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Out of Africa: Halo Labs’ CEO on Lesotho’s budding cannabis industry

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Bophelo Bioscience farm in Lesotho. Photo: Halo Labs Inc

Cannabis Health speaks to Kiran Sidhu, CEO of Halo Labs, about the African cannabis sector, the impact of COVID-19 and his predictions for 2021.

According to BDS Analytics, the data partner for the US National Cannabis Industry Association, Halo is the top company in the state of Oregon for sales of cannabis flower, number three for concentrates and pre-rolls.

The growing company has expanded to the UK (with the acquisition of CanMart) and Lesotho, a small country located just south of Johannesburg. Lesotho is the first African country to legalise the cultivation and manufacturing of medical cannabis and one of the world’s most sought-after locations for cannabis production.

Halo’s cultivation site in Lesotho is operated by Bophelo Bioscience, a holder of one of a limited number of licences issued in the country.

Following a series of high-value acquisitions – including the UK’s CanMart and Oregon-based company, Winberry Farms – the company has experienced a rapid growth in sales in 2020. This week, the company reported a 32 percent year over year growth in the state of Oregon, with retail sales reaching $89.9 million in November 2020.

Sidhu tells us about the origins of Halo Labs, the company’s expansion to the UK and its growing operations in the African cannabis sector.

Halo Labs CEO Kiran Sidhu

CH: Tell us about the origins of Halo Labs and your journey as a company.

KS: Halo labs started in 2017 in Andreas Met’s [co-founder of Halo] chicken coop. At the time, we were known in the industry as blasters, so effectively we took raw cannabis, put them in butane and then through that process we made vaporiser cartridges.

Now we span four countries, the UK, Lesotho, the United States and soon Canada. We make about 10 products in the state of Oregon and we’re growing in California – we’re working on building a very large cultivation site, which is the largest in Northern California.

In Lesotho, Louisa [Mojela], our chairperson, founded Bophelo Bioscience, which is arguably one of the largest grows in the world in terms of licensed space.

I view Halo, in a strange way, as two distinct businesses. It’s one that is North American, which is much more recreationally focused and it’s one that is outside North America, which is what we call a seed to sale distribution system, from Lesotho to Malta and then from Malta onward into the UK.

CH: What are some of the main challenges of working in the cannabis sector?  

KS: A lot of people look at cannabis as this sexy business, like something technological. But really, at the end of the day, cannabis is a bricks and mortars, manufacturing, cultivation business.

It’s extremely working capital intensive without the ability, at least in the US, to access bank lines because banking isn’t available to us.

In a strange way, we work in the shadows, even though we have a legal business. There’s a lot of cash movement as you’re not allowed to use credit cards in the United States. Mainstream banking, like Santander or Barclays isn’t available to us so we tend to work with local credit unions. Even if we move money across state lines, that’s a violation of federal law.

CH: Why is Lesotho such a hotbed for cannabis manufacturing?   

KS: Our roots as a company in the United States are in the Emerald triangle, an area north of Napa Valley, to the south of Grants Pass in Oregon and up and down the spine of what’s known as the 101 Highway.

This is where 90 percent of all cannabis in North America was supplied prior to legalisation. What the Carolinas are to tobacco and the Great Plains are to wheat, the Emerald Triangle is to cannabis

Lesotho, which is the Emerald triangle of Africa, has always been the place where cannabis has flourished. It has always been the breadbasket of cannabis in Africa.

A couple of years ago, the deputy prime minister [of Lesotho] said that when they were fighting apartheid, they said, ‘give us our land, our freedom and our cannabis’; that was their cry.

And they were one of the first states in Africa to INCB [International Narcotics Control Board] certification for exportation of cannabis. A lot of large companies piled in after that. I remember the valuations were preposterous and it became very hot.

CH: What drew you to Lesotho and working with Bophela Bioscience?  

KS: We have a gorgeous site and arguably one of the largest sites in the country, but what really attracted us to Lesotho was our chairperson, Louisa Mojela, who’s such a force for social good.

10 percent of our profits are going to the local people, the land is owned by a trust for the benefit of the people, and Louisa is really big on the empowerment of the disadvantaged. She also operates her own private equity fund, which is for the empowerment of women in Africa.

Louisa and my partner Andreas Met are really driving the charge in Africa.

The concept is to uses good agricultural collection practices to produce cannabis and then take that cannabis and export it into Malta and inevitably the UK.

Bophelo Bioscience farm in Lesotho. Photo: Halo Labs Inc

CH: Would you consider expanding into other regions in Africa?

KS: Our mantra is do one site, do it well, and don’t diversify. But that being said, given the geography of Lesotho [a mountainous region ideal for growing the Indica cannabis plant], you could see yourself looking towards Ghana or Gambia; somewhere more equatorial where you would put up a grow with a genetic bank dominated more by sativa.

I think that’s more of a longer-term view, because you can still grow a good genetic bank in Lesotho.

I’m hearing that Ghana now is legalising, the Congo is legalising, but they have a way to go to get INCB certification which takes a couple of years.

CH: Have you faced any barriers in Africa due to the pandemic?  

KS: We are growing and storing cannabis in Africa and we are getting what’s known as Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) certification. We’re fairly close to it, but COVID has been a little bit of a setback as the whole South African region is under a very stringent lockdown given this new variant that’s floating around.

And the UK, where a lot of our people are based, is also locked down due to COVID. It’s become really difficult. Right now, what we’re dealing with is even though we’re growing, we’re dealing with practical problems.

For instance, there’s not enough steel in South Africa. South Africa typically would import steel but those imports are not as plentiful as usual. We are not able to complete our certifications because of practical issues like this.

CH: How about in the US and Europe?

KS: We’re starting to see tremendous growth in cannabis in the US as a result of COVID, whereas abroad, it’s disrupted supply chains.

Where COVID has been a boom in the United States, it’s been a curse in the UK and has now been derailed to some degree. But I think inevitably, as we all get our jabs, and everything settles down over the next nine months, I think we’re going to start seeing an incredible flourish of international trade in cannabis.

I could envision the Biden regime entering international cannabis trade, too. It’s conceivable within the next two years that you’ll start to see cannabis flowing from Africa into the United States.

CH: What is your view of the UK cannabis market?

KS: We’re one of five licensed medical distributors and the name of our company in the UK is Canmart, which started its journey about two years ago.

One thing that’s interesting about the UK market is that it has a very active black market with high per capita consumption rate of cannabis; one of the highest in the world.

It [the UK] is sort of like California before legalisation, during what we call the ‘medical days’. The UK is starting the medical days right now.

What’s happening is you’re starting to see liberalisation, even under this Conservative government, of medicinal cannabis. The tipping point will come when the NHS starts allowing certain groups to be reimbursed for cannabis. That to me is the point where it’ll become medically available for many different people.

CH: What are Halo Labs’ plans for the UK?

KS: Under the current regime, cannabis in the UK has to be imported, so the goal is to get the Lesotho operation qualified for imports into the UK.

The UK is allowing cannabis to come in from abroad, but that cannabis has to have a certification of cGMP (current good manufacturing practices) which is a medicinal certification. We have a partner in Malta – we import GACP cannabis into Malta and there they make it into Medicinal Products for EU certification, which is then imported into the UK.

It will be interesting to see what happens now with the UK’s separation from the EU.

CH: What trends can you see on the horizon?

KS: Outside North America is where it’s hot right now in terms of cannabis. Brazil is now liberalising, Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico has liberalised and on the African continent, multiple countries are starting to liberalise.

I think you’re going to start to see this flourish of international trade in cannabis.

I also think we’re going to start to seeing more countries develop recreational regimes, and I think it’s going to come faster than people anticipate.

Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris, in her debate with Pence said that one of their initiatives is going to be the descheduling of cannabis so it’s no longer considered a controlled substance.

I could even see the UK’s Conservative government following a US lead over the next year or two. I see the softening of his [Boris Johnson’s] position, so I can see this liberalisation really starting to snowball.

The alcohol industry is seeing diminished growth as a result of the cannabis industry’s growth.

Industry

New fully digital cannabis dispensary launches in UK

It aims to streamline the process through which  cannabis patients can access their medicine.

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New fully digital cannabis dispensary launches in UK

A new fully digital medical cannabis pharmacy aims to improve the dispensing experience for UK patients.

A new digital dispensing solution has launched in the UK, with the aim of streamlining the process through which cannabis patients can access their medicine.

Through the new system, patients are able to schedule delivery to their home or office, with a 120-minute delivery service in London and Birmingham and next-day delivery across the UK.

Akanda subsidiary, CanMart, has partnered with digital pharmacy infrastructure Phlo Connect and Cellen Life Sciences to bring the project to life.

The process will be increasingly seamless for patients in the near future as Phlo Connect, Cellen and CanMart build additional digital interconnections, Akanda said.

Osteoarthritis: A banner advert for the medical cannabis clinics

Tej Virk, CEO of Akanda, said: “Akanda is committed to expanding access to high-quality products for anyone in need, and that is qualified in the United Kingdom, a growing market for medical cannabis.

“Phlo Connect and Cellen are the ideal partners to make this happen, combining the UK’s first fully digital pharmacy with a digital dispensing model that is easy to use, secure, and real-time.

“In the nascent UK medical cannabis market, patients currently suffer from excess friction as the prescription process, and last-mile delivery is disjointed.

“We firmly believe that our solution is the best way to satisfy patients and get our 1P and 3P-supplied medical cannabis in their hands quickly and conveniently, which will greatly improve the patient experience.”

New fully digital cannabis dispensary launches in UK

The partnership with Phlo Connect builds on CanMart’s existing partnership with Cellen, a health tech company that provides treatment to chronic pain patients through Leva Clinic, as well as through partners including the NHS, and Boots UK.

The Leva Clinic, which is licensed and regulated by the Care Quality Commission, is one of the first fully digital pain clinics in the UK.

Cellen is also a medical cannabis supplier to Project Twenty21, the large-scale medical cannabis observational study monitored by Drug Science that aims to improve access to medical cannabis.

Adam Hunter, CCO of Phlo Connect commented: “We believe partnering with CanMart and Cellen will be a game-changer for medicinal cannabis patients here in the UK.

“By integrating with both CanMart and Cellen via our API-driven pharmacy platform, we believe that this partnership is the first truly end-to-end digital experience for medicinal cannabis patients in the UK.”

He added: “Our patients require access to new high-quality products without the friction and hassle of traditional dispensing services. This partnership is another example of our continuing efforts to build on our national, established relationships with the wider pharmaceutical community in innovative ways.

“We believe that CanMart’s access to high quality products as well as Phlo Connect’s extensive capabilities in dispensing will go a long way to helping our service to our patients.”

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CiiTECH celebrates five years with five days of CBD offers

CiiTECH’s five-year birthday is a pivotal moment, the company said.

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ciitech

Cannabis healthcare company CiiTECH celebrates its fifth birthday and reflects on a turbulent half-decade for the CBD industry.

CiiTECH’s five-year birthday is a pivotal moment, the company said. After what has been one of the most turbulent times for the industry, the firm has achieved six months of stability. With new crypto projects on the horizon and new markets on the cards, the company is gearing up for a period of growth.

CBD is a tough industry to be in right now but that has never stopped CiiTECH CEO and founder, Clifton Flack, from driving the business through regulatory issues and the challenges of an increasingly saturated market.

“When we started the business in 2017 the market was approaching the peak of interest and excitement. Since then, alongside the hundreds of brands that have been born to compete with us, we’ve also faced monumental regulatory pressures and flip-flopping,” Flack said.

“We’re still here though, independent and with a bright future ahead as the coming year ahead brings settled regulations.”

After a stormy start to the year, the FSA delivered on their promise to roll out a framework by which products can be set on a supervised pathway to novel food authorisation. The market is now more difficult than ever to penetrate for new and emerging brands, however it gives established UK CBD companies like CiiTECH an advantage over international companies attempting to penetrate the UK market.

“In parallel, the industry and our peers have had a two year pandemic, Brexit supply chain disruptions and now a cost of living crisis set to put all previous volatilities to shame,” Flack added.

“Now more than ever, cannabis healthcare companies need to take our time, avoid the panic and focus on delivering quality products behind trusted brands that are built for the long term.”

Recently, CiiTECH investigated a stock market listing on the London Stock Exchange but the IPO did not come to fruition.

“As the CEO, I had to make an impossible decision,” Flack said.

“Amongst other things, the timing was just not right. Consumer sentiment and demands are volatile and we found the essence of our company getting lost in bureaucracy at a time when it should have been front of mind.

Yesterday, CiiTECH launched five promotions over five days to celebrate the anniversary of the company.

“As a revenue-driven business, CiiTECH would not be in the position it is today without its army of loyal Provacan customers, so we’re giving back to them the best way we know-how.

“With five days’ worth of promos and freebies to mark five years of success. Our Friday promo emails have become somewhat legendary among our customers but we have never done anything like this before.”

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GPs should prescribe medical cannabis, says industry review

A new review has recommended the roll out of a national trial, permitting GPs to prescribe medical cannabis.

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GPs should prescribe medical cannabis, says industry review
Polling showed strong support for allowing all doctors to prescribe cannabis as a treatment. 

A new UK report has recommended the roll out of a national trial permitting GPs to prescribe medical cannabis.

GPs should be allowed to prescribe medical cannabis in the UK, according to a new review published on Monday 27 June.

Industry experts have recommended the roll-out of a national trial, which would see GPs permitted to prescribe cannabis-based medicinal products, alongside specialist consultants. 

The recommendation was published as part of the Hodges Review, commissioned by The Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) and the Association for the Cannabinoid Industry (ACI).

The report, which aims to set out how the UK can be a world-leader in cannabinoid innovation, is set to be launched today (27 June) with a speech by MP George Freeman, the minister for science, research and innovation.

US research programme studies cannabinoids in ovarian cancer

GP prescribing 

In the UK, GPs may prescribe as part of a ‘Shared Care’ agreement, under the direction of a doctor on the specialist register, but they are not permitted to initiate treatment themselves.

According to polling data, collected for the review from 1,500 individuals across the UK, between the 9-13th June, 2022, there was strong support for allowing all doctors, not just specialists, to prescribe cannabis as a treatment. 

Two-thirds of respondents (65 per cent) believe GPs should be allowed to prescribe medicinal cannabis and more than a third said they would trust their GP to prescribe it to them.

Among 20 recommendations made by the report, the authors suggest an “opt-in model” which would give GPs the option to consent to prescribing cannabis-based medicines and participating in data collection to help inform future guidelines.

In more than 50 countries worldwide where medical cannabis has been made legal GPs make up the majority of prescribers. 

A survey of over 1,000 GPs, published last year by the Primary Care Cannabis Network, found that there was a willingness from UK doctors to prescribe too. 

Almost a quarter (24 percent) said they would be willing to take on the role of prescribing and overseeing medical cannabis treatments and just under three quarters (73 per cent) were open-minded about having a more active role in the field.

Read more: How GPs could open up access to medical cannabis

Quoted in the Hodges Review, Hazel Neavyn-Neita, medical information lead, Althea Life UK and Ireland said: “The cost of supplying product to the UK is roughly 3.2 times higher than supplying product to Australia.

“Allowing GPs to prescribe and widening patient access may increase sales. It would also reduce the costs of consultations for private patients since they could see a GP rather than a specialist consultant. If volumes increase, companies will be able to reduce the cost of manufacture and shipping which will reduce the cost to the patient.” 

Deepak Anand, principal of ASDA Consultancy Services, added: “By not allowing all GPs to prescribe, we’re effectively putting people into the black market, because people are going to try to access this whichever way they can… That is a serious and abject policy failure from a public health perspective by the government. Once we start to see GPs prescribing, you will see a real opening up of the industry in the UK.”

The report also highlighted the need to “take forward commitments” for coordinated data collection, suggesting that GP prescriptions could involve patient enrolment in a national registry to help gather real-world evidence.

Further recommendations include consulting with patient groups and police forces to introduce Home Office guidance for frontline officers to verify patients who have a valid prescription, and creating a single formulary of all available products in the UK to support doctors in prescribing with up-to-date information.

Attitudes towards medical cannabis 

Among those polled, there was broad support for cannabis as a medical treatment.

One in five respondents said they personally know someone whose health has benefited from medicinal cannabis and 63 per cent would be supportive if a family member was taking it to address a health condition.

Only eight per cent said they would be “somewhat” or “very” opposed to it and almost one in seven people admitted that they have used cannabis for “health reasons” themselves. 

Of those who had used cannabis for medicinal reasons (whether prescribed by a doctor or not), 90 per cent experienced positive benefits, including a fifth whose symptoms were “completely resolved”. 

There was also recognition of a need to make cannabis medicines more accessible for patients in the UK, with 59 per cent of those polled believing that the government should help lower the cost of cannabis supplied by private clinics so more people can afford it.

A large majority (64 per cent) of respondents believe the government should do more to support scientific research into cannabis in the UK.

CBD vs Medical cannabis

Although public awareness of medicinal cannabis was lower than of CBD, the report found evidence to suggest that public levels of trust are generally higher. 

When asked about CBD products, the most concerning thing for 43 per cent of respondents was if the product was synthetic and not from natural ingredients, or if the product was not tested for purity. 

Those hesitant to try CBD said they would be most likely to try a product if there was more public information about CBD and how to take it and if the government made it clear that CBD was legal.

The report also claims that where young people are more open to the use of CBD, older people are more likely to report positive views towards medicinal cannabis.

By contrast, young people were more likely to think that medicinal cannabis is “not a serious clinical treatment”.

A total of 59 per cent of respondents believe that in 10 years time the medical benefits of cannabis would be more widespread and accepted.

You can download the full report here

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