Exploring innovation in the cannabis sector

Exploring innovation in the cannabis sector
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Volteface Head of Strategy Katya Kowalski tells HEQ about innovation and advocacy around cannabis.

UK-based advocacy organisation Volteface aims to promote evidence-based drug policy and reform in order to alleviate the individual and societal harms associated with drugs. Katya Kowalski, Volteface Head of Strategy, tells HEQ about innovation within the cannabis sector and the need for wide-ranging reforms at the clinical and legislative levels.

What are the most significant issues facing cannabis producers and consumers today?

Although tides are undoubtedly changing, one of the most prevalent barriers is the stigma that still surrounds cannabis use. Stigma and prohibition are the two key factors that have halted development in the sector for so long. This is changing with incredible progress and growth but ultimately, this ‘coming of age’ for cannabis could have occurred much earlier were it not for the plant’s political history.

A repercussion of this stigma is a continued lack of harmonisation across Europe. The stance on cannabis is changing, but we are still far away from consistent legislation. This lack of regulatory clarity makes it difficult to find a clear path to compliance for advancing the industry in the correct way. This is a challenge for consumers and producers.

Another challenge we face in the medical cannabis sector is the process of making cannabis look and feel like a medicine. A major barrier is that doctors do not feel comfortable prescribing cannabis flower due to a lack of consistency and the association with ‘recreational’ use. By addressing this, we can expand the acceptance of cannabis in the medical sphere, allowing production to flourish and most importantly, patients accessing safe and consistent doses.

How did Volteface come to establish the ‘New Leaf Opportunities’ campaign? What are the campaign’s key aims?

Volteface launched the New Leaf Opportunities campaign as a means of highlighting the economic benefits, innovations and investment opportunities that the medical cannabis and CBD sector bring to the UK. We launched the campaign to showcase cannabis as an exciting and emerging sector, with the opportunity for the UK to become a real leader in the sector.

We saw an opportunity to positively encourage the medical cannabis and CBD industry, highlighting how the sector has ‘come of age’ in the UK. The advocacy space often has an anti-industry sentiment – at Volteface we feel it is incredibly important to showcase the positive impact investment and innovation can have on the advancement of reform.

The campaign was launched in response to the Financial Conduct Authority giving the green light for cannabis companies to list on the London Stock Exchange in September 2020. Coupled with the timing of Brexit and COVID-19, launching a campaign focused on the economic benefits of the cannabis sector felt incredibly important. As a result of this economic insecurity, the frames of nascent and lucrative markets paint cannabis a bright and opportunity-filled sector.

How can collaboration and information sharing between regions, researchers and producers help to drive innovation and advocacy within the cannabis sector?

Communication and information sharing will always be a good thing. What makes the cannabis sector so interesting and complex is how interdisciplinary it is. There is an intersection with research, agriculture, advocacy, business and medicine. In order to drive forward reform, all of these bodies must communicate.

Communication on a broader European level is important. Volteface founded the European Cannabis Advocacy Network (ECAN) in late November 2020 as a means of harmonising and streamlining communication for European cannabis advocates. Keeping each other informed and understanding what best practice for policy could look like is incredibly resourceful. With developments progressing at pace, staying informed is undoubtedly helpful.

Although Europe-wide reform would be incredible, it is extremely unlikely. The way in which European cannabis reform is currently playing out is similar to what we have seen in the US, with state-by-state progress. We can expect policy change through a country-by-country approach in Europe.

Demand and interest for cannabis is clearly growing. However, the European market is not entirely reflective of this with large restrictions still in place. Different sectors working together is a recipe for a diverse and ideal environment to secure policy change and consumer access. Due to how complex this sector is, proposals need to be advised from a range of perspectives and disciplines.

The more diverse the cannabis sector can be, through bringing together various groups, the more likely it is that we will see positive developments. All stakeholders must be communicating a clear and coherent narrative to drive forward innovation and advocacy.

Are there any recent developments in cannabis innovation which you would like to highlight?

Innovation is key to driving the cannabis sector forward as a means of countering stigma associated with prohibition. Innovation is the antithesis of prohibition by bringing cannabis out of backward policy.

Innovation improves product quality, expands access and advances our understanding of cannabis. As the industry develops, an important realisation is that cannabis products are not a ‘one size fits all’ phenomenon. Consumers require access to appropriate products and catering to specific needs. Subtle differences in the way in administration and content can have a significant impact. Innovation is a way of expanding variety and giving consumers a greater amount of choice.

It goes without saying that innovation advances our understanding of cannabis through scientific research. It is a mutually beneficial process – industry growth expands the knowledge for innovation and innovation helps expand the industry.

One of the most impressive innovations for medical cannabis recently has been Kanabo’s VapePod. This is an incredible piece of technology for standardising medical cannabis dosing.

A major roadblock for cannabis currently is a lack of standardisation in dosing, making it incredibly difficult to regulate from a medical perspective. The VapePod produces a metered dose providing exactly 1mg of cannabinoid extract, ensuring consistency which is impossible when smoking cannabis flower. This product ‘medicalises’ vaping, delivering the exact same product with the exact same dose every time. This is an important gateway for demonstrating the worthiness of cannabis innovation through making physicians feel more comfortable prescribing cannabis.

Another innovation that is important to highlight, although not a particular product, is the CBD industry itself. The cannabis industry has presented an exciting opportunity for innovation. The industry has become more dynamic as a result of CBD through normalising and educating new groups on the plant. CBD has been an immense player in rebranding cannabis to be associated with health and wellness. Impressive consumer numbers in the UK show that the industry has been able to attract a larger and more varied consumer base. As a result of this, Europe is left in a strong place for innovation because of CBD.

How do you see the cannabis industry evolving in the next few years?

We can expect continued and widespread expansion. Recent listings and investments are demonstrating clear appetite for cannabis. However, investment for the sake of investment and the hype that currently surrounds the sector is not sustainable. Over the next few years it will be about grounding development to ensure the industry being created is a sustainable one. Companies need to be in it for the long haul.

There is no doubt that the cannabis industry is going to be a major source of income, tax revenue and widespread job creation for a variety of skillsets. I think if we continue to welcome investment and innovation in the space we are preventing large players from monopolising the market, breeding diversity with a variety of products.

Many do not realise that the investment expansion we are seeing will almost certainly translate into reform. What we are seeing is ‘stealth legalisation’: investment is benefiting innovation, which is expanding access to cannabis and increasingly normalising the plant. This may not be the classic policy reform that drug reformers want to see, but it is happening right in front of us. The momentum in the cannabis sector is all interlinked – pouring money into the space is helping advancing innovation. Innovation helps grow the prospects for reform by rebranding cannabis, this drives down the costs for patients and allows more people to access it.

Is the current policy landscape in the UK and Europe entirely beneficial for research and innovation in medical cannabis? What policy changes would improve the situation?

I would say no. The European landscape for medical cannabis is incredibly complex with every country at a very different stage of reform. As much as widespread policy change across the EU would be incredible, it is extremely unlikely.

In order to see more policy change, I think we will need to see a greater amount of pilot programmes to gather much needed evidence and ‘test the water’ for medical cannabis. We are already seeing this with Denmark and France.

In the UK, innovation is certainly taking off. In order to streamline this process more, I think we need to see the appointment of a governmental body to oversee all matters relating to cannabis. At the moment all of this is being dealt with through the Home Office, when the matter at hand is usually either agricultural (industrial hemp) or a medical issue. Regulatory and research matters should go through an entirely different department – because the Home Office is not sure how to handle this, it is causing delays.

Katya Kowalski
Head of Strategy

This article is from issue 18 of Health Europa. Click here to get your free subscription today.

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