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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

Provacan brings high-strength, 72% CBD to UK

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Kanabo's VapePod will be compatible for Provocan's new CBD range

The science-led brand is bringing the latest cannabis technology to the UK with two high potency CBD formulas.

Provacan, the CBD brand from cannabis research company CiiTECH, has introduced the two 72 percent products as part of its popular VapePod range developed in partnership with Kanabo. 

The Provacan range of VapePod compatible pre-filled pods have grown to become one of the company’s most popular vape products.

The VapePod device was developed by Israel-based Kanabo Group and provides users with a certified, safe and effective vaporisation system with innovative metered dosing with high bioavailability. 

Vaporisation of CBD improves the rate of absorption when compared to other means such as ingestion.

The device optimises efficiency while delivering CBD formulas more safely and simply. It can only be used with compatible pre-filled cartridges, such as Provacan’s Day and Night pre-filled pods.

Kanabo recently became the second cannabis company to list on the London stock exchange. 

This is a revolutionary step for the VapePod entering the medical cannabis scene in the UK and is vital for patients for whom this delivery method will replace the smoking of cannabis flowers.

Avihu Tamir, CEO at Kanabo, said: “We are pleased to have CiiTECH as a partner in the UK for developing pure innovative hemp formulas. The unique formulas are coupled with the VapePod platform which give consumers great satisfaction in knowing that they’re getting the most out of their CBD.”

Building on the popularity of the 55 percent CBD VapePod­­ range, Provacan has worked with Kanabo Research to launch two new higher strength vape formulas for its customers. 

The all-new Night Terpene and Day Terpene CBD VapePod formulations contain 72 percent CBD together with other minor cannabinoids and a potent mix of terpenes.

Terpenes are widely used and can be found in essential oils and aromatherapy. 

Additionally, the all natural pods are free from traces of pesticides, heavy metals and solvents and don’t containing PG, VC, MCT, nicotine or vitamin E. 

Provacan is part of the growing portfolio of brands by leading British cannabis company CiiTECH Ltd, with R&D management based in Israel.

Founded by Clifton Flack in 2017, Provacan is the flagship brand within the portfolio and focuses on bringing the latest cannabis technology to its loyal consumers in the UK and across the world.

Partnerships with international medical cannabis research companies fuel CiiTECH’s product development and provide brands like Provacan with forward thinking industry knowledge and the ability to create highly respected science-backed CBD products for sale in the UK today.

Eli Whiteman, CiiTECH’s VP business development, said: “Our partnership with Kanabo goes back a long way and beyond technological innovation. Our main priority is to strive to ensure our customers have access to a superior combination of bioavailability, unique delivery systems and consistent CBD products that they can rely on.

“We achieve this by channelling consumer demands into product development and by partnering with like minded medical cannabis companies that do the same.”

The new Night Terpene CBD and Day Terpene CBD VapePods are available from Provacan now, retailing at £49.99 each. To find out more information about the products, visit https://provacan.co.uk/vapes/.

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Dragonfly expansion to deliver over 1,000kg of CBD per month

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Dragonfly CBD is currently available from a variety of high street retailers in the UK

Dragonfly Biosciences is expanding its CBD extraction capability, to enable the large scale delivery of over 1,000kg of CBD per month.

The manufacturers of Dragonfly CBD oil has acquired full ownership of Premium Extraction Services Limited – a large scale state of the art ethanol extraction facility.

As a result  Dragonfly Biosciences will be able to offer the large-scale delivery of over 1000kg of CBD per month, in comparison to other extraction facilities which can deliver on average around 50kg per month.

Dragonfly CBD can currently be found at a variety of stockists on the UK high street including Boots, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, as well as in pharmacies.

The expansion will enable the firm to deliver bespoke CBD distillate and CBD isolate in significant quantities, adding to its expanding portfolio.

Chief executive, Regan Saveall, described the move as a “significant step forward” for the company in delivering “first-class” CBD.

“The acquisition of the Premium Extraction Services Company is a significant step forward for Dragonfly Biosciences and importantly our range of CBD products,” he commented.

“We are committed to innovation and investment, and already have our own vertical integrated supply chain, which allows us to provide high-quality CBD products, all of which are compliant with all regulatory status.

“The extraction facility will enable us to control and produce even more first-class CBD on a much larger scale. This will support the demand for our current products and allow us to explore different types of CBD offerings. There are only a handful of large-scale fully permitted facilities in the EU, so this is really exciting for us.

“By investing as a company, we can ensure our CBD brand is as always safe, legal and best in class when it comes to quality and consumer transparency. “

The Dragonfly Bioscience extraction plant is based in Romania close to the Bulgarian border and fields where Dragonfly Bioscience has 650 hectares of organically certified land.

The extraction facility is built to EU-GMP standard with full accreditation status in progress.

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Cannabliss to open brick and mortar dispensary

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Michael Dobson - Cannabliss founder

UK-based medical cannabis group, Cannabliss aims to help patients transition from the illicit market into the legal cannabis space.

Following a long, “drawn-out” application process, Cannabliss has secured a pharmacy licence for dispensing medical cannabis through its online platform.

Now, after handing out its first private prescription this month, the company has announced it will be opening a brick and mortar site in Preston in April 2021.

Set to open on 12 April, the store will sell legal, over-the-counter cannabis-based products and also offer advice and guidance to people who are seeking to secure a medical cannabis prescription.

Cannabliss was founded by Michael Dobson, who was involved in a legal battle for several years over the legality of cultivating cannabis plants. In a saga that climaxed with him taking the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd to court, he fought for a judicial review of cannabis legislation.

Having spent many years involved with the illicit cannabis market, including a period behind bars for growing several of his own plants, Dobson is now on a mission to widen access to legal medical cannabis.

“The vast majority of people have very little understanding of the legal cannabis market,” he tells Cannabis Health.

“What we’re doing is effectively creating a concierge service in which we help guide [people] through the process of becoming a legalised cannabis patient.”

Cannabliss says it aims to build trust with its customers and establish itself as a “go-to” place for trusted information about the medical cannabis landscape.

Dobson explains: “Customers have the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation with somebody who specialises in this particular area, rather than it just being a vape shop or health food store that has added cannabis products to its already existing range.

“If we do have somebody coming in and asking about the process of getting access to medical cannabis, we can explain that to them.”

Currently, in the UK, there are qualifying conditions that must be met before being considered for cannabis-based treatment.

Although an estimated 1.4 million people consume cannabis for medicinal purposes, very few can access it via a prescription.

Dobson believes that there is a “great deal” of people that could meet the criteria for a medical cannabis prescription but have never considered it due to the cost and exclusivity of private healthcare.

He says Cannabliss will provide support to its customers if they choose to go through the official process.

“Even though the prices have dropped significantly over the past few years, we still think there’s going to be a hurdle to overcome in terms of breaking down that barrier; that stigma that is there for a lot of people,” he says.

The company is already putting plans in motion to expand into a franchise with two provisional stores set to open this summer in Leicester and Essex.

As part of this franchising effort, Cannabliss aims to provide opportunities for people who may have previously been involved with the illicit cannabis market.

Dobson believes that it is “morally right” to give people the chance to enter the burgeoning legal market.

“I always wanted to include as many people as possible within what we’re doing, and support people that have been in a similar position to myself,” Dobson adds.

“We will not discriminate on somebody because they maybe have a criminal history like myself.

“In actual fact, these people are actually the best people to have running our franchises because they’re so knowledgeable.”

Dobson also believes that this approach could help reduce the influence and scale of the illegal market.

“By removing people from the illegal market and bringing them into the legal market, you’re getting rid of the black market rather than putting something in place that’s in competition with it,” he says.

Looking ahead, Dobson says the company is feeling “very positive”. It has formed partnerships with suppliers in the UK and Europe, including a distribution agreement with Canopy Growth Corporation subsidiary, Storz and Bickel, for its range of medical-grade vaporisers.

“It’s going very well and we’re anticipating a lot of interest,” Dobson adds.

“Feedback that I’m getting from different people [in the sector] is that a lot of people are interested in what we’re doing, how we’ve got to where we’ve got to and, in particular, my backstory and how that fed into the whole ethos of what we’re trying to do.

“I feel very strongly that the UK is going to become a world leader in the legalised cannabis space over the next few years and I’m looking forward to playing my own small part in that.”

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