THE VALUE OF BEING A FIRST MOVER IN CANNABIS
Right now, the cannabis industry is so new that being a part of it makes you a first mover by default. The paradox of being a first mover is that by definition you pave the way.
Your costs are going to be higher and your resources more thinly spread. They make, and pay for, the mistakes that others witness and navigate around. In 2001, Canada became the first country in the world to legalise medical cannabis. Seventeen years later, they became the second country in the world to legalise recreational cannabis. While much of the international cannabis community heralded the move, by modern standards, seventeen years is an eternity.
When you put these events in context you start to better understand the forces at play. Blair Gibbs, Policy Lead at the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis explains:
“Canada wasn’t a first mover on medical access by choice! Canadian politicians were forced into legalisation by the courts, and then took some time to work out how they wanted patients to get access, and how to regulate the new industry. There is now a political consensus around medicinal cannabis, but recreational legalisation was not seen as an inevitability when medical was made legal. Unlike medical, recreational legalisation only came about because of a political pledge by the Liberals and their 2015 election victory. So it really took Canada more than a decade to optimise their medical model, and now they may take another decade perfecting their chosen model for consumer access.”
So how are things if you are a patient in a country who is a reluctant first mover? When recreational was introduced in Canada, patients worried that the quality and availability of their medicine could be damaged as companies shift their attention to serving the lower cost and higher volume adult use market.
Blair goes on to explain, “One challenge is how to ensure that the regulated recreational market doesn’t undermine public health or patient access. Currently, the Trudeau Government is facing a lot of grassroots opposition to the taxation of medicinal cannabis, and so mistakes continue to be made, but every system has to evolve.”
The Netherlands closely followed Canada by legalising medical cannabis in 2003. The Dutch came up with novel ways to deal with rising recreational drug use. One of these was separating how they dealt with ‘soft drugs’ (including cannabis) from ‘hard drugs’ (such as heroin). As a result, they had a functional (albeit far from perfect) decriminalised cannabis market decades ahead of anyone else. Nearly 50 years later, how’s their first mover advantage working out?
According to Derrick Bergman, a Dutch journalist covering cannabis culture and Chairman of VOC Nederland:
“Throughout the 80s, when there was high unemployment, it was easy for the media to pop into a local coffeeshop and catch an out-of-luck jobless guy spending his days getting high in the establishment. Cannabis never recovered in the eyes of the predominantly clean-cut, health-conscious population - it didn’t become an alternative wellness movement like it has in California or Canada.”
Interestingly enough, “The Dutch health minister who legalised medical cannabis, Els Borst, was a GP and firmly behind it. She made a good start, but later health ministers never had much interest or understanding of the subject.”
Clearly there are drawbacks to being a first-mover, but it gives other countries an opportunity to find a new model - built off the learnings of innovative cannabis programmes. As Blair points out “As a first mover, Canada’s mistakes have been hugely beneficial for the other countries that are following them. Long-term, there’s no doubt that the case study for the impact - positive and negative - of full legalisation will be Canada.”
No matter how begrudgingly countries adopt legal cannabis frameworks, being an early adopter offers some advantages. It’s no coincidence that several Canadian companies and one Dutch company are leading the industry.
That Dutch company is Bedrocan. Since 2003, Bedrocan has been producing standardised cannabis of pharmaceutical quality for the Dutch government. This makes it the oldest legal cannabis company in the world. It now has global offices and was the first cannabis producer to be GMP-certified. Bedrocan has become synonymous with medicinal cannabis.
“When it comes to medicinal cannabis,” says Bedrocan founder and CEO Tjalling Erkelens, “The world is changing. And it’s changing fast. Now that the EU, as well as multiple Asian, African and South American countries are exploring the possibilities of legal and well organised patient access to medicinal cannabis, it’s becoming increasingly important to discuss in depth how global regulations regarding medicinal cannabis can be harmonised.” Bedrocan is riding the crest of this wave of legal medical cannabis.
Tjalling Erkelens will be speaking at this year’s Cannabis Europa London to give a more in depth glimpse into Bedrocan’s experience as the world’s first and leading medical cannabis producer.
Canadian and Dutch companies may be at the head of the pack for the moment, but other nations are watching closely. Learning from their predecessors, they are armed to foster new systems that could very well produce the cannabis industry’s next rising star.
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