High Expectations

Germany Going to Pot

79879480 pot dpa
Green is both the color and smell of money. Source: dpa

For many years, the plant’s illegality gave it a negative aura among medical circles, but now cannabis is on its way to more widespread respectability in Germany. Since March, new laws have arrived that are beginning to pave the way to marijuana’s pharmaceutical legitimacy. Seriously ill patients are now allowed to consume medical cannabis with a prescription from their doctor. Health insurance companies have to pay for the treatment and, starting in 2019, demand will have to be supplied with plants grown and processed by pharmaceutical companies in Germany. For cannabis advocates, the future is looking green.

Still, some complications stemming from the new laws are likely to arise. It is not yet clear which criteria future cannabis producers will have to meet. This month, to coincide with the new rules, the cannabis agency affiliated with the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM) is calling for bids from potential suppliers. Experts assume that only a handful of authorizations will be handed out, despite the number of providers vying for the opportunity.

“After the USA, Germany is the second-largest market for medical marijuana in the world,” said Alex Rogers, an American entrepreneur who has advocated for the legalization of marijuana in the US and Germany since the 1990s, even spending time in prison in Bavaria for illegal possession of the drug. Today, he makes a living selling medical marijuna, running a clinic in Oregon that advises sick people on whether cannabis is right for them. He also created the International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC) that brings investors, politicians and entrepreneurs together to discuss the plant’s future.

 

“After the USA, Germany is the second-largest market for medical marijuana in the world”

Alex Rogers, organizer of the International Cannabis Business Conference

ICBC has set up meetings in Vancouver, San Francisco, Hawaii, and, most recently, in Berlin. Over the course of three days in mid April, more than 1,000 participants from 20 countries converged in Berlin for the event, including U.S. Congressional representatives, cannabis entrepreneurs, and Ingo Michels, the former head of the task force of the German federal commissioner on drug-related issues.

“We’re offering a free space for meeting with leading figures and experts to philosophize about the future of the marijuana market in Europe,” the ICBC website said.

In North America, Canada and several US states have already established cannabis as a medical product, and an industry has rapidly developed around the plant. Canada has recently tabled legislation to make the drug as easily accessible as cigarettes and alcohol. By contrast, in Germany, the industry is still in its infancy.

The cannibis agency of BfArM now employs three people for the task of regulating the planting, harvesting and processing of cannibis for medical purposes. The agency is also responsible for quality control.

Currently, only some 500 people have been granted exceptional authorization to cultivate the plant for their own private consumption. Another 500 patients import medical marijuana from the Netherlands or Canada. No infrastructure exists yet for the mass industrial production of the plant.

As the BfArM prepares to issue licences, the agency has calculated that, with an average daily ration of one gram per patient, Germany would need an annual total of approximately 365 kilograms of cannabis, or about 10,000 plants, to fulfill the demand.

But some observers are skeptical that the agency is up to the task. Numerous experts are puzzled as to why the agency included only the currently known 1000 users in its calculations. “In my opinion, the figures of the BfArM are far too low,” said professor Oliver Kayser, a pharmaceutical expert and dean of the biological- and chemical-engineering department at the Dortmund Technical University. “There is enormous market potential for medical marijuana in Germany,” he added. “I estimate there are up to 800,000 potential users.”

 

“There is enormous market potential for medical marijuana in Germany. I estimate there are up to 800,000 potential users.”

Oliver Kayser, professor at Dortmund Technical University

The German Hemp Association is of the same opinion. “When the system is up and running, far more patients will be treated with cannabis in Germany than there are now,” says association spokesman Georg Wurth. He points out that market development will be critically dependent on how many doctors actually prescribe the drug for their patients. “Today, we already get many calls from people who simply can’t find a doctor who is open to medical marijuana as a therapy,” says Mr. Wurth. Because of the relatively small number of current cannabis patients, there are only a few doctors who are familiar with the use and effect of the drug – even while reservations are widespread.

In principle, however, Mr. Wurth believes the cannabis business could become a market worth billions in Germany. “But if no one prescribes cannabis, that will of course hinder its development,” he acknowledges. In recent months, the association has received hundreds of inquiries from private persons and companies interested in entering the business.

Together with several businesspersons, the Hannover lawyer Jürgen Scholz intends to apply for a license to cultivate medical marijuana. He says there are already business plans for the project and a possible production location has been selected in Lower Saxony. Mr. Scholz fears, however, that internationally established cannabis producers such as Bedrocan (the Netherlands) or Tilray (Canada) will be favored because of their many years of experience – and that only a few German firms will be granted licenses. “The large companies have a clear competitive advantage,” he says. “But I hope the BfArM will take into account that German firms don’t yet have so much experience in the field.”

Mr. Scholz believes that not only entrepreneurs will face challenges in developing the market. Pharmacists will also have to do some rethinking: “At the moment, Germany has very few pharmacies that offer cannabis.” He expects further commercial areas to develop beyond cannabis production – for example, in the education and service sectors.

The entrepreneur Michael Popp is firmly convinced that his company Bionorica will cultivate marijuana on German soil. His firm has been growing plants in Vienna. He is convinced: “With a cultivation license for Germany, we can triple our sales.”

This article originally appeared in the Tagesspiegel. To contact the author, redaktion@tagesspiegel.de