he said that putting in place the “first pillar” will not be simple. He continued, saying that the second pilot study pillar was a “huge opportunity,” and that “as a non-profit structure, there seems to be no role for industry other than supporting. We need to move ahead with this very quickly or we will allow the illicit market to flourish.”

Dr. Julian Wichmann, a co-founder of Bloomwell Group, informed the audience that ‘reclassification’ was the most significant aspect of the new legislation for him, although he added that it might not happen until 2024 or later. The panel agreed that the industry had a crucial role to play in sharing the knowledge base it has been accumulating for six years, ensuring the project doesn’t “start at nothing” even though this was “definitely not a structure that will replace the illicit market.” The panel stated that the information gathered during this process would be vital to ‘convince additional EU states to alter policy’ despite the fact that speculation regarding the planned pilot projects was uncertain given the lack of detail supplied by the administration thus far.

The next panel focused on the Czech Republic, where Jindich Voboil, the nation’s national drug coordinator, stated that he now thought there was enough evidence from the alcohol and tobacco markets to demonstrate that regulation reduces damage rather than prohibition. He mentioned that he is, “still drafting a proposal for a commercial market and the sale in dispensaries and pharmacies,” and that the Czech Republic was now “lonely in its quest” to open a commercial market. Although he acknowledged that his own coalition had not yet reached agreement on how to move forward with this, he claimed that he “believed it was possible or I would not push for it; I am too old to waste my time on something I cannot do. It is very difficult to have the debate at the EU level on this because countries have very different opinions and legal frameworks. The EU is a great idea, but very bureaucratic and, in many ways, very behind on this. The way forward is what we are doing. Individual states will change their laws and put pressure on the EU.

“Conferences are good, but we need to take concrete action. I will say it frankly… we need strong lobbying and campaigns, put some money on the table, and remove the unnecessary anxiety from politicians by educating them.”

The third ‘State of Play’ discussion focused on Switzerland, which, as Cannavigia CEO Luc Richner said, is now viewed as a European forerunner in its attempts to liberalise cannabis. He added that one fact about the Swiss model which “often falls through the cracks” is that the country’s authorities “‘allowed everybody to come together and put forward studies on how this could work”, which he saw as a very future orientated approach. “Even in a small country there are so many approaches to how this will look, and I think that is really important for what is going on around Europe. I don’t think we have the answer, because no one has the answer. I think we can help inform that.”

In the following panel, the emphasis shifted from policy to possible effects on cannabis patients and users with the focus on harm reduction and the legacy market. Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner Lisa Townsend expressed her concern that the UK’s two major political parties were preparing for a “war on crime” and an “arms race that ultimately won’t benefit anyone” at a panel discussion on harm reduction. She continued, saying that although she did not agree with the notion that cannabis was a gateway drug, it was evolving into one for criminal groups that had previously traded cocaine but were now turning to cannabis.

Luke Ming Flanagan, MEP for Ireland, spoke on current events in Ireland and expressed optimism that the Citizens’ Assembly on cannabis will positively affect both popular opinion and governmental policy, given the success of such efforts on gay marriage and abortion. “A lot of people were skeptical about the expert group (Citizens’ Assembly), but having watched the first few debates, it’s clear the citizens of Ireland are far ahead of the political norm on the topic. There won’t be a referendum on this, but it will put pressure on politicians. “It’s not as progressive as I would like, but the citizens’ assembly will move it forward. Politicians in Ireland would legalise eating raw chicken if it was recommended by a citizens’ assembly. Looking at the opinion polls in the UK, it has never been politically easier to talk about the legalisation of cannabis. I struggle to see why one big UK political party isn’t coming out in support of this – you will bale votes and won’t know what to do with them.”

According to Labour Party MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, there is now a very “mixed message” on cannabis, which is still criminalised while having a robust private medicinal market. She continued by bringing up the problem of overcriminalization in the UK despite the lack of data showing greater drug usage in communities of colour. This point was explored in far greater detail in the last session of the day by Unjust CIC’s Founder Katrina Ffrench, who said: “As a black male you’re nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for cannabis. We are talking about people of colour being seen as criminals, whereas white people are being seen as pioneering… It’s incumbent on business and on governments to understand how prohibition has harmed these communities.”

A series of seminars focusing on investors’ perspectives opened the afternoon. The first session’s panelists, who discussed “A Gear Shift for Cannabis in Europe,” made fun of the fact that over the previous 12 months, it was probably more of a “handbrake.” Sam Volkering, Editor and Investment Director at Southbank Investment Research, said that if a firm “hasn’t been profitable, or doesn’t have enough cash, no one wants to put money near you” and that the session “was unlikely to have much of a buoyant start.” The absence of regulatory certainty, according to Sean Stiefel, CEO of Navy Capital, is “the biggest detriment to investment; even if you think the business is sound, you have no idea how long they’ll last. It’s not gonna take a lot to get the sector excited again. On the flip side, in the last one to two years, you have seen business models just not work.” He said that his company was not “bullish” on consolidation for those companies that had collapsed due to the fact that there were still significant obstacles to licence transfers and many of their facilities were outdated.

According to Memery Crystal’s Nick Davis, the financial juggernaut Euroclear has ended its involvement in the cannabis industry. He said, “The Home Office could help with this very quickly. Jersey has clarified the Proceeds of Crime Act – it wasn’t a particularly difficult thing to do. Not only is there uncertainty around the plant, but in the UK you have this proceeds-of-crime issue. “If you’re an investor in 2023, with cannabis we’re probably more risk on than ever, and the markets are risk averse. You have to be a pretty frontier investor to take on those risks at the moment. I still believe the returns are there.” Mr. Stiefel informed the gathering that the market was comparable on the other side of the Atlantic: “Liquidity for US operators is the lowest it has ever been. It is more difficult for an investor to wake up and decide to invest in cannabis than ever. Also, there are the fewest number of interesting investable companies that there’s ever been in cannabis.” According to him, it is becoming evident that the cannabis sector will never sustain hundreds of thousands of businesses; rather, like the alcohol industry, there will be a “few conglomerates, a bunch of craft guys, and regional guys.” He agreed with earlier comments made by the panel.

“I would make the argument that, at least in the United States from now until the end of time, there’s going to be fewer cannabis companies. I still believe the US will get to a $100bn market. So, we think there’s a lot of upside for the guys that are going to make it, and every day it’s becoming more and more clear who that’s going to be.”

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