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Not so quietly, Europe has been making strides in the cannabis industry. Germany could become the next European country to legalize adult-use cannabis, and Spain and Switzerland are not far behind.
In Portugal, Michael Sassano, CEO of Somai, a pharmaceutical and biotech company, says the data is clear: Europe is about to take the lead on cannabis testing and clinical trials, while the U.S. waits for federal legalization.
Sassano is an international authority in developing large-scale cannabis infrastructures and the most advanced pharmaceutical cannabinoid products.
This is his unique perspective on cannabinoid medicine development in the U.S., Europe, and worldwide.
You live in Lisbon, Portugal, but you’ve also worked on numerous cannabis projects in the U.S.
Yes, and before that, I was a banker in New York, and then I was a real estate developer. When the 2008 real estate market collapsed, higher growth areas like cannabis became more interesting, and I ended up going all into it. My vision has expanded greatly since that initial time, but that is how it ended up happening.
You left cultivation in the United States and moved to Europe to start a pharmaceutical company. Why?
I realized my skills in the U.S. were needed in Europe and began to look at opportunities. I went to Portugal in 2019 to meet with the powers-that-be to talk about different business strategies. They were open to pure manufacturing (not vertical) and making medical products. They also agreed to allow me to source biomass from anywhere in the world with a legal cannabis program like South Africa, Macedonia, Europe, Colombia, Uruguay, and now Thailand. So there’s a lot of high-quality biomass at a good price.
Is there a country you think is the most perfect for cultivation? Will you be sourcing yours from Portugal or looking to other places?
We will source biomass from all over. But look at the countries producing the best cannabis before it was legal, like Mexico, Colombia, Africa, and Thailand. All have the perfect climate, labor cost, and growth advantages. But when you’re talking about genetics, no one can tell me California genetics aren’t superior to the world. They have already taken those strains and made them into hybrids and sliced and diced them to perfection.
The drug development process in the U.S. is very rigorous through the FDA. Is it the same in Europe?
You definitely could say that the FDA-style approval for medicines is very similar in scope to the EU GMP, pharmaceutical registrations of medicines. But the U.S. is in a closed pharma bubble. The rest of the world works on a global scale, whereas the U.S. has its own pricing and rules and doesn’t recognize other people’s registrations.
Most global countries believe in herbal medicines and registered medicines with safe elements. So, instead of doing clinical trials as required in the U.S., the E.U. accepts the use of common elements that are safe for human consumption.
Do you have your sites more set on the European or U.S. marketplace?
The U.S. is the heavyweight champion of cannabis. It will continue to do so because it’s a wealthy country and has an incredible infrastructure of manufacturing, retail, labs, distribution channels, and everything you can imagine- except that it operates in a bubble.
Whereas we look at Europe as a global scale product, We’re not making a product that will be sold in one state, to a dispensary. We’re making products that will be sold to almost every country except for the United States. We believe we have our pathway into the U.S., but the markets outside of the United States are much larger.
India is starting to develop cannabis oil therapies, Brazil just got its first shipment of extract products, and Germany is on its way to going recreational, but it’s not going to be regulated on a recreational level like in the United States. It will be driven by the Health Minister, who will treat it like a narcotic.
The E.U. is the Gold Standard for global pharmaceutical production minus the United States. In Europe, we have distribution through the big pharma networks, which is the global distribution chain, and as legalization spreads, so do the distribution channels.
Are there other countries outside of Europe that you think we should be paying more attention to as far as cannabinoid research and pharmaceutical development?
Europe is about to take off with more access in Germany, Spain announced a full-blown cannabis medical program by the end of the year, and Switzerland just made it easier for doctors to prescribe medicine without going to the federal level.
Thailand has just come online and will be one of the lowest-cost producers in the world. This is a market that’s developing. India’s something to watch. I think we’re going to hear big things out of there.
South Africa and South America are becoming leading exporters. You have countries like Uruguay looking to be the most extensive distribution hub for South America, and Colombia has the most successful public companies. Although Brazil hasn’t figured out manufacturing, they’re big enough to import and distribute what they want to their large population.
And, of course, New Zealand is coming along now that Australia has a much better foothold. They’ve been doing great things over there.
The most unexpected country on my radar is Japan. We’ve been talking with a few people about the possibility of API and now we’re exploring it full force. I’m not saying that they’re doing anything like legalizing cannabis, I’m talking more on the pharmaceutical side.
Do you see Europe leading in cannabinoid medicine? Do you feel the regulations in Europe make it easier to move quicker?
The data is very clear that Europe is gaining ground on the testings. The U.S. has probably the heaviest weighting somewhere around 60%. But Europe is slowly gaining with 35 plus percent, and the number is only going up.
The actual surge in Europe’s progress is the existence of a pharmaceutical development path from research to the patient. Without national legalization, we can’t grow the same in the United States.
If the U.S. wants to do a study, they have to call Canada for biomass, although the DEA recently increased the number of licenses for cannabis research.