Cannabis, we have a problem. Legalizing adult use cannabis in California caused the demand for high-potency cannabis to increase dramatically over the last several years. Today, many dispensary buyers enforce THC minimums for the products that they sell. If smokeable flower products don’t have COAs proving the THC levels are above 20% or more, there is a good chance many dispensaries won’t carry them on their shelves. Unfortunately, these kinds of demands only put undue pressure on the industry and mislead the consumer.
Lab Shopping: Where the Problems Lie
Lab shopping for potency analysis isn’t new, but it has become more prevalent with the increasing demand for high-potency flower over the last couple of years. Sadly, many producers submit valid, certified COAs to the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), which show two to three times the actual potency value.
At InfiniteCAL, we’ve purchased products from dispensary shelves and found significant discrepancies between the analysis we perform and the report submitted to the BCC by the producer. So, how can this happen? Several factors are creating the perfect storm in cannabis testing.
Problems with Potency
Many consumers still don’t understand that THC potency is not the only factor in determining quality cannabis, and they are unwittingly contributing to the demand for testing and analysis fraud. It is alarming for cultivation pioneers and ethical labs to see producers and profit-hungry testing facilities falsifying data to make it more appealing to the unaware consumer.
Basically, what’s happening is growers are contacting labs and asking, “I get 30% THC at this lab; what can you do?” When they see our COA reporting their flower tested lower than anticipated, they will go to another lab to get higher test results. Unfortunately, there are all too many labs that are willing to comply.
I recently saw a compliant COA that claimed that this particular flower was testing at 54% THC. Understanding cannabis genetics, we know this isn’t possible. Another product I reviewed claimed that after diluting an 88% THC distillate with 10-15% terpenes, the final potency test was 92% THC. You cannot cut a product and expect the potency to increase. Finally, a third product we reviewed claimed 98% total cannabinoids (while only looking at seven cannabinoids) with 10% terpenes for a total of 108% of the product.
These labs only make themselves look foolish to professionals, mislead laymen consumers and skirt under the radar of the BCC with basic mathematical errors.
The Pesticide Predicament
Frighteningly, inflating potency numbers isn’t the most nefarious testing fraud happening in the cannabis industry. If a manufacturer has 1000 liters of cannabis oil fail pesticide testing, they could lose millions of dollars – or have it retested by a less scrupulous lab.
As the industry continues to expand and new labs pop up left and right, cultivators and manufacturers have learned which labs are “easy graders” and which ones aren’t. Certain labs can miss up to ten times the action level of a pesticide and still report it as non-detectable. So, if the producer fails for a pesticide at one lab, they know four others won’t see it.
In fact, I’ve had labs send my clients promotional materials guaranteeing compliant lab results without ever receiving a sample for testing. So now, these companies aren’t just tricking the consumer; they are potentially harming them.
An Easy Fix
Cannabis testing is missing just one critical factor that could quickly fix these problems – checks and balances. The BCC only needs to do one of two things:
Verifying Lab Accuracy
InfiniteCAL also operates in Michigan, where the Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA) has already implemented a system to ensure labs are maintaining the highest testing standards. The MRA will automatically flag all COAs which test above a certain percentage and require the product to be retested by multiple labs.
Labs are required to keep a back stock of material. So, when test results come back abnormally high from Lab A, then Labs B, C and D are commissioned to retest the material to compare data. If Lab A reports 40% THC, but the other labs all report 18%, then it’s easy to see Lab A has made an error.
By simply buying products off the shelves and having them blind-tested by other labs, it would be simple for the BCC to determine if the existing COA is correct. They already have all the data in Metrc, so this would be a quick and easy fix that could potentially solve the problem overnight.
For example, at InfiniteCAL, we once purchased 30 samples of Blue Dream flower from different cultivators ranging in certified COA potencies from 16% to 38%. Genetically, we know the Blue Dream cultivar doesn’t produce high levels of THC. When we tested the samples we purchased, nearly every sample came back in the mid-teens to low 20% range.
Labs Aren’t Supposed to Be Profit Centers
At InfiniteCAL, we’ve contacted labs in California where we’ve uncovered discrepancies to help find and flush out the errors in testing. All too often, we hear the excuses:
“If I fix my problem, I’ll lose my clients.”
“I’m just a businessman who owns a lab; I don’t know chemistry.”
“My chemist messed up; it’s their fault!”
If you own a lab, you are responsible for quality control. We are not here to get rich; we are here to act as public safety agents who ensure these products are safe for the consumer and provide detailed information about what they choose to put in their bodies. Be professional, and remember you’re testing for the consumer, not the producer.
Part One of this series took a look at how the regulated cannabis market can only be understood in relation to the previous medical market as well as the ongoing “traditional” market. Part Two of the series describes how regulation defines vertical integration in California cannabis.
If you are considering getting involved in California cannabis, imagine the following sentence in ten-foot-tall letters made out of recently ignited $20 bills:
Before you put any money down on property, carefully examine the local cannabis ordinance and tax rates.
This article is written in the form of advice to a newbie cannabis entrepreneur in California, but it will discuss issues that are also of significance to investors, as well as (to various degrees) cannabis entrepreneurs in other states.
Here are seven basic questions that you need to ask about local regulations (in order, except for Number 7).
1. What’s Your Jurisdiction?
If you’re in city limits, it’s the city. If you’re outside city limits, it’s the county.
2. Does the Jurisdiction Allow Cannabis Activities?
If the answer is yes, go to the next question. If the answer is no, pick another jurisdiction.
3. Where Does the Jurisdiction Allow Cannabis Activities?
A zoning ordinance will limit where you can set up shop. The limitation will probably vary by license type.
4. How Does the Local Ordinance Affect Facility Costs?
The short answer is: in many ways. Your local ordinance is a Pandora’s box of legal requirements, especially facility-related requirements.1 Read your local cannabis ordinance very carefully.
Generally speaking, the cannabis ordinance will set out two types of requirements – those that are specific to cannabis and those that apply generally to any business.
Typically incorporate state cannabis laws by reference.
Have significant overlaps with state cannabis laws. For example, the state requires commercial-grade locks and security cameras everywhere cannabis may be found on a given premises. Local ordinances generally include similar requirements – keep in mind that you will need to comply with a combined standard that satisfies both state and local requirements.2
Vary greatly according to type of activity. For example, manufacturers will need to comply with Health & Safety Code requirements that can have a major impact on construction costs.
Vary greatly by jurisdiction when it comes to equity programs.
Include by reference building and fire codes, which can require very expensive improvements. Note that this means your facility will be inspected by the building department and the fire department.
Can include anything from Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements to city-specific requirements, such as Design Guidelines.
Will be zealously enforced because you’re a cannabis business.
5. What is the Enforcement Policy?
It may be that your local jurisdiction will give you temporary local authorization after meeting some, but not all, of the requirements. For example, you may be able to begin operations once you’ve provided your city or county with your cannabis permit application, a zoning clearance and a business permit. In this jurisdiction, you would be able to bring your building up to code sometime after you begin operations.
On the other hand, your local jurisdiction may require you to meet every requirement – from cannabis-specific security requirements to general building code and ADA requirements – before you can begin operations. Depending on the type of cannabis business (and facility condition), this might be inconsequential. Or it might mean that you will have to pay more than a year’s worth of rent (or mortgage) before you can start making money.
6. Can You Choose a Facility That Saves You Time and Money?
Of course, you won’t have to spend much time or money bringing your facility up to code if it’s already up to code. How likely it is that you will find such a facility varies wildly according to the type of cannabis activity in question. In general:
Service-side activities (delivery retail, storefront retail, distribution) are in many respects similar to their non-cannabis counterparts. From a facilities standpoint, the major differences come from security requirements. So, it may be possible to save time and money by choosing a facility that is already up to code for a similar use.
Manufacturing activities are trickier, since you will need food-grade facilities and equipment. You may be able to save money by setting up shop in a commercial kitchen.
Extraction with volatile solvents is a special (and particularly expensive) case, since it is inherently dangerous and requires special facilities.
Outdoor cultivation may be relatively unproblematic if it has an appropriate water source.
Indoor cultivation is expensive because of climate-control and lighting requirements. Buildings potentially suitable for large-scale indoor grows frequently come with significant problems. Former warehouses will typically require major power upgrades, while former factories may have inconvenient architecture and/or hidden toxic waste. In all cases, internal reconstruction is likely to be necessary, and will trigger all sorts of building and fire code requirements.
Local cannabis ordinances and taxes can make or break your business, so you need to understand them before you commit to a location. The seven basic questions listed above are designed to get you started.
This article is the opinion of the author and is not intended to be legal or other advice.
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. 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 navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Connected is a vertically-integrated cannabis company based out of Sacramento, CA and one of the most sought-after brands in California and Arizona. Having formed as a legacy operation in 2009, Connected has created a cult-like following over more than a decade in business. According to BDS Analytics, Connected Cannabis and their acquired brand Alien Labs now boasts the highest wholesale flower price in any major legal market – their average indoor flower wholesale price is 2x the CA average – yet also has the highest flower retail revenue.
We spoke with Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected to learn more about his transition from tech to cannabis, how Connected thinks about product and his vision for future growth. Sam joined Connected in 2018 after getting to know the founders. Prior to Connected, Sam was a co-founder at Box where he stayed on for 3 years after their successful IPO.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Sam Ghods: I originally came from the tech industry. I co-founded Box, a cloud sharing and storage company, in the mid 2000s with three other friends. We grew that from the four of us to eventually a multi-billion-dollar public offering in 2015. I stayed on a few more years after that until I took some time off trying to decide what I wanted to do next. I looked at a number of different industries and companies, but personally I always had a real passion for artisan and craft consumer goods. It’s a really big hobby of mine. Whether it’s going to Napa or learning about different kinds of premium consumer goods, I really had a deep love and never knew cannabis could be like that.
When I first met Caleb, the co-founder of Connected, he instantly got my attention by telling me that they had been selling out of their product in the volume of millions of dollars a year at more than two times what everybody else was selling for. That really piqued my interest because creating a product that has that level of consumer passion and demand is maybe the single hardest thing about building a consumer goods business. For them to have been so successful in what was a very difficult and gray market to operate in at the time – this was mid 2018 that I was speaking with him and he had been building this company since 2009 – is a really big challenge, and really impressive.
So, I started spending time with Caleb and the Connected team and learned a lot about the business. Everything I learned got me more interested and more excited. The way that they thought about the product, the way they treated it was with a reverence and level of sophistication I had no idea was possible.
I was so excited to just learn about the space. I mean, honestly, it feels like the internet in the 90’s- The sheer possibility and excitement. The only difference here is that the market already has existed for 100 years plus: the gray and underground markets for this product are actually phenomenally mature. And now we’re lifting up billions of dollars in commerce that’s already occurring and attempting to legalize all of it in one fell swoop, which creates such an interesting set of challenges.
I first got involved as an advisor on fundraising and strategy. And then a few months later, they were looking for a CEO and I joined full time as CEO in September 2018.
Aaron: What trends in the industry are you focused on?
Sam: It may seem basic, but I think product quality in the broader cannabis markets nationally and internationally is really underrated. Because of the extreme weight of the regulatory frameworks in so many different markets, it’s resulting in a lot of product being grown and sold just because it can be by the operators that are doing it. In many markets, they count the number of producers by the handful, instead of being measured in hundreds or thousands like in California or Oregon. And in that kind of environment, you’re not really having competition, and you’re not really able to see the quality that has existed in this category for years and years and years.
That’s one of the things that really sets us apart – the quality is first above all else, as well as the innovation and time that has gone into it, and not many existing brands in the legal market can say that. With some of the “premium” brands on the market, it would be comparable to just jumping into the wine industry one day and thinking that you can become a premium brand, without having any knowledge of the history of the product or the industry itself. At Connected, we have a team that’s been doing this for over a decade. We did a back of the envelope calculation: there’s over one thousand lifetime harvests between our team. We’ve also brought in specialists from Big Ag and other industries to complement that experience.
Cannabis is a very, very difficult plant to grow at a very high level. It’s much more like high-end wine or spirits than other fruit or produce. I think in the cannabis community, that’s extremely acknowledged, and appreciation for that is the reason we get by with the highest prices in the legal market. I think in the broader investor and financial community, this point hasn’t really hit home, because the limited license markets aren’t mature enough, and there isn’t enough competition in many of them.
Our focus is continuing to make the best product we can, which has fed and developed our brands [Connected and Alien Labs] into what they are today. That is our number one focus, and we think it’s pretty unique to the space of not just cultivating a great quality product, but also as far as breeding, pushing the bar higher and higher on what can be done with the genetics of the plant.
Aaron: How do you think about choosing testing labs?
Sam: So, the number one criterion is responsibility and compliance. We must be completely confident that they’re testing accurately, safely and exactly to the specifications of the state. Then from there, it is really cultivating about a partnership. There’s a lot of nuance in the relationship with a testing lab. We note things like: Are they responsive? Are they sensitive to our needs in terms of either timelines or requirements we have? It does come down to timelines and costs to a certain extent, like who’s able to deliver the best service for the best cost, but it really is a partnership where you’re working together to deliver a great product. Reliability and consistency are big pieces as well.
Aaron: Industry estimates for illicit market activities are something like 60% of the California market. From your perspective, how do we fix that?
Sam: I think it probably comes down to funding for the efforts to discontinue those activities and opening up the barrier to entry, incentivizing “illegal” operators to make the investment in the cross-over. I think the most successful attempts to tamp it down was when there were initiatives that were well-orchestrated and well-funded, allowing for legacy growers to actually cross over to the “legal” industry. You can’t launch an industry with such an extreme amount of regulation, set a miles-high barrier to entry, and then penalize legacy growers for continuing their business as-is. If the illicit market continues to be fueled by rejection, you’re not going to achieve the tax revenue that you’re expecting to see, that we all want to see. There needs to be an attitude that every dollar put into transitioning illicit markets into regulated markets is returned many times over in tax revenue to the state’s citizens.
Aaron: So, I understand you sell wholesale. Do you sell direct to consumer?“Once they hit the shelves, we blow people away again, beyond their expectations of what they had before.”
Sam: We own and operate three retail stores, so we do sell direct to our consumers, but at this point the majority of our product is sold through third party dispensaries.
Aaron: Do you make fresh frozen?
Sam: We do. On the cultivation side we have indoor, mixed light and outdoor. We fresh freeze a portion of our outdoor harvest every year, and then we use that fresh frozen for our live resin products, for example, our recent live resin cartridge. It creates a vape experience really unlike any other because we are using our regular market-ready flower, but instead we’re taking that flower and actually extracting, not just using the distillate and mixing a batch of terpenes with it. We extract the entire plant’s content across the board, from cannabinoids to terpenoids and everything in between, and then you have our live resin cartridges.
Aaron: How do you think about brand identity and leveraging the brand to command higher prices?
Sam: The cycle we’ve effectively created is that every time we do a release of a new strain or a new batch or harvest, the quality is generally going up. That quality is released under our brands, and then the customer is able to associate that increase in quality and reputation with those brands. Then for our next launch, we have an even bigger platform to talk about the products and to ship and distribute and sell the products. Once they hit the shelves, we blow people away again, beyond their expectations of what they had before. That continuous cycle keeps fortifying the brand and fortifying the product. From our perspective the brand is built 100% on the quality of the product. The product will always be our highest priority and the brand will come downstream from that.
Aaron: Tell me about Alien Labs.
Sam: Alien Labs was an acquisition. It was a company that had built their brand really successfully in the gray market through 2017 and Prop 215 in California and had an incredible level of quality, a really loyal and dedicated fan base, not to mention a tremendous Instagram presence and following, which is where 98% of cannabis marketing happens today. We really loved the spirit of what the founders were bringing to the table. In 2018, we decided basically to join forces with them and bring them on board, creating a partnership where they leverage our infrastructure and the systems and processes we’ve built, but still keep their way of cultivation and their product vision. To this day, Ted Lidie, one of the founders, continues as the lead brand director for Alien Labs.
Aaron: In what geographies do you currently operate?
Sam: Our primary offices and facilities are based out of Sacramento, California, but we have facilities throughout the state. Last year, for the first time we launched operations in a new state, Arizona. As you may know, you’re not allowed to take cannabis products across state lines at all, so if you want consistent product in multiple markets you really have no choice but to rebuild your entire infrastructure in each state you want to open up.
There are many brands that are expanding and launching in more markets more quickly, but they’re doing so by taking product that’s already existing and putting their brand name on it. That is something we’ve decided strategically that we will not do. We’ve spent years building a high level of trust with our customers, so we’re only going to put our brand name on products that are our genetics, our cultivation, our style, our quality of product. When we launched in Arizona, we did it with a facility that we leased and took over and now operate with our staff. We’re replicating the same exact product that you can get in California in Arizona, which is really exciting.
We launched just this past November, which has been incredibly successful. Our dispensary partner Harvest saw lines of dozens of people out the door.“We consider ourselves a flower company first and foremost, so for us, that was a very calculated strategic move.”
Aaron: Any new geographies on the horizon that you can talk about?
Sam: We’re constantly evaluating new opportunities. I don’t have anything particularly specific to announce right now, but I will say we look for states where we believe there’s a competitive environment where the product quality is going to really stand out and be appreciated.
Aaron: Do you notice any differences in consumer trends between California and Arizona that stand out?
Sam: Not too many yet. We don’t have a retail location in Arizona, so we don’t have as much direct contact. However, we have heard consistently that the Connected customer demographics – as you would imagine most interested in our product – are those looking for something special, unique, different and have a really superior quality to everything else out there. We ended up launching in Arizona with the highest price point for flower in the state, and we say that’s just the beginning. The market is still so young and immature, both nationally and internationally, that this category is going to develop into one that’s really taste-driven.
Aaron: What’s next in California?
Sam: Continued growth and product development. We want to keep blowing away our customers with more and more incredible products, different product types and categories. For example, the cartridges were a really big launch for us because we don’t really consider ourselves a vape company. We consider ourselves a flower company first and foremost, so for us, that was a very calculated strategic move. We were only going to launch the product if we could fully replicate what the consumer gets from the flower experience. We are very unlikely to ever release a distillate pen, for example.
Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?
Sam: We, as a society, really don’t know very much about the cannabis plant. Pretty much all meaningful research around cannabis stopped in the early 1900’s with prohibition. In the meantime, we’ve performed millions of dollars of studies and research on almost every other plant that we grow commercially. We understand these plants extraordinarily well. Cannabis science is stuck back in agriculture of early 1900s. The most interesting conversations I have are around how the plant works, how it doesn’t work and the ways in which it is so different from all other plants with which we are familiar. Our head of cultivation comes from Driscolls, the largest berry company in the world, and even he is frequently surprised by the way the cannabis plant reacts to things that are commonly understood in other plants. So, the way the actual plant responds to different environments is truly fascinating and something I think we’ll be learning about for decades and decades to come.
Aaron: Okay, great. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Sam!
As a cannabis lawyer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that regulations affect a cannabis company’s bottom line. Since I’m in California, the ways are many.
In late 2017 I became the chief compliance officer for an Oakland startup that carried out delivery, distribution, cultivation and six manufacturing operations. A big part of my job was preparing my company, along with several equity cannabis companies, for California’s First Wave of cannabis licenses.
For the most part, First Wave licensees came from California’s essentially unregulated medical cannabis market, and/or from California’s by-definition unregulated “traditional” market. When California began issuing licenses in January 2018, many First Wavers were unprepared because their businesses practices had evolved in an unregulated market. A big part of my job was to help them adapt to the new requirements. As a result, I saw the regulations, and the effects of regulations, in sharp relief.
Regulation touches virtually every aspect of the legal cannabis industry in California. So anyone who wants to understand the industry should have at least a basic understanding of how the regs work. I’m writing this series to lay that out, in broad strokes.
Some key points:
The regulated market must be understood in relation to the previous unregulated (medical) market as well as the ongoing traditional market.
Regs define the supply chain.
Regs are designed to ensure product safety and maximize tax revenue.
Many regulations mandate good business practices.
Local enforcement of building, health and safety codes tends to be zealous and costly.
A Tale of Three Markets
California’s regulated cannabis market can only be understood in relation to the medical market that preceded it, and in relation to the traditional market (illegal market) that continues to compete with it.
The Before Times
California’s legal medical cannabis market goes back to 1996, when the Compassionate Use Act passed by ballot measure. One fact that shaped the medical market was that it was never just medical – while it served bona fide patients, it also served as a Trojan horse for adult-use (recreational) purchasers.
Another fact that shaped the medical market was a near complete lack of regulation. On the seller’s side, you had to be organized as a collective. On the buyer’s side, you had to have a medical card. That was it.
Meanwhile, the cannabis supply chain was entirely unregulated. This tended to minimize production costs. It also meant that a patient visiting a dispensary had no way of verifying where the products had been made, or how.
The Regulated Times
Licensing under the Medical and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (the “Act”) began on January 1, 2018. It was the beginning of legal adult-use cannabis in California. It was also the beginning of the Regulated Times, as the Act and accompanying 300-plus pages of regulations transformed the legal cannabis market.
Note that the distributors must collect the excise tax from the retailer, so the 15% markup is not necessarily visible to the consumer. Similarly, consumers are generally unaware that there is a cultivation tax of $9.65 per ounce (or about $1.21 per eighth) of dried flower that the distributor has to collect from the cultivator.
Theoretically, all of this might be unproblematic if licensed retailers were only competing with each other. Which brings us to:
The Traditional Market
The traditional market is the illegal market, which is to say, the untaxed and unregulated market.
Legalization of adult-use cannabis was supposed to destroy the traditional market, but it hasn’t. As of early 2020, the traditional market was estimated to be 80% of the total cannabis market in California. This is not surprising, since the traditional market has the advantages of being untaxed and unregulated.
The traditional market has a pervasive negative effect on the legal market. For example, the traditional market tends to depress prices in the legal market and tends to attract talent away from the legal market. Some of these effects will be discussed in the following articles.
This article is an opinion only and is not intended to be legal advice.
A new California Proposition 65 mandate took effect on January 3, requiring health warning labels for all cannabis products sold in the state. Failure to comply with the requirements can and will result in enforcement against cannabis producers and sellers, resulting in hefty penalties. Here’s what you need to know.
Some Background on Proposition 65 and Cannabis
California’s Proposition 65, also known as the “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986,” requires various parties in the supply chain for consumer products to provide warnings on products they sell in the state if exposure to certain chemicals in those products will pose a significant risk of cancer or reproductive harm. Proposition 65 applies to any company that sells products in California, regardless of whether the business is headquartered or manufactures products in California.
“Cannabis (Marijuana) Smoke” was listed under Proposition 65 in 2009 because of the potential that it contains ingredients or emits chemicals known to cause cancer. These chemicals include toxins such as arsenic, benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde, lead and nickel. In January 2020, Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was added to the list of toxic chemicals under Proposition 65 because of THC’s potential to cause reproductive harm. Now, both THC and cannabis smoke are listed under Proposition 65 and require warning labels.
What This Means for You and Your Company
The updated chemical list, which includes THC, became effective January 3, 2021, so the clock to come into compliance is ticking if you are not already complying. Many cannabis companies selling in California already comply with Proposition 65 by including warnings on their products that emit cannabis smoke. However, now companies that have previously issued a consumer warning regarding cannabis smoke must expand their warnings to include both the potential risk of cancer and the potential risk of reproductive harm. Additionally, products that previously did not require a warning for cannabis smoke will now be subject to Proposition 65 for exposure to THC.
The listing of THC implicates a broader range of cannabis products because it affects any product that contains detectable levels of THC, including products that contain less than 0.3% THC in compliance with the 2018 Farm Bill. Under the THC listing, a wide range of cannabis and hemp-derived CBD products, including products that do not emit smoke, such as edibles, topicals and other concentrates are subject to the Proposition 65 labeling requirements.
The agency that oversees Proposition 65 has provided so-called “safe harbor” levels for many listed chemicals that allow companies to forego a warning label if exposure to the chemical occurs at or below a certain threshold. However, no safe harbor level has been established for cannabis smoke or THC, and so the burden falls to the business to determine if the levels of the chemical pose a significant risk to the consumer. This determination typically requires extensive and costly testing that is not practical for most businesses. Thus, parties in the cannabis supply chain should work to properly label all cannabis-related products at this time. Failure to do so is risky. Proposition 65 “bounty hunters” team up with individuals to enforce Proposition 65 by sending notice of violation letters and then often filing lawsuits against businesses they believe are in violation of the statute. Many of these demands and lawsuits settle, as the cost to litigate is expensive. Settling, though, can be expensive, too.
A number of laws have gone into effect in 2021 which may have a major impact on cannabis industry employers; clearly understanding the changing legal landscape is essential to avoid and limit potential liability in the new year and beyond. Below is a brief summary of some relevant new employment laws in cannabis friendly states:
Expansion of family and medical leave: California has long required employers to provide job protected medical and family leave if an employee worked at a jobsite with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius.
Senate Bill 1383 now requires all employers with five or more employees to provide up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for employees to bond with a new child or to care for themselves or a family member suffering from a serious health condition. To be eligible for the leave, an employee must have at least 12 months of service with the employer and have performed at least 1,250 hours of work in the previous 12-month period. While on leave, employees are entitled to continue to participate in an employer’s health insurance plan and to return to their job or a comparable position at the conclusion of their job-protected leave. Previously exempt small employers should be aware of these obligations moving forward.
Employer Pay Reporting Requirements: Under Senate Bill 973, employers with 100 or more employees that are required to file an annual Employer Information Report, colloquially known as the EEO-1 report, must submit annual information on its employees’ pay data to the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). The report must include the number of the employer’s employees by race, ethnicity and sex in specific job categories and pay ranges and their associated work hours and earnings.
The first report is due on March 31, 2021, and the DFEH has prepared an online portal to assist employers in submitting this information. These reports can be complex and address highly sensitive information, so employers are strongly advised to contact counsel for assistance in preparing and submitting their first report.
Increased pay requirements: Washington’s inflation-based minimum wage system has increased the minimum wage to $13.69 per hour in 2021. Employers with 50 or fewer employees must also pay salaried employees at least $827 per week (or $43,004 per year) and employers with more than 50 employees must pay at least $965 per week (or $50,180 per year) starting January 1st.
Equal Pay for Equal Work Act: Beginning in 2021, all employers with at least one employee must: (1) provide formal notice to Colorado employees of promotional opportunities; and (2) disclose pay rates or ranges in job postings that could be performed in Colorado (this includes virtual or remote work positions).
The Equal Pay for Equal Work Act generally requires employers to take reasonable efforts to promptly announce, post, or otherwise communicate all opportunities to all current employees prior to making a promotion decision. An employer must communicate promotional opportunities when it has or anticipates a vacancy or a new position that could be considered a promotion for current employees in light of pay, benefits, status, duties or further potential promotions.
Under the law, job postings must also include: (1) the rate of pay or pay range for the position; (2) a general description of bonuses, commissions or other forms of compensation offered with the job; and (3) a description of the employment benefits associated with the position.
Cannabis industry employers face a range of new laws, even absent the continued legal burden of managing employees during the COVID 19 pandemic. Employers should consider carefully reviewing all applicable laws and seeking guidance from counsel when needed.
Cannabis presents a plethora of challenges for entrepreneurs not seen in more traditional industries. Akin to the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, the cannabis industry has seen an astonishing flurry of business over the past decade. Within this dynamic landscape, new cannabis companies come and go on a near-daily basis.
To capitalize on novel markets’ potential, hopeful entrepreneurs from all walks of life have “jumped headfirst” into the cannabis space. This new breed of entrepreneurs must not only be smart, but they must also be challenging. Yet, as the cannabis industry evolves under the forces of legalization and innovation, our understanding of what defines cannabis entrepreneurs continues to change.
Cannabis businesses are shaped by the regulations, challenges and opportunities of specific market niches. As such, cannabis entrepreneurs have evolved with the environments in which they do business.
California & Proposition 215
California paved the way for the industry of today by legalizing medical cannabis in 1995. Since the passage of historic Proposition 215, cannabis has continued to gain momentum across the globe. This progress has happened through the visions and hard work of small business owners.
The early days of legal cannabis in California are now criticized for their lack of regulation. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, all you needed to start a cultivation business in California was a place to grow a garden. While early dispensaries did need local business licenses, they could legally purchase and sell untested products from unlicensed growers.
The genealogy of the modern cannabis industry can be traced directly back to the days of California’s Prop 215. During this era, the first cannabis dispensaries were founded – this model has since been replicated thousands of times. Also, the Prop 215 model gave rise to America’s first legal, commercial cannabis farms.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in California’s medical space focused primarily on developing the blueprints for a brand-new industry. To this end, they did not have the time or luxury to finetune the businesses for such things as operational efficiency and brand awareness. Even more, these people did not have to deal with such complexities as employee screening, product testing and seed-to-sale tracking.
Medical Cannabis Entrepreneurs
New medical markets stand in stark contrast to those seen in the early days of California. To this end, today’s medical markets operate within a web of stringent government regulations. For entrepreneurs, these rules set forth major emphases on both compliance and technology.
The Pennsylvania medical cannabis industry provides an excellent platform for understanding how the regulatory system of a market shapes entrepreneurial paths. For instance, medical cannabis cards are only issued to patients that meet the minimum criteria of 23 qualifying conditions, including severe conditions like aids, cancer and epilepsy. Beyond that, cannabis dispensaries in Pennsylvania must meet a slew of challenging criteria to operate and pay large sums of money in licensing fees.
To handle the regulatory requirements in places like Pennsylvania and remain profitable, medical cannabis entrepreneurs are incredibly dependent on technology. To this end, dispensaries utilize point-of-sale (POS) and seed-to-sale software to track inventory and stay compliant carefully. Even more, they use state-of-the-art security systems to safeguard their operations.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in medical markets must be able to run compliant operations and support their businesses with requisite technology. These elements stand in stark contradiction to the “wild west” mentality that pervaded the early industry. As such, it’s safe to assume that the rules of today’s markets force entrepreneurs to be more professional than in the days of CA Prop 215.
Adult-Use Cannabis Entrepreneurs
The most considerable difference between medical and adult-use cannabis companies has to do with their available customer base. Importantly, adult-use cannabis companies are only bound by minimum age requirements and state borders. Furthermore, limited restrictions on licensing create highly competitive markets that require sophisticated sales and marketing operations.
As there are no limits on potential customers, and limited regulations on license counts, business opportunities in adult-use markets are primarily directed by supply and demand rules. Because competition is the driving force in adult-use markets, entrepreneurs in this vertical have a good deal in common with peers outside the cannabis industry.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of adult-use entrepreneurs is an emphasis on branding and marketing. As adult-use markets mature in places like Colorado, a phenomenon known as “brand concentration” occurs when a few companies come to dominate a majority of the market. As smaller companies fight for market share, they must develop professional brands that appeal to a broad customer base.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in adult-use markets must master the skills required in medical cannabis while also expanding their knowledge base in modern business dealings. Of these, the development of professional brands is one of the most defining characteristics of adult-use entrepreneurs.
It’s astonishing to see how much the cannabis industry has grown and matured looking back just a few short years. As business opportunities come about with new legalization efforts, entrepreneurs quickly rise to take advantage of untapped markets. As the cannabis business continues to evolve with the times, entrepreneurs must pivot to stay compliant, relevant and successful.
While the early Prop 215 market in California barely resembles today’s industry, it’s important to remember where we came from. Namely, our understanding of the contemporary cannabis business results from everyone who came before us. As the industry progresses, we will continue to complement established best practices with the requisite innovations that come with new opportunities.
Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.
This is the third article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this third piece, we talk with Liz Conway, Regional President of Florida at Parallel. Liz started with Parallel in 2019 after transitioning from her healthcare IT consulting practice. She now heads up Florida operations for Parallel which runs the Surterra Wellness brand.
Next week, we’ll sit down with Stephanie Gorecki, vice president of product development at Cresco Labs. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Liz, very nice to meet you. Can you tell me how did you get involved at Parallel?
Liz Conway: Well, I’ll give a little bit of background. Previously, I was working in healthcare technology and in that field, really coming out of health care reform. I was also living in Northern California and so was conscious of a bunch of startups that needed help with highly regulated spaces and policy and how to navigate both the today and the tomorrow of “Hey, we’re trying to build something super fast, but we’re not interfacing with government well enough to know how to build what we’re building and not be set back again.”
And so cannabis actually came to me. I started working with some early stage cannabis IT companies and I was the principal where I founded a firm to do this very thing, which was to help highly regulated companies get through what is today, what is tomorrow, and what can we change. I was really fortunate to be living in Northern California, and I started to help them navigate the California rules.
Then in 2016, when California went adult use, that was just a major time to turn everything on its head and see what we could get. From there, it was history. I started to work with companies, both nationally and in Canada, and met some of the folks with Parallel and was a consultant with them for a while and then joined the team.
Aaron: So, are you in Florida now?
Liz: I relocated to Florida in January 2019.
Aaron: At Parallel, how do you think about differentiating in the market?
Liz: I think that we differentiate in terms of the quality of our product, of course, and I will speak specifically to Florida where our focus is still a medical market. Every day we are trying to manage the vertical from end-to-end so that we can get the products that our people want as quickly as possible over a vast territory. Well-being is such a critical ethos that everything we do comes down to, “alright, what does this mean for well-being and how are we delivering that both in the customer experience as well as in the product?”
Aaron: With regards to differentiation, can you speak to any products in particular that you feel are differentiated in the Florida market?
Liz: In the Florida market, I think that we were the first to launch thera-gels, and the thera-gels really are medicated jelly. You can use it sublingually, or take it as an oral to swallow. From that we developed thera-chews. That line, it’s really great tasting, it’s long lasting, and the effects are getting great reviews from the patients. So that’s one area that I think we distinguish ourselves and we’re a forerunner in the Florida market.
Aaron: So, if you take one of those products as an example, can you walk us through your process for creating a new product like that?
Liz: Well, so remembering that we’re part of companies in other states, because Parallel operates in Nevada, Massachusetts and in Texas. So, we’re not developing products on our own, but we certainly are doing Florida market analysis to say, what should come next, we are listening to our customers, we listen to our people, we’ve got 39 stores across the state. We have a number of employees who are always listening. We also have employees who are part of the medical program who are using the products to address different needs and they are looking at our competitors.
So, we’re doing some competitive analysis. We’re also knowing what it is that we’re really good at, and we take it through a product development lifecycle that involves testing because we are fully vertical. In Florida, we have to always ask ourselves are we able to do this end-to-end and thus far, we’ve been fortunate enough to either build or buy that capability.
Aaron: You mentioned there’s 39 stores in Florida? Are those dispensaries?
Liz: Yeah, they are our stores. There are other stores that other companies have, but we’re the second largest footprint in the state and all over from the very edges of Pensacola down to the Florida Keys, and then over to Miami and up through Tallahassee. So, covering really all corners in the state.
Aaron: Now, with those stores do you also market your products in other people’s stores?
Liz: No. The vertical really means that our stores only carry our own products. We’re marketed in Florida as Surterra Wellness and that’s the name of our stores. Anywhere you go that there’s a Surterra Wellness, you have the same product sets and we’re not allowed to sell other folks’ products. It’s a big difference between Florida and other states.
I’ll tell you one of the nice things is, when I have a product, I know that we grew it. I know every single quality step along the way. I don’t have to go and then look at other vendors and constantly monitor their quality. Everything that we do, we touched it from the very first moment hitting the ground. So it’s nice.
Aaron: Can you walk me through one of your most recent product launches? And if you can, the full lifecycle from the initial marketing briefing up to commercialization?
Liz: Well, I can do some of that. Speaking specifically about those thera-chews – that oral dosing mechanism – we’ve got it in a couple of different flavors. We said to ourselves, “hey, there’s a real need in this market for people to experience something that was like an edible, because Florida just launched edibles.” But we didn’t consider this as an edible because they weren’t allowed at that point. We knew from other states that particularly patients like to dose, you know, with something that is long lasting and flavorful. And so we said, “how can we bring this to market as an oral-dosing product?” And so we conceived the machinery that was able to do it. We had to do quite a bit of tooling.
Prior to that, we did some market testing from our customers and our associates as well as our brand team to say “is this going to be right? Can we bring it to market?” We did the projections around anticipated demand and program growth as well as the cost. We had to figure out what it would it take to adjust the machinery. Will it work? We did some pretty significant testing on that machinery and a lot of flavor testing.
We’re fortunate enough to have one of only four licensed kitchens that can do this kind of R&D in Florida. We’re licensed by the Department of Health for cannabis R&D on an edibles-type kitchen. So we were really fortunate to be able to do that to bring it to market. And from there, it really took on a life of its own. The flavors were tested across all of us (non-dosed flavors, obviously) and we voted on the best products to hit the shelves.
Aaron: When you’re making that decision, how much of the decision was weighted by market demand from your existing customers, and just observing other markets and seeing how products perform in other markets?
Liz: Data is not as prolific as I’d like it to be in cannabis. When you hit the edge of that state line, your consumer is very different, your stores are very different, your marketing capability is very different. So we really had to look across the US and say, “how are products like this performing? Is that how Florida is going to perform?” We did use that state-by-state evidence as well as our own evidence — the response to therapy gels — if we have thera-gels, what type are we selling in terms of dosage and flavors. There are slight differences there in effect-states. And so it was a little bit of both.
Aaron: Next question gets more into like the supply chain. How do you go about sourcing ingredients for your products?
Liz: So again, in a fully verticalized state, we have to source 100% of the active cannabinoid ingredients. Then we have an authorized vendor list that we’ve worked with for other things in terms of flavors and terpenes. Then we have to go back to the DoH to make sure that the other ingredients, whether that be sweeteners, or the kind of wrapping on those thera-gels are okay — the gelatin elements in particular.
“The Florida environment all day long is the biggest hurdle that I think we face.”We use an authorized vendor list. One of the great things that we’ve done recently is to focus our vendor list on minority women and veteran-owned businesses, and so really looking deep in the supply chain to source whatever we can from a diversity of suppliers. I love that original ethos of cannabis to be of the people, by the people and for the people, as well homegrown.
Aaron: Can you give me an example of a challenge that you run into frequently?
Liz: Well, I’ll say in Florida, if you’re growing your own cannabis, it’s way different than if you’re growing it in Colorado or California. So, I’m going to start there. The great news is that after Florida allowed us to start selling smokable flower last fall, we’ve come such a long way. We’ve got new indoor grow facilities. It’s making the environmental issues much, much lower.
“I think that the best thing that we can do is try to look five years ahead and ask what could this look like?”Bringing those on-line is going to bring a much more consistent consumer experience because while I know consumers have a lot of tolerance for variations in their cannabis, but as the industry matures, they’re going to treat us much more like other CPG companies. They’re not going to want that variation. Between that and then Florida’s new testing regulations which also are making sure that the product that’s delivered only meets what’s on the label.
The Florida environment all day long is the biggest hurdle that I think we face. The humidity is much higher here than in other states.
We’re also looking at live resin. What I am watching is the next generation. A lot of live products get us really close to the plant. We’ve done so much to pull out of the plant but where are we going to preserve that original plant in all of its most original formats without having to necessarily smoke the flower itself. We’re working with the Florida Department of Health to help them understand live resin products from a health standpoint.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?
Liz: As you can imagine, as the regional president of a division that goes really end-to-end on monitoring trends in edibles and infused products, medical and recreational, I’m watching the election pretty closely. It will impact banking. It could potentially impact interstate commerce and it could potentially impact research.
I’m also watching things like HR trends, what’s happening in who we employ, our leadership, and how we deal with some of the emerging union issues around the country. I think that the best thing that we can do is try to look five years ahead and ask what could this look like? Where do we put our investment dollars now to meet the future, as well as where do we put our regulatory efforts for the best public policy to have the outcomes that we want consumers to trust us with? I know that’s a really broad answer, but from where I sit, it really is what I’m looking at, across a universe of excitement, but it includes challenges also.
Aaron: The last question is, what would you like to learn more about in the cannabis industry?
Liz: Well, of course, if I had a crystal ball, that would be great. I think the data is always missing. The more data that we could get, there’s so much out there that people are using cannabis for and we just don’t understand the impacts on how is this wonderful well-being product helping so many people because a lot of people don’t like to talk about it. So the more data about our consumers and what they like and what they don’t like, even across state lines, as we could aggregate that in a uniform way. I think it would help a lot of the people who are fearful of cannabis and it would help a lot of us who are in the business, get the consumers exactly spot on what they want, which at the end of the day is why we’re all here.
Aaron: Thank you Liz, that’s the end of the interview.
While we’re pleased to report that 2020 is almost over, 2021 will be a mixed bag. New jurisdictions will open their doors to cannabis and consumption will continue to rise, but competition from new operators and illicit supplies will increase. As California’s cannabis industry matures and turns the page on a bizarre year, market uncertainty will linger as the pandemic drags on and overtaxation and regulation strangle profits. But let’s remember, cannabis has been cultivated for over 6,000 years and has withstood far worse—this market isn’t going anywhere and will continue to grow and become more impactful.
Access to Traditional Finance Services
The U.S. Senate will likely pass legislation providing cannabis businesses access to traditional banking and financing services. This will be a game changer for the industry. Valuations will go up. Increased liquidity will smooth transactions. Companies will look to affordable debt to expand their footprints and capacity to compete on a new scale. Full federal legalization could be a game changer if 280E tax restrictions are lifted and interstate and international cannabis trade open up, but the timing of this is hard to predict.
Continued Quarantine-Induced Consumption
Cannabis consumption will continue to increase as Californians seek to ease pandemic-related stress, temper quarantine conditions, and sample an eye-popping array of new products. Sophisticated consumers will be open to spending more on unique and niche products. But hemp-derived cannabinoids may present a new source of competition, especially if CBD remains unregulated. By the end of 2021, cannabis beverages will begin to compete with mainstream alcohol categories. Pharmaceuticals will increasingly take notice of this industry and the increasing share of consumers turning to plant-based remedies.
Ever More Cultivation Opportunities
In pursuit of revenue, agricultural counties will liberalize their policies on cannabis cultivation by permitting more acreage and streamlining permit processes. Neighborhood groups will push back, but policymaker concerns will be assuaged when they see cannabis farms operating innocuously (and sustainably) around the state. Advances in seed breeding, pest-and-disease control, outdoor growing techniques and odor abatement technology will help too.
Cities and counties will revisit opening their borders to cannabis retail storefront and delivery as they attempt to fill budget gaps. Many cities will allow cannabis retail for the first time and/or expand the number of licenses available. These new dispensaries will provide a much-needed outlet for the influx of licensed flower and will continue to spur innovation and consumer education. But a “second wave” of retail speculators seems poised to let optimism override judgement, setting themselves up for failure or acquisition by incumbents.
Getting Social Equity Right
2021 will be a pivotal year for social equity, which will establish a foundation for a just cannabis economy. The industry will have to grapple with how to ensure that those most impacted by the criminalization of cannabis and most often excluded from traditional financing exposure are provided with equitable access to meaningful opportunities. As California’s regulated cannabis market grows, getting social equity right will be important if the industry is to firmly establish itself as an inclusive industry that addresses impacts on marginalized communities and responds to customer demands.
California’s new CalCannabis Appellations Program will provide cultivators and brands a way to credibly market the value of their unique growing regions and cultivation methods. These distinctions only apply to cannabis planted in the ground, excluding greenhouse and warehouse grows. The expectation is that high-end consumers, trained to recognize place-based designations and quality certifications in other products, will reward products that boast these designations. How many consumers will be willing to pay the premium and how long full implementation of the program will take, remains to be seen.
Prices May Begin to Drop
2020 was a great year for the few fully licensed cultivators in California permitted to sell to the regulated market. 2021 may be different. Numerous licensed cultivation projects will complete the permitting processes and come online next year. While growing demand may outpace supply at first, by Q3 supplies could swamp the market. Premium flower is perhaps an exception. Adding to the pricing pain, as always, is California’s illicit market, which will continue to undercut prices, as legal growers toil to comply with a labyrinth of state and local regulations. Nonetheless, cannabis will remain the most profitable crop on a per acre basis for some time.
The drop in prices coupled with continued high taxes and regulatory burdens will result in turnover of assets and businesses. Less efficient and inexperienced cultivators will struggle, many unable to ultimately withstand pricing pressure. Others will be hit by enforcement actions for failing to comply with California’s myriad regulations. Retailers, already burdened by punitive tax structures, real estate finance commitments and onerous local regulations, will need to be disciplined and have a clear strategy to address new competition.
Driven by business failures and renewed investor interest, California’s regulated cannabis industry may consolidate rapidly in the second half of 2021. Institutional finance will enter the space with a much more disciplined approach than prior capital sources. Traditional agricultural interests will invest in cannabis cultivation projects. Well-run retail chains will begin to outcompete, and then acquire, mom-and-pop competitors. Big brands will continue to expand their shelf space, relegating smaller competitors to niche and novelty status.
In short, the cannabis industry will continue to be highly dynamic, exciting, enticing and risky.
Since the beginning of this year, more than 8,100 wildfires have burned in California, torching a record 3.7 million acres of land in a state with one of the largest cannabis economies in the world. With the effects of climate change continuing to wreak havoc on the entire West Coast, smoke from those fires has spread across much of the country throughout the summer.
As we approach October, colloquially referred to as Croptober in the outdoor cannabis market for the harvest season, we’re seeing the August Complex Fire creep towards the Emerald Triangle, an area in northern California and southern Oregon known for its ideal cannabis growing conditions and thousands of cultivators. The wildfires are close to engulfing towns like Post Mountain and Trinity Pines, which are home to a large number of cannabis cultivators.
Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, says losses could reach hundreds of millions of dollars. Fires across Oregon have torched dozens of cultivation operations, with business owners losing everything they had. The Glass Fire has already affected a large number of growers in Sonoma and Napa Counties and is 0% contained. None of these cultivators have crop insurance and many of them have no insurance at all.
The impact from all of these fires on the entire cannabis supply chain is something that takes time to bear witness; a batch of harvested flower typically takes months to make its way down the entire supply chain following post-harvest drying and curing, testing and further processing into concentrates or infused products.
The fires affect everyone in the supply chain differently, some much more than others. Sweet Creek Farms, located in Sonoma County, lost all but one fifth of their crops to fires. Other cultivators further south of the Bay Area have lost thousands of plants tainted by smoke.
Harry Kazazian, CEO of 22Red, a cannabis brand distributed throughout California, Nevada and Arizona, says he is increasing their indoor capacity to make up for any outdoor flower loss. But he said it has not impacted his business significantly. “Wildfires have been a part of California and many businesses have adapted to dealing with them,” says Kazazian. He went on to add that most of his flower comes from indoor grows in the southern part of the state, so he doesn’t expect it to impact too much of his supply chain. Kazazian is right that this is not a new concept – the cannabis industry on the West Coast has been dealing with wildfires for years.
George Sadler, President of Platinum Vape, has a similar story to tell – the fires have impacted his supply chain only slightly, saying they had a handful of flower orders delayed or cancelled, but it’s still business as usual. “It’s possible this won’t affect the supply chain until later in the fall,” says Sadler. “There has definitely been an effect on crops that are being harvested now. It may end up driving the price of flower up, but we won’t really know that until January or February if it had an effect.”
Sadler believes this problem could become more extreme in years to come. “Climate change definitely will have an effect on the industry more inland, where we’re seeing fires more commonly – it could be pretty dramatic.”
One beacon of hope we see every year from these fires is how quickly the cannabis community comes together during times of hardship. Sadler’s company donated $5,000 to the CalFire Benevolent Foundation, an organization that supports firefighters and their families in times of crisis.
A large number of cannabis companies, like CannaCraft, Mondo, Platinum Vape and Henry’s Original, just to name a few, have come together to help with relief efforts, donate supplies, offer product storage and open their doors to families.
If you want to help, there are a lot of donation pages, and crowdfunding campaigns to support the communities impacted. The California Community Foundation has set up a Wildfire Relief Fund that you can donate to.
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