Monday, April 15, 2024

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MEP Maria Arena and her son: A joint passion for cannabis


Maria Arena, a member of the European Parliament from Belgium, and her son who is a businessman, both have an interest in cannabis.

The socialist member of the European Union, whose properties were searched by police due to their involvement in the Qatargate corruption scandal this summer, has played a significant role in the European Parliament’s efforts to standardize cannabis laws within the EU.

Ugo Lemaire, co-founder of BRC & Co, established a business that offers CBD goods derived from a cannabis extract with no psychoactive effects, and are legally available in several EU countries, such as Belgium.

Lemaire’s involvement in the cannabis industry was under scrutiny due to potential conflicts of interest. It was revealed that he had co-founded and co-managed BRC & Co with Michel Claise’s son, who was overseeing the Qatargate investigation. Claise later withdrew from the case. In July, police searched Arena and found €280,000 in cash at Lemaire’s neighboring residence.

In December 2019, the mother and son both shared an interest in cannabis when Arena held an event at the European Parliament. The event was coordinated by ACTIVE, a cannabis trade group where Lemaire serves as the Benelux president. ACTIVE celebrated it as the “inaugural cannabis event at the EU Parliament.”

Arena explained that her role as host for the event did not pose a conflict of interest because it did not serve to benefit her personally, but rather focused on a topic of public interest. The event centered around the availability of therapeutic cannabis for medical patients and did not touch upon recreational cannabis or CBD.

Stuart Lambie, the secretary general of Medicinal Cannabis Europe, did not attend the event as it was widely known in Brussels that Arena and Ugo Lemaire had a familial connection. Lambie expressed concern about ACTIVE’s involvement in the event, citing it as a conflict of interest.

In the beginning of 2021, Arena, along with three other legislators, helped establish a parliamentary lobby group focused on medicinal cannabis. This group, known as the European Medicinal Cannabis Alliance, aims to unify cannabis regulations throughout the European Union. Supporters of this initiative believe it would benefit Lemaire’s enterprises.

“According to Arena and her cofounders, there is currently a significant disparity in the permitted levels of CBD and THC in cannabis products throughout Europe. They believe that implementing standardized legislation would not only address this issue, but also help to address other related factors.”

Alex Agius Saliba, the prominent EU legislator responsible for the coalition, stated that Arena failed to reveal her son’s participation in the sector. “I believe she should have declared her interest in that matter,” said Agius Saliba, who shares a political affiliation with Arena. He also noted that it is clear that implementing unified laws would benefit Lemaire, “whether directly or indirectly.”

Lambie, whose non-governmental organization has provided support to the alliance, concurred that aligning laws would be advantageous for both medicinal and recreational cannabis businesses, including BRC & Co, the company co-founded by Arena’s son.

BRC & Co runs a platform called Buddy Belgium, which bills itself as the “first European CBD hub.” It sells CBD products with names like Santa Maria, Master Kush and Amnesia, which were made legal by a change in Belgian law that allowed the sale of cannabis buds low in THC — the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis — as tobacco products.

Maria Arena held a gathering centered around cannabis, arranged by a business group that includes her son, Ugo Lemaire, as the Benelux president. He was seated in the front row.

According to an interview on Benzinga.com in 2019, Lemaire stated that they expect other European countries to follow suit, presenting a significant opportunity for their company. They are currently awaiting the standardization of legal frameworks among EU member states.

Arena rejected the suggestion that Lemaire’s business stood to benefit from her activities. “The objectives of this working group were focused solely on the question of medical cannabis and not at all on the commercialization of CBD for the wider public,” she wrote in an email to POLITICO.

She disclosed the group’s strategy, which aimed to expand patients’ availability of medical marijuana (excluding CBD products).

In September 2020, Arena informed the website Bedrocan that her initial strategy was to establish a new legal framework within the EU for medicinal cannabis. After achieving this, her next goal was to make advancements in regulating CBD for uses beyond medicinal purposes. However, she clarified that this is not their main focus at the moment. Arena’s statement implies that CBD is not currently a top priority and no concrete actions have been taken to address this aspect.

She stated that she was not very involved after the group’s initial meetings and was unsure if the group was still active. Lambie and Agius Saliba both verified that Arena is not an active participant in the alliance, which currently consists of 36 MEPs.

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In early 2021, Arena helped establish a lobby group in Parliament focused on advocating for medicinal cannabis.

Denis Bosquet, Lemaire’s attorney, stated he will not provide a statement. There is no evidence linking the money discovered at Lemaire’s residence to Qatargate. Arena informed French-speaking media in September that the money is unrelated to her or Qatargate. She denies any unlawful actions.

Reporting was provided by Sarah Wheaton and Elisa Braün.