The cannabis beverage market is expected to reach $2 Billion by 2026 and is growing at a rapid pace. In Canada, the market share of infused beverages grew nearly 850% since 2020, according to a recent Headset report, the trend is expected to follow in the States. Some traditional beverage companies are hesitant to jump in due to the niche branding and supply chain models needed to capture significant market share. Other adult beverage companies such as Vita Coco and Pabst are dipping their toes into the cannabis beverage market to capture early market opportunities.
Sales and marketing agencies like Petalfast, with a core team stemming from the natural foods and beverage industries, have already started cracking the code for cannabis brands by implementing systems straight out of those industry’s playbooks. This includes disrupting the CA market by becoming the first to implement a traditional three-tier distribution model.
We caught up with Jason Vegotsky, CEO of Petalfast to learn more about the cannabis beverage distribution market. Prior to Petalfast, Jason was Chief Revenue Officer at KushCo Holdings (now Greenlane Holdings), a role he took on after selling his butane supply company to KushCo.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Jason Vegotsky: I began my career in wine and spirits distribution, but I always knew I wanted to work for myself. My first foray into launching a business, raising capital and brand building was through my beef jerky company, Lawless Jerky, which I built and sold after five years. Drawing on my food and beverage experience, I quickly entered and understood the cannabis market. I launched a company called Summit Innovations that sold butane to producers making oil. I eventually sold Summit to KushCo Holdings, Inc. (now known as Greenlane Holdings, Inc.) and became their President and Chief Revenue Officer. Through that experience, I began to notice gaps in the cannabis distribution model. Petalfast was built to fill that gap, providing clients with exceptional go-to-market strategies, leading to increased revenue and customer loyalty.
Green: How does experience in natural foods and traditional beverages translate to the cannabis industry?
Vegotsky: The route-to-market strategy is similar to that of cannabis, and the industry can benefit from the knowledge and experiences of those who work in natural foods and beverages. The extensive regulatory history and long-standing distribution models of these industries can provide a framework that those in the cannabis industry can capitalize on.
Green: What is the current distribution model for the majority of cannabis beverage companies today?
Vegotsky: Cannabis beverage companies face significant regulatory hurdles regarding distribution. Transportation restrictions, state-by-state differences in THC serving sizes and packaging requirements, retail display and storage limitations, and consumer adoption are just a few examples of what cannabis beverage brands run into when looking to enter, compete or scale in a given market.
At Petalfast, we offer a tiered distribution model, and our clients get phenomenal distribution through our logistics partner, Nabis. Products are circulated to all of California’s dispensaries and delivery services, allowing brands to focus on what matters most: creating the highest quality cannabis products on the market.
Green: What is a three-tier distribution model? Why do you think the cannabis beverage market is ripe for this model?
Vegotsky: The three-tier distribution model is commonly deployed by alcohol and other traditional food and beverage companies as it provides each tier to scale their operations and focus on their specific services. The three tiers include the brand, the wholesaler (sales + distribution), and the retailer in this distribution model. Because cash flow is such a significant challenge in the cannabis industry, adding an extra tier by separating your distribution and sales is advantageous to brands as it decreases overhead and allows brands to have the ability to scale.
Green: What are the opportunities for smaller brands looking to carve out a niche?
Vegotsky: One of the benefits of working in an emerging market is the opportunity to get in on the ground floor, learn as much as possible about the industry and find where gaps exist. Brand building in this space requires a deep understanding of the consumer and the overall culture — something that most brands are still trying to crack. If a smaller brand can effectively target a base within a distinct product category, it can be very effective in scaling within its niche.
Green: With big players from adult beverages dipping their toes in the cannabis beverage space, is consolidation inevitable?
Vegotsky: At a certain level, yes. Well-established companies will seek out acquisitions of smaller, successful companies, especially ones that are capital constrained, but buyers need to be aware that capital alone will not be enough. The culture of cannabis is very different from alcohol or other adjacent beverage categories, so the success of these big players in adult beverages will be linked to their ability to locate and understand the consumer and implement branding strategies accordingly. Adult beverage companies entering the cannabis market must also realize that the flow of product to retailers is not the same as in alcohol, so they will need to adjust accordingly. The cannabis-infused beverage market is expected to reach $2 billion by 2026, so alcohol companies looking to join this movement should start exploring their options now.
Green: What trends are you following in cannabis beverages? What does the future of cannabis beverages look like?
Vegotsky: Canna-tourism has grown to a $17 billion industry. With the rise in cannabis-infused beverages, we’re seeing an increase in creative consumption offerings, from tastings and food and beverage pairings to dispensary tours and bud-and-breakfasts.
Cannabis beverages are attractive to newcomers as they allow for easier control of the effects. Businesses that provide an experience similar to that of a wine or brewery tour can capitalize on new consumers looking to explore the benefits of cannabis in a controlled environment.
The modern consumer is also more health conscious, and with the increased availability of legal cannabis, many are replacing alcoholic beverages with the plant. There has been a reported decrease in alcohol consumption since the 1980s, and many now believe cannabis is safer than alcohol. This belief is especially prevalent among younger generations, leading to more users incorporating cannabis-infused beverages into their daily lives. How we socialize or unwind at the end of the day will start to look different, and brands will become market leaders by speaking to the varied needs of consumers.
Green: How does the industry get there?
Vegotsky: For one, federal decriminalization and removing cannabis as a Schedule I drug on the controlled substances list would help. Cannabis companies don’t have access to the traditional marketing playbook to promote their brands due to TV advertising and social media restrictions. To build brand awareness, businesses should focus efforts on the retail level. Engaging with consumers in-store allows brands to grab their attention and drive faster sales until other avenues open up. At Petalfast, we decided to invest in field and trade marketing to bring brands to life at the retail level. We do this better than anybody else, and we do it at scale.
California is the fastest-growing cannabis beverage market, according to a recent Headset report. The count of beverage product offerings in California has grown quickly, nearly doubling from 2020 to 2021. As of December 2021, there were approximately 530 distinct cannabis beverage offerings.
Mocktails have been a growing product category within the cannabis beverage segment. Klaus, headed up by Warren Bobrow, the “Cocktail Whisperer,” recently entered the California market with their ready-to-drink THC cocktail, Mezzrole, a unique terpene-forward beverage with three simple culinary-grade ingredients.
We caught up with Warren to learn more about his path to the cannabis industry and his inspiration for Mezzrole. Warren is a multi-published author of six books including “Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails, and Tonics” and has contributed to publications such as Forbes and Skunk Magazine. After the loss of his fresh pasta business in Hurricane Hugo, he worked in banking for 20 years before reinventing himself and following his passions—becoming a bar back to bartender and master mixologist and penning his six cocktail-focused books. Warren crafted Klaus with knowledge gained from years of experience in the mixology and culinary worlds and with his strong enthusiasm for cannabis.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Warren Bobrow: It was a happenstance, and it was something that I never considered before. I was working in the traditional liquor industry, and because liquor is inherently a poisonous substance, I was slowly poisoning myself and my mind with the alcohol. I made a conscious decision back in July of 2018 – I was down to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans – and I said, “this is my last drink.” I was halfway through a Hemingway, which is absolutely my favorite cocktail to have and that’s what I was known for. That’s the drink that paved the way to a wonderful career on-premises and off-premises doing brand ambassadorship and being a named person within the liquor industry. As with all great careers, this one had to come to an end, or I was going to die because liquor was poisoning me. I was probably about 75 pounds heavier than I am right now. I just didn’t feel myself and I was going to be sick.
So, I decided to take my knowledge of cannabis, which was something that I’ve enjoyed since I was 12 years old – I am 61 now – and put it to use for me in this book, Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails and Tonics. My first book, Apothecary Cocktails, really did pave the way. I wanted to include cannabis in my early books, but my publisher wouldn’t let me. It just wasn’t time until 2015 when I wrote Cannabis Cocktails, which is all based on the early apothecary. The inspiration for writing the book certainly was from being down in New Orleans and going to the Pharmacy Museum. They had an exhibition of cannabis in the early apothecary, and I knew immediately what I was going to do with the rest of my life. There you have it!
Green: It seems like it was a sharp cut off with the alcohol industry
Bobrow: Yes, like one day to the next, literally. It was absolute. I made the decision; I came back to New Jersey, and I never drank again. I drink a little beer and wine, but I haven’t had a distilled drink in years.
Green: How did the concept for Klaus come about? Was it something that you always had in the back of your mind?
Bobrow: The idea for creating a cannabis infused beverage came from being incarcerated in New York City for smoking cannabis in the street and being taken out of commission for 48 hours, I knew that if I was drinking a cannabis infused beverage like Klaus, which is the one that I created in California, no one would know my business. Of course, when this happened, it was in the early 2000s, so the technology and the pretense just weren’t available yet. But it did put something in my mind. If I was to create a cannabis-infused beverage using my knowledge and experience as a master mixologist, the fear of consuming cannabis would be diminished.
If you look at the book, Cannabis Cocktails, and you see the recipes, they’re not for the meek. They’re really meant for a medical community – someone who needs to really eliminate pain, if you will. Cocktails in the book started at about 250 milligrams of THC, whereas with Klaus they’re 10 milligrams, Two different stories completely!
My inspiration for creating Klaus certainly was from the gnome [Warren displays Klaus, The Gnome]. He’s a star and he’s been all over the world with me. I don’t know why I first started traveling with him. Maybe it’s because he was sitting up there up on my mantle and he told me that he wanted to go out on the road with me. I was traveling all over the world as a rum judge for the Ministry of Rum and for Rum XP. We just show up at food events. I’m a trained chef, I love going to the Fancy Food Show in New York City, and I’d meet people and they invite me out to see their places. Then I started writing for Forbes and I don’t know, my career has been up and down. I’ve tried to follow my dreams ever since I left the corporate world in May of 2009.
Green: Let’s talk about the product.
Bobrow: I just have one SKU right now, which is the Mezzrole named for Mezz Mezzrow, Louis Armstrong’s weed dealer. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s all real.
Green: First, how did you land on the flavor profile?
Bobrow: For someone who’s a rum head like myself, we used to drink rum for breakfast. That’s how you become a rum head. The Mezzrole is based on a Ti’ Punch, which is the national drink of Martinique. Ti’ Punch is usually made in Martinique with rum Agricole, which is a sugar cane-based rum rather than a molasses-based rum. It’s the freshly pressed sugar cane rum before it ferments so it has a lovely floral quality and it’s 100 proof. There’s nothing weak about it!
A Ti’ Punch is freshly squeezed lime quarters, the 100 proof Agricole – one or two ounces – and cane sugar syrup stirred usually with your finger like my old friend Gaz Regan, who’s no longer with us, used to do it. He was known for his finger stirred negronis. I would do it preferably in a clean glass and there’s no ice involved because if you’re on a sailboat, you probably don’t have ice anyway. So, it’s potent. It’s a very potent drink. That’s the basis of the Mezzrole.
The Mezzrole contains a single strain of cannabis. We used a craft, land-raised strain called Hippie Crasher. It’s an indica leaning hybrid that is terpene forward. The Mezzrole utilizes the terpene aromatics of the cannabis strain. So, we have this gorgeous French lime puree that I get made from limes that are sourced down in Martinique. They have a certain oily quality to them and they’re very pungent. They’re very citrus forward and very flavorful.
Then, I’m using a ginger syrup that’s made in what I would say is a Great Britain or Jamaican style called Picketts. It’s from Denver, Colorado. My old friend Matt Pickett, and his late brother Jim created it. Jim was the bartender for Malcolm Forbes on his yacht, the Highlander, when they had it in the waters between me and Palm Beach, or wherever they happened to be on the island. Jim crafted this incredible ginger syrup, which is really authentic. And in later years, it became the Pickett’s ginger syrup that I would use in this beverage because I’m paying homage to Matt’s brother by using his extra hot and spicy ginger syrup in here along with the French lime purée.
The final element – there are only three flavor elements [besides the cannabis] – is rice vinegar. Rice vinegar in this case is something called mirin. There are two different types of mirin. There’s the sweet mirin and then there’s the dry mirin, and Mezzrole utilizes the dry mirin. I didn’t want to add any sugar. Mezzrole is six tenths of a gram of sugar for the entire can, which is eight ounces, 16 calories.
So, to recap, each can of Mezzrole is eight fluid ounces, six tenths of a gram of sugar, ginger, lime and rice vinegar with THC infusion. And it’s not a seltzer!
Green: What was special to you about the Ti’ Punch?
Bobrow: My family had a yacht, and we would go places in the Caribbean. One of the places we would go in the Caribbean was Down Island and they would have drinks like the Ti’ Punch. I remember that it was emblazoned in my brain. It was a drink that got me drunk. It was what sailors did; they got drunk. And you would get drunk on drinks that go back to the days of the pirates, because they probably didn’t have ice on the sailing vessels. So, why should a couple million-dollar yacht make any difference? We had icemakers, but you drink the drink without ice. You drink it like it was drunk in the age of sailing.
I wanted to reinterpret the Ti’ Punch and bring credence and life to that drink by bringing it to life in the Mezzrole. But the Mezzrole has another story behind it entirely. That’s because Mezz Mezzrow, who was a jazz head during the jazz era, brought between two and 4,000 pounds of cannabis up from Mexico, and sold it in Detroit, Chicago and Harlem during the early days of jazz. He made quite a name for himself. At the time, cannabis was not illegal on a national level yet. If you were to ask for a joint or reefer, you might become detained by the police, especially if you were Black. Not only were the police at that time incredibly anti-jazz and anti-Black and anti-cannabis, but they were just anti people having fun! So there had to be code names and a well-rolled cannabis cigarette was known as a “Mezzrole” and that’s what I named the cocktail after.
I’m paying homage to Louis, and I’m friendly with Louis’ daughter, Sharon. She’s the daughter that no one ever knew about. It’s a very interesting story. We’re hopefully going to do something together. I find great inspiration in jazz, and we wanted to pay homage to the role of characters in jazz by creating a beverage that hopefully wouldn’t get us arrested.
Green: Can you walk me through your choice of strain for the beverage?
Bobrow: I work with a company named Vertosa. They are the magicians in the world of nanotechnology emulsions. They’re scientists like yourself, who are upper intellects who dream in color. And the colors that they’ve chosen are the colors of the plant. So, they’ve enlivened the plant chemically through their process. I’m not privy to that process, but I’ll tell you it works. Their emulsion is gorgeous stuff. I just chose the emulsion for my next two SKUs and it’s exactly what I was looking for. It’s slightly bitter, it has depth and character, and we haven’t even added the terpenes in yet. So, it’s well balanced, and it will work exceptionally well with the craft ingredients that I’m working with. I don’t use industrialized ingredients, these are all bartending ingredients, if you will. We do 5,000 can production runs with bartending ingredients. It’s incredible food science. I love it.
Green: What was behind your decision in adding the terpene flavors?
Bobrow: What makes that interesting is no one else is doing it. So, we’re the first again! Not only did I write the first book on cannabis, and cocktails, and tonics, and all that stuff, but I created the first beverage that actually smells like cannabis. So, when you’re drinking one of my beverages, and you drink down maybe a quarter inch, and you put your nose right over the top and smell it, it smells just like the plant along with that ginger and the lime and that tangy quality of the mirin. And it’s spicy. It has an herbaceous quality to it. It’s really uncanny.
Green: Were there any challenges in working with terpenes in a beverage?
Bobrow: Yes, there’s always challenges. First off, I’m here in New Jersey, and the company that I’m working with is in California, so they can’t send me anything. So, I work very closely with a food scientist named Chris Anderson who did my scalability, and he’s absolutely brilliant. His palate mimics my own. I don’t want a sweet beverage. I want a tangy beverage. I want something that has balanced quality and fun and it makes you want to dance. I’m not looking for something to put me to sleep. That’s not my goal in life. Life is very short, and you want to have a beverage that is talkative and doesn’t get you totally destroyed. There are beverages out on the market that have 500 milligrams of THC called syrups. They’re absolutely delicious, but they’re so destructive because they want you to put them in a sugary beverage and drink the whole thing down.
I’m not a kid anymore and I don’t drink like a kid. I drink with sophisticated flavors and make beverages that are memorable. People come to me – and have since the early part of 2009 – and they say things like, “That’s the best cocktail I’ve ever had in my life. How do you do that?” My aim in life is to ruin people for their bartender because I expose all the things that our bartenders are doing to rip them off.
I started as a bar back and I worked my way up. I went to this guy named Chris James, who was working at The Ryland Inn running their beverage program. I needed a job, and he hired me as this bar back for a year and they kicked my butt. After that I could write about this stuff with knowledge and not just with something I read in a book. There’s a lot to be said for education and going to bartending school. There’s also a lot to be said for cutting your own ice and squeezing your own juice and taking out the trash.
Green: What are some of the challenges you are facing at Klaus?
Bobrow: We’re hoping to do a Series A round of financing. I wonder who would be interested in lending to us or giving us money or investing in us. I always wonder why anyone would be interested in any of this! But I have a talent and a passion, and I know that it will take me to the next step in life. I’ve waited and been very patient. I have massive shoes to fill, and I’m so committed to being ambitious.
I was an executive assistant in a Trust Bank for 20 years. I put my life on hold for others because they wanted to make an example out of me. I never became the person that my parents wanted me to become. They wanted me to become a lawyer and I didn’t have the aptitude for that. I had the aptitude for being a creative soul and a creative mind. It just took me 20 years longer to be able to achieve that.
I consider myself the luckiest man in the world because I did work for the C-suite and for the top of the house and I sold wine to them when I worked on the nights and weekends in a wine store. My customers were the presidents and “kingmakers of the world.” Here in Northern New Jersey, if nothing else, it’s pretty affluent. So, I’ve long been accustomed to coming from that environment. I know what that environment means and the importance of that environment. I had to figure out how to make it myself because I was, in polite parley, “disowned.” So, I am self-made, and I have a great product that I’ve created out of nowhere. It’s hopefully going to allow me to figure out what the next step will be in my life. I want to make this a national name.
Green: What trends are you following in the cannabis beverage space?
Bobrow: I’ve had some good ones. I’ve had some okay ones. And I’ve had some that are just, I don’t know. I’m a cook. I’m a saucier. I love flavors. I’m trained in France. I cook. It’s a lifelong thing. I started as a dishwasher, and I worked my way up. I’ve traveled the world eating.
I’ll tell you, if you don’t know flavors, you can’t put anything together. And if you don’t know what goes into making a beverage that’s different than what anyone else is doing in the world, then you don’t deserve to be in this business because it’s highly competitive and people play for keeps. If I only get one chance to capture people’s imagination, it comes with this beverage right here [Warren holds up a can of Mezzrole].
Green: What’s next for Klaus?
Bobrow: I hope to be doing Klaus Nein. It’s a terpene forward, non-cannabis infused craft beverage. It doesn’t have any THC, so I can sell it everywhere. I caught the travel bug years ago, when I was traveling all over the world for the rum business. And I got it back again. I hate that the world became such a small place during COVID. Because it really is a big place. And it’s a place that I need to explore more of. Stay tuned!
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Bobrow: You know, it’s funny. I think everyone that I come across I can learn something from. My teachers at Emerson and later at MIT, where I spent a fitful year, taught me that I wasn’t the smartest person in the room, but I certainly was the most inquisitive. So, I want to be known as someone who has pretty good listening skills. I also have great skills in the way of trying to draw out answers from people. So, I have a lot to learn and I’m excited about the opportunity of learning. If I can share a little bit of my knowledge with other people within the industry and they respect me for what I’ve achieved, then I’ll be a much happier person. I’m already happy. I’m very lucky. I am the luckiest guy in the room.
Green: Thank you Warren. That concludes the interview!
Hangovers are one of the aftereffects often experienced with spirits. Who doesn’t love a good martini or a refreshing margarita? One company is on a mission bring the flavor profile and buzz of spirited drinks without the negative consequences.
Like this article and want to see more? Subscribe to our free newsletter hereMXXN is a California-based cannabis infused beverage manufacturer specializing in 1:1 non-alcoholic replacements for everyone’s favorite spirits, enhanced with a touch of cannabis. By combining new technology in cannabis oil nano emulsions and alt-alcohol, MXXN is able to create flavor matching spirits sold by the 750 mL bottle. MXXN recently launched with three product SKUs including London Dry (gin), Jalisco Agave (tequila) and Kentucky Oak (bourbon) with a rum replacement due to launch soon.
We caught up with Darnell Smith, founder & CEO of MXXN, to ask about the technology going into infused non-alcoholic spirits, regulatory challenges and more. Prior to MXXN, Darnell was a spirits industry veteran, having worked with companies including Diageo, Pernod-Ricard and Bacardi.
Aaron Green: Darnell, nice to meet you. How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Darnell Smith: For me, it wasn’t something that was premeditated, in a sense. I had always been a cannabis user in my adult life. I played Division I sports. Cannabis replaced a lot of painkillers and medications that I probably would have had to take just to cope with athletic injuries. That’s how I got introduced to cannabis. And there is the recreational use of it as well.
To get to the origin story of MXXN, I spent a large part of my career working in spirits, namely, on the innovation and commercialization side of bringing new products to market under very well-known trademarks for large multinational companies. A few years into it, my liver was kind of at a point where it was like, “It’s gonna be you or me here, buddy.” So, I made the decision to start making – this is 15 years ago, in New York – a tincture where I would just heat up flower and decarb it and soak it in a high proof spirit. I would cover it for 30 days then strain it and have my tincture.
I’d be the guy in the bar, that would say “Hey, can I get a tonic and lime?” and I would put three drops of my tincture in there, and I would session cocktails along with everyone else. Next day at work, I’m the guy that’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and everyone else is kind of feeling a little bit weathered by that alcohol.
Innovation is usually born out of a personal need and that’s the same way here. So, fast forward 15 years and the technology has finally caught up. The rise of non-alcoholic spirits, the rise of cannabis and water-soluble emulsification, those two things combined really made the light bulb go off and say now is the time to offer this product. I feel like MXXN has a very specific place in our consumption of beverages and can fill a unique need that I think is rising.
Green: I’m interested in learning about the technology and the product. We can start with the technology that went into the product development process. I’ll go on to product next.
Smith: From a technical standpoint, up until a few years ago, the way that edibles were made was basically like raw extraction. There was very little ability to be precise about dosage. It was like trying to throw softballs through a chain-link fence. Non-uniformity made it very hard to say, “Here’s how this is going to affect you.” Fast forward and companies like Vertosa and Source have perfected this kind of nano-emulsion technology, which is basically water-suspended cannabis that can uniformly be used in food, beverage and cosmetic applications. And it’s akin to trying to throw sand through a chain-link fence. It’s just much smaller. It can remain more uniform, and thereby be more predictable in terms of dosage and effect.
So, that technology made it possible for us to then combine it with another wave that’s happening, which in the spirits industry is called alt-alcohol. What we do is distill all the flavor essences of well-known spirits and skip the alcohol. We then add the emulsified cannabis in place of the alcohol. And so with that, we offer a new kind of experience which is basically all the buzz but none of the booze. That’s really where technology-wise things have evolved. The rise of the non-alcoholic spirits and then the rise of being able to do water-soluble compatible cannabinoid emulsions.
Green: Are you selling this then as packaged goods or are you selling it as bladders similar to Coca-Cola in a bar setting?
Smith: This is a CPG packaged product and it really is analogous to a 750 ML spirits bottle similar to Tito’s or Grey Goose. The form factor is the same as spirits bottles, same 750 ML bottle. It doses just like a spirit would. Standard spirit pour is an ounce and a half. For us, an ounce and a half shot has six milligrams of THC.
For the average consumer, you can session cocktails and we give you the option to dose between two and six milligrams between a half ounce and an ounce and a half pour. So, it’s very analogous to what people are experienced in when it comes to spirits from the bottle to the dosage and to the actual recipes. We pride ourselves on being able to demystify something that has been a little bit complex in terms of making cannabis-infused cocktails. We are sticking close to what people are familiar with. People have a lot of experience with tequila or gin or bourbon and so we wanted to stay very familiar but also give people a chance to make the same recipes but sans alcohol.
Green: What kind of flavor profiles are you launching with?
Smith: We’re launching with three SKUs. Our first is London Dry, which is our take on a gin and that one has cucumber, juniper, coriander, and a nice peppery finish. We have Jalisco Agave, which is our take on a tequila or Mezcal. You have notes of agave, flint, salt, oak, and vanilla. And then the last one is Kentucky Oak, which is our version of a bourbon or whiskey. There you have charred oak, vanilla, and other flavor components that make up what bourbon is.
Now we have a rum in development that’s nearing the end of a robust R&D pipeline. We have some other options like ready-to-drink cocktails made with MXXN to more high-dose products for what we consider the “legacy consumer” who is maybe more medically inclined in the hopes of being able to give people more options when it comes to consumption of flavored spirits.
Green: On the cannabis side, with the infusions that you’re doing, is it pure THC or are you doing full spectrum?
Smith: Yes, full-spectrum cannabinoid. You’ll notice some beverage brands have what we consider a hybrid, some THC and some CBD. For us, and for the effects that we wanted to have the product to have we stuck with a THC-forward blend. There is a trace of CBD in there, but we don’t even claim it. It’s not something that we go forward with. Our emulsion is THC-based.
Green: Where are you at today in terms of the launch and presence?
Smith: We just finished a pilot test here in California. We started late-January, early-February and we’ve been selling direct-to-consumer. Just order and you can have it at your door in 24 hours for about 85% of the state. We’ve blown through our entire pilot run. Now we are entering into what we consider our launch phase which will be available in select retailers late-July. We are gearing up for our next big production run here in mid-July. We are basically all systems go.
At the same time, we’re exploring multi-state expansion. We have a lot of interest in states like Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and we’re having constant conversations with partners in those states to help bring the product to market.
Green: Have you looked at lounges?
Smith: Lounges have been our biggest traction as we start the retail rollout. We literally just started the dispensary piece of what we’re doing last month. And this is by design. First, we wanted to go direct-to-consumers for proof of concept to make sure we weren’t, you know, saying the story to ourselves. I think just by the performance of the pilot run and direct-to-consumer sales, we proved okay, this is a viable concept.
So as we go out, our number one targets are obviously establishments that also are connected to or have connections with a consumption lounge. There aren’t a ton at this point. They’re still kind of proliferating. But I will tell you the moment we walk into one of these accounts is like a no-brainer because it allows this account to offer a whole new experience. When it comes to consumption lounges in terms of great cocktails you already know: gin and tonics, margaritas, paloma, with no real education required on the part of who’s ever going to be serving. We basically take 20 retailers a month in chunks and so far of the 15-20 that we’ve done, four or five of them have consumption lounges and you’ll see it in those very soon.
Green: Are there any challenges there with dosing in a lounge where the onus is on the operator to dose? How do the regulations work there?
Smith: It’s similar to alcohol, right? As an establishment, you have a responsibility to kind of pay attention to what’s happening as the consumer is consuming. Typically, most of the legislation that was written is for an inhaled consumption lounge. Ingestibles weren’t necessarily considered heavily when it came to legislation. What we tell folks is you have the same responsibilities you would if you were a bartender. Our recommended pour in consumption lounges is a lighter dose. This way, the customer has a chance to start low and go slow, and really recognize how it’s going to affect them.
Legally, there is no firm guidance on what overconsumption looks like for the typical consumer. So, we tell folks you have to kind of get a feel for who the consumer is. If they’re curious person who doesn’t have a lot of experience with cannabis, we typically recommend not to exceed a five-milligram serve per sitting until you figure out how it’s going to affect them. However, if you have very high dose legacy consumers, who buy and drink these 100-milligram single-serve bottles it’s a different story. You kind of need to gauge that from consumer to consumer, and what their tolerance level is. A lot of onus is on the consumption lounge. And I think that’s why they’ve kind of been slow to really roll out how they deal with beverages, because it’s just a different beast. It’s absorbed differently by the body from inhalable products
Green: What trends are you looking at in the industry?
Smith: I love seeing more food-based options. Edibles to this point have been mostly candies and gummies and I see the trend going to more high-end, curated food selections. I think that’s super interesting. The condiments that go into cooking is a category that I’m keeping an eye on. I came across a THC and CBD-infused Siracha sauce the other day and I was like, “wow, this is fantastic!”
In the beverage space, there continues to be innovation, which we are on the forefront of. There’s a point of saturation that’s going to come for how many seltzers can exist in the market at the same time. And I think we’re kind of reaching that point. So, it’s going to be incumbent upon the beverage space to continue to innovate.
I’m also watching where things go with hemp-derived THC, the Delta-8s and those things and how is that going to be dealt with when it comes to the legal market. I think you see varying ways that it’s being dealt with across states. That’s a trend I’m certainly keeping an eye on as things continue to roll out across the country.
Green: What, in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?
Smith: Given where the world is today, I feel like we all live in this “OR” mindset. It’s either you OR me, it’s either this OR that. And I think you can see with some of the more recent political things that have happened, it’s this ideology of like, trying to force your beliefs on someone else. For me, it’s more about like, how can we learn to live more in the “AND” right? You can have this AND this and they can coexist, and they don’t have to be in competition. In my personal life, that’s where a lot of my energy is going. How do I spread that thought of getting out of this living in OR. We must move to this kind of mindset of AND. How can we be accommodating for a bunch of different beliefs, a bunch of different approaches? It causes so much friction when we try to impose beliefs on others that may not share the same beliefs.
I am thinking about how I can apply that to the cannabis industry as well. In terms of federal legalization versus state, where can we find that the happy ground? If we think about going across state lines, that’s effectively building a whole other business in the state, and in virtually no other industry does that exist. I can tell you economically this country could use infusion of cannabis to be more freely available. So those are the types of things that keep me moving these days. I’ve had a lot of success in my past and so for me, it’s less about financial achievements, and it’s more about how we can help move folks to this is AND mentality and not everything has to be OR.
The adult beverage industry, like any other category of consumer branded products, is driven by trends. If you’re old enough to remember Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, you probably also remember Zima and Smirnoff Ice, and more recently “healthy” options like Skinny Girl and Michelob Ultra. The sensation that was craft beer saw many brands being acquired by Big Alcohol so that while the brands remain, ownership and production have changed significantly. Gin, tequila and vodka have had their moments in the sun and the current market is undeniably saturated with what is probably the largest current trend – hard seltzers. However, with the seltzer craze waning, many are wondering what’s next. And with the growing sober/California sober trends, some are betting it is cannabis-infused beverages.
Cannabis-infused beverages offer both an alternative method of consumption of cannabis and are also an attractive alternative to alcohol. Infused beverages are more appealing to the new demographic of casually curious cannabis consumers. i.e., consumers that may not be interested in smoking a joint or vaping, but are comfortable micro-dosing from a can or bottle, as they would a seltzer or beer. The same type of consumer may be moving away from alcohol consumption to eliminate hangovers or other negative health effects.
The emerging market and curious consumer group present an enormous opportunity right now for cannabis-infused beverage brands. Of course, with opportunity and growth come challenges. And while cannabis-infused beverages face a host of legal and regulatory challenges relative to sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, shipping, marketing, distribution and sale, one of the most critically important business assets to address at inception is the brand.
Lines are Blurring, Gaps are Being Bridged
The U.S. cannabis market is currently a geographic hamburger. Hear me out: Geographically, you have a relatively mature market out west and a relatively new and growing market along the east coast. These are the buns. You have a mixed bag in between, with some states coming online and allowing medical or adult use cannabis use and others that have not yet embraced any form of legalization. The landscape has lent itself to the development of regional brands, such that brands that are so similar they might otherwise confuse consumers, have been able to co-exist in different regions without issue, or because there is little to no trade channel or market overlap. Similarly, adult beverages and cannabis have historically been separate verticals, with an arguably low likelihood that a consumer would assume a particular cannabis product and adult beverage product emanate from the same source.
However, lines are blurring and gaps are being bridged. Walls are breaking down. The increasing number of states coming online with legalized cannabis, and the proliferation of multi-state operators (MSOs), means that cannabis brands can grow to be more than siloed regional brands. This will inevitably lead to brands that previously co-existed bumping into one another and there’s bound to be some pushing and shoving. The advent of infused beverages likewise bridges the gap between cannabis products and alcoholic beverages. While the respective industries were not historically per se related, competing, or overlapping, now you’ve got infused beverages that bridge the gap between the two, and traditional alcohol brands (e.g., Boston Beer Company, Molson Coors, Lagunitas, Pabst.) entering the market (albeit under different brands). This makes a strong argument that cannabis and alcohol (or, more generally, adult beverages) are within each other’s logical zones of expansion, for purposes of a likelihood of confusion analysis.
The growing pains infused beverage brands will experience are analogous to those craft beers saw in the 2000 – 2010s. Many craft brewers had catchy, cheeky names and brands that contributed to their ability to engage consumers and develop a following, but failure to clear and protect the brands prior to launch detracted from the brands’ market values. Localized use prior to expansion also led to many brands bumping into one another and stepping on each other’s trademark toes. This was significant as the brands sought investment dollars or an exit strategy, making clear that the brand itself contributed heavily to valuation.
Mitigating Risks and Overcoming Challenges: Search and Protect
The risks and challenges can be significantly mitigated and/or overcome with proper preliminary clearance searching and assessments, and by seeking and obtaining state or federal protection for the brand or brands, to the extent possible.
Of course, clearance searches and assessments come with their own challenges, as does federal protection. With respect to clearance searches, these typically look at U.S. federal and state trademark databases. These resources are not sufficient for purposes of clearing a proposed cannabis brand. Many brands are not recorded at the federal or state level and indeed may not even show up in a basic search engine. An appropriate search looks at social media resources like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and known cannabis resources like Leafly and Weedmaps. Additionally, the scope of the search should exceed cannabis products and services and at least look at alcohol and merchandise. Adoption and use of a brand for a cannabis-infused beverage is high risk if that brand is similar to a prior existing alcohol brand. A current example is Cointreau’s taking aim at Canopy’s adoption and use of QUATREAU for an infused beverage.
A U.S. federal trademark registration presents its own unique challenges, but is incredibly valuable and beneficial to a brand since it provides the owner with a nationwide presumption of ownership and validity in a trademark, and can also secure priority for the owner with a constructive first use in commerce date that is years before actual use of a mark begins. The U.S. Trademark Office categorically denies protection of brands that violate its “lawful use” rule, and will treat as per se unlawful any applied for mark that covers marijuana, or that covers foods, beverages or pharmaceuticals that contain CBD. With respect to brands that cover products containing THC, since it is federally scheduled, use of the brand would violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). With respect to brands that cover CBD or products containing CBD, these may be lawful pursuant to the Farm Bill and the U.S. Trademark Office’s subsequent allowance of marks that claim CBD “solely derived from hemp with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis,” however under the Food Drug Cosmetics Act (FDCA) it is currently federally unlawful to introduce CBD – even if it fits the definition above – into foods or beverages.
Even if cannabis is not specifically claimed in a trademark application, cannabis brands have a natural gravitation toward names and logos that can do some of their marketing for them, and announce to the world they cover cannabis. This increases the chances that a trademark application for the brand will get push-back from the U.S. Trademark Office, and if not at the initial review stage, then at the point in time when the brand must submit to the U.S. Trademark Office a sample of (lawful) use of the applied-for mark. While this all sounds like bad news for cannabis-infused beverages, all is not lost.
There are typically ancillary and federally lawful products and services cannabis companies offer under their brands that can be covered in a U.S. federal trademark application, and arguments to be made that registered protection of a brand for the ancillary items should be sufficient to enforce against third parties using the same or confusingly similar brands in their space. Some cannabis brands’ lawful ancillary products are actually product lines (e.g., beverages) offered under the same brand that contain no cannabis. Others may be more causally related, like online forums and blogs. The former is closer to the actual product, and the latter would be more beneficial to a brand that is inherently stronger and more distinctive. One note of caution: A trademark application and eventual registration that expressly disclaim cannabis (THC or CBD) may be difficult to enforce against a third party using the same or a similar mark on and in connection with cannabis. So, while there is a natural inclination to follow a U.S. Trademark Office request to disclaim coverage of cannabis, there may be enforcement consequences down the road.
The cannabis-infused beverage market is poised for explosive growth. The brands that survive – and succeed – will be those that position themselves for growth by clearing and buttoning up their brands as early as possible. The market leaders will be those that select strong and distinctive brands, with geographic and market space around them for growth and expansion; and those that protect and enforce their brands, to the extent possible, at the federal and/or state levels.
Even if you don’t know much about cannabis pop culture, people are probably familiar with the phrase, “puff, puff, pass.”’But what if the future of cannabis is really more like “sip, sip, sip“? That’s what has everyone from the largest cannabis companies to the most mainstream beverage companies buzzing.
Soft drinks, beer, juice, tea, coffee and bottled waters are major categories of the beverage industry, valued at approximately $1.5 trillion globally and $150 billion in the U.S. It’s no secret beverage companies have long eyed the next big growth opportunity in the cannabis market. Beverage makers, large and small, are now experimenting ‒ some even bringing to market ‒ cannabis-infused drinks in each of these categories.
Pepsi Co. created a hemp-infused energy drink; Canopy Growth introduced a top selling CBD drink, Quatreau, and the company is backed by beverage industry leader Constellation Brands. Meanwhile, Molson Coors revealed a cannabis-infused beverage line with Truss, and Boston Beer developed cannabis-infused beverages in Canada. Jones Soda recently announced its launch of a line of cannabis-infused sodas under the name Mary Jones. These are just a few of the major beverage industry names adding cannabis drinks to their product lines.
That’s not to mention the established cannabis beverage brands and market leaders such as BellRock Brands, Keef, Evergreen Herbal, CannaCraft and CANN, or infusion technologies companies like Vertosa and mainstream beverage packagers such as Zukerman Honickman.
When will you be able to go to a bar, restaurant, concert venue or lounge and drink your cannabis? Maybe sooner than you think.
Right now, several states are formulating plans to launch adult-use markets, with New York and New Jersey figuring prominently. And with more mature state markets contemplating venues such as lounges, many are pushing for expanded access to beverages. Internationally, Canadian regulators have taken notice of the segment and recently issued regulations on cannabis beverages.
It’s the mainstreaming of cannabis.
Companies are betting big that consumers who choose not to consume cannabis because of perceived social stigmas or fear of getting “too high” from highly concentrated THC products, or who simply don’t want to smoke or vape a product, can find an alternative in cannabis beverages. Cannabis beverages offer consumers an option to microdose and are often more socially acceptable and user-friendly ways to consume cannabis.
It makes sense given larger trends. Consumers who are health-conscious are less likely to smoke anything, let alone cannabis, and are looking for alternatives in their lifestyle choices ‒ and for a relatable product experience that doesn’t ruin the next day.
Think of it this way: Cannabis beverages are to high-THC cannabis products such as vapes, butter and shatter what beer and wine are to high-proof alcohol products such as tequila, vodka and gin. Consequently, just as the lower alcohol content of beer and wine makes those drinks more appealing to more people for more situations, cannabis drinks can reach a larger consumer base than traditional cannabis products.
However, for cannabis beverages to meet their growth potential, a number of things need to happen according to industry experts.
First is the harmonization of state requirements on labeling, testing and packaging and the regulatory acceptance of beverages as a form factor play a role. If regulations are not harmonized, it will impact the cannabis beverage companies’ ability to scale. Second, cannabis beverages need their own separate regulations. Too often, cannabis beverages are shoe-horned into edibles when they are different and distinct product offerings. Third, opportunities for on-site consumption are critical to mainstreaming cannabis beverages.
And, cannabis is still federally illegal. Therefore, many beverage giants are approaching and entering the industry cautiously. Alcohol companies have largely been quicker to jump into the fray than traditional, nonalcoholic beverage brands. It is illegal to combine alcohol and cannabis in the United States, however, so the cannabis-infused market consists of water-based drinks.
Due to national prohibition, beverage companies bringing cannabis into their portfolio are largely operating under state-by-state laws and a varied regulatory environment – catering to states with adult-use cannabis programs. This patchwork of regulation impacts business operations from advertising and marketing to packaging, labeling and even dosing instructions. For most companies, the cost of doing business increases in this operating environment as laws vary across state lines.
When federal prohibition ends, a policy priority for the industry and regulators will be to reconcile the regulatory environments and state-by-state differences. We’re also likely to see the industry come together and advocate for responsible consumption, standard policies and best practices. Expect massive public service campaigns and industry and trade groups coming together to educate the public and policymakers on smart, responsible use of infused cannabis beverages.
Today’s federal cannabis prohibition is also why some manufacturers are embracing CBD-only drinks. Sales of CBD drinks (federally legal as they are derived from hemp versus the psychoactive component of THC) are expected to hit $2.5 billion and are available in places where cannabis is not legal yet.
Meanwhile, THC-infused beverages will account for $1 billion in U.S. sales by 2025, according to Brightfield Group. While not a huge part of the pie in relation to the $24 billion cannabis industry, cannabis infused beverages are one of the fastest growing segments.
So don’t be surprised if sometime soon you see a cannabis drink for sale. Companies are betting big and it might just be time to imbibe.
As an experiential marketer that works with a lot of vice-oriented brands, I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the rise of spirits in the US – a history marked by ingenuity in the face of heavy restrictions, clashing social norms, crime and political ideals. Since then, those same qualities have emerged in the story of cannabis and how, against all odds, it has recently begun to push its way into the mainstream. But on the path to legalization, cannabis can also learn a lot from the spirits industry about what not to do.
For example, when laws governing the spirits industry were written in the post-Prohibition 1930s, the federal government wanted to create an equitable landscape. So, they created a 3-tier system – manufacturers or importers must sell to wholesalers, wholesalers must then sell to retailers and retailers sell to us. They figured that keeping manufacturing interests separate from wholesale and retail interests would keep any large company from owning an entire supply chain, muscling out smaller competitors.
In theory, it’s not a bad idea. Imagine the consequences of massive companies like Diageo or AB InBev using their money to pay bars and liquor stores to only stock their brands and not competitors. Add on the Tied House Laws, which basically says an entity in one of the three categories cannot have an ownership stake in any of the others, and you get a seemingly even-handed marketplace.
In truth, it makes it almost impossible to be disruptive or for new brands to break through. Other industries have innovated by cutting out the middleman and selling direct-to-consumer – something that simply cannot happen in alcohol (minus the wineries and distilleries that can sell direct out of their tasting rooms). Also, now distributors are so consolidated that there are only one or two big distribution companies in each state. So, as a company trying to bring a new product to market, you have to get into one of these highly selective and competitive distributors if you are going to be successful – a challenging ask for a small, independent brand.
Now, imagine that same challenge coming to the cannabis space. With legalization around the corner, the adult use (as opposed to medical use) cannabis industry could easily look like alcohol in the rules that will be set up.
Right now, adult use manufacturers can sell their products to dispensaries directly. Some use a distributor, but there is no nationwide mandate to – which is probably for the best. If a distributor isn’t a requirement, it forces brands to offer something new to differentiate themselves. It will spark innovation, rather than add an extra profit margin that will get rolled into the final price – a price that is already higher than it should be due to the murky federal legal status. Adding complexity and cost will only make it harder to compete with the illicit market. For the industry to grow, costs for illicit cannabis can’t be lower than its legal counterpart.
Of course, we are in the nascent stages of legalization here and we’ve come a long way culturally and technologically since the 30s. But remember, the rules governing alcohol were written nearly 100 years ago along with the passage of the 21st amendment repealing prohibition. Startlingly, those laws haven’t changed that much since they were written, so any mistakes made now in dealing with the cannabis industry could last for a long time.
A new way forward
What the cannabis industry needs is a new model for the adult use/recreational space, keeping some of what exists in the alcohol industry but without ever mandating use of a distributor – the middle tier. This would mean keeping Tied House Laws in place and applying them to cannabis so that a manufacturer could never hold an interest in a retailer, while still allowing them to sell directly to dispensaries and to consumers. Currently, some states allow for vertical integration, which would change under Tied House Laws.
This should be pretty simple, since most states are already separating licenses by type of activity (manufacturer, retailer, etc.) and it would promote competition while bringing the widest array of products possible to each consumer. Also, it would prevent any behemoths from squeezing out the up and comers.
Of course, some retail license allowances could be considered on a case-by-case basis. For example, I would carve out an exception that growers/manufacturers could sell direct to consumers through a single “tasting room” at their brand home. This is similar to the operations of microbreweries, distilleries and wineries. It would encourage education for consumers, and provide great opportunities for brands to show why their products are better or unique.
Given the technology and logistics solutions available to businesses in a 21st century economy, mandated distributors create a sometimes-unnecessary barrier to an already efficient supply chain. If mandated, prices will inflate to cover added margin, thus making it harder to bring consumers over from the legacy market to the legal one. I’m not against the idea of a distributor – they can add tremendous value, but the mandate would seriously curtail industry growth.
Direct-to-retail and direct-to-consumer sales are necessary for the economic health and growth of the industry. Without this, using alcohol as a cautionary tale, at some point the middle tier cannabis brands will inevitably begin to wield an outsized amount of power. We are living at a time where innovation is going to be the key to explosive growth in the cannabis industry, so it’s important to do everything possible to let the market find its way without falling into a century-old trap.
In a press release sent out this morning, a new coalition announced their launch to “end the prohibition, criminalization, and overregulation of cannabis in the United States.” The Cannabis Freedom Alliance (CFA) says their core values include federal descheduling, criminal justice reform, “reentry and successful second chances,” promoting entrepreneurship in free markets and reasonable tax rates.
Who’s Behind the CFA?
The organizations that founded the CFA are Americans for Prosperity (AFP), Mission Green/The Weldon Project, the Reason Foundation, and the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce (GACC). Take a look at that list and see if you recognize the names. AFP is a well-known conservative and libertarian political lobbying group founded and funded by the Koch brothers. The Reason Foundation, another Libertarian think-tank and an advocate for prison privatization, also listed the Koch brothers as some of their largest donors in disclosures filed in 2012.
The Koch family business, Koch industries, makes hundreds of billions of dollars a year in the oil and gas industry and has held massive political influence for decades. They regularly donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Republican campaigns. Historically, they’ve played a major role in opposing climate change legislation. They’re widely known as conservative advocates for lower corporate taxes, less social services and deregulation.
Interestingly enough, prominent criminal justice reform advocate Weldon Angelos and rapper Snoop Dogg appear to have joined forces with the Koch-backed group, CFA, following a Zoom meeting where Charles Koch told them he thinks all drugs should be legalized, according to Politico. “We can’t cut with one scissor blade. We need Republicans in order to pass [a legalization bill],” Angelos told Politico. The tie between cannabis legalization and traditional Republican and Libertarian values is obvious: their free market, personal liberties and small government ideology fits well within the legalization movement.
Big Oil, Alcohol and Tobacco, Oh My!
The Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation (CPEAR) is a group that was founded in March 2021. Two of the founding members are Altria, the company that makes Marlboro cigarettes, and Molson Coors, a multinational alcohol company. The CPEAR website says that they want to work on responsible federal reform. “We represent a vast group of stakeholders — from public safety to social equity — focused on establishing a responsible and equitable federal regulatory framework for cannabis in the United States.”
Founding members of CPEAR also include: The Brink’s, a private security firm, the National Association of Convenience Stores, the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers and the Convenience Distribution Association. In other words, the group is made up of large and powerful corporate interest groups that represent the alcohol, tobacco, insurance and security industries.
Both NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) have spoken out against CPEAR. Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, says it’s a matter of corporate interests coming in and working to change laws for their companies to capitalize on legalization. “We’ve seen how big corporate money and influence have corrupted and corroded many other industries,” says Altieri. “We can’t let the legal marijuana industry become their next payday.”
The DPA also released a statement opposing CPEAR. Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the DPA, says that she urges caution to elected officials in taking counsel from these corporate powers. “We have long been concerned about the entry of large commercial interests into the legal marijuana market,” says Frederique. “Big Alcohol and Tobacco have an abysmal track record of using predatory tactics to sell their products and build their brands – often targeting low-income communities of color and fighting public health regulations that would protect people.”
While their motives and desired outcomes remain unclear, it is apparent that we’re reaching a new age in the cannabis legalization movement, one where powerful corporations outside of the cannabis space want in. Whether its oil and gas, insurance, security, tobacco or alcohol, these groups are using their power and money to influence cannabis policy reform.
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the third article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article we talk with Joaquin Rodriguez, chief operations officer at GenX Biotech. Joaquin was introduced into the cannabis industry through a close personal relationship and has spent seven years researching and navigating the cannabis market before jumping into his career with GenX Biotech. The interview with Joaquin was conducted on August 4, 2020.
Next week, we’ll interview Michael Schimelpfenig, head of R&D and BHO extraction manager at Bear Extraction House. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Hi Joaquin! I appreciate you taking the time to chat today. I’m glad we were able to connect!
Joaquin Rodriguez: Absolutely! I’m looking forward to it.
Aaron: Me too! So, I like to start off the interview with a background question so people get a chance to know about you better. How did you get involved with GenX Biotech?
Joaquin: I went to school at Cal Poly for mechanical engineering and spent some time in the oil industry. In 2011 I was introduced to who would be the future founder of GenX Biotech, Shea Alderete. I spent 7 years diving into cannabis industry to better understand the landscape and Prop 215 (California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996) and then Prop 64. In late 2017, I joined GenX Biotech to spearhead the acquisition of licensing and scale up distillate manufacturing.
Aaron: Awesome. My next questions are focused on product development. What is your decision process for starting a new product at GenX Biotech?
Joaquin: Our founder, Shea Alderete, is an innovator in product development. He specializes in formulations and new formulas for vape products. We are big on gathering empirical data. In any new product we will run a small batch and test first with heavy cannabis users to gauge their reaction to the product. We will then test with light cannabis users and finally new cannabis users so we get the full spectrum of user experiences. Throughout the process, we are gathering empirical data on things like taste and perceived therapeutic effects.
Aaron: Are you personally involved in manufacturing? Tell me about your process.
Joaquin: I am, yes. We specialize in large scale distillate manufacturing to make THC oil and we formulate batches using cannabis-derived terpenes. This what we call Sauce, a full spectrum high-terpene extract obtained from a butane hash oil (BHO) process. This is a separate extraction method from our alcohol extraction process.
Aaron: Very insightful! What is your process for developing new products?
Joaquin:GenX Biotech’s core mission is to bridge the gap between cannabis culture and the science behind cannabis. We focus more on therapeutic effects as well as recreational. We keep a pulse on the industry as a whole to see what people are doing and saying as well as new extraction methods. When we capture that data we evolve and adapt and create new formulations based on that preference and test it out. It’s a constant game of “does this look good? taste good? make you feel good? how is the potency?” It’s really a big collaboration with our end users.
We will also collaborate with other brands and manufacturers to stay ahead of the curve, share information that can make us a better company, more power in numbers is what we say. As an example, Wonderbrett is known for their high-quality flower. They have a high-end product and high-end brand recognition. We would, for example, strategize and collaborate together to utilize a unique cannabinoid and terpene profile and test that with our vape products in the market. It’s more of a collaboration than a white label relationship. In this way, Wonderbrett can expand into the extracts space via their brand. We do this with other brands as well where we’ll use their raw material and joint market the brands on the final product.
Aaron: Fantastic. Are you developing new products internally?
Joaquin: We develop all our products 100% internally.
Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants?
Joaquin: Not for products, however there are certain situations, like hardware development, where we will work with outside groups that specialize in equipment manufacturing to create something specific and one off for us. We are currently working on bringing to the market an FDA-approved inhaler technology device that is a non-combustible metered delivery device that we are really excited about. In addition, we have an incubator program with our LA partners to introduce new brands to the market which is a great asset for consulting brands looking for a home and multistate resources.
Aaron: Very cool, that’s the first I have head of inhalers in the market. For my next question feel free to answer however you like. What does being stuck look like for you?
Joaquin: Getting stuck can happen in a few different areas. With respect to manufacturing, the main bottleneck issues are consistent quality of the raw biomass materials. Mother nature does not duplicate the same results exactly every time and fluctuations can affect the cost and quality of raw goods. Other things like wear and tear on manufacturing equipment are not normally an issue as everything is stainless steel and pretty stable. But things like valves, gaskets and grommets tend to wear down with consistent use. When those fail, a whole operation can be shut down. We keep a stockpile of those on hand to make sure we stay in production.
“I support the leaders that help increase the overall knowledge for consumer and patents to know the difference between a quality product and a boof product.”Aaron: If you get stuck is it usually the same place? Or is it different each time?
Joaquin: Like I said, if we get stuck its usually in the sourcing of raw materials. Cultivators can have a bad crop or weather might affect their crop. It almost always comes down to the relationship with your cultivators. They fuel the industry and are the back bone of the whole supply chain. If they have any issues it affects everyone down line.
Aaron: Do you ever hire outside consultants when you get stuck?
Joaquin: Not really. We rely on our experience and years of operating and going through our own failures to navigate any issues with manufacturing. Collectively we work together to pivot and adapt to the ever-changing legal cannabis landscape. We do on occasion outsource to a 3rd party to help acquire raw goods. On the other hand, we separately consult for other people and groups looking to build out labs!
Aaron: That’s an excellent position to be in! For the next question imagine there’s a magic wand. What does your magic helper look like?
Joaquin: Someone that can come in and help with taxation. Triple taxation is tough. There’s the cultivation tax, manufacturing tax, state tax and local taxes. Long Beach recently lowered their local tax from six to one percent, so that is encouraging, but there needs to be a fair taxation for this industry to really thrive.
Aaron: What’s the most frustrating thing you are going through with the business?“I’m really excited for the continued education and deregulation of cannabis and its medical applications.”
Joaquin: I think that would be sales downline. With Prop 215 and the transition to prop 64, legal outlets have been heavily truncated. There are now approximately 600 legal retail outlets down from a high of about 4500 prior to prop 64. The competition landscape is really high and it’s hard to get product on the shelves without proper capital to keep the brand going. It is advantageous to partner with an established distro in order to get involved with their downline and run lean and mean.
Aaron: Now for our final question. What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?
Joaquin: I’m really excited for the continued education and deregulation of cannabis and its medical applications. It never should have been illegal to begin with, but with government corruption and greed it was targeted and use for multiple agendas. I support the leaders that help increase the overall knowledge for consumer and patents to know the difference between a quality product and a boof product. You have seen the results of the vape scare and there’s a good reason for it. Most people don’t want to pay the high ticket for legally compliant product so they turn to the illegal side where no regulation or testing is conducted to ensure they are getting safe, quality products.
In addition, the demand is so strong that illegal producers are able to put whatever they want in their products and sell them as if they are legit, provided they have the knock-off packaging, and those operators further harm those people because the state they are selling in hasn’t adapted to the times and has prohibited the availability of legal cannabis. Their inaction and support of the continued “war on cannabis” makes them just as guilty in the results of those people who have fallen ill or been hospitalized.
There have been lots of new studies published that are slowly making their way into social media and reaching consumers so that is encouraging. Another important element is the education of bud tenders because they are the face of the brand when the customer or patient is at a legal dispensary so they need to be educated on what makes for a quality product and how it can help or achieve a desired result for a customer or patient.
Aaron: Well, that concludes the interview Joaquin. Thanks for taking the time today to talk. This is all awesome feedback for the industry. Thanks so much for these helpful insights into product development in the cannabis industry.
Nepal’s parliament is debating cannabis reform. Even more interestingly, they are also considering cultivation as a way of curbing the harm done to the local population by the importation of distilled spirits. Namely, proceed with cultivation of cannabis and ban imported alcohol.
This is also the first time this specific discussion – alcohol vs. cannabis – has arisen in a national state legislature discussion about legalization quite like this anywhere in the world.
Specifically, instead of “legalize and tax” like alcohol – the mantra of many early American states like Colorado and Washington State, Nepal at least, is taking a directly different approach. Literally to accept cannabis as a drug and recreational substance while moving people away from distilled alcohol. And further doing so specifically as an act of public safety.
Western European nations if not North American ones, take note.
However, this is also a trend that is already showing up in the United States if not Canada all by itself. It is absolutely why the big beer and alcohol companies have invested early and big in this business.
Nepalese politicians clearly seem to want to make a different kind of statement right from the get go. Including potentially banning any cannabis company or funding that is directly tied to alcohol sales – or in the more likely inverse, giving a market alternative to global brands like Constellation. North American brands will sell well in a tourist market specifically there for outdoor sports, spiritual rejuvenation, or a bit of both.
Background on Nepal
Chances are you know about as much about Nepal as, well, most people do. It is a small, relatively open country on the edge of a much larger Tibet. Nepal and Tibet literally meet at the Himalayas and share Mount Everest. Tibet being the land of the exiled Dalai Lama and the site of that movie with Brad Pitt.
Nepal is also mostly Hindu, although there is a wide smattering of religious belief in the country that includes Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism. And unlike Tibet, Nepal can be reached with a simple tourist visa.
It is for this very reason that such debates in the Nepalese parliament have taken on such an interesting geopolitical tint.
A Quick History of Cannabis and Nepal
Just like other countries touching the Himalayas, cannabis is hardly a “new” development. Indeed, this region of the world is likely to be home to many intriguing indigenous cannabis species – including of the intriguing “purple” kind. For those without a degree in cannabis cultivation, purple coloured cannabis, particularly in the wild, comes from areas that are cold at night – see Hindu Kush, albeit from Afghanistan.
Like other countries subjected to geopolitical forces of the early 1970s, the country was also forced to abandon its cannabis cultivation as part of the Cold War and War on Drugs that targeted this part of the world. Politicians are now calling for that to end.
Beyond tourism however, and local economic development (almost 50% of the economy is still subsistence farming), cannabis is deeply interwoven into local tradition and religion.
February 21 is known as the “Night of Shiva” – where millions of Hindus make religious pilgrimages to holy sites in the highest mountains in the world. Shiva is one of the three gods in the Hindu triumvirate.
Brahma is the creator of the universe. Vishnu is the preserver of it. Shiva, however is the destroyer of the universe in order to recreate it.
Coming as it does a month before the spring equinox, the ritual to Hindus is not one of violence but rather one of the rebirth of spring and renewal just around the corner. It makes sense that cannabis would be associated with the same.
In Nepal, in other words, there is a political and economic turning of the wheel for the new decade that is also spiritually motivated at least, by ancient and traditional Nepalese traditions that are quite literally, as old as time.
The race is on for drinkable cannabinoids. In mid-December, Tilray announced a $100 million joint venture with Anheuser Busch to research and develop infused non-alcoholic drinks for the Canadian market.
Short term in other words, a lot of drinkable cannabis is coming to a market near you.
Why Is Drinkable Cannabis So Intriguing?
Cannabinoids themselves, are not water soluble. However, when cannabinoids are subjected to a process called nano emulsion, (emulsified oil, water and molecules), they can be not only added to drinks but potentially represent one of the most cutting edge forms of drug, vitamin, mineral and overall nutrition delivery. Nanoemulsions are approximately the size of viruses, proteins and antibodies with a transparent or semi-translucent appearance. They also tend to increase bioavailability of substances.
In other words, while the focus on the market as it is developing in Canada is “recreational” and “beverage” use, in fact, this technology can be applied to food. It will also be used, obviously on the medical side of the equation too.
Nanotechnology overall is actually a manufacturing technology that works with atoms to change the structure of matter. When it comes to edibles of all kinds (food, drinks and medications) nutrients are absorbed more uniformly and pass through to membranes directly into human cells.
The impact of that technology, mixed with a revolutionary drug, is no longer theoretical.One of the best known uses of nanotechnology in the world is also one of the most common condiments. Mayonnaise for example, is an emulsion of tiny particles where oil and water are mixed together without separating. That said, these days researchers are developing techniques that allow these tiny droplets to be precisely tailored to give them specific tastes and textures.
The technology, in other words, that the cannabis and major drinks manufacturers are now developing, will allow cannabinoids to be used in food, drinks and medications in ways that go far beyond pills and oils.
This is not your grandparent’s beverage, food, drug or alcohol market in other words. This represents another way for the cannabis industry to lead the way on a range of products far from “canna-beer.” Or even THC-infused social lubricants.
The impact of that technology, mixed with a revolutionary drug, is no longer theoretical.
The Cellular Revolution of Cannabinoids Is Now Here
If allowed to efficiently access cells via nanotechnology, no matter how it is consumed, the idea of a cannabis infused food or drink might well become enough not only to “keep the doctor away” but in general revolutionize concepts of nutrition, not to mention medication.
That said, there are still many questions in general that remain about the safety of this kind of technology within the human body. Nanoceuticals can help bypass typical protective barriers of the body and deliver bio-chemicals that the body would not normally encounter. There has not been a lot of study (yet) on their biodegradability or metabolism of nanotechnologies. Namely the human body may not be able to expel them. They are currently unregulated and can be introduced to the market with little or no evidence of safety or efficacy although this is also on the way. There are concerns that this delivery method could literally disrupt DNA.
Cannabinoids themselves appear to be a systemic biological regulator. But the active ingredients used to emulsify the plant may or may not be.
In an industry in other words, which has systematically been ahead of regulatory approval, starting with legalization itself, the future looks not only highly intriguing, but full of major debates about with what and how human beings are nourished, and treated medically.
As usual, in other words, the cannabis industry, is pioneering a truly brave new world.
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