Navigating COVID-19 in the Cannabis industry in the UK

There is no doubt all industries are feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic; however, cannabis businesses face a unique set of challenges.

Business operations, consumer behavior and financials will be analysed more than ever as businesses seek to position themselves during the pandemic and beyond when lockdowns will eventually be alleviated. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Out of adversity comes opportunity.” COVID-19 is an opportunity for cannabis firms to restructure their business model from a direct, consumer, wholesale and partnership level; eradicate inefficiencies and reassess launch or expansion plans.

Like many other sectors, the cannabis market should still expect to lose revenue due to factors like store closures, disrupted supply chains and restricted transport.

The outlook may seem bleak, but it’s not all doom and gloom when looking at the CBD and medical cannabis markets in more detail.

CBD consumption  

With social distancing measures still in place, cannabis firms which offer an online sales platform are seeing a surge in business. During COVID-19, there has been a greater focus on staying healthy and boosting immune systems which is driving consumers to a variety of health-focused products including CBD.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

Fortunately, many of the physical retailers who stock CBD products in the UK have been permitted to stay open, despite a nation-wide lockdown, so some consumers are bulk buying their usual products while others are turning to e-commerce and delivery services. This demonstrates how quickly some firms have adapted to keep their businesses afloat.

However, border restrictions have tightened and as many supply and logistics workers remain in quarantine, the CBD market could see challenges in maintaining supply lines as the pandemic continues.

This comes in addition to CBD firms working to process a Novel Food Application and fulfill the necessary requirements by March 31, 2021. Despite lobbying from the Cannabis Trades Association (CTA) and despite the impact the global pandemic is having on the sector, the deadline has not been extended.

CBD businesses need to capitalise on the opportunities arising during this downturn; be creative and pin-point ways to keep CBD consumers engaged. By building on their brand and refreshing where necessary, they can attract consumers and develop a loyal customer base. Sustaining a strong online presence and enhancing social media and marketing strategies can lead to an increase of online sales. The brands which can leverage awareness and embody trustworthiness will be the winners.

CBD cannot cure COVID-19

As the epidemic continues into May, there has been no shortage of scammers attempting to try and short-change a fearful, confused population. Unfortunately, the cannabis industry has seen some shameful claims by CBD and hemp companies, notably in the US, who claimed their products could cure or fight off the symptoms of COVID-19.

CBD has been positioned as having several positive health effects by manufacturers and retailers – most notably in reducing pain and inflammation, decreasing anxiety and helping sleep – which may be on the rise within this unsettling environment.

The International Association for Cannabinoid Medicine (IACM), issued a statement on the coronavirus pandemic saying, “there is no evidence that individual cannabinoids or cannabis preparations protect against infection … or could be used to treat COVID-19.” Trials have been launched in Israel to explore whether CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties can be an effective COVID-19 treatment. Until this has been clinically proven, cannabis firms must not make unsupported claims.

Medical Cannabis

During COVID-19, health systems are under unprecedented pressure, which is impacting patient access to all medical treatments, including cannabis.

The medical cannabis industry has swiftly adapted to these challenges by rolling out video consultations and other online consultation services to enhance patient access.

While the Home Office activity for licencing will be limited during this time, companies must work with regulators to keep supply lines open, so that those in need receive their medicine without relying on black-market activity.  On April 29, the government published emergency legislation to allow patients to continue accessing controlled drugs for the duration of the epidemic, from pharmacies, without a prescription. This only applies to patients with ongoing NHS treatment, so there is still a long way to go, as private cannabis clinics must fill the gap in the meantime.

The global pandemic has impacted us all, and many patients are concerned about how they will access vital services. Many patients receiving medical cannabis have underlying health conditions which make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 and those with chronic neurologic conditions like epilepsy are in danger of suffering potential side effects.

Several of the qualities needed to survive the coronavirus pandemic – awareness, self-containment and support – are basic skill sets to carers. Beyond the pandemic, policy shifts, investment and education are needed to lift the barriers to medical cannabis access, and this will require all businesses operating in the cannabis industry to drive change.

2020 is a defining year for cannabis 

The cannabis industry is resilient against socio-economic, political and policy drivers- this we’ve seen time and time again. Now we must create an even stronger UK industry, where products are safely and readily available to those who need them. As the cannabis market matures and the competition things out, only quality cannabis products and services will be in play. Those that can innovate their approach to production, distribution and consumption during the pandemic can be the catalyst for long-lasting changes for the cannabis industry to operate for the better.

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Scotland Moves Forward With Its First Cannabis Farm

The village of Langholm, known locally as the “Muckle Toon,” with its most famous descendent being Neil Armstrong (the first man on the moon) is about to get another first. Namely, it will be the location of the first Scottish cannabis farm.

Father and son entrepreneurs William and Neil Ewart (who also own an agricultural farm, raise Angus cattle and have a racehorse stable) have obtained permission to produce enough cannabis to create 200 liters of oils a year. The production facility is also expected to employ about 50 people – from scientists to growers and IT staff.

However, this is just the beginning. Despite being given planning permission, the Ewarts will now have to apply for a license to actually produce medical cannabis.

Reform in the UK marches on

At present, British patients are in one of the toughest situations anywhere cannabis reform has ostensibly started to happen.

Domestic production, in other words, is a vitally needed part of British reform.The UK has moved forward on cannabis reform in fits and starts – one step forward and several back, for the last several years. Late last year, a full year after the drug was approved for prescription, in an abrupt change, cannabis was denied to everyone but Epilepsy and MS patients and those suffering from nausea due to chemo treatments. NICE, the agency in the UK who sets domestic prescription policies, shamefully excluded chronic pain patients from the new guidelines. This is despite the fact that there are chronic pain patients in the UK who had received prescriptions for cannabis after the law changed in 2018. Not to mention the fact that this subset of patients represents the largest percentage of people prescribed the drug in every other jurisdiction, from Colorado to Canada.

Those who have “qualifying conditions” must now find a doctor to prescribe – still no easy task. If GW Pharmaceuticals’ products (Epidiolex and Sativex) do not work, patients must then import the drug, at great expense from overseas. Even though this importing process has gotten significantly easier in the last months, supplies are still highly expensive imports from elsewhere (mostly Holland and Canada). This runs, at minimum, about $1,000 a month.

UKflagDomestic production, in other words, is a vitally needed part of British reform. It is also seen, increasingly, as a high value crop that can be exported elsewhere. Time will tell however, if the expensive British labor market can compete with product grown in Europe (in places like Spain, Portugal and Greece).

So far, the UK has lagged behind Germany, which itself went through a torturous and expensive process to not only approve its first cultivation bid, but is also now in the process of lowering prices. The first German grown cannabis is likely to hit pharmacy shelves by the third or fourth quarter of 2020. Don’t expect any cannabis exports to the UK, at least for now however, as there is not enough domestically cultivated German product to even serve existing German patients.

An Aberdeen clinic plans to be the first Scottish private facility to prescribe
As of mid-February, the privately run Sapphire Medical Clinics announced plans to become the first Scottish private medical clinic to prescribe cannabis. The facility will require a referral from a regular GP. This has so far, not been popular with the National Health Service (NHS). Some administrators have expressed concern that the process will result in doctors using their time to funnel patients into private healthcare to receive treatments not available or recognized by the NHS.

That said, as Sapphire has pointed out, the approximately 1.4 million patients in the UK have few other options beyond the black market.

Cannabis reform, in other words, is clearly inching forward in the British Isles. One cultivation facility and prescribing clinic at a time.

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Some CBD Companies Are Getting Millions in Federal Aid

As we’ve covered previously, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the cannabis industry in the United States in a number of ways. Many states with legal medical and recreational cannabis markets have deemed those cannabis businesses essential, allowing them to remain open during statewide stay-at-home orders. Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to help small businesses through the economic downturn, directing trillions of dollars to the Small Business Administration (SBA) to administer emergency loans, paycheck protection programs and other financial assistance to small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

CV Sciences received $2.9 million in federal aid from the SBA

However, pretty much all state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses are ineligible to receive money from the SBA because cannabis is designated as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. While Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) introduced legislation recently that would allow cannabis businesses to become eligible for federal assistance, it is unclear if that bill will become law. Furthermore, even if it does pass, cannabis businesses will likely receive little or no help at all, as a vast majority of the funds administered by the SBA have already been spoken for.

Enter the hemp and CBD products market. Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, which removed cannabis containing less than 0.3% THC from the list of controlled substances, hemp and CBD companies are not exempt from the SBA’s relief efforts.

According to VICE News, The Trump Administration has handed out millions of dollars to companies that sell CBD products. When VICE News looked into some SEC filings, they found more than $4 million in federal loans that have been granted to CBD products companies.

They found three CBD companies that scored big with federal assistance:

  • CBDMd: $1.5 million in federal aid
  • CV Sciences: $2.9 million in federal aid
  • Lifted Made: $150,000 in federal aid

Despite state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses being left to fend for themselves, these large online CBD products retailers have received more than $4 million in federal aid money.

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Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act – A Legislative Update

On Thursday April 23, 2020, Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) introduced the “Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act” in the House. Blumenauer and Perlmutter have been influential in protecting state-legal cannabis businesses from federal interference, most recently under the 2020 federal appropriations rider.

If passed, the Act would allow state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses to take advantage of the multi-trillion dollar stimulus packages designed to help small businesses harmed by COVID-19.

As we previously discussed, cannabis businesses harmed by COVID-19 remain ineligible to receive federal financial assistance due to their engagement in “federally illegal” activities. Consequently, cannabis businesses cannot receive assistance from the Small Business Administration (SBA) thereby making them ineligible to receive Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and other SBA financial assistance, including Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs), traditional 7(a) loans, 504 loans, and microloans.

To provide the industry with much needed economic relief, the legislation states that cannabis businesses would no longer be prohibited from (i) participating in the PPP, (ii) receiving EIDL loans, or (iii) receiving emergency EIDL grants purely on the basis that the business is a “cannabis-related legitimate business”1 or “service provider.”2

Additionally, the Act clarifies that the SBA and its officers, directors and employees would “not be held liable pursuant to any Federal law or regulation solely for providing a loan or a loan guarantee to a cannabis-related legitimate business or a service provider.”

Even though states have varied in their approach to continue medical and retail cannabis operations amid the coronavirus outbreak, a majority of states that allow some form of sale and consumption of cannabis have designated the cannabis industry as “essential” and open for operation.3 Some states have gone as far as allowing home delivery, curbside pick-up, and telemedicine consultations.

Nonetheless, despite the cannabis industry’s designation as “essential,” cannabis businesses (including those who service the cannabis industry) will continue to be precluded from receiving federal financial assistance until the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act, or similar legislation, is passed. It is important to note that, even if passed, the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act would likely provide little relief, as the majority of the funds to be administered by the SBA have already been accounted for.

What does this mean to you?

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for the heavily-taxed and financially burdened cannabis industry to receive assistance under the stimulus packages, the Act, even if passed by Congress, faces an uphill battle in the Republican-held Senate.


References

  1.  The term “cannabis-related legitimate business” means a manufacturer, producer, or any person that – (A) engages in any activity described in subparagraph (B) pursuant to a law established by a State or a political subdivision of a State, as determined by such State or political subdivision; and (B) participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling cannabis or cannabis products, including cultivating, producing, manufacturing, selling, transporting, displaying, dispensing, distributing, or purchasing cannabis or cannabis products.”
  2. The term “service provider” (A) means a business, organization, or other person that – (i) sells goods or services to a cannabis-related legitimate business; or (ii) provides any business services, including the sale or lease of real or any other property, legal or other licensed services, or any other ancillary service, relating to cannabis; and (B) does not include a business, organization, or other person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling cannabis or cannabis products, including cultivating, producing, manufacturing, selling, transporting, displaying, dispensing, distributing, or purchasing cannabis or cannabis products.”
  3. State-by-State COVID-19 Announcements Impacting Marijuana Businesses.

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