Global industry round-up: Canada, Israel, Costa Rica, Thailand

Planet WatchThe cannabis industry is globalizing fast, which means changes for mainstays of commercial production in Europe and North America, and new players coming on line from regions such as the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Central America. Here’s a brief overview of a few entries from these categories.

Canada: cracks in Big Bud hegemony?

The traditional leader in the global industry and the crucible of Big Bud is facing something of a reckoning. Canadian firms pioneered the use of sprawling greenhouses, applying economy-of-scale strategies to cannabis. But now a market correction is causing a roll-back of Big Bud’s ambitions—which may be a boon to more ecologically friendly “boutique cannabis.” New “micro-cultivation licenses” for small growers recently came available through Health Canada.

Justin Cooper is co-founder and CEO of British Columbia-based Green Planet, which supplies equipment and its own line of fertilizers to Canada’s leading Licensed Producers of cannabis. He’s also the host of the YouTube series “Growing Exposed.”

Noting that industry leader Canopy Growth recently shut down its two greenhouse complexes in BC, Cooper observes: “Companies came in to own the cannabis space, and they aren’t doing so good. This leaves room for the craft cultivators to find a niche.”

“The market is flooded,” he elaborates. “LPs are sitting on vaults of cannabis they can’t sell. When people see a potential gold rush, they flock to it. But now that craft licenses are available, the market is maturing.”

“People who transitioned from the black market to legal market are the growers that are becoming successful now and finding their rightful place in this industry. People who were born into growing cannabis in the Kootenays and are collecting their first paychecks now after living in a cash economy all their lives—craft growers, either owning production or finally getting gainful employment in the legal space.”

But official policy is in some ways holding back this sector, Cooper says.

“The government grades solely on the basis of THC content,” he notes. “The provincial government won’t buy if it is under 21%, and all cannabis on the legal market has to go through the BC Liquor Control Board.”

In contrast, aficionados have traditionally judged high-quality cannabis by aroma, color, bud structure, and trichomes—not just potency.

Cooper sees a remedy in proposals for a “Farmgate” program, in which local growers could directly market their product. “It would be like a farmers’ market or craft beer brewery—where customers could come and drink beer that’s made on site. The Liquor Control Board would still tax and have regulatory control, but would not do direct sales.”

A Farmgate program has already been launched in Ontario.

“Small growers need to find their own way, find areas that define them as a cultivator,” Cooper sums up. “What makes you different from your competition? The best way to compete is not to compete.”

Cooper sees a growing market niche for organic, and hopes to see more outdoor-grown product coming online—despite the short growing season in BC. “Indoor is a by-product of prohibition, and the carbon footprint associated with making a pound of indoor cannabis is atrocious,” he says. “We have to be better stewards of the plant and the planet.”

Israel: CannaTech on the cutting edge

Israel has long had a thriving medical marijuana program, and got a legal commercial cultivation and export sector when the cabinet moved to permit this in February 2019. An internal adult-use market may be on the distant horizon. New regulations being weighed by the cabinet would decriminalize personal use, making permanent a provisional decrim measure passed by the Knesset in July 2018. Some see a unique role for the country in the global industry.

“Israel’s traditional leading edge is in cannabis research,” says Joshua Nachum Berman, director of the Tel Aviv-based industry networking platform CannaTech.

A project of the firm iCAN (for Israel-Cannabis), CannaTech from 2015 to the pandemic shut-down in 2020 held an annual conference, bringing together investors, entrepreneurs and scientists “to explore the latest developments in the cannabis space,” in Berman’s words. CannaTech held expos in Panama and Cape Town as well as Israel, and also held events alongside the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“Israel has done well in agrotech and biotech, and cannabis sits at the crossroads of those,” he says. “There’s been ongoing cannabis research since the ‘60s; we’re a leader in research and development. It’s written into the DNA of how things operate here.”

Berman runs down a litany of areas where he sees Israel’s potential as a world leader. “We’re exploring genomics on the agricultural side, developments on the medical side with new cannabinoids, and novel delivery systems such as vaporization and other cleaner alternatives to combustion. We haven’t approached the full potential of what you can do with this plant.”

He notes the work of another Israeli firm, ReaGenics, in developing a method for creation of trichomes in a bioreactor, to “eliminate the biomass waste.”

Costa Rica: Latin America’s newest producer 

Costa Rica legalized medical marijuana and hemp cultivation by an act of the Legislative Assembly on March 2—becoming the second country on the Central American isthmus to do so after Panama, which took the move in August 2021.

President Carlos Alvarado signed the law after two years of debate. In January, he’d vetoed a more far-reaching measure that also would have allowed personal use and home cultivation. The new law does not.

Despite this limitation, the Assembly member who shepherded through the law has high hopes for emergence of a new agricultural sector for Costa Rica. Zoila Rosa Volio tells Cannabis Now that the law will “mark a before-and-after in our history, if appropriate regulation is implemented.”

This, however, is not a given. The center-left President Alvarado is on the way out. In an April 3 run-off election, the right-wing Rodrigo Chaves, a former finance minister, edged out centrist former president Jose Maria Figueres. It remains to be seen to what degree Chaves will attempt to roll back the cannabis reform, which occasioned much opposition from cultural conservatives.

Thailand: dreams of an Asian green rush

Another emerging producer where things are similarly still in play is Thailand.

The country’s Food & Drug Administration on Jan. 25 “delisted” the cannabis plant as a “Category 5” narcotic substances, in response to a draft proposal from the progressive Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul. This took effect on June 9—120 days after the decree was published in the government’s Royal Gazette. THC itself remains a Schedule 2 “psychotropic substance” under Thai law, subject to fine and penalty. Personal cultivation is permitted—ostensibly for production of extracts for medical users, which are to be limited to 0.2% THC. Anything above that is considered a "narcotic," and requires special permission.

Penalties for public use remain in place. But in the privacy of one's home, cannabis is (at least) de facto legal. The government is to distribute up to a million seedlings to prospective home cultivators. Some 4,000 prisoners doing time for cannabis offenses are to be released, and their records expunged.

Entrepreneurs greeted the change with jubilation, waxing optimistic about how Thailand is poised to become "the Silicon Valley of cannabis for Asia." But how much freedom for commercial cultivation will be allowed pursuant to the “delisting” is to be determined by legislation. Anutin and his Bhumjaithai Party are preparing a Cannabis Act, to be introduced to Parliament shortly, which should clarify these questions.

Thailand adopted a medical marijuana program in 2018, and approved commercial cultivation in 2020. But production is still harshly limited and rigidly controlled. The Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) is cultivating cannabis and making tincture which is supplied to hospitals and clinics. Private production licenses are just now coming online, but cultivators must sell only to the GPO or hospitals. Chaophraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital in Prachinburi province actually has its own cultivation and extraction operations.

There is also a separate set of regulations for what is called “traditional medicine” and “applied medicine.” The former is for use in the country’s indigenous herblore, and the latter a Western-style medical marijuana program. In “traditional medicine,” cannabis extract can be used to treat a wide variety of ailments (insomnia, migraines, etc.), but only with a solution of 3% THC, infused in coconut oil. For “applied medicine,” more potent oil or tincture may be used, but only for a very limited number of serious conditions, such as epilepsy and the effects of chemotherapy.

Chokwan Kitty Chopaka is founder and CEO of the Bangkok-based networking and advocacy group Elevated Estate, which held an international expo in November 2019, eagerly hyping what it called Asia’s impending “green rush.”

Three years later, she admits that such hopes have leveled off. The medical program was crafted “with the stigma in mind,” she tells Cannabis Now. “They are scared of people being able to enjoy themselves or heal themselves. There are prohibitive license fees. The big companies will be able to pay, but the little guys won’t.”

And despite some 300 cannabis clinics operating nationwide, there is not nearly enough supply to meet demand. “The clinics are only open a few hours a week, and most patients are still going to black market.” This may change following the FDA “delisting.”

However, Chopaka does see that cultural momentum for a freer atmosphere is mounting. “On the underground front, we’re getting really good at growing,” she boasts. “It was quite difficult to find growers in Thailand five years ago, but now we’re really producing good-quality weed.” And with the change in FDA regs, it is now "legal as garlic."

So progress may be slower than was anticipated after the medical program was first unveiled, but Chopaka concludes: “They can’t go backwards—they’ve already opened the door.”

Meanwhile, she is producing her own terpene-infused gummies under her own Chopaka brand, with its own shop in Bangkok. Chopaka developed the patented terpene profile which is produced by a factory under contract, and put in gummies at her own factory. No actual cannabis is involved, but mimicking the flavor, she hopes, will contribute to the cultural shift and help “de-stigmatize use of cannabis.”

This story first appeared in Oct. 2 in Cannabis Now magazine


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