Practicing Law Institute Press’s Legal Guide to the Business of Marijuana: Cannabis, Hemp and CBD Regulation is a one-of-a-kind deep dive into the many regulations governing the industry. Aimed at attorneys representing clients in this space, the treatise offers guidance on a range of interrelated topics including state regulation of medical and non-medical cannabis; federal law, enforcement and preemption and their implications for employment, taxes and banking; and the various aspects of establishing and managing a cannabis enterprise, from growth to licensing, transport and distribution. We spoke with co-authors James T. O’Reilly, professor of Public Health Policy at the College of Medicine of the University of Cincinnati and author of leading references on food and drug law, and Edgar J. Asebey, a founding partner of Keller Asebey Life Science Law and a life sciences attorney with over twenty years of experience, about the intersection of the cannabis business and the law.
Q: From the legal industry’s perspective, how has this area of the law evolved over the past few years – and what would you advise clients in cannabis to look for when engaging legal assistance for their businesses?
James T. O’Reilly & Edgar J. Asebey: Over the past few years, we have seen a growing acceptance of the idea that lawfully serving the needs of cannabis consumers is a commendable business initiative. This evolution in thinking – tied to the myriad business opportunities cannabis presents – has given large, mainstream corporate law firms the incentive to grow practices and develop specialists in this area, which is a very positive development.
But it is not enough for lawyers to know their way around M&A and the capital markets; they must also have experience with federal regulatory bodies. As regulations continue to evolve, it is essential for practitioners to be familiar with the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act as well as the Federal Trade Commission Act. The framework for regulating cannabis products already exists, as can be seen in the Warning Letters sent to hemp and CBD companies by both the Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration (as well as, most recently, the FDA and CDC’s warning about delta-8 THC). If a client places their hemp or CBD product into the stream of commerce, that product will be subject to FDA, FTC and relevant state laws. We strongly recommend seeking out advisors who truly understand these regulations and how they align with the regulatory agencies’ procedures and agendas.
Q: What are the most urgent legal and regulatory topics the industry is watching these days?
O’Reilly & Asebey: Our treatise follows and analyzes the most pressing legal issues facing those in the cannabis and hemp space. In our most recent edition, we add discussion of the Final Rule for the establishment of a domestic hemp production program. We think this is a significant development in that it attempted to address some of the industry’s criticism of some provisions found in the Interim Final Rule, particularly around issues of sampling and testing for THC content. The Final Rule clarified issues around THC percentage testing methodologies, but disappointed many in the industry by leaving in place the low 0.3% dry weight threshold for an acceptable hemp THC level. On the other hand, The Final Rule raises the threshold for a negligent violation from 0.5% to 1.0% total THC and limits the number of violations a grower can receive in one year to one, easing potential penalties for violations.
Of course, the regulation of CBD products is on the minds of many in the industry. Key questions remain about whether cannabinoids such as delta-8 THC can be lawfully sold. Since the FDA has provided no clear guidance with regard to the sale and use of CBD and other hemp-derived cannabinoid-containing products, well-meaning businesses find themselves operating in a regulatory gray area. While some states have raced to place delta-8 THC on their controlled substances lists or otherwise regulate it, at the federal level it remains unclear. Our book provides a legal argument showing that current regulations support the lawful production and sale of delta-8 THC. To date, this and other legal arguments have not been tested in the courts and, without FDA guidance, the delta-8 THC sector will remain gray.
Editor’s Note: The Legal Guide to the Business of Marijuana: Cannabis, Hemp and CBD Regulation is now available for purchase here.
About James T. O’Reilly
James T. O’Reilly of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine is former chair of the 8,000-member Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice of the American Bar Association and has been active in numerous ABA, Federal Bar Association, and state and local bar activities. He retired as Associate General Counsel of The Procter & Gamble Company to teach full-time, and served as a consultant to three federal agencies and to the Deputy Secretary General of the European Commission. He has authored fifty-six texts and more than 230 articles, and his work was cited numerous times in appellate opinions, including “The experts have written . . . ” in a March 2000 opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court (Food & Drug Administration v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 120 S. Ct. 1291). He has received numerous honors and awards for his professional and electoral activities and has been listed in Who’s Who in American Law for twenty-five years. He is a graduate of Boston College and the University of Virginia School of Law.
About Edgar J. Asebey
Edgar J. Asebey, a partner at Asebey Life Sciences Law PLLC, is a regulatory and transactional attorney with over two decades of experience in federal regulation of pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, food, dietary supplement and cosmetics companies. Since 2015, he has been working on cannabis-related matters and transactions, and since 2018, he has provided regulatory compliance, business transactional, venture finance and international trade services to hemp/CBD companies. Mr. Asebey practices before the FDA, the USDA, the CBP, the EPA, and the FTC, representing client companies on regulatory compliance, product approval/registration and FDA enforcement defense matters. He founded and served as president of Andes Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a natural products drug discovery company, from 1994 to 2000, and has served as in-house counsel to two life sciences companies. Mr. Asebey is a member of the American Bar Association (Section on Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice: Food and Drug Committee and International Committee), the Food & Drug Law Institute (FDLI), the Dade County Bar Association, and BioFlorida.
Few people will disagree that financial compliance isn’t the most exciting topic within the cannabis industry. But compliance is, and always will be, the engine grease to the legal cannabis market. Cannabis operators have the arduous task of dealing with multiple layers of compliance, both operational (maintaining and adhering to regulations enforced by the state licensing board) and financial. These compliance measures include managing everything from seed-to-sale systems for all plant-related activity to on-site requirements like facility access points and alarms systems to name a few.
With complex compliance requirements for the business, the last thing cannabis operators want to think about is financial compliance. We created Confia on this notion. Just as cannabis regulators impose the tracking of plants through the supply chain via a seed-to-sale system, we have developed a storyboard similarly designed to follow the money, which is the equivalent of a transaction-to-deposit system.
Having experience in regulatory technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the world’s largest banks across multiple countries. This experience has afforded us the luxury of working alongside regulators, chief compliance officers and chief risk officers, understanding how risk is perceived by financial institutions and how it ought to be mitigated. It was this access and knowledge that allowed us to effectively reform, enhance and improve the antiquated BSA programs with a technology-enabled process. Leveraging technology is a necessity, almost a requirement, for the cannabis industry as legalization nears and banking access begins to broaden.
Jamming cannabis requirements into an existing BSA program doesn’t scale well. BSA programs are very manual, descriptive and process oriented. So, we’ve taken our prior experience and success in banking to form Confia, distilling the complexities and simplifying the deliverables surrounding cannabis banking compliance. To best articulate cannabis banking requirements, I break it down into three pillars.
Pillar One: KYC-Enhanced Due Diligence
The first pillar is the client-onboarding bucket or KYC – Know Your Customer. In the complex world of cannabis banking, banks must know and understand their clients to great depths. It’s not enough to simply know that the client exists; you also have to understand whether or not that client could be a potential risk to the bank, and one step further, the financial system. Cannabis is a high-risk industry, so the KYC requirement is escalated to a deeper diligence and review, called Enhanced Due Diligence (EDD).
Banks need to know and understand their customers’ story, and all the key parties (officers, directors, and those with key decision-making powers or access to the bank accounts) within that organization. This includes reviewing personal, business, and legal history – not to mention watchlists and negative news presence. An initial onboarding review must then be followed with daily screening and monitoring of all watchlists and adverse media. Typically, banks do KYC refreshes every three years. In cannabis, a full refresh should be done annually with the daily monitoring systems in place.
The high-risk nature of the industry also requires a level of diligence on all parties to a transaction, even if one of the parties, whether a payer or recipient, is not a client of your bank. Unlike traditional banking sectors, reliance on other banks’ KYC programs is far less defensible in the cannabis industry.
Pillar Two: Transactional Monitoring & Detection
Tracking and monitoring the actual financial transactions comprises the second pillar required for cannabis banking. At Confia, we have focused on streamlining processes, so the cannabis operator can seamlessly support the compliance obligation for every transaction. A bank must demonstrate supporting documentation for every cannabis transaction, and gathering such information is a large undertaking in and of itself and can pose future issues if not done properly, see the pitfalls for lack of compliance. Banks are obligated to understand the nature and reason for each transaction, the source of funds, ensure cannabis licenses are in good standing for all parties, and collect evidence such as accounting records and seed-to-sale data.
Core to transaction monitoring in the traditional sense, is the overarching support through anomaly detection. Relying on information is important, but testing those inputs keeps everyone honest. It is important to evaluate transactions from a holistic point of view relative to peers and relative to the general contents of a transaction. This anomaly detection layer is your last line of defense, and as new information is collected, it continues to refine itself.
Pillar Three: Filing and Reporting Requirements
The third component to compliant cannabis banking is regulatory filing and reporting. Once a client is onboarded, the account requires an initial suspicious activity report or SAR-Initial within 30 days of that client being approved by the bank. Then, a report must be filed every 90 days after that for all the transactions of that cannabis operator. Banks must file the SAR-Initial and the Continuing-SAR reports for each cannabis client they have.
Solutions like Confia automate the filing process and support the filing with transactional data evidenced on our distributed ledger of record. This provides immutable audibility and simplifies the process for all parties involved.
Compliance Requirements After US Legalization
The anticipation of federal legalization and banking reform bills has many operators hoping for easier banking. Yet, in my opinion, regulatory oversight and audits will likely increase after such reform or legalization. As other financial institutions start to support cannabis, it will inadvertently create greater opportunity and expose the financial system to nefarious or illegitimate transaction activity. This is why cannabis banking will be carefully monitored by regulators, and more so, why banks will be slow and pragmatic in standing up their internal cannabis banking programs. Some banks may forever avoid the cannabis industry due to the known pitfalls of an industry specific program, while others may simply mitigate the possible exposure to reputational risk.
Choose Wisely: Pitfalls for Lack of Compliance
Financial compliance is the responsibility and duty of the banks, but the real losers and result of non-compliance always fall on the cannabis operators. Regulatory action against an institution may result in the bank shutting down its cannabis program or may require them to complete a remediation of all their cannabis transactions for a certain period from its clients. At the end of the day, regardless of action, the cannabis operator is the one being punished. Operators either lose their bank account and have business massively disrupted, or they are asked to provide all the compliance docs for a historic period, which is a huge undertaking and operational distraction, ultimately impacting business and productivity. So, choose your banking partner wisely.
Summarizing Key Banking Requirements
In summary, banking in the cannabis industry will undoubtedly remain a high-risk industry, with or without legalization. Although banking opportunities may expand as US policies change, there will be continued compliance and regulatory requirements for the foreseeable future.
Onboarding and ongoing screening are critical
Evidence for every transaction is a significant portion of compliance and must not be dismissed
Evaluating activity with broader strokes is essential in mitigating against money laundering
Managing the staggered filing timelines and due dates for each client
Compliance is the most crucial factor in cannabis banking at this point. It cannot be overlooked or taken for granted. Cannabis operators must take an active role in evaluating the compliance programs of their financial providers. To open a bank account is one thing, but the consideration and effort that goes into keeping a bank account is the difference that will protect your business in the long run.
Cannabis is still federally illegal and is included on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), along with such other substances as heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamines.1 It is a federal crime to grow, possess or sell cannabis.
Despite being federally illegal, 36 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized the sale and use of cannabis for medical and/or adult use purposes,2 and both direct and indirect cannabis-related businesses (CRBs) are growing at a rapid rate. Revenue from medical and adult use cannabis sales in the US in 2019 is estimated to have reached $10.6B-$13B and is on track to reach nearly $37B in 2024.3
Because the sale of cannabis is federally illegal, financial institutions face a dilemma when deciding to provide services to CRBs. Should they take a significant legal risk or stay out of the market and miss out on a significant revenue opportunity? So far, the vast majority of financial institutions have been unwilling to take the risk, resulting in a dearth of options for CRB’s. Until recently, cannabis business operators had few options for financial services, but times are changing.
This piece will discuss current trends in banking for cannabis-related businesses. We will cover differences in legality at state and federal levels, complexities in dealing in cash versus digital currencies, Congressional actions impacting banking and CRBs and how banking is changing. The explosion of state legalization of cannabis over the past several years has had a strong ripple effect across the US economy, touching many industries both directly and indirectly. Understanding the implications of doing business with a CRB is both challenging and necessary.
Feds Versus States
Money laundering is the process used to conceal the existence, illegal source or illegal application of funds.4 In 1986 Congress enacted the Money Laundering Control Act (MLCA), which makes it a federal crime to engage in certain financial and monetary transactions with the proceeds of “specified unlawful activity.”5 Therefore, CRB transactions are technically illegal transactions under the MLCA.
Financial institutions therefore face a risk of violating the MLCA if they choose to do business with CRBs, even in states where cannabis operations are permitted. In addition, financial institutions could also face criminal liability under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) for failing to identify or report financial transactions that involve the proceeds of cannabis businesses operating legally under state law.6
In short, because cannabis is illegal at the federal level, processing funds derived from CRBs could be considered aiding and abetting criminal activity or money laundering. States, however, began legalizing cannabis in 1996, and by 2009, thirteen states had laws allowing cannabis possession and use.7 Despite this legislation, federal authorities continued to aggressively enforce federal cannabis laws.8 That changed under the Obama administration when, shortly after being elected, President Obama stated that his administration would not target legal CRB’s who were abiding by state laws. In an attempt to provide clarity in this murky environment, beginning in 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued three memos designed to guide federal prosecutors in this area. However, none of the DOJ memos issued from 2009 through 2013 addressed potential financial crime related to the legal sale or distribution of cannabis in states allowing the use of medicinal or recreational cannabis.
To assist financial institutions in navigating potential financial crime implications of banking CRBs, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) issued guidance in 2014 that clarified how financial institutions could conduct business with CRBs and maintain compliance with their Bank Secrecy Act requirements (2014 Guidance).9 According to the 2014 Guidance, financial institutions may choose to interact with CRBs based on factors specific to each institution, including the institution’s business objectives, the evaluated risks associated with offering such services, and its ability to manage those risks effectively.
The 2014 Guidance requires those who choose to provide services to CRBs to design and implement a thorough customer due diligence review that includes, in part, analyzing the licensing of the entity, developing an understanding of the business operations of the entity, and ongoing monitoring of the entity.9 In addition, financial institutions are required to file a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) for every transaction they process for a CRB, should they choose to accept the business.
Although the 2014 Guidance does outline a path for financial institutions to engage with CRBs, it does not change federal law and, therefore, does not eliminate the legal risk to financial institutions.10 By its very nature, the 2014 Guidance was a temporary fix, subject to changing views of different administrations, evidenced by the fact that all three of the DOJ guidance documents noted above were rescinded by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions on January 4, 2018.12 The DOJ enforcement posture could change once again in a Biden administration. Biden is on record as favoring decriminalization, and Attorney General candidate Merrick Garland has stated that if confirmed he will deprioritize enforcement of low-level cannabis crimes. Garland also believes using limited government resources to pursue prosecution of cannabis crimes states where cannabis is legal does not make sense.12
Because of the uncertainty and high risk, most banks remain unwilling to serve CRBs. Those that do serve CRBs charge exorbitant fees (fees of $750-$1,000 or more per account per month are not uncommon), pricing many smaller operators out of the financial services market.
Cash is King – Or Is It?
Cannabis operators have discovered the old adage “cash is king” is not necessarily true when it comes to the cannabis space. Bank-less CRBs are forced to utilize cash to pay business expenses, which can be particularly difficult. Utility companies, payroll companies, and taxing authorities are just some of the providers that are difficult, if not impossible, to pay in cash. For example, cannabis operators have been turned away from IRS offices when attempting to pay large federal tax obligations in cash. Likewise, cannabis operators have been unable to utilize payroll processing companies to administer payroll and benefits for their businesses because the processors won’t take cash. CRBs can’t use Amazon or other online retailers because online providers cannot accept cash.
Because dealing in cash is so difficult, CRB operators look for workarounds such as using personal credit/debit cards to purchase business equipment and supplies. This doesn’t eliminate the cash problem, however, because the credit card holder will likely have to accept cash as reimbursement. Such transactions could be considered an attempt to hide the source of the cash, which is, by definition, money laundering.
Some bank-less CRBs try to skirt the system by obtaining bank accounts in the name of management companies or other entities one step removed from the actual business. While operators often choose this route in an effort to streamline business and operate out of the shadows, it again runs afoul of banking laws. Transferring cannabis related financial transactions to another entity is actually the very definition of money laundering – which, as noted above, is defined as the process used to conceal the existence or source of “illegal” funds.
In addition to the difficulties in making payments or purchasing business supplies, operating in a cash-heavy environment poses significant safety risks for cannabis operators. CRBs often have large sums of money onsite and transport large sums of cash when purchasing product or paying bills, making them a target for robbery. In 2017, there was a spate of dispensary robberies across the Phoenix Metro area, including one at Bloom Dispensary that took place during operating hours.13
Managing all that cash increases the cost of doing business as well, in the form of increased labor, insurance, and security costs. Cash must be counted and double counted, which can be time consuming for staff, not to mention the time it takes to deliver physical cash payments to hither and yon. Ironically, lack of banking significantly decreases transparency and clouds the waters of compliance, as operating strictly in cash makes it easier to manipulate reported financial results.
Potential Congressional Solutions
In recent years Congress has undertaken several efforts to pass legislation designed to address the state/federal divide on cannabis, which would likely clear the way for financial institutions to provide services to CRBs, including:
R. 1595 – Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (“SAFE Act”);
1028 & H.R. 2093 – Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act); and
2227 – Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 (MORE Act).
The climate in Washington DC, however, did not allow any of these initiatives to pass both houses of congress. Had any been sent to the White House, President Trump was unlikely to sign them into law.
The cannabis industry has new reason to believe reform is on the horizon with shift in political leadership in the White House and Senate. Newly anointed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently committed to making federal cannabis reform a priority, and President Biden appears committed to decriminalization, reviving the hope of passage of one of these pieces of legislation.
The Changing Banking Landscape
Even though there is little in the way of formal protections for financial institutions, and with the timeline for a legislative fix unknown, an increasing number of banks are working with cannabis operators.
According to FinCen statistics, there were approximately 695 financial institutions actively involved with CRBs as of June 30, 2020. It is important to note that these statistics are based on SAR filings, which banks are required to file when an account or transaction is suspected of being affiliated with a cannabis business. However, some of these SARs may have been generated on genuine suspicious activity rather than on a transaction with a known cannabis customer.
There are arguably more banking institutions offering services to CRBs than ever before. The challenges for CRBs are (1) finding an institution that is willing to offer services; (2) building/maintaining a compliance regime that will be acceptable to that institution; and (3) cost, given the high fees associated with these types of accounts.
How CRBs Get Accepted by Banks
The gap between CRBs’ need for banking and the financial services providers’ sparse and expensive offerings to the sector has created an opportunity for third-party firms to intervene and provide a compliance structure that will satisfy the needs of the financial institutions, making it easier for the CRB to find a bank.
These third-party firms perform extensive BSA-compliant due diligence on applicants to ensure potential customers are following FinCen guidance required to receive banking services. After the completion of due diligence, they connect the CRBs with financial institutions that are willing to do business with CRBs and provide checking/savings accounts, check writing capability, and merchant processor accounts. These firms often provide additional services such as armored car and cash vaulting services. Some of these firms also offer vendor screening, pre-approving vendors before any payments can be made.
One such firm, Safe Harbor Private Banking, started as a project implemented by the CEO of Partners Credit Union in Denver, Colorado, who set out to design a cannabis banking program that would allow Partners to do business with Colorado CRBs.15 The program was successful and has since expanded into other states who have legalized cannabis. Other operators include Dama Financial and NaturePay.
While these services offer hope for many CRBs, the downside is cost. These services perform the operations necessary to find, open, and maintain a compliant bank account; however, the costs of compliance are still high, pricing some small operators out of the market.
Is Digital Currency an Answer?
Digital currency is also making its way into the cannabis world. Digital currency, or cryptocurrency, is a medium of exchange that utilizes a decentralized ledger to record transactions, otherwise known as a blockchain. One of the largest benefits of blockchain is that it is a secure, incorruptible digital ledger used for, among other things, financial transactions.16 Blockchain technology offers CRBs a transparent and immutable audit trail for business and financial transactions. Several cannabis-specific cryptocurrencies have sprung up in the past several years, including PotCoin, CannabisCoin, and DopeCoin, to name a few.
In July 2019, Arizona approved cryptocurrency startup ALTA to offer services to the state’s medical cannabis operators.17 ALTA describes itself as a “digital payment club where cash-intensive businesses pay each other using digital tokens instead of cash.”18 ALTA members purchase digital tokens that are used to pay other members using a proprietary blockchain based system. The tokens are redeemable for US dollars at a stable rate of 1:1, and CRBs do not need a bank account to participate in the ALTA program.
ALTA proposes to pick up members’ cash and exchanges it for tokens, which are then used to pay other members for goods and services. Tokens may be redeemed for cash at any time.18 The company has been approved by the Arizona State Attorney General, and one of the first members they hope to enlist is the Arizona Department of Revenue (ADOR). Enlisting ADOR into the program would allow dispensary members to pay state taxes digitally rather than hauling large amounts of cash to ADOR offices.
Similarly, Nevada recently contracted with Multichain Ventures to supply a digital currency solution to the Nevada cannabis industry. Nevada Assembly Bill 466 requires the state create a pilot program to design a “closed loop” system like Venmo in an effort to reduce cash transactions in the cannabis sector. Like ALTA, Nevada’s proposed system will convert cash to tokens which can then be transacted between system participants.19
While both proposals are promising for Arizona and Nevada CRBs, the timeline as to when, or if, these offerings will come online is unknown. Action on cannabis reform at the federal level may render these options moot.
Looking to the Future
Although states are legalizing cannabis in one form or another in growing numbers, the fact that cannabis is still federally illegal poses a significant barrier to accessing the financial services market for CRBs. While most banks are still reluctant to offer services to this rapidly growing industry, there are more banks than ever before willing to participate in the cannabis industry. Recent changes in leadership in Washington DC offer a positive outlook for cannabis reform at the federal level.
As the “green rush” continues to envelop the country, financial services options available to CRBs are slowly growing. Many new options are now available to help CRBs find a bank, develop compliance programs, and manage the cash related problems encountered by most CRBs. However, these solutions may be out of reach for the budget-conscious small operator. Also, there are a number of cryptocurrency solutions designed specifically for CRBs; however, when, or if, these solutions will gain significant traction is still unknown.
Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C., Subchapter I, Part B, §812.
“State Marijuana Laws”; National Conference of State Legislatures, February 19, 2021.
“Exclusive: US Retail Marijuana Sales On Pace to Rise 40% in 2020, near $37B by 2024”. Marijuana Business Daily, June 30, 2020.
Kaufman, Irving. “The Cash Connection: Organized Crime, Financial Institutions, and Money Laundering”. Interim Report to the President, October 1984.
S. Code § 1956 – Laundering of Monetary Instruments.
Rowe, Robert. “Compliance and the Cannabis Conundrum.” ABA Banking Journal, September 11, 2016.
“History of Marijuana as a Medicine – 2900 BC to Present”. ProCon.org, December 4, 2020.
Truble, Sarah and Kasai, Nathan. “The Past – and Future – of Federal Marijuana Enforcement”. org, May 12, 2017.
The cannabis industry in the United States represents about a $50 billion asset class making it one of the largest new asset classes in the country. Commercial real estate lending is a key enabler for companies seeking to expand and scale. Pelorus Equity Group is one of the largest commercial lenders in cannabis with over $170 million deployed since its first cannabis transaction in 2016.
Since 1991, Pelorus principals have participated in more than $1 billion of real estate investment transactions using both debt and equity solutions. Pelorus offers a range of transactional solutions addressing the diverse needs of cannabis related business operators. While most cannabis private equity lenders focus on real estate acquisition and refinancing, Pelorus has leveraged its experience in more than 5,000 transactions of varying size and complexity to offer value-add loans, a rarity in the industry.
We spoke with Rob Sechrist, president of Pelorus Equity Group and manager of the Pelorus Fund. Rob joined Pelorus in 2010 after several years in the California real estate market. In 2018, Pelorus launched the Pelorus Fund where Rob is currently the manager. The Fund converted to an REIT in 2020.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Rob Sechrist: Pelorus is a value-add bridge lender. We’ve been lending for a long time, originally in the non-cannabis space. We’ve done 5000 transactions for over a billion dollars – more than a lot of banks.
In 2014, our local congressman Dana Rohrabacher passed the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment that defunded the Department of Justice from prosecuting any cannabis related business in a medically licensed state. We were a supporter of that legislation and once that passed, we took a serious look at utilizing our expertise in being a value-add lender and applying it to the largest asset class of real estate that is newly coming about today. That cannabis related asset class is about $50 billion.
We decided that we had the expertise to move into this space and to build these facilities out for our borrowers so that the cannabis use tenants would have a fully stabilized facility and make it operate. After the amendment passed in 2014, by 2016 we had originated our first transaction. Since that time, we’ve originated 51 transactions in the cannabis space for over $177 million so far. It wasn’t that big of a pivot when you’re just providing the value-add loan.
“Value-add” in the loan business means that a portion of the loan amount, let’s just say is a million dollars, maybe 250,000 of that, is a pre-approved budget to go back into the property. In cannabis property those are typically tenant improvements and/or equipment to fully stabilize that tenant. So, we’re the first fully dedicated lender in the nation exclusively to cannabis and we’ve done more transactions than anybody else in the nation.
Green: What are some challenges of cannabis lending compared to traditional lending?
Sechrist: The number one challenge in cannabis is that you must disclose to your investors that you’re originating the loans to cannabis use tenants. Many people have concerns that lending indirectly might be federally illegal. If you did not disclose that to your investors when you form that capital stack to fund these transactions, you’re going to run into issues. So, you would need to create a vehicle where you disclose to your investors that you’re intending to lend into cannabis and it’s still federally illegal. Doing one-off stand-alone transactions deal by deal is not sustainable if you’re going to be a large lender.
There are other challenges. Because cannabis is still federally illegal, it gives insurers and other third parties the ability to deny a claim, or certain lender protections. Some examples include errors and omissions insurance, title insurance, property insurance, etc. and all of them say in those policies that if you’re doing something federally illegal, then the policy is null and void. So, you must think your way through very carefully all the things that could potentially be an issue. You also have to disclose to those third parties and find a way to get them to acknowledge it to make sure you have the coverage if you ever have to make a claim. That’s a very difficult process.
Green: How has the investor profile in cannabis lending changed over time?
Sechrist: Our fund was structured to allow for institutional capital from the inception. We were able to do that because we are completely non-plant touching. Our fund only lends to the owners of commercial real estate. We do not lend to any cannabis licensed operator directly whatsoever. Our borrowers – the owners of the properties – would then have a lease agreement with the cannabis use tenant. Even if it’s an owner-operator, those are separate entities. That’s how we’ve distinguished ourselves.
Regarding the investor profile, the first $100 million plus we raised was primarily from retail investors who were individuals writing checks up to a million dollars. Once we had three years of audited track record and our fund was $100 million, we then pivoted over to family offices and institutional investors and pension funds. We’re now working primarily with those types of investors.
The reason that we started with retail investors is that it’s very easy for me to explain our model to a single decision maker and answer their questions. Once I move into family offices or institutional investors, the opportunity goes to a credit committee where I’m relying on some other party to educate the investor about our investment. It’s enormously challenging at that point if it’s not me doing the talking. I know the answers, but I’m having to rely on somebody else to answer questions. We’ve tried to educate everybody we speak with and craft our documentation in such a way that even when it’s not myself answering the questions directly, people can understand how we thread the needle through some of the legal hurdles.
Green: How do you prioritize deal flow, and what are the qualities of a successful loan applicant?
Sechrist: We typically maintain a pipeline of around $150 million in transactions at any one time.
Applicants must have real estate. We’re not doing business loans or operator loans directly to tenants or business operations. So, that’s the starting point. We want a real estate piece of collateral where we feel more than comfortable with the loan-to-value and ratios and the loan to cost and other figures, that we feel that this transaction is going to be a success for our borrower and ultimately the tenant.
Next, we will only work with very experienced operators who have a proven track record where this is not their first transaction. Ideally, we are working someone who is looking to expand their operations and who is ready to either move from being a tenant of their previous facility and buying their next facility.
The next aspect that we’re looking for is the strength of the borrower’s guarantor. They must be able to qualify to support that transaction. Many of our transactions are millions or 10s of millions of dollars. You must have a sponsor that can support that size of a transaction.
Green: What sort of value-adds should a cannabis property owner look for in their lender?
Sechrist: Most people that are looking for loans are only familiar with getting loans for themselves on their owner-occupied house. Most loans have points, they have a rate and a term, loan-to-value and things like that.
“We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments.”When you move into construction loans or value-add lending, there are other elements that are more important than the pricing of the loan. The number one thing is to get that property fully stabilized and built as quickly as possible. Cannabis tenants are generating 10 to 15 times more revenue per month than non-cannabis tenants.
If you go to a bank and borrow money it may be a third of what it costs to borrow from us, but they process draws maybe once a month. So, if you’re having to advance the money for improvements of the property, and then the bank reimburses once a month, at a certain point you’re not going to be able to advance any more money until you get reimbursed. The project comes to a stop. So, in your mind, you might have saved an enormous amount on the pricing of the rate, but it’s costing you dearly in revenue and opportunity costs. We typically process 50 to 100 draws post-closing on transactions, and we get that facility built and the money reimbursed to all the contractors on a multiple-times-a-week basis. It’s happening in real flow all the time.
A typical problem for a tenant is that the tenant improvements are orders of magnitude higher than a non-cannabis tenant – anywhere from $150 to $250 per square foot. In addition, the equipment is often enormously expensive as well. It’s tough to put money into a buildout for a building that you may not own. Our vision at Pelorus was, let’s not force these tenants – the cannabis operators – to raise equity at the worst possible time when they’re not generating revenue through the facility. Let’s shift that capital balance for those tenant improvements and equipment from the from the tenant to the owner of the building, which is where it’s secured and adds value to that building anyway. Our vision was to shift that money from the balance sheet of the tenant over to the owner of the real estate so the tenant didn’t have to sell equity to come up with that money. Then the tenant is paying for the improvements in the lease rate and the borrower is paying for improvements in the note rate. And so we’ve shifted tenant improvements from being an equity component to now it’s just priced in the debt. This way you know what the terms are and you know what your total exposure is there.
We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments. Most of our peers in the space don’t look at it that way. They just do the acquisition or the refinance. They don’t do anything for the tenant improvements. They don’t do anything for the equipment. The tenant is left out there to either raise that equity or the borrower – the owner of the real estate – is having to come up with that additional capital on their own. We think you’re set up for failure in that circumstance. So, we blend all that into one capital stack. It’s important that the tenants can get all the way up to being able to cash flow and support that facility and be fully stabilized so they can refinance into a lower cost bank or credit union transaction.
Green: What federal policies and trends are you monitoring?
Sechrist: First, I think that it’s important to remind people that the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment has protected everybody from any prosecution. So, there’s no jeopardy out there that exists. The second thing I like to tell people is there are 695 banks on FinCEN’s website of cannabis Tier 1 depositors, and of those, we’re tracking numerous FDIC insured state banks and credit unions that are lending directly. We’ve been paid off by banks.
So, there’s this massive misconception that there’s no banking at all and that everything is happening by cash. The only cash buildup that happens is at the retail dispensary level because credit cards aren’t allowed for retail sales at the dispensaries. Out of the 2,000 transactions that we’ve either processed or reviewed, not one has ever not had banking set up. So, it is a big misnomer that there’s no depositor relations for Tier 1 banking, which is plant touching.
Tier 2/3 depositors are ancillary, which is what we are at Pelorus. There are 100 private lenders and dozens and dozens of state and federal credit unions or state banks and credit unions, not federal, that are FDIC insured and lending. Those banks are difficult to get loans from because they only want to do urban environments. They want to do fully stabilized companies and they want to use alternative views and the facility has to have seasoning for cash flow. It’s difficult to qualify for them. So, banking and lending exists out there, and most people are not aware of that.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about? This could be either in cannabis or in your personal life.
Sechrist: My two passions are snowboarding and racetrack driving. I just came back from the Mille Miglia race in Italy, and I do a lot of driving on the racetracks. I’m always looking to learn from those experiences.
In the cannabis sector, social equity programs are happening across the nation and cannabis licenses are being issued to operators. We would like to help participate in some system of educating these applicants that win the awards. Lending to an owner of a property who just won a license but has no experience is going to be problematic. Somebody needs to be thinking that out and making sure that these people that win have enough experience and education to set them up for success. Cannabis is one of the most complicated businesses ever, and they’ve got this license as their ticket, but they need to know how to make sure they’re going to be successful.
Things are about to change for cannabis and cannabis-related businesses, as landmark legislation to reform federal cannabis banking and insurance laws is just around the corner with the SAFE and CLAIM Acts now making their way through Congress.
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which already passed in the House, would allow financial institutions to do business with cannabis companies without facing federal penalties. There are high expectations the proposal will make its way through the Senate and onto President Biden’s desk.
The Clarifying Law Around Insurance of Marijuana (CLAIM) Act was introduced in Congress in March and is in the first stage of the legislative process. If it passed, it would allow insurance companies to service cannabis businesses without the threat of federal penalties.
For years, fear of sanctions kept banks and credit unions from working with the cannabis industry, forcing cannabis businesses to operate on a cash basis which made them targets of crime and created complications for financial regulators. This is a significant first step for cannabis businesses toward conducting more legitimate and safe operations.
The SAFE Banking Act: Providing a Legitimate Avenue to Banking and Loans
With 37 states and D.C. having taken action to legalize cannabis in some way, it is clear the federal cannabis regulatory model has shifted and the path forward for the SAFE Banking Act shows promise.
The bill creates a safe harbor for banks and credit unions to the extent they would not be liable or subject to federal forfeiture action for providing financial services to a cannabis-related business.More competition means greater capacity and lower premiums for all.
The bill would prohibit a federal banking regulator from:
Recommending, incentivizing or encouraging a depository institution not to offer financial services to an account holder affiliated with a cannabis-related business or prohibit or otherwise discouraging a depository institution from offering services to such a business
Terminating or limiting the deposit insurance or share insurance of a depository institution solely because the institution provides services to a cannabis-related business
Taking any adverse or corrective supervisory action on a loan made to a person solely because the person either owns such a business or owns real estate or equipment leased to such a business.
The CLAIM Act: Backing Cannabis Businesses with the Right Insurance Coverage
Should the CLAIM Act pass, it will protect insurance companies that provide coverage to a state-sanctioned and regulated cannabis business. It would also prohibit the federal government from terminating an insurance policy issued to a cannabis business and protect employees of an insurer from liability due to backing a cannabis-related business.
The CLAIM Act will be a boost for the insurance market and drive more underwriters to write cannabis policies. More competition means greater capacity and lower premiums for all. The act would also have a notable impact on currently hard-to-source policies like Cyber coverage, Directors & Officers (D&O) insurance, Errors & Omissions (E&O) and other management liability policies that have been extremely limited to cannabis businesses.
Cannabis Sales Still Growing Strong Globally
The cannabis market is not slowing down in the United States or globally. Recent forecasts have U.S. sales reaching $28 billion in 2022.
As was the case in Canada where cannabis was made federally legal in 2018, there’s going to be a steep learning curve industry-wide for financial services and insurance vendors who don’t yet understand the risks and liabilities of cannabis operations, even if the SAFE and CLAIM Acts pass this year. And yet this is one giant step in the right direction toward the safe and equitable sales of cannabis country-wide.
When it comes to small business opportunities these days, few phrases give people the old dollar-sign-eyes more than “legal cannabis”.
From states like Michigan where it’s been approved for both medicinal and adult use, to places like South Carolina where legalization has been a popular topic for ballots and voters, cannabis is slowly turning into one of America’s biggest businesses.
You don’t need us to tell you that – Investopedia reports that (as of Nov. 2020) over 340,000 American jobs were devoted to the handling of plants at various stages along the retail cycle, and the industry was estimated at over $13 billion as of 2019.
Not bad for a plant that’s still technically illegal under federal law, huh?
If you’ve read this far, it probably means you’re hoping to be among the lucky ones who can strike it rich with their own cannabis business. A noble undertaking, but are you really prepared to make your mark? In a field as competitive – and occasionally complicated – as cannabis can be, you really need to lead with your best foot forward, and make sure you’re as well prepared for the various challenges of a fairly new industry as possible.
With that in mind, below is a list of the five things you’ll need to double-check and make sure you actually have access to before embarking on your new business venture.
The right shelving & equipment
You see this a lot with smaller businesses as well as, er, ‘independent growers’. A lot of people assume that they can just buy some greenhouse shelves, line the walls of their business with it, and call it a day, right?
This approach leads to problems more often than not. Even above and beyond the inherent concerns of helping your plants grow safely (and productively!), the sort of equipment you use should reflect the sort of business you’re trying to run. A cannabis retail outlet, for example, is going to need different sorts of shelves and tables than a dispensary or growing facility, as the work being done is completely different.
It will take a little research, but it helps that a lot of businesses these days are starting to offer shelving specifically designed for various cannabis operations. Check to see if any of the big warehouse suppliers near you have gotten into the cannabis game yet – Shelving Inc, Metro, and Rack & Shelf are a few of the bigger shelving names with cannabis offerings as of this writing.
Long gone are the days when all you needed to be successful in cannabis was a booth at the shady flea market, a pun name and a big sign that said “Head Shop” to throw off the authorities.
Far too many cannabis businesses launch themselves headlong into a business plan without stopping to think of a good name, or just settling for the first one they think of. With as crowded as the playing field is quickly becoming, it might honestly be worth it to pay someone to help you come up with a decent logo and branding – it’ll go a long way towards helping you stand out against everyone else using a green font. Places online like High Hopes specifically offer these services for cannabis businesses, so you know they’ll be able to figure out what you’re about more quickly.
An understanding of your consumer base
The exact sort of work your cannabis business performs is going to affect what your potential customer base can be – and vice versa.
Early on in the planning stages, make sure to figure out exactly who you’re going to sell your products to, as this will inform nearly every other decision your business makes. Do you want to sell directly to the customer, or to work as a distributor for CBD/cannabis retail outlets? Are you prepared to manage and run your own storefront, or are you just going to rent warehousing space to sell your plants to other retailers? If so, do you know who the businesses are in your area that you could work with? Or, if you are planning on entering the retail space, do you know how many other cannabis businesses could be operating in your desired geographical area? Finding an audience may be the hardest part of opening any business, but it’s important work.
Banking that understands your industry
Maybe the biggest drawback to being involved in an industry as comparatively new as cannabis, is that a lot of the old methods of doing business aren’t quite available to you. Many financial institutions of various sizes are limited in the ways they can help finance cannabis businesses, from not understanding the regulations and needs of your industry, all the way to being unable to assist cannabis businesses with banking in the first place.
It might be advantageous to look into banks, credit unions or financing companies in your area that specifically offer banking services (like business accounts and the like). A few examples include Aery Group from New Mexico, or Seed to Sale in Michigan. (It’s important to note that many of these companies, such as Aery Group, can only service the state they’re located in due to different state-by-state regulations – check ahead to make sure you find a place that can help you!)
Knowledge of the needed licensing and regulatory requirements
Getting a license to open any business is a tricky prospect on a good day, but for an industry as wide-ranging and varied as cannabis, getting licensed can require a lot of homework.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be setting up shop in a state that allows for the sale of cannabis, the licensing process can vary widely from state-to-state. In New Mexico, for example, it can take months to acquire a license simply due to the amount of paperwork, research and submissions required to cement your business. Before going too far down the rabbit hole of opening your business, make sure to take the time you need to completely research and understand the various local and state regulations you’ll need to adhere to for your business to get off the ground.
Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of other hurdles and requirements that come with starting a business – but by remembering these five things, you’ll be off to a much better start than many others.
On Friday, December 4, 2020, the US House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 (the MORE Act), which would effectively legalize cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act. The bill (H.R. 3884) has several key components:
Most importantly, the bill would remove cannabis from the list of controlled substances in the Controlled Substances Act, as well as other federal legislation such as the National Forest System Drug Control Act of 1986. This would effectively end many of the obstacles created by the federal illegality of cannabis such as the lack of access to banking, tax consequences such as 280E, adverse immigration impacts and threats of federal criminal enforcement.
Second, not only does the bill preclude future prosecution for cannabis-related crimes, the bill is designed to be retroactive and would provide for the expungement of past non-violent cannabis offenses.
The bill creates a prescribed excise tax on cannabis and cannabis products. The funds collected from the taxes would be channeled into opportunity and reinvestment programs.
A Community Reinvestment Grant Program would be established aimed at the provision of services for “individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs,” such as job training, education, literacy programs, mentoring, and substance use treatment programs;
A Cannabis Opportunity Program would be established providing state funds for small business loans in the cannabis industry targeted at social equity candidates; and
An Equitable Licensing Grant Program providing funds for states to implement equitable cannabis licensing programs aimed at minimizing “barriers to cannabis licensing and employment for individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.”
The bill would require all cannabis producers to obtain a federal permit. Cannabis businesses would need to be licensed at the state, local, and federal levels to operate.
This MORE Act is a substantial step in cannabis legislation. Reactions to the proposed legislation have been mixed. While the bill does include some measures aimed at social equity, critics of the bill claim it does not go far enough. Similarly, while the bill includes a federal permitting provision, this would be the beginning of a nascent federal regulatory scheme.
What does this mean for your business?
While this bill passed in the US House of Representatives, it would still need to pass in the U.S. Senate this term, which by most accounts does not seem likely. However, the passage of this bill signifies the progress that has been made and provides insight on what further legislation may look like.
All major industries took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but in many states, cannabis dispensaries were labeled as essential, which has allowed the industry to continue with some alterations. The impact now will come from what innovations and improvements the industry can leverage going forward.
From changes to protocols and buyer behaviors to supply chain disruptions, there were many new hurdles for the industry in addition to the ones cannabis businesses already faced, such as funding. But the silver lining could be that businesses within the cannabis industry become less of a specialty and more ‘every day’ than ever before.
The effects of the pandemic on the cannabis industry
Overall, the industry has fared well, in part thanks to its distinction as an essential service in states where cannabis is legal. It’s possible states made this decision for the same reason that alcohol businesses were deemed essential in most places: hospitals are not equipped during pandemic times to take care of people who are being forced to detox or those suffering from anxiety because they don’t have access to their legal drug of choice.
In a multitude of ways, cannabis businesses have adapted to bring calm in a storm while at the same time making manufacturing adjustments to meet the CDC guidelines. For example, there is more attention placed on individually pre-packaged products for single use; something that is less sharable as an experience but eminently practical.
Another area that has shifted a little is in the limiting of the exchange and interaction between business owners and staff relative to the customers. It’s all in the aim of mitigating the risk of exposure, but it has changed the dynamic in many cannabis businesses. This is the new normal for the time being and the industry has adapted well.
Ultimately, retail cannabis businesses today are no different than the retail of candy, cigarettes or alcohol. Certainly, segments of the industry have still struggled. Lack of tourism and the curbside/take out circumstances at dispensaries took their toll. But without the opportunity to still conduct business in some capacity, 50-60% of all operators would have gone out of business. Plus, as many people use cannabis to offset medical symptoms, including pain management, there is a legitimate need for cannabis to be available. The pandemic has provided the opportunity for many who might not have tried it before to give it a chance to help them medicinally.
Behaviors have changed, including those of buyers
Driven by consumer interests, many dispensaries have adapted to provide curbside pickup options, delivery of online orders and more. That has meant that the customer also needs to be more knowledgeable about cannabis: the experienced consumer knows what they like and want and can make their choices at a distance. Someone who is new to cannabis use might find navigating the choices and options a little more difficult, without the help of experienced staff. The breadth of material online and the ability of some dispensaries to share content that helps the consumer to make choices, in the absence of walking around the dispensary, have been additional tools at the disposal of businesses.
That said, the cannabis industry today is not a vastly different one: it is adapting to the new rules and new reality. Whether this way of doing business—at a distance—is a temporary or permanent solution will be dependent upon what federal and state regulators dictate in the months ahead, but there is likely to be ongoing demand for being able to order online and keep social distance protocols in place.
An interesting example is the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) in Ontario, Canada. This is a government run shop that has retail as well as a robust online presence, with free delivery during the pandemic. This has facilitated an increase in new customers, which had already jumped, post legalization. People who might have felt uncomfortable going into a dispensary can still learn about cannabis online and order it, from the relative comfort and safety of their sofa.
Supply chain disruptions and the cannabis industry
The industry has long been focused on overseas suppliers. With the arrival of the pandemic and restrictions on obtaining products from other countries, supply chains have been disrupted for many cannabis businesses. That has forced many to shift their supply chains to more local manufacturers, in North and South America.
In the long run, this should have a positive impact for the industry, so that despite the short-term disruption to the supply chain, which is having an impact on the industry as a whole, there could be an upside for local producers, growers and manufacturers. It will take time to know how this will all play out.
Funding and other issues for the cannabis industry
For a new cannabis startup in these times, the key will be what it has always been for any business, just to a greater degree: due diligence. Companies that want to open a cannabis business, whether during the pandemic or not, need to evaluate the opportunity as one would any investment. It’s all about the numbers: data for the industry as a whole and specifically from competition. These days, that data is widely available and more and more consultants and investors have expertise in this industry. “Overall, there is more interest in the industry than ever before”
It’s vital to be extremely well versed, particularly for businesses that are relatively new in the industry, because the single biggest issue for many has and will continue to be funding and investment. The cannabis industry is no different than any other business, except for the fact that it is a specialty business. With that comes the need to look for funding among investors who have some knowledge or appreciation for the industry.
Some of the key concerns traditional investors will have include:
Regulatory differences from state to state: since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, there can be an array of hurdles at state and local level that make cannabis businesses trickier to work with.
There are religious based/morality issues for some lenders in dealing with the industry. These aren’t dissimilar from issues with other industries such as adult entertainment and gaming. It’s also fair to point out that, morality aside, these industries have thrived in the last several decades.
So, while traditional banking institutions will often deal with the proceeds from the cannabis industry, including allowing bank accounts for these businesses, there is far less of a chance that they would invest in a cannabis business, for fear of risking their license. They can even go so far as to refuse to include income from a cannabis business in the determination of a loan application.
There are more unique lending or investing groups that either specialize in cannabis or are starting to open their books to specialize in cannabis. Overall, there is more interest in the industry than ever before, as it becomes normalized in American society: more participants and more insiders of the industries that are willing to invest in the right idea.
Will legalization be more likely in the future?
The fact that cannabis businesses and dispensaries have been deemed essential services during the pandemic, where they legally operate, has shed new light on the relevance of these businesses and the advantages of more widespread legalization.“Consumers will help drive the innovations as they demand clean consumption methods”
In fact, the pandemic has normalized a lot of new behaviors, including the acceptable use of cannabis to help with stress and anxiety. People are, perhaps thanks to staying at home more, doing the legwork to understand how cannabis could be useful to them in managing their stress. The medicinal benefits of cannabis have long been researched and understood: consumers are coming into the fray to express their interest in it, which can only fuel the possibility of more widespread legalization.
Add to this the fact that the cannabis industry is a growth industry. There are companies and jobs that aren’t coming back, post-pandemic. There is an opportunity to grow the cannabis industry to the general benefit of many, both as business owners and employees. The revenue generated from taxation following legalization would also benefit many state coffers. Federal level legalization would be the panacea to eliminate the mixed message, state by state regulation that currently exists.
Opportunities for innovation, moving forward
As more and more people become interested in the industry, and as cannabis use is normalized within society through legalization, the opportunities for the industry can only expand.
For an industry that started on the simple concept of smoking cannabis, the advances have already been legion: edibles, nanotechnology-based formulations for effective, clean consumption and many more innovations.
In a world that increasingly sees smoking as a negative, for the obvious impact to lung health, there are so many opportunities to grow the industry to find consumption methods that are safe and still deliver the impact of the inhaled version.
Here again, consumers will help drive the innovations as they demand clean consumption methods. The technology is available to make this possible; it only takes innovation and education to find the best ways to move this industry forward.
As legalization expands—and particularly if it is dealt with at the federal level—the industry will be able to capitalize on existing infrastructure for manufacturing and distribution, allowing new businesses to grow, get funded and thrive in the new normal.
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the first article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article we talk with George Sadler, President and Co-founder of House of Platinum. George and his son Cody started their cannabis journey in 2010 when they sold their dirt bikes and set up a 10×10 garage. They have since built the business into a $70 million dollar cannabis empire across California, Michigan and now Oklahoma. The interview with George was conducted on July 31, 2020.
Next week, we’ll interview Matthew Elmes, Director of Product Development at Cannacraft. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: First off, George, congratulations on your recent announcement on the LOI from Red White & Bloom!
George Sadler: Thanks! The deal isn’t done yet but we’re looking at a sixty-five-million-dollar deal. Cody and I will be staying on as officers to oversee growth as we expand into new markets.
Aaron: That’s great news! I hope it all works out well for you and best of luck closing the deal. Now on to the interview questions we had planned. So first off, how did you get involved at House of Platinum?
George: My son Cody and I wanted to do extraction and have a vape company. Five or six years ago we climbed on a plane to China to speak with manufacturers. We started off with extraction equipment in a small room with a table top machine. After a time, we took year and a half off to get our licensing and do our buildout. We opened up again two years ago in June. At the time, China was the main resource for packaging, and everything really. We got hardware from another company and had our Chinese partners rework the hardware to address some of the issues we had. Cody and I spent a week in Shenzhen where we met with our Chinese partners. They first did cartridges, packaging and batteries.
Aaron: Thanks for that, George. The next questions will focus on product development and manufacturing. What is your decision process for starting a new product?
George: In the beginning, Cody and I would both be a part of new product development from beginning to end. Cody has taken lead now on the beginning phases so our new product development really starts with him. We collectively come up with the concept. Cody does the market research. The concept then goes to our design team for visuals and to do the artwork- this usually takes some time. After we are satisfied with the branding, we start the manufacturing process. We do everything start to finish and can go from design to package in less than two weeks. The only thing we still manufacture in China is hardware these days, so cartridges and batteries.
Aaron: Are you personally involved in manufacturing? Tell me about your process
George: Cody and I are both involved in manufacturing. In California, we have about a hundred employees at our facility. In Michigan we have another hundred, and Oklahoma has about thirty. In Michigan, we do carts only right now and are getting ready to launch chocolates and gummies. Oklahoma is also getting ready to do edibles and gummies.
Aaron: What is your process for developing new products? George: In manufacturing, when we start a new line of edibles, we’ll first do a full test batch of products before committing to full-scale manufacturing. We start small at first then scale into larger batches. If everything looks good, we’ll decide whether or not to invest in larger equipment.
Aaron: Are you developing new products internally?
George: Our California and Michigan production is done 100% in-house. In Oklahoma we have a licensing deal with a manufacturing partner.
Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants?
George: No. We do all of our product development internally.
Aaron: In product development or manufacturing, what does being stuck look like for you?
George: That depends on what phase of the process we’re talking about. One challenge is getting the recipe dialed and then figuring out how to move into large scale. Take chocolate for example: going from a one spout pour on chocolate to a three-spout pour. That process can take a while to figure out. Any time you are trying to move forward in your manufacturing process, if there isn’t existing equipment available you may need to purchase it. There isn’t a lot of information out there to gauge on the cannabis side what is relevant.
Aaron: How about source materials for your products?
George: We pride ourselves on doing a deep dive on all of our suppliers. That includes packaging, chocolate, sugar, and flower. The advantage of longevity in this industry, we have keen radar on those doing premium work.
Aaron: What’s the most frustrating thing you are going through with the business?
George: I think a majority of people would agree that there’s lack of understanding of what’s happening with licensing. Legacy market products and unlicensed stores are frustrating. Inconsistency on testing is also frustrating. The states aren’t really doing anything to correct inconsistent testing. But banking is the number one industry pain point. We have a handle on the rest. Banking we don’t have any help.
Aaron: Feel free to answer the next question however you like. Imagine you could have someone come in and wave a magic wand to solve your problems. What does your magic helper look like?
George: Hah! Not sure what a magic helper would look like. Distribution is our biggest headache. Distribution is a different animal that is outside cannabis product development. We do all of our distribution in-house and it can be a pain.
Aaron: Now for my final question: What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?
George: We’re semi-new in the CBD space. Anything up and coming is something we are looking at. We’re focused on going big and multi-state. Arizona is the next state we are looking at. Nevada is after that. The partnership with Red White and Bloom is going to grow the brand into other states with them. Growth continues in that direction. Recently we’ve been going back to cultivation and doing cultivation deals. We started as cultivators and a lot has changed in the past several years. We are trying to pick up new knowledge.
Aaron: Well, thanks for that George, this is all awesome feedback for the industry. That concludes the interview! Thanks so much for your time and congrats again on your recent announcement with Red White & Bloom.
At the outset of 2020, the cannabis industry appeared poised for a series of incremental changes: a number of states were considering decriminalization and legalization measures, and support was growing for federal legislation allowing cannabis businesses access to banks and financial services. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which disrupted state legislative sessions (and legislative priorities), obstructed signature gathering for ballot initiatives, and reshuffled federal priorities. However, despite all of these changes, the cannabis industry has seen significant developments across the country. Beyond of course the many challenges and losses brought by the pandemic and its aftermath, in some ways, it may prove a boon for the industry.
Legalization and Decriminalization
Currently around a dozen states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, while just under two dozen states allow use of medicinal cannabis. With support for legalization measures steadily growing in most states, a number of major states seemed poised to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis, including large potential markets in the Northeast such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. And in many other states, advocacy groups were well underway gathering signatures to qualify legalization measures for the November 2020 ballot. When the pandemic hit, however, state legislatures largely suspended their normal operations, and signature gatherers were stymied by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements.
Despite these major obstacles, legalization and decriminalization legislation has continued to move forward in a number of states, and still others will have legalization referenda on the ballot for November’s election. Perhaps more important than these initiatives themselves are the diverse states that are moving toward loosening of restrictions around cannabis: rather than being limited to a handful of especially liberal states, cannabis advocates are seeing tangible progress is every geographic area, among states whose political leanings span the spectrum.
While the Northeast corridor had planned to undertake legalization efforts in a coordinated fashion this year, those results were put on hold given the seriousness of initial COVID-19 outbreaks in the greater New York area. However, the New Jersey General Assembly nevertheless passed decriminalization legislation, though the matter has not yet cleared the New Jersey Senate, and the appetite for full-scale legalization remains strong there, with a ballot initiative going directly to voters in advance of the New Jersey Legislature considering the issue. The Commonwealth of Virginia enacted decriminalization legislation also, and a legislative caucus in Virginia has pledged to introduce recreational legalization legislation this summer when Virginia convenes a special legislative session. Voters in Mississippi and South Dakota will be able to vote on ballot initiatives to legalize recreational cannabis, and similar ballot initiatives are underway or likely in Arizona and Nebraska. Advocates in Arkansas and Oklahoma had also hoped to bring initiatives to the ballot, but have encountered practical and legal obstacles to gathering the required signatures in time for this year’s election.
These myriad initiatives reflect a strong shift toward legalization of recreational cannabis across the country, and the ability to continue gathering signatures and momentum despite stay-at-home orders and social distancing underscores the growing popularity of the movement. Whether through the legislature or directly by the ballot, it seems all but certain that the number of states permitting recreational cannabis will grow significantly this year.
COVID-19 Business Closures
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the early months of 2020, most states instituted various forms of stay-at-home orders that required the closure of nonessential businesses. While these policies had—and continue to have—serious impacts on businesses of every type, cannabis companies have largely seen strong economic growth notwithstanding.
One of the most important developments in this space came in the context of state and local governments designating certain businesses as “essential” for purposes of business closure orders. In nearly every state to consider the issue—Massachusetts being the main outlier—state and local governments recognized cannabis companies as essential, which allowed them to operate during the shutdown.
The “essential” designation largely carried between both recreational and medicinal cannabis jurisdictions. And this matters because of what it means for the industry. State and local governments clearly realize the important medicinal role that cannabis plays for patients dependent on it for treatment, and the overlapping customer bases of mixed dispensaries further contributed to keeping cannabis companies open during the pandemic. Even in states where certain dispensaries operate solely in a recreational capacity, those jurisdictions recognized the importance of allowing access to a safe recreational substance, like alcohol, during prolonged stay-at-home orders.
Similarly, likely as a result of those same stay-at-home orders, cannabis companies largely saw significant increases in sales revenue. More customers visited retail establishments, and those customers often purchased more product per visit. This resulted in better-than-expected sales revenue for cannabis companies, and also produced increased tax revenues for state and local governments.
The cannabis industry saw more than just increased sales, however. In the process of issuing emergency rules for the cannabis industry during quarantine, a number of state and local jurisdictions either began to allow cannabis deliveries or expanded its availability, a shift in policy that may stick around well after the pandemic subsides.
One final impact of the pandemic may also help push legalization initiatives forward in the coming years: decreased tax revenue and major budget gaps. Due both to a decrease in economic activity like shopping and dining, as well as the unexpected health care costs associated with responding to the COVID-19 crisis, state and local budgets are expected to see significant shortcomings for years to come. In response, state and local governments are starting to see cannabis as a significant and viable source of tax revenue. For example, various cities in California that had previously been reluctant to permit recreational cannabis are beginning to welcome cannabis companies in hopes of making up for lost tax revenue. Similarly, in New Mexico, where legalization has remained a heated topic of discussion, Gov. Lujan Grisham has explicitly expressed her regret that the state failed to legalize cannabis, recognizing that tax revenues from the industry could have reached upwards of $100 million. Other state and local governments are coming to similar realizations, which should help propel expanded access to legal cannabis in coming years.
Major changes in the cannabis industry in 2020 have not been limited to the states. In the midst of changes and crises across the country, the federal government has been making meaningful progress in two major respects, COVID-19 notwithstanding.
First, cannabis companies are edging closer to having full access to banks, bank accounts and related financial services. The SAFE Banking Act, championed by Rep. Perlmutter, has made it through the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. However, as Congress continues to toil away at future COVID-19 relief legislation, political signals from Washington, D.C., suggest there is a reasonable likelihood that the protections of the SAFE Banking Act will be included, in some form, in the next round of major COVID-19 legislation out of Congress. The enactment of these banking provisions will provide substantial relief to cannabis companies who have largely been excluded from opening bank accounts and utilizing the services major banks provide. Additionally, allowing access to banks and their services should further facilitate the rapid growth in the cannabis economy we are witnessing elsewhere, and this movement could further legitimize the industry as part of a broader push for federal legalization.
Second, after a four-year delay, the DEA has finally proposed draft rules to expand the DEA’s limited cannabis research program. For decades, all cannabis research to date has relied on limited supplies of cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi. Now the DEA is finally following through on its promise to further develop, refine and expand its research program by allowing additional suppliers and market participants to play a role in cannabis research. While the rules proposed are not without detractors and critiques—and the rules themselves have not been finalized—this marks an important step forward to a better understanding of the effects of THC on consumers, not only because more research is needed to understand a substance consumed by millions annually, but also because the limited supply of cannabis on which researchers currently rely has been shown to differ substantially in appearance, consistency and chemical composition from cannabis that is commercially available in states across the country. With an expanded research regime comes the hope that scientists will be able to develop new and innovative cannabis-derived medications, while also furthering our understanding of how THC affects health and the body.
At every level of government, the year in cannabis so far has proven to be far more eventful than many predicted. And the COVID-19 crisis has not slowed progress. There appears to be continued momentum to further mature how cannabis is treated at every level of government, which signals that significant changes are on the horizon. Industry observers will be closely focused on how the rest of the year proceeds, especially with a presidential election on the horizon.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised to clarify that New Jersey has not yet decriminalized marijuana. A decriminalization bill passed the New Jersey General Assembly, but the New Jersey Senate has not acted as of this writing.
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