Dr. Arno Hazekamp discusses the formation of the new coaltion as well as their goals, research, and education initiatives.
Dr. Arno Hazekamp, cofounder and board member of Legal Cannabis Coalition as well as the director and founder of Hazekamp Herbal Consulting, discusses the formation, goals, research, and education initiatives going on in the newly formed group.
Recently, the formation of a group called the Legal Cannabis Coalition (LLC) was announced (1), which consists of a dozen Dutch horticultural companies. During the past two years, these companies participated in a joint scientific study to optimize greenhouse cultivation of medicinal cannabis that was organized by Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in The Netherlands. Here, Dr. Arno Hazekamp, cofounder and board member of LCC as well as the director and founder of Hazekamp Herbal Consulting, discusses the formation, goals, research, and education initiatives going on in the newly formed LCC.
Can you tell us more about the LCC? How did it form and what are the goals of the group?
Arno Hazekamp: The LCC started as a group of individual companies that offer products and services to the horticultural industry. Each company is a leader in its own field, for example, building greenhouses, installing light-emitting diode (LED) lights, and supplying ventilation or climate control systems. Dutch greenhouse growers are well known for their productivity and quality, making The Netherlands the second largest exporter of fruits and vegetables in the world! And these service providers are an important part of that success. So, when the cannabis industry started growing rapidly in recent years, it was no surprise that Dutch companies became involved with cannabis producers all over the globe. But with more business come more questions, and we all know how many different approaches there are to cultivating cannabis indoors. That’s why these Dutch specialist companies decided to join forces, and initiate a research project to systematically and scientifically determine the optimal growing conditions for various cannabis strains, in collaboration with the top-rated agricultural University of Wageningen (WUR). This research project started almost 3 years ago and is still ongoing, so the participants got to know each other-and their products-very well.
As for myself, I was asked to join the scientific advisory board for the cultivation research in 2018 and it has been a great learning experience. Last year we realized that our cultivation research may someday come to an end, but we wanted our collaboration to keep going. That’s when we decided to collaborate in an industry association we called the Legal Cannabis Coalition. It means we are working as a coalition of independent companies, with a focus on legal (licensed) cannabis projects around the world. We invited several members with expertise in laboratory testing and pharmaceutical development because medicinal cannabis involves much more than only growing the plant. With the current list of members, we feel that we can support almost any customer question, based on experience, collaboration, and our own research data.
How much collaboration is involved from the various parties in the LCC?
Hazekamp: The LCC currently has 16 members with a variety of backgrounds. Most LCC members got together through collaboration in the WUR cultivation experiment I already mentioned. That means every month we come together to discuss the results of the cultivation experiments so far, and decide on the set up of experiments to come. This includes discussions about new varieties or new technologies that have become available for cannabis cultivation, but also about laboratory testing, drying technologies, or packaging. We also coordinate our visits to cannabis conferences and events, and we discuss the business questions that are starting to flow in now that the LCC has been officially started. And, most importantly, various members work together on cannabis projects around the world. Most projects require inputs from several service providers at once, and we believe that we can provide the best advice when working as a group. So when a new licensed producer (LP) wants to build a greenhouse, set up their own laboratory, and develop a new type of cannabis product, the LCC will bring all the relevant members to the table at once. In that way, the client can talk to everyone in one go, and find one integrated solution to their problem, instead of shopping around and dealing with individual providers one at a time. Our members know and trust each other, and they are actively comparing strategies to give the customer the best service possible. Our intention is to make the LCC a one-stop shop for anyone in the cannabis industry, but also to provide services to researchers, government, and pharma companies.
What kind of educational efforts is the LCC doing?
Hazekamp: The LCC is focused on sharing reliable information about cannabis, both within our group of members and outside. Internally that means we train our own staff to become more familiar with all aspects of the cannabis industry. In that way, our greenhouse builder understands a bit of laboratory testing, and our laboratory knows about the challenges of cultivation. This creates mutual understanding between LCC members, which will lead to better solutions for our customers.
We also provide training and education for others. For example, last year we helped to develop an e-learning course for physicians and other healthcare professionals in The Netherlands. By working together with a well-known organization in the field of medical training (Dutch Institute for Rational Use of Medicine [IVM]), we created a 2 hour online course that was certified for continued medical education (CME) credits. It has quickly become one of the most popular training modules offered by IVM, reaching hundreds of healthcare providers. Each year, I personally organize the Masterclass Medicinal Cannabis, a one week intensive course for a small group of selected students. And I am involving the members of the LCC as speakers in the course. By interacting with the international participants of the Masterclass, the LCC members are not only teaching but also learning at the same time. We plan to organize the next Masterclass in collaboration with the province of New Brunswick, Canada. We have built up some great ties with cannabis companies and academics over there, and together we call ourselves the New Brunswick-Netherlands (NB-NL) network.
How will the LCC’s research efforts impact other cannabis research or help the industry develop further?
Hazekamp: A noticeable characteristic of the cannabis industry is that it does not share much information. In this highly competitive business, problems are rarely admitted, all information is treated as intellectual property (IP), and new findings are not often published in scientific papers. As a result, it’s every company for themselves and the same mistakes can be made over and over again. The various members of the LCC have been involved in many cannabis projects that sometimes went right and sometimes wrong. As a result, we believe we have the collective knowledge to help others to prevent making those same mistakes. Another big source of information comes from our WUR cannabis cultivation trial, mentioned before. Because the LCC is not producing cannabis for the market, we have been able to freely experiment with a wide range of parameters to learn more about what makes cannabis grow well. I believe our trial may be one of the biggest cannabis cultivation studies ever done. Through the LCC members, this information will become available to customers, so they can make more fact-based decisions. Also, with more partners we can do larger and more interdisciplinary studies. We don’t grow and sell cannabis ourselves, we just help others. So our goal is not to collect IP and hog information, but to help others to make better choices. That means we actively want to share and teach. One of our current projects is to create an international platform for student training, exchange, and internships with our partners in New Brunswick. In this way, we strive to educate the next generation of professional workers for the cannabis industry.
What is the biggest challenge facing cannabis cultivators? Are there unique challenges for medicinal cannabis cultivators?
Hazekamp: In my opinion, the greatest challenge is the lack of standardization in the cannabis market: Countries allow different type of cultivation (indoor versus outdoor) and products (medical versus recreational), the rules are different everywhere, and even procedures for laboratory testing are not generally agreed upon. Many cannabis companies treat all their knowledge as IP so nothing gets shared. And new inventions are not presented in scientific papers (which allows for peer-review), but in advertisements. In such an environment it is going to be hard to agree on what a “quality” product actually is. You can see this most clearly in the cannabidiol (CBD) market: many studies from all over the world indicate that CBD products often don’t contain the amount of CBD listed on the label. Some products don’t even contain any cannabinoids at all. I have been involved in several of these studies myself. And it seems unclear who is responsible for this situation, because everyone points to someone else.
The same issue can be seen with medical professionals, who are used to work with highly standardized medicines. Although medicinal cannabis is now legal in more countries than ever before, most physicians will still not actively prescribe it. Cannabis is so far outside their image of what is a standardized and trustworthy medicine, that physicians simply reject it completely. So, what we need is a common agreement on how to measure quality, composition, and medical effects. That starts with cultivation, and ends with proper, independent laboratory testing. We all know that if you send the same sample to multiple laboratories, you get back many different testing results. For the cannabis industry to grow successfully, these inconsistencies have to be dealt with.
I believe this problem is indeed unique to the cannabis market, because for any other type of product (food, medicines, consumer electronics, cosmetics) there are clear agreements on what quality is. But because cannabis has a unique history, it falls between all these categories: it is a novel food, herbal medicine, and recreational drug all at once. Authorities are starting to realize that this is creating a mess, and are working on stricter demands at the level of the World Health Organization (WHO), US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), European Union (EU), and so on. You can see this most clearly with CBD, which is rapidly becoming a Novel Food in Europe. I strongly believe it is better to agree on your own (industry) standards quickly, before the authorities come in and tell you what to do. And that means working together on a much larger scale then the industry has done so far.
How did you get started in cannabis research? Can you tell us more about some of your most recent medical cannabis research endeavors?
Hazekamp: I personally started my cannabis research in 2001, at Leiden University in The Netherlands. I was a pharmacy student with an interest in medicinal plants, and one day my professor asked me if I would like to do a PhD focused on cannabis. My first response was: sure, but why? I was told that the Dutch government was setting up an official medicinal cannabis program, so that patients had access to high quality cannabis and did not have to visit their local coffeeshop anymore. So suddenly, I was the very first Dutch PhD student looking at medicinal cannabis, in one of the world’s first cannabis programs. I got my plant materials from the Dutch licensed producer Bedrocan, and had access to a university pharmaceutical laboratory with the most amazing technologies. I also had a cannabis license that allowed me to do virtually all laboratory research I could think of, valid for 5 years. I am certain that no one in the world had more possibilities to study cannabis than me, at that time. My thesis (finished in 2007) became a very well read reference guide for cannabis researchers around the world, and then I started working as the head of R&D at Bedrocan for the next 10 years. During my studies, I helped to set up quality control methods, isolated my own cannabinoid standards, defined the differences between sativa and indica, developed the Volcano vaporizer as a medical device, and was the first scientist to look at Simpson oil. But I also had many experiences outside the laboratory, like helping to design clinical trials, perform international patient surveys, and study the prescription of medicinal cannabis by Dutch physicians. Altogether, my career has given me a very broad experience with medicinal cannabis use.
In recent years, my attention mainly went to analyzing the quality of CBD products. In a world where everyone has an opinion about cannabis, it is important to keep doing smart and reliable studies and provide data that can help with decision making.
What has surprised you the most in your cannabis research?
Hazekamp: As a scientist, I am always trying to find support for my ideas, to collect data, and then think about how this data could be even better and stronger. When working for commercial companies, there is always a bit of tension between the scientists (we need more research) and the sales department (we need more sales). And in a healthy company these two forces are in balance. What strikes me about the cannabis industry, is how many people take a minimal scientific fact, and turn it into a completely new product, without actually understanding how it works, or how it should be made. Many bad CBD products are made by business people who heard about CBD, but don’t actually know much about it. And although many people have the experience of growing cannabis plants for themselves, doing it for medicinal use is a completely different game. And some folks running a cannabis laboratory, obviously do not understand the basics of analytical chemistry. As a result, I have had many discussions with people who produce and sell cannabis products that do not live up to their promise. I like to call this cannabis myth-busting, or “canna-busting.” Of course, I do believe in the medicinal powers of cannabis, but I am also worried that “cannabis cowboys” may ruin it for all of us. So I often confront businesses with their own claims, and simply ask them: can I see you data? How do you know this? I have exposed many myths in this way, and I like to believe that this helps the industry move in a better and smarter direction. These experiences also help me to tell great stories when I meet with policymakers and authorities, and help to get higher quality standards established.
Can you tell us more about the Masterclass Medicinal Cannabis that you teach?
Hazekamp: When I still worked as head of research at Bedrocan (licensed producer of The Netherlands) the Masterclass started out as training program for partners we were doing business or research with. Instead of teaching everyone one by one, we would bring people together once per year to instruct them together. This was also very useful for new employees, who would be able to learn about all aspects of cannabis in one single course. And the interesting observation was that the participants did not only learn from the carefully selected speakers, but also from each other. When, for example, a physician from Italy meets a cultivator from Canada, very interesting discussions will come up where everyone will learn new stuff outside their normal field of interest. Although there are more cannabis training courses nowadays, the Masterclass was the first of its kind when it was started in 2011. Because of the many positive responses, I decided to open up attendance to a larger group of participants, and that is how the Masterclass grew in size, it was organized in Canada, Australia, and Portugal, and we started offering classes for specific audiences (physicians, business, government). The Masterclass teaches about all aspects of cannabis by categorizing information into main themes, which I call the 5 P’s. They are: Plant, Product, Patient/physician, Pharma, and Politics. Literally everything related to medicinal cannabis can be grouped into these themes, which creates a clear structure for Masterclass attendees. During the course we organize excursions to licensed producers, such as Canopy Growth and Bedrocan. But perhaps the most important aspect is the social interaction. People have become really good friends during these past Masterclasses, and this has created a great network of alumni around the world. Many of my best connections are still with my former Masterclass students and speakers, and I hope to keep expanding it. This network helps me to always check the real facts behind another sensational story coming from the cannabis industry.
What are you next steps in cannabis research and education? How does the LCC fit into those plans?
Hazekamp: Education has always been one of my favorites parts about working with cannabis. After all, there is so much to say and learn about this topic. I prefer to have a class full of people for several days, with a range of interesting speakers that stick around for long discussions and deep questions. Exactly like we do at the Masterclass Medicinal Cannabis. In this way you create a truly inspiring learning environment, where students also dare to share their worries and problems, instead of only successes and wins. Those are the moments when real bonds are created. At conferences you can also meet amazing scientists, but there is never sufficient time for questions, and good luck trying to chase down your favorite presenter during the lunch break. Of course, the success of any course depends on the quality of its speakers. So what could be better than having access to leaders in their field, who you know up close, and who you can trust based on projects that you work on together. The members become the teachers, and we can even initiate research projects together, like we are currently doing with WUR, if there is a gap in our knowledge. That’s why it is so important that multiple LCC members have a research license for cannabis. It allows us to put our own questions into research. For myself, the teaching I did was mainly based on my own research experiences in the laboratory, and outside. And because I was sharing my own personal experiences, the teaching got better and more involved. With a much wider network like the LCC, we will be able to study, and teach, so much more from our own collective experiences. And perhaps, after teaching is done, some of the more talented students may become our new employees. In that way, our courses will become a fishing pond for future talent.