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Akanda CEO discusses ESG and disruption in European cannabis market

Tej Virk is appointed as CEO of Akanda as Halo Collective reorganises its international assets into the newly formed company

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Cannabis and corporate finance and banking industry executive Tej Virk recently joined African medical cannabis company Akanda as CEO, where he will be leveraging his wealth of experience to disrupt the UK and European cannabis market.

Tej Virk has joined Akanda as CEO from Khiron Life Sciences, where he was President and Managing Director for Europe, establishing Khiron’s medical and consumer packaged goods business in the European cannabis market. Prior to this, Virk was Managing Director for Europe at Canopy Growth Corporation, where he was responsible for driving the multinational expansion of Canopy’s European operations.

Although not currently involved, Virk is also one of the first executives to push for and fund Europe’s largest medical cannabis patient registry, Project Twenty21, for which he was an advisor – driving the opening of the medical flower market in the UK.

The appointment of Virk comes as vertically integrated multinational cannabis company, Halo Collective recently announced the reorganisation of its international assets, Bophelo Bioscience & Wellness Pty. Ltd, and Canmart Ltd., into the newly formed Akanda Corp. 

Scaling potential

Akanda is currently a 100% owned subsidiary but, as Virk highlights, is independent within Halo. The first assets pulled into the company in the UK is its distribution business, Canmart, which is fully licensed by UK regulators and working with multiple LPs in order to import EU GMP medicines, as well as distribute them to clinics and patients in the UK. It will also be utilising the scaled production capabilities of Bophelo, Halo’s Lesotho-based cultivation and processing site, which is located in the world’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) containing a cannabis growth operation.

“That is a rare business within the UK, and has so much potential to scale. With my unique capabilities I’m in a position to do so,” says Virk. “Pair that with the absolutely massive grow in Lesotho – which has the potential to be the world’s largest cannabis grow as it is currently licensed for 200 hectares, which is a massive amount of land – over 700 football pitches. Lesotho is a beautiful, pristine country with all the natural sunlight needed to bring quality medical cannabis to the market at a very attractive cost point.”

By utilising Halo Collective’s ecosystem, Akanda has positioned itself to disrupt the UK, European, African, and other international markets. Virk highlights that as a combined company, the focus was split on two markets – recreational and medical.

“I think the focus was split on two markets which shared a similar product – they are sort of the same thing at the end of the day, but with some very important differences when it comes to regulations within international markets – Europe and Asia Pacific medical markets are highly regulated.

“Europe must follow and comply with all of the same types of regulations that you would see with any sort of over-the-counter medicine in a pharmacy or behind-the-counter medicine. This includes safety standards and testing, it is about creating an incredible consistent product within a very tight range of variables –  they must be shelf life stable and almost the same quality you would attribute to box of paracetamol. So, while products have these regulations attached to them, in the US and other markets, where you have adult use recreation, it is a different business, probably closer to consumer packaged goods business.

“Lesotho will provide the start of the supply chain and provide high-quality dry flower for inhalation and flower for extraction to create medicines, then we have the distribution business in the UK. So, we are going to be taking flower from Lesotho and importing it to the UK. We have already seen the first medical cannabis coming from Lesotho from a competitor about a month ago, so this pathway of bringing cannabis from Lesotho to Europe is open, which is a massive de-risking for us. In terms of expansion we will be focusing on distributors in other markets that would help us get to market faster, and looking for distributor partnerships in the near term.”

Leveraging HALO’s heritage to disrupt European cannabis market

Akanda will be providing medical cannabis products for patients worldwide by leveraging award-winning genetic strains from Halo, DNA. Combining this with ideal conditions for outdoor and greenhouse-based cultivation in Lesotho, and the country’s low energy cost and competitive labor market, Akanda will be able to produce high-quality medical cannabis with ultra-low production costs.

“We are leveraging our heritage of being part of the Halo collective and what Halo has done is incredibly well is grow cannabis for the recreational market at scale. I think they have won the war of attrition on the US West Coast – there was a big pricing war from which Halo has emerged victorious, and, in doing so, has established relationships with some of the top brands in California and West Coast markets.

“Those brands and strains are the ones that have survived really difficult markets with some of the most discerning consumers and patients in the world – so, we are actually leveraging those relationships and growing those strains in Lesotho,” commented Virk.

“The ones we are starting with are DNA Genetics – which has won over 200 awards and is the same company that Canopy Growth partnered with in Canada when they launched into the adult use markets. What I like about DNA Genetics is that these are well known strains that have well observed outcomes – yes they are recreational market position, but a lot of the outcomes are medical, which we can see from self reporting of patients and consumers citing same sort of the effects for patient.

“Anxiety and pain relief two are indications in the medical market, so we are taking the data and well known strains and bringing that to the European market as you cannot export to international or European markets because of the federal legality, so we have bridged that gap. We have leveraged the incredible climate which is really like California but with little to no pollution, and we are growing those strains at scale and delivering that at a great price point.

“Europe and Asia Pacific are the first two core regions we will disturb, and really, any market which does medical cannabis which is in our remit. We are trying to narrow our focus on those two, but if we were to sum up all medical cannabis markets we would have an addressable market of over $70bn, so there is quite a lot of potential – including the UK.”

Committed to ESG practices

Akanda’s commitment to environmental, social, and governance practices broadens its potential investor base, while advancing Lesotho’s and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

“We are committed to ESG principals – if there were three things to hone in on, it would be the medical focus within international markets, the high quality that comes with scale, and the way we are defining quality through those trusted brands,” said Virk.

“I think we are uniquely positioned to take some of the best practice in the cannabis space and wrap them in ESG, so part of it starts with our social equity initiative in Lesotho, which is a developing country with a small population. This industry has the chance to bring massive change to the community there in the Mafateng province. We are helping to uplift and install resilience in that local community and this is partly thanks to the initiative of executive chairman, Louisa Mojela, who is a most accomplished business woman having sat on the board of Southern Africa’s top companies, and really brings with her a background of working with charitable organisations.

“We are bringing this industry to people in a region where there is a lot of unskilled labour and teaching them skills in cultivation of cannabis and taking that through to advance roles. We are seeing some people go from working as a grower to working in more complex roles such a regulatory compliance – there are real success stories there.

“The environment is another impact area we are really focussed on such as having neutral carbon footprint, so we have some initiatives around that and zero-carbon cannabis is something that we think is is within our grasp. We are also trying to achieve as many of the UN Sustainability Goals as we can which includes everything from ending hunger to improving education. As a company, we are probably able to achieve 12 of the 17 of the goals, and we are at eight right now. We cannot do all 17 as some depend on government, but as a single company I think we are doing an amazing job.

“We have a charitable trust attached to our subsidiary in Lesotho which is dedicated to donating 10% of our profits to the Mophuthi Matsoso Development Trust which goes towards uplifting the community, building schools, providing education and helping to develop proper programmes. We have already built one school which is incredible to see and it is having a real impact on peoples lives – it is really a driving force for change and a win-win situation for all, benefiting the community, the patients with constant quality medical products and the shareholder because the returns are there.”

Virk added: “I’m really excited to join Akanda – it is probably one of the most exciting companies to be a part of in the space, which I say with some objectivity as I am still new to the role – with this particular company there is so much potential.”

International

Billy Hood CBD appeal reduces sentence to ten years

An appeal hearing has seen Billy Hood’s sentence for possessing CBD reduced to ten years.

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Billy Hood CBD appeal reduces sentence to ten years
Image from Detained In Dubai of Billy Hood protest

Billy Hood – who was imprisoned for 25 years for trafficking, selling and possessing CBD earlier this year in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – has received a reduced sentence of ten years following an appeal.

The Abu Dhabi Courts have accepted that 25-year-old British national Billy Hood did not traffic or sell CBD vape oil that had been left in his car by a friend. Detained in Dubai has stated that the court accepts that he “unintentionally possessed” the CBD, but have sentenced Hood to a decade behind bars, despite new legislation eliminating prison sentences for foreigners found in possession and allowing for deportation instead.

The recent UAE announcement that it will be relaxing drug laws for travellers caught with cannabis products in the country would see the products destroyed instead of imprisoning individuals.

Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, who is lobbying for Hood’s release, commented: “The UAE has just claimed they will eliminate prison sentences for foreigners found to be in possession of THC products, opting for deportation instead, but this law does not come into effect until January 2022 and may not apply retroactively.

“Dubai police were extremely negligent when they charged Billy Hood with trafficking and selling the two mini bottles of CBD vape oil found in his car. They turned what would have been a small possession case at worst into a federal case that has seen him locked up for almost a year and facing a life sentence in Abu Dhabi. 

“There was no evidence whatsoever of trafficking and none of selling. Dubai’s overzealous prosecution has ruined this young man’s life and put him and his family through hell. Billy was forced to confess to federal crimes with promises of his imminent release. He was given both a carrot and a stick, so some prosecutor could get his dues. It’s all too familiar a story.”

“It’s very confusing,” Hood’s mother Breda Hood told Detained in Dubai. “How can this have escalated as far as it has? I tried not to get my hopes up for today as I knew something like this might happen, but I now have to face the possibility that I may not see my son before Christmas and words cannot express how broken I am feeling.”

Detained in Dubai stated that Billy’s father Alex Hood has been outraged by the lack of intervention coming from the British government: “The Brits have developed strong ties with the UAE so why aren’t they using their relationship to help people like Billy? 

“This should be on the top of their list. Our son is not interested in drugs at all, not consuming, selling or trafficking. It wasn’t his fault at all that his friend left the vape bottles in his car. Why should he be punished for someone else’s actions? 

“All of his tests came back negative and there is zero evidence of selling or trafficking. It’s like something out of a movie and I can barely cope with the frustration of not being able to help him. We are campaigning out here but he’s in there completely alone.”

The Foreign Office has submitted a clemency request for Billy’s release and a petition established by the family has attracted almost 160,000 signatures. In a statement to Cannabis Wealth yesterday, a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) spokesperson said: “We are giving consular support to a British man who has been imprisoned in the UAE. We are in contact with his family in the UK.”

“We pray every day for Billy’s release,” Hood’s brother Alexander told Detained in Dubai. “I spoke with Billy today and he sends lots of love to everyone supporting him. It’s been so hard on him. I can’t plead enough for the UAE to grant him clemency, give him his life back, please. The UAE has just promised to change their laws and we ask his highness to take this into consideration when reviewing our clemency application.”

Stirling highlights that ten years for “unintentional possession” of CBD vape oil is a grave injustice.

In a statement yesterday, Stirling commented: “We need MP’s to push a resolution for Billy’s family. The UAE is increasingly a strong ally to the UK and with that, comes an immense possibility for cooperation on issues of human rights. I will be speaking to Parliamentarians tomorrow and have no doubt Billy’s case will attract significant support.”

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UAE eases drug laws for travellers, raising questions on Billy Hood case

The United Arab Emirates has announced that it will now destroy cannabis products rather than imprisoning individuals.

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UAE eases drug laws for travellers, raising questions on Billy Hood case
Image from Detained In Dubai of British national Billy Hood

The news that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will relax cannabis drug laws has raised new questions about the case of a British national detained for possessing CBD products.

The UAE has said it will destroy products containing cannabis that have been brought into the country by foreign travellers, instead of imprisoning individuals, in what has been described as a “step in the right direction” by campaigners.

However, the development raises the question of the release of British national Billy Hood who was imprisoned for trafficking, selling and possessing CBD earlier this year.

Published in the country’s official gazette, the Associated Press (AP) has reported that the UAE has confirmed it will be relaxing its drug laws around cannabis. Travellers carrying cannabis products would normally face a four-year prison sentence if caught.

According to AP, the law change will see minimum sentences for first-time drug offenders of three months to two years, and convicts will be offered rehabilitation. It also reports that travellers caught with cannabis products are normally deported to their home countries following imprisonment, but that this decision will now be left to a judge. 

A number of foreigners have been imprisoned by the UAE for what the country constitutes as crimes, including having prescription medicines.

The recent case of 24-year-old Billy Hood saw the British footballer sentenced to 25 years in prison in Dubai following the discovery of four bottles of CBD in his car.

Billy explained to the authorities that his friend from England must have left them there on the way to the airport following a visit and that he was not aware of the presence of the products.

At the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) headquarters, a urine sample was processed which was returned as negative and Billy was asked to sign a document in Arabic without an English translation, which Billy refused to do. After being sent back to a holding cell, Billy succumbed to the pressure and agreed to sign the document in Arabic, not knowing its content. 

Radha Stirling, CEO of campaign group Detained in Dubai, which is working with Billy’s case, commented that: “Forced and coerced confessions are commonplace in Dubai.”

Billy’s brother Alexander is fighting for his freedom and the case has been appealed by Billy’s lawyers following allegations that Hood has been tortured after being moved to Al Sadr prison in Abu Dhabi and placed in solitary confinement in a cockroach-infested cell.

Billy’s mother has reported that he has been uncontactable since being moved to the prison. 

Speaking to Cannabis Wealth on the new development to UAE drug laws, Stirling commented: “It’s pleasing to see the UAE is finally addressing draconian drug laws that have seen numerous foreigners locked up for arbitrary reasons like prescription medicine, residual THC in blood from hashish consumed overseas as well as simply knowing someone who has possessed small amounts of drugs. 

“This is a step in the right direction and something we’ve pursued for almost 14 years. But what really needs to be focused on is forced confessions and wrongful prosecutions like we have seen in the case of Billy Hood whose appeal results are expected today.

“The changes in law have come after years of public outrage caused by the large number of wrongful arrests and prosecutions. We are pleased to see the UAE responding to calls for legislative change but the procedural issues will continue to cause unfair detentions.”

On 27 November, 2021, Billy’s family appeared at Dubai’s largest luxury property show in London to set off #FreeBilly balloons for his birthday.

“Billy’s mother Breda is frightened to get her hopes up for next week’s appeal results,” commented Stirling in a statement.

“It has been a most distressing time since Billy was moved to Abu Dhabi and put in isolation. The past year has been an absolute nightmare for the family and they are stressed out of their minds.

“Andy Neal went through the same thing. He was detained for a whole year before finally being exonerated. I don’t think anyone can imagine what that does to a person. The impact and trauma are ongoing and lead to broken families and damaged victims. The human toll of failing and corrupt police practices is extreme and a serious human rights issue.

“When UAE enterprise then comes to London to put on property shows and the like, offering free residency visas and 50 per cent mortgages, we have to understand that people will be lured into these offerings and are at risk of losing their investments as they have done systematically for over a decade, their freedom or like Lee Bradley Brown, their lives. 

“There are thousands of foreigners who have been deceived by property developers often owned by the government and this deceit has resulted in their loss of funds and freedom as banks have jailed them for debt. Numerous British nationals are in Dubai right now, prisoners in the capital of fraud and money laundering. After being robbed by companies with deceptive trade practices and zero accountability, they are then held in the country until they can repay mortgages for homes that were never even finished. The catch is, their passports will be confiscated and their working permits cancelled at the same time. Foreigners have faced homelessness and become suicidal over this egregious situation.

“The [UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office] FCDO has been criticised for its lack of sufficient travel warnings to the UAE and in fact, this very issue will be debated in Parliament shortly. For the time being, it’s important that those being lured into mortgages, debt and unfinished property developments are warned by rights groups of the risks they face in the Gulf. The best way to do that is to attend Dubai’s marketing events to warn citizens directly.”

A petition to release Hood from prison has so far received more than 100,000 signatures and is aiming to collect 150,000 signatures to become one of the most popular petitions in the history of Change.org.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “We are giving consular support to a British man who has been imprisoned in the UAE. We are in contact with his family in the UK.”

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Shaquille O’Neal suing business partner over cannabis investment

The former NBA star is suing his business partner over allegedly squandering a cannabis investment.

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Shaquille O’Neal suing business partner over cannabis investment

Shaquille O’Neal is suing his business partner over allegedly squandering a $125k cannabis investment. The company has been identified as Viceroy LLC according to court documents.

The court documents allege that O’Neal invested USD$100,000 into the cannabis business in 2016. However, a year later, the company still had no licenses, revenue or operations.

The documents read: “By late 2017, Viceroy seemingly had no licenses, no revenue, and no operations, questions arose regarding defendants’ management of Viceroy and use of the invested funds.”

The suit was filed this week by O’Neal and a second investor, Jerome Crawford. Crawford has reportedly invested USD$50,000 into the company. Both men claimed they wanted to “to pursue opportunities in the field of legal cannabis.”

Legal action

Documents report that O’Neal and Crawford asked to see the financial statements and mentioned the lack of progress in 2018. However, there was no response to the request. They also asked for a business plan along with other documents. The defendants are named Darron Campbell, his LLC along with 10 John Does.

When legal action was threatened, Campbell allegedly offered to buy back their shares and provide the interest. Campbell is thought to have only made one payment and still owes USD$130,000 along with 10 per cent missed interest.

A message from Campbell to O’Neal and Crawford’s lawyers was included with the filing: “At this point, I am willing to agree to personally purchase the units [owned by Plaintiffs] over a period of time. If acceptable, I would pay Mr Crawford and Mr O’Neal on the first day of each quarter, a minimum of $10,000 until paid in full.”

Repayment and damages

The plaintiffs have asked for more than USD$1m in repayment and damages.

Shaquille is an American former professional basketball player for the NBA who retired in 2011. He is now a sports analyst on the US television program Inside the NBA. It is estimated he made almost $300m over 19 seasons.

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