Flora Growth CEO Luis Merchan Discusses Distribution Growth, Colombia’s Move To Mandate Cannabis Coverage For Healthcare
Earlier this year, Colombia’s government added cannabis-based formulations to its official list of medicines that must be covered by health care entities (EPS) receiving government funding. This unprecedented move is a vote of confidence by the conservative Colombian government in the efficacy of cannabis derived medicines.
Flora Growth (NASDAQ: FLGC) is one of the companies at the vanguard of formulating new products, but the company has also been financially innovative, listing on NASDAQ in the US rather than following most other sector companies with operations based in Colombia that list on Canada’s TSX.
With legal headquarters in Fort Lauderdale and almost 500 acres for cannabis cultivation in Colombia, Flora Growth’s business model spans consumer goods and medical formulations. Finance Colombia’s Executive Editor Loren Moss caught up with Flora Growth CEO Luis Merchan to discuss some recent developments with the company, and the significance of the decision by Colombia’s health ministry to Flora Growth, and to the sector more broadly.
Finance Colombia: One of the things I wanted to start with is that I noticed that you signed a distribution agreement for some of your products, is that correct?
Luis Merchan: That is correct. There are several of them that have been signed over the last couple of months. My team continues to expand not only on the wholesale side of our operations but also on the CPG side of the operation in terms of distribution and revenues.
“The change by the Secretary of Health, by the Ministry of Health, puts Colombia at the vanguard in terms of regulatory and legal framework for medicinal cannabis in the world. “
Finance Colombia: Can you tell me a little bit about the distribution deals? I think I saw that some of your products are going to go into Mexico and some other markets.
Luis Merchan: Yes, as you know Loren, Mexico is a very active cannabis market. There’s a new law that is being evaluated as of today that would allow several categories of products with less than one percent THC to be sold as normal, non-regulated CPG products, which would be an incredible step towards the distribution of wellness products in the country. Our agreement was for distribution initially of our floral beauty products. Those products are actually being sold already in major retailers in Mexico like Walmart.com and Coppel, which is a massive store chain with over 300 distribution points across the entire country, so clearly we continue to make inroads, not only from a distribution and sales standpoint but also from the regulatory standpoint.
Finance Colombia: I saw that the stock took a nice bump when that news was announced. Now, here in Colombia, we recently published an article and we see where the Ministry of Health, they issued a…in the US, we call it something like a pharmacopeia, but they issued updated guidelines for what medicines and treatments are covered by the EPS, by Colombia’s publicly supported health insurance providers or healthcare providers that are known here locally as EPS (Entidad proveedor de salúd, or Healthcare provider entity), and it’s interesting because one of the things that caught our attention was that they added cannabis, both CBD and also THC products to their list of medicines that insurance companies not only can cover but actually must cover. So I wanted to get your input on how impactful that is and what that means for the industry, specifically for patients, but then also specifically for Flora Growth.
Luis Merchan: Yes, Loren. It’s a significant change. I think there’s three major topics to cover here. First, the change by the Secretary of Health, by the Ministry of Health, puts Colombia at the vanguard in terms of regulatory and legal framework for medicinal cannabis in the world. This move is very meaningful; it allows patients that are suffering from major ailments such as anxiety, depression, pain, insomnia, all these ailments, they have access now to cannabis molecules. The doctors also now have the ability to prescribe such cannabis formulations, which is a very meaningful step, and also of course puts Colombia in a very strong position in terms of how to approach the medicinal regulatory environment.
For the patients, it’s significant, and obviously patients today have for long talked about the empirical benefits of cannabis and they secure most of their cannabis formulations from the black market today, and they do it because they have to. And of course what happens with those types of formulations is that they do not have the quality standards that medical formulations should have, so they inadvertently are putting themselves at risk. Now they are not going to have to do that, they can go to their doctor, they can ask for the formulation and the doctor can give them a prescription, and so it makes it safer for patients to have access to medicinal cannabis.
And for companies such as mine, it’s a major step towards not only broadly distributing products and formulations that are already in existence, but also a significant economic revenue that can be guaranteed, almost guaranteed in an environment like Colombia where you can actually bill public entities for the formulations that are being given to patients.
Finance Colombia: I know that there are all kinds of different treatment options. There are traditional hospitals, there are doctors that are private practitioners, there are clinics that are also known as IPS down here, which are obviously different than the EPS, which are more of like what we would call a PPO back in the States. But then I see that there have also been, on a limited basis, treatment clinics that have opened up, kind of for palliative care and for treating other different things. Now, one of the interesting things about Flora, about your company, is that you guys have a really interesting distribution model because you have cannabis derived products, you have things like cosmetics, you have health foods, you have hemp textiles. One of the things I don’t remember us talking about is pharmaceutical products or medicines. How are you involved in this space when it comes to healthcare or prescription medication?
Luis Merchan: Actually, our laboratory has the ability to manufacture a wide array of products including phytotherapeutics, dietary supplements and capsules. We today manufacture skincare solutions for almost a thousand doctors that develop custom formulations for their patients and distribute them on a one-to-one prescription basis, so for us it’s a plug-and-play move. We are going to now be able to manufacture our cannabis formulations, what in Colombia’s called magistral custom formulas, and be able to plug in to that network of doctors that is already in existence. So, that would be the easier shorter route to gain access, to give access to patients and doctors to our products and formulations.
But as you mentioned, I think the bigger play here is to plug into the broader EPS network; educate doctors on the benefits of each one of the formulators that we have available so then they are comfortable prescribing patients when they’re coming, to treat a number of ailments. So, this is going to be a campaign that is going to take some time, but our intent is to educate the medical community in Colombia with the many partnerships that we have, and we actually have developed this very robust cannabis education programs for doctors and ensure that then they in turn start prescribing these safe formulations for the treatment of the many elements that patients are looking for today.
Finance Colombia: Like you mentioned, you have your laboratory. You guys have your INVIMA registration…INVIMA, for those who don’t know, is kind of like the Colombian version of the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration back in the States. You mentioned the magistral, the custom formulas. Now, I noticed that you have on your website, which is floralgrowth.com, where it talks about the laboratory, there’s a place for people that are interested in becoming Flora Lab distributors. What kind of companies are the good candidates for distribution? Pharmacies? CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods)? Are there maybe other companies that use the ingredients? How does your distribution model work in that respect?
Luis Merchan: When it comes to Flora Lab, we offer a broad array of products. There are branded products, over 65 of them that are INVIMA registered that we distribute worldwide, and any company that is a major distributor, that has access to points of sales in Latin America, in Central America, or all over the world can reach out to us and can become a distributor for those products. But there are other categories of products that are manufactured and sold at Flora. One of those is, of course, a prescription medication. We have a number of molecules that we plug into pharmacies and drug stores. We have, as I mentioned, phytotherapeutics, which is a very specialized area of therapy and treatment, and doctors and pharmaceutical distributors can reach out to us to plug into those categories of products. And then, lastly, we also have wholesale ingredients that we sell, and distributors that are interested in the wholesale side of distribution can also reach out to us and can become a part of the Flora distribution network.
“In North America we’re selling some of our products in 48 out of the 50 states, in Mexico, in Costa Rica. We are already selling some products into Canada. When you’re in Europe our footprint expands into Portugal, Malta, England…”
Finance Colombia: What markets, what countries have you guys expanded to so far? Where do you have a presence? I know you have different brands in different locations, but obviously you’re here in Colombia. But what other countries, obviously I think Mexico, I think Spain, but let me understand now what countries have Flora Growth products across your CPG and the pharmaceutical brands. Where can your products be found?
Luis Merchan: The list is exceptional, continues to grow, Loren, from a CPG perspective. We’re in the majority of Latin America as of today and at least the markets that are the most meaningful. I think the one market that is not there…It’s probably easier to tell you what market that we haven’t penetrated yet but we’re looking to, in South America is Brazil, because of the strict rules that they have in terms of distribution, but for the rest, in North America we’re selling some of our products in 48 out of the 50 states, in Mexico, in Costa Rica. We are already selling some products into Canada. When you’re in Europe our footprint expands into Portugal, Malta, England. We have now activated these distribution agreements in several countries across the globe, like Israel, like South Africa, Germany and Australia. Those contracts will activate this year so that the flag has been planted but the revenue generation will not start until 2022, and the good news here is that our team is a global team in terms of distribution, sales and regulatory, so we’ll continue to evaluate which opportunities are opening up in terms of the regulatory framework and when those do, then we are ready to very quickly enter the market, and that’s what happened for example in Mexico, and that’s what will probably continue to happen in other countries around the world, so look forward to more countries being added to this list.
Finance Colombia: That’s great to hear. Obviously, we want you to keep us posted as we continue to cover, not just obviously the stock from a financial perspective, but also your growth as a company and your product line. It’s really good to see Colombian companies becoming true multinationals and becoming companies that are expanding into markets, not just here in Latin America, but in North America and in Europe and beyond, so it’s really impressive what you’ve been able to do in such a short time.