On a recent afternoon in Kensington, Michael Sautman was talking on one phone with a reporter when another phone started ringing with a call from Israel, where his company is competing to grow medical marijuana on behalf of the government.
Sautman is the American CEO of Bedrocan International, one of the first transnational marijuana enterprises, and its arrival in the East Bay this year demonstrates just how important the local cannabis economy has become on a global scale. As Oakland and Berkeley gear up to offer commercial pot cultivation permits, Sautman and his colleagues aim to position themselves in the rapidly expanding marketplace of “cannabusinesses,” make money and help professionalize the industry. Ultimately, Sautman’s vision is to use the American pharmaceutical drug-approval process to legalize marijuana nationwide.
Bedrocan International is an offshoot of Bedrocan BV, the medical marijuana producer contracted by the Dutch government to supply standardized, pharmaceutical-grade cannabis to pharmacies there. It’s one of only a handful of companies of its kind, and Sautman is hoping to leverage the firm’s unique pedigree by consulting with California cultivators who would like to upgrade their operations to a similar pharmaceutical model.
“Their arrival here in California is very timely,” said Victoria Garzouzi, a chemist who consults in the marijuana industry. “They are ahead of a lot of the folks here.”
Sautman said his company is also aiming to get its pharmaceutical pot system approved by the U.S. Food And Drug Administration.
“The FDA is the jewel in the crown worldwide,” he said. “Anybody who is engaged in the process would want to get their drug through the FDA.”
The FDA approval process takes years and costs millions. But if Bedrocan is successful, Sautman said, it could trigger the feds to legalize marijuana. Presently the U.S. government classifies the drug as schedule I, meaning there is “no currently accepted medical use.”
There are many regulatory barriers to Bedrocan’s plan.
To do FDA-approved marijuana research, scientists must get the drug from a federally approved source. There is only one in the nation — at the University of Mississippi — and getting government permission to use its product is tough. Scientists could also presumably cultivate their own research marijuana, but they need federal permission for that too, and so far their requests have been denied.
“It’s a real regulatory knot,” said Dale Gieringer, the director of the marijuana advocacy organization California NORML.
But Sautman said his company could get around the issue by importing its supply from the Netherlands.
“Any progress that Bedrocan makes moves us all forward,” wrote Rick Dobin, the executive director of a nonprofit group that advocates for clinical trials with psychedelic drugs, in an e-mail.
Bedrocan’s arrival does not signal a Dutch takeover of the Bay Area pot scene, however. Marijuana growers and hobbyists from Holland and California have commingled for decades, according to Robert MacCoun, an expert in Dutch and American drug policy.
Ed Rosenthal, a Bay Area-based marijuana cultivation expert who spends about a quarter of his time in the Netherlands as a “migrant farm laborer,” agreed.
“If you’re looking for the story of the Dutch invasion, that isn’t happening,” Rosenthal said. He said the uncertain legal status of medical marijuana in California still makes it an unappealing destination to most Dutch producers. “This is considered the heart of the anti-[pot] culture. So most companies are afraid to come over here,” he said.
By Kate McLean
August 13, 2010
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