SKOPJE, North Macedonia – In a desolate industrial area of this capital city, a cannabis grow house is being built that, when completed, will span 178,000 square feet, about the size of a Walmart supermarket. At full capacity, 17 tons of marijuana will be harvested annually, worth approximately $ 50 million. Among the planned deals is a US strain known as Herijuana, an acronym for "heroin,quot; and "marijuana," which has received some rhapsodic online criticism.
"I am impressed with the dome," wrote a fan on Leafly, a cannabis review site. "It also gave me the ability to rap."
Pharmacon, the company behind this operation, has everything you need for a prosperous and explosive business, including contracts with buyers in Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom. Construction here in Skopje has slowed down in recent days, as new coronavirus regulations restrict the number of people who can work in groups. But the building will soon be finished, and then Pharmacon will face a very different kind of impediment: the government.
"They told everyone that this is a great opportunity for a new industry," said Zlatko Keskovski, a former karate instructor-turned-cannabis entrepreneur who works for Pharmacon. "They said they would pass a good law in a few months. That was almost two years ago.
Medical marijuana exports have been legal here since 2016. But to date, the law only allows oils, extracts, and tinctures, which, measured by demand, are only 30 percent of the market. The other 70 percent is the smokable bud of the plant, known as "flower,quot; in the industry, the sale and export of which are still prohibited.
That was supposed to change in 2018, when government leaders announced that the export law would be amended. Foreign investors were invited. Additional licenses were issued. And there was a colorful comeback last August, when an American cannabis executive named Michael Straumietis, who is called "Big Mike," flew in his private plane, met with the country's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, and was enthusiastic about his 2.6 million Instagram followers.
"Let me tell you that this country has great potential,quot; he wrote, "and I am excited to be a part of making Macedonia one of Europe's first cannabis superpowers."
But the promised amendment has been caught in parliament amid corruption charges. The opposition party says the prime minister has targeted cannabis licenses to family and allies, part of a plan to capitalize on a new green fever.
"In December alone, 10 licenses were issued and there are real concerns that five of them were granted to people close to Mr. Zaev," said Orce Gjorgjievski, a member of the executive committee of VMRO-DPMNE, the largest opposition party in the country. . "If this is not nepotism and corruption, then perhaps the Medellín Cartel is a charity organization."
Government officials say only a relative of the prime minister received a license and that they hope to pass the amendment when Parliament meets again, which is scheduled to do so in April.
The coronavirus will surely alter the timing of the eventual debate, because North Macedonia declared a 30-day state of emergency in mid-March and has more pressing matters to consider. But the fight sheds light on a bigger mystery: Why is Europe, a continent known for its progressive position on issues like healthcare and taxes, no longer having a thriving international cannabis trade?
It turns out that Europeans are conservative when it comes to cannabis, especially compared to the United States and Canada, where recreational marijuana laws have proliferated for years. Even in the Netherlands, where "coffee shops,quot; sell Citrus Haze, Choconesia and other varieties, cannabis has never been explicitly legalized. (Sale and consumption are tolerated in modest amounts.) Most European tokers today buy on the black market, and most of the supply comes from Afghanistan through Albania.
"There is a general fear that if we legalize medical marijuana, it will open the way for recreational marijuana," said Eoin Keenan, head of content for Prohibition Partners, a consultancy in London. "Europeans want a more regulated pharmaceutical model. Once we see it normalized, the conversations will advance to adult use. "
Demand for medical marijuana is strong in countries like Germany and the Czech Republic and is growing in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Keenan said. But to date, only two countries, Portugal and the Netherlands, allow the cultivation and export of medical marijuana. Recently, the slow pace of legalization caused Prohibition Partners to lower its forecast for the size of the European market. It will generate $ 2.5 billion in sales by 2024, the company predicted in its latest report, significantly below the $ 39 billion it forecast last year.
Grabbing some of that pie would have a significant advantage for northern Macedonia, a small landlocked country of just 2.1 million people, where the average monthly income is about $ 500.
The country has had economic problems since 1991, the year it achieved independence after the breakup of Yugoslavia. A decade ago, the government attempted to fuel a tourism boom by spending $ 750 million on an ambitious makeover, building hundreds of statues in Skopje, including a 47-foot bronze in the city center called "warrior on horseback.
The results made Skopje "the new capital of kitsch," the city center mayor complained four years ago. The country's international branding efforts were complicated last year when it added "North,quot; to its name. It was an effort to appease the Greeks, who have long blocked the country's entry into NATO and the European Union, claiming that the original "Macedonia,quot; was part of Greece.
Now, the correct way to refer to all things Macedonian is so complicated that the government issued an official question-and-answer guide called "Simplified North Macedonia,quot;. One question was how to describe lunch with the president of the country.
"It would be correct to say that the President of North Macedonia served him a lunch of delicious Macedonian specialties, ”explains the guide. "It would not be correct to say that you had lunch with the President of North Macedonia."
The nuances of the medical cannabis market here are just a little bit easier to follow. In 2016, the fledgling business attracted Mr. Keskovski, a 50-year-old man who tells his life story in lively explosions between puffs of cigarettes. The former president of the Macedonian Kendo Federation, whose chops and kicks can be seen on YouTube, served as head of government security details in the 2000s.
"It really was a management job, because I had to negotiate and coordinate with 24 different services in the government, like the police, the army," he said. "Getting into cannabis is also management, except that in my other job, if I missed something, someone could die."
He found investors in New York City and created NYSK Holdings in 2016. (The company joined Poland-based Pharmacon last year.) First, NYSK built a 12,000-square-foot cultivation and extraction operation. To visit it, a kind of hazardous materials suit is required, as well as a mask and a pair of gloves. It is to protect cannabis from people.
"You have to remember this is medicine," said Franz Sima, 31, one of the gardeners in charge.
Walking down a long hallway, Mr. Sima opened a room full of hum, bright lights, and rows of rows of identical plants. "This is a hybrid of Miracle Alien Cookies and Blue Killer, which is a strain that I created," he said. "If you ran your fingers over a stem, they would have a very floral, grape, lemon scent."
This installation once focused only on oils and tinctures. Lately, it has been producing "mother plants,quot;, which will be shipped to the new, larger facility. There, branches will be planted and then sold in the form of flowers to foreign buyers.
At least that's the plan. A vote on the amendment that would legalize flower exports was delayed again in February. The issue became politically charged in recent months, when the number of government-issued licenses increased by dozens. It was then that the opposition party began charging that a handful of those licenses would ultimately enrich the prime minister.
Not so, says Venko Filipce, the country's health minister.
A prime minister's cousin received a license, and no other family member, he said, barely enough to justify the charge of nepotism. As for the Prime Minister's friends? I didn't know of any licensed.
"But getting a license is just a starting point," he said. “No one is getting rich with a license. It takes a great investment and experience. "
For local cannabis activists, the most obvious problem with the current system is tangentially related to profits. As of now, only one company manufactures a product for household use. According to Janaki Mitrovski of Bilka, a nonprofit organization that advocates legalization, it is expensive, weak, and available only in half of the health care system, that is, half run by the state.
"When my mother had bowel cancer, I, a lawyer, had to buy a kilogram from a drug dealer, a client of mine, and turn it into oil myself," said Mitrovski. "We, as citizens, have given these boys a golden business opportunity, and in return, so far we have nothing to show."
The country's cannabis entrepreneurs are equally irritated, for very different reasons. Some have been growing and storing flowers in anticipation of passing the amendment. If they can't sell it soon, they may have to burn it, an expensive and strictly regulated process since it would be treated as medical waste.
"We invested $ 15 million in the new facilities," said Keskovski, raising his voice. "I am angry with both sides. They are fighting each other and we are collateral damage."
He spoke as he walked around the perimeter of the huge, stark large farmhouse. It was surrounded by high walls, barbed wire, and security cameras, features that are required by regulations.
"I told my partners not long ago," he said dryly, "if cannabis doesn't work, it would be easy enough to turn this place into a jail."