Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor. Nothing contained in this post should be construed as investment advice.
CV Sciences ($CVSI), the company behind leading brand +PlusCBD, had a meteoric rise in 2018. The U.S. Farm Bill had just passed, legalizing hemp farming across the country. Research firms projected that the CBD industry would grow to over $20 billion in annual revenues. CV Sciences was at the forefront, widely acknowledged to be one of the top two companies in the CBD industry (the other being Charlotte’s Web). At one point in 2019, the company’s market capitalization reached $575 million.
A lot has changed in three years. The company’s stock price is now down over 99% from its peak in 2019. Its market capitalization is just over $5 million. Safe to say the gold rush is over?
While the worst may be over for CV Sciences, the stock could easily go to zero. And that’d be a great thing for consumers.
What Happened to CV Sciences?
CV Sciences used to be a leading cannabis company. At one point in 2019, they had nearly $16M in cash. They’re down to ~$2.5M now. (The uptick last quarter was from raising $1.4M from investors via convertible notes).
A low cash balance alone is not a death sentence. Unfortunately, the business isn’t looking great either. Revenues have declined substantially (even prior to COVID).
To make matters worse, profitability has declined big-time, too (they’re likely doing heavy discounting to keep revenues afloat). CVSI used to have gross profit margins above 70%. Last quarter, they were just 26%.
It’s no surprise then that CV Sciences has been running at a loss for several quarters, including a $2.2 million net loss in Q1 of this year. The loss would have been larger, but the company recognized a $2M expense reduction, courtesy of federal COVID relief.
To be fair, slow growth is not unique to +PlusCBD.
It’s a problem across the CBD industry and major players, including Sunsoil (where I work). Overcrowded market. Pandemic retail downturn. Uncertain regulatory environment for cannabis. The industry has been hit with a number of obstacles. But at least if growth isn’t fully in their control, maybe they could improve the bottom line? Unfortunately, no. CV Sciences doesn’t have any levers to pull—because they outsourced every meaningful part of their supply chain.
Outsourced. Outsourced. Outsourced.
The CBD Industry’s Problem
For years, CVSI touted its capital-efficient, “asset-light” strategy. It was a pure marketing and distribution company, with little extra baggage. In Q4 of 2019, equity analyst Pablo Zuanic asked the obvious question (edited for clarity):
[W]hen you say asset-light, I can interpret that in a different way. I would say asset-light means a lot of third-party involvement—less control of your supply chain.
So, how does being asset-light make you different from other CBD companies out there—there’s a lot of them that outsource pretty much everything?
CV Science’s core problem is the industry’s core problem. Today, there are thousands of brands, selling the same, white-labeled CBD oil at prices that 90% of people can’t afford. Put simply, everyone’s selling the same, expensive crap. There’s a complete lack of meaningful innovation. When I say innovation, I don’t mean flashy, new products. (I’m pretty sure we’ve put CBD in everything already). I mean making quality CBD that’s actually affordable. Most CBD companies like to complain that FDA inaction has kept the market from reaching its potential. Few are focused on the bigger problem that’s really containing the size of the market: high prices. Taking 40mg of CBD daily costs $120/month from the average brand.
Who can afford that?
The Road Forward
Left with few options, CV Sciences has been raising prices on its products online (in-store prices are likely to follow suit). That’s a dance that won’t last forever. Consumers are smart. They’ll find alternatives. The company might live to fight another day—but the broader trend is clear. The excesses of the cannabis gold rush are being washed away.
The survivors will be the ones who meaningfully innovate: making higher-quality products that the mass market can afford. That’s a great thing for consumers, even if it doesn’t bode well for CV Sciences. By the way, my company Sunsoil makes organic CBD oil at half the price of “leading” brands like +PlusCBD. (We’re also profitable.) Not only that, but we’re on a path to cut prices by 80% over the next 5 years. We see a future where quality CBD oil costs the same as Advil. If you’re a +PlusCBD customer (or a customer of any CBD brand) we’ll give you $200 to switch to Sunsoil.(Yes, seriously).
According to a press release sent out today, ASTM International’s D37 cannabis committee has approved three new standards for environmental conditions during packaging, shipping and storing cannabis and hemp flower. The three new standards are:
Standard Specification for Environmental Conditions for Post Packaged Storage and Retail Merchandising of Cannabis/Hemp Flower (soon to be published as D8423);
Standard Specification for Environmental Conditions While In-Transit for Packaged Cannabis/Hemp Flower (soon to be published as D8432); and
Standard Specification for Environmental Conditions While Packaging Cannabis/Hemp Flower (D8450).
ASTM members will be presenting at the Cannabis Quality Conference & Expo, October 17-19 in New Jersey. Click here for more information. Jonathan DeVries, a member of ASTM, says these standards are designed for the entire cannabis supply chain, from cultivation, manufacturing and transportation all the way to the end consumers. “These standards are designed to support the safety and quality of packaged cannabis and hemp flower as it moves through the supply chain,” says DeVries. “This includes the activities following curing and drying, namely packaging, transit, and storage, until it reaches the final end user.”
The Cannabis Labs Virtual Conference is back! For six years now, we have been hosting this complimentary collection of webinar presentations, designed to help attendees better understand some of the more technical aspects of starting and operating a laboratory. We will take a deep dive into cannabis lab testing, rules and regulations, standardization and more. Take a look at the presentations and speakers below for more information.
Attendees registering for this complimentary series of webinars will get access to seven veterans of the cannabis lab testing industry, who are all available for Q&A after each presentation. In addition to getting the opportunity to chat with these subject matter experts on September 13, a recording of the presentations will be made available to all who register.
Ancillary services are a hot topic in the cannabis industry, as they are in many niche industries turning to B2B marketplaces to connect with specialized expertise and products.
Platforms such as Amazon Business, Flexport, SupplyHog and others have emerged to connect mainstream business sectors with the vendors and services they need, but things look a lot different in the cannabis space. The many disparate aspects of launching, running and scaling a cannabis business—and vetting dozens of service providers clamoring for your business—can feel like playing whack-a-mole blindfolded.
While a business consultancy can do some of the heavy lifting, there are reasons why this traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach is problematic. However, the rise of legalization is creating new avenues for founders in both established and emerging markets to take charge of their destiny and secure the services that truly meet their needs.
Understanding what’s available can help founders avoid pitfalls, from inadequate insurance coverage and predatory lenders to inexperienced service providers seeking to cash in on the “green gold rush.”
The Importance of Regulatory Knowledge
One reason B2B services look so different in the cannabis industry is because the industry itself is still rapidly evolving, as new state markets for medical cannabis and recreational adult use come online and states constantly amend their regulations. There’s also the sprawling scope of compliance requirements facing a cannabis operator, from securing tightly zoned real estate to building a facility with adequate security, to integrating into the state’s seed-to-sale tracking system.
It’s critical to engage with experts who are knowledgeable on the regulatory variances of the state (or states) where the business will operate. Someone who has experience interpreting cannabis regulations will know, for example, if you should have a real estate lease locked in prior to applying or if a particular state would prefer you move through the pre-opening process in a different order.
Another reason ancillary services are so important is that cannabis regulations aren’t standardized on the federal level or even state to state, which requires an especially deep, granular level of understanding of market trends and compliance demands. That can make the difference not only between a successful business launch and a swift nose dive, but also between a business surviving a major disaster or setback and becoming past tense.
Insurance and Lending Issues
Every business owner knows they need insurance, for example, but not every insurance broker knows what specific coverages to lock in to ensure a payout if a dispensary is vandalized or if a wildfire burns a grow operation to the ground. While federal legislation like the Clarifying Law Around Insurance of Marijuana (CLAIM) Act could one day make it easier for national insurance companies to serve legal cannabis businesses, currently criminal conduct exclusions can be used to keep plant-touching business owners from getting their full payout.
Not only does federal prohibition make it challenging for a cannabis business operator to find proper insurance coverage, access financial networks and establish employee benefits programs to keep industry jobs competitive, even seeking investment capital can leave cannabis companies exposed to unfavorable terms. Just look at the case of iAnthus, a multistate operator that claims to have been burned in a deal with Gotham Green Partners while looking for expansion funding.
So how can cannabis leadership locate and vet professional services, particularly in the critical startup stage when it feels like everything has to happen right away? That’s where the B2B marketplace trend comes in.
The Advent of Vendor-Agnostic B2B Marketplaces for Cannabis
While platforms such as Amazon Business have offerings for a variety of mainstream industries, they’re not tailored for cannabis. But there is a growing field of vendor-agnostic specialists helping cannabis founders make the right moves.
Necessity absolutely produced this particular innovation, which upends the traditional single-funnel consultancy model to instead create a village that can raise a variety of cannabis businesses. Vendor-agnostic consultancies are nimble and adaptable in a way that broad-scale platforms are not. And rather than being tied to a particular suite of products and service providers the way traditional business consultancies often are, the vendor-agnostic approach gives both consultants and cannabis founders much-needed flexibility.
In a cannabis B2B marketplace, a pool of inventory-tracking software vendors, for example, can be sorted to allow for easy comparison shopping based on whether the operator is a single-state startup looking for basic integration with the state compliance system, or an MSO that needs a more robust platform. And the customization extends from there—vertically integrated businesses versus standalone wholesale producers, plant-touching businesses versus other professional service providers and beyond.
As more and more industries specialize, it’s no wonder ancillary services are having a renaissance and replacing the traditional one-size-fits-all model popularized decades ago. But it’s also no wonder that the cannabis industry needs an especially unique approach to professional support for niche fields. The more this industry expands, the more founders and their B2B partners need to roll with their own solutions.
Founded in 2018, Bespoke Financial is the nation’s first fintech lender focused on the cannabis industry. Led by a premier team of experts in the credit, technology and cannabis industries, Bespoke Financial has financed more than $800M in GMV across the US cannabis industry and is on track to deploy $1B by end of year 2022 via their revolving lines of credit. Bespoke’s financing empowers cannabis companies to increase purchasing power, remove working capital limitations and accelerate growth in a rapidly growing industry. The company is backed by respected venture capital firms such as Casa Verde Capital, The General Partnership, Greenhouse Capital Partners and Ceres Group Holdings.
Bespoke recently entered into a milestone partnership with Blaze as the cannabis industry’s first tech-enabled B2B lending product available in CA & MA. Through this partnership, Bespoke and Blaze will be the first to bring “Buy Now Pay Later” to the industry. With just the click of a button, vendors can utilize this BNPL feature by paying directly within the Blaze platform via Bespoke’s financing with a 60-day repayment term on all vendor payments while minimizing dispensaries’ reliance on cash transactions.
We caught up with George Mancheril, co-founder and CEO of Bespoke Financial to learn more about trends in cannabis lending and their unique partnership with Blaze. George was the company’s CFO prior to taking the CEO position in 2019. Prior to Bespoke, George was a VP at Guggenheim Partners in California.
Aaron Green: What does it mean to be a fintech lender in cannabis?
George Mancheril:Bespoke Financial is a first mover in fintech lending for the cannabis industry, equipped with a robust network of investors, industry expertise and a multi-year track record solidifying our credibility in the space. We are focused on working with established cannabis companies who can use our financing to unlock growth, profitability, and success in the near- and long-term future.
Cannabis lenders must navigate a complex web of both cannabis and financing regulations, specific to each state, while trying to identify good borrowers in a nascent industry comprised of new companies. This has caused banks, traditional lenders, and institutional investors to avoid cannabis despite the unique growth opportunities and economic potential of the industry overall.
Green: What makes Bespoke different from other cannabis lenders in the business?
Mancheril: Unlike the few cannabis lenders active in the market, Bespoke Financial combines best-in-class technology and lending products designed to address the specific financing needs of the industry to better serve our clients. Our tech platform offers a simple interface for our clients to easily access financing, monitor loan balances, and manage payments. Bespoke’s technology allows us to service a broad array of clients in numerous markets across the US, offering our clients a reliable financing partner for their immediate and future needs.
Green: What markets do you serve in cannabis? Are you able to finance plant-touching operations?
Mancheril: Bespoke works with cannabis companies across the entire supply chain within 15 U.S. cannabis markets, with the vast majority of our borrowers being plant-touching operations, Our portfolio comprises cultivators, manufacturers, distributors, dispensaries, non-plant touching cannabis brands, ancillary service providers and CBD companies. Our financing options have helped a wide variety of cannabis operations overcome working capital limitations and capitalize on new growth opportunities and increase profitability.
Green: You recently announced a “Buy Now Pay Later” partnership with Blaze. What problems do dispensaries have that you are solving for there?
Mancheril: As broader economic activity slows in the US with the threat of a recession impacting both businesses and consumers, dispensaries face supply, demand, and fundraising challenges:
Consumer demand challenges:
Cannabis consumers in 2022 are significantly more price sensitive than recent years for several reasons.
High inflation over the past 1yr+ has reduced disposable income for consumers in the US.
Post-COVID return to normalcy has allowed consumers to spend disposable income on many goods and services which were largely been unavailable since the beginning of 2020 (ie travel).
Concern about a recession and slower wage growth has further reduced consumer spending.
Illicit cannabis has always been the main competition for legal dispensaries with little enforcement or curtailing of black-market activity to note in the US.
New cannabis consumers are gravitating towards smaller (but growing) product categories (edibles, concentrates, infused beverages, etc.) as opposed to just purchasing packaged flower. Dispensaries must carry a wide array of products and brands in order to better attract and service new and existing customers.
Supply side challenges:
Mature cannabis markets, such as California, have been saturated with over supply since Q2 2021 leading to inventory build ups and declining wholesale prices for cultivators, manufacturers, and brands (collectively referred to as suppliers). In this environment, suppliers are offering discounts to incentivize customers (i.e. dispensaries) who can:
Purchase larger quantities more frequently to allow suppliers to move inventory before the product quality degrades.
Pay COD for purchases as cashflow and capital are very important for suppliers during periods of economic stress.
Dispensaries without the financial means to conform to suppliers’ preferences will be at a considerable disadvantage as they will continue to have trouble sourcing popular products at the lowest possible cost.
Cannabis’ federal illegality has resulted in a much smaller universe of potential capital providers. Once a potential lender or investor is identified, typically the application process requires time and resources to complete which puts dispensaries in an especially disadvantageous position. Large MSOs, who tend to attract most of the available capital, can rely on internal finance teams to source capital whereas dispensaries are much more constrained and require a simpler, faster, and easier application process.
Our partnership with Blaze to offer B2B BNPL to dispensaries addresses these challenges and more. With access to our financing, dispensaries are empowered with:
Fast access to financing without a lengthy application process, entirely housed within the Blaze POS’ platform
Dispensaries on the Blaze platform do not need to seek out lenders or weigh various financing options.
No materials need to be gathered for the application.
At the click of a button, dispensaries gain access to capital which they are free to use as they see fit with no obligation.
Easy to understand financing
No obligation: dispensaries have full discretion to use our financing only when they choose.
No prepayment penalties or additional fees.
Increased purchasing power, enabling dispensaries to
Carry a wider array of cannabis products and brands to better service consumer needs.
Purchase a higher quantity of inventory from suppliers to qualify for volume-based discounts.
Pay COD for purchases to qualify for early payment discounts.
Offer lower prices to cautious consumers as a result of these discounts, thereby increasing sales and gross profit while strengthening their relationships with suppliers.
Green: Can you explain your decision to launch in CA and MA first?
Mancheril: While our ultimate goal is to offer B2B BNPL in all legal cannabis markets, we launched in CA and MA first because these states represent the largest and fastest growing markets in the US respectively. California was the first state that both Bespoke and Blaze launched in individually, so it was a natural starting point for our BNPL partnership. Massachusetts’ continued growth is compelling for any service provider and we believe our BNPL financing will be as successful addressing the needs and challenges in this newer market alongside those in more mature states.
Green: What trends are you seeing in US cannabis debt financing?
Mancheril: Since 2020, we’ve seen many MSOs increasingly rely on debt financing as opposed to equity capital. MSOs accounted for over ~80% of the debt raised over the past 2 years despite only representing a fraction of the broader cannabis market. Additionally, commercial real estate financing options for cannabis companies have increased over the same time period, driven by the growth of cannabis focused REITs. In general, by the end of 2021, we saw an increasing number of debt investors focused on higher yields participate in cannabis deals.
The recent macroeconomic volatility, increase in rates, and widening credit spreads in 2022 have slowed and slightly reversed the trends seen over the past 3 years. While banks and traditional lenders continue to wait for federal legalization, the vast majority of cannabis companies continue to have very limited access to debt financing options. Over the past quarter, we have seen debt investors leverage the recent illiquidity to negotiate higher interest rates and equity components in new debt deals, a trend we expect to continue until the broader economy strengthens or federal legalization gains traction.
At Bespoke, we empower entrepreneurs to grow their businesses without having to surrender control of their companies or visions. We are excited to continually be market leaders addressing this very vital need for cannabis companies of all sizes in all market environments.
Green: What trends are you following in US regulations and emerging markets?
Mancheril: The most recent headlines have been mixed for US cannabis regulations. Federal legalization is a huge point of focus with SAFE Banking failing (again) to survive the US Senate while the introduction of the revised CAOA offers a glimpse of hope. We believe federal regulatory changes will continue to be debated and discussed without any meaningful progress over the next 2 years but the current discussion of the CAOA revisions will provide the best insight on lawmakers’ priorities. On the local level, the list of states with adult-use sales continues to expand and we would expect to see a handful of new markets ushered in by voters in 2022.
Green: What would federal legalization mean for the cannabis lending industry? How do you stay ahead of the curve?
Mancheril: Federal legalization can occur in a variety of ways, including rescheduling cannabis (currently Schedule 1), descheduling cannabis entirely from the CSA, deferring to state specific regulation, implementing a national cannabis regulatory framework, or some combination of all of the above. The complexity of future regulatory changes makes the timeline for legalization difficult to forecast but we believe that the path forward will be comprised of multiple legislative changes over a number of years as opposed to a comprehensive reform addressing all the relevant points at once.
Based on the interests and goals of all stakeholders in this conversation, we believe that:
Cannabis de-scheduling or rescheduling is unlikely to occur before 2025
Any federal legislation which is approved will require long transition periods for new rules to be finalized, implemented, and adopted by relevant stakeholders (state regulators, courts, cannabis operators, financial institutions, etc.)
Federal lawmakers may allow for financial institutions to service the cannabis industry prior to de-scheduling through limited scope legislation like SAFE banking
Federal legislation will have a difficult time balancing deference to state specific cannabis regulation while enabling federal agencies such as the FDA and Treasury department to issue guidelines and rules for the broader industry. Too much federal agency interference will jeopardize existing & functioning cannabis markets while too much deference will impede vital oversight and consumer protection.
We believe interstate commerce will not be allowed immediately following federal legalization. Interstate commerce will benefit larger MSOs and states with mature cannabis markets (which are hampered by oversupply) at the expense of smaller single state operators and new markets. State governments are motivated to legalize cannabis in the pursuit of tax revenue and economic opportunity for their constituents, both of which would be significantly reduced for newer markets competing with out of state operators.
Regardless of which path federal legalization takes in the coming years, the net benefit for the industry overall will be clear. Setting aside the societal benefit from expunging criminal records for non-violent offenders and freeing enforcement agencies to focus on more serious issues, any progress towards legalization would significantly reduce the challenges that cannabis operators face today. Cannabis companies will see a reduction in operating expenses, a wider array of options for basic business services like insurance and marketing, and an increase in consumer demand as the stigma of illegality fades into memory. Allowing banks to service the industry would remove cash as the primary form of payment, entice larger pools of capital to enter the cannabis market, and in general de-risk the industry tremendously. Bespoke will continue in our role as market leader and cannabis industry advocate in this new paradigm by empowering our clients with even greater access to the capital and services vital to their continued success.
Anyone in cannabis will tell you that complex transportation and supply issues are stalling industry growth and impacting employers’ ability to hire teams for the critical roles that keep product moving on schedule.
Since the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020, global and domestic supply chains have suffered bottlenecks caused by ever-changing public health policies and ongoing materials and labor shortages. While the status of transportation as an essential business kept other essential sectors, such as cannabis and grocery, chugging along, the current situation is still challenging.
Transportation remains the biggest supply-side problem, with the American Trucking Association reporting a shortage of an estimated 80,000 truckers in October 2021. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also continues to report high numbers of job openings across supply-chain jobs such as warehousing and transportation.
Cannabis businesses, from multistate operators to distributors to delivery service startups, are hardly immune to these issues. In fact, they face the additional hurdle of restrictive federal regulations, including the illegality of transporting cannabis across state borders. For example, this stipulation means that the over-saturation of flower in California cannot be addressed in a naturally symbiotic manner by shipping to states whose markets demand more flower, such as Arizona and New Mexico.
In the aggregate, these challenges impact employers’ operational and logistics goals and diminish candidates’ interest to work in a highly scrutinized industry. Many trucking companies have found it a challenge to attract drivers. Low pay, grueling schedules, and zero-tolerance cannabis testing for drivers despite legalization have led to an exodus of truckers in the U.S. and Canada.
Despite these obstacles, cannabis employers can still embrace smart strategies to attract quality employees and create much-needed stability to thrive in the rapidly changing marketplace.
Cannabis, COVID & the Great Resignation
In recent months, when it seemed America was finally emerging from COVID’s long shadow, the Great Resignation dampened business optimism. Employee turnover hit cannabis hard—especially in California, where other challenges like a thriving illicit market, high taxes and wholesale price compression have impacted companies’ ability to operate smoothly. Transportation and supply issues compound the problems.
For example, even transporting federally legal hemp in California and elsewhere has its headaches. Our company’s trimmer certification course uses hemp for training purposes. We ship the hemp directly to students’ homes so they can participate in virtual training sessions. Although our company has certified that the course packet contains only hemp, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will not ship it, regardless of whether the delivery location is in or out of state. We therefore must rely on a private carrier to transport the course packets to class participants, which is more time consuming and costly
Staffing Strategies for Transportation & Supply Jobs
Cannabis employers have several traditional and non-traditional tools at their disposal to address transportation and supply-related staffing.
While standard ecommerce jobs are synonymous with turnover, here lies an opportunity for cannabis operators to differentiate themselves. This is the cannabis industry, after all, and plenty of individuals who might not normally be interested in the transportation or supply aspect of ecommerce, might be far more open to those types of roles if they know the jobs involve cannabis.
What can employers do to attract these more receptive candidates to their organizations? Hone in on workers who have a passion for the plant. In job descriptions, position cannabis messaging front and center and conduct outreach through LinkedIn groups and other social media platforms to groups and individuals that have a cannabis focus.
Salary and Benefits
These days, a competitive salary simply is not enough to entice the right employees. A solid benefits package goes a long way to establishing trust between employers and employees and provides employees with a level of comfort and reassurance that they are supported during these tumultuous times. For example, companies must prioritize healthcare benefits and consider including coverage for part-time workers on the supply side of the cannabis industry.
Bonuses are another great way to catch the eye of potential employees, but bonuses must be developed within a framework designed for retention. Cannabis employers who establish performance bonuses and loyalty bonuses also increase that ever-important aspect of trust within their companies.
A transparent and robust HR plan that addresses safety concerns—COVID and beyond—can affect employees’ comfort for certain supply or transport positions that may involve increased public exposure or enhanced personal safety risks. Be clear with employees about the system that’s in place to support them in the event of unforeseen emergencies or injuries.
Cannabis employers should also be aware of the importance of having compliance-focused internal transportation standard operating procedures and protections for employees. These policies can be a key factor in attracting both drivers and additional transport and supply experts from other regulated transport industries such as food, agriculture and pharmaceuticals. Candidates without a cannabis background will be more drawn to companies that provide a well-developed and safe infrastructure.
Smart Cannabis Staffing Solutions: The Time is Now
Federal cannabis legalization is coming, and with that nationwide sea change other issues in cannabis supply and transport will emerge. How will cannabis transport consolidate? Will the nation’s top carriers simply take over?
Regardless of what those answers might be, the need to embrace smart staffing solutions now is imperative. Providing a solid base wage with health benefits, and making it clear to current employees and job candidates that there’s an internal infrastructure of support—from HR to loyalty bonuses—is the best way to tackle the transportation and supply issues to position your company for future success.
By Erik Paulson, Josh Swider, Zachary Eisenberg 1 Comment
The THC content you see on a label when you walk into a dispensary? There is a very good chance the number is false.
In every state with regulated cannabis, there is a requirement to label the potency of products so consumers can make informed purchasing and medicating decisions. The regulations usually state that the THC/cannabinoid content on the label must be within a particular relative percent difference of the actual tested results for the product to be salable. In California, that threshold is +/- 10%.
The problem is, with all the focus on THC percentage in flower and concentrate products, enormous pressure has been placed on cultivators and manufacturers to push their numbers up. Higher numbers = higher prices. But unfortunately, improving their growing, extraction and formulation processes only gets companies so far. So, they proceed to ‘lab shop’: giving their business to whichever lab provides them the highest potency.
There are roughly 50 Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) licensed labs in the state, and competition is fierce to maintain market share in a maturing and plateauing industry. Whereas competition used to be healthy and revolved around quality, turnaround time and customer service, now it’s essentially become a numbers game. As a result, many labs have sacrificed their scientific integrity to chase what the clients want: higher THC potency results without contaminant failures. The practice has become so prevalent that labs openly advertise their higher potency values to gain customers without fear of recourse. Here are two examples:
Over a year ago, a few labs fed up with what was happening got together to determine the extent of the potency inflation issue. We proactively purchased and tested over 150 randomly chosen flower samples off dispensary shelves. The results were staggering. Eighty-seven percent of the samples failed their label claims (i.e., were >10% deviant of their labeled values), with over half of the samples >20% deviant of their labeled THC values (i.e., over 2x the legal permitted variance). Additionally, our labs found multiple cases of unreported category 1 pesticides in some of the analyzed samples at multiple times the legal limit – a significant public health concern. The deceit was not limited to small cultivators trying to get by but also some of the industry’s biggest brands.
The same issues and economic conditions are in play for concentrates. Manufacturers of these products also hunt for the highest D9 THC values because wholesale prices for distillate are determined by THC content: <86% for the lowest value, 86-88%, 88-90% and >90%, with a new price point for over 94%. As a result, consumers can walk into a dispensary and find concentrates like the one shown below that report>99% total cannabinoids (>990mg/g) and contains almost 10% additional terpenes. You don’t have to be an analytical chemist to realize those numbers add up to well over 100%, which is physically impossible.
Everyone can agree that the system is broken, but who is at fault? Should the blame be placed on dispensaries, many of whom use THC % as their only purchasing or marketing metric? Or on cultivators, manufacturers and distributors, who seek the highest results possible rather than the most accurate ones? Or on the labs themselves, who are knowingly reporting inflated results?
Ultimately, the individual businesses are acting in their own self-interest, and many are participating in this practice simply to stay afloat. Dispensaries can’t reasonably be expected to know which results are inflated and which are not. Cultivators and manufacturers feel obligated to use labs that provide them with the highest results; otherwise, they’re putting themselves at a disadvantage relative to their competitors. Likewise, labs that aren’t willing to inflate their numbers have to be ready to watch customers walk out the door to maintain their principles – an existential dilemma for many.
The primary reason why potency inflation has become so prevalent is that there have been no negative repercussions for those that are cheating.
The axiom is true – don’t hate the player, hate the game. Unlike most businesses, testing labs operating with integrity want meaningful regulations and oversight to assure a level playing field. Without them, the economics force a race to the bottom where labs either have to inflate more and more or go out of business. Since 2016, the DCC (formerly BCC) has taken zero meaningful actions to discourage or crackdown on potency inflation— not a single recall of an inflated product or license suspension of an inflating lab— so predictably, the problem has gotten progressively worse over time.
So, to answer the question above – who is at fault for our broken system? The answer is simple: the DCC.
In the Fall of 2021, we began engaging with the DCC to address the industry’s potency inflation concerns. The DCC requested we provide them with direct evidence of our accusations, so we collected and shared the flower data mentioned above. The Department tested the same batches off the shelf and confirmed our results. Somehow not a single recall was issued – even for the batches containing category 1 pesticides.
We pushed for more accountability, and DCC Director Nicole Elliott assured us steps were being taken: “The Department is in the process of establishing a number of mechanisms to strengthen compliance with and accountability around the testing methods required of labs and will be sharing more about that in the near future.”
Instead, we got a standardized cannabinoid potency method (mandated by SB 544) that all labs will be required to use. On the surface, a standardized methodology sounds like a good thing to level the playing field by forcing suspect labs into accepting generally accepted best practices. In reality, however, most labs already use the same basic methodology for flower and concentrate cannabinoid profiling and inflate their results using a variety of other mechanisms: selective sampling, using advantageous reference materials, manipulating data, etc. Furthermore, the method mandated is outdated and will flatly not work for various complex matrices such as gummies, topicals, beverages, fruit chews and more. If adopted without changes, it would be a disaster for manufacturers of these products and the labs that test them. Nevertheless, the press release issued by the DCC reads as though they’ve earned a pat on the back and delivered the silver bullet to the potency inflation issue.
Here are a few more meaningful actions the DCC could take that would help combat potency inflation:
Perform routine surveillance sampling and testing of products off of store shelves either at the DCC’s internal lab or by leveraging DCC licensed private labs.
Recall products found to be guilty of extreme levels of potency inflation.
Conduct in-person, unannounced audits of all labs, perhaps focusing on those reporting statistically higher THC results.
Conduct routine round-robin studies where every lab tests the same sample and outliers are identified.
Shutdown labs that are unable or unwilling to remediate their potency inflation issues.
For some less disciplinary suggestions:
Remove incentives for potency inflation, like putting a tax on THC percentage
Set up routine training sessions for labs to address areas of concern and improve communication with the DCC
Someone might retort – who cares if the number is slightly higher than it should be? No one will notice a little less THC in their product. A few counterpoints:
Consumers are being lied to and paying more for less THC.
Medical cannabis users depend on specific dosages for intended therapeutic effects.
Ethical people who put their entire lives into cultivating quality cannabis, manufacturing quality products and accurately testing cannot compete with those willing to cheat. If things get worse, only the unethical actors will be left.
Labs that inflate potency are more likely to ignore the presence of contaminants, like the category 1 pesticides we found in our surveillance testing.
This single compound, delta-9 THC, is the entire reason why this industry is so highly regulated. If we are not measuring it accurately, why regulate it at all?
We will continue to fight for a future where quality and ethics in the cannabis industry are rewarded rather than penalized. And consumers can have confidence in the quality and safety of the products they purchase. Our labs are willing to generate additional surveillance data, provide further suggestions for improvement in regulations/enforcement, and bring further attention to this problem. But there is a limit to what we can do. In the end, the health and future of our industry are entirely in the hands of the DCC. We hope you will join us in calling on them to enact meaningful and necessary changes that address this problem.
The cannabis industry operates in a legal gray area between federal restrictions and state legalization in a constantly changing regulatory environment. Maintaining payroll and HR compliance is a burden cannabis companies face that grows exponentially with geographic expansion of the workforce.
Würk allows cannabis companies to manage payroll, human resources, timekeeping, scheduling and tax compliance, minimizing compliance risks in the ever-changing cannabis regulatory environment. The company uses its expertise and trusted partnerships to provide guidance on 280E tax law, accounting and banking. Its platform is designed to scale nationally with the growth of the industry while incorporating the local laws and regulations unique to individual states. Their clients include Cresco Labs, Canndescent and NUG.
We caught up with Scott Kenyon to ask about Würk’s approach to human capital management, challenges facing cannabis businesses and industry trends. Scott sat on the Board of Würk before becoming its CEO and chairman. Prior to Würk, Scott held leadership roles at Dell and Phunware.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Scott Kenyon: My wife and I were early investors in a few companies in Colorado and Nevada. From early on (this was back in 2015) we learned the hard way of cannabis and how difficult it is to run these businesses, especially in those early days. We’ve progressed a ton over the years, but it’s still very difficult to run cannabis businesses.
I joined Würk about five years ago as a board member. I came on as CEO at the beginning of 2021 after our founder and previous CEO Keegan Peterson, who was an early trailblazer in the industry, passed away. So, I’ve been CEO at Würk for about 18 months.
Green: Tell me about Würk and the main problems you’re trying to solve.
Kenyon: Early on we were focused on establishing getting out of the cash business for these cannabis companies. Allowing them to pay payroll, taxes and be tax compliant electronically was a huge early advantage for us as a company. Now, fast forward seven years later and a lot of different banks (credit unions) are in the industry and that is allowing people to move money. So, that’s not as big of an advantage for us anymore, but early on that was huge.
Our advantage now is the scars on our back, for lack of a better phrase, from what we’ve gone through over the last seven years. We anticipate. We prevent. And most importantly we’ve seen all those problems for our customers. Last year, a big thing of mine was being “Smokey the Bear.” We want everybody to be Smokey the Bear: prevent fires and prevent issues for our customers. When I came in, we were the world’s best firefighters. I didn’t want that title. I wanted to prevent issues for our customers. That takes you from being a vendor to a partner.
If you look at it, on our platform we have 80% of the enterprise cannabis market, about 60% of the mid-market and then low single digits in the small business space. We have that market share because we provide invaluable experience and guidance to our customers. The biggest MSOs have different challenges from a “Joseph and Scott” dispensary, or a “Mary and Jane” grow facility. We’re able to adapt to all those different segments.
At the core of our product, we offer payroll services and what we call HCM – human capital management. That’s everything from scheduling, applicant tracking systems processing and paying your payroll taxes. So, we have the full gamut of product offerings that any type of HCM or HRIS software system does, whether you’re outside of cannabis or inside of cannabis, we’re offering the same thing.
Green: How does Würk differ from say a Professional Employer Organization (PEO)?
Kenyon: We aren’t a PEO. We don’t manage employees. At a high-level, a PEO is basically managing HR for these companies. Our platform enables HR professionals to go out there and do that. PEOs are more popular down in the small business space, because people are not at the scale to hire an HR team. We’re similar in that we’re processing payroll and have all the software that these companies need, but we’re different in that we’re not running their HR for them.
Green: How do you work benefits into the mix?
Kenyon: We leave it to the client, and we integrate their benefits provider into our platform so it’s an easy one-stop shop. We have single sign-on for a lot of our integrations. For the HR organizations, we want them to log into our platform and everything they need will be there.
Green: How is SAFE banking going to affect the HR industry in cannabis?
Kenyon: It’s going to be great for the industry, obviously. For HR specifically, it’s going to bring in more providers of payroll and more competitors for us for sure. But also it’s going to bring in more providers of services that can come in and offer that right now because of the federal illegalization.
Green: How does 280E affect your business and your customers?
Kenyon: We don’t guide people around 280E because that’s a tax specific matter. We refer them to their tax experts. We process payroll tax, which is different than what 280E affects. I think 280E was a big challenge, it’s still a big challenge, but that’s mostly because people didn’t really understand it. I think 280E was a problem five to seven years ago. In the last two years most companies are very familiar with it. That doesn’t mean 280E is the right thing. I think 280E is an awful thing. And while I think I hope SAFE banking is the first thing to fall legislatively, I think 280E has a good chance of getting across first.
On any given day my opinion on which will go first changes. I just want something to get across the line.
Green: What are some unemployment and payroll challenges your customers face?
Kenyon: We really watch unemployment changes and changes in job descriptions or job codes. For example, if an unemployment rate changed, and that unemployed person moved to a different place, which happened a lot during COVID, that company needed to report that and they needed to collect the appropriate charges or taxes there.
Green: What geographies are you in right now?
Kenyon: As of January 1, we had people on our platform in 46 states and just under 600 different jurisdictions. So, even though cannabis isn’t legal in all those states, big companies have employees across the United States.
Green: How do you help your users manage compliance across multiple jurisdictions? That must be a complex undertaking.
Kenyon: Our platform automatically plugs into the states that have electronic notifications around laws, which most states do. In our tax department, we have certain group members that are experts, let’s say, in the west coast. So, we assign people to certain regions to ensure that they have the best knowledge.
From our support piece, where a lot of our customers come in, somebody might say, “Hey, I have a unique question for Utah” and we’ll say we have a person that is specialized in Utah, but we don’t force them there, we just give them the option. But in our tax queue, we actually direct the customer like, “Hey, here’s a Massachusetts Question, so that goes to a particular person because they are our Massachusetts expert.”
Green: How do you deal with timekeeping issues like overtime?
Kenyon: Well, our system does that automatically. Let’s say they’re working overtime in a state that’s difficult to keep time for like California. In the state of California, if they’re working overtime on a Saturday or Sunday or a holiday, that’s a whole different calculation than working longer on a Thursday night. So, our platform is made to automatically calculate that for our customers. There’s no manual adjustments or coaching happening there. We just follow the state law based on where the employees are.
Green: Are you seeing any unionization of employees within the cannabis industry?
Kenyon: There’s unionization in many of our states, I don’t know the exact number, but California being the biggest, there’s a lot of union representation. Illinois is probably the second biggest union state on our platform. I’m assuming New York will be once it becomes adult use.
Green: How does Würk approach cybersecurity?
“Cannabis customers don’t want to buy on the illicit market. They want to buy from a trusted source. It just takes time to make that happen.”Kenyon: Well, we approach it very seriously and I recommend everybody take cybersecurity seriously. We test our internal systems regularly. We test our employees through phishing scams. And we’re always just trying to educate our team on the risk that we have.
I can’t share specifically the prevention steps that we’re taking, but I can tell you we partner with some of the biggest experts and make sure that we’re following everything that they’re recommending. More importantly, we’re testing for human failures, because where most failures happen is with people.
Green: What trends are you following in the industry right now?
Kenyon: Any type of activity in Congress is going to be huge for this industry. So that’s something I always keep abreast of. The next thing that comes down the line which is tied to that is interstate commerce: How is interstate commerce going to really come into play? And how does that change this industry?
Within the industry, the big question is how do we combat the illicit market? Over the last five years, I’ve heard all kinds of different ideas. But in the end, I think we have to out-innovate the illicit market, and that’s what I’m most excited about.
There are new product categories, beverage being one that is starting to gain traction. How are these new products and new variations of the cannabis plant able to treat and help people in ways that we’ve never thought of? That’s part of out-innovation. I was reading an article today about new terpenes that were discovered and how 100 products could come from each one of those new terpenes. I think we’re just still at the tip of the iceberg of product innovation.
How do we fight the illicit market? I think that is just through coming up with new products that treat different illnesses and ailments, that allow customers to get away from pharmaceuticals. Cannabis customers don’t want to buy on the illicit market. They want to buy from a trusted source. It just takes time to make that happen. They’re not going to do it when there’s a huge price difference, but they will do it when there’s a huge product difference. And right now, our products are very similar to what you can find on the illicit market. You can find vapes, you can find gummies, you can find all that in the illicit market. We’ve got to out-innovate the illicit market.
Green: What in your personal life are you most interested in learning about?
Kenyon: I am the father of two teenagers right now and I really like to learn how to be a better parent to them because it’s really frickin’ tough!
The Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference is back! We are hosting this complimentary collection of webinar presentations, designed to help attendees better understand some of the more technical aspects of the cannabis extraction market. We will take a deep dive into cannabis and hemp extraction, the business behind extraction companies, post-processing, optimization, solvent remediation, GMPs and more. Take a look at the presentations and speakers in the agenda for more information.
Attendees registering for this complimentary series of webinars will get access to veterans in the cannabis extraction space, who are all available for Q&A after each presentation. In addition to getting the opportunity to chat with these subject matter experts on September 6, a recording of the presentations will be made available to all who register.
Practical and educational information from experts in the cannabis extraction market, all on the same day and all from the comfort of your home or office. Want real inside knowledge on cannabis extraction? Stay tuned to sign up! Registration coming soon.
It takes a lot to hack it in the wild world of cannabis.
To dip your toes in this game and open your own business, it could cost you between a quarter to three-quarters of a million dollars after licensure and other start-up expenses – and the battle doesn’t end there. Recent data supports that the turnover rate for the cannabis industry at large is extremely high when compared to other industries, coming in at a whopping 40-60% within the first 2 months.
Oh, and let’s not forget: we’re not living in the easiest of times in general. The Bureau of Labor Statistics now reports that inflation has hit 9.1 percent, the highest ever recorded level of inflation since records began. We know that people are struggling all over the place – and those struggles are even more amplified for cannabis operators and business owners. It’s no secret that amid these struggles, many legacy operators, MSOs and mom-and-pop brands alike are making the tough decision to take on costly loans, seek funding or even ultimately close their doors.
But, in times like these, you have to remember what brought you to the table to begin with. The cannabis industry is still projected to hit a valuation of over $33B by the end of 2022 and despite the blood in the water that we’ve seen lately, operators of all sizes are still getting wins and making a profit. So, do you throw the towel in and give up on your dreams? Should you just accept that all hope is lost?
If you’re a cannabis operator who is struggling, you aren’t alone – and more importantly, you aren’t out of options yet. Not ready to go down with the ship just yet? We didn’t think so.
Here are five, expert-approved tips to create an influx of cash for your cannabis business without significantly increasing spending:
‘Trim the Fat’ of Your Business by Cutting Lean Costs
While it may seem obvious, many cannabis operators forget that “nice to have” is not the same thing as a “must have” when it comes to keeping your doors open and your bottom line healthy. Take an eagle-eyed second look at your budget and cut back as much as possible on areas that aren’t boosting revenue. Reconsider the “extras” – like software solutions, hiring non-essential staff and slow-moving inventory – and focus your attention on the products that contribute the most to your bottom line.
Make Your Customers a Priority
One of the biggest mistakes that cannabis brands make is throwing so much of their marketing budget into getting new customers through the door while neglecting to show existing customers the attention they deserve for their loyalty. In today’s market, cannabis consumers have more options than ever. Why should they keep choosing you? Happy customers are customers that will weather the storm with you. Honing in on targeted ads and marketing efforts geared toward existing customers, in combination with loyalty perks, VIP deals and more is a great way to ensure your business is truly unforgettable in the eyes of the customers that keep your doors open. Looking for an extra leg up? Here’s an insider pro tip: refer-a-friend programs are a great way to get the best of both worlds and help those marketing dollars stretch a little further.
SOS: Save Our Shopping Carts
Shopping cart abandonment is a serious problem for cannabis retailers – and it happens all the time. For mobile users, it can creep as high as 85%. Shopping cart abandonment happens when a potential customer visits your site, builds an order in the cart and then either forgets to check out or chose not to execute the purchase. Every time a customer abandons their cart, your business is leaving money on the table. Fight back against shopping cart abandonment by providing clear calls to action through the shopping and checkout process and targeting customers with emails or SMS messages that include discount offers or reminders to check out.
Pump Up Your Payment Solutions
It’s like Canadian rapper and singer-songwriter, Drake, said in his hit song, “Omerta”, “I don’t carry cash ‘cause the money is digital.”
Let’s be honest, it’s 2022 – not a lot of people love carrying around cash. If your cannabis business is cash-only, you could be missing out on extra revenue from card and mobile payment-loving customers. On average, mobile payment users, on average, spend approximately twice as much through all digital channels as those not using mobile payments. Cash-only retailers also miss out on upsell opportunities by limiting themselves – let’s say a customer comes in with $40 in cash, they won’t be able to pick up that extra pack of cones or the grinder they were eyeing up at the checkout if they’re limited to cash-only transactions.
In addition, retailers who patronize payment solutions via debit card providers or online ACH can benefit from payment kickbacks as an additional stream of income, as these payment providers often give back a portion of transaction fees to business owners.
Don’t Forget About Employee Retention Credit (ERC)
If you haven’t heard of ERC – you could be leaving as much as $26,000 per employee on the table. Many cannabis business owners would be surprised to learn that they can still take advantage of the employee retention credit program that started during the pandemic.
The program was launched in March 2020 as a way to help offset the financial struggles of business owners during COVID-19. But, even this year, cannabis business owners can seek cash relief through ERC – employers can retroactively claim the ERC based on financial struggles they experienced during 2020 and the first three quarters of 2021.
Started your cannabis business after February 2020? You still may qualify under specific ERC provisions that can provide up to $100,000 in refundable credits.
At MJstack, we understand the trials and tribulations that cannabis professionals go through every day because we’re right here working alongside you.
Our team of professionals is familiar with cannabis and what it takes to make the cut in this world. Ready to boost your business and safeguard your investments against whatever comes next? Contact us today to learn more and book your FREE consultation.
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