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Ethan Zohn

A Q&A with Ethan Zohn, Brand Ambassador for Momenta, a Trulieve Brand

By Aaron Green
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Ethan Zohn

Cannabis has been used to treat symptoms of cancer and chemotherapy including severe and chronic pain, nausea and vomiting. Many athletes also turn to cannabis for pain relief, incorporating cannabis into their pre- and post-workout routines. Though many states have legalized cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes, stigma still exists – even in legalized markets.

MSOs and brands will often employ a brand ambassador to help combat local stigma and gain traction within new markets. Trulieve, America’s largest cannabis multi-state operator with over 160 storefront locations, recently launched Momenta, an everyday wellness and overall well-being brand, in Massachusetts.

We interviewed Ethan Zohn, Brand Ambassador for Momenta, to learn more about his pathway to becoming a brand ambassador and how he incorporates cannabis into his running routines. Ethan is a former professional soccer player, Survivor: Africa winner, and two-time cancer survivor. Ethan is an active runner and incorporated cannabis into his training for the 2022 Boston Marathon. The interview was conducted on April 14, 2022.

Aaron Green: Ethan, tell me, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Ethan Zohn: My entry into the cannabis industry was through cancer, unfortunately. I rarely smoked marijuana growing up and later became a professional soccer player, so cannabis just wasn’t part of my daily life.

Ethan Zohn, former professional soccer player, Survivor: Africa winner and two-time cancer survivor

After being diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer in 2009, I found a lot of research on the benefits of cannabis mitigating the side effects of chemotherapy. At the time, I was being treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, where medical marijuana was not legal yet. This meant that none of my doctors could discuss incorporating cannabis into my treatment plan.

Having to resort to illegal methods just to obtain medicine was a horrible experience. At that time, I was very interested in changing minds and educating people about the benefits of cannabis, but it didn’t go particularly well. After initially having positive results from chemotherapy, I relapsed and had to go through it all over again.

That’s when I really leaned into cannabis and CBD. It just became a part of my daily routine and part of my wellness journey. So, that’s where I am now, leading into my partnership with Trulieve and Momenta.

Green: We don’t often hear the story of how a brand ambassador comes to be. How did you link up with Momenta?

Zohn: I was a keynote speaker at Boston Cannabis Week, and Trulieve was also attending the conference. I was already familiar with the brand based on their medical footprint in Florida and introduced myself to the team. During our conversation, I learned they were opening a new dispensary in Framingham, Massachusetts.

As I learned more about Trulieve, I grew to really love their passion and focus on research, patient education and providing quality products. From my experiences in the cannabis world, I just wasn’t seeing much of that. Trulieve was coming at it from a medical perspective, and that aligned more with where I stood. So, I pitched them this crazy idea, “Hey, why don’t I run the Boston Marathon on Momenta products?” From there, it took off as a campaign that included product launches, charity initiatives and even some celebrity support. I think it was a perfect combination of everyone coming together, and we’re all winning in this situation. I’m also running for Active Against Cancer because I support their mission to make exercise an integral part of cancer treatment.

Green: So, you had the sports background prior to cancer and then several years of treatment. What got you back into running?

Zohn: When I was diagnosed, I was training for the New York City Marathon and ended up not being able to run. Cooped up in my hospital room, I’d look out the window and I noticed people were just running up and down First Avenue. I said to myself, “Oh my God. If I get out of this thing alive, I’m going to run. I’m going to put on a pair of shoes. I’m going to break out of this cell and I’m going to just run the streets -and run with freedom.”

Zohn at the 2022 Boston Marathon. Image from his Instagram page

That’s when I really started running marathons. I ran my first marathon nine months after my first stem cell transplant. The second marathon was while I underwent chemotherapy.  Eleven months after my second stem cell transplant, I ran in the 2013 Boston Marathon, which was the year of the bombing. Amidst that tragedy, I was celebrating one year in remission.

I’ve always measured my health and wellness based on how I felt while running. It might sound weird, but I know I’m in good shape if I can run a mile in seven minutes. If it takes me 10 minutes, I need to work out a little bit more. Measuring my life in terms of fitness has always made sense.

It’s a goal of mine to use sports as a platform to educate others on healthy lifestyles. I have a charity called Grassroots Soccer, where we use soccer to teach life lessons to kids. I’ve also worked with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in training for triathlons to raise cancer awareness.

There are still many people out there who think of cannabis as an illicit or gateway drug, and I feel a responsibility to challenge those dated stigmas. I feel fortunate to work with Trulieve and educate people on how cannabis can be integrated into anyone’s daily lifestyle as part of their wellness journey. Cannabis has so many applications in my own life and has helped with my insomnia, pain and anxiety. I’m hopeful that my advocacy work around this plant will help other people who are just as invested in their mental and physical health to find relief in more natural ways.

Green: What does your running regimen look like with cannabis and how did you develop that?

Zohn: Before, I always kept sports and cannabis separate. Integrating cannabis into my running routine was a slow process, and I still don’t take any high-dose products when I’m running. Before each race, I take a five-milligram Momenta capsule and take another dose around the hour and thirty minute mark.

People talk about athletes getting into the zone, and I feel like cannabis gets me into the zone quicker. I can lock in and stay laser-focused. Cannabis also plays a huge role in my recovery regimen. I like to use Momenta’s THC-infused creams and cooling gels that come in a variety of cannabinoid ratios.

Green: What makes Momenta products unique?

Zohn: Momenta is a great entry point for anyone looking to incorporate cannabis into their exercise routine or wellness journey. Trulieve started as a medical brand and its products reflect the company’s ongoing commitment to research and quality. I also tend to seek out consistent products, especially when I’m exercising. In my own experience, a gummy will sometimes be too potent, and other times I don’t feel anything. Momenta products, on the other hand, deliver the same experiences every time. I don’t want any surprises on race day or when I’m getting into a workout.

Green: What’s next for Momenta?

Zohn: Momenta recently launched in Massachusetts at three of Trulieve’s locations but I’m confident that it will quickly become a local favorite. The wellness brand is also available in Florida and West Virginia, and I can see Momenta gaining traction among other medical patients interested in supporting their holistic health. I’m excited to watch Momenta grow into a recognizable national brand as Trulieve continues to increase its retail footprint across the country.

Green: Final question: what in cannabis or in your personal life are you most interested in learning about?

Zohn: There needs to be more research on cannabis and how cannabinoids and terpenes impact the body from a health perspective. Federal legalization will be a gamechanger on the research front, and I hope more members of the medical community will study cannabis’ applications for different health concerns. I’m a cancer survivor. My nephew is autistic. I think there’s a lot more exciting research to come.

It’s refreshing to look at cannabis as a new industry growing from the ground up. Whether it’s branding, marketing or technology, people are trying to figure this all out! A lot of what I do influences how cannabis is perceived in society. How can we use cannabis to share messages and draw awareness to what’s happening in the world and the environment? I love seeing cannabis play a role in social issues.

I’m also interested in developing more constructive ways to educate and deter teens from using cannabis. I currently volunteer for the Safe Roots Foundation, which raises money from the cannabis industry and invests those resources into evidence-based teenage drug prevention programs. The industry plays an important role in reducing substance use among minors, and I’m proud to be a part of a movement that educates the youth on safe cannabis use while arming adults with accurate information.

Green: Okay, great thanks Ethan. That concludes the interview.

Zohn: Thanks Aaron.

Flower-Side Chats Part 6: A Q&A with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis

By Aaron Green
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In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

The Michigan cannabis market is making pace with big time cannabis players like California (#1) and Colorado (#2). For the first quarter of 2021, combined cannabis sales in Michigan were nearly $360 million. At that pace, Michigan could see combined sales of $1.4 billion — well outpacing 2020 sales of $984 million.

Gage is the exclusive cultivator and retailer of world-leading cannabis brands including Cookies, Lemonnade, Runtz, Grandiflora, SLANG Worldwide, OG Raskal, and its own proprietary Gage brand portfolio in Michigan. The company recently secured a $50M investment in an oversubscribed round which included a $20M investment from JW Asset Management.

We spoke with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis. Fabian started Gage in 2017 after meeting his operating partners in Michigan. Prior to Gage, Fabian worked as an investment banker racking up a number of firsts in cannabis industry financing and M&A transactions.

Aaron Green: Tell me how you got involved in the cannabis industry.

Fabian Monaco: My background is in investment banking – specifically 10 years of capital market experience. I was fortunate enough to be part of the initial team that brought Tweed, now Canopy Growth public. In fact, I worked on a lot of firsts in the industry: the first acquisition, the first $100 million financing, the first IPO in the space. Shortly after that, I went to XIB Financial, which co-founded Canopy Rivers with Canopy Growth. I was working on that when I encountered these two phenomenal operators. At the time, I had visited over 100 of these cultivation facilities and these were some of the best operators in the business. So that led me to start Gage in 2017.

Green: Where is Gage currently operating?

Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis

Monaco: In the U.S., we are purely operating in Michigan. We do have a licensing agreement with a small producer in Canada, so you will see the brand there.

Green: Tell me about your choice to settle the company in Michigan initially?

Monaco: If you look at Michigan as a historical cannabis market, it was the second largest cannabis market from a medical card holder standpoint for nearly a decade, only behind California. This was probably the case until 2019, where they went to adult use. So, for us, we knew this medical base was going to be a great platform to an outsized adult-use market. And already we see that April was $154 million in sales, adding up to over a $1.8 billion dollar run rate. That’s the third highest run rate in the country, only behind California and Colorado.

Green: What is it that makes Michigan different? You talked about medical cannabis already. Is there anything else about the demographics in Michigan or the consumer base that makes Michigan special in that sense?

Monaco: In Michigan, over 70% of the population is old enough to consume. So, when you take a look at how much of the population is 21-years-old plus, relative to other markets, the total addressable market in Michigan is just huge. Then when you take a look at their consumption habits, especially when it comes to flower, Michigan is consuming some of the highest amounts on a per capita basis. Those two stats set up a scenario where we foresaw the potential of the market. To be honest, the market has exceeded our expectations. We didn’t think it would be this strong this quickly. Right now, the state is looking to be a $3 billion market by 2024 – and it could easily surpass that.

Green: Any plans for expansion beyond Michigan?

Monaco: We’ve been to eight or so different states in the past 60 or 75 days really trying to educate ourselves on the licensing structure, the markets there and the key players in those respective markets. What are some of the costs, in terms of acquisitions? We really want to branch out the Gage brand into other states across the US. The thing is, we believe in the model that Trulieve deployed. They really focus on being the number one player in a very, very big market. For instance, Trulieve is obviously one of the top players in Florida. We’re trying to mimic that strategy.

Trulieve is a dominant market force in Florida

Once we have that deep market penetration, that market share, then we’ll start to get into other states. But for now, why would you want to go and rush out to another state when you’re already in the third largest market in the country?

Green: Are there any criteria you look for in a potential expansion state?

Monaco: We look at consumption habits. We want states with similar demographics to Michigan. Close proximity states also allows us to quickly go from one state to the other without having to take a multi-hour flight to get there. States we’re considering are Northeast and Midwest states, like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland.

Green: What kind of consumer trends are you seeing in Michigan as it relates to products?

Monaco: Flower continues to dominate. In a market like Michigan, we have some of the top flower consumers in the country on a per capita basis. We specialize in flower and flower only, so this created a perfect scenario where we are able to ramp up our brand quite quickly, from a flower standpoint.

Now that we have that brand equity, that brand power, we are going to potentially delve into other categories, including extract-based products, such as vape carts and concentrates. You hear talk about these new beverages, but we’re not seeing that take off in this market as much as people think it would. Flower still remains at the top and that’s something we highly anticipate going after for quite some time.

Green: Can you tell me about your vertical integration strategy?

Monaco: We’re one of the larger retail portfolios in Michigan right now. We have 13 locations. Nine are operational. So, we’re really in a great spot overall in terms of how big of a platform we do have – one of the larger ones – and, frankly, in one of the larger markets in the country.

The Cookies flagship dispensary in Detroit, Michigan

We actually have a little bit of a unique scenario on the cultivation side of things. We have our own three cultivation assets that are going to be producing, on average, about 1,000 pounds of product over the next couple of months as they fully ramp up. We’ve actually contracted out a lot of our cultivation. Cultivation is time consuming, and it’s also very, very costly to build out. Luckily for us, we’re a really well-established and strong brand. We had the opportunity to contract out our growing. So, we have 10 different contract growth partners. These are phenomenal cultivators, again, some of the best in the state. They grow Gage and Cookies branded product for us. We have a great breakdown from a financial standpoint. We share the retail revenue with them on a 50/50 basis. They pay a little bit too, for packaging and testing. So, basically for $0 we’re getting product on the shelf where we’re achieving 50% plus gross margins. It’s a phenomenal setup for us on the cultivation side where we went from two cultivation assets in the latter half of last year to now eight different cultivation assets, moving to 13 by the end of the year.

On the processing side, we’re just actually finishing our processing lab. We should have extract-based products launched in Q3. We’re really excited to have our own line of extract-based products. We plan to focus on vape carts to start – a very popular category in Michigan on the retail side of things.

Green: Are those cultivations all indoor?

Monaco: Yes, we’re big proponents of indoor flower. It allows us to control the quality of our flavors and consistency in our strains when we grow indoors. From our consumers, there is a very strong demand for indoor grown high-premium, high-quality products.

Green: What sets Gage apart from other competitors in Michigan?

Monaco: I think focus. We just focused on our flower. We focus on our post-production process. We hang dry everything, we hand trim everything, and we hand package everything. That’s a little bit more time consuming. It’s a little more costly. But all that effort shows in the end product which is key.

A lot of people think you can grow great quality product, you cut it down, you dry it and put it in the pack and it’s going to be great. You really need a strong attention to detail, especially in a big consuming market like Michigan, because again, they are a refined consumer. They’re looking for the best. They’ve already been consuming some of the best quality products in the country for many years now. So for us, we put a painstaking process in place for flower production, not only from the growing standpoint, but also through the end of that post production process.

Ancillary to our cultivation process is also consistently providing new varieties of flavors on the flower side of things to the consumers. When you look at the successful brands in California, what makes them special is that they’re consistently pheno hunting, coming out with new flavors. This is similar to the wine industry where the best wineries come out with a new kind of grape or mix and consumers get excited, they rush out and buy half a dozen bottles or a dozen bottles.

It’s a very similar scenario in the cannabis industry. I hate when people say that cannabis is a commoditized industry. It’s so far from the truth. You look at brands like us or Cookies, Jungle Boyz and you can see their constant innovation, their constant drive. They are always bringing something new for the consumers to try. That’s what really sets apart the best brands.

Green: What’s got your attention in the cannabis industry? What are you interested in learning more about?

Monaco: I’m always intrigued with new ways of consuming. Across the U.S. and well-developed markets like California and Colorado, you see all these interesting new ways to consume the product. You’ve got patches, sublingual strips, etc. There are so many unique ways. I am currently seeing how they play out. Are they fads? Do people get excited about them initially, and then go back to their vape carts, pens and typically dried flower pre-rolls? I’m always trying to educate myself to see what’s on the market. What’s new? Who has a new drink? How does it hit? Are people excited about it?

Also, I am constantly learning about new brands that come out. There are so many new small brands that don’t necessarily have the scale or the capital to really expand, but are producing some of the best products in the country in a cool, unique form of packaging, etc..

Green: Alright, great. That concludes the interview!

Monaco: Thanks, Aaron.