Cannabis: A Lucrative and Healthy Idustry, but Requires a Perspective Shift
While many in the industry continue to extol the commercial opportunities of the cannabis industry in order to try and turn the dial on government and institutional support, FoxNRTH’s Principal Chris Murray believes in a different approach.
By applying a ‘systems approach’, and seeing the industry through the lens of countries’ unique and complex health systems, he believes there are ‘huge opportunities’ for cannabis businesses.
We caught up with Chris to explore his company’s ethos, his views on where the global cannabis industry currently stands, and what companies can do to kick-start the momentum across the sector.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your expansive career in the cannabis industry so far
I am traditionally trained in terms of school and in background actually in health systems and health care. I think that that was an interesting bridge for me entering the cannabis industry a little over 10 years ago now.
I was part of the founding team of Tweed Marijuana in Smiths Falls, Ontario, which we then grew over the subsequent seven and a half years I was there into Canopy Growth, which, at one point, had over 5500 employees globally.
My background being in health systems and health policy I think has been a huge asset for the work that I’ve done in cannabis, and ultimately the work that we do at FoxNRTH simply because one of the things that’s often not considered, especially within the cannabis industry, unfortunately, is that for the most part outside the United States, cannabis is almost entirely regulated by health systems.
And so if you have a really strong understanding of how those systems work, it actually is quite a valuable asset in navigating where rules may shift, where regulations may be laid out. Oftentimes those regulations are quite a bit different than what you would see in a traditional financial sector or even in manufacturing because it’s such a human factor involved in regulation of healthcare.
Can you give us a little background on the story behind FoxNRTH?
FoxNRTH is kind of a small consulting shop which came out of a group of folks that worked within Canopy Growth, and a number of us have actually worked in different markets all around the world.
What we recognised was that many of the smaller operators had a tonne of opportunity to enter new markets.
The companies that certainly didn’t have really heavy balance sheets that they had to manage, had a lot more of an ability to be nimble and enter new markets. But the challenge there is that it’s also hard to bring in the resources with the experience to actually add to those markets and navigate slightly different regulations, different rule sets and ultimately trying to establish market share and presence.
So what we decided to do was start approaching companies and take some of the solicitations that we had from folks within our network and FoxNRTH was born.
What are the core values around which FoxNRTH operates?
We focus on three main verticals, one big one being obviously, awareness, presence, understanding the broader market. So we work with a number of companies in a number of regions around the world.
We provide support to leadership in companies to give them that outside perspective, because oftentimes, it’s challenging to really see the forest for the trees, especially when there’s so much pressure.
We also focus globally on regulatory advice, whether it’s specifically making recommendations for companies on how they approach delivering new products, how they approach trying to change rule sets within regulations, and sometimes even political strategy.
Our function here is to develop a strategy to work with ultimately lobbyists, folks that have access to politicians and regulators. And so we have a broader network of groups that we work with around the world to ensure that we have that access and deliver those strategies for clients.
The final pillar is market building. I was responsible for the first commercial import of cannabis into the United States with the DEA. I’ve worked with and our organisations have worked with more than one DEA permit holder in the United States, but I also moved over to Australia to open the Canopy Growth offices in Melbourne.
So we’ve had quite a bit of experience in a number of markets. We work with operators that are based in South Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe, you name it.
So we try to focus on a broad swath of different areas that we know can be beneficial to clients. But really, our core focus is on that regulatory and new market development piece.
In your view, what are the most exciting opportunities on the horizon for the industry?
There’s a number of pieces that I think really do need to be considered. I think one is understanding the global market of cannabis from both a cost and sustainability perspective, is really going to lead to a drive towards commoditization.
So really looking at those regions where you can produce cannabis at a very low cost, at very low risk in terms of weather patterns that can wipe out outdoor crops or soft shell greenhouses.
And so that’s places in the equatorial regions like South Africa, Colombia and potentially Southeast Asia as well.
If you look at some of the more successful companies in North America and Europe, even in Australia, these are companies that are not growing the plant directly themselves, they’re recognising that this is actually an emerging global supply chain.
They’re identifying really strong sources for those products and they’re probably in a lot of cases doing their own post manufacturing and processing.
When you look at kind of traditional commoditization, you buy your coffee beans from these regions that are equatorial, but they’re roasted and processed and packaged and turned into new products within regions they’re sold. I’m sure that you can come up with a way to create some micro climates that allow you to do it. But the truth is, it doesn’t make sense economically or, or from an environmental perspective.
Over the next five years, I think that the European market is going to see a slow, steady climb towards opening up around cannabis. I think Germany disappointed a lot of folks with its pilot and how it is kind of approaching this in a very slow manner.
Germany was never going to change the way that the United States does, that’s and that’s one of the big things that I think a lot of folks don’t really understand.
In the United States, cannabis isn’t regulated outside of the federal system which is very unique and specific. It isn’t regulated as a health product, it’s not regulated through healthcare systems.
There aren’t all of the additional considerations and factors because remember, the health systems of these countries, their responsibilities really are to ensure the health and safety of the population and with a product that has potential risks.
So I think that kind of commoditization emergence of those products is going to be a big one, especially as you see some of these companies that are in these equatorial regions or companies that are working with European partners, actually getting EU GMP certifications and are able to import into that market and not be restricted.
What about zooming outside of Europe?
The other kind of trend I think is important to think about is really a level setting on the scale of the cannabis industry globally.
I think that cannabis is a very healthy business. I think that it is a space that you can actually enter and do very well in terms of growing your operations and growing a business. But I do also think that there is a kind of a false ceiling so to speak, in terms of where the scale of the economics of cannabis actually really should be projected.
And I think that comes back to the early projections from the Canadian market. The Canadian market was projecting numbers in the $20 billion range for the sale of cannabis.
When you think about it, that didn’t factor in the premium that was paid for illicit access. It didn’t factor in the costs of regulation. It didn’t factor in the reduction in revenue from taxation. It didn’t factor in any number of pieces that really limited the growth of that industry.
And so what it turned out to be is about 1/5 of that. It turned out to be about a $4-$5 billion industry as it stands right now. And I think that we’re still seeing new markets extrapolate on those original Canadian numbers, as opposed to looking at those numbers and saying let’s reevaluate.
Then the next piece on top of that, too, as you’re looking at other markets, is understand that Canadians consume more cannabis per capita than any other country in the world. So the adoption rate is going to be much different from country to country.
We have a lot of folks that have invested in mountains and mountains of capital into growing large scale businesses, large scale production sites, and as a result of that, they’re carrying enormous amounts of debt.
At FoxNRTH, we don’t focus on these debt-laden companies, and by debt-laden I mean tens of millions of dollars being paid out on a monthly basis to service debt.
I think the smaller organically growing businesses that we see from market to market have huge opportunities in scaling.
It really is just a matter of the ruleset catching up, and it seems to me, regardless of who I talk to that the bellwether for that is around American prohibition.
And so we see some changes in the way that finances work in the American market. There’s a lot of view from investors and from the capital side of things that more money will come into the sector and really boost it.
So, fingers crossed that we see some changes in the American market because that’s where a lot of investment is focused. But at the same time, I do still think that there are tons of opportunities for these businesses to grow in a healthy way within the market.
At this year’s Cannabis Europa, there was talk of stagnation across the European medical cannabis industry, and frustration at the lack of progress. In your view, what does the industry need to do to get momentum building again?
I think that there are a couple factors. One example that comes from the ‘systems perspective we work from’, is looking at the UK and looking at the the conversations that a lot of operators are having about the potential of the market.
There are loud voices saying, ‘hey, government support this industry, the potential is x number of dollars, look at what we can do as a UK cannabis industry’. Well, if you pause for a second and think about this through the lens of the NHS, and think about cannabis as a medical substance, the NHS pays for that.
So when the NHS hears it’s going to be a $4 billion industry or whatever number you want to apply to it, there’s a different perspective which is that this industry is going to cost us $4 billion of product moving through our publicly funded drugs plans.
And so there’s a little bit of a perspective shift that needs to be factored into how people are thinking about how they engage with regulators, and also on the political level as well.
I look at Europe and I think it is in kind of the same cycle that the Canadian market was in and the US market was in. In the same way these markets and these governments have moved quickly to afford medical access out of compassion and out of a recognition that maybe prohibition is a little bit heavy handed and maybe a little absurd.
They’re also using the same kind of concern for people needing to get access to medical in the opposite direction, as they consider a recreational path.
And I think that when you look at the one major commercialised federal legal system, which is the Canadian market, a lot of folks don’t realise that this wasn’t an overnight exercise.
This is almost a 20 year journey from the first court decision to allow medical access through, to a thriving medical home-grow production system and subsequently a commercial system that then got turned into a commercial recreational system.
If we look at the opportunity in some of these markets, and we look at what could be viable for them, I think the conversation around medical access needs to remain super important because that’s what’s resonating with regulators.
But the momentum around recreational or broad based access is something that I think really needs to come from the populace, from the electorate, from people that want to see this change happen.
I think one of the things that’s running up against the momentum of recreational legalisation is that adoption isn’t as high in European markets as it is in North America in terms of consumption population. That’s something that needs to be considered more broadly.
I look at European cannabis, and I think there’s a lot of excitement because Germany said we’re going to consider legalisation.
People thought that Germany is one of the main pillars of the whole European bloc, if that changes then the European Union will have to change their rule set and then ultimately, we’ll have a bit of a domino across Europe.
And I think that what’s happened is a much more cautious approach to legalisation, and a study of that is really completely in line with how a health systems approach would be taken to cannabis legalisation.
Nothing that we’re seeing right now says to me that we’re not progressing towards legalisation in these markets. I just think that the frustration and the challenge here is that the timelines are longer than one would think.
In the end, unfortunately for European operators and companies outside of North America, the companies in North America had a huge opportunity to do a tonne of research, to really start to develop huge datasets that could explain to regulators and governments this is safe.
If we had more effort from North American operators to collect that information, report it out and make a much bigger case for it, I think that regulators outside of North America would be more informed and could make decisions more quickly. But unfortunately, that kind of study hasn’t necessarily happened.
I think that if I’m going to point on one thing overall that I think is limiting the progress of cannabis globally, it’s that everybody’s really trying to do it in an insular, domestic protectionist way.
That’s ultimately I think, born out of the way that Canada did it. If everybody started to have more of a broad conversation about opening up, import and export, but also information and data, we could see more of a sea change as far as cannabis legalisation is concerned globally.