I spent a considerable amount of 2019 traveling across Latin America working with industry and government leaders to advance cannabis policy, connect transactions, and understand the emerging market for hemp and marijuana in LatAm. Near the tail end of last year, I was extended an invitation to participate in several events taking place at and around the 2020 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. Even though I’ve traveled and have a number of clients in Europe, my experience in Davos was unparalleled. For the first time, I was sitting down with world leaders and/or direct aides to those presidents of countries and various international policy leaders for fruitful, productive conversations on the future of the global cannabis economy.
Cannabis is Largely Thought of From a “Medical” Perspective
It’s worth noting that given the WEF’s European locale, cannabis is largely thought of from a “medical” perspective. While we in the western hemisphere put issues somewhat neatly into various boxes (e.g., adult use marijuana, medical use marijuana, CBD, and/or hemp), the focus on “medical cannabis” is the buzz in the EU. Within the EU’s regulatory framework their definition of “medical cannabis” differs greatly from ours in the U.S. “Medical cannabis” in the U.S. essentially just means you won’t get arrested; further it means that a “patient” will have (in theory) safe, consistent access to cannabis flowers, oils, and related natural products. In Europe, “medical cannabis” is seen as just another vertical, versus the “high risk, high reward” scenario we’re familiar with in the U.S., and major European law firms, financial analysts, and institutional companies are ‘all in’; as if it were their job to stay abreast of major scientific and economic advancements. But because European cannabis policy almost exclusively falls into a pharma-like-regulatory lane, many EU leaders only see cannabis from that vantage. This perspective has its advantages and disadvantages. That aside, what it further demonstrates, is the myriad of proverbial flavors and sizes from a worldview on what constitutes the global cannabis economy.
The pharma-regulatory model looks like this: companies develop products and enhance delivery systems so that consumers may obtain medical-grade, cannabis-based drugs for treating clinical conditions. In other words, if you’re a European-based company touching anything pharmaceutical that’s not exploring cannabis research and development, you’re not doing your job. This is a marked difference from the western hemisphere model, where cannabis still has debilitating stigma attached to it. This European medical cannabis model likely ensures that policy and regulations get approved faster and easier — in an above-board kind of way — compared to Latin and North America. This is not to suggest that it is easy to achieve this result, but it is far easier than North American locales, for example.
While medical cannabis will unquestionably disrupt and prove to be the pharmaceutical commodity of the future, what about cannabis and sustainability? A core principle of the WEF’s mission is: “On key topics such as climate, mobility, energy and the circular economy, our platforms aim to facilitate action-oriented communities of stakeholders from all parts of the international system.”
Sustainability and a Future Plant-Based Economy
The option of hemp, the possibilities it offers for sustainability and a future plant-based economy, was the thrust of many of my conversations in Davos with international leaders and their staff. The European interest in hemp certainly exists, but they think of hemp like flax. It’s not sexy; it’s agriculture, not anything new or novel (aside from the CBD frenzy, which is all but dead). And unlike the U.S., they’re not looking at its potential as the commodity of the future, setting the stage for a new multi-billion dollar industry.
North America is more entrepreneurial; or at least more risk-tolerant and entrepreneurial. The 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills reflect that. The basis for removing cannabis with less than 0.3 percent THC (legal, industrial hemp) from the Controlled Substances Act was driven by the market incentive of industrial hemp as a new agricultural commodity. In practice this looks like providing American farmers the option of a new diversified crop, bringing back processing and manufacturing to rural economies, and fostering American businesses with a stateside supply chain.
So how did my conversations at Davos and the different global perspectives on cannabis all come together?
To achieve the ecological and economic successes of cannabis as a global commodity, you need international trade. If you could scratch the surface of the resources and support of WEF-caliber individuals, you could mobilize the global cannabis industry in unprecedented ways. We could eclipse the challenges we face now, especially with regard to import and export standards, and garner the support of powerful intergovernmental organizations to foster cannabis trade incentives. This includes looking at hemp as the backbone for the global cannabis supply chain (for all things cannabis), and figuring how to sync the “medical” focus that is so prevalent in the EU. These symbioses are not always evident without true perspective, and that is why I raise it here.
That’s the critical next step and what I want to be a part of — for the good of our planet, our global economy, and our healthcare. In a relative blink, cannabis has transcended from a black market good to a legitimate global commodity, sprung from night into the sun. With so much at stake, but so much opportunity ahead of us, keep hope that the earth will see you on through this time.