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The eyes of international medical cannabis firms are tight on Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, as the island nation has recently regulated the vertical and anticipates to attract companies with global reach to its shores. Medical cannabis businesses that have decided to set up shop here are excited about Europe opening up for such solutions, granting them access to a huge market. Business Malta talks to industry insiders to see how the market could shape up in the coming years.

In 2018, the Maltese government was one of the first countries in Europe to have passed the legislation for the production of medical cannabis. Since then, Malta Enterprise, the economic development agency of the island nation, says that it has signed over ten letters of intent with companies who would like to set up a manufacturing base in Malta and start exporting medical cannabis products from the island. Malta Enterprise was unable to share the names of the companies it had signed letters of intent with on Business Malta’s enquiry, as the Business Promotion Act and Malta Enterprise Act stipulate that such information cannot be shared with third parties.

Malta Enterprise is an avid promoter of the island, globally, and offers instant support for companies looking this way. “Being in continuous contact with our companies gives us the opportunity to listen and act fast on suggestions put forward by the operators within the sector,” Malta Enterprise tells BM. “From the already established pharmaceutical and life sciences sector and the attractiveness of medical cannabis industry in Malta, it is clear that Malta is seen by many companies as a potential central hub from where to supply Europe and elsewhere with very high-quality pharmaceutical products.”

The island nation’s efforts in the area are visible globally. “Malta has a long history of claiming and supporting nascent industries and cannabis is clearly no exception,” points out David Attwood, Head of Consultancy at Prohibition Partners — a consultancy firm for independent data, intelligence and strategy for the international cannabis market. “Market forecasts are always difficult to predict but Malta’s pro-business framework and liberal legislation definitely helps position the country to benefit from the emerging cannabis market,” Mr Attwood tells BM.

With its 316 sqkm and a population of around 460,000, Malta’s medical cannabis market is rather limited in size, hence companies are looking to set up in Malta to primarily fuel their proposed export operations from the island, into neighbouring markets.

David Attwood, Head of Consultancy at Prohibition Partners

“Liberal cannabis policy and pro-business frameworks are helping position Malta as a market of interest for investors, operators and importers.”

“Liberal cannabis policy and pro-business frameworks are helping position Malta as a market of interest for investors, operators and importers,” Mr Attwood says. “Despite being a domestic small market, Malta is able to offer expertise in pharmaceuticals, cultivation licences and export potential to the rest of Europe, which is a lucrative opportunity for the international cannabis producers,” adds Mr Attwood.

“After the ‘Production of Cannabis for Medicinal Use Act’ was introduced, Malta received an influx of investment from foreign firms hoping to gain a foothold in the European market. Certainly, the big Canadian firms have shown an interest, hoping to gain access to the European medical market,” Mr Attwood says.

Setting up shop

Some companies have already come to light about their intentions related to establishing an operations arm in Malta. MGC Pharmaceuticals, who will be opening their pharmaceutical division in Ħal Far, for instance, told Business Malta that they were approached by Malta Enterprise to come to the island.

“The first thing that directed our attention to the island was an email from Malta Enterprise. They did an excellent job of analysing the market and reaching out to mature, responsible companies in order to build the industry here correctly,” Nativ Segev, Founder and Director of MGC Pharmaceuticals, tells BM. “Once we made contact, we started looking at the island more closely, from several perspectives: geography, operating conditions, financial implications — just to mention a few —, and we found nothing wanting in comparison to other European countries. At the same time, we have experienced a very welcoming local mechanism for assisting us in various ways,” he adds.

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Other companies such as Mera Cannabis and MPX International have been attracted to Malta due to its strategic geographical location and already existing pharmaceutical and nutraceutical manufacturing sector.

“Malta has had an established licencing process around cannabis production,” W. Scott Boyes, chairman president and CEO of MPX International (MPXI) tells Business Malta. “When we made our move into Malta in 2018, Germany and Denmark were the only two other countries with this type of regulatory infrastructure in place. The transparency and clarity that this type of structure has provided us with the confidence to move forward and now we are creating another first-mover advantage for MPXI and will be one of the first companies to be producing, selling and exporting medical cannabis products in and from Malta to the rest of Europe,” Mr Boyes adds.

Emily Ondercin-Bourne, Marketing Manager of Mera Cannabis
Emily Ondercin-Bourne, Marketing Manager of Mera Cannabis.

“The Maltese government is determined to play a pivotal role in the growth and development of the medical cannabis market in Europe.”

“The Maltese government is determined to play a pivotal role in the growth and development of the medical cannabis market in Europe. These products require additional processing and manufacturing, so having these capabilities within the European Union will allow for more efficient manufacturing and distribution,” Emily Ondercin-Bourne, Marketing Manager of Mera Cannabis, tells BM. Mera Cannabis (formerly known as Avana) says it will be focussing on more patient-friendly intake methods, such as capsule, topicals and sublingual products. This will require additional processing and manufacturing, making Malta the best choice for the European distribution of such products, Ms Ondercin-Bourne adds.

Malta Enterprise, furthermore, aspires to make Malta a research centre for medical cannabis, focussing on product development, new therapeutic strains, new product formulations, and clinical research, as Business Malta has learnt.

MGC Pharmaceuticals aims to focus on its clinical products and believes that in the coming years, pharmaceutical solutions will change the paradigms of global treatment. MGC intends to put Malta at the forefront of innovation and research globally, according to Mr Segev. “MGC Pharma’s facility will be one of the first commercial EU-GMP grade production and research facilities in the country within the medical cannabis sector,” the MGC founder adds.

“The facility will expedite the development of expertise for cannabinoid-derived medicines and research in Malta with subsequent products to be delivered into the European Union and global markets, which because of Malta’s location, trade agreements, and low corporate taxation, become easier for MGC to access,” says Mr Segev.

Similarly, MPX International aims to change attitudes and perceptions toward the benefits of cannabidiol (CBD) — an ingredient in the focus of a new area of cannabis research, and becoming trending in the natural products industry — as a wellness product. “By creating first-mover advantages in markets such as the European Union through initiatives like our Malta operations, we are positioning the company and its brands to be some of the first contacts with medical cannabis products that many Europeans may have,” Mr Boyes tells BM. “We believe this strategy will create strong brand awareness and loyalty, helping us capture market share and helping drive the company’s success.”

MPX International has also partnered with Bortex who will oversee their day-to-day operations and provide on-the-ground expertise once MPXI’s manufacturing facility in Valletta is operational. The approximately 110 sqm facility was previously owned by a Maltese pharmaceutical company specialising in GMP packaging and distribution.

W. Scott Boyes, chairman president and CEO of MPX International.

“With a combined population of more than 740 million, Europe represents an extremely large and relatively untapped market.”

“We expect to be producing more than 90 different product SKUs [stock-keeping units] for export to legal medical markets across Europe. With a combined population of more than 740 million, Europe represents an extremely large and relatively untapped market and we are working to become one of the first go-to brands there,” continues Mr Boyes. MPX International will be producing GMP-certified finished medical cannabis products under the Salus Biopharma brand, MPX International’s pharma-grade medical cannabis company.

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Mera Cannabis will use the Maltese facility to supply the broader EU medical market and leverage CannaWay Clinic, its domestic network of medical clinics, to establish access to medical cannabis in countries that do not have the medical expertise or infrastructure. “The European production facility will process imported crude cannabis oil into medical products such as tinctures, capsules, topicals or strips,” Ms Ondercin-Bourne tells Business Malta.

Supplying Europe

“Malta — having been one of the first to regulate — will be able to become a key player in supplying the European Union with very high-grade pharma product produced under GMP conditions through the regulator of the production of medical cannabis products in Malta; the Malta Medicines Authority,” Malta Enterprise says. The Malta Medicines Authority is one of the first eight inspectorates outside the United States to be recognised by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Mera Cannabis expects the European market to evolve following a similar trajectory to the Canadian medical market. “Our experience in the medical market in Canada through CannaWay Clinic has taught us how to work with physicians and what is required to adopt medical cannabis treatment plans as part of a larger approach to healthcare. We plan to replicate this approach in countries where governments are supportive of medical cannabis but need help providing access to patients in a responsible and physician-driven way,” says Ms Ondercin-Bourne.

Furthermore, MPX International also suspects that the European market will continue to open up much like that in the United States or Canada. “We will continue to see countries explore, vote on and adopt both medical and recreational legislation in some form. Already, CBD is legal in 27 European countries and that number will likely rise. With the normalisation of cannabis and the social justice and economic benefits that are associated with its legalisation, that is how we see things continuing to evolve,” Mr Boyes tells BM. “And we also believe that MPXI is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this fragmented market; we have significant experience building a successful enterprise over multiple jurisdictions with our recently divested US business and we are going to do it again in Europe,” he adds.

Mera Cannabis also believes that as research continues to grow and as more medical professionals approve of medical cannabis, insurance companies will broaden their coverage to facilitate the use of such solutions.

Nevertheless, Prohibition Partners tells Business Malta that Europe will most likely not adopt from the North American dispensary model, as citizens and medical professionals expect a highly-standardised and regulated pharmaceutical-style product, supplied by specialist distributors.

“The European market will diversify and specialise over the next decade but Malta could well become an important hub for import and processing if it manages to establish a clear process and plan for exports to the rest of the European Union,” adds Mr Attwood.

Tight competition on horizon

Although Malta is an early adopter in terms of medical cannabis, other countries are also courting the vertical and therefore, competition might be high. “Germany, Denmark, Greece, Portugal and Italy have all discussed the domestic cultivation with a view to supplying the European market, while Luxembourg has promised to introduce a regulated adult-use market before 2023, hence they could all be competitors to Malta,” Mr Attwood tells Business Malta.

Nativ Segev, Founder and Director of MGC Pharmaceuticals.

“Keep your eyes on Germany as a huge market, Portugal and Spain are beginning to get their act together […] but they will have a lot of work to catch up with countries like Malta .”

“Keep your eyes on Germany as a huge market, Portugal and Spain are beginning to get their act together, so in the not too far-off future all the major EU countries will have a stake in growing this industry; but they will have a lot of work to catch up with countries like Malta who have been ahead of the curve,” Mr Segev of MGC tells Business Malta.

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Malta Enterprise in Pietà is an avid promoter of the island, globally, and offers instant support for companies looking this way. (source: Malta Enterprise)

To date, Malta Enterprise has approved 20 projects within the medical cannabis sector. Once operational, it is estimated that these projects will create over 700 new full-time jobs and supplement Malta’s exports by over €900m by 2022, Malta Enterprise tells Business Malta.

MPX International will take onboard staff who previously worked with Alphafarma and are certified in various quality control assurance standards required for the facility to acquire its final GMP manufacturing authorisations. The company expects to employ an additional 30 full-time staff members.

Mera Cannabis expects to hire approximately 20 employees and aim to grow their corporate team and their team at CannaWay Clinic.

MGC Pharmaceuticals forecasts hiring about 30 employees in its initial period and plans to grow and expand as its global distribution network grows.

Eyeing Africa?

Due to Malta’s geographical vicinity not only to Europe but also Africa, the highly-logical question of whether medical cannabis firms would eye supplying the mother continent with their products also arises.

MPX International intends to supply the African market as long as medical cannabis is prescribed correctly and is regulated under a reasonable programme. “Our mission at MPXI is helping patients in need have access to safe and effective cannabis medicine,” says Mr Boyes. “We will supply any country that has a responsible and legal programme in place, and doctors who are properly educated on prescribing the products. We have a JV in South Africa which is currently awaiting a licence from SAHPRA [South African Health Products Regulatory Authority] to produce medicinal cannabis, so we already have a presence on the continent.”

Furthermore, MGC looks to expand wherever medical cannabis is required. “We look at the global market and intend to have our products everywhere they are needed,” says Mr Segev. “MGC has a global research and development agenda that spans multiple continents and is always seeking interesting relationships and geographies to develop. As noted earlier, this is a global opportunity which Malta has been wise to be prescient about, but the rest of the globe is now waking up and the interest is everywhere,” Mr Segev says.

Nevertheless, Ms Ondercin-Bourne of Mera applies more caution when making a prognosis about the African market. “At this point in time, present healthcare systems are extremely limited and often rely on charities or other donors to local healthcare industries. As we continue to refine our approach to expansion, particularly with our clinic network, we will always have countries who wish to obtain better access to medical cannabis on our radar,” she says.

Alexandra Curley, Head of Insights at Prohibition Partners, earlier told Business Malta that Malta is most likely to supply Europe, and not Africa. “Despite its geographical proximity to Africa, I think it is unlikely that Africa will become an export market for Malta. Cannabis, both recreationally and medically, is still illegal in the vast majority of Africa and the three nations with legal medical frameworks (Lesotho, Zimbabwe and South Africa) have plans to develop domestic markets,” Ms Curley said.