It was while researching military history in 2008 that Paul McCourt, chief executive of Co Louth-based Celtic Wind, decided he wanted to bring the hemp industry to Ireland. While reading the diaries of soldiers who served under Napoleon Bonaparte, he found that the 19th century French military leader was a firm believer in the industrial cannabis sativa plant.
"He never went to war unless his hemp fields were fully stocked and harvested," said McCourt. "It was an amazing plant that they used for their uniforms or these hemp biscuits.
"I did a bit of a Google search and thought, 'Oh my god, this is cannabis'. Then I realised that it wasn't and that there was this whole industry across Europe and Canada. I did my research and thought, 'Ireland has to have this industry. Hemp has to come to Ireland'."
Armed with his business plan, McCourt formed Celtic Wind in 2010. He spent the next five years in research and development, while struggling to attract interest or investment.
It was in 2016, after finally mastering the process of producing cannabidiol (CBD), when Celtic Wind started to attract interest.
Corkwoman Vera Twomey had started campaigning for access to medical cannabis oil to help treat her sick daughter, Ava. She set off on a 260km march from her home to Dublin to deliver her message to the Government.
"It was all over the news. A distributor [who had previously turned the products down] rang us asking if we still had the oil. It just kind of exploded after that; there was great growth."
Since then, McCourt has developed a thriving enterprise which counts up to seven different farmers growing industrial hemp. The business produces CBD, which it sells as oil for consumption by humans and animals, as well as hemp fibres for products such as animal bedding.
In recent months, McCourt has expressed a worry that the CBD industry is about to hit hard times, leaving the farmers and early investors, who developed a budding interest, badly burnt.
The success of CBD businesses like McCourt's has resulted in a proliferation of enterprises across these shores, and beyond.
Many have been caught up in claims that this 'wonder product' holds health benefits and would become a trend that makes backers rich.
Belief in hemp's potential also hit Ireland. Over 2019, 74 hemp cultivation licences were issued by the Health Products Regulatory Authority, up from 24 in 2018. Only seven were circulated in 2016.
"There has been a massive increase in that CBD category. People thought that there was a lot of money to be made in this. They thought it was the next big trend; they heard CBD and saw pound signs per litre," said McCourt. "What these people didn't realise is the amount of work to get that product from the field to the shelf legally."
He said these investors are now licking their wounds. "There were companies promising farmers around €5,000 an acre and as soon as I heard that I thought, 'You have no idea what you are talking about, it is outrageous promising a farmer that kind of money; you can't make that.'"
Earlier this month, any fears that the high times enjoyed by the Irish CBD industry were coming to an end may have been confirmed. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) recalled various CBD food supplements sold across the country.
In a survey of 38 CBD products, the FSAI found that 37pc had THC content, the psychoactive constituent of the cannabis sativa plant, which could result in set safety limits being significantly exceeded.
It also found the determined CBD content in over 40pc of samples varied substantially from the declared content.
The FSAI said its findings showed people were consuming poor-quality CBD and potentially exposing themselves to THC.
The recall was a body blow to the industry, putting some investors' plans to splash the cash up in smoke. But, for some of those caught up in the 'green rush', it was the cloudy nature of Ireland and Europe's regulations that led to the recent seizures.
Michaela Herron, product regulatory partner with Mason Hayes and Curran, said the most significant challenge she had noted among these businesses was trying to navigate which regulatory framework applies to which products. "This can be really challenging for businesses, especially where they are selling a range of hemp products like supplements and cosmetics that are subject to different rules and regulations, so taking legal advice early on is crucial" she said.
Herron pointed out current regulations governing the industry have not always been clear. She said there had been a "widespread misconception" that CBD products containing less than 0.2pc THC were legal to sell in Ireland.
Under Irish law, a product containing CBD alone, with no THC, is not a controlled drug and therefore legal to sell. A CBD product which contains any trace of THC, even less than 0.2pc, is however illegal under the controlled drugs legislation. Certain industrial products are allowed the THC content, but not CBD oil for consumption.
The EU's categorisation of such CBD products as a novel food based on rules concerning the use of certain extraction methods has also confused many in the industry. Products categorised as a novel food require costly and time consuming health and safety checks. According to the FSAI's website, these additional rules "may apply".
Herron said greater clarity over when CBD oil and hemp products need authorisation under the EU novel foods regime would help businesses: "It is important for businesses to have a clear roadmap for the steps they need to take before placing a product on the market."
The EU is now grappling with these rules, which may lead to further clarity for businesses in this space.
Additionally, medicinal cannabis, which may include THC, can be prescribed to patients suffering from certain illnesses from consultant doctors in Ireland.
It has led to cannabis industry behemoths, including Aurora, MGC Pharmaceuticals and Tilray, receiving authorisation to offer their medicinal cannabis and CBD products in the Irish market.
The promise of more European countries opening up to medicinal cannabis has led to suggestions the industry could be worth €115.7bn across the continent by 2028.
For industry insiders, this means Ireland has to act fast before its European neighbours profit first. Eoin Keenan, communications director of London-based cannabis consultancy Prohibition Partners, which has an office in Dublin, said Ireland, with its agricultural heritage and booming pharmaceutical sector, was well-placed to profit from the increasing interest in medicinal cannabis.
Keenan, who was born in Dublin, believes Ireland is an exciting country for investors. He has noticed, however, that most investment and capital raises in the industry are happening in Europe, particularly with large companies targeting VCs and family offices.
Despite this, investment is slowly starting to make its way to our shores. "We are starting to see this activity take place in Ireland," he said.
"There is an investment tradition there in emerging sectors, there is a similar appetite for cannabis, but it's mostly private, not institutional.
"We've got lots of North American brands interested as well. Providence is one; they are making Dublin a European HQ, looking to raise €70m. They see it as an excellent gateway to the European market."
Despite the recent seizure by the FSAI, Keenan is still predicting strong growth for cannabis and hemp products in Ireland.
"I'm an eternal optimist," he said. "I wouldn't be in this industry if I didn't believe in the commercial and societal potential.
"I think it can be as massive as we think. Perceptions have changed over the past 18 months toward a position of realism.
"This is an unstable and slightly unpredictable market. Cannabis has been incredibly turbulent, it has dipped, and it has risen. I do think that there is an interest in Ireland for long-term growth."
Turbulent is certainly one word to describe life on stock exchanges for the listed players in the medicinal cannabis and CBD space, including those with Irish interests.
Nasdaq-listed Tilray, which is based in Canada, saw its share price peak in October 2018 at $148.30 (€135).
The price is currently sitting at $13.86, a near-90pc decline.
Despite the industry's poor performance on the markets, high demand from European investors, including those from Ireland, led to the introduction of an exchange-traded fund (ETF) focused on the legal marijuana industry.
Such funds have been popular in North America, despite a poor year for the sector. The world's largest cannabis ETF, the US-listed ETFMG Alternative Harvest, which has $673m of assets according to data compiler ETFGI, lost 28.5pc last year.
In January, Canadian fund Purpose Investments launched the Medical Cannabis and Wellness ETF. It is listed in Germany and is available to investors in the UK, Italy and Ireland. Purpose worked with issuer HANetf on the European launch.
Despite the new fund, Alan Merriman, founder of Elkstone Capital, which supported the launch of HANetf, said Irish investors were not feeling the love for the cannabis industry yet.
"We have had a number of inbound opportunities, solicitations from companies trying to get us to invest.
"Mostly, these have been from Canada, California or Amsterdam, from the technology processing it right through to the oils. It might change [in Ireland], but I'm just not seeing it."
Last year, John Teeling, the man behind the Teeling whiskey brand, expressed his interest in investing in the cannabis space.
Since then, the deal maker, who believed there was money to be made in CBD-infused beverages, has changed his mind on the potential to make money in the space.
"I think significantly less of the industry than I did then. It's not attractive at all," he said.
"There is money, and if I wanted to back it, then I would this afternoon. But I'm not sure the money could even be speculated wisely. It's a high risk.
"It's too early for me to invest in Ireland; the shake-out in Canada with the prices collapsing will cause issues. For me, at this stage, until there is clarity over the rules, I can't do it."
Teeling said he spent 15 months looking at opportunities. He looked at a number of €20m startups across North America.
He has stopped as he cannot see how the businesses would make money, and did not like the risk that companies could get closed down.
Despite Teeling's belief the industry will work in future, one area he believes could offer more immediate growth in Ireland is hemp-based construction materials.
The move to the construction materials side is something recognised by many in the industry. Paul Walsh, a co-founder of Greenheart CBD, has been working on developing hemp insulation and is in discussions about the potential for the product with a well-known Irish construction firm.
Celtic Wind's McCourt is also focusing on hemp building materials. He has looked at 'hempcrete' and is separately hoping to release hemp insulation next year.
The one thing blocking the development of this budding industry in Ireland is the lack of a proper factory to strip the plants and create the products.
McCourt said it would require the construction of a decorticator facility, which could cost up to €10m to develop. He still believes there is growth for those building hemp-based businesses, including CBD.
He said some CBD industry consolidation had been on the go since October, with some brands being "weeded out".
The head of Celtic Wind has high hopes that Government support could help businesses and farmers in the space thrive, but has his doubts over how forthcoming this support will be.
He has been lobbying the Government to help support the development of a decorticator plant for the supply of eco-friendly building materials.
"My problem is that we've been talking about developing this for 10 years. Nothing is happening," he highlighted.
As McCourt plots Celtic Wind's next move, he shared his plans for sowing this year's hemp across the group's farms.
He passionately believes in hemp, and is looking forward to harvesting around 50,000 acres of the crop in September, and plans to continue doing so well into the future.
"I want to promote the hemp industry the way it should have always been promoted," he said.
"CBD has taken it over. The plant is so important to us. That's what I'm passionate about; bringing the plant back."
HEMP AND CBD — BY THE NUMBERS
74: Number of hemp cultivation licences issued by the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) over 2019, up from seven in 2016
547: Hectares of hemp licensed by the HPRA for cultivation in 2019, up from just 18 in 2016
15: CBD brands recalled by the FSAI in February following a survey of 38 CBD products
37pc: Products tested (14 out of 38) which had levels of THC that if consumed at the maximum stated dosage could significantly exceed the safe limit
34pc: Samples (13 out of 38) classified as novel foods requiring authorisation before being placed on the EU market
41pc: Products tested (15 out of 37) containing CBD levels which differed by more than 50pc compared with the declared level. This rose to more than 92pc of products where the analytical and declared CBD content differed by at least 10pc. Some products had barely detectable levels of CBD
50pc: Those products (19 out of 38) which made misleading claims, including lactose-free, gluten-free and non-GMO, along with unauthorised health claims and some which may be considered medicinal claims
Sunday Indo Business