As more states legalize the use of cannabis for both medicinal and adult use, the market is growing exponentially. For growers and dispensaries, that means bringing their ‘A’ game when it comes to marketing their cannabis products – and that includes labels.
Not only do your cannabis labels need to be compliant with regulations, but you also need to make sure they stand out from the competitors. However, while creating a label seems like it should be easy, it can be a challenge to navigate the complex and murky legal landscape.
But don’t worry, we’ve got your back! Let’s take a look at the key federal regulations you need to be aware of, what NOT to put on cannabis labels and expert advice to help you find the perfect label material for your brand. Let’s get started.
Cannabis Labeling Requirements: What You Need to Know
As of now, cannabis has not been ruled legal in all 50 states. However, states where cannabis is legalized determine their own set of rules and guidelines. These legislative guidelines are constantly being updated and revised for the labeling and packaging of cannabis products, so staying compliant can be challenging for dispensaries and manufacturers.
Since packaging laws vary by state, it’s important to follow general federal regulations for your product, as well as check your state for cannabis-specific label requirements.
At the very least, you should understand and follow cannabis labeling regulations in accordance with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act (FDCA). Let’s dive right into the basic elements that FDCA requires when labeling cannabis products.
Name and Location of Business: It is critical to always include the name and location of your business on both the inner and outer information panel. In doing so, customers always have a way to contact you for any questions. If you are worried about taking up too much space, a QR code is a great way to offer additional information.
Product Identity: Is your product meant to be used for adult or medicinal use? You must include what your cannabis product is or does on the Product Display Panel (PDP) so it’s easy for customers to locate.
Net Quantity of Contents: Net quantity refers to the total weight or volume of a finished product (excluding packaging) and is federally mandated on labels. For packaged liquid cannabis products, net quantity should be labeled in fluid measure. Meanwhile, packaged solid, semi-solid and viscous cannabis products should be labeled in dry weight.
Warning Statements: Since cannabis is still listed as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance, it’s recommended to include warning statements for the specific product types. For example, the warning statement should stay “for medical use only” for all medical cannabis products.
List of Ingredients: You must include a complete declaration of all ingredients in your cannabis product. This must be listed on the informational panel on the outer packaging. If there is no outer packaging, then it must be placed on the product package itself.
Disclosure of Critical Facts: In general, this includes critical information that customers would want to know when buying your product. This can include:
Suggested use for the product
What NOT To Put On a Cannabis Label
Proper cannabis labeling can ensure you remain compliant with regulations and legal requirements. Without compliance, you won’t be able to sell your products and could lead to a hefty fine – and nobody wants that! Here are the things you should stay away from adding to your label:
Unapproved Health Claims: As of now, both federal law and state laws do not recognize cannabis as a dietary supplement or substance that can help prevent, cure or treat serious diseases. For that reason, your safest bet is to stay away from making any false health claims on labels and websites.
Obscured Fonts: Text and font issues can muddle the look of your cannabis label and land you into compliance issues. Most states require cannabis labels to have a font and text size that is prominent, clear and easy to read for information panels. Therefore, it is critical to find typography that showcases your brand while maintaining compliance with federal and state regulations.
Faulty Ingredient List: Cannabis labels must accurately include the types of compounds present, it’s percentage and dosage found in the product. Plus, it is required that all cannabis products include cannabinoid profiles and provide a list of any active ingredients.
Considerations for Labeling Materials
To cut through the noise in a highly competitive retail environment, it’s critical to carefully consider the label materials for your cannabis product. Here are some things to consider.
Label Material Choice: Polypropylene or Paper
Take into account what your cannabis product is (tincture, gummies, etc.) when choosing your label material. For example, if it’s a liquid cannabis product, your label can come into contact with the liquid itself, causing damage and risk the label falling off over time. For that reason, the polypropylene label would be the better choice because it’s waterproof, oil-resistant and offers more durability. On the other hand, if your cannabis product does not require a lot of protection and you are looking for a more affordable option, then paper labels would be the better option.
Coating Choice: Matte or Glossy
Choosing between matte or glossy finish depends on your preferred brand aesthetic. If you are looking to dazzle some customers and have a vibrant design on your cannabis label, then it’s best to choose a glossy finish because it holds the ink better. As a result, your label design will appear striking and crisp when printed! But, maybe that’s not the vibe of your cannabis brand so you’re looking for something more traditional. If so, a matte finish is a better choice because it absorbs some of the ink – producing that vintage, distressed look!
Your cannabis products deserve to stand out and shine in this booming market. But your product won’t even make it to the market if you are not following label requirements. Proper cannabis labeling ensures that the product is compliant, builds trust with your customers and boosts your credibility within the space. Since requirements are constantly evolving in this new industry, you must always triple-check with both federal and state regulations for the most up-to-date information in regards to cannabis product labeling. In doing so, you’ll be able to design an enticing package with proper labels that will earn heart eyes from consumers, while providing essential information about your product.
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Aaron Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Audacious (OCTQB: AUSA) is an Aurora (TSX: ACB) spinoff formerly known as Australis Capital, Inc. They have focused on an asset-light expansion strategy whereby they leverage their expertise in designing cannabis facilities in exchange for favorable cost plus arrangements for a percentage of the facilities’ production.
We interviewed Marc Lakmaaker, SVP of Capital Markets at Audacious. Prior to joining Audacious, Marc worked with Terry Booth at Aurora. His background is in investor relations.
Aaron Green: Marc, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Marc Lakmaaker: I was working for an investor relations agency. and one of my colleagues left and she had a cannabis client that I took over, which was Bedrocan, Canada. I started working with them. They were then acquired by Tweed, which became Canopy. The guy I was working with at the time at Bedrocan was Cam Battley, who then went to Aurora. As soon as he joined Aurora, he said, “I need some help.” So, I came in house and worked there until July 2019. When I left, I set up my own agency, but by that time, I’d been working with Terry Booth for a few years. Then, this past December, Terry got in touch with me and said he needed my help. It was after the concerned shareholders had won the shareholder battle around Australis and the rest is history. So, I’ve now been working with Audacious, which was Australis, since December of last year, roughly.
Green: Just quickly on Australis: So, Audacious is basically a spin off of Aurora, correct?
Lakmaaker: Correct. So, at the time, Aurora had a couple of US assets on its balance sheet, a piece of land an annuity through a company Michigan. We were listed on the TSX. We were going to list or had just listed on the NYSE and were arranging for loan facility with a syndicate of banks. They said, “even though these assets are dormant, you can’t have any US assets on your balance sheet.” So, we spun Australis off – a little bit how Canopy had spun off Canopy Rivers. But it was really the idea that Australis is going to become the foothold for Aurora in the US cannabis market because Aurora has back-in rights.
The management team was put in place and started making some investments in the cannabis space, but kind of drifted away, sort of more into FinTech. First, it was FinTech related to cannabis and then FinTech, full stop. That’s when the shareholders were like, “we don’t agree with this.” Then the proxy battle started in which the dissident shareholders, or the concerned shareholders, won overwhelmingly. The Board left. The management team left. A new management team was put in place, a new Board in place, and it was kind of a restart.
So, we feel like we’re a bit of a startup. But a very rapidly moving startup. We’ve done an incredible amount of work in just the last seven to ten months. There was a lot of housekeeping to do. A lot of stuff related to restructuring the company, dealing with the departing management teams, dealing with bringing new management, etc. There were some deals that had to be unwound… Housekeeping if you will.
Green: Australis went down the FinTech route. What are the plans for Audacious now?
Lakmaaker: We’ve already started. We pivoted right away. In early January, we announced two acquisitions. One of ALPS, and the other one of Green Therapeutics. ALPS is really what is enabling us to execute on our strategy. It’s a very different strategy. It’s an asset light model, because we figured out that in order to grow quickly in this market without spending huge amounts of shareholder money, you need to be able to get into markets in a capital-light fashion. ALPS is the world’s preeminent greenhouse design company. Not just greenhouses, but also indoor facilities. They’ve got a 35-year track record in fruits and vegetables. They’ve got an eight-year-plus track record in cannabis – and built some of the best facilities in the world. They’ve got a lot of IP.
The proof point of that is our relationship with Belle Fleur. It’s a social equity license holder in Massachusetts. We helped them build their facility. We’re not contractors, but we do the design and engineering. We help them with partner selection. We do the construction management. We bring in a general contractor. Then we do the commissioning, and optionally, post-commissioning services, making sure that the facilities are dialed in. In return for all that IP, because what people know that what they get at the end of it is high quality, consistent cannabis and very low operating costs, we ask our clients to dedicate a certain percentage of their canopies to grow with our cultivars. Those we will buy back on a cost plus arrangement and we use that to launch our brands into whatever jurisdiction.
So, in Massachusetts, we’re working with Belle Fleur. We’re getting 10% of their canopy. We’re buying it back at cost plus 5%. So, we don’t have to sink money into building the facility. We’re not carrying the cost of capital there. We’re also not paying wholesale prices. And these relationships are locked in for a long time. I can’t remember if it was five or 10 years. So, it’s a very, it’s a different strategy, but it’s not contrarian – it’s very de-risked, that allows us to launch into new countries.
Then for Green Therapeutics, we’ve got a number of award-winning brands like Provisions and Tsunami. We’re kind of phasing out GT Flowers and there will be something else in its place. We also acquired Loose, which caters to a younger demographic, with a high potency shot beverage line that is now for sale in California.
We also have a partnership with PBR, the Professional Bull Riders Association. There’s some statistics around that that just absolutely blew me away – 83 million permanent fans! That’s 25% of the US population. I think the average income is $70,000. That’s well above the national average and the general split is fairly even too; it’s 53/47, male/female. Proper American sport! They have hundreds of hours of exposure on CBS. They’ve got 2 billion imprints on social media. So, with PBR, we launched Wreck Relief, which has several recognized and approved pain products in the lineup.
Green: What markets are you in right now?
Lakmaaker: Right now we’re in Nevada with cannabis products. This is our home market where our head offices are in Las Vegas. We’re in California. We just bought a dispensary in San Jose that comes with a partnership with Eaze. On top of that, we’re operationalizing in Missouri and Oklahoma, and officially building in Massachusetts.
Then through ALPS because they does both cannabis and non-cannabis, we’re in a number of states. We’re looking to get more of the supply deals. We’re also doing a lot of vegetable facilities throughout the entire world. We’re in Europe, we’re in Asia, in the Middle and in North America, we build these facilities from the desert up to the Arctic.
There’s a big movement right now to produce food that is safe and has a smaller carbon footprint. So, our facilities are kind of inherently more sustainable. They use up to 95% less water, less labor, less energy, they are less prone to disease, crop failure, everything. And because you are local producing for local communities, you reduce the transport carbon footprint.
Green: What in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?
Lakmaaker: I really like the sciences. I’m a chemical engineer by training. I think what is going to take an incredible flight in the years to come is the application of medical scientific research that’s being done right now. To me, that’s fascinating because the cannabis plant is something special. It’s got such a broad utility that we know, anecdotally. I think we’re moving towards a world where we’re going to see a lot of breakthroughs on the medical side.
I’m very excited about the other end too – cultivation. I think tissue culture is going to play an incredible and important role.
As the legality and availability of hemp and non-hemp cannabis products continues to grow, having strong, recognizable brands will become increasingly important in order to stand out from the competition. Unfortunately, strong brands invite knock-offs and can require aggressive policing. Registering your trademarks makes policing much easier, but registration of marks used to sell hemp and non-hemp cannabis products requires strategy and forethought.
Trademark rights flow from use, so a registration is not required for enforcement. However, “common law” rights based on use alone must be proven in each instance, and you must show that your use of the mark has been sufficient such that consumers recognize and associate it with your goods or services. This can be difficult, expensive and time consuming. Also, common law rights are territorially limited. Even if you can prove such rights in Oregon (for example), you may have no right to prevent use of your mark in other states. State trademark registrations are similarly limited, but are presently all that is available for marks used exclusively to sell non-hemp cannabis products.
By contrast, a federal trademark registration provides the registrant a nationwide, exclusive and presumed right to use the mark in association with the designated goods and services. In addition, counterfeit use of a federally registered trademark can lead to statutory damages. That is, you don’t have to prove an amount of harm—a court may simply award damages based on statute. Yet another benefit is the ability to file based on an “intent to use.” You can thereby reserve a mark nationwide for up to three years before you must show use. Federal registration is available for marks used to sell hemp products, but with some strict limitations as discussed below.
Use in Commerce Requirement
Federal registrations are issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (the Office) once an application is approved and use in commerce is demonstrated. To satisfy the “use in commerce” requirement, an applicant must show that a mark is being used in association with the sale of goods or services that are legal to trade under federal law. Sale of products not legal under federal law simply does not count to establish trademark use for purposes of federal registration. This is where the vast majority of federal trademark applications for use with cannabis products get rejected. A search of the federal registry shows that, of over 8000 trademark applications for products containing cannabis extracts, only about 1,300 have resulted in registrations. But these 1,300 illustrate that there is a path to success.
The Office traditionally rejected all applications for use with products containing any cannabis extracts under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, commonly known as the Farm Bill, created an exception to the CSA for hemp, defined therein as cannabis extracts containing < 0.3% THC by dry weight. Based on this, the Office began allowing applications provided they designate only goods having 0.3% THC content or less. But even that limitation isn’t sufficient for some types of goods.
Unless specifically disclaimed, the Office will assume the presence of CBD in products containing cannabis extracts, regardless of THC quantity. On that basis it will reject applications for hemp products that are ingestible (food, drinks, nutritional supplements, etc.), or that claim a medical or therapeutic purpose, under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA). The FDCA requires Federal Drug Administration (FDA) endorsement to add “drugs” to such products, the FDA classifies CBD as a “drug,” and the FDA has authorized only a few products that include CBD. Thus, an allowable good that is ingestible or therapeutic must not only contain the low THC disclaimer, but must also state an absence of CBD. Notably, the Office has not been rejecting products on the basis that they contain CBG (cannabigerol) or other naturally occurring non-THC, non-drug cannabinoids.
Are the Goods Sold Really Allowable?
Of course this scheme of word-smithing designations to obtain allowance of federal trademark registrations invites error, if not fraud. Registrations are subject to cancellation if use of the mark with the designated goods is not maintained, or if it can be shown that the registration was fraudulently obtained. Thus, critical to a claim of use is that the applicant offers products that actually meet the designation description. The Office does not check for THC levels or CBD presence, and most purveyors of hemp products don’t either. Indeed, there is not even a standardized method for measuring these things. However, studies show that more than half of hemp products either purposefully or accidentally misrepresent their actual THC and CBD levels.i Though legally untested, this presents a potential problem for many existing federal registrations.
If a mark registered for use with goods having < 0.3% THC is found to be used only with products that actually have a greater amount of THC in them, the registration could be canceled. The same fate could befall a registration for goods claiming to have no CBD that, when tested, actually do contain more than trace levels. Even if non-hemp cannabis products are legalized under federal level, registrations obtained with THC and/or CBD limitations would still require the registrant to use the mark with products meeting such limitations.
Keeping Evidence for Insurance
So long as a registrant has maintained use of the registered mark “in commerce” in association with the designated goods, the registration is insulated from attack based on claims of non-use or fraud. The fact that the registrant also uses the mark for goods that are not legal on the federal level is of no consequence to the registration. Thus, it is wise to include in the product lineup under the brand to be protected at least some good that meets the present requirements for federal trademark registration.
One option is to include a product where the only cannabis extract is from hemp seed oil. Without even testing it, you can be reasonably assured that such a product will contain little or no CBD or THC. Another option short of testing is to obtain a certification or warrant from your supplier that particular ingredients truly are hemp, i.e., have < 0.3% THC by dry weight. This could be relied on as evidence should no original product be available for testing to show that use was legitimate at the time registration was obtained. If you can’t obtain such a certification, testing the occasional sample and keeping records over time would also work. Product samples can now be tested for THC content for around $100 per sample, with results back in about a week.ii
Zone of Natural Expansion
Though non-hemp cannabis products cannot be covered directly by federal registrations, a federal registration for CBD/hemp products can have spillover benefits. This is because the scope of a registration may expand to cover things similar to what is designated. The question comes down to likelihood of confusion. Imagine a company holds a registration covering LOOVELA for “nutritional supplements containing hemp seed oil having no CBD and < 0.3% THC by dry weight.” It would be logical for a consumer to assume that non-hemp cannabis products sold under the LOOVELA mark would likely be made by the same company. Thus, provided the company actually sold products complying with its designation, it could assert the CBD-based registration to prevent sale of LOOVELA branded non-hemp cannabis products. Also, should such products be legalized federally, the company would likely be the only applicant able to obtain an additional federal registration for LOOVELA for use with them, because any competing attempt would be confused with their pre-existing registration for CBD/hemp products.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the law in this space is evolving rapidly and is nuanced. Every situation is unique in some way, and there are many reasons an application may fail or a registration may be attacked that are not addressed above. But there is value in obtaining a federal registration for your hemp brands, and there is an overall strategy to be employed for brand protection in the cannabis space.
The content above is based on information current at the time of its publication and may not reflect the most recent developments or guidance. Neal Gerber Eisenberg LLP provides this content for general informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship. You should seek advice from professional advisers with respect to your particular circumstances.
See, e.g., Bonn-Miller, Marcel O., et al., “Labeling Accuracy of Cannabidiol Extracts Sold Online,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 318, No. 17, pp. 1708-09 (Nov. 7, 2017); Freedman, Daniel A. and Dr. Anup Patel, “Inadequate Regulation Contributes to Mislabeled Online Cannabidiol Products,” Pediatric Neurology Briefs, Vol. 32 at 3 (2018).
In 2002, Dale Katechis revolutionized craft beer. A seemingly simple packaging decision, putting craft beer in a can, sparked an international movement and put craft beer on the map.
Before the craft beer market really gained steam, consumers associated good beer with glass bottles and larger brands selling cheap beer with cans. Through education, creative marketing and a mission to put people over profits, Dale helped the craft beer market expand massively while sticking to his roots. He also managed to convince people to drink good beer from a can.
When Dale founded Oskar Blues about twenty years ago, he didn’t just succeed in selling beer. Through collaboration and information sharing, Dale propelled craft beer as a whole and lifted all boats with a rising tide. He’s hoping to achieve similar results with his new role in the cannabis space.
Veritas Fine Cannabis, the first craft cannabis cultivator in Colorado, announced that Dale joined the company’s leadership team. Jonathan Spadafora, partner and head of marketing and sales at Veritas, told us that he’s excited about working with Dale. He says Dale is already helping them open a whole world of branding and marketing opportunities. “This is our Shark Tank moment – we’ve got someone who’s been through the fire before and will help us keep differentiating, finding new avenues and new ways to solve problems,” says Spadafora.
His colleague, Mike Leibowitz, CEO of Veritas, shares the same sentiment. “Dale maintained company culture and quality as he grew Oskar Blues into a household name,” says Leibowitz. “Maintaining our unique company culture is paramount as we work to build Veritas Fine Cannabis into the same.”
Dale’s role in the leadership team at Veritas is about sticking to his roots. Through raising industry standards in the best interest of quality products and consumers, the team at Veritas hopes to expand the brand nationally, just like Oskar Blues did, while instilling a culture of disruption and innovation without compromising quality.
We caught up with Dale to learn more about his story and what he hopes to bring to Veritas, as well as the cannabis industry at large. And yes, I had a couple of Dale’s Pale Ales (his namesake beer) later that evening.
Aaron Biros: Your success with Oskar Blues is inspiring. Taking an amazing beer like Dale’s Pale Ale and putting it in a can sounds simple to the layperson, but you launched a remarkable movement to put craft beer on the map. How do you plan to use your experience to help Veritas grow their business?
Dale Katechis: I am hoping that I can apply some of the lessons that I’ve learned through making mistakes of growing a business from the ground up. There’s obviously a lot of road blocks in cannabis and that is certainly one of the qualities of Veritas – how they’ve grown and how they had to do it in an environment that is much more challenging than the beer space.
My experience in small business development could potentially help them navigate this next renaissance of the space. I’m going to help them compete and bring the industry to a level that helps everybody win. I certainly felt that way in the craft beer movement. It was very important to us to bring the whole industry along because we were educators, we weren’t salesmen. In doing that, lifting everyone to a level where the industry benefits as a whole is a part of small business growth. To me that’s the most fulfilling part. It wasn’t just about the Oskar Blues ego at the time, it was about the craft beer scene. And what’s happening in cannabis now is very similar to what happened in the nineties with the craft beer scene.
Aaron: How did you get interested in joining the cannabis industry? What made you choose Veritas?
Dale: Most of my life, I’ve been an enjoyer of cannabis. Very recently, in the last two years, I’ve been intrigued by getting involved in the space. I’ve been shopping around for opportunities and nothing really excited me until I met Jon Spadafora and Mike Leibowitz.
It was really the two of them, the comradery and how they treat their staff that was so similar to the culture at Oskar Blues. Call it a “passion play” if you will, but this was the best opportunity to get involved with a small company and hopefully be a value add for them being in the room and sharing ideas.
Aaron: As a pioneer and leader in the craft beer space, do you notice any commonalities between the growth of the craft beer market and the legal cannabis market?
Dale: It is kind of crazy how many similarities there are. Not just the industry as a whole, but specifically the commonalities between my business, Oskar Blues, and Veritas. Overall, that’s really what allowed me to want to lean in a bit more. I wasn’t in the place where I wanted to start anything on my own. I didn’t want to be involved in fixing anything. I’ve been involved in those situations before and I’m at a point in my life that I don’t want to fix anything. Thankfully there’s nothing that needed to be fixed at Veritas. That was an exciting piece of the equation for me.
Back to your question, how the consumer looks at cannabis versus how the consumer looks at beer in the craft beer space is very similar. There is a bit of an educational piece that’s happening where it’s almost a requirement in the cannabis industry and Veritas is leading that charge out front.
That’s what’s going to catapult Veritas and other companies if they follow suit. It’s their mentality and their philosophy of bringing the industry along as a whole, and I think it’s going to end up boding well for the consumer. The craft beer space was the same.
We had to educate people on a beer can and why we felt like a can of beer was important and exciting. The industry and the consumer associated cans of beer with large, industrial lagers and the can got a bad rap as a result. Not because it wasn’t a great package, but because they were putting bad beer in a good package. So, we had a long road of educating the consumer on the benefits of the can and I think what Veritas is doing with packaging now, how they use quality as such a fundamental pillar of their business, how they focus on the employee experience and the consumer experience sets them up for success, instead of just looking at the bottom line.
I’ve said it throughout my entire career, and at Oskar Blues, we never focused on the profits. You do the right thing for the biggest group of people moving the ball forward and the bottom line takes care of itself. Jon and Mike understand that so I don’t need to fight that battle. It’s another big similarity to the craft beer space.
Aaron: How can cannabis companies keep their craft? How can we, as an industry and as individual businesses, celebrate craft cannabis and follow in the footsteps of independent craft beer?
Dale: I believe that we’re starting to see some of that consolidation [that has been taking place in the craft beer market]. We’re at a time in the market right now where companies with such a solid foundation like Veritas don’t need to go that route to grow. I think we’ll start to see a lot more consolidation in the cannabis industry soon.
Back to the point of bonding together as an industry and as a whole. Championing some of the regulatory hurdles that are coming and sticking together is crucial. One company can’t do it. There’s going to have to be some comradery in the industry among everyone trying to hold the bar up high instead of racing to the bottom. You die by a thousand cuts. I’ve lived that life in craft beer and we saw what happened 6-7 years ago when the industry overexpanded because of exponential growth. A lot of egos got in the room, and a lot of breweries spent a lot of money building out capacity and then that same year the market popped out. Everyone who didn’t have a solid foundation, got washed out of the industry.
That’s why I appreciate what Jon and Mike are doing and how they built Veritas. It’s very similar to how we built Oskar Blues. We had humble beginnings; we didn’t spend money on things outside of our core competency. We focused on quality, employee experience, morale and holding on to the culture of Oskar Blues. That’s what Jon and Mike are doing with Veritas and I think that’s really important.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulations, supply chain and consumer demand.
Jushi Holdings Inc. (OTCMKTS: JUSHF | CSE: JUSH) is a multi-state operator with a national footprint and core markets in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Virginia, with developing markets in California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Ohio. In addition, Jushi maintains offices in Colorado, New York and Florida. In Q1 2021 they posted $42M in revenue representing 30% growth over Q4 2020 and 77% of their sales were conducted online. Jushi brands include Beyond / Hello, The Bank, The Lab, Tasteology, Sēchē, Nira CBD and Nira+ Medicinals.
We interviewed Andreas “Dre” Neumann, Chief Creative Director of Jushi Holdings. Dre joined Jushi in February 2020 after connecting to the founders through a colleague and running a large user experience research project. Prior to Jushi, Dre cut his teeth in advertising and branded entertainment. He was a startup founder at TalentHouse.com and a Partner at Idean, which he later sold to Capgemini.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Andreas Neumann: I’m a guy who has been interested in many genres – I’m always looking for the next big thing. I started out in advertising and then I faded into branded entertainment when the traditional advertising wave was kind of shaky due to the digital attack of the internet with platforms like Facebook and Myspace.
I’ve also been fascinated by digital which led me to move into Silicon Valley. I had a startup called TalentHouse.com which was like LinkedIn for creative people. I learned a lot there about building a company in Silicon Valley. It was the first time I was confronted with experienced customer and user experience people. CX and UX was already kind of a thing in Silicon Valley at the time. My last company I was a partner in was a company called Idean, a Silicon Valley-based user experience company which we sold to a French company called Capgemini about four years ago.
I continue to be involved in the entertainment industry as kind of a creative outlet. I’m working with a lot of big rock bands like The Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age. I just did the last Foo Fighter album. Photography is my last domain of total creativity where I can do whatever I want specifically in the rock business.
Coming to the cannabis point, I was actively looking for a partner to do a cannabis brand with The Queens of the Stone Age. I met Jushi through a very interesting coincidence. I was on the way to do a shoot in Silicon Valley with a guy called Les Claypool, who is from a famous band called Primus. I shot Les there and I was driving through Silicon Valley and remembered I had a friend nearby I should talk to. So, I called him and he was in Singapore. He called me right back (he never calls back normally) and said “You’ve got to talk to Jushi! You’ve got to talk to these guys Jim Cacioppo and Erich Mauff (two of the founders). They are starting something very exciting. They could be your partners.”
This is where the conversation started. It was my first time confronting a cannabis MSO and understanding how this works. I had just exited from my last agency and put together the best people from my previous endeavor to create a new sort of “creative collective” of UX and marketing experts. We did a test project for Jushi, a big research project on cannabis for California in retail, which was super interesting. It was a 200-page document – the first phase of user experience of the process before you build something – and through that I saw this as a big opportunity. I spoke to the founders again and came fully onboard in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. From then on, it’s been a real amazing journey with me and the team. And it was the right moment to jump on the Jushi train as it was just about to leave the station.
Green: Can you talk about some of the geographies you are active in?
Neumann: Jushi is a multi-state operator. The most important state for Jushi is Pennsylvania. That’s where we have the most stores and we are building more stores there this year as well, very aggressively. We currently have 13 Beyond / Hello medical cannabis dispensaries in the state with many more to come, bringing an unmatched in-store experience, coupled with online reservations and in-store express pick-up.
The next important market for us is Virginia. We have a unique position there in Manassas with a cultivation facility and manufacturing and extraction facility, with the license for up to six stores. We started store number one in the facility, and we are rolling it out in HSA II. We are the only ones who can open stores in HSA II and this is straight on the border to Washington D.C. We call Virginia the “sleeping giant.” So much happened in the last year in Virginia around regulation and the industry, and now flower is finally legal.
Then we have Illinois – super interesting stores there. We have two flagship stores located straight on the border of Missouri, basically in East St. Louis. They are our biggest performers in the whole network because of the location. You have people coming over from Missouri, which is really in the beginnings of a medical market, and Illinois, which is now adult use. It was a super cool experience to see a medical market change to adult-use and be part of that change.
In other states, we recently announced the acquisition of Nature’s Remedy in Massachusetts, where we will have cultivation, processing and stores there. In Nevada, we have a grower-processor and we’re looking at opportunities in retail as well. At the moment, we have all our brands launched there. We are also continuing to build out our processing and cultivation capabilities in Ohio.
Last but not least is California. I’m based in California and the whole creative team is here. It’s a vanity market and it’s very competitive, but you’re in the capital of the world of cannabis in terms of brands and retail. California is in the future compared to the other states. So, we need to be here. It’s just like a soccer team. You must compete against good people or you’re not going to grow. So, that’s why competing here in California is key.
Green: How do you think about brand development, specifically in the cannabis CPG space?
Neumann: California is the king of brands. There are more products than brands in the cannabis industry at the moment. The products may have nice packaging, but brands aren’t really out there yet. The only states where you have “brands” as I would call them are California, Colorado and Oregon. I think we are just about to get to the place where the first rush is over and people with more experience about brands come in and build on the story of the brand. The myths, the cult, the legend of that story is important, and I think this is just about to get started.
Our brands, The Bank and The Lab, have good stories. They have been around a long time. We acquired them from a company in Colorado and we rolled them out in Nevada with a total revamp of look and feel as well as story. The Bank is celebrating this kind of roaring 20s idea. We have a lot of images, from black and white prohibition-style photos to this black-gold, very high-end, adult use tailored brand.
The Lab is a solid vaping brand from Colorado, and one of the 8th best-selling vape brands of all time. We revamped The Lab image to “take the lab out of the lab.” So basically, take the hairnet and the lab coat out of the vibe and add a whole new energy, with symmetry and nature in a leading role.
Tasteology, which is one of our self-made, self-created brands, was all based on customer research. In Pennsylvania, we have thousands of people we can communicate with, and we can test our brands. So, we’ve done focus groups and testing to see what sticks, and the name Tasteology came out of a huge research project with hundreds of names.
The last brand comes back to your question “Where are the brands going?” I think our brand Sēchē is the first one of our own creation and has this total lifestyle feel. It’s fine grind flower which normally might make its way to extraction. We treat it well and then we sell the raw flower, as well as a pre-roll line. It’s this kind of a young, cost effective, very affordable pre-roll and pre-ground brand, which is fabulous. And Sēchē really gets a lot of traction – flies off the shelves in Pennsylvania. It is a great product.
So, this is now the first stage where brands are created, but I think overall, there’s not many brands yet. They have to find their stories and their real purpose, I think. But California is ahead of it. And there’s some of them coming out now. So, I think there’s a new wave coming. It always goes in phases.
Green: How do you think about brand partners?
Neumann: We did the first step towards outside partnerships recently. We just partnered with Colin Hanks, Tom Hanks’ son, on his handkerchief line called Hanks Kerchiefs and we’re going to sell these in our stores. Hanks Kerchiefs has nothing to do with cannabis, but it takes our stores to a place where it’s not only cannabis products, it’s more the retail scene, the lifestyle scene. If we go into future partnerships with people, we would partner with big talent agencies to create something special. Maybe it’s limited editions, maybe it’s something more story-driven, but it doesn’t have to be there forever. I see using outside partnerships for more “drops,” as we call it. But we will see. You cannot force these collaborations. They have to come at the right time and need to be real. That’s what people feel. If it’s real you can feel it.
Green: Do you notice any differences in consumer preferences between the states you’re in and do you have to tailor your messaging differently?
Neumann: This is a super interesting question. I’ve been working in Europe, and you have all these different countries, so every market is different. Every market gets different messages. Every market gets different commercials. It’s the same in cannabis in the United States! The only difference is that it’s so regulated. I could launch a gummy in Virginia and all Virginia would know about it. It would become a household name, and everybody uses that gummy. But in California, no one will hear about it. No one would care about it. And the same vice versa, right?
So, different states, different brands. With our acquisitions, we are acquiring new brands, which then live only in those states. Then we have to support that. If the data would show we should then we do it. When we acquire something we consumer test in many states, and specifically in the states where the acquisition happened.
Overall, you can say flower is always what people want. But in markets like Virginia, we cannot sell flower at the moment. In Pennsylvania you have flower, but you can’t have edibles. Do Pennsylvanians want edibles? Of course, they want it but it’s not allowed yet. So, there’s always this to consider.
Green: What are some of the forward-looking opportunities that you see to merge product with technology?
Neumann: It’s interesting that flower, the most old-fashioned thing you could have, is the biggest thing. If you get into it, it’s pure, you can smell it, you can trust it. Flower has its own charm.
So, asking about merging technology and product is like asking what technology comes with drinking wine. There’s lots of stuff around it. I think in the end the technology will be more about how you can create a product which delivers high THC, fast and controlled. The technology that goes into making stuff like live resin has a big future, because not everybody can make it. It has a very complicated process of freezing the product within four hours after the harvest, and then cold extraction. So, I think technology there has a big impact and gets the experience of the consumption right.
In the consumer world, people have tried a lot of things with technology. For example, limiting doses and inserting flower into a device. There are people trying all kinds of stuff. Common sense is always the key. What do you want to use most? Do you want to have a pre-roll and just enjoy it? A long one when you have friends around? A short one if you’re alone walking a dog? I think you have to keep it simple. That’s the most difficult thing most of the time.
Green: Final question here. What are you most interested in learning about? This can be personal life or cannabis.
Neumann: When I entered the cannabis industry, I hadn’t been a consumer since I was 18. I was more of an alcohol guy, but then later I stopped drinking alcohol, so I was totally clean the last 15 years until I entered the cannabis industry.
When I do something like making films about a jet fighter, I have to fly the jet fighter. If I make a film about jumping out of a plane, I have to jump out of the plane. So, if I work in the cannabis company, I have to consume cannabis. I cannot not consume it. So, I started professionally consuming cannabis every day. From day one when we started research, every day I tried other products and I became a real user. Not during the day, but in the evening when it’s the right time.
First of all, I compare it a lot with music. It’s like a feeling. Everybody feels it differently. I think what it does – and this fascinates me about it and it’s why I love to be in this industry – is it seems to be slowing down the world a little bit and your desperation. This slowing down of desperation actually opens you up to receive and when and you receive good stuff it comes to you kind of effortlessly. Not only is it great for medical use – it has helped me for pain as well – but also as a receiver of energy. I think it clears a lot of the “signal.” I’m always interested in learning more about this incredible plant.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulations, supply chain and consumer demand.
The California legal flower market is the largest in North America. According to recent BDSA data, monthly cannabis sales in January 2021 were $243.5 million. Flower sales represented 35.6% of overall sales, or about $87 million, representing a $1 billion yearly run rate for 2021 flower sales in California.
Union Electric was founded in California in 2020 as one of OpenNest Labs’ first incubator brands. Its model is uniquely asset-light, and focused on filling an area of opportunity with a consumer-first approach, aimed at an underserved market: the working-class customer. The name Union Electric was inspired by the punching-in and punching-out aspect of working a union job — more specifically, the average cannabis user’s job. The name also represents the brand’s union of stakeholders: Customers, cultivators and retailers alike, working together to provide affordable, quality products.
Max Goldstein is the CEO of Union Electric and Founding Partner at OpenNest Labs. Max incubated Union Electric at OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio he helped co-found, and launched the brand in 2020 the day after COVID lockdowns began in California. Prior to Union Electric, Max worked at Google managing a 90 person, 12-market partnerships team.
Aaron Green: How did you get into the cannabis industry?
Max Goldstein: I’ve had a fun entrepreneurial and professional journey. I started my career in my 20s with Google working in the marketing department sitting at the intersection of new product development and customers. During that time, I really learned the ins and outs of bringing products to market and building brands. I had to understand how to value and champion the customer, or the user. At Google, I was sitting at the intersection of people building products that are affecting billions of people’s lives and users and customers that potentially have really cool insights and feedback. It was an incredible learning experience. I was able to focus on what I’m good at, which is that early stage of businesses and most importantly, listening to the consumer and developing products and services that they ultimately really want.
Near the end of 2018, I co-founded OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio. We came together as a four-person partnership to form OpenNest, as an assortment of skill sets, with all of us contributing an area of focus that we could really combine our experiences to take focused and concerted efforts at building brands that resonate with different consumers across various form factors in cannabis and health. My partner Tyler Wakstein has been in the cannabis industry for several years and helped launch the brand, hmbldt (which is now Dosist) and a number of other projects in the cannabis space.
Green: Was Union Electric an incubation project out of OpenNest?
Goldstein: Yes. Union Electric is the first project we incubated out of OpenNest. We launched the day after the pandemic. So, it was interesting timing.
At Union Electric we’re focused on the core, everyday consumer of cannabis. I think a lot of folks, particularly the new money that have come into the industry, have often focused on new form factors or things that they think the new cannabis consumer is going to enjoy or appreciate. Because quite frankly, that’s their level of familiarity with the industry. For us at Union Electric, we want to hit the end of the market with exactly what they want and that is high-potency, affordable flower with a brand that really stands for something and has values.
Union Electric is positioned as an advocate for the legal cannabis industry as a whole. We look at the stakeholders and the work that needs to be done across the board. The idea of just being one member of the value chain and not trying to ultimately uplift and elevate everyone in that value chain, it’s just not going to work in cannabis. We’ve seen a lot of people trying to go at this alone and I think the pandemic, if anything, showed that you’re only as good as your partners. We truly believe that the investment in our partners, in the local communities and everyone that’s really touching this industry is critical to ultimately building success for one company because a rising tide raises all ships.
Green: How did you settle on the name Union Electric?
Goldstein: One of the things that we wanted to do was focus the brand on who we see as the core consumer, which is somebody that is working hard, like a shift worker punching in and punching out and putting in the long hours on a daily basis and using cannabis as a critical part of their personal wellness and relief. There are elements of that which we certainly want to tap into. The “Union” represents our stakeholder approach, which is, all of us are in this together and our tagline “roll together” represents that. The “Electric” part is what we’ve seen cannabis sort of representing culturally, and for people more broadly. This is an exciting product that’s going to change a lot of people’s lives and, and I just don’t think there’s anything else in our lifetimes that we’re necessarily going to be able to work on from a consumer-packaged goods perspective, that’s going to change as many people’s lives. It’s electric. That’s how we came up with the name.
The coloring and a lot of the brand elements that we focused on were about providing transparency and simplicity to the marketplace: big font and bold colors. There are little nuances with our packaging, like providing a window just so people can see the flower on our bags. We look at the details and made sure that we’re ultimately out of the way of the consumer and what they want, but providing that vehicle that they’re really comfortable with.
Green: You have an asset-light business model, focusing on brand and partnerships. How did you come to that model?
Goldstein: I think everyone who’s operating and working in cannabis right now is looking at strategy and what the model is that’s going to work for them. We’re ultimately going to find out what works, which is why this industry is so fun and exciting. Our specific approach is really under the assumption that vertical integration in a market that’s maturing as quickly as California is going to be hard, if not impossible – it’s just too competitive. There are too many things going on in order to be successful in California. You have to be really good at cultivation, really good at manufacturing, really good at distribution, and then ultimately, you have to be able to tell a story of that process to ensure sell-through and that you really resonate with the consumer.
I think the big, missed opportunities that we’re seeing are that a lot of great cultivators are not marketers or storytellers. They really do need people that are there to help amplify and provide transparency to their stories. There are amazing stories out there of sacrifice and what cultivators have done to create a new strain. We all enjoy Gelato. What’s the process to make that happen or to create any other new strain? It’s fascinating. It’s too hard for a lot of these cultivators to go out and tell that story themselves. So, we act as a sales and marketing layer on top of the supply chain to provide visibility, transparency and trust with the consumer so that they know who grew their product, how it was grown, when it was cultivated and that they can build a real strong relationship with that cultivator as well.
It’s also hard to be a brand that’s using 19 different suppliers, selling the same genetics and expecting the same results. As an example, we’ve gotten Fatso from one of our partners, Natura. We’ve also gotten Fatso from Kind Op Corp (fka POSIBL). We renamed one of the strains – by adding a number on the end – just so that the consumer knew that we’re not saying that this is the same product, because it’s not. It’s from a different farmer and there’s going to be differences. While it does create a little bit more complexity for the consumer, we ultimately believe that every consumer has a right and will expect to know that type of information in the future.
Green: You launched Union Electric one day after the COVID lockdowns began in California. How did you navigate that landscape?
Goldstein: A lot of praying to the cannabis gods! It was really an incredibly challenging and difficult time. We were all concerned about the impacts of the virus. There were moments where we didn’t even know if dispensaries would be open, particularly in states that just legalized. You went from something being completely illegal to an essential business in 12 months. As a team, we were just trying to hold on to our hats and focus on product and partnerships.
Fortunately, with a brand like ours and the price point that we’re operating at, we just needed to consistently be on the shelves and available, and to be present with the bud tenders. So, we focused on that and shoring up our supply chain and just trying to wait it out. COVID forced a lot of cannabis companies to make a lot of decisions quickly and I think in some ways, because we have not been in the market for 24 months under one paradigm, we were pretty quick to be able to adjust and keep the team super lean to fit the emerging and rapidly changing environment. We learned a lot. We focused on partnerships and we leaned into the model that we set out to build which is being asset-light and focusing on the sell-through.
Green: I understand you have a 2% giveback program. Tell me about that.
Goldstein: The 2% giveback program was something that we wanted to put on the bag from day one. It’s on every bag that we made and put out into the market. We’ve seen a lot of cannabis companies come in and invest tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure. Then, month 24 they realize “oh, crap, I gotta figure out what I’m going to do to get back and actually tap into the issues that are most important to cannabis consumers.” These are issues like social equity, equitable development of the industry, and ensuring that cannabis companies and its owners are active, responsible members of society.
What we’re going to focus on with our giveback program is working with our supply chain partners. We highlight the local communities, because when you look at the landscape in California, two thirds of its municipalities still don’t allow cannabis operations. We’re in a heart and minds battle still, even here in California, just proving that the operators here are not criminals and that they’re not going to bring negativity to local communities.
As we scale in California and scale to other states, the giveback program for us is a platform and a medium to work with our supply chain partners to make sure that we’re giving back and investing every step of the way. As founders and operators, it’s how we show that we are being mindful of the importance of equitable development of the industry. Ultimately, prosperity is going to come if everyone is getting a piece of the pie.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Goldstein: I’m a student of history (I was a history major) and I was very fortunate to be part of a big evolution of technology development starting in 2011 working at Google and other tech companies. In some ways, this is the second generational industry that I’ve been a part of, and I have a lot of regrets about how the first one developed – not that I necessarily was the chief decision maker. The idea that large tech companies would always act responsibly (i.e. “Don’t be evil”) didn’t really pan out. I think it was an ignorant thought process as a person in my young 20s.
What I’m most interested in learning is: Can the cannabis industry develop consciously? Can you keep the greed and the things that bring industries down at bay? How can I, as an operator, be the best facilitator of that future? I’m always thinking how I can continue to bring in the people around us and around me as the CEO of Union Electric to ensure that we’re always focused on that.
Green: Great, that concludes the interview. Thank you, Max.
Goldstein: Thanks Aaron.
From Union Electric: Union Electric Cannabis will be offering their first Regulation CF crowdfund raise in an effort to give everyday consumers a stake in one of California’s fast growing cannabis brands. Due to the ever-evolving legal status of cannabis in the US, there have been very few opportunities for individuals to invest early on in American cannabis brands. This decision to give everyday cannabis smokers access to investing in their favorite cannabis brand (for as little as $100) is a natural manifestation of Union Electric’s mission: Collective power and championing accessibility for the plant. You can learn more about their raise by visiting https://republic.co/union-electric
Cannabis has always had it tough when it comes to marketing. Part of it is simple logistics. A DTC playbook, heavily contingent on growing a brand’s audience and pushing folks to purchase products through digital marketing, isn’t a possibility for them. Despite its mainstream acceptance, most large ad platforms like Facebook and Instagram won’t touch it because of its tenuous legality. Banner ads don’t convert and only end up on specific platforms like Pornhub or Weedmaps anyway.
And because the legal status changes on a state-by-state basis, it’s extremely difficult for a brand to span across multiple markets. Just think: why would someone living in Florida care about a cool cannabis brand in Detroit if they weren’t in that industry or have ties to that state? This also makes influencer marketing tough because people aren’t finding the coolest people in their respective states to follow. They’re just finding people they think are interesting.
That leaves budtenders – point of sale experts – that hold a huge position of educating and steering folks towards products. Most folks are newer to cannabis – or cannabis has grown up a ton since their past casual experience with it. Budtenders offer an informative, hyper-local solution with extremely limited reach to a narrow market.
But the future shows promise. A new wave of platform marketing has emerged with new formats and lots of room to cultivate and grow for cannabis brands. With a little understanding of what’s driving the success of social media newcomers and evolving mainstays, cannabis companies can potentially find new avenues for marketing and brand-building success.
There’s currently a lot of opportunity through the larger cannabis retail and native ordering apps – ones like Weedmaps, Leafly and others that have widespread brand recognition within the cannabis community and a growing array of social media-like features. These are places that already segment according to markets, with a built-in, educated audience open to creative approaches to branding and marketing.
These types of apps are also becoming the norm more and more. Especially since the pandemic, dispensaries are doing most of their volume through online orders and pickup. As a result, making sure you show up, look great and convey your unique position on these platforms is incredibly important.
Listening and Learning
Whether it’s Clubhouse or other upcoming rivals on the horizon, audio platforms are great because they can serve as a means to have an honest, direct and enlightening conversation about cannabis. This is great news for budtenders who can help a brand expand their reach by facilitating these sorts of conversational consumer relationships. As the cannabis market matures rapidly, people will need a safe place to normalize consumption, talk about dosage or about how normal consumers (not just stereotypical potheads, but every day, “constructive members of society”), are able to use cannabis effectively in their day-to-day lives.
A lot of other visually-based platforms are about curation or presentation of an ideal life and less about learning or sharing – a place where audio platforms can shine.
Old is New
In some cases, it’s not about just using new platforms but finding better ways to utilize old ones. For example, legal or not, a lot of folks are about discretion when it comes to their cannabis. They want to get questions answered and learn about brands and products via peers and experts, but they don’t want their bosses or grandparents knowing that they’re hitting a pen between meetings or before brunch.
That’s why time-based content platforms – Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and others – that offer individuals and brands some measure of safety, as well as controlled messaging, will help continue to normalize cannabis.
Another non-cannabis example worth emulating is Psilodelic, a psilocybin gummy brand that’s super low-dose and decently branded, using Instagram in a creative way. Purposefully making their accounts private and going without a public hub, the only way to buy the product is to follow and DM them. “Hacking” the platform in this way means they have to shut down and open up new accounts all the time, but they’ve done an amazing job offering a product that, similarly to cannabis, is sometimes inaccessible, and have done it in a way that’s simple and feels more elite. That’s creative entrepreneurship.
In the end, using these changing platforms means approaching them as tools to foster a better relationship with people. The brands that succeed will have dead-simple instructions and information that really helps to empower folks to look at cannabis in a different way. Then, as we finally reach legalization, these brands will find themselves better equipped to step into the mainstream, confident in the meaningful relationships they’ve already cultivated.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Multi-state operators (MSOs) are on the rise in the United States, navigating complex regulatory frameworks to drive profitability through economies of scale and scope. As an MSO and an early mover in the space, a significant part of MariMed’s current strategy is to complete the acquisition and consolidation of the licensed state cannabis businesses it has developed. It takes seasoned leadership to make that happen, and MariMed’s is led by one of the most experienced and successful MSO management teams in the industry. Over the last eight years, Bob Fireman and his colleagues have won 17 licenses in 6 states, and designed and developed over 300,000 square feet of cannabis cultivation, production and dispensing facilities.
MariMed has also developed a portfolio of award-winning cannabis brands and infused products which are licensed, manufactured and distributed in Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico. A recently announced $46 million financing for a facility with Hadron Healthcare Fund will help repay all MariMed debt other than mortgage-backed bank loans and one convertible note, as well as help upgrade and expand the company’s owned and managed cannabis facilities.
We spoke with Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed. Bob started the foundations of MariMed in 2008 after getting into large-scale hydroponics for urban sustainable agriculture. Prior to MariMed, Bob served as a startup lawyer focused on tech and emerging industries.
Aaron Green: Bob, tell me about how you got started in the cannabis industry.
Bob Fireman: I practiced law for decades. Part of my practice was to help startups in all sorts of industries, particularly technology and new emerging markets. At one point, I was introduced to a fascinating sustainable food business opportunity – to build hydroponic farms on rooftops in cities across the country.
When one of our projects in San Francisco hit some roadblocks, our team there pivoted to what was becoming the Wild West of California cannabis. My friend and current MariMed CFO, Jon Levine, and I began investing and managing a cultivation site there. That’s where we built our early foundation of industry knowledge.
Fast forward a few years, and I was afforded the opportunity to be involved in the drafting of the proposed Massachusetts medical cannabis legislation.
Through that work, we met a team that had won one of three cannabis licenses in Rhode Island. We formed a real estate LLC and raised the capital to develop a seed to sale cannabis facility in Providence, which was later leased to the Slater Center, a not-for-profit medical cannabis licensed business. Today, the Slater Center is a nationally acclaimed operation that services over 10,000 medical patients.
From there, we took our know-how and formed a new entity that was the formal beginning of the company we now know as MariMed. Initially, we helped win licenses for clients in Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland, Illinois and Nevada. We also provided management services, working capital and other necessities. Under our management, we organically built these businesses from the ground up, advancing best practices and somewhat quietly creating a network of best-in-class operations throughout the industry.
That led to the consolidation of those businesses that we’re focused on today as a core strategic pillar.
I’m incredibly proud of our team, the core of which has been at this for 10 years. We’ve watched other MSOs try different models of success, with varying degrees of success. For us, focusing on growth markets, building at a reasonable and scalable clip, attracting incredible talent at all levels of the company, and developing fantastic brands that customers love, are the ingredients that have translated to where we are now – strong performance and an exceptionally bright future. “Slow and steady wins the race” has become a mantra.
Green: What trends are you looking at right now? What’s on your radar?
Fireman: My radar has a singular focus, and that’s to create shareholder value. That’s why completing the consolidation of the cannabis licensed businesses we’ve developed and manage into our public company is so critical. Back in the day, the initial available licenses were in medical-only state programs where applicants were required to be not-for-profit state companies. Accordingly, we raised the capital in the real estate entity which leased facilities to the licensees. Our revenue was from rents, management services and licensing fees.
In 2019, we implemented a new strategic plan to consolidate these businesses. While that translates to our being structured similarly to other MSOs in that we are a vertically integrated seed to sale company, we are distinct in our operational excellence, quality product portfolio, and strong balance sheet. Other MSOs have raised large amounts of capital to pay large sums to acquire licensed state cannabis businesses and have found themselves over-leveraged and challenged to assimilate other companies’ methodologies and cultures. By consolidating the businesses and talented people we developed and managed from day one and utilizing our best practices and processes system-wide, we realize enormous capital efficiencies.
Our strategy is paying off. Our core cannabis revenue in 2020 increased 207% to $50.9 million, and our 10k reported EBITDA of $16.3 million. And now we’re on track to double our revenue in 2021.
The last piece of the puzzle is to let the world know what we’ve been doing. Slow and steady has worked for us but gone are the days of doing so quietly. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and exceedingly bullish on what’s to come.
Green: What do you look for in an M&A target?
Fireman: When M&A makes sense for us, we first look for single operators and entrepreneurs in states where we are not active and look to partner with business leaders that had the vision and the courage to get into this industry and build solid cannabis businesses from the ground up. I’m looking for businesses that could benefit from being part of a larger, more experienced and well-capitalized company like MariMed. Obviously, as an MSO with a solid platform, MariMed is approached regularly by other MSOs and banks suggesting candidates for M&A opportunities. Lining up with a company that has complementary cannabis licenses in other states and who shares our vision and ethics could be a win-win situation. They must embrace our commitment to diversity, the environment and proper corporate governance. We have been somewhat reticent to do this until we see some increase in our share price and market capitalization.
Green: Are there any new products, or product trends that you’re looking at?
Fireman: Marimed looks to be the most trusted source of high-quality cannabis products that consistently delivers innovative health and wellness solutions to our patients and customers. Our lab scientists are constantly creating and testing new and innovative formulations of cannabinoid compounds including CBD, THCa, CBG, CBN and others that will improve the health and wellness of our customers.
Our brand portfolio is ever-expanding with new and better product offerings. Our award-winning Betty’s Eddies Fruit Chews brand is adding new SKUs of varieties and flavors for both medical and adult use programs. Our Nature’s Heritage flower and concentrates brand is adding a line of solventless concentrates, live rosin, as well as new formulations for RSO, an oil popular with medical patients. Kalm Fusion is expanding its successful line of powdered drink mixes as we see more movement in the cannabis beverage category.
Microdosing is hugely popular right now, and we’re rolling out products in the 2-5mg dosage range. Health and dietary concerns are top of mind as well, and we offer products that are vegan, sugar-free and gluten-free. Ultimately, we want to be sure that we have something on the shelves for every single consumer. The financial hardship created by the pandemic has made consumers more attracted to value added products such as popcorn buds.
Green: You recently announced an equity financing from Hadron. I’m curious to learn more about it from a nuts-and-bolts perspective if you can share any of that information.
Fireman: Over the last year, access to the capital markets for equity raises in cannabis public companies was difficult. The cost of debt was and is still high, and we were looking for a long-term financial partner that understood the industry and could assist us. Hadron Capital has been successful for several years investing in some of the most successful MSOs and they saw the value and potential in MariMed’s experienced management and great assets.
Hadron invested $46 million in equity in MariMed this March. Approximately $16 million was utilized to retire all our short- and long-term debt but for bank secured debt and one convertible note. $7 million is committed to funding our capex and expanding the capabilities of our facilities, enabling us to grow more flower and automate production. The balance of funding will support our consolidation strategy to fund two more roll ups of state licensed cannabis businesses into the public company.
Going forward, it is comforting to have a capital partner to assist us in future acquisitions and M&A opportunities.
Green: I’d love to learn more about your Nature’s Heritage brand, particularly as it relates to the cultivation and the flower products.
Fireman: Our COO Tim Shaw has assembled a cultivation and production team with expertise in all aspects of genetics, growing methodologies, extraction techniques, and packaging innovation. That’s provided us a rich collection of quality genetics that make up Nature’s Heritage, our top-selling flower, oil and concentrate brand in Massachusetts and Maryland. We’ve recently expanded the line to include Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) and solventless concentrates (including live rosin) and have been receiving stellar feedback.
Green: What are you interested in learning more about?
Fireman: Over the last decade, the MariMed core team has seen the emergence and amazing growth of the cannabis industry. The initial medical programs in California and Colorado have now led to some form of legal medical or adult use cannabis programs in over 33 states and districts.
We are most interested in learning and following the federal, state, and international laws and regulations. It is vital to know how these laws will affect our company and the industry as a whole. When might full federal legalization become a reality? What might different versions of the law be? Will state legal programs be protected as well as the companies that took the risk in investing in the industry at its nascent state and how? What will FDA requirements and regulations look like? What medical claims will companies be allowed to make, and what kind of research or trials will be required to put a product on the shelf? What are the ramifications of the MORE Act or the SAFE Banking Act?
Responsible MSOs need to be prepared to rise to or above the standards of care of other industries. A lot of this was impossible in the past because of federal prohibition laws. Soon, if not already, labs and manufacturing processes will need to be GMP certified and more. Consumer data will need to be HIPAA compliant. Cannabis companies have to be good corporate citizens: diversity and equal opportunity should be embedded in business decisions, and commitment to ESG and sound environmental and social policies with good corporate governance need to be in planning and implemented.
Following the laws and holding ourselves to the highest possible safety and business standards will allow the cannabis industry to finally become “mainstream.”
Green: Alright, great. Thank you, Bob. That concludes the interview!
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.
The cannabis industry is quickly growing with the chance of sales tripling to $30 billion by 2023. With many rules and regulations that business owners must follow, marketing your cannabis business can be a challenge. While many may not know where to start with marketing, there are organic and simple tactics that owners can implement that can help drive more traffic to your website, resulting in more leads and sales.
Digital marketing is the most effective way to improve your brand’s online presence, reach your target audiences, rank higher on Google searches and ultimately drive more sales. Today, 81% of people turn to the internet before making a purchasing decision, but determining what digital marketing efforts are most valuable can be a daunting task for business owners. When looking to implement digital marketing strategies, businesses should leverage the 80/20 rule—focusing efforts on the 20% of the digital marketing tactics that yield 80% of the most impactful results. With this in mind, some of the key digital marketing tactics to implement today include:
Keep up with Reputation Management
Having positive reviews for your company is key to having customers come back, and for new customers to try your business out. With 72% of customers not making a buying decision until they’ve read reviews, companies should prioritize soliciting for reviews from customers and stay up to date on the reviews that are coming in. Businesses should respond to all reviews, whether good or bad, as this shows to customers that the brand cares and values the customers opinion and feedback and wants to continue creating a positive experience for everyone. Reviews should be shown prominently on the business’s website for customers to clearly read and can also be used in emails or social media posts.
Make Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Top of Mind
Focusing on developing a solid SEO strategy ensures that customers can find your company on Google when they are searching. In оrdеr to rank well in search engine results, websites need search engine optimization (SEO), which is a powerful tool and a must if your company wants to be found online by customers. With Google processing 12.18 billion search queries in July 2020 alone and 93% of all online experiences beginning with a search engine, making sure your business can be clearly found and seen online is imperative for your cannabis business’ success. Keeping your website and basic information—such as hours, contact information and prices—up to date will keep your SEO high.
Gathering customer emails is KEY and your business should have a solid plan on how to capture them, whether that’s an incentive for providing an email when they enter the site or one at checkout in the retail shop. Businesses should have the customer’s name, phone and email as a baseline to use to email or text blast out the latest promotions. From there, companies can also create a loyalty program for customers in order to give them an incentive to keep purchasing from your business. By creating targeted and personal messaging to customers with the help of CRM tools, loyalty is created to the brand, which can increase purchasing power and the amount spent.
Embrace Social Media
Social media is a part of almost everyone’s life and it’s the perfect opportunity to give customers an inside view into your company, the products you sell and any promotions or specials going on. Utilizing Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is essential for directly reaching your customer base with visually appealing and timely content. Social media is an opportunity to get personal with your brand and build relationships with your customers for them to see what kind of brand you are. Social pages should remain up to date and should be keeping up with the comments that followers are saying.
As more dispensaries and cannabis businesses pop up across the country, marketing your business may seem like a challenge for business owners, but simple and useful digital marketing tools can be incorporated into the business plan to create more quality leads and sales. Ensuring you have a strong digital presence for customers to find you and learn about your business online is the key to success.
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