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

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

by host

BRUSSELS — The Belgian member of the European Parliament Maria Arena and her businessman son share a common interest: cannabis.

The socialist EU lawmaker, whose properties police raided in connection with the Qatargate corruption scandal this summer, has taken a prominent role in efforts to harmonize EU cannabis laws in the European Parliament.

Her son, Ugo Lemaire, co-founded a company called BRC & Co that sells CBD products, made from an extract of cannabis that does not cause a high and that are legal in most EU countries including Belgium.

Lemaire’s cannabis business was already in the spotlight for conflict-of-interest concerns in June when it emerged that he co-founded and co-ran BRC & Co with the son of Michel Claise, the judge leading the Qatargate investigation. Claise recused himself shortly after. Then, in July, police raids targeting Arena discovered €280,000 in cash at Lemaire’s home next door to hers.

The mother and son’s interests have sometimes overlapped, including in December 2019 when Arena hosted an event on cannabis at the European Parliament. The event was organized by ACTIVE, a cannabis trade association that lists Lemaire as its Benelux president. ACTIVE hailed it as the “first major cannabis event at the EU Parliament.”

Arena said that her hosting the event did not represent a conflict because it “in no way promoted a private interest but rather a subject of general interest.” The event was about medical patients’ access to therapeutic cannabis and not about recreational cannabis or CBD, she said.

Not everybody was convinced. Stuart Lambie, secretary general of the nongovernmental organization Medicinal Cannabis Europe, said he stayed away from the event. “It was more or less public knowledge in Brussels that Arena and Ugo Lemaire were related, so we felt that ACTIVE [being] involved in her event was a clear conflict of interest,” he said. 

Along with three other lawmakers, Arena also cofounded a lobby group in Parliament on medicinal cannabis in early 2021. Called the European Medicinal Cannabis Alliance, it seeks to harmonize cannabis laws across the European Union, an initiative other supporters of the effort say would help Lemaire’s businesses.

“Currently the levels of CBD and THC levels in cannabis products allowed across Europe differs starkly,” Arena and her cofounders wrote in an email to all MEPs. “An effort to standardize legislation across the board would in turn help to tackle other elements which are linked together to this issue.” 

Alex Agius Saliba, the leading EU lawmaker behind the alliance, said Arena did not disclose her son’s involvement in the industry. “I think she should have, yes, declared her interest there,” said Agius Saliba, who like Arena is a socialist. He added it was “obvious harmonizing legislation will help” Lemaire, “whether directly or indirectly.”

Lambie, whose NGO has supported the alliance, agreed that harmonizing legislation would benefit both medicinal and recreational cannabis companies, such as 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 hosted an event on cannabis organized by a trade association that lists her son, Ugo Lemaire, as its Benelux president; he was sitting in the front row

“We anticipate that the rest of Europe will go in the same direction, which is a huge opportunity for us,” Lemaire was quoted as saying in an interview on Benzinga.com in 2019. “We are still waiting for a harmonization of legislative frameworks across EU state members.”

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 shared the group’s action plan, which focused on broadening patients’ access to medicinal cannabis (and not CBD products).

Arena told the website Bedrocan in September 2020 that she first planned to secure a “new EU legal framework” for medicinal cannabis and then take the “further step” to “make progress on the legislation of CBD beyond medicinal uses.” She added: “But that is not our main goal yet.” Arena said her remarks show that CBD “is not a priority, and that this aspect wasn’t followed up by any concrete step.”

She said she was not very active after the group’s initial meetings, adding that she did not know whether the group was even still running. Lambie and Agius Saliba both confirmed that Arena is not an active player in the alliance, which now includes 36 MEPs. 

Arena cofounded a lobby group in Parliament on medicinal cannabis in early 2021

Denis Bosquet, a lawyer for Lemaire, said he would not comment. There is no indication that the money found at Lemaire’s home is related to Qatargate. Arena told Francophone media in September that the money has nothing to do with her or Qatargate. She denies any wrongdoing.

Sarah Wheaton and Elisa Braün contributed reporting. 

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