According to a press release published today, a number of businesses in the cannabis cultivation market have announced they are launching the Sustainable Cannabis Coalition (SCC). The group’s purpose is to “measure, document and improve sustainable cannabis cultivation and manufacturing through education and proliferation of best practices.”
The SCC founding members include: Cohn Reznick, Anderson Porter Design, Valiant, Wholly H2O, Cloud Farming, Argus Controls, Conviron, Gro iQ, Trulieve, Byers Scientific, 365 Cannabis, GMP Collective, Omega Equipment and Supply, Simplifya, PathogenDx, Grow Generation and Outlaw Technology.
The press release says that the SCC will work with industry stakeholders to promote environmental sustainability best practices that can be implemented at scale. “The SCC will be a trusted resource providing foundational best practices to further promote economic benefits of sustainability as the industry continues to grow.”
The SCC will begin its campaign by publishing informative blog posts and podcast interviews on a biweekly basis, with plans to address each vertical in the cultivation and manufacturing supply chain, highlighting environmental sustainability best practices.
According to Peter Dougherty, CEO of Gro IQ and co-founder of the SCC, their mission is to get leaders in the industry to collaborate on promoting the best ways for businesses to become more sustainable. “We will accomplish this by having our founding members companies, which
represent every major link in the cannabis cultivation, manufacturing and distribution supply chain, provide data driven business cases for sustainability based on their area of expertise and then amplifying that content through each other’s websites and social media channels,” says Dougherty.
“With investors across the industry incorporating Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors into the investment process, the creation of a coalition to address sustainability in this space is critical,” Dougherty says. “The SCC is uniquely poised to impact the industry as it continues to rapidly evolve. As leaders in this space, it is our responsibility to provide data driven sustainability guidance to the industry while protecting both consumers and the environment.”
Their content will be available for free to anyone on their website. Dougherty says they have already received a tremendous amount of interest prior to the launch, so he expects their sphere of influence to expand rapidly.
As of now, the SCC serves as an informal coalition among businesses with no plans to expand too much beyond their current size. The primary goal is dissemination of educational content to start. However, they do encourage folks to check out their website and sign up.
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.
Heat-not-burn is a non-combustion technology consisting of a heating source and either an oven that the user packs cannabis into or a stick pre-filled with cannabis. The cannabis is heated to a lower temperature than a combusted joint or bowl to create an aerosol that the user inhales. Heat-not-burn in this way is distinct from traditional vaping where a liquid or oil is heated to become a vapor and inhaled.
Omura is a design company that has developed a platform product for the heat-not-burn market.
We spoke with Mike Simpson, CEO and co-founder of Omura. Mike co-founded Omura in 2018 after an international design career where he spent much of his time in Japan working with consumer products.
Aaron Green: Mike, what trends are you following in the market?
Mike Simpson: I’m always tracking trends in the heat-not-burn space. Because of my background, I know that the tobacco industry inspires a lot of the technology in the cannabis space. If you look at all the vape pens, that technology was initially developed for big tobacco, which then later was adopted by cannabis. I’m always looking to stay educated on what’s happening in the tobacco industry, as I know it’s directly tied to my work in cannabis.
I’m also looking at what’s happening all over the world with legislation. I’ve been studying it for years, but this past year has been phenomenal. Seeing five new states go to some level of legalization, the federal law and new states legalizing cannabis in the 2020 Election. I believe the Biden/Harris victory will have a major impact on the industry, however we still have to see what happens with the Senate. These next couple of years are going to be very interesting to see how things shape out for cannabis.
Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?
Mike: I am interested in learning how the world is going to behave next year with this new life that’s been thrusted upon us. How effective is the new vaccine going to be? How are people going to retrospectively look at this year, and the lifestyle that they used to have before going into COVID? How much of it’s going to become permanent? How much of this Zoom life will we continue to enjoy? In the future, will office spaces become obsolete? How much will we still be using home deliveries? Do we actually want to go to restaurants again? That’s what I’m very interested in learning about is how human behavior and the world will change because of what’s happening right now.
Aaron Green: How did you get started at Omura?
Mike Simpson: Great question. I moved to Japan as a designer working for Lego and set up their design office for Lego toys. After Lego, I started working instead with Nike and Adidas designing performance sneakers and apparel for a couple of years until I found Big Tobacco — which is where my Omura story begins. I rapidly found myself in a position where I was creating new technologies, for the consumption of nicotine and tobacco. While working on an early project, I was asked if I knew any science fiction writers. Thanks to Lego, I just so happened to know Syd Mead, the designer for popular sci-fi films including BladeRunner, Tron and Aliens. So, I called him and we worked on a project which was aimed at setting the future of the smoking industry. Obviously, this was a brilliant project for someone like myself to get involved in. We came up with several scenarios that depicted the future of what tobacco consumption would look like, and each of them essentially included vaporization. This was before the vaporization days which made it kind of a difficult sell. I spent many years working on where we could use existing technologies in order to execute some of these scenarios. Ten years later, I moved to California, and I started studying the cannabis space for Big Tobacco which ultimately led me to Omura.
Aaron: Can you give me a reference point on the date when you were back in California?
Mike: I came here eight years ago, and I was in Japan pretty much 10 years prior to that.
Essentially what I realized when I got to California was that cannabis was perfect for heat-not-burn because of all the cannabinoids and the terpenes. You heat it up, and you get all of the good properties out of it without the need for combustion. There were already hundreds of products in the market, which validated that people love doing it.
However, there was a ritual: you needed to buy the flower, grind it, pack the device, select the temperature and then use the same mouthpiece repeatedly. And it doesn’t stop there. When the session is finished, you dig out the used flower with a metal spatula or brush. After every 10 or 15 times you have to clean it with rubbing alcohol to get rid of any existing residue from those sessions. This is just a big messy job with a massive amount of inconsistency and variability. For me, it was mind blowing that people would even go through this procedure. With Omura, I knew we needed to simplify that process. Our product comes with a pre-filled flower stick with an exact dose, that you place in the device very simply. You then use the stick as the mouthpiece and when you’re finished, throw the flower stick in the trash. It’s compostable and biodegradable. So we eliminated all of those pain points.
Aaron: Great! Where are you guys based out of?
Mike: Venice, California.
Aaron: So, what makes the Omura vaporizer different from other heat-not-burn products? You mentioned you have the disposable cartridge. Is there a design philosophy around it that you can talk more about?
Mike: Omura comes with 12 flower sticks in child-proof packaging. What makes us different is that we have our proprietary flower stick and device that work together. With our heat-not-burn technology, you get all the terpenes, but when you set fire to it, as you would with other products, you mask that with smoke. Our product is different from anything else in the market, because it has simplified the user experience through efficiency, user interaction and also through design as well.
The other founders come from deep design and technology backgrounds, designing technologies for Apple and Philips Electronics, so it was an important focus for us with Omura. Our newest device, the Series X was designed by Michael Young, a world-renowned industrial designer who has built an impressive portfolio of innovative products.
With Omura, we’re bringing sophistication of the design world into the cannabis world. It’s not just about simplifying the experience and making a great kind of efficient method of consumption, it’s also about creating something for everyday use that is beautifully designed and easy to use.
Aaron: The Series X is Omura’s latest device. Can you tell me what changes you’ve implemented to make it better than the first version?
There are a few differences between the Series 1 and Series X: First, the new design fits in the palm of your hands so it’s discreet. It comes with a USB-C charging base that automatically connects with magnets. We’ve also improved the efficiency of the oven. The first device boiled 94% of the cannabinoids, this one now boils 99%. We’ve increased user-efficiency, by removing the button from the Series 1 making it so all you have to do is put the flower stick in and the device starts automatically. Additionally, we wanted to give users an option between a hotter or cooler experience so we added an extra heat curve, as we recognize that some of our CBD users prefer more of a terpene experience.
Aaron: Can the user modify that with an app?
Mike: It is a very simple switch on the bottom of the device that allows you to toggle between the higher and lower temperature curves
Aaron: Okay, cool. Can we talk about your supply chain a little bit here? Do you manufacture everything in Los Angeles? Or do you have partners?
Mike: Everything is designed in the US and manufactured in China. Which is fairly common throughout the industry. Shenzhen is well known for making products for the vaping industry. We create empty tubes filled in a batch production process. All the flower is grown here in the US. To clarify, we aren’t a plant-touching company. We don’t have a cannabis license. When it comes to THC, we have partnership deals. We work with select cannabis brands which is how we are able to sell in dispensaries. On the other hand, our CBD model is split. We have two brands of our own. Libertine, which is more of a male-focused Gen Z brand. Then we have Oriel, which is more of a wellness brand, catered to women.
Aaron: So how would an aspiring brand get on your platform?
Mike: Good question. Any brand or company who is interested in partnering with Omura can contact us through our website, www.omura.com,on Instagram @Omura or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We would then assess them to see if they’re a good fit. Currently we’re looking to span quite a large kind of demographic as far as appeal. So, if these prospective partners are in a territory, whether it be California or another state, have good market share and high-quality flower, then we would be very open to having a conversation.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview — thanks Mike!
This piece is intended to provide some considerations that current and potential license holders should think about as they work with advisors to make entity selection decisions or consider potential tax elections. Please note that this article is a high-level overview and is not intended to declare the best type of entity structure for a license holding entity. Although there are numerous tax variables that should be contemplated, tax issues are not the only concerns relevant to determining entity type. In addition, some states may tax entities differently than how the entity is taxed for federal purposes.
First, let’s look at the legal entity types that may be set up to hold a license, operate a business and what that may mean for how an entity is taxed. Often, entities are set up as either limited liability companies or corporations.
If a limited liability company is organized and the entity is owned by only one owner, a single member LLC, the default tax treatment would be that the entity is disregarded for tax purposes. In other words, it would not file a separate federal income tax return, except in some states including CA, TX, TN and RI. All the tax consequences of the activities within the legal entity are reported on the tax return of the owner of the entity.
If a limited liability company is set up and the entity is owned by more than one owner, a multiple member LLC, the default tax treatment would be that the entity is taxed as a partnership. An entity taxed as a partnership reflects the tax consequences of the activities within the legal entity on a partnership return. The partnership generally does not pay tax on the activity, but rather the taxable income and loss are passed through to the owners of the LLC. The owners of the LLC reflect the taxable income or loss on their tax return and are responsible for paying any resulting tax. In the rare instance of an entity being audited, there is a possibility that the entity may have to pay tax on the partners behalf, depending on the ownership structure. Either a single member LLC or a multiple member LLC may elect to treat the LLC as a C-corporation or an S-corporation for tax purposes.
The Taxation of C-Corporations & S-Corporations
The default treatment for an entity set-up as a corporation is the entity will be taxed as a C-corporation. An entity taxed as a C-corporation, including an LLC electing to be taxed as a C-corporation, pays the tax on any taxable income generated by activities within the entity. Additionally, any distributions of earnings from the C-corporation to the owners of the entity are generally considered dividends which are required to be reported as taxable income by the owners when received. In other words, the earnings of an entity taxed as a C-corporation are potentially taxed twice. Once, as they are earned within the entity, and then again upon distribution to the owners of the entity.
An entity set-up as a corporation, a single member LLC or a multiple member LLC may elect to be treated as an S-corporation. Like an entity taxed as a partnership, an S-corporation does not pay tax at the entity level, but rather passes the taxable income and loss through to the owner or owners. Additionally, like a partnership, distributions from an S-corporation are not taxable as dividends to the owner when received.
Since we covered how different entities are taxed based on how they are set-up, and what elections they may or may not make, we will explore some of the issues that should be considered when making an entity selection. We will also address potentially electing to treat an entity one way or another for tax purposes.
Advantages: The advantages of an S-corporation are limited to the avoidance of double taxation associated with C-corporations, as well as some potential benefits of lower Social Security and Medicare taxes.
Disadvantages: The primary disadvantage of an S-corporation for a license holding company is any non-deductible expenses resulting from 280E are passed through to the owner(s), which then reduces the ownership’s tax basis in its investment in the entity. A reduction in tax basis is determinantal to owners of an entity because the basis is used to reduce taxable income when/if the owner liquidates ownership in the entity.
Other disadvantages of S-corporations include but are not limited to restrictions on ownership of the entity, a requirement for reasonable compensation paid to owners and a lack of flexibility in the allocations of earnings among owners.
Advantages: The advantages of a partnership include but are not limited to the avoidance of double taxation associated with C-corporations, flexibility in the allocation of earnings and losses among owners, and flexibility in the type of owners of the entity.
Disadvantages: Like S-corporations, the primary disadvantage of a partnership is any non-deductible expenses resulting from 280E are passed through to the owner(s).
Other disadvantages of partnerships include potential self-employment taxes on earnings allocated to active owners, potential complexity in the allocations of taxable income and losses among partners in entities with many owners or different classes of ownership.
Advantages: In contrast to S-corporations and partnerships, the tax basis resulting from the ownership’s investment in the entity is not subject to reductions from non-deductible expenses being passed through to owners. This protection of tax basis is particularly important to owners of license holding entities.
An additional advantage of C-corporation tax treatment may be a lower tax rate applied to taxable income.
Disadvantages: The most significant disadvantage of C-corporation tax treatment is the potential double taxation of earnings that might be applicable if the entity does have earnings that are distributed.
In addition to the items address above, the advantages and disadvantages of the entity type and related tax elections, additional considerations include:
How much of the 280E nondeductible expenses will the taxpayer be subject to?
How much earnings will the entity be distributing to the owners?
How complex is the entity’s ownership?
The lack of certainty regarding whether or not the qualified business income deduction (QBID) enjoyed by pass-through entity owners is allowable as a deduction by owners receiving pass-through income from an entity subject to 280E.
Are there plans for selling the entity and if so, what is the time horizon for doing so?
At Bridge West, we advise taxpayers to consult with cannabis advisors who have experience in the industry, can help navigate the complexities of tax compliance and Code Section 280E and are experienced with entity structures.
Plant genetics are an important consideration for cultivators planning to grow cannabis crops. Genetics can affect how well a plant grows in a particular environment under various conditions and have a major impact on the production of cannabinoids, terpenes as well as other molecules and traits expressed by the plant.
Front Range Biosciences is a hemp and cannabis genetics platform company, leveraging proprietary next generation breeding and Clean Stock® tissue culture nursery technologies to develop new varieties for a broad range of product applications in the hemp and cannabis industries. FRB has global reach through facilities in Colorado, California and Wisconsin, and a partnership with the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona, Spain. FRB is headquartered in Lafayette, Colorado.
We spoke with Jonathan Vaught, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences. Jonathan co-founded Front Range in 2015 after a successful career in the diagnostics and food testing industries.
Jonathan Vaught: This was a collaborative project between the BioServe group at the University of Colorado Boulder, which is a part of their aerospace engineering program. They do research on the International Space Station, and they have for quite some time. We partnered with them and another company, Space Technology Holdings, a group that’s working on applications of space travel and space research. We teamed up to send tissue culture samples to the space station and let them sit in zero gravity at the space station for about a month, and then go through the reentry process and come back to Earth. We brought them back in the lab to perform some genomic analyses and try to understand if there’s any underlying genetic changes in terms of the plants being in that environment. We wanted to know if there was anything interesting that we could learn by putting these plant stem cells and tissue cultures in an extreme environment to look for stress response, and some other possible changes that might occur to the plants by going through those conditions.
Aaron: That’s an interesting project! Are there any trends that you’re following in the industry?
Jon: We’re excited to see ongoing legalization efforts around the world. We’ve seen continued progress here in the United States. We still have a long way to go, but we’re excited to see the additional markets coming onboard and regulations moving in the right direction. Also, we’re excited to see some of the restorative justice programs that have come out.
Aaron: How did you get involved at Front Range Biosciences?
Jon: It really starts with my background and what I was doing before Front Range Biosciences. I’ve spent more than 15 years developing commercializing technologies in human diagnostics, food safety and now agriculture.
I started my career during graduate school in biotech at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I helped develop some of the core technology for a human diagnostic startup company called Somalogic here in Colorado. I went to work for them after finishing my dissertation work and spent about six years there helping them grow that company. We ended up building the world’s largest protein biomarker discovery platform primarily serving pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors, with personalized medicine and lab tests for things like early detection of chronic illness, cancer, heart disease and inflammation.
I then went to another startup company called Beacon Biotech, that was interested in food safety. There I helped develop some similar technologies for detecting food-borne illness — things like salmonella, listeria and E. coli. That was my introduction to big food and big agriculture. From there, I went to help start another company called Velocity Science that was also in the human diagnostic space.
Along the way, I started a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Mountain Flower Goat Dairy, a dairy and educational non-profit that had a community milk-share, which included summer camps and workshops for people to learn about local and sustainable agriculture. I became more and more interested in agriculture and decided to take my career in that path and that’s really what set me up to start Front Range Biosciences.
Aaron: Do you have any co-founders?
Jon: I have two other co-founders. They both played various roles over the last four years. One was another scientist, Chris Zalewski, PhD. He currently works in the R&D department and helps oversee several different parts of the company including pathology and product development. My other co-founder, Nick Hofmeister served as chief strategic officer for the last few years, and has helped raise the majority of our funding. We’ve raised over $45 million dollars, and he played a big role in that.
Aaron: What makes you different from other cannabis seed companies?
John: We’ve built the first true cannabis genetics platform. What I mean by that is we built a platform that allows us to develop and produce new plant varieties that support both the hemp and the cannabis markets. To us, it’s all cannabis. Hemp and cannabis are scientifically the same plant. They just have different regulatory environments, different products and different markets, but we stay focused on the plant. Our platform is built on several different pillars. Genetics are one of the core pieces, and by genetics I mean, everything from molecular based breeding to marker assisted breeding to large germplasm collections. We collect different varieties of germplasm, or seed, from all over the world and use those to mix and match and breed for specific traits. We also have large nursery programs. Another one of our pillars of the platform includes greenhouse nursery production — everything from flowering cannabis plants to producing cannabis seeds to cloning and producing mother plants and rooted cuttings or clones.
Then tissue culture is another part of the platform, it’s basically the laboratory version of a greenhouse nursery. It’s housed in a sterile environment and allows us to produce plants that are clean and healthy. It’s a much more effective, modern way to manage the nursery. It’s part of our clean stock program, where we start clean, stay clean, and you can finish clean. It’s really built on all of those different pieces.
We also have capabilities in analytical chemistry and pathology, that allow us to better understand what drives performance and the plants, and both different regions as well as different cannabinoid products or terpene products. All of the science and capabilities of the platform are what allow us to create new varieties faster, better, stronger.
Aaron: It sounds like you’re vertically integrated on the front-end of cannabis cultivation.
Jon: Absolutely, that’s a great way to think about it.
The last piece I’d say is that we have areas of research and development that cover the full span of multiple product lines. We think about it from an ingredient perspective. Cannabinoids and terpenes are certainly what drive a large part of the cannabis market in terms of edibles, smokable flower, vapes and extracts and the different effects and flavors that you get. We also are looking at other ingredients, like plant-based protein and hemp as a viable protein source and the ability for hemp to produce valuable fiber for textiles, as well as industrial building materials and applications.
Lastly, there are additional small molecules that we’re working on as well from a food ingredients perspective. There are all kinds of interesting compounds. Everybody talks about the cannabinoids and terpenes, but there are also things like flavonoids, and some other very interesting chemistries that we’re working on as well.
Aaron: What geographies are you currently in?
Jon: Colorado and California primarily and we have a small R&D partnership in Barcelona.
Aaron: Do you have plans for expansion beyond that?
Jon: Our current headquarters are out of Colorado, and most of our Colorado operations right now are all hemp. Our hemp business is national and international.
We work with a licensed cannabis nursery partner in California which is our primary focus for that market, but we will be expanding the cannabis genetics and nursery program into Colorado next year. From a regulated cannabis perspective, that’s the first move. Beyond that, we’re in conversations with some of the multi-state operators and cannabis brands that are emerging to talk about how to leverage our technology and our genetics platform across some of the other markets.
Aaron: How do you think about genetics in your products?
Jon: Genetics means a lot of things to different folks depending on your vantage point and where you sit in the supply chain. Our business model is based on selling plants and seeds. At the end of the day, we don’t develop oils, extracts and products specifically, but we develop the genetics behind those products.
For us, it’s not only about developing genetics that have the unique qualities or ingredients that a product company might want like CBD, or other minor cannabinoids like THCV for example, but also about making sure that those plants can be produced efficiently and effectively. The first step is to introduce the ingredient to the product. Then the second step is to make sure that growers can grow and produce the plant. That way they can stabilize their supply chain for their product line. Whether it’s for a smokable flower product, or a vape product, or an edible product, it’s really important to make sure that they can reproduce it. That’s really how we think about genetics.
Aaron: What is a smart plant? That’s something I saw on your website.
Jon: It’s really about plants that perform under specific growing regions, or growing conditions. For example, in hemp, it’s one thing to produce CBD or CBG. It’s another thing to be able to produce it efficiently in five different microclimates around the U.S. Growing hemp in Florida or Alabama down on the Gulf Coast versus growing on the Pacific Northwest coast of Washington, or Oregon are two very different growing conditions that require smart plants. Meaning they can grow and thrive in each of those conditions and still produce the intended product. Generally, the different regions don’t overlap. The genetics that you would grow in Pacific Northwest are not going to do as well as some better selected varieties for the South East.
It’s not only different outdoor growing regions, but it’s different production styles too. When you think about regulated cannabis the difference between outdoor and indoor greenhouse is mixed light production. Even with hydroponic type growing methods, there are lots of different ways to grow and produce this plant and it’s not a one size fits all. It’s really about plants that perform well, whether it’s different regions in the United States in outdoor production or different indoor greenhouses with mixed lights and production methods.
Aaron: You market CBG hemp as a product line. What made you start with CBG? Is that a pull from the market or something you guys see trending?
Jon: So I think it’s a little bit of both. We offer CBD dominant varieties and CBG dominant varieties of hemp. We also now have other cannabinoids in the pipeline that we’ll be putting out in different varieties next year. Things like CBC as well as varins, or propyl cannabinoids. Also things like CBDV, CBCV, or CBGV, which are the propylcannabinoid versions of the more familiar compounds.
There was a lot of market demand for CBG. It was a fairly easy cannabinoid to produce as a single dominant cannabinoid similar to CBD or THC. There’s a lot of up-and-coming demand for some of the other minor cannabinoids. Up until a few years ago, CBD was considered a minor cannabinoid. It wasn’t until Charlotte’s Web in the Sanjay Gupta story that it became a major cannabinoid. So I think we see some level of market pull across the category.
On the flip side of that, we have one of the world’s largest R&D teams and consolidated expertise in terms of cannabis. We see the potential for minor cannabinoids, and even terpenes and other compounds like flavonoids to have wide ranging implications in human health. Everything from wellness products, to active pharmaceutical ingredients, to recreational products. From our perspective, that’s the reason why we’re pushing these ingredients. We believe that there are a lot of good products that come out of this work and the genetics that produce these minor cannabinoids.
Aaron: Okay, great. And then last question, is there anything you’re interested in learning more about?
Jon: I think the most exciting thing for me, given my background in clinical diagnostics and human health, is to see more data around how all of these different compounds of the plant can support improved wellness, health and nutrition. I think we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg. This type of research and data collection takes years, even decades, especially to see outcomes over time of people using these products. I’m really excited to see more of that and also hopefully be able to make stronger conclusions about some of the benefits that can be had from this plant.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview, thanks Jon!
The Cannabis Labs Virtual Conference is back! For five years now, we have been hosting this complimentary collection of webinar presentations, designed to help attendees better understand some of the more technical aspects of starting and operating a laboratory. We will take a deep dive into cannabis and hemp testing, R&D testing, laboratory accreditation, regulatory compliance, and more. Sign up today for this free virtual event.
Earlier this week, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) published its recommendations for improving environmental sustainability in the cannabis industry. The report, titled Environmental Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry: Impacts, Best Management Practices, and Policy Considerations, was developed by their Policy Council along with experts in the field of environmental sustainability.
The 58-page report is quite comprehensive and covers things like land use, soil health, water, energy, air quality, waste and the negative effects of an unregulated market. While the report goes into great detail on specific environmental policy considerations, like recycling, water usage, energy efficiency and more, it makes a handful of overarching policy recommendations that impact environmental sustainability on a much more macro level.
The report mentions developing a platform for sharing information in the national cannabis industry. The idea here is that information sharing on a national scale for things like energy use can be used as a communication tool for regulators as well as a tool for companies to collaborate and share ideas.
The second more overarching policy recommendation the NCIA makes in this report is “to incorporate environmental best practices and regulatory requirements into existing marijuana licensing and testing processes.” This would help streamline and unify regulations already in place and keeps sustainability in the discussion from the very start.
The last major policy recommendation they make is for incentive programs. They say that governments should incentivize cannabis businesses to operate more sustainably and “prioritize funds provided to businesses where barriers exist to entering the market, such as small- or minority-owned businesses.” The report adds that this could essentially kill two birds with one stone by promoting environmental sustainability and diversity at the same time.
Kaitlin Urso is the lead author of the report and executive project and engagement manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. She says that these policy recommendations were designed to benefit everyone. “A successful, socially responsible cannabis industry will require best practices for environmental sustainability. This paper is a vital first step in that effort,” says Urso. “This is important, ongoing work that will benefit everyone. The NCIA’s paper on environmental sustainability is going to inform how we approach important questions related to the future of the cannabis industry.”
While the 2020 Presidential election didn’t exactly end up in a clear landslide victory for the Democrats, there is one group that did well: the cannabis industry.
The results clearly show that the expansion of cannabis is a recognizable part of today’s society across the United States. States like New Jersey, for example, partly thanks to New York and Pennsylvania—which already allow the use of medical cannabis—traffic will start to force the state of New York’s hand and that’s a big chunk of the population of the Northeast.
If the question of legalization was on the ballot, it was an issue that overwhelmingly succeeded in delivering a clear mandate. Adult use of cannabis passed handily in Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and as mentioned above, New Jersey, and was approved for medical use in Mississippi and South Dakota.
With only 15 states remaining in the union that still outlaw the use of cannabis in any form, the new reality for the industry is here. All of these outcomes show promise as the industry’s recognition is growing.
Election outcomes and the position of the average American on cannabis
Americans are definitely understanding, appreciating and using cannabis more and more. It is becoming a part of everyday life and this election’s results could be the tipping point that normalizes the adult use of cannabis. It is becoming more widely understood as an effective and acceptable means to help manage stress and anxiety, aid in sleep and general overall wellbeing.
This image of cannabis is aided by the many different forms of consumption that exist now: edibles, transdermal, nano tech, etc. No longer does a consumer have to smoke—which isn’t accepted in many circles—to get the beneficial effects of cannabis.
Knowledge expansion is going to move these products across state lines and eventually, the federal government will have to take notice.
Do Democrats and Republicans view cannabis through the same lens?
Cannabis is and will always be state specific. Republicans in general tend to be a little bit more cautious and there are a lot of pundits who believe that as long as the Republicans control the senate, there isn’t much of a chance for federal legalization.
There is some hope, however, that the industry will get support from the Biden administration. While President-Elect Biden has been on record as being against legalization of cannabis at a federal level, even he will eventually see that the train has left the station and momentum continues to build. In fact, Biden’s tone has changed considerably while he running for president, adding cannabis decriminalization to the Biden-Harris campaign platform.
Ultimately, how cannabis is viewed from each side of the aisle matters less than how it is viewed at the state level.
Cannabis reform under Biden
Biden had an opportunity to legalize cannabis federally in the U.S. during the Obama administration and it didn’t happen. It’s clear that the mandates of the Biden-Harris administration are going to be overwhelmed by current issues, at least in the beginning: COVID-19, the economy and climate change, to name but three.
What will be interesting is if the Biden-Harris administration goes to greater lengths to decriminalize cannabis. For example, cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug on the books, which puts it in the same class as heroin. Biden couldn’t unilaterally remove cannabis from all scheduling, but his government could reschedule it to reduce the implications of its use.
This could, however, create more problems than it solves:
“It’s generally understood, then, that rescheduling weed would blow up the marijuana industry’s existing model, of state-licensed businesses that are not pharmacies selling cannabis products, that are not Food and Drug Administration-reviewed and approved, to customers who are not medical patients.
Biden rescheduling cannabis “would only continue the state-federal conflict, and force both state regulators and businesses to completely reconfigure themselves, putting many people out of business and costing states significant time and money,” as Morgan Fox, chief spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in an email on Monday.” (Source)
In reality however, there is little chance that Biden will spend any political capital that he has, particularly if the Senate remains in Republican control, dealing with the legalization of adult use cannabis.
What needs to happen for legalization to become a reality
Outside of the law, if Trump suddenly decided to legalize adult use cannabis before leaving the White House, the states would still need to agree on issues such as possession, transportation, shipment and taxation.
It’s clear that further normalization of cannabis use is required—which will likely take a good couple of years—in order for it to become as understood and as simple as wine, liquor or cigarettes.
Beyond that, it’s Congress that dictated that cannabis be illegal at the federal level and it will have to be Congress that makes the decision to change that. Even the Supreme Court has been reluctant to get involved in the question, believing this to be an issue that should be dealt within the House.
What does all of this mean for investment in the cannabis industry?
Cannabis should be part of most long-term investors’ portfolios. Like a group of stocks in a healthy market with the right balance sheets, cannabis is an expanding industry and growth is there.
Whether or not this is specifically the right time to invest, it’s always important to evaluate each stock or each company individually, from the point of view of the merits of the investment and investment objectives, as well as risk tolerance perspectives.
There isn’t any unique or special place to buy into the cannabis industry, unless it is connected to some new real estate or other opportunity that is COVID-19 related. This moment in time isn’t really any different from any other when it comes to the opportunity to own some cannabis stocks. It’s always a good time.
The short term returns of this market shouldn’t be speculated upon. There are just way more factors than the fundamentals of a company that will affect the short-term play. The country is in a transition of power, in addition to much international change taking place that can also contribute to returns in the short term, making speculation unhelpful.
The cannabis market in 2021
The cannabis industry is likely to continue to expand and grow with the select companies acquiring more and more and getting back to their cash flow. Some companies will slowly be going out of business and/or will be acquired by others going into a certain consolidation period of time. Whatever the outcomes in specific tourism dominated markets, the industry as a whole can really go in one direction.
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.
The Brand Marketing Byte showcases highlights from Pioneer Intelligence’s Cannabis Brand Marketing Snapshots, featuring data-led case studies covering marketing and business development activities of U.S. licensed cannabis companies.
Here is a data-led, shallow dive on Aster Farms:
Aster Farms is based in Lake County, California and operates with an ethos of environmental sustainability. They call themselves the “cleanest, meanest and greenest around” and produce sungrown cannabis with “good genetics, clean cultivation and the power of nature.”
According to Pioneer Intelligence, Aster Farms is showing increased strength in each of the pillars they track: social media, earned media and web-related activities. The reason for such an improvement in performance? It starts with a number of earned media placements driving greater awareness for the brand, like this piece in SFWeekly or this one on Benzinga.
Engagement rates for Aster’s Instagram account have been growing for about two months and received a recent boost in the form of a sweepstakes giveaway. Their web activity performance improved as a result of keyword growth on their site.
All of these factors helped Aster Farms get on Pioneer’s list of Top 100 hottest U.S. cannabis brands for October, coming in at Number 60.
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