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Plans for ‘world’s biggest’ cannabis farm in Lesotho put industry ethics in spotlight

The balance sheet looks good – but the ethics of exporting labour to the impoverished African nation are complex

Sean Seddon

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Lesotho could soon be home to the world's largest medical cannabis farm

When Andreas Met started telling people he was leaving the west coast of United States to try and develop the world’s biggest medical cannabis farm in Africa, he got one of two responses: ‘wow, that’s really cool, man’ or ‘oh, that’s really dangerous’.

“I’m an American and Americans are pretty ignorant, right, so let’s just start there,” he says, “most people don’t even know there’s a place called Lesotho”.

Well, there is a place called Lesotho, or the Kingdom of Lesotho to be more precise.

If you have heard of it, there’s still a good chance you’re pronouncing it wrong – it’s pronounced ‘luh-soo-too’.

It is the world’s largest enclaved country, surrounded on all sides by South Africa. It gained its independence from the UK in 1966 and is home to around two million people.

Almost half of those two million people live in poverty. Close to a quarter of all adults test positive for HIV and the average life expectancy is somewhere in the mid-fifties.

Andreas Met, head of international operations at Halo Collective

It has a GDP of $2.3bn (one seventieth of the state of Oregon, where Halo was founded), ranks 83rd out of 179 countries for corruption, hovers near the bottom of the table in the United Nation’s human development index – and in 2017 it also just so happened to become the first African country to legalise the cultivation of medical cannabis.

In July, Met’s company Halo Collective – which has been growing cannabis in the US since 2015 – acquired Lesothian firm Bophelo Biosciences and Wellness in a $5.6m dollar move.

Their money got them a foothold in another continent and an impressive executive addition in the form of its founder, leading African businesswoman Louisa Mojela, who was born in Johannesburg to Lesothian parents and has developed a reputation as one of the continents most influential female entrepreneurs.

It got them something else too: A pre-approved nine year licence to cultivate and export an eventual 200 hectares of medical cannabis.

Not only is that the largest farm ever approved in Lesotho, it could be the largest in the world.

It’s hard to get exact numbers on the size of farms globally, especially those which are only part developed and have the potential to expand, but to put 200 hectares into context, in 2018 the BBC reported from a cannabis farm in British Columbia, Canada, which at the time was described as the ‘largest of its kind in the world’. That was a little over four hectares.

Another under development by Asterion Cannabis near the Australian city of Toowoomba has also been described as the largest of its kind in the world. That one will be 75 hectares.

If you’re struggling to visualise what 200 hectares looks like, picture London’s Hyde Park. That’s 140 hectares.

“What’s really appealing to me about this amazing opportunity is to create the world’s largest cannabis grow ever seen and hopefully for a long time the largest grow [in the world]” Met tells me giddily over video call from South Africa.

“Our ultimate goal in my head, and this is four or five years down the road, is 200 hectares of nice cannabis blowing in the wind, as far as the eye can see, cannabis growing everywhere. That’s what turns me on.”

There’s still a long way to go. They’re a quarter of the way to the initial part of the licence, a five hectare farm which will serve as a nursery for the eventual mega-operation.

Lesotho became the first African nation to legalise to cultivation of medical cannabis in 2017

But the signs are good. Of the dozen or so strains they grew at their site most recently, more than half had THC levels above 20%, the high potency required for the production of medical cannabis treatments.

With a government enthusiastically backing the cannabis industry and more than 200 days of sunshine a year, Lesotho looks like a good investment.

Consultancy firm Prohibition Partners forecast the global market for cannabis will be worth a staggering $103.9bn by 2024, fuelled primarily by medical usage.

It’s hard to put a number on the future value of a crop, especially at an uncertain time for the world economy and with most developed countries still a long way from fully embracing medical cannabis – but you don’t need to be Warren Buffet to see that the potential returns from 200 hectares worth of high grade plant could be eye-watering.

But it’s that hypothetical payday that might give you pause to consider the ethics of exporting production to a country where, as Andreas puts it, ‘the labour costs are a fraction of what they are in the US’.

In an industry with its roots in the idealistic 1960s and keen to shout about its progressive values, an operation benefitting from cheap labour and with the potential to become extremely lucrative is bound to raise a few eyebrows.

Andreas has heard all the criticisms before – not least from his ‘daughter’s friends at university’ – and jumps at the chance to refute them.

He said: “My comment back is we’re [in Lesotho] to grow in a great environment. The unemployment rate in this village, I’ll make a guess, is 40-50%…the best people in Lesotho who get degrees as teachers end up leaving to go to South Africa to work as nannies.

Louisa Mojela, founder of Bophelo Bioscience and Wellness

“There’s an entire movement of people from Lesotho to where the jobs are and what I say is that we are creating an environment and a place where people can have generations of employment, be much better off than they were and learn a skillset that can compete with anyone else on the planet and I can only see that as a good thing.

“It’s a win-win in my opinion. I think about this kind of stuff all the time and I know that what I’m saying is factual and true and real.”

He’s enthusiastic about his workforce, which numbers up to 100 and is drawn from ‘subsistence farmers and shepherds’.

“They are hungry to learn and they are very hard workers, they’re very committed”, he tells me, adding “they’re never late, they always stay on time, some come in after work to work”.

Met and Mojela tell me how they are 90% of the way to achieving certification under international agricultural standards and how they will invest in the region (when the takeover was announced, they pledged 10% of pre-tax profits to community causes). Met also runs outreach programmes aiming reduce gender-based violence.

The pair say they are inundated with job applications from local policemen, border guards and bank workers who have heard about the good wages and conditions at the site. Andreas calls it a ‘very safe, very positive work environment’, a model of ‘how you would like to run a very nice company anywhere else in the world’.

But when I ask them how much they pay their staff, they stonewall.

Mojela said: “I don’t think that is necessary, I wouldn’t want to disclose that, we also have competitors in Lesotho, this is propietary information we should not necessarily disclose. All I can tell you is that we pay our employees very well.”

The most they’ll tell me is that they pay ‘far above’ government regulated minimum wage.

One online source puts a minimum monthly salary for an employee with less than a year of service at 1,620 Loti – or around $120 US dollars a month. In Jackson County where Halo began its growing operations, the minimum wage is $12 an hour.

The maths is pretty straightforward: Ten hours of labour in Oregon costs the same as a month in Lesotho (not accounting for the amount above the basic rate Bophelo is paying).

Mojela says that no one is ‘being taken advantage of’, adding ‘the more foreign investment that comes into Lesotho the better it will be for the economy’.

Met tells me how he’s committed to raising the life standards of his employees and their communities but is also open about the hard-headed rationale about growing overseas.

“My perspective is that the US is very bad place to do cannabis business because of poor tax treatment”, he says.

The growing operation in Lesotho employs dozens of locals in a country where poverty is rife

“You have very unfavourable tax conditions, you have a federal government that is not exactly friendly to cannabis, some people would describe as hostile.”

You can tell he’s heard these misgivings before. Mojela brushes them off, less concerned with the optics and thinking only of the potential economic growth the industry could bring. But it seems more personal for Met, like he’s had the conversation with himself many times before.

Even so, he’s bullish: “I hear very few negative comments about our activities and what we’re trying to do here, and the people I do have comments from are people who are a little bit ignorant or misguided – ‘you’re exporting the labour force, you’re destroying the village by bringing capitalism to them’. That’s just bogus, right?

“Everyone else is extremely positive. Many people want to come and visit and experience it and I encourage people to do that.”

If the Halo-Bophelo partnership get the next few years right, it has the potential to be transformative for both companies and a boon for Lesotho. Met goes as far to say as they could wind up being the largest employer in the small country.

“The reason I’m in Lesotho is to teach people everything we know about how to do business and how to succeed,” he says, grinning and rocking on his seat.

“One day we’ll be cast away and discarded – and that will be a great day.”

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Jane West: Mum who was fired for using cannabis built her own empire

The entrepreneur and founder of Women Grow is determined to change the narrative around cannabis

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Jane West was fired from her job in 2014 after hosting cannabis-friendly events

Made famous by her high-end cannabis-friendly events, Jane West was fired from her corporate job for consuming on TV. Now at the helm of her own cannabis empire, she is determined to change the industry narrative.

Jane West’s ideal Friday night is putting on a cocktail dress, going to a fancy restaurant or event and “getting high”.

“I’m an avid cannabis consumer,” she tells me from her home in Colorado, where cannabis has been legal for recreational use since 2012.

“I see it as part of a wellness routine.

“If I’m going to get a babysitter and go out on a Friday night and spend $100 at an event, I want to get dressed up and be fancy and also be high.”

In 2014, alongside her corporate job, West launched her own cannabis-friendly events, where adults could get together to consume socially.

The events took place in private art galleries, with live music and even hosted a fundraiser for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra held at the famed Red Rocks amphitheatre with 5,000 guests.

They also attracted international media coverage. A reporter from the UK Telegraph attended the first one, with the Daily Mail later describing them as ‘sophisticated cannabis soirees’ with ‘foodies for munchies’. 

At her second event, a clip of West unashamedly telling the camera; ‘I’m a mum and I use marijuana, and that’s okay’ was so newsworthy it made the five o’clock evening news. 

West was fired from her job when her bosses saw the clip.

“I’ve never been fired from everything in my life and I have had a job since I turned 15, so to have a career where you have a salary end like that was dramatic,” she recalls.

“I definitely did not intend that to happen, at the time was that people thought I was trying to get fired.

“The fact that the woman hosting the weed events got fired from her job became a whole new story.”

West founded networking group Women Grow to promote diversity in the industry

Even though cannabis is legal and easily accessible for many in Colorado, residents are not permitted to consume it publicly.

As West puts it: “Even though everyone has access to it, there’s very few places where you can go to consume it.”

Eventually one of West’s events was raided by police and she received criminal charges.

“They had me on probation and made it clear that if I did anything else they would put me straight in jail, so I had to figure out what I was going to do,” she says.

“My event company wasn’t going to work until we passed social legalisation.”

Even now, six years on there is little sign of this, with several bills which would permit social consumption businesses failing to get through in recent years. 

West is hopeful though, that the need to restart the economy and hospitality sectors following the coronavirus pandemic may spur things on.

“Social use is going to be the last domino,” she says. 

“I hope that this might come from the pandemic, in the next year or two as these, as we start to get back to normalcy and we have all these empty storefronts and restaurants and hotels.”

West adds: “One of the biggest issues, is that we don’t see people consuming cannabis like you see people drinking alcohol. 

“A significant element of cannabis culture is those scenes of a dude sitting on a couch with a bong at his crotch, but that doesn’t reflect my cannabis experience. I want images of a woman, dressed up with a joint in a high-end setting, then people will start to think differently.

“With social use, that’s when people will actually be able to see people using cannabis and realise that it’s for everyone.”

Edible Events was over – at least for the time being – but West’s cannabis career was just starting to take seed.

“Women from all over the world were reaching out to me and asking how to get into the cannabis industry,” she says.

“I was like, ‘I don’t have a job anymore, I don’t grow weed and the events that I planned are completely illegal, I am not the person you should be asking’ – but no one else was paying attention to women.

“All of the legalisation groups and companies launching were led by men – mainly generationally wealthy white men, who had the money to get started.”

Under her new alias – Jane West – she founded the networking organisation Women Grow, to connect women with others in the industry and with the premise to create more female-owned cannabis companies.

“I realised that women need to change the way they think about cannabis, or uneducated stereotypes about it would to prevent them from entering the industry at exactly the time they should,” she says.

Over a quarter million people have attended Women Grow’s networking events and national conferences in Colorado since its inception, with members launching their own branches in 40 cities across the US.

By 2016, West was ready to dabble in cannabis entrepreneurialism herself, and having recruited the next generation of Women Grow leaders, she divested the vast majority of her interest in the company and it is now majority black female-owned, she tells me.

After testing the water with a limited edition range of glassware and smoking paraphernalia, West went on to raise $1.3 million in seed funding from 22 accredited investors, 80 percent of which is held by women and people of colour. 

West recently completed another successful seed funding round

She spent the money developing her signature travel collection – a range of sleek, stylish and discreet vaporisers and pipes and now partners with minority and family-owned businesses across the US to supply Jane West-branded CBD products and whole-plant cannabis, which comes in two simple formulations; day and night. 

“Cannabis is confusing and intimidating, which is unfortunate because it is a safer alternative to prescription medications and alcohol, which are the primary substances that people are consuming. We want to take that confusion away.” West explains.

“Our customers know that I vet and find great growers, so it makes them more confident and it simplifies the buying process.”

In 2020, the number of cannabis retailers carrying the Jane West brand tripled from the previous year and it has now secured licensed cannabis partners in 13 US states, and Canada.

West doubled her revenues last year and recently closed another round of seed funding, with thousands of investors from 42 countries.

But despite its success on paper, she insists the company is still in “start-up mode” – and that she really “didn’t know what she was doing”.

“I did my best to leverage the fact that my name was out there, but I definitely wasn’t trying to front anything,” she says.

“I was like ‘I think we should have this networking group, and I don’t know what I’m doing but I think we should make bongs.’

“The more candid you are about what you don’t know, the more transparent conversations end up being and the further you get. I think that’s important in cannabis now more than ever, we need more transparency.”

This might not have been the plan, but having built her own cannabis empire – and a space which empowers women to do the same – I can’t imagine West would change anything now?

“I don’t have any regrets… I helped women make the critical connections they needed to manage an extremely hostile unwelcoming business environment, but I wish I could point to more female-owned businesses and say that’s because of Women Grow,” she admits.

“In Illinois only 21 licenses to grow have been issued, in Colorado there’s 2,500. In most of the states in the US, women and minorities were not granted licences – why that occurred is up for question.”

West adds: “I wish I’d spoken up earlier about the inequality.

“The most important reason to keep talking about being a woman or a minority is to keep pointing out that you’re the only person in the room. This [industry] just started, it shouldn’t be so inequitable already.

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How the Netherlands is trying to reform its world famous cannabis industry

It has a world famous reputation among cannabis users – but a decades old problem

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Amsterdam in the Netherlands is synonymous with its established but flawed cannabis industry

A four-year experiment to try and solve the Netherland’s ‘backdoor’ cannabis criminality problem could see patients turning to coffee shops for easier access.

The cultivation and sale of cannabis for recreational purposes are strictly prohibited in the Netherlands – unless you are visiting one of the country’s famous coffee shops.

These establishments are allowed to sell small amounts of cannabis but operate under strict rules, including a limited stock of 500 grams.

On a municipal level, authorities can decide how many coffeeshops it will allow if any, and as the country deals with a growing number of “drug tourists”, individual municipalities can choose to ban foreign visitors from entering the region’s coffee shops.

Although the sale of the drug is tolerated, coffee shops face a contradiction in Dutch law known as the ‘backdoor policy’. Shops can sell the drug to their customers, but their suppliers are forbidden from cultivating and selling cannabis to them. In other words, sales through the front door are allowed, while sales through the backdoor are not.

“As a result of the policy of tolerance, the sale of cannabis to users is permitted, but the cultivation, sale and purchase of that cannabis is prohibited, which easily leads to crime. After all, the coffee shop needs to be supplied,” said Ellen Gielen, head of the life sciences group at global law firm, CMS and co-author of the company’s ‘Expert Guide on Cannabis Legislation’.

The Netherlands is trying to reform how its world famous cannabis scene operates.

“The discussion to legalise the supply of coffee shops with cannabis has been going on for several years.”

A 2008 “weed summit” brought together 33 Dutch mayors from various municipalities and different political parties to discuss drug tourism in border regions. A survey carried out by the evening newspaper NRC Handelsblad revealed that 80 percent of the mayors in attendance were in favour of ‘regulating the backdoor’.

Over a decade later, the Netherlands is now embarking on an experiment across ten municipalities to evaluate the effects of a closed supply chain for coffeeshops.

Ten commercial cultivators will be made exempt from current laws, allowing them to sell and deliver quality-controlled cannabis to a total of 79 coffee shops.

The experiment is known as the ‘controlled cannabis supply chain experiment’.

The legally produced cannabis will have to be lab-tested and meet the Dutch government’s quality, labelling and packaging requirements. But there will be no limit to the THC concentration and producers can set their own pricing.

Amsterdam, the best known ‘cannabis destination’ in Europe, is not taking part initially.

Cultivators applied to be part of the study in July 2020 and are due to be selected this month before the Dutch government kick starts the four-year experiment.

“The aim is to see if and how cultivators can supply quality-controlled cannabis to coffee shops in a decriminalised way,” Gielen added.

“In addition, the government wants to examine the effects of the experiment on the problems that some municipalities experience – for instance, on crime and public health.

“The experiment means that more suppliers and cultivators are contracted by the government and there are more options for the sale of seeds and or cannabis.”

Gielen anticipates that recreational use through coffee shops will, in part, substitute medicinally prescribed cannabis.

“Doctors are holding back from prescribing cannabis and health insurance companies, in general, do not reimburse for medicinal cannabis,” Gielen said.

“Some patients therefore choose to get their cannabis at coffee shops.”

Although it has been legal for any physician to prescribe medical cannabis in the Netherlands since 2003, treatment guidelines do not encourage prescribing due to the lack of clinical evidence.

“Especially now that the government is planning to supervise the supply and quality through the experiment, expectations are that medicinal users will switch to the freely available recreational cannabis, as they have to pay for it anyway.”

A research consortium that includes Breuer & Intraval, Rand Europe and the Trimbos Institute was commissioned by the Dutch government and will carry out an evaluation over the four-year period.

The consortium will investigate the impact of the experiment on health, user experience, nuisance and displacement effects.

Stijn Hoorens cannabis experiment

Stijn Hoorens, senior research leader at RAND Europe

“We will conduct numerous interviews with coffeeshop owners, municipalities, police and other stakeholders,” said Stijn Hoorens, senior research leader at Rand Europe.

“We will count coffeeshop visitors and conduct a survey amongst customers and ask them about their purchasing and consumption behaviour.”

The Trimbos Institute, meanwhile, will take cannabis samples from coffeeshops in both experimental and control cities and have them lab-tested and compared.

“At RAND, we will also aim to measure some of the developments outside the coffeeshops and whether we could observe any displaced effects on the illegal market,” Hoorens continued.

“This is very difficult, because we don’t have a reliable picture of what’s happening in the illegal market in the first place, let alone as a consequence of the experiment, but we’ll try.”

The results from the ten multiplicities involved with the experiment will be compared with a control group of ten other regions where the current laws are maintained.

The conclusions of the study will later be used by the government to decide on its next steps for designing the future of cannabis policy, however Hoorens said the main objective was not to reduce illegal production or curb organised crime.

“The primary objective is to test whether it is at all possible, or feasible to design, operate and enforce a closed supply chain for decriminalised cannabis,” Hoorens said.

“If the main actors in the supply chain, producers, distributors, coffee shops, consumers, local authorities and law enforcement are happy, the experiment has succeeded. However, we are also asked to attempt to measure the effects on public health, public safety, nuisance, crime, and displacements effects.”

At such an early stage, it is difficult to predict the outcome of the experiment, but Hoorens believes it is unlikely that the “backdoor” policy will still exist in the Netherlands after the four-year experiment.

“We have a number of hypotheses that we will test, but anything could happen,” Hoorens added.

“If customers don’t like the legally produced cannabis, the illegal market might thrive. If the legal products turn out to be a success, there might be a displacement from the illegal market, and perhaps even from other cities towards the coffee shops in intervention cities.

“I think it’s fair to say, that it is unlikely that the situation with a decriminalised front door and a criminalised back door will still be present in the Netherlands.”

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‘Appalled’: Chanelle McCoy of Pureis CBD pulls no punches on state of industry

Along with co-founder Caroline Glynn, the Irish Dragons’ Den star is backing FSA efforts to clean up CBD sector

Sean Seddon

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Lady Chanelle McCoy, well known to viewers of the Irish series Dragons' Den, is a co-founder of Puris CBD

Lady Chanelle McCoy and Caroline Glynn had a pretty lousy New Year’s Eve.

While the rest of the country was getting drunk in front of the TV and waving farewell to a cursed 2020, they were sat in front of computers waiting for the minute hand to reach midnight.

Then they did what almost no one else in the timezone was doing at that precise moment: A spot of admin.

At one minute past midnight they submitted their application for authorisation under the UK Government’s new novel food regulations for CBD products – and this week, their less-than glamorous New Year’s Eve paid off.

Their company, Pureis CBD, was one of the first to have its products validated by the Food Standards Agency. At time of writing they are one of just three companies officially on the path to full authorisation and a valuable pass to remain on shelves in the UK.

Lady Chanelle McCoy of Pureis CBD

Despite receiving over 750 applications, the FSA granted validation – the first stage on the way to full authorisation – to just 23 products (11 of them from Pureis, two from CBDex and ten from 4MP).

The roll out of the new regulations has plunged dozens of CBD companies into uncertainty and left the sector reeling – but McCoy and Glynn couldn’t be happier.

Boasting decades of pharmaceutical experience and plenty of business background to boot (not to mention McCoy’s celeb status in Ireland as a TV investor on Dragons’ Den and wife of champion jockey Sir AP McCoy), the pair are fully behind the FSA’s effort to clean up the CBD sector and have come out swinging against their competitors.

Pulling no punches, the pair said the regulator has been fair throughout and even too lenient with the ‘cowboys’ who are ‘hindering the growth’ of the industry.

McCoy told Cannabis Wealth: “I don’t have any sympathy for companies who are complaining about the FSA. They are doing a good job, it’s all about consumer safety, to bring safe products to the consumer.

“Everybody, including us, was given a deadline. We knew the new legislation came in January 2019, everybody knew.”

For most of its life, Pureis CBD has been a two person outfit but the firm put £1.5m into safety trials ahead of the novel food deadline. That’s on top of costly stability and analytical testing on the raw material – which is imported across the Atlantic and approved by US regulators – in their products.

They launched their clinical safety trials weeks after the announcement of the new rules in early 2019 and say their readiness is why they were the top name on the first validated register.

Caroline Glynn, co-founder of Pureis CBD

McCoy said: “We haven’t had any extra help here, this is a level playing field, we are all being treated the same, we just decided what we were doing very early on and decided to follow the legislation.

“That’s why we are where we are today and why other companies who complained and lobbied against the FSA are now complaining that they’re not on the list. They didn’t adhere to and embrace the guidelines quickly.”

She added: “We did nothing extraordinary here, we really didn’t…we just did what we were supposed to do on time.”

They have already started going beyond phase one safety trials carried out on rodents (the benchmark for FSA regulators) and committed £4m worth of funding for phase two efficacy trials to try and establish their CBD product as a bonafide medicinal treatment for insomnia.

Glynn says the company has a ‘very big R&D pipeline ready to go’ once regulatory matters are tied up.

McCoy told Cannabis Wealth she was concerned about the levels of THC in CBD products across the UK market, calling it ‘the reality of the industry’ and that ‘it’s up to the regulators to clean that up’.

The appearance of just 23 products on the list out of over 750 application shocked industry insiders and watchers.

More are expected to be added between now and June but it was striking for many to see just how few companies had their products ticked off and advanced to the next round of checks on day one.

McCoy said: “That to me just shows the compliance culture within other companies…and in this industry.

Pureis CBD was among the first three companies to receive validation from the FSA

“We are coming from the pharmaceutical industry, we were appalled that there were only three brands on the list.

“There is certainly a culture in the industry of not adhering to what the legislators are trying to do and that then tells you…that there are not enough professional people in the industry that clearly care about consumer safety.”

She added there are ‘a lot of cowboys out there and they are really hindering the growth of the CBD industry because people are really struggling to trust CBD products’.

The FSA has already changed the deadline once for companies to allow more time to file applications and this week revealed the creation of a new ‘on hold’ status for companies which haven’t provided full lab data but have given a ‘robust’ commitment to do so.

On this point, the pair are less generous about the FSA and feel like the regulator could have been stricter.

Glynn said: “It should be companies like us saying ‘actually, this isn’t fair’. We did exactly what you asked us to do when you asked us to do it and…and now you’re changing to make it a little easier.

“Ultimately, this is all about safety and where is the cut off for safety?”

McCoy added: “We’re a bit cross that there’s another [on hold] list coming out and people are going to be allowed on the market who haven’t even done their clinical studies

“What the hell is that? That’s not fair to us – why should they be allowed to stay in the market again when they haven’t proved they’re safe to the consumer. I don’t know why they’re complaining.”

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