By Dr. Markus Roggen, Amanda Assen, Dr. Tom Dupree No Comments
You generate the product, you should benefit from it too.
If you are not paying for the service, you are the product. This pithy phrase is often heard in discussions about social media’s use of personal information and user-generated content. The idea can be traced back to a 1973 short film that critiques television’s impact on culture and politics. Although about television, the quote, “you are the end product delivered en masse to the advertiser,” still rings true when talking about major online corporations.
We have all seen it with big corporations. In the first three months of 2021, of Facebook’s $26.2B revenue, a whopping $25.4B was from advertising sales. However, the space for an advertisement to be delivered en masse to the public is not the only thing purchased from Facebook. Access to personal information such as your search history, likes and posts are also purchased by companies to determine which advertisements they should target you with.Access to user-generated data by advertisers has sparked privacy and ownership concerns regarding large internet platforms. The idea of being surveilled all the time is uncomfortable, and many large corporations like Facebook have royalty-free and transferable licenses to your posts.
Similarly, many websites in the cannabis industry gain value from information submitted by consumers. As an example, the website Leafly provides over 1.3 million consumer product reviews that are often used for purchasing decisions. These reviews play a role in attracting more people to websites that operate with a similar system to Leafly, and in turn advertising space to reach those people is sold. According to their About page, more than 4.5 million orders for advertising space are placed with businesses on Leafly each year, generating annually about $460 million in gross merchandise value. So, the users work for free to attract an audience to these websites for the advertisers, and the websites make money from advertisers.
Can we empower users with ownership of their content, data and participation in profits?
Frustrated social media users exclaiming “We are the product!” does nothing to change our reality. It is unlikely we will change how big corporations like Facebook work, but can we ensure users receive some of the benefits in our own cannabis industry? Many of these websites, especially those for medicinal cannabis, are designed to genuinely help users. Can we further increase this feeling of having a transaction with the websites rather than feel like we are being sold to advertisers? The world of NFTs may offer some guidance.
While NFTs and cryptocurrencies are certainly not without controversy and flaws, an NFT-like system that provides users with proof of ownership for their data and grants them control over what is done with it may be the way of the future for websites in the cannabis industry. Just like Facebook, when it comes to sales, online display advertisements are some of the top revenue generators for websites in the cannabis industry that utilize user-generated content. With an NFT-like system, users could be granted a royalty for their content, which would obligate websites to give a portion of their profits to the users when their content is sold to an advertiser. Users may be able to have a portfolio of their generated content, have some control over who can access their content and who their personal data can be sold to.
Websites that are more focused on cannabis for medicinal use often pride themselves on being more patient-focused and professional – no pothead puns or crass logos. An NFT-like system might be especially beneficial for these companies, as it would further increase the emphasis of trust and respect for users. In this case, an NFT-like system could be used to assign ownership of reviews to individual website users. Since these reviews attract new people to these websites, when access to a user’s data is sold to advertisement companies, then a portion of that revenue is given to the people who created the reviews. The estimated amount of revenue that reviewers help to bring into the company can be calculated and distributed accordingly. While this may seem like it would cause a significant loss of revenue for the websites, the increased trust that would come with this system would likely promote more users, generating an overall increase in revenue and credibility. Users could become more engaged and spend more time writing reviews, increasing web traffic considerably. Advertisers would be more attracted to the larger audience and the prestige of having their advertisement on a well-respected site.
An NFT-like system could hold large internet corporations accountable.
The new normal is corporations on the internet making money from the content created by users. In return, users receive none of the monetary benefits and have their personal information shared with hundreds of businesses. An NFT-like system, although theoretical, may be able to empower users to hold large corporations accountable for what is done with user-generated data. It is unlikely we can change big companies like Facebook, but if adopted early, this may be plausible in our cannabis industry. This in turn may not only give more ownership to the website users, but could also benefit the websites, and the advertisers. Overall, the product should be the website and the services it provides. An NFT-like system might help promote this and could make users who generate value for the website partners in business.
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.
Regardless of their size, all consumer package brands spend a significant amount of money and resources on packaging to attract consumers’ attention. We are all very visually oriented and gravitate to items that pique our interests. Cannabis brands are no exception when it comes to branding their products. Packaging plays a big part in carrying their brand forward and standing out on the dispensary shelves. When I was in Las Vegas at a CBD tradeshow in early 2020, I visited a dispensary, and it was beautiful. I remember commenting to a colleague that was with me how spectacular the product packaging was in the glass cases. One had unique artwork on each different product they offered, and it was indeed art. Yes, I did purchase this one that pulled me in.
The cannabis industry in the United States presents a challenge to brands because there is no overall federal guidance for packaging. Each state is controlling the cannabis legislation and, with it, the packaging guidelines. So multi-state operators (MSOs) have to manage each state as a separate entity and abide by the packaging regulations, which is not very efficient and adds a cost burden. As the industry matures and becomes federally legal across the country, packaging regulations will be easier to implement.
Let’s take a look at counterfeit products across all product categories. There is a significant global problem with counterfeits, as articulated by the below statistics.
Fake luxury merchandise accounts for 60% to 70% of that amount, ahead of pharmaceuticals, entertainment products and representing perhaps a quarter of the estimated $1.2 trillion total trade in luxury goods.
Customs and Border Patrol confiscated $1.3 billion worth of counterfeit goods in the U.S. for Fiscal Year 2020. (The value of 2020’s seizures are actually down compared to the $1.5 billion worth of counterfeit goods seized by CBP in 2019).
Unfortunately, the figures above are concerning, and the cannabis industry will face the same counterfeit issues that will add to these stats in the future. What can be done to help fight the problem and alleviate the pain for cannabis brands? Smart technology.
The trend towards “smart technology” varies by sector, but the underlying concept involves building levels of technology systems designed to impede or limit the highly sophisticated counterfeiter from replicating or replacing products. These levels typically include a forensic level control on the product, digital systems to track the material and customer facing systems to articulate the underlying value to the consumer.
Building these levels of smart technology into cannabis-products and packaging allows consumers to authenticate real versus fake, and in the case often in cannabis, legal versus illegal. Molecular technology is one forensic level of control option that can be used as a unique identifier for product authentication. Each brand would get its unique identifier to apply to the raw materials that make up its product, such as oil or an isolate. Then a sample can be tested at the origin point and subsequent nodes in the supply chain using a remote testing device. All the digital data is captured in a secure cloud database for traceability and transparency to the end consumer, to show them the authenticity of the product they are consuming. The same molecular technology can be applied to the ink or varnish for packaging and labels. A great application to help combat counterfeits and product diversion across the globe.
Another engaging platform is called StrainSecure by TruTrace Technologies. Their SAAS platform allows cannabis manufacturers to track all their product batches and SKUs tied to a blockchain. It also facilitates the interaction between the manufacturer and third-party testing facilities to conduct product testing and reporting. The data is captured within the platform, and with easy access dashboard views, it provides the insights to authenticate products at any time.
A company out of Australia called Laava is producing a product called Smart Fingerprints. It’s the next evolution of QR codes. The Smart Fingerprints can be applied to each package, providing a unique identifier that consumers can read with a mobile phone application. The consumer is provided with information concerning the product’s authenticity and any additional information the brand wants to share with the user. Smart Fingerprints are a great example of customer engagement at the point of activity that is secure.
The above three solutions show the availability of advanced technologies the cannabis industry can implement on its packaging and products to ensure authentic and safe products are sold to consumers. It provides consumers with vital information and insights about products so they can make informed buying decisions. There is no one silver bullet solution that provides all the answers. As with every high value product, counterfeiters will work to create near duplicate versions of the original until it becomes unsustainable to do so. It will take a technology ecosystem to seamlessly connect and provide actuate and timely information between supply chain partners and ultimately the end consumer. As the US works to separate the legal from illegal production for both the adult use and medical supply of cannabis, the looming challenge will be on protecting and communicating authenticity, packaging will be the first step in this.
Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold is the founder of MedPayRx, a blockchained ecosystem that does not use utility tokens, and that is currently going to pilot in Europe designed to eliminate such risks.
As reported here in Cannabis Industry Journallast year in a three part series, there are considerable dangers of utilizing blockchain in the cannabis industry (as well as other industry sectors) that directly affect all commercial operators as well as consumers of both the recreational and medical kind. These remain largely unsolved.
These include regulatory and compliance issues in every direction, starting with banking and securities law, but also include privacy and consumer protections. They also fly in the face of regulations imposed by governments to control inflation, set prices for medications and food, and prevent monopolies.
Beyond that, they also pose considerable if so far unexamined liabilities for businesses operating in this space (including uncontrollable volatility in basic business operations) that very much impact the basic cost of doing business.As of the beginning of this year, however, the situation is back in the news.
The Skinny On Paragon As of November last year, the company was sanctioned by the SEC in a precedent setting case on the issue of whether “utility tokens” are securities or not. In fact, the SEC found that Paragon illegally marketed and distributed digital securities under the false pretension that they were not securities. Paragon, in turn, reached a settlement with the SEC that it would return any funds received by investors prior to October 15, 2017 and pay a fine to the SEC.
As of the beginning of this year, however, the situation is back in the news. Because of the settlement agreement, it appears that a pump and dump group operating through the exchange YoBit managed to raise the token briefly from about $.10 a token to $10 in an effort to raise the cost of compensation from Paragon. This absurd rally was completely unsustainable, and as a result, fell back to $0.3 per token (albeit tripled the price of the token). But the fact that it happened at all is illustrative of the extreme risk now faced by the industry itself from this kind of tech and financial model.
Why? It means that all users (token holders) of such an ecosystem and for any purpose, would be directly exposed to such risks in the future. And on literally an hour-by-hour basis.
Utility tokens in other words, as defined by all such models (and Paragon is far from the only one), are used not only for investment in such businesses, but then bought downstream, via exchanges, by people who wish to transact in the network itself. And that is the real danger to businesses themselves by adopting such models.
Problem 1 – Utility Tokens Are Securities
The biggest issue at the heart of this conversation is this: Tokens are recognized now as securities, and further still operating in a world where pump and dump on the exchanges is a major liability for all who buy the tokens for any purpose. This means for example, that anyone who must buy a system cybercoin to transact within a blockchained ecosystem (from consumer to business manager overseeing international distribution of their product from the commercial end) would face unprecedented volatility that does not exist by using regulated currencies. Good old dollars and euros for example do not pose this kind of existential risk to businesses themselves.
In the Paragon case directly, for example, owning Paragon crypto means that monthly rent at the incubator would fluctuate in cost based on the unregulated cost of the coin, not a prenegotiated rental agreement in regular currency for space (which is far less volatile). In the current environment, such space just tripled in price.
Beyond that, no consumer in California, for example, would want to have to face the added cost of buying a hyped token (at artificially raised prices) before they can access the newest, coolest strain of bud.
Such systems in other words, are NOT just a fancy form of a digital payment solution (like Paypal). What they do dramatically increases the risk of price volatility in all business operations (also called “cost of goods sold” or COG), andto the end user while also directly exposing all to such risk at every point of production, processing and sales.
Why?Latency issues are also a major issue.
Because the cost of conducting normal, basic business operations would be directly exposed to speculating investors. Even local businesses, in other words, would be completely vulnerable to not just the fluctuations domestically or even internationally caused by doing business in multiple jurisdictions and traditional currency risk, but have direct and unprecedented exposure to a much less regulated and far more volatile price environment globally. And further one that affects literally the entire manufacturing and distribution process.
Problem 2 – Network Congestion
Latency issues are also a major issue. This is a bit more technical and complicated, but is one of the bigger reasons why most blockchain technology and solutions are still incapable of dealing with commercial industry requirements. Much less keep regulated industries in any space, in compliance.
Here is one way to think of the problem. If you have many users on a blockchain network all at once, speed of transaction goes way down and associated costs go way up.
The tokenized asset in other words, has to compete not only with people buying the token as an investment, but those using them to buy goods and services on the commercial side AND the industry processing taking place behind the scenes to fulfil and track product. This has been easy to see with Bitcoin in particular, but is not limited to the same.
Further, prioritization on a network itself (and the costs involved to overcome them, also paid in tokens) then unfairly creates a monopoly environment because of the added costs involved to speed up otherwise normally processed and critical operations. The biggest boys on the block(chain) win. Always. That is antithetical to anti-trust law.
Problem 4 – Undermining Basic Government Regulations On Cost Of Purchase
Here is the biggest conundrum, particularly facing the international cannabis industry now in the process of exporting across international borders. Governments (particularly in Europe) routinely set prices on medicine (in particular), for large contractual purchases and to insure the continued survival of public healthcare (which in Europe and the UK covers most people). See the German cultivation bid for cannabis as a prime example. The government is forcing the industry to submit prices via competitive bid that are expected to come in somewhere between 1-1.5 euro per gram. This in turn will affect not only domestically grown but imported cannabis – and from all points on the globe as the industry opens up.
That process is impossible in an environment where the cost of production itself would be (in a price volatile blockchained delivery system) inherently unpredictable and unstable because the price of production and distribution is itself a speculated upon commodity that can vary, literally, at the speed of a pump and dumped token, sold on any unregulated exchange, anywhere in the world. And as a result, is also illegal.
Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold has just raised the first funds for her blockchain-based company, MedPayRx in Germany (and via traditional investment funding, not an ICO). She will also be speaking about the impact of blockchain on the cannabis industry in Berlin in April at the International Cannabis Business Conference.
Part I of this series was an overview discussion of blockchain, cryptocurrencies and cannabis and Part II dove into some of the pitfalls of ICOs in the cannabis space. This is the third and final piece of this series.
Beyond raising money or tying a tradable altcoin to cannaproduct, there are many places where blockchain technology can (and will) be used to great effect in the cannabis industry.
In fact, ICOs and cryptocurrency are only part of the blockchain discussion for the cannabis industry. In general, the technology will disrupt the vertical just like it is upending other businesses right now. However, for the moment at least, it will prove most useful in the most complicated and challenging technical and regulatory areas – supply chain product tracking being the lowest hanging fruit (which is still fairly high off the ground for a number of reasons). If evaluating blockchain tech is too onerous (which it usually is for the average investor or even senior cannabis exec), there are other options. Look for innovative mobile DApps (distributed apps that use blockchain for a specific purpose) and smart business cases.
The fascinating reality is that where there are service models that can be adapted to regulatory guidelines, blockchain promises, in fact, to remove the red tape and paperwork holding the industry back internationally. The impact on research and testing will also be huge.The rules are certainly changing with regards to public companies and cannabis.
The technology, or even the regulations, in other words, is not necessarily all to blame for the many issues budding blockchain entrepreneurs currently face. This space-age techie stuff, no matter how mind-blowing, is still “just” a tool. As the late Peter Drucker famously said, the raison d’etre of every successful business is one that solves a critical need for their customer. Find one for the industry that happens to use the technology, and you might just retire early. But there is a lot of road between that reality and now. And there probably will not be an ICO on that path. Not in most jurisdictions, and certainly not without complications in every one of them.
With an internationally stock-listed Canadian cannabis business now developing, the rules are certainly changing with regards to public companies and cannabis. For all the press that Cronos recently received for getting listed on the NASDAQ, AbCann got (relatively quietly) listed in Frankfurt last summer. Canopy and Aurora have also just become two of the hottest stocks in Sweden.
That said, these are public companies with regular stock issuances. What that means for ICO issuances related to the cannabis industry in Canada specifically is anyone’s guess at the moment. In Germany presently, this is mine-strewn territory. But even here, that will be driven as much if not more by banking law than canna-reform, just like everywhere else.
Not to mention this of course: Given the choice of investing in a public cannabis company already in business with its stock conveniently listed and purchasable via a regular exchange, what would most people choose? It’s just a whole lot easier than taking a flier on a cannabis-themed ICO offering for a concept that may be a great idea, but will never materialize. Or find a bank. Even in Europe or Canada.
The End Game Is Rosy Even If The Path Is Unclear
Despite all the caveats, the impact on the cannabis industry of this technology will be large – far beyond finance in other words – and in ways that are not necessarily all understood even now. The potential impacts on research, compliance and even further reform, however, are already clear. And for the most part, potentially very positive.
For that reason, there is no such thing as a blanket “yes” or “no” at any part of this discussion. Regulatory environments regarding both cannabis and blockchain are changing everywhere. Go slow and with caution is the watchword of the day. Look for interesting beta projects and track them.This is a rapidly changing territory in every direction.
Mentioning cannabis and blockchain if not cryptocurrency in the same breath is also legit, now. As little as 2 years ago, the idea or any combination of the two terms in fact, for whatever reason, was widely dismissed as just another iteration of Silk Road.
When combining this technology and cannabis, in other words, expect either amazing results or fantastic explosions that create a lot of heat and noise but go nowhere. There is more room, in other words, for a cannabis.io to become the industry’s NextGen Pets.com than Google or Facebook. That said, there are experiments going on now, in several countries where the banking and insurance questions are being addressed early (Germany, Canada, Australia and Israel all being such locales) where such issues have begun to be addressed up front.
In summary? Stay tuned and watch this space. This is a rapidly changing territory in every direction.
Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold has just raised the first funds for her blockchain-based company, MedPayRx in Germany (and via traditional investment funding, not an ICO). She will also be speaking about the impact of blockchain on the cannabis industry in Berlin in April at the International Cannabis Business Conference.
To read the first part of this series, click here. The Paragon class action lawsuit is likely to shake up two industries – the cannabis world, which has been following this situation at least in the industry press since the company began to raise money – and the ICO space in general. Why? Just the combination of the two topics is a guaranteed conversation starter. In addition, given the focus on whether tokens are securities or not (or whether so-called “utility tokens” are as well, depending on how they are used and sold) far beyond cannabis, this case may well begin to set precedent on the entire subject. Even more worrying for Paragon in particular right now, beyond the federal government, coordinated efforts are underway by both law firms and consumer groups to recruit aggrieved investors as suit plaintiffs. Beyond the United States and far from the Paragon case specifically, banks in Europe have begun to set guidelines on cryptocurrency and ICOs too. It is not routinely hostile everywhere (see Switzerland if not many Asian countries). But the map is now being defined.
The dilemma that Paragon is now facing is also something that has been coming for some time both for the company and others like them – and from both the cannabis investment and crypto coin directions. Digitally astute cannapreneurs take note: Do you really want your dream business used to define precedent as a defendant in a class action? Or targeted by the new SEC cyber unit whose job is to regulate ICOs (and probably “crowd sales” too?). That regulatory glare is coming everywhere. And soon. Globally.In the world of cannabis, in particular, it is also very important to be careful.
If issuing tokens, particularly if you sell them to raise money – no matter what that money will be used for – realize what you are doing. Even if you state to the world that these are not “investment” vehicles” but “utility” tokens. If you sell them, they are by definition, even if not federally litigated and defined yet in the United States, a contract for future worth, services or other benefit. An IOU in other words. As such they are also derivative securities, which is why the regulatory agencies, barely 10 years out of the last global financial meltdown, are now starting to see parallels. So much so, in fact, that SEC Chair Jay Clayton warned in January that any attorneys who are involved in ICOs might be in breach of professional obligations. Other jurisdictions are following suit.
In the world of cannabis, in particular, it is also very important to be careful. Selling (soon to be federally if not internationally regulated) tokens or securities in general for that matter for certain services or products that can be illegal in some jurisdictions is also a space that cannapreneurs are going to find challenging. See the banking problems of the entire U.S. cannabis industry. Same issue.
This is also going to get even more complicated very soon. Particularly in a world of shifting regs and when it comes to “brand creation.” Right now, for example, a crowdfund or ICO (the terms can be used interchangeably, token issue or not) for a “global cannabis lifestyle brand” promoted and sold online is highly problematic just about everywhere. Why? You cannot transport cannabis across state lines in the U.S. Americans and Israelis also still cannot export anywhere. You also cannot sell what is considered “medical” marijuana to a European regulator if it is not GMP certified. It is, according to local definition, most certainly not “medical”. You may also not distribute cannabis online in countries like Germany. And of course, cannabis itself is still federally illegal in many places, including the United States. Issuing a token or security with the intent of engaging in such practices is ill advised at this juncture. No matter what it is labelled.
Those are also situations where investors could legitimately also sue the ICO or crowd sale holder for breach of securities laws or outright fraud.
Beyond the world of banking law, users face other quagmires, depending on your situation and how you use and issue tokens. Or you certainly will in the emerging future. If you use tokens in situations where members “vote” you may also run into other problems. Like civil liberties issues. Poll taxes (where you force people to pay before access to voting or weigh the impact of their votes on financial contributions) is illegal in many jurisdictions and even more specifically certain use cases that may not always be initially obvious. How that plays out in blockchained ecosystems is a discussion of the future, but it is coming. Along with other labour and regulatory issues surrounding the use of “smart contracts.” Which are also known as “utility tokens.” See, it gets confusing. And fast.
In the cannabis space, liabilities sprout more quickly than even the fastest growing strain.As a result, the first major issue that any cannabis business considering a token generation event (or TGE) will face, no matter whether it is state or federally legit in said jurisdiction, has nothing to do with cannabis but rather rather cryptocurrencies and ICOs – and for right now federal if not international financial law – but look for that to also change as the space develops.
For the present, in most places, token issues where monetary value is assigned or implied are considered securities or even defined outright as currency. Or they will be soon. This means that if you are issuing a new coin for any purpose that you intend to sell for any purpose, including an ICO, especially one that will supposedly be used to pay for goods or services, or even to “assetize” the token to give it a market value (the value of the asset it is assigned), you are now in the federal end of the swimming pool. And federal if not international law is not for novices or sissies much less non-lawyers when it comes to crypto coin. There are great white sharks everywhere in this often-strange digital ocean. That is even before you get to cannabis.
In the cannabis space, liabilities sprout more quickly than even the fastest growing strain.
This is also easy to illustrate – even beyond the concept of an ICO. Say you are a cannabis producer in Colorado – where much of the legal cannabis industry we know today was born. You are in business, have a license and even own your grow space and the acres of real estate that it sits on. But you also want to access additional capital (including that of the international kind) and are, as an aside, overwhelmed by the demands of your cash business. You meet an energetic young blockchain geek who says she can sign you up to her service that will create your white paper, website and even hook you up to one of the several “insta-mint” crypto coin services now available for several thousand dollars (don’t forget lawyer’s fees), plus hiring a good PR firm to manage the ICO process.
You issue your own coins and literally mint them for the sole purpose of assigning each coin to every dried gram of your product that you produce to test the market before potentially holding an ICO. You then “sell” this bud (at wholesale prices) to a dispensary with a wallet that will accept your coin via a smart contract that only releases the funds when the right amount and quality of product is delivered to the dispensary. As a clever marketing technique, you also agree with the recreational dispensary you are working with (who happens to be in Aspen) that you both will also now offer jointly issued coins, at a higher retail price, to any tourist with a medical card or any age-appropriate recreational user who has the ID to prove it, to “pre-buy” their cannabis on the way to après ski and have it delivered, no questions asked, at the hot tub. You advertise the service with a cannabis-friendly ski package operator and travel agent, and voila – customer base is assured. If you have any celebrity friends who are willing to promote it, even better. And why not, while you are at it, do some LinkedIn outreach.
No cash needed either. ID verification happens with coin purchase.
Easy, right? So many headaches solved with one coin to rule them all. Banking issues evaporate along with a lot of work for accountants at both ends of the conversation. And the price of the coin you issue cannot be illegally pumped and dumped because the “price” is set by the state or federal market and/or supply and demand and/or another kind of asset (like a piece of real estate designed to be a startup incubator space for which people also pay entrance fees in your tokens, to enter and use). Then you can offer these “coins” for sale, at those market prices, set by the dried bud you are growing, to anyone, anywhere, to invest in too. Right?
No ICO, even. No problem. After all, you say they aren’t securities but “utility tokens.”
By definition, such activity is illegal in the United States if it has anything to do with the plant for the same reasons the U.S. industry remains a mostly cash-only business. There are several U.S. start-ups trying to construct “legal” payment gateways for the industry right now in the lower 48 plus 2 (see CanPay in Hawaii) and some creative efforts in Europe. However, all of those depend on the willingness of a banking institution on the other end to allow that to happen. See Uruguay if you still remain optimistic about any American efforts right now. Not to mention the newly awoken willingness of the federal DOJ to prosecute for money laundering in a post-Cole-memo world. And that includes you too, California.
But this is an issue that is not just limited to the United States.
In other places, like Canada, Australia, Israel and the Eurozone, legitimate cannabis businesses have bank accounts. And banks are absolutely involved in both the blockchain and crypto space – see Ripple. As a simplified payment gateway, the technology is imminently useful, if still forming. But banking authorities are so concerned about ICOs that they are moving, quietly, to implement policies against them even as they are still accepting cyber currency (in limited ways and via strictly controlled channels).
Most dangerous of all to the budding crypto cannapreneur is Germany – home of legal, public health insurance covering medical cannabis. Banking regulators in Frankfurt, in particular, have taken a dim view of even just regular old crowdfunding. Add a token into the mix and the Germans are even less amused. The persistent rumor in the Fintech community in Frankfurt this March is that German banking authorities are refusing to accept any funds raised during an ICO anywhere. Verboten for any purpose. Why? Even if they know who you are, and all of your investors meet their KYC requirements, they do not know the source of the cyber currency coming from those investors. No dice. And KYC in this instance does not refer to a new brand of cannabis-flavored lubricant. It is a term that means, in the most comprehensive understanding of how it must be used, not only “know your customer” but being able to verify all points of data on a chain. Including the coin issuer, purchase conditions, currency used to purchase the same and “chain of title” downstream. If you are confused by this already, you should not be engaged in an ICO right now.Not all of these models or even the ICOs that use them are scams.
Add cannabis to this recipe, and every bank in Germany, even the one at the moment who is still more or less openly participating in ICOs, if not the rest of the European financial community, will probably walk. Even if you reach your “hard cap” (the maximum amount you hope to raise) that might be in the tens if not hundreds of millions of euros. In that case, it will probably be even harder to find a bank to accept your business. Worse, you may never raise the amount you hope for. At that point, you cannot go back to traditional venture capitalists – or anyone else – for more money. You are done. You must start over from scratch. If there was an asset of any kind involved (including a license to do business) legally, everyone who holds a coin owns a piece of it. See securities law. This is precisely why you can never raise money again against that asset or with the corporate entity that owns it. Or at least not without a lot of legal fees or begging your peeved investors for more money. Legally, at that point, they could require you to sell all assets associated with the corporate entity holding the ICO. And they probably would. For investors that is the best-case scenario. ICOs for concepts with no assets or strategic partnerships in place at the time of the “token sale,” create many lose-all scenarios for investors.
There are many pitfalls to this world – and not just from the cannabis side.Issuing a “token” that someone has to pay for that acts like cash (even if to buy goods and services in the future from other members of the ecosystem and social community that crypto coins create) that also is vulnerable to market pricing, is another quagmire. In fact, it might be, beyond any techno or financial queasiness about blockchain, the biggest reason that this industry should look, and with considerable caution, at all tokenized and ICO models that also premise their worth on the idea that such coins will inevitably increase in worth over time. There is also anti-cartel, monopoly and market discrimination to consider.
Not all of these models or even the ICOs that use them are scams. There are and will be valuable alt currencies and tokens in the future (even without a cash value assigned). All of the top start-ups in the current ICO space, in fact, are finding unique ways to create a real alternative currency with values attached that are indisputable. And not all of them will succeed.
However, that is not true of the cannabis business at this juncture. The plant, much like cryptocurrency and beyond that, blockchain itself, has not reached mainstream status yet – starting with market economics and regulation that is already international. A pot-based coin, no matter where it is issued and by whom (including a federal government), would run into multiple issues with valuation just because the price of cannabis itself right now is so volatile, not to mention unevenly priced thanks to jurisdictional restrictions and barriers. For that reason, there is no way to issue a “cannabis coin” with global relevance, much less global value.
And that, of course, is beyond the issue of subsequently selling those coins on exchanges that have been repeatedly hacked, fail to give customers access to their accounts, or are, in the case of China, banned outright (which also deemed ICOs illegal last September).
There are many pitfalls to this world – and not just from the cannabis side. Part III of this series will look at some of the biggest opportunities when cannabis integrates with the DLT (distributed ledger technology).
Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold has just raised the first funds for her blockchain-based company, MedPayRx in Germany (and via traditional investment funding, not an ICO). She will also be speaking about the impact of blockchain on the cannabis industry in Berlin in April at the International Cannabis Business Conference.
You have probably heard of cryptocurrencies, tokens and smart contracts. You might have also heard, even if you did not understand the significance, that IBM recently suggested that the Canadian government use their form of blockchain, called Hyperledger, to track the recreational cannabusiness. Or that a large LP called Aurora is also looking at this space (as are other licensed producers large and small). Or maybe you have seen an item in the mainstream news about an ICO for a cannabis company that is now also going terribly wrong.
What on earth is going on?
These are all related issues, even if highly confusing and disjointed. Blockchain technology and cryptocurrency are hot right now and getting hotter – both in the mainstream world and in the cannabis industry globally. But for all its fans, the drumbeat for caution is also growing louder the more mainstream this technology (and the legitimate cannabis industry) becomes.
The many problems the entire cannabis vertical has with banking has make this current development almost inevitableOn the technology and finance side, that is why so many big names right now are urging caution. Nouriel Roubini, professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, is just the latest to do so – and for reasons that everything to do with history. Including recent history ten years ago, when the world stood on the brink of a financial disaster thanks to unchained derivatives. The biggest worry in fact, right now, is about the financial implications of widespread adoption of the technology, beyond the tech itself and how it may (and may not) be legitimately used. Which itself is a huge question.
So why all the fuss?
This is revolutionary technology which is also being introduced into the market at a time when decentralized processing for automation is on the horizon. But also because blockchain can be used to create tokens or digital coins that act like financial instruments. And once created, such tokens can be issued much like money or even stock, to raise additional funds – for both start-ups and ongoing enterprises. The best thing though? This technology was invented to create a decentralized form of value exchange and trust-less, anonymized auditing and verification. No traditional financial institutions or even governments needed, wanted or should apply (at least in theory).
The many problems the entire cannabis vertical has with banking has make this current development almost inevitable. Not to mention accessing investment cash (although this is certainly changing outside the United States). Compliance issues in every direction are another wrinkle this tech will help solve. Starting with tracking product but also rapidly expanding to uses including protecting users’ privacy and facilitating access to high-quality, inspected product for qualified users and buyers. Not to mention other areas that are literally space-age but coming fast. Look for cool stuff coming soon involving both AI (artificial intelligence) and IoT (internet of things).
It is a fascinating, complex space. However, one aspect of this world, in particular, Initial Coin Offerings – or ICOs are getting attention right now. Why? They can be an incredibly efficient way to raise money for companies – both ones currently in business and start-ups with little more than a whitepaper or business plan and perhaps a working prototype. More and more of the successful ICOs are, however, for an existing company or are even attached to an asset, including a license, a prototype or a fund of money (or other combinations). They also rely on blockchain and alternative currency or tokens (sometimes also referred to as smart contracts) to work.
From a technology perspective, you can “mint” new coins relatively easily these days, sourced from a variety of different kinds of blockchain. Or even combinations thereof. You also can issue tokens or altcoins without an ICO.
In a world where there is vastly expanding cannabis opportunity, and many of these hopeful entrepreneurs are both digitally astute but without access to traditional capital, what could be better?
From a financial and investor perspective, ICOs are a hybrid form of an IPO meets social media. “Coins,” “tokens” and “smart contracts” –or cyber currency collectively– are digital forms of cash, contracts, membership cards, discounts or even authorizations for identity. There are many ways tokens can be used, in other words. This by way of saying there are also important differences too. Not all tokens are the same. Not all are used as “money.” Some are but have assets assigned to them (like real estate). Others, particularly smart contract tokens, are strictly functional (pay funds when product is delivered and verified). The one caveat here is that the exchange of any token or altcoin will also cost money. Why? It is the electricity cost of computer processing the request for transfer. Plus access and service fees. There is no such thing as a “free” token. How tokens are priced, sold, bought, maintain value and for what purposes, is a debate if not process function that will not be solved anytime soon. Starting with the fact that some blockchains are more energy efficient (and sourced from green energy) than others.
To add to all of this confusion, not all ICOs function the same way. Some do give investors ownership in the company or specific portfolios that even include real-world assets. Others offer to use pooled funds to buy assets (like real estate or an expensive license). Many rely on the “coin” issued as a kind of discount scheme, reward mechanism and in many cases, direct discounted payment for future goods and services, of both the digital and real world kind. Many offer banking services directly, including in the very near future, the ability to exchange cyber cash for the fiat variety at even remote ATMs. Sound futuristic? It is coming and soon.
Most ICOs in the market now, however, rely on the following supposition: Issue a token with a unique name. Put up an ICO website. Encourage investors from anyplace on the planet with an internet connection, to use either crypto or fiat currency to buy tokens in the issuing startup as an investment that will give the new company funds to operate and build out services or the application (whatever that is). Also, plan to use the tokens for an exchange of some kind in the future (either for other coins or a good or service). Watch the value of the coin increase (for whatever reason) while informing investors (or contributors) that this is not really a security but a “utility” token that is expected but not guaranteed to become more valuable. Retire early with the prospect of having brokers of expensive real estate in places like London and Dubai come calling.The public tide of opinion, even if regulations are slow to move, is on the side of reform if not outright advocacy.
That will not be the case for the vast majority of ICOs, however, no matter what returns, goods or services they offer. Even if they also have vibrant communities already using their services (whatever those are). It will not be the case for most of the cryptocurrencies upon which such ICOs are based (most at the moment are based on Ethereum, NEO, Hyperledger or combinations of the three). There will be more of those too. And not every blockchain will make it (cryptocurrencies and tokens are based on an origin protocol or blockchain much like computer operating systems are either PC or Mac or mobile phones are Android or Apple). Some speak to one another well. Most do not “exchange” easily – even between themselves – let alone back into good old cash. And while nobody wants to be the Betamax of blockchain, there will, inevitably, be quite a few of them. When that happens, any economic value of the coins and even contractual relationships created with them disappear as well. Add in extreme price volatility in the current market pricing of these tokens, and you begin to get a sense of the risk profile involved in all of this.
The real hurdle, not to mention expense, comes when transferring back from the world of crypto to the one of fiat (regular money). Being a Bitcoin billionaire (there are about 1,000 individuals who own about 40% of the entire global Bitcoin issuance) is no fun if you have no place to spend it.
A Rapidly Changing Marketplace
In the past 18 months, cryptocurrency and ICOs have gotten increasing attention because of the increasing value of all kinds of cyber currency (far beyond Bitcoin). The total market cap for all forms of cryptocurrency itself zoomed past $700 billion at the turn of the year. That is impossible to ignore. You might have heard of some of these currencies too. There is ETH, Litecoin, Bitcoin Cash, Dash, even Dogecoin (created originally as a joke on an internet dog meme). Right now, in fact, at some of the most expansive exchanges, there are literally hundreds of these coins which are constantly bought and sold if not exchanged and used.
And then there are the sums ICOs are bringing in some cases, flagrantly flaunting regulatory agencies and doing end runs on the global banking system that cannot keep up with them. The top ICO of 2017, a company called Block.one and registered in the Cayman Islands, so far holds the record at $700 million and counting. Filecoin, the second largest ICO last year, raised $262 million in one month from August to September. And then, of course, there is the cannabis industry-specific case of Paragon – now headed for class-action lawsuit litigation over their $70 million pre-and ICO sale intentions.
It would be logical to assume, given the eye-watering sums potentially involved not to mention the large role a smart digital media footprint has to do with an ICO’s success, beyond its service or technology offerings, that this would be a perfect place for cannapreneurs to turn for funding. The global market is opening for cannabis reform at the same time the crypto craze meets Fintech Upheaval is occurring – in fact, these two things are happening almost simultaneously.
Thanks to regulatory realities and an ongoing stigma, there is still no institutional investment in the industry in the United States (that is rapidly changing other places). These are two new industries and dreams are large.
In the legit cannabis space, so are the expenses.
The price of opening a dispensary in most U.S. states tops a million dollars right now. In Europe, the price of entry is even more expensive. A GMP compliant grow facility in Western Europe, plus the money for lawyer’s fees and negotiations for the license itself will set you back anywhere from $20 million and up, depending on the location. Even staying afloat in the industry once the doors are opened is a challenge. And loans, even for outstanding invoices, are still tough to come by in an industry where banking services of the simple business account kind are a challenge. Particularly in the United States.
The public tide of opinion, even if regulations are slow to move, is on the side of reform if not outright advocacy. Why shouldn’t a reform-group-rooted ICO aspire to own or provide ongoing business financing to a community-minded canna farm in California, Canada, Germany, Israel or Australia? Or even Greece?
However, right now, with some noted exceptions, the cannabis business remains at minimum, a dangerous place to consider issuing altcoins that act like financial instruments or raise money with them. Why and how?
Munich, Germany- In a darkened movie studio on the east end of town, the Digital Insurance Agenda or DIA, the largest insurtech conference in the world, kicked off its annual event in mid-November. The sold-out event attracted about 1,000 top insurance executives from 40 countries and all six continents.
CannabisIndustryJournal attended from the perspective of investigating the overall status of digitalization in the industry. However, there were a couple of things we were on the hunt for. The first was to see how and where blockchain has begun to penetrate the industry. This revolutionary processing and identification layer of digital communications is coming – and fast – to the insurance industry everywhere.
We were also there of course to see if cannabis was anywhere on the agenda. Digitized or not.
By way of disclosure, I am also a high tech entrepreneur with my own insurtech, blockchain-based start-up that we are in the process of launching. MedPayRx is intended to be the first insurance product that will help patients access their meds facing nothing but their co-pay and help insurers automate the approvals process for all prescription drugs and medical devices.
By definition, in Germany, this includes medical cannabis.
Ultimately, our mission is to take the paper and the pain of all reimbursement out of the prescription process. At present, as anyone with a chronic condition knows, many medications and medical devices must be paid for out of pocket first and then reimbursed via a claims process that is paper-based, laborious and expensive. This is not a model that works for anyone. Certainly not poor and chronically ill patients who face this process at least monthly. And certainly not insurers who are now facing higher drug costs if not more claims reimbursements for the same from an aging population.
In a country like Germany where 90% of the population is covered by public health insurance, the situation also poses quandaries of a kind that are rocking the fundamental concept of inclusive public healthcare.
The Impact of Digitalization On The Insurance Industry
As one insurance executive and speaker mentioned from the stage during DIA, there are few industries that are more universally despised than insurance in general. And few verticals where the existing mantra is “you cannot do it worse.” The insurance industry is well aware of that. Further, for all insurances that are not “mandatory” the competition is fierce for consumers’ bucks. Particularly in places like Europe where insurance is also seen as a kind of savings scheme.
If you are a private insurer, of any kind, or offering services to both end consumers and B2B services, you are out of the game if you are not now thinking how to streamline and upgrade all aspects of your business in the digital era. There are many start-ups now tackling what is euphemistically called “cloud2cloud” integrations.
What does that mean?
According to DIA co-founders Reggy de Feniks and Roger Peverelli, the influence of tech in general is here to stay and is now driving widespread innovation across the industry. “The DIA line-up and the massive response among the audience show that insurtech is now mainstream,” says de Feniks. “This edition clearly showed the…ever growing attention for artificial intelligence, machine learning and other shapes of advanced analytics.”
“Platform thinking, thinking beyond insurance and creating new insurtech enabled services will be the next challenge for insurers,” added Peverelli.
Subtext? Insurers want your data. They want to use tech to analyse and understand it. The technology is here. But is the regulation? Specifically, in an industry that wants to know everything about you, how is privacy understood and implemented with revolutionary tech?
A Cloud-Based Future
Paper is rapidly becoming an old-fashioned concept in insurance, much like it has in banking. And like banking, insurance has a strong “financial” side to it. Germans, for example, tend to use insurance policies as retirement accounts, (the idea of a 401K is almost unheard of here). And by far, the most dynamic and digitalized part of the industry tends to be in areas unrelated to healthcare.
Some of the most interesting start-ups at DIA were actually weather-based.
The challenges of these types of insurtechs of convincing both regulators and the industry that such services are not only feasible but needed, pale in comparison however, to the challenge now facing all public health insurers.
And while they were certainly present at DIA, this industry segment was underrepresented at the November gathering. There is a reason for this. The real threat to consumer medical privacy is only growing, not receding in an era where data can be seamlessly transferred globally and digitally.
For that reason, blockchain has many uses and applications in this part of the vertical.
MedPayRx – even as a pre-seed start-up, was not, even this year, the only blockchain-based service we found in attendance at DIA. Next year look for even more.
Blockchain might be the next new “buzzy” tech, but in the insurance industry, there is a real reason for it.
What Was The Response To A Cannabis-Themed “Insurtech?”
As readers in the United States know, health insurance and cannabis is a loaded subject. And while insurance services are beginning to be available as high-risk commercial services for the industry, inclusive health insurance is still off the table because of the lack of federal reform.
Other places, however, the issue is taking a fascinating turn. And in Germany, right now, the situation so far has shaped up to be cannabis vs. public health insurance. It is a mainstreaming trial drug in other words. For that reason, beyond any lingering but rapidly fading stigma, it is a fertile time to be in the middle of it, with a tech solution.
It is also perfect timing from the digitalization and privacy perspective. Unlike the U.S., Germany in particular has tended to keep its insurance services, certainly on the health front, undigitalized because of privacy concerns. That is no longer feasible from a cost perspective. It is also increasingly one that has to be dealt with from a tech and regulatory one.
Why Is CannabisIndustryJournal At DIA?
My nametag identifying me as both “media” and of a certain green source, was the source of endless discussion with everyone I talked to. Many attendees were extremely curious about why a cannabis industry publication was at an insurance conference. And most people, certainly the non-Germans in attendance, were unaware that per federal law, cannabis is now, at least in theory, covered by public health insurance here.
Medical insurance that treats cannabis just like “any other drug” is a discussion at the forefront of the medical community in Europe. Even if not at health insurance industry events like DIA. Yet. In the last year, in fact, Dutch insurers have started refusing to cover the drug as the German government moved forward on mandating coverage.
In other places, like Australia, Israel and Canada, the conversation is also proceeding, albeit slowly within the context of public health coverage.
However compliance and tracking of the drug itself, not to mention the need for research on how cannabis interacts with other drugs mandates a consideration of how digital health records, privacy and tracking can exist in the same conversation. And further, can be accessed by the insurance industry, the government and policy makers as reform moves into its 2.0 iteration – namely federal recognition of the drug as a legitimate medicine.
We at MedPayRx think we have one answer. And next year, we hope to present from the stage as we continue to move forward with engaging the insurance industry here on all such fronts. Not to mention helping move the conversation forward in other places. And of course, launching services.
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