Cannabis in Italy: an interview to Canapar CEO Sergio Martines

Mediterranean countries are playing a huge role in the development of the emerging cannabis market in Europe. The need for economic growth, the zeal in attracting investments from abroad, and the favourable geographic position are making the difference and driving positive change in the region.

Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to speak to Costas Vamvakas about Greece’s promising cannabis market. This time we have chosen to take a look at another country in the Mediterranean Sea – Italy – which currently seems to play a leading role in this sector, being the second largest cannabis market in Europe with a population of 60 million people.

Cannabis in Italy is legal for medical and industrial uses, although it is strictly regulated, while it is decriminalised for recreational uses. The popularity of recreational cannabis led in 2016 to renewed legalisation efforts in Parliament, where legislation was proposed with the support of several politicians, mainly from the centre-left, left, and anti-establishment parties.

We have heard from Sergio Martines, CEO of Canapar, based in Sicily, the southernmost insular region of Italy. Sergio has a long-standing experience in the pharmaceutical, dermo-cosmetic and nutritional fields. In 2018, Sergio decided to devote his experience to a new project, which offered him the chance to do business in his homeland, after several years in Canada, where he currently lives with his family.

DC. Canada, Spain, Italy – how was Canapar born?

SM. The idea of bringing the cultivation of industrial hemp to Sicily, and consequently to set up a Sicilian-based company, has been around for a long time, a result of legalising the cannabis market in Canada. At the beginning we faced some difficulties due to the slow bureaucratic procedures, creating a gap between Italy and Canada. At first we decided to invest in Sicily for its geographical position in the Mediterranean basin, but more importantly, for its long experience as producer of industrial hemp. Until now, we have started about 900 hectares of crops in the South of Italy, particularly in Sicily and Apulia. For the next agricultural year 2020, we have already planned the possibility of duplicating the land devoted to the industrial hemp cultivation.

DC. What is Canapar? Can you tell us about its history and business mission?

SM. We are an international company dedicated to the development and commercialisation of Italy’s CBD and hemp industry. Canapar is funded by Canopy Rivers which works collaboratively with Canopy Growth, the first cannabis company in North America to trade legally. Our principal mission is to develop and optimise natural and organic farming of cannabis production and extraction as processing industrial hemp and its derivatives used as an input into new commercial products in the health and wellness industries.

DC. Cultivators or manufacturers? Or both?

SM. We have engaged different farmers interested in growing industrial hemp. Then, we work on it, and we extract the active ingredient, without including the psychoactive compound, of the plant using a so-called green chemistry approach. The last phase considers the intervention of other companies who will transform the active ingredient to obtain nutraceutical products for the wellness and health of people.

DC. What kind of products are available?

SM. To sum up, Canapar will produce: crude oil, a mix of cannabinoids and terpenes with a singular smell; a distillate, a mix of cannabinoids which characterizes the plant; isolated, for example, CBD such as crystalline solid and, probably in the future, other cannabinoids. Every single cannabinoid has specific properties and science is predicting a growth of selected plants on their variety and whose combination will be connected to a particular pathology in order to obtain specialised treatments. Furthermore, it is necessary to emphasize that every variety of cannabis and their possible hybridisations develop some unique specimens. Regarding the THC, in Italy it cannot be manipulated or isolated, on the contrary it will be denatured and treated as waste.

DC. Who is the target? Medical and/or recreational use?

SM. Our target market includes the following sectors: the cosmetic, the pharmaceutical and the nutraceutical industries. Then, the latter will take care of the final formulation and the retail trade.

DC. Do you operate in the domestic market or also export internationally?

SM. In Sicily we opened the largest plant in Italy, which works with those particular active ingredients. Obviously we will work for the national market, but we will also export around the world: our company has adopted an international approach.

DC. How would you describe how you and your staff work? What are your goals?

SM. In our company, every single person has its specific role: managers, executives with business experience, agronomists, media & communication, marketing, production, quality control. Starting from this moment until the end of the year, we will research different professional profiles like pharmacists, chemists but also specialised operators. We do not have just commercial business objectives. Currently we have important collaborations with the University of Catania from a medical point of view and concerning the agronomy. Several investigations about the genetic and agronomic improvements are ongoing. An important oncological study is being developed destined for treatments about tumour pathology through some medical hemp varieties, in collaboration with the University of Catania and the Canopy Growth partnership.

DC. Cooperation with local institutions, education and testing – What can you tell us about Canapar’s partnerships with local universities and academic departments?

SM. The local affiliates, including the Mayor of the Sicilian town of Ragusa, have found out with enthusiasm this new and important industrial reality. Regarding to the academic side, as mentioned before, we have an important partnership with The Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment, a division of the University of Catania. Very soon we will start to coordinate some internships or practice opportunities for university students who would like to deepen their studies and their knowledge in the field, as well as build professional skills in our company.

DC. Cannabis cultivation facilities are usually held indoors, especially in Canada, where climatic conditions are not always ideal. Can you tell us how Canapar manages to exploit the favourable weather in Sicily?

SM. The climate conditions in Sicily, and all over all the Mediterranean basin, are very favourable for this kind of cultivation. In contrast to the climate in Canada where the temperatures remain frigid. As a matter of fact, here in Sicily we have the perfect temperature for the cultivation and the growth of industrial outdoor hemp.

DC. What is the official position of the Italian Government? And what is the legal framework?

SM. Regarding Italy and according to the EU law on cannabis, the cultivation of industrial hemp is permitted using certificated seeds of specified hemp varieties in the European Union with a tolerance level up to 0.6% of the psychoactive compound THC, reducing the psychoactive properties. According to the Italian State, the cultivation can have the following purposes: cultivation and transformation, development of local industries, use of semi-finished hemp from local industries, generation of bio-engineered projects, educational activities, food production, raw materials, semi-finished products and innovative cosmetics for different industrial sectors. Industrial hemp production does not need any kind of license or authorisation from the Italian Government, that means it is not necessary to give some communications to the local police. However the owner must be able to provide evidence for keeping industrial hemp seeds and proof of purchase of no less than 12 months, and, in any case, for the entire duration of the cultivation and production of industrial hemp, as well as the invoices according to the Italian law.

DC. What’s your opinion on the political situation in Europe, especially as regards Brexit and the incoming elections?

SM. Predicting the future is very complicated, but it is important to signal the World Health Organization’s opinion who recommended to all governments of the world the elimination of cannabis and its resin from the dangerous narcotic drug list, supporting the therapeutic evidence that the plant is proving to have for some ailments and diseases.

I believe that Britain, with its growing acceptance of cannabis among its political and business establishments will play a significant role.

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