CannaList Conversations - Exploring Portugal with Steven Arthur George
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CannaList Conversations – Exploring Portugal with Steven Arthur George

Steven is an ex-pat living in Lisbon. After a stint with Tilray, he decided to go out on his own and start an advisory firm, Kaya Advisors, for Cannabis companies in Portugal looking to enter or expand in the EU marketplace.

In January 2017, Steve moved to Portugal, and in December of that same year, he received his MBA from The Lisbon MBA.

Before joining Tilray full-time in December 2018, he began providing consulting services for North American Licensed Producers looking to enter the EU cannabis industry.

While with Tilray, Steven spent time as Country Manager and EMEA Alliance Manager and successfully launched the first medical cannabis dried flower into the Portuguese market. It was granted the first ACM (Marketing Authorization) in Portugal from INFARMED (Portuguese Health Regulator).

As EMEA Alliance Manager, Steve managed all B2B relationships and completed some of Europe’s largest and first medical cannabis transactions to date out of Tilray’s European headquarters in Portugal! Destinations included Germany, Israel, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Malta.

(edited for publication)

Good afternoon and welcome to CannaList Conversations. We’re here with Steven Arthur George. Stephen is in Portugal, Lisbon, specifically Steven; how’s it going?

Everything is going well. That’s some sunshine today, like most days here and in Portugal, so I can’t complain.

I’m guessing by the accent you’re not from Portugal?

That’s correct. That’s correct as well. Originally from Michigan in the US, but I’ve been living here in Lisbon. This is my fifth year at the end of this year will be my fifth full year at the end of the calendar year here. So ironically, I arrived on December 31, 2016. So it’s easy for me to keep track of how long I’ve been here. But yeah, no, this year will be five years and Lisbon. And you came to Lisbon to go to school. Is that correct? That’s correct. Yep. Originally came to get an MBA. I did a Lisbon MBA program with the two top business schools in Portugal and then partnered with MIT.

Back in Boston, as well. So we got to study for a month, that a full month of immersion courses there in Boston with MIT Sloan business school. So that was another accent.

Right, exactly, exactly. I try to stay away from that one; they get a little too tough for other foreigners.

And then, how did you end up going from the MBA  into the cannabis industry?

That’s such a unique story; I’ve been around the cannabis industry for a while. In 2008, Michigan approved medical cannabis, and I was still living in the state at the time. So that was where my first cannabis, more professional experience we’ll call on I got into some cultivation, but that’s where it all started. But after the MBA in Portugal, it wasn’t obvious what I was going to do, I did want to stay around and spend more time and Europe, and at the same time, Tilray was building out a large facility Cantanhede, which is in the north of Portugal. So I happened to read an article about it and said, hey, you know, that kind of sparked my interest? Okay, something’s going on here in the medical cannabis universe in Europe, and let me see what’s going on and see if I can get involved. And Tilray is one of the bigger players.

What is your take on big cannabis?

Well, great question, Patrick.

It varies, and I think it all depends on what; it all depends on what the company is actually looking to do. You know, I think I think big cannabis is inevitable. So I think we’re going to see, we’re going to see large companies. But I also think we’re going to have room for smaller, you know, and medium-sized companies to all fit in as well. We have to agree more or less or disagree that big cannabis will be around right now. It’s up to the consumers and up to patients and other advocates to create the space to help educate and understand what’s behind some of these bigger players as well.

As we’ve seen from the beginning of this many larger companies, it hasn’t been a good story. And it hasn’t been good headlines and a lot of unfortunate leadership, let’s say, across the board. And a lot of shareholder-driven decisions that you don’t speak to the core of a cannabis company. So I’m kind of impartial. I know they exist. So I’m aware of that. And I accept that. But am I a big cannabis consumer, more of the ones that are around right now? No.

That’s more or less due to misalignment with what is trying to be achieved at the end and just a more money-driven focus than patient-driven or consumer, even on the recreational side – it’s just often money-driven decisions.

I think in the early days, entrants into the European market were very opportunistic. They were quick to jump on board; they saw it; it was a huge market. But what I don’t think they anticipated was the complexity of the regulations, the 28 member states, and all the hurdles it takes to do business in Europe. But we’re trying to do business across Europe.

I think Europe’s a unique place to try to do business because of all the complexities. What has been your take on an industry or a rollout strategy?

Yeah, I think you’ve nailed it. When it comes in, the complexity here in Europe and most other places is just the medical, a medical industry. We’re Canadian, where many of the first larger companies to come and penetrate Europe. Where you had both an adult-use Regulation and medical regulation. So and even the medical regulation in Canada is much easier to navigate, let’s say than the regulations here; you need Canada or us to get a car.

Exactly. And that’s this whole thing, is it? That’s the one thing I really talked about this whole thing about a card.

It’s just that here in Europe, the models, just from what I’ve seen from every member state who’s moved forward it’s a per-prescription type of medicine. That’s per that’s unit-based. It’s not a card. So. So I think it was in. I think it’s a massive opportunity. I think I and I think Europe might just have saved medical cannabis by some of these regulations, and the way that they’re actually putting this forward, because I’m concerned that in the US, however, they move forward, that the medical side of this might kind of go to the wayside, if you will.

I think it’s a massive opportunity. I just think some of them, as you mentioned, wasn’t prepared for the complexity. The bureaucracy, it’s a little bit slower moving, obviously, capital intensive. So all you bundle all these things together, and it just looks quite a bit different than what they may be used to back in the US or Canada. But, yeah, I mean, one of the interesting sorts of dilemmas in Europe is there are lots of places where you can grow and cultivate, but you can’t sell locally or use locally. They will allow you to grow it, but you have to export to do anything with it.

Which seems sort of counterintuitive, right?

Exactly. And you have places such as Portugal here where you’re allowed to cultivate and export for medical purposes, and also can now there’s a pathway to register medical products here. But, again, Portugal, it’s a much more difficult process than Germany, it’s, it’s more bureaucratic, the approval takes longer. So then what happens? Portugal looks like it’s becoming a place where companies will cultivate in and export out because the regulation isn’t favorable, let’s say, to want them to do so.

And are there politicians not looking to examples from the US, Colorado, for instance, where cannabis is an economic development opportunity, it’s a job creator, it’s a revenue base that can be taxed? So are they pushing that trying to move it forward using sort of an economic development argument?

I find it fascinating that here in Portugal, back in 2008, when they passed the medical regulation, the regulations got published at the beginning of 2019. So it’s almost what, two years ago, I really got published, the beginning of 2018. Now it is 19. So yeah, a couple of years now, we’ve still had some slowness in the proxy. But along that time, especially in the last year, there have been more discussions in Parliament regarding adult-use here in Portugal in many of these different topics have arisen.

And actually, I believe that we would have a new bill introduced here at the end of the year, but then the coalition didn’t agree on the budget. So we’ll have another election at the beginning of the year here in Portugal. So things are getting stalled. But to your point, I spoke with one of the members of parliament that’s in the party that is more in favor of adult use. And I asked this exact question.

I actually reached out to just offer support, just to be a soundboard too, to help answer any questions to help them understand better what the US looks like being someone from the US but has lived here in Portugal for the last five years. And, and I brought this up about, hey, it is beneficial for me to arrange a meeting with regular regulators in Michigan or regulators in another state in the US. I mean, it was in one ear and out the other, and they want to. They want one of the initiatives here will happen soon, they want to hear from the public and industry again, but again, they’ll only stay within Portugal. So how do you expect to learn from anyone? If they’ve, you’re asking people that have no experience? So?

I think one of the things in Europe is a wait and see – if the dominoes fall. If Germany has been making a lot of noise about recreational and sort of the change in the political landscape, there is suggested that. So Germany, obviously being a big market and a huge player in the European Space, do you think maybe Germany is the first to jump on board that others will follow?

I do. I especially, especially in a case with a country such as Portugal, being that it’s, as Southern Europe, a smaller country, obviously, been in some controversy before with European Union and other member states because of favorable financial programs, etc., here in Portugal, so, yeah, do I think they want to have this stick around their back as the first ones to move? No. But if Germany were to go first and kind of take the first bullet, then I think they’d be marching right behind. But I also think that’s I also think it’s the wrong move. I also think this is an opportunity for Portugal. There’s a lot of licenses they’ve handed out 19 licenses now to cultivate here in Portugal, which I think is high commercially cultivated, which is, I believe, higher than any other member state available at this point.

So, I think it’s a big opportunity for Portugal, especially because the politicians are getting together again and not agreeing on the budget. So, suppose there’s something that could provide additional revenue and GDP to the country and help with that budget deficit. Cannabis is surely one of them, especially where consumption rates are similar to what you see in Spain and quite high.

I think they’ll wait for Germany, but I think it’s also the mistake, I think, being that they’re already discussing it, they should just own it and go for it, especially being a country that was very well known for the decriminalization of drugs back in the early 2000s. So they have this progressive drug policy. Already. It’s already known within Porcello. So why don’t you just kind of embrace that and run with it?

What’s the position around CBD and sort of non THC or low THC products?

Ever since the laws changed on the medical side here in Portugal, you started to see more chatter around CBD, and then pre-pandemic, you start to see more CBD shops show up not only in Lisbon in Porto but in other cities across the more popular cities, cities that get more tourists and stuff, as well as all these CBD shops, start to pop up, but it’s an interesting situation because over the last couple of years, we’ve I know many of these shop owners quite well. And we’ve had many different situations where the GNR has raided them. The police are coming in and taking goods and then with no explanation, no testing, no reasoning, and really treating these people as if they’re drug traffickers. That’s really how they’re treating them. But then, with no documentation, no explanation. Again, no testing to even show if we’re at the THC level is whatever.

So a very confusing CBD situation. The health regulators say, stick with more UN convention type thinking and say, okay, cannabis is scheduled drugs. So it’s a narcotic. Anything derived from cannabis is a narcotic. So okay, if they put new regulations in for the prescription and cultivation of medical cannabis, that’s a narcotic. That’s okay. But it’s still anything derived from that plant that falls under this group of narcotics. So that’s the health regulator’s position. But then, as I said, it’s just unfortunate because then they’re not talking to it seems like they’re not talking to GNR, though cuz like they’re sitting back saying, Okay, it’s a narcotic. But then France came back and said, “Okay, it’s not a narcotic,” then they’re just sitting back and just not doing anything now. But they’re also not working with the GNR to help figure this out. So CBD is, remains a mess at this point.

So can they sell?

Today, I actually took a video that I’ll share on LinkedIn later this evening. But, still, I took a video inside one of the shops today to give some insight into what’s happening because it looks similar to an old head shop. It reminds me of a small headshop from the US, but then they offer CBD flowers, but mainly have a lot of other consumption devices, smoking devices, papers, and things like this. And they’re allowed to operate. But any day, yeah, they’re playing at risk. So as I walked out, who knows, please could walk in, and they could be in some trouble. So, and all this stuff is sold for not for human consumption. So it also again shows you.

Who is it for?

Exactly. So it’s this gray market and some clever lawyers trying to work their way through the regulations and protect their clients.

Do you guys see Delta-8 or Kratom?

They’re not yet. Not yet. I’ve heard a few people talk about kratom here and there, but I haven’t seen anything. I haven’t seen anything yet in one association that I’m in. However, I did see Delta-8 A mentioned for the first time in a conversation the other day, so see.

Because in the US, Delta-8 is a workaround. Delta-9 is illegal, so they change chemistry a little bit, and Delta-9 is fine. It’s being sold at convenience stores and obviously not be regulated. So we don’t really know what’s in it, that type of thing.

Right, exactly.

So what do you think the way to move forward is based on this kind of environment?

Going back to Portugal, like I said, being one of the more progressive countries, I think I said they need to continue on that journey. And I think decriminalization is one step. It’s, it’s one step in the right direction that they took nearly 20 years ago, and had some powerful impact here for some of the hard drug use problems that Unknown Speaker 18:46
were relevant here, especially in Lisbon. And so the program seemed to be very to work very well.

Decriminalization seems to be only a step of the way. We need to stop looking at individuals as criminals. That’s the big perception shift is these aren’t criminals; they are consumers. So the drug addict and the big heavy traffickers are still criminals, but the consumers are not criminals. They’re just individuals that, in the end, we’re talking consumers of any drug, but so they kind of everything gets bottled into this mental health type of situation.

Okay, that’s fine. The consumers aren’t criminals. But it’s illegal to sell it. So theoretically, where would these people get it from? So then the only choice is the black market, which is illegal? So you’re creating a no-win situation with that kind of mentality.

Exactly. And then you really turn your back to it; we understand that. These are individuals that we’re looking to help. We should also be making sure that the stuff they are consuming is safe, whatever they’re consuming. It should have some type of quality standard behind it. If anyone cares and cares about these people, and we really want to help people, then there should be some type of minimal quality standard that should be adhered to. And the only way you get there is by regulating it across the board.

Ideally, we want standards; we want to look at a label; we want to know what’s in it. I mean, that was one of the challenges around CBD, people were calling something CBD, and we’d have no idea what that meant. Because there was no standard, there was no labeling or anything like that. And then when we finally tested it, some of it had THC, some of it didn’t even contain cannabis or anything related to the plant. But it was labeled CBD. So yeah, obviously, you need legalization to begin to create standards and so that people can know safely what they’re getting, what kind of products they’re getting. So what is your role at this point in the industry? And how are you helping people that are interested in moving forward?

I left Tilray in the summer of this year. And then, I launched my own advisory firm a couple of months back. And the whole idea behind that was what we hit on earlier is that I noticed that things were moving forward here in Portugal. But as far as all the cultivation licenses, I also understood the market; I got a really a first look at the market when working with Tilray. And, we got to move some of the first cannabis around Europe and more, more bulk type cannabis around Europe. And so I got to understand the demand out there and what’s going on in Europe.

And I was seeing all these licenses and seeing the sizes of these greenhouses. So, I was sitting there just going; this isn’t going to work. We’re going to be massively oversupplied, similar to what you’re starting to see in Canada as well, but I just realized that it’s going to be massively oversupplied. And so, I wanted to try to help some of the groups here in Portugal to get off the ground.

And there’s a lot of different projects here. And a lot of them, there are some big-name projects. But, still, there’s also a lot of other projects where the Portuguese family funded other European projects; you have some more startups, passionate groups of people that are just cannabis enthusiasts that are trying to get there as well. So, really, I knew the only way I could help the community as a whole here in Portugal is I had to be independent, and that was one of the challenges of working for a larger company is that I just felt restricted in what I could, how I could support the entire community.

I had to be more aligned with the company’s goals rather than my own personal goals and aspirations for what I want to see here in Portugal and cannabis in Europe. So you’re focused on is Portugal, it’s focused on Portugal right now, for when it comes to a cultivation standpoint because that’s where I see most of the most things or as I said, most of the licensing happening, but I spent most of my time professionally in the industry on the commercial side of the business. So, part of that being part of that cultivation thing is actually then commercializing products, whether that could be both on the CBD side or the medical side of things, and hopefully in the future, on the recreational or adult-use side. But my main focus on the advisory is commercial strategy. I spoke to the cultivators, but it wasn’t to help them build a facility and validations. So that’s not what my firm’s focus is; my focus is on the commercial side and actually helping these companies go to market, but as I said, that expands much farther beyond Portugal as well, because you might have cultivators here. Still, then, for example, in Germany, we have a lot of distributors. And as France comes online, we’ll probably see a similar type of model. So a lot of these distributors as well.

They are looking for branding advice, marketing advice, positioning advice, commercial strategy advice. That’s where the main focus lies.

What is your ideal client?

My ideal client is either just gone to market and is struggling or looking for advice and insights into positioning their product better or even looking at a way to alter their commercial strategy because it’s just their current one is failing. So looking at a new market segment within this space, or someone starting, that has not commercially launched yet and is now in the phase of their project where they’re starting to prepare for their commercial, more commercial strategy and launch into the market. So if they haven’t already, I’m looking to jump on board and get them set up for the launch.

And it is based on some of the experience that you gained at Tilray? Or what do you bring to them?

Yeah, definitely. Many of the experiences come from personal experience and being around cannabis for the last ten-plus years. And also in Michigan, starting back from 2008. With, with the medical regulations there. My ten years plus years of personal knowledge and experience with the plant and speaking with consumers. But then, on top of that, also, yes, the professional experience with Tilray being one of the first movers in the European market, I got to see a lot of things that other individuals just haven’t got the scene yet. And I even feel I got to help set the foundation, if you will, for the market here in Europe while working with Tilray. And yeah, over the three years, a lot of experience and knowledge and stories to share to help new companies navigate a bit smoother, let’s say.

We’re starting to see events come back. So do you think the events will come back? The way we are seeing it in the US? We had MJBizCon with 10,000 people; we’re starting to see events come back. So do you think that that platform will revive? Or do you think there’s now a hybrid model? Because of what we’ve all gone through?

No, I think it will revive because I even think just this week or over the weekend was Cannabis Europa, in London, right back on board. I don’t know how I think it was a bit of a hybrid, a hybrid model. And, and I mean, I guess, Patrick, I think you see more of the hybrid in the future only because the fact that I think people just realize we can reach more people by also making a digital stream and charging for that, but it’s more affordable, whatever. I think it’s just some people. The reality is that you want to go to an event, but you just can’t get there. I mean, based on your location, so. So I think we’ll see a hybrid, but I think in person is back for sure. I was at Web Summit here in Lisbon. The other week. I mean, there are 40,000 people at Web Summit here in Portugal. And there’s energy; there’s a buzz when you get in those events. I mean, yeah, some events are trash and not worth going to at all, I’m sure. And especially in a new exciting industry, I think you have to be very careful with what you actually decide to pay for and attend. But yeah, I think I think they’re back, and I think 2022. We’ll see a lot more of that in the event should start to get a little bit more exciting in Europe here as well with more players in the industry that are actually operating and not just selling an idea or a business plan.

So and do you think that what we’ve seen so far in Europe is outside players, particularly Canadians coming in and dominating? Do you think that that will continue, or do you think Europe will realize they should do it themselves?

I think I think Europe’s already realizing that they should do it themselves. Even Germany is allowing for small and cultivation. So I guess we could go down this one for a while. But, where’s the best cannabis produced? People go back and forth on this stuff all the time. But I know there’s good cannabis being produced here in Europe. I know there are good growers here. I know some people have as much, if not more knowledge than some individuals back in the States now, yeah. Places such as Portugal or Spain, where the weather is conducive to it as well.

I just saw an article the other day; there’s always this reference of Portugal; it’s the California of Europe or whatever. There’s plenty of lands here. I mean, even though Portugal has small bits, there’s plenty of enough cultivation area to produce more than enough cannabis, then Spain next door, which has more than enough agriculture and space as well. And, and I know, both these countries are trying to develop these areas as well.

I know there are many challenges, particularly in the agricultural sectors; they have no one to come in and harvest. So the labor is a problem. Yeah, finding the labor to do that. They have to incentivize people to do that.

Interesting. I have a friend with a blueberry farm here as well up in about an hour north of here, but they have a pretty heavy they have a 10-hectare farm with a pretty heavy picking season for a couple of months. He seems to find labor quite easily here. So I think it’s affordable labor as well.

It doesn’t make sense to send indoor-grown flower from British Columbia, all the way across Canada, all the way across the ocean to Germany. It’s expensive.

But those people already have many licenses, which is crucial because they’ll maintain that. And that gives them an advantage that new entrants won’t have.

Yeah.

So, if people want to learn more about what you’re doing, where can they find you?

They can find me on LinkedIn, at Steven Arthur, George on LinkedIn. That is where I primarily produced most of my content. And then, you can find my website, my personal and company website, and on the featured section of my LinkedIn profile, so check me out there. You can find everything.

Great. Well, Steven, we very much appreciate your time today. We look forward to hearing more and hopefully a lot more activity in Portugal, other than just simply cultivation. And we will; we’ll welcome those insights from you.

Well, it was a pleasure being on here, Patrick; thanks again for the invite.

Absolutely.

CannaList Conversations – Exploring Portugal with Steven Arthur George

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