Wana Brands launched their products in Oregon’s market in July 2016, about a year ago. Since then, their brand presence has grown considerably and their products are now in 240 of Oregon’s 375 dispensaries, according to a press release issued this morning.
Wana Brands is an infused products company; they make sour gummies, hard candies and caramels. The business originally launched in Colorado back in 2010 and as of 2016, they own 23% of the market share and had the most sales revenue of any edibles company in Colorado, according to BDS Analytics. The next closest competitor owns 12% of the market share.
According to Nancy Whiteman, co-founder and co-owner of Wana Brands, becoming a market leader in Oregon is a result of their product’s consistency and taste. At the end of last year they launched in Nevada and this year they will launch in Arizona and Illinois. In 2018, they expect to make a big East Coast push, expanding into Massachusetts and Maryland as well.
Election Day last year legalized recreational cannabis in a number of states, including Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada. About a week before Election Day, we interviewed Whiteman about those states coming online and her drive to expand. She said she saw a lot of potential in those markets and she was right. Nevada witnessed a massive surge in demand with the opening of recreational sales in the beginning of July and Massachusetts is expected to be another huge market potential.
In that interview, she explained a bit of their growth model: “The model we are pursuing is a licensing agreement where we partner with existing or new license holders in their state,” says Whiteman. “In many ways they are doing the heavy lifting, but we are providing an enormous lift by licensing our intellectual property to them.”
Now that her company has found enormous success in established markets like Oregon, Nevada and Colorado, they want to make a big push in those fledgling markets on the East Coast. “In both markets [Massachusetts and Maryland], we will be working with a partner who will be licensing our products,” says Whitman. “I think the East Coast is a huge opportunity. There are major population centers in New England, New York and Florida and the markets are almost completely undeveloped at this point.” Wana Brands is also currently entering talks with partners in California, Florida and Maine.
Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer of C4 Laboratories, believes there are a number of opportunities for cannabis growers to scale their cultivation up with micropropagation. In her presentation at the CannaGrow conference recently, Dr. Jones discussed the applications and advantages of tissue culture techniques in cannabis growing.
Dr. Jones’ work in large-scale plant production led her to the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) where she worked to propagate a particularly difficult plant to grow- a native orchid species- using tissue culture techniques. With that experience in tissue culture, hydroponics and controlled environments, she took a position at the Kennedy Space Center working for NASA where she developed technologies and protocols to grow crops for space missions. “I started with strawberry TC [tissue culture], because of the shelf life & weight compared with potted plants, plus you can’t really ‘water’ plants in space- at least not in the traditional way,” says Dr. Jones. “Strawberries pack a lot of antioxidants. Foods high in antioxidants, I argued, could boost internal protection of astronauts from high levels of cosmic radiation that they are exposed to in space.” That research led to a focus on cancer biology and a Ph.D. in molecular & cellular biology and plant sciences, culminating in her introduction to the cannabis industry and now with C4 Labs in Arizona.
Working with tissue culture since 2003, Dr. Jones is familiar with this technology that is fairly new to cannabis, but has been around for decades now and is widely used in the horticulture industry today. For example, Phytelligence is an agricultural biotechnology company using genetic analysis and tissue culture to help food crop growers increase speed to harvest, screen for diseases, store genetic material and secure intellectual property. “Big horticulture does this very well,” says Dr. Jones. “There are many companies generating millions of clones per year.” The Department of Plant Sciences Pomology Program at the Davis campus of the University of California uses tissue culture with the Foundation Plant Services (FPS) to eliminate viruses and pathogens, while breeding unique cultivars of strawberries.
First, let’s define some terms. Tissue culture is a propagation tool where the cultivator would grow tissue or cells outside of the plant itself, commonly referred to as micropropagation. “Micropropagation produces new plants via the cloning of plant tissue samples on a very small scale, and I mean very small,” says Dr. Jones. “While the tissue used in micropropagation is small, the scale of production can be huge.” Micropropagation allows a cultivator to grow a clone from just a leaf, bud, root segment or even just a few cells collected from a mother plant, according to Dr. Jones.
The science behind growing plants from just a few cells relies on a characteristic of plant cells called totipotency. “Totipotency refers to a cell’s ability to divide and differentiate, eventually regenerating a whole new organism,” says Dr. Jones. “Plant cells are unique in that fully differentiated, specialized cells can be induced to dedifferentiate, reverting back to a ‘stem cell’-like state, capable of developing into any cell type.”
Cannabis growers already utilize the properties of totipotency in cloning, according to Dr. Jones. “When cloning from a mother plant, stem cuttings are taken from the mother, dipped into rooting hormone and two to five days later healthy roots show up,” says Dr. Jones. “That stem tissue dedifferentiates and specializes into new root cells. In this case, we humans helped the process of totipotency and dedifferentiation along using a rooting hormone to ‘steer’ the type of growth needed.” Dr. Jones is helping cannabis growers use tissue culture as a new way to generate clones, instead of or in addition to using mother plants.
With cannabis micropropagation, the same principles still apply, just on a much smaller scale and with greater precision. “In this case, very small tissue samples (called explants) are sterilized and placed into specialized media vessels containing food, nutrients, and hormones,” says Dr. Jones. “Just like with cuttings, the hormones in the TC media induce specific types of growth over time, helping to steer explant growth to form all the organs necessary to regenerate a whole new plant.”
Having existed for decades, but still so new to cannabis, tissue culture is an effective propagation tool for advanced breeders or growers looking to scale up. In the next part of this series, we will discuss some of issues with mother plants and advantages of tissue culture to consider. In Part 2 we will delve into topics like sterility, genetic reboot, viral infection and pathogen protection.
Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, chief scientific officer and partner at C4 Laboratories, is currently researching some of the lesser-known molecules in cannabis, and he’s on to something. His research focuses on discovering new molecules, determining their therapeutic effects and expanding our understanding of the constituents of cannabis.
Dr. Hildenbrand received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at El Paso where he researched the molecular architecture involved in hormone-dependent cancers. At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, his post-doctoral research contributed to the development of a novel therapy for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia, a blood-borne cancer that afflicts small children. He has published over 25 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and hopes to do the same with his research in cannabis.
After a career of scientific consulting, Dr. Hildenbrand met Ryan Treacy, founder and chief executive officer of C4 Laboratories, in 2015 when Treacy launched the company. In June of 2015, the laboratory began operations, providing Dr. Hildenbrand the opportunity to embark on a new and exciting field of research- cannabis.
They currently collaborate with Dr. Kevin Schug of the Shimadzu Center for Advanced Analytical Chemistry (SCAAC) at the University of Texas, Arlington and together Drs. Schug and Hildenbrand are pursuing a DEA license to expand their current cannabis research. The SCAAC is a $10.0+ million analytical laboratory with instrumentation that only a handful of people in the world has access to.
C4 Laboratories, based in Mesa, Arizona, currently offers a range of services for cannabis analysis including terpene and cannabinoid analytics, microbial, pesticide, fungicide and insecticide testing. In addition to the standard gamut of tests, they also specialize in cultivation analytics like mold and mildew culture testing, viral detection with sentinel plants and comprehensive analysis of environmental conditions.
What makes their company unique is their multidisciplinary effort to characterize the therapeutic compounds found in cannabis, the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative. We sit down with Dr. Zac Hildenbrand to talk cannabis science, his research and what they hope to accomplish with the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative.
CannabisIndustryJournal: What is the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative?
Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand: The C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative is an open collaboration between growers and scientists to discover new molecules in cannabis and to have a better characterization of individual cannabis strains based on the active constituents found in each sample. We are facilitating the collaboration of some of the world’s best cannabis growers with world-class scientists to find new information about the plant.
What we want to accomplish in this work is identifying novel molecules. Because of the [federal government’s] restrictions in researching cannabis, there is very little peer-reviewed literature on many of the compounds found in cannabis. We want to secondarily find out what those molecules do in the human body and thus make recommendations for strains targeting specific conditions.
We also want to understand the strains currently out there by determining the most established cannabinoids and terpenes via chemotyping. You hear a lot of people talking about the effects of an Indica or Sativa and making recommendations based on that. We want to find chemical signatures based on cannabinoids and terpenes and make recommendations based on that. There are a lot of problems at hand when discussing strain names scientifically. There are nomenclature issues- people calling the same strain different names, people giving multiple names to the same strain to make it appear that their strain portfolios are more diverse.
We can identify the chemical signatures in strains based on the major cannabinoids and terpenes. Based on the terpenes and chemical profile we can determine more accurate recommendations for patients as well as in recreational applications. All of this, again, discovering the new molecules, identifying the current strains, is so we can make more informed decisions regarding cannabis use. It is not a panacea but it is a very robust plant. There are a lot of terpenes with anti-inflammatory responses. Other molecules help with blood flow, sleep, regulating blood glucose, and we all know the cases of CBD helping children with convulsions and epilepsy. We want people to make sure they have the most up-to-date information.
CIJ: How is your collaboration with the SCAAC at UT Arlington contributing to this work?
Dr. Hildenbrand: One of the instruments we use there is a supercritical-fluid-extraction supercritical-fluid-chromatography mass-spectrometer (SFE-SFC-MS). With that instrument, we can do the extraction on the machine with an extreme level of sensitivity. It is ideal for drug discovery and identifying molecules in the parts-per-quadrillion range. This particular instrument allows us to detect molecules with an extreme level of sensitivity without volatizing them during the sample extraction process.
We want to acquire samples of unique cannabis from growers that will work with us to discover new cannabis constituents. We are in the process of getting a DEA license so that we can send products across state lines to the center at UT Arlington to perform the advanced characterization. They have instrumentation that only a handful of people in the world have access to, which gives us the best opportunity to explore the unknown. When we discover new molecules, find out what they do on the molecular level, we can then isolate these compounds and ultimately use this newfound knowledge for the development of effective nutraceuticals.
CIJ: What molecules are you researching right now?
Dr. Hildenbrand: Some of the low-hanging fruit in our research looks at identifying compounds similar to the better-studied compounds such as THC and CBD. THCV has a very similar structure to THC, but has a shorter acyl carbon chain (3 carbons vs. 5).
THCV doesn’t induce a psychoactive response (like THC), but it does improve fat utilization, so it has remarkable potential for medicine. We are looking at what conditions are required for it to occur naturally. Cannabis doesn’t produce THCV in a high amount. 0.7% by weight is the most we have seen in Arizona. In Oregon, where craft cannabis has been refined to a much higher degree, we have heard rumblings of some strains containing up to 3% THCV. We want to find out if this is a possible weight loss tool. Our research in CBDV is very much the same.
CBL is the breakdown product of CBC when it is treated with ultraviolet light. We know absolutely nothing about what CBL does. If we find a strain that produces high amounts of CBC, we can then treat it with UV light and force the conversion to CBL, and then ultimately determine what it does. This is a good example of low-hanging fruit and the versatility of cannabis. Based on the biogenesis of the cannabinoids, we can alter the profile of cannabis products using a series of biochemical reactions.
For example, we have been helping clients in Arizona look for a quality sleep aid in cannabis. Certainly, Indica strains will help, but the molecule CBN helps specifically with sleep abnormalities. As CBN is formed as a byproduct when CBD or THC are oxidized, we see some producers using liquid nitrogen to oxidize CBD, leading to higher CBN levels. I would like to think we are in the age of understanding CBD, THC and the major terpenes,but there are a whole milieu of compounds that require our attention and THCV, CBDV and CBL are just a few that we want to devote our efforts to right away.
CIJ: What are your plans in the immediate future?
Dr. Hildenbrand: We are in the process of finalizing the documents to bring a C4 laboratory into Oregon where we can do quite a bit of research and where we’ll have access to some very unique cannabis. We will offer full compliance testing per ORELAP and OLCC regulations, but we also want to acquire samples (free of charge) from growers that want to collaborate with us to discover new molecules. We’ve been lucky enough to start working with growers like Adam Jacques and Chris West in Eugene, but we also want to be available to other growers who want to contribute to this research.
CIJ: What are your long-term goals with this project?
Dr. Hildenbrand: At a basic level, we hope to expand the current understanding of the cannabis plant. There is a lot of “bro science” and anecdotal claims out there. There is so much that we don’t know about cannabis that we cannot simply rely on anecdotal claims for each strain. We want to bring cannabis into the same light as any pharmaceutical-grade or biomedical research.
We need to be characterizing this plant with the same level of detail as other pertinent molecular therapies. In doing so there are a lot of potential discoveries to be made and we might be able to unlock the future of medicine. A drug like Marinol, for example, has been met with mixed reviews because its only one dimensional. Furthermore, we find that the terpene molecules are tremendously beneficial and this interplay between cannabinoids and terpenes is something that we want to explore further. All and all we wish to further illustrate the therapeutic capacities of cannabis within the contexts of specific ailments and medical conditions, while discovering the medicine of the future.
Update: With 100% reporting (589 of 589 precincts), voters in Maine passed Question 1, legalizing recreational cannabis by a very narrow margin of 50.2% to 49.8% (378,288 in favor and 375,668 against is a margin of only 2,620 votes)
Voters in California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada passed ballot initiatives legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, creating huge new markets for the cannabis industry overnight. Voters in North Dakota, Florida, Montana and Arkansas passed ballot initiatives to legalize forms of medical cannabis. Voters by a margin of 52.2% to 47.8% rejected Arizona’s Proposition 205, which would have legalized recreational cannabis.
With 100% of the votes in for Maine’s Question 1, voters narrowly passed legalizing recreational cannabis, the polls show it won by a very slim margin, less than 3,000 votes.
New Frontier Data and Arcview Market Research released an Election Day update to their growth projections for the cannabis industry by 2020. The release projects: “The legalization of cannabis in California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota will result in new markets that account for $7.1 billion in sales by 2020. We project the overall U.S. cannabis market will exceed $20.9 billion by 2020.” Those numbers include overall cannabis sales and assume the markets are all fully operational by 2018.
According to Giadha DeCarcer, founder and chief executive officer of New Frontier, there is overwhelming support for medical cannabis and a majority of Americans are in favor of legalizing recreational cannabis as well. “The ten initiatives on the ballot reflect the accelerating public debate on legal cannabis access,” says DeCarcer. “The passage of California’s adult use measure and Florida’s medical initiative expand legal access into two of the country’s most populous states.” The market potential is notably enormous in California, it currently being the 6th largest economy in the world. “Additionally, the passage of the measure in Massachusetts opens the first adult use market in the Northeast extending the reach of legal adult use access from coast to coast,” says DeCarcer. “The passage of the measures in Arkansas and North Dakota shows that public support on this issue is not solely confined to urban, liberal markets but extends into conservative rural states as well.”
According to the release, by 2020 California could reach a total market size of $7.6B and Massachusetts could grow to $1.1B. Massachusetts being the first mover in the Northeast to legalize recreational cannabis will be watched very closely by a number of surrounding states that appeared bullish on cannabis legalization previously.
Leslie Bocskor, president and founder of Electrum Partners, believes the Election Day results will bring an influx of investing opportunities to the industry. “We are going to see a diverse approach from the irrationally exuberant to the sophisticated and experienced investor and entrepreneur getting involved, creating businesses and investing in the industry that will create innovation, jobs, wealth and tax revenue far beyond the consensus expectations,” says Bocksor. “The cannabis industry is more than one industry; it is an entire ecosystem, impacting so many verticals, such as agriculture, industrial chemicals from hemp, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and more. We see the funding of innovation that might have been absent without the velocity and heft that has come from this phenomenon,” adds Bocksor. As these newly legalized markets begin to launch, it will require a considerable amount of time to see the industry flesh out in each new state.
Donald Trump winning the presidential election and the GOP retaining control over the House and Senate could mean a lot of uncertainties for the future of the cannabis industry on a national scale. President-elect Trump has previously flip-flopped on the issue of cannabis legalization, but has said in the past he favors leaving the issue of medical use up to the states, advocating for access to medical cannabis, while recently saying he opposes regulating cannabis for adult use, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. The MPP gave him a C+ grade for his views toward cannabis.
On The O’Reilly Factor in February 2016, Trump told the conservative political commentator that he supports medical cannabis while opposing the recreational use. “I’m in favor of it [access to medical cannabis] a hundred percent. But what you are talking about [recreational use], perhaps not. It’s causing a lot of problems out there [in Colorado],” says Trump. It is still unclear at this time exactly what Trump’s policy will be for the now 28 states that have some form of legal cannabis.
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), appeared optimistic regarding the outcomes of Election Day. “More than 16 million voters, including in two of the three most populated states in the nation, chose legal, regulated cannabis programs that promote safety, boost the economy, help sick patients and address social injustices,” says Smith. In the press release, the NCIA spelled out their priorities for congressional action on cannabis policy: Opening up bank access for state-compliant cannabis businesses, ending the effects of federal tax code Section 280E on cannabis businesses and removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act via descheduling. “Last night’s results send a simple message – the tipping point has come,” says Smith.
This November 8th, voters in five states will head to the polls to decide on legalizing recreational cannabis and another three states have ballot initiatives that would legalize medical cannabis. If any of those five states pass a measure for recreational legalization, including Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Arizona and California, (which are all leading in the polls) they could potentially create massive new market opportunities for cannabis brands that have their eye on expansion.
Nancy Whiteman, co-owner of Wana Brands and chair of the Cannabis Business Alliance Infused Product Committee, sees great potential in capitalizing on those markets early. Whiteman has been working with Wana Brands since 2010 in Colorado, starting out in the young medical market there.
After expanding to the recreational market, Wana Brands saw its sales skyrocket. From January to August 2016, Wana had the best-selling candy brand in Colorado with 21% dollar share, according to BDS Analytics. Wana Brands has already expanded to Oregon and will launch in Nevada on November 15th, with agreements signed to expand in other states as well. “The model we are pursuing is a licensing agreement where we partner with existing or new license holders in their state,” says Whiteman. “In many ways they are doing the heavy lifting, but we are providing an enormous lift by licensing our intellectual property to them.” That model for growth is becoming increasingly common in some of the more established brands, like Steep Hill Laboratories, GFarma Labs, Dixie and others. Whiteman says that Wana Brands also has a partner in Illinois, Massachusetts and a number of other states they hope to reach.
According to Mark Slaugh, executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance and chief executive officer of iComply, a compliance services provider, brands from Colorado expanding to other states need to ask themselves if their reputation is on the line with these new operators. “If you are licensing to companies that are not compliant, the penalties could be huge and they vary state to state- that could potentially hurt the overall brand image nationally,” says Slaugh. “People doing the licensing that are operating with full compliance really need to look at controlling that risk and mitigating that as much as possible.” With brand trust on the line, there are substantial risks that come with expansion. “We help clients ensure quality is consistent so, for example, an edible product would taste the same in Colorado as it would in Nevada or Arizona. They need to follow the intellectual property consistently but more importantly follow those specific regulations in that state to stay afloat.” Managing ongoing compliance in different states requires monitoring regulatory updates across multiple markets, which can get incredibly complex.
“Six years ago, it was much easier to get into the market in Colorado,” says Whiteman. “There were no capital requirements, no limits on the number of licenses, but there was still a lengthy application and vetting process- as long as you met those minimum requirements you could get a license.” Other new states put stringent limits on the number of licenses granted and some have extraordinarily cost-prohibitive capital requirements, up to a million dollars, as is the case for New York. “Anyone who becomes a license holder in Massachusetts has to be prepared to embark on three separate business models, which is a massive undertaking,” says Whiteman. Massachusetts requires license holders to cultivate, process and dispense in a vertically integrated model.
In other states, Wana Brands is working with exclusive partners who will have the capabilities to manufacture and distribute throughout the entire state, but in Massachusetts that won’t be the case. “To cover the state, we need several partnerships; the partner we are working with is a little south of Boston,” says Whiteman. But all that could change if voters in Massachusetts legalize it recreationally, opening a much larger market than the current medical program. “With no legislation drafted yet, the regulatory environment is still up in the air in Massachusetts so there is no way of telling what the recreational market will look like.” In terms of ongoing regulatory compliance, Whiteman believes that Colorado still has some of the most stringent rules. The universal symbol printed on every individual edible product serving is one example. “Every state has different lab testing and licensing requirements, but Colorado looks like the most stringent currently,” says Whiteman. “Colorado requires a full gamut of lab testing including homogeneity, potency, residual solvents, contaminants and soon pesticides too.” According to Mark Slaugh, Nevada’s lab testing regulations are fundamentally different from Colorado’s with regard to sampling procedures, but the broader inconsistencies in lab standards need to be addressed. “The lack of laboratory standardization state to state with regard to methods creates a big challenge to get consistent, proficient lab testing across the board,” says Slaugh.
A big differentiator between Colorado and other states is that it was a first mover. “When Colorado came online there were not any established brands to speak of anywhere in the country- we were all pioneers,” says Whiteman. “Because it is so difficult to get a license in another state, either the organization or investor groups are looking to partner with established brands.” The advantages to this business model are many. Expediting your entry to market gets you the advantage of being a first mover. Working with an established brand also minimizes risks and the learning curve. “Bigger players understand that building a brand from scratch is time consuming and expensive so I think we will see a lot of these partnerships.”
As those new states come online, similarities in their regulations might appear in the form of standard operating procedures (SOPs) or good manufacturing practices (GMPs). “We might start to see a standardization from state to state that models FDA GMPs or USDA GAPs, [good agricultural practices] moving toward a framework that is more consistent with the possibility of federal regulation,” says Slaugh. Another commonality among a number of states is the implementation of a statewide tracking system. According to Slaugh, California has no such mandated system in place yet. “They will probably have one eventually but the market is so localized there- we will see if California will be ready with a statewide compliance system for tracking by 2018,” says Slaugh. “With such a weird patchwork of local governments allowing or not allowing certain operations to exist, it is a tough business to be in and it’s getting tougher every day.”
In less than two weeks on November 8th, voters in five states will head to the polls to decide if they want to legalize recreational cannabis. California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts and Maine all have initiatives on the ballot that could legalize recreational cannabis for adult use. Polls in each state show a majority of voters support the initiatives.
This New York Times article suggests that November 8th could be a major turning point in the movement to legalize cannabis in the United States. Even if the initiatives fail in most of those states, California’s initiative, which is expected to pass, could be the linchpin for federal legalization. California’s giant economy, coupled with its ability to drive national policy on social issues, sets the stage for rapid industry growth.
According to Matt Karnes, founder of GreenWave Advisors, the significance of California’s measure also lies in the merging of medical and recreational regulatory schemes. His firm sees a trend where “initially bifurcated marijuana markets will merge under a shared regulatory system into substantially larger enterprises.” Karnes believes the California market will conservatively reach $2.6B in 2016 and grow to $6.7B by 2021, which represents a 5-year compound annual growth rate of roughly 21%. “Should California vote to legalize recreational use this November, we expect implementation of a combined regulated market as soon as 2018,” says Karnes. “A combined California market is significant, not only because of its sheer size (~55% of the U.S. market), but it would also mark the first state to implement regulations for a fully legal market without initial oversight of medical use purchases.”
The presidential election is equally as important for the future of the legal cannabis industry. According to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, if she is elected into office then she will “reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance.” This would have a dramatic impact on the growth of the industry, most notably by easing banking and financing restrictions. Whether she will actually follow through with her plans, if elected, to reschedule cannabis is yet to be known. Regardless, this is the first time in history that a candidate with a majority of the country’s support is introducing this concept. That represents a serious shift in mainstream attitude toward cannabis. That represents the normalization of cannabis.
Jane West, chief executive officer of the lifestyle brand Jane West and co-founder of Women Grow, believes this represents the country finally taking cannabis legalization seriously. “Given the poll results that have been publicly available, it seems likely that three or more of the initiatives will pass,” says West. “By November, about 20% of Americans will be living in states where it is legal to consume cannabis. This will accelerate the process of bringing marijuana out of the shadows, and more adults will be comfortable using this enjoyable, relatively benign substance socially and openly.” Normalizing cannabis can look like a lot of things, but mainly it takes away the counterculture stigma and puts it in a light where its regular use is not frowned upon, which could be instrumental in gaining public support.
Leah Heise, chief executive officer of Women Grow, agrees with West’s prediction that at least three of those states will vote to legalize recreational cannabis, citing Maine, Massachusetts and California as favorites. “Additionally, with the likelihood that more than half the states in the United States support some type of cannabis program within their boundaries, a clear message is being sent to the federal government regarding legalization on a federal level,” says Heise. “I don’t think the federal government will be able to continue to enact its cannabis policy through executive orders and funding bills. Real legislative attention will have to be given to the issue.” That legislative attention could come in the form of the CARERS Act, which would reschedule cannabis.
If you are in favor of legalizing cannabis and want to see some change within your lifetime, what can you do to help? Vote. There has never been a more important election year for legal cannabis.
Even though half of U.S. states and the District of Colombia now permit the possession of medical or recreational cannabis, state regulatory bodies differ greatly in their approaches to managing our industry. In Washington, anyone over the age of 21 can legally possess one ounce of usable cannabis and/or seven grams of concentrate. In Minnesota, patients are only allowed to purchase non-smokable cannabis in pill, liquid or oil form.
Given these substantial differences, it is no surprise that the application process to open a dispensary or cultivation facility also varies from state to state. The question I am most often asked (and catch myself mulling over late at night) is what can applicants do to ensure their success, regardless of where they are applying?
Recently we helped a client secure one of the first 15 licenses issued to grow medical cannabis in Maryland. The Maryland application process was particularly unique because most of the applicants had political or law-enforcement ties, or were connected to successful out-of-state growers. That experience, along with our work in places like Arizona, Colorado and Florida, has shown me the importance of teamwork, diversity and security in developing a winning application.
So here are my suggestions for ensuring a successful submission, regardless of which state you are operating in:
Build the Right Team. My dad likes to say, “Use the right tool for the right job.” I think the same is true about creating the team for your application. Do not assume one or two people will be able to fill all of the required roles. You will need experts in a range of different areas including medicine, pharmacology, capital investment, cultivation, real estate, security and law.
Focus on Diversity. I think one of the reasons we have been successful in helping clients secure applications (we are six for six, in six different states) is our commitment to gender, racial and even geographic diversity. For example, we recently helped a client secure a license in an economically underdeveloped area. I think our choice to headquarter the new business outside of the metropolitan corridor was at least partially responsible for our success.
The Devil is in the Details. According to ArcView Market Research, the cannabis industry is expected to be worth $23 billion by 2020. If you want to be one of the organizations selected by your state to sell cannabis, you need to have your act together. Most applications ask incredibly detailed questions. Therefore it is essential that you answer them thoroughly and accurately. All answers should be in compliance with your state’s regulations.
Put Safety First. You will need a comprehensive plan that takes all aspects of security into account. This includes everything from hiring security guards to purchasing cameras, and implementing internal anti-theft procedures. Regardless of the size of your operation, safety should be a primary consideration.
Secure Funding. Successful cannabis businesses require capital. It’s important to be realistic about the amount of money you will need to have on hand. Application costs typically range from $500,000 to $1 million. This will cover things like hiring an architect or leasing land. Ideally, your organization will have another $5 to $10 million or more available to start your project once you’ve been approved so that you can quickly become operational.
Connect With Your Community. It is essential to consider the impact of your business on the community. Being a good corporate citizen means being transparent and engaging in a two-way dialogue with neighbors, government officials and patients. I strongly recommend that my clients develop a comprehensive community outreach plan that designates which organizations they plan to work with, (hospitals or universities, for example) and what the nature of those partnerships will be.
From time to time, lawyers that service the cannabis industry find themselves representing a client with a litigation matter. By anecdotal evidence, it appears that there is an up-tick in cannabis related litigation over the past year and a half, mostly in circumstances where respective promises made have not been lived up to or those who have invested money are seeking its return. Perhaps a partnership formed within the last few years is simply becoming unraveled.
In the world of litigation, we see defenses, or what are known as affirmative defenses, may be filed in response to a particular lawsuit or claim. One such affirmative defense often utilized in litigation is that a particular contract or agreement may be void based on illegality or void as against public policy.
In fact, this particular grounds for dismissal was at issue in a case in Maricopa County, Arizona wherein a judge in April of 2011 dismissed a lawsuit seeking enforcement of a loan agreement where two Arizona business people loaned $250,000.00 each to a Colorado-based medical marijuana dispensary. The agreement in that case specifically stated that the loan was for “a retail medical marijuana sales and growth center.” Colorado had the foresight in 2013 to legislate against this type of defense when their general assembly passed a law indicating “a contract is not void or voidable as against public policy if it pertains to lawful activities authorized by” Colorado’s constitutional and statutory cannabis law.
The issue becomes germane in emerging states wherein the legislatures and courts have not been dealing with cannabis related matters for any length of time. This is particularly true and ripe for problems in states such as Illinois and Massachusetts that have recently moved forward with cannabis programs and experienced an influx of out of state consultants and companies looking to partner with and work with local residents for licensure purposes. In Florida alone, there have been at least three lawsuits in the past year dealing with cannabis related civil disputes.
To my knowledge, none of those disputes were defended upon, nor did the court address, the legality of the underlying subject matter. However, the question arises whether the lawyer’s obligation to their client necessitates raising this as a defense, for instance, to an action for non-payment of a promissory note for a loan to fund cannabis related business. If the lawyer practices and seeks clients in the industry and hopes to move the industry forward in a positive manner, is it incumbent upon the lawyer to assist the client by making the best legal argument or protect the industry and greater good? As an aside, the answer is to zealously represent the client. Potentially, an adverse ruling in a particular jurisdiction could ultimately affect enforceability of cannabis related agreements in that jurisdiction. It is possible that having a court ruling, even if it is a trial level court within the jurisdiction, at least provides some precedent and a basis for the industry moving forward in that particular jurisdiction. If the ruling is unfavorable like the Arizona precedent mentioned earlier, perhaps planning for jurisdiction and venue to be in more favorable environs is key to document drafting on the front end. For investors, knowing the enforceability of their agreements in a particular jurisdiction could mean the difference between investing in a venture in a particular state or not.
Ultimately, I believe that as advocates, we must do whatever is in our power to protect the client even if it means testing the legal bounds by making an argument that at first blush may hurt the industry. However, having courts develop precedent by which the industry can govern itself in business dealings is important and takes away uncertainty, which in turn allows for good decision-making on the front end. Hopefully, in the near future this will be moot as the federal government moves forward to take actions that provide more certainty and uniformity in dealings within the cannabis space.
While MPP has been active at both the federal and state level, Matt Schweich, director of state campaigns for the organization, works in a handful of states to pass bills through state legislatures. In particular, Schweich’s work has put an initiative on the ballot in Nevada, and MPP is working with a coalition of groups on an initiative in California, both of which are scheduled for 2016.
In both Massachusetts and Arizona, Schweich and his team are leading the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaigns, where they manage political committees and lobby for legalization.
“We named the campaign [Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol] because we want that to be the central message to the voter,” says Schweich. “We need to get the message across that marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol, and it makes no sense to punish users of marijuana.”
“It is common sense to understand that one is less harmful to the user and society in general, [and] in light of the fact that alcohol is legal, it makes no sense to keep marijuana illegal,” he adds.
According to Schweich, voters in their respective states should be given the independence to decide how to handle licensing and regulations, depending on the jurisdiction, just like state liquor laws.
On a national level, MPP has a federal policy team currently working on the fight for marijuana businesses to gain access to banking and financial services.
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