Tag Archives: California

SC Labs Develops Comprehensive Hemp Testing Panel

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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SC Labs, a cannabis testing company with roots in Santa Cruz, California, announced this week that they have developed a comprehensive hemp testing panel that covers a number of contaminants on a national regulatory level. In the press release, the company says they aim to fill the void of national hemp testing requirements.

The hemp testing panel they have developed purportedly meets testing standards in states that require contaminant levels below a certain action limit. The SC Labs hemp testing panel could theoretically be used for regulatory compliance testing across the country, reaching action limits and analyte levels that meet the strictest state requirements.

The panel tests for pesticides, heavy metals, microbiology, mycotoxins, residual solvents and water activity. In the press release, the company says they have received ISO accreditation for the panel, although it’s not immediately clear to what standard it has been accredited.

Still, the test panel is one sign of progress in the long road to nationally harmonized testing standards. “As an industry, we’ve been advocating for national, standardized, and transparent testing regulations for years now,” says Jeff Gray, CEO of SC Labs. “The government has been slow to respond so we decided it was time to act. As an industry, we’ve been advocating for national, standardized, and transparent testing regulations for years now. The government has been slow to respond so we decided it was time to act.”

SC Labs is headquartered in Santa Cruz, but has licenses in California, Oregon, Texas and Colorado (pending). Their California and Oregon locations are both ISO 17025-accredited and conducting THC-containing cannabis testing, as well as hemp testing.

Flower-Side Chats Part 6: A Q&A with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis

By Aaron Green
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In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

The Michigan cannabis market is making pace with big time cannabis players like California (#1) and Colorado (#2). For the first quarter of 2021, combined cannabis sales in Michigan were nearly $360 million. At that pace, Michigan could see combined sales of $1.4 billion — well outpacing 2020 sales of $984 million.

Gage is the exclusive cultivator and retailer of world-leading cannabis brands including Cookies, Lemonnade, Runtz, Grandiflora, SLANG Worldwide, OG Raskal, and its own proprietary Gage brand portfolio in Michigan. The company recently secured a $50M investment in an oversubscribed round which included a $20M investment from JW Asset Management.

We spoke with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis. Fabian started Gage in 2017 after meeting his operating partners in Michigan. Prior to Gage, Fabian worked as an investment banker racking up a number of firsts in cannabis industry financing and M&A transactions.

Aaron Green: Tell me how you got involved in the cannabis industry.

Fabian Monaco: My background is in investment banking – specifically 10 years of capital market experience. I was fortunate enough to be part of the initial team that brought Tweed, now Canopy Growth public. In fact, I worked on a lot of firsts in the industry: the first acquisition, the first $100 million financing, the first IPO in the space. Shortly after that, I went to XIB Financial, which co-founded Canopy Rivers with Canopy Growth. I was working on that when I encountered these two phenomenal operators. At the time, I had visited over 100 of these cultivation facilities and these were some of the best operators in the business. So that led me to start Gage in 2017.

Green: Where is Gage currently operating?

Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis

Monaco: In the U.S., we are purely operating in Michigan. We do have a licensing agreement with a small producer in Canada, so you will see the brand there.

Green: Tell me about your choice to settle the company in Michigan initially?

Monaco: If you look at Michigan as a historical cannabis market, it was the second largest cannabis market from a medical card holder standpoint for nearly a decade, only behind California. This was probably the case until 2019, where they went to adult use. So, for us, we knew this medical base was going to be a great platform to an outsized adult-use market. And already we see that April was $154 million in sales, adding up to over a $1.8 billion dollar run rate. That’s the third highest run rate in the country, only behind California and Colorado.

Green: What is it that makes Michigan different? You talked about medical cannabis already. Is there anything else about the demographics in Michigan or the consumer base that makes Michigan special in that sense?

Monaco: In Michigan, over 70% of the population is old enough to consume. So, when you take a look at how much of the population is 21-years-old plus, relative to other markets, the total addressable market in Michigan is just huge. Then when you take a look at their consumption habits, especially when it comes to flower, Michigan is consuming some of the highest amounts on a per capita basis. Those two stats set up a scenario where we foresaw the potential of the market. To be honest, the market has exceeded our expectations. We didn’t think it would be this strong this quickly. Right now, the state is looking to be a $3 billion market by 2024 – and it could easily surpass that.

Green: Any plans for expansion beyond Michigan?

Monaco: We’ve been to eight or so different states in the past 60 or 75 days really trying to educate ourselves on the licensing structure, the markets there and the key players in those respective markets. What are some of the costs, in terms of acquisitions? We really want to branch out the Gage brand into other states across the US. The thing is, we believe in the model that Trulieve deployed. They really focus on being the number one player in a very, very big market. For instance, Trulieve is obviously one of the top players in Florida. We’re trying to mimic that strategy.

Trulieve is a dominant market force in Florida

Once we have that deep market penetration, that market share, then we’ll start to get into other states. But for now, why would you want to go and rush out to another state when you’re already in the third largest market in the country?

Green: Are there any criteria you look for in a potential expansion state?

Monaco: We look at consumption habits. We want states with similar demographics to Michigan. Close proximity states also allows us to quickly go from one state to the other without having to take a multi-hour flight to get there. States we’re considering are Northeast and Midwest states, like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland.

Green: What kind of consumer trends are you seeing in Michigan as it relates to products?

Monaco: Flower continues to dominate. In a market like Michigan, we have some of the top flower consumers in the country on a per capita basis. We specialize in flower and flower only, so this created a perfect scenario where we are able to ramp up our brand quite quickly, from a flower standpoint.

Now that we have that brand equity, that brand power, we are going to potentially delve into other categories, including extract-based products, such as vape carts and concentrates. You hear talk about these new beverages, but we’re not seeing that take off in this market as much as people think it would. Flower still remains at the top and that’s something we highly anticipate going after for quite some time.

Green: Can you tell me about your vertical integration strategy?

Monaco: We’re one of the larger retail portfolios in Michigan right now. We have 13 locations. Nine are operational. So, we’re really in a great spot overall in terms of how big of a platform we do have – one of the larger ones – and, frankly, in one of the larger markets in the country.

The Cookies flagship dispensary in Detroit, Michigan

We actually have a little bit of a unique scenario on the cultivation side of things. We have our own three cultivation assets that are going to be producing, on average, about 1,000 pounds of product over the next couple of months as they fully ramp up. We’ve actually contracted out a lot of our cultivation. Cultivation is time consuming, and it’s also very, very costly to build out. Luckily for us, we’re a really well-established and strong brand. We had the opportunity to contract out our growing. So, we have 10 different contract growth partners. These are phenomenal cultivators, again, some of the best in the state. They grow Gage and Cookies branded product for us. We have a great breakdown from a financial standpoint. We share the retail revenue with them on a 50/50 basis. They pay a little bit too, for packaging and testing. So, basically for $0 we’re getting product on the shelf where we’re achieving 50% plus gross margins. It’s a phenomenal setup for us on the cultivation side where we went from two cultivation assets in the latter half of last year to now eight different cultivation assets, moving to 13 by the end of the year.

On the processing side, we’re just actually finishing our processing lab. We should have extract-based products launched in Q3. We’re really excited to have our own line of extract-based products. We plan to focus on vape carts to start – a very popular category in Michigan on the retail side of things.

Green: Are those cultivations all indoor?

Monaco: Yes, we’re big proponents of indoor flower. It allows us to control the quality of our flavors and consistency in our strains when we grow indoors. From our consumers, there is a very strong demand for indoor grown high-premium, high-quality products.

Green: What sets Gage apart from other competitors in Michigan?

Monaco: I think focus. We just focused on our flower. We focus on our post-production process. We hang dry everything, we hand trim everything, and we hand package everything. That’s a little bit more time consuming. It’s a little more costly. But all that effort shows in the end product which is key.

A lot of people think you can grow great quality product, you cut it down, you dry it and put it in the pack and it’s going to be great. You really need a strong attention to detail, especially in a big consuming market like Michigan, because again, they are a refined consumer. They’re looking for the best. They’ve already been consuming some of the best quality products in the country for many years now. So for us, we put a painstaking process in place for flower production, not only from the growing standpoint, but also through the end of that post production process.

Ancillary to our cultivation process is also consistently providing new varieties of flavors on the flower side of things to the consumers. When you look at the successful brands in California, what makes them special is that they’re consistently pheno hunting, coming out with new flavors. This is similar to the wine industry where the best wineries come out with a new kind of grape or mix and consumers get excited, they rush out and buy half a dozen bottles or a dozen bottles.

It’s a very similar scenario in the cannabis industry. I hate when people say that cannabis is a commoditized industry. It’s so far from the truth. You look at brands like us or Cookies, Jungle Boyz and you can see their constant innovation, their constant drive. They are always bringing something new for the consumers to try. That’s what really sets apart the best brands.

Green: What’s got your attention in the cannabis industry? What are you interested in learning more about?

Monaco: I’m always intrigued with new ways of consuming. Across the U.S. and well-developed markets like California and Colorado, you see all these interesting new ways to consume the product. You’ve got patches, sublingual strips, etc. There are so many unique ways. I am currently seeing how they play out. Are they fads? Do people get excited about them initially, and then go back to their vape carts, pens and typically dried flower pre-rolls? I’m always trying to educate myself to see what’s on the market. What’s new? Who has a new drink? How does it hit? Are people excited about it?

Also, I am constantly learning about new brands that come out. There are so many new small brands that don’t necessarily have the scale or the capital to really expand, but are producing some of the best products in the country in a cool, unique form of packaging, etc..

Green: Alright, great. That concludes the interview!

Monaco: Thanks, Aaron.

HUB International Announces New Cannabis Specialty Leader

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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HUB International, a leading insurance brokerage serving the cannabis industry, just announced today their new U.S. cannabis specialty leader. Bradley Rutt, senior vice president at HUB and Cannabis Industry Journal contributor, will now take the lead on cannabis insurance for the brokerage.

Bradley Rutt, senior vice president and U.S. cannabis specialty leader at HUB International

Rutt will work alongside Jay Virdi, another frequent CIJ contributor and chief sales officer of cannabis specialty at HUB to support the practice strategy on a national level. Rutt’s role will put him in charge of expanding HUB’s growth in the cannabis space as well as “enhancing cannabis insurance solutions and risk services, further developing cutting-edge resources for clients to support their needs, and attracting and retaining talent to deepen knowledge and expertise to help cannabis clients thrive.”

Rutt’s role as senior vice president has been to specialize in cannabis executive liability, working with public and private management services organizations to develop insurance and risk management programs. “Brad is an industry leader, and his diverse experience and deep understanding of the cannabis industry to insure its unique risks will play a critical role in continuing to strengthen our practice,” says Jay Virdi. “More importantly, we continue our commitment as trusted advisors to our clients to provide them with relevant support and solutions to help them continue to grow.”

Flower-Side Chats Part 4: A Q&A with Adrian Sedlin, CEO & Founder of Canndescent

By Aaron Green
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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.

Canndescent is a vertically integrated flower brand based out of Santa Barbara, CA with grow operations in Desert Hot Springs. Having opened the first municipally-permitted cultivation in California, Canndescent has pioneered luxury branding in the cannabis space with a focus on user friendliness. They were the first cultivator to market cannabis using effects like Calm, Cruise Create, Connect, and Charge rather than the strain name. Canndescent also recently launched a social equity brand, Justice Joints, with 100% of all profits going to cannabis-related expungement and re-entry programs.

We spoke with Adrian Sedlin, CEO and founder of Canndescent to learn more about his transition from tech to cannabis, how he thinks about product positioning and the company’s motivation for getting into Justice Joints. Adrian founded Canndescent in 2015 after being approached by his brother-in-law who ran a legacy cultivation operation. Prior to Canndescent, Adrian was an entrepreneur and worked in startup turnarounds.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Adrian Sedlin: I started looking at the industry from a professional perspective in 2015, and once I came to understand how cannabis affects the endocannabinoid system, I became absolutely fascinated by the opportunity to build a world class cannabis company that prioritized consumers. Particularly, I became interested in the adult-use market because I see cannabis as an automobile compared to the horse and buggy of alcohol. Cannabis is a superior adult use solution from a health and society perspective, yet, the entire positioning of the industry at the time was sub-prime, non-aspirational and inaccessible. With Canndescent, the core idea was to counterprogram the existing paradigm and deliver cannabis in a way that was beautiful. To bring the power of the plant to more people, we had to reposition the category and simplify the shopping experience. Moreover, there were too many unsolved consumer problems. For example, in 2015 people said cannabis was a commodity but any stoner knows there are as many dimensions to consider as there are with wine. The opportunity to deliver consumer solutions in a nascent industry that desperately needed advocates while helping to improve the world was enough to get me out of retirement.

Green: Just curious, what was your background prior to cannabis?

Adrian Sedlin, CEO and founder of Canndescent

Sedlin: I’m a lifelong entrepreneur. I started my first company when I was still in college. After graduation, I ran that business for another four and a half years, sold it, and went back to business school and got my MBA. After Harvard, most of my career was spent in early-stage growth companies, turnarounds and pivots. When someone had $10 million invested in an enterprise or their company wasn’t growing at the rate they wanted, that’s when my phone would ring.

I was lucky enough to shepherd a number of companies to a successful exit several times. During my professional journey, I’d taken a year and a half off between 2004 and 2006, and then pre-cannabis in 2015 I had taken three years off and was getting a little itchy. I didn’t think I was permanently retired; I was just sort of waiting for the next thing to get excited about. And cannabis definitely was the first time I can say in my life that I finally understood what I was put on planet earth to do.

Green: I understand that Canndescent was the first municipally permitted cultivator to open in California?

Sedlin: Desert Hot Springs was the first city to legalize cultivation, and we were the first ones to operate in the city.

Green: How did that come about?

Sedlin: The city had conditional use permits, but a lot of people were trying to do ground up builds. We decided to do a retrofit of an existing facility. So, we were the first ones to get the regulatory permit and cultivate in a way that was truly compliant with MCRSRA which eventually became MAUCRSA.

It took lots of tolerance for ambiguity and incredible patience. There’s an off-putting expression that goes, “pioneers take the arrows.” Well, we took a lot of arrows along the way. A perfect example is within our first year of operation, the fire department sent us five cease-and-desist orders to turn off our CO2. Not because we were doing anything wrong, but because they changed their regulations and then they wanted us to immediately comply as opposed to giving us a transition period. You just got to learn to roll with it. I’d say anyone who got into the regulated cannabis market early – and there’s a bunch of us who are still standing – you just learn to roll with it, be patient and yet, apply boundless energy and passion to the process.

Green: Did you know you wanted to be in Desert Hot Springs? Or did it just turn out to be the permit that was the easiest to get?

Sedlin: That was a binary choice for us. The simple choice for Desert Hot Springs was that it was the only choice. We were doing a professional execution. We were taking investment dollars, and I couldn’t have any ambiguity of being in the gray market. This was before adult use legislation passed in California, so we were functioning under California’s Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA). The only way to be compliant with MCRSA at the time and be a medical cannabis cultivator was to get city-based permission or county-based permission, and the first region to authorize that was Desert Hot Springs. From our team’s perspective, wanting to build a truly compliant company from day one, that was the only choice available.

Green: I understand your facilities are powered by solar?

Sedlin: We have several facilities. One of them is a greenhouse that has light supplementation. We have an indoor facility that is powered by solar. When we opened the facility, it didn’t have a solar project on it. After we opened it, about a year and a half later, we did this full solar retrofit. We found the solar panels offset 38% of our energy consumption.

Green: Your product marketing is effect-forward. How did you come to that positioning for the brand and for the products?

Sedlin: The idea is to simplify life for consumers and unburden them from having to understand the 6,000 different strain names that are out there which have no consistency from cultivator to cultivator.  Before Apple popularized the graphical user interface for computers, the standing orthodoxy among engineers at the time was that everyone should have to learn how to code. Everyone who wanted to use a computer needed to go through the mind-numbing MS-DOS process. But computers didn’t scale that way. Apple’s genius is that it built technology to serve humans with a GUI and didn’t put humans in service of the technology. Similarly, you shouldn’t have to learn 6,000 strains, 100+ terpenes and 100+ cannabinoids to make your first purchase. Our goal has always been to put cannabis in service of consumers as opposed to having the consumer in service of cannabis.

To be clear, Apple doesn’t dumb things down. Apple makes things easier, so that more people adopt them, so those things can then get better. And, that’s really how we’ve always viewed it. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if a consumer needs to know that he or she loves AK-47 when one can understand loosely, “How do I want to feel? Am I trying to relax? What am I trying to achieve?” It’s about prioritizing the consumer over the engineer, or in this case the cultivator or breeder, who covets naming rights. We operate with a consumer-centric philosophy and our company is in service of the consumer.

Green: You have a social equity brand called Justice Joints. What was your motivation for that line?

Sedlin: We have the luxury and privilege of participating in a legal cannabis industry, but there are many people who were never afforded that choice and suffered a steep cost.  With this in mind, we need to put our dollars and sweat into helping communities most impacted and marginalized by the war or drugs and doing our part to address some of the damage.  Justice Joints (JJ), our brand where 100% of the profits go to cannabis-related social equity and expungement programs invites the cannabis community, dispensaries and consumers to vote with their dollars for a better world. “Here’s a vehicle where 100% of the profit goes to cannabis related social justice causes. Are you in? Or are you out?” It gives consumers a platform where they can participate in positive change with their dollars.  It’s what the plant is about.

JJ was the right answer for Canndescent because we wanted to build a self-sustaining economic engine for social justice. We launch world class cannabis brands so building one for social justice was the right choice for us and provided a way for all 250 of our employees to give back and feel proud each and every day.  Justice Joints isn’t a side project; it’s hardwired into the daily activities of Canndescent and will hopefully evolve into an industry-wide, give back platform.

Green: What’s one thing in the world that you want to change or inspires you the most?

Sedlin: The thing I’m most interested in professionally is popularizing the practice of gratitude into the broader business and social fabric. Canndescent is the first company that I know of to incorporate gratitude as a core value. We do so because we believe that happiness is a mindset and a choice, not an outcome. It’s not how many likes you get on your social media, or how much money you make. It’s how you frame your experience to yourself that makes you happy.

On any given day, there’s 100 things I can bitch about, but that just becomes poison ivy that itches and that would make me angry, frustrated and depleted. Living and acting in gratitude, we can move our minds to a peaceful and productive place where we have control and can be our best self for those around us. For example, I just lost my dad on Thursday but I’m focused on gratitude not sorrow. My dad was awesome, died peacefully at age 89, had a 60-year marriage, and loved and gave love. Naturally, there is sadness, but instead of sinking into that, I focus on the blessing of him and meditate on the good. Operating from a happy place, I’m freed up mentally to be there for my mom, sister, wife, children, employees and investors.

So that’s what I’m passionate about. It’s not so much something I want to learn about as much as it is something that I want to cultivate in the world. There would just be more happiness in the world if humanity exercised the muscle of perspective–gratitude. It’s the greatest time in human history to be alive. To listen to the world around us, it’s natural to forget that. But, I’ll take Covid-19 over the Black Plague and Spanish Influenza anyday. “Yes, shit happens, but are you a shit talker and complainer, or are you the type to say, let’s clean this up.” It’s a choice. Canndescent wants to project light and build a world of gratitude.

Green: That concludes the interview, thanks Adrian!

Lab Shopping: Highlighting the Need for Checks and Balances in Cannabis

By Josh Swider
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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.

Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

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.

labsphotoLabs 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.

Secret Shopping

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.

Clean Green Farming is Good for Cannabis

By Khalid Al-Naser
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At Raw Garden, we have a ‘Farming First’ philosophy because we understand that the process of farming is the process of managing the plant’s life and the management of the land those plants grow on – this is when the plantgets its chance to thrive but requires that it is properly nurtured in order to provide resources such as high-quality terpenes and cannabinoids.

Our cannabis plants are sun-grown in Santa Barbara county soil just like other California crops. From the seed to the shelf, we are vertically integrated and maintain quality control at every step in the process. We grow our own seeds, farm and harvest our own plants, and process our own products while employing sustainable and regenerative farming practices – only organic and natural fertilizers, soil amendments and pest control methods are used on thefarm.

As farmers we have a responsibility to care for the land and the soil to ensure it is fertile and healthy well into the future. We take care of the soil and it takes care of our plants. The result is premium quality products that our customers love and trust. Our success and commitment to quality is proof that the economics of clean, sustainable operations are achievable. We’re farmers and scientists on a mission to make clean, high quality cannabis that is affordable and accessible.

A few of the sustainable agriculture practices we employ at Raw Garden include:

The Clean Green Certified logo

Clean Green Certification – Since our inception, we have been certified and licensed members of Clean Green, the #1 globally-recognized organic and sustainable cannabis certification program. The program was created in 2004 as a way to standardize legal cannabis products and the result was a program to help farms and brands obtain organic-like certification based on the USDA National Organic program. Clean Green-certified growers and processors regularly win awards for their high-quality products, including our award-winning extracts.

Water Conservation – Our farm team waters at the right time of day to reduce evaporative water loss; we also use drip irrigation and mulch to reduce water waste and runoff. Last year, we used about 8,000 gallons of water per acre on average, which is significantly less than standard outdoor grown crops.

Natural Fertilizer and Pest Control – We apply only organic fertilizers and foliar feeds and we spray only organic pathogen-free inoculants to keep our plants healthy and disease-free, which consistently results in high yields. To naturally deter pests, we recruit beneficial predatory insects like ladybugs and parasitic wasps, in addition to botanical oils and diatomaceous earth.

Precision Agriculture (PA) and Site-Specific Crop Management (SSCM) – We utilize technology to manage crops and increase farm efficiency, such as machine learning for fertilizer optimization and digital sensors in the field to monitor crops.

Author Khalid Al-Naser next at Raw Garden’s farm.
Image by Brian Walker

Soil Health and Terroir – Like grapes for wine, cannabis plants grown in the soil have terroir that affects the flower’s qualities, characteristics, terpene profile, aroma and taste, based on temperature, climate, soil composition and topography, as well as other environmental influences. Micro-climates matter – the same strain of cannabis grown along the coast likely has a different taste and potency than one grown inland. We grow in Santa Barbara wine country for the combination of fertile soil, hot sun, and cool nights which yield an incredibly diverse, potent and flavorful crop of cannabis flowers. Between growing seasons, we employ regenerative agriculture by planting cover crops including oat, beans, peas and buckwheat to add nitrogen and organic matter naturally back in the soil. This method of cover crops also helps reduce pests and soil-borne diseases in preparation for the next growing season. We know that an ideal environment in combination with healthy soil and good land management results in healthier, more vigorous plants, which translates to higher-quality products.

As farmers, it is our responsibility to care of the land with good management decisions today so that we grow the best quality products while better preserving the land for the future. It takes careful planning, knowledge of the land, a commitment to sustainable practices and a desire to put farming first.

Soapbox

A Look at the Rise Of The East Coast Cannabis Market

By Serge Chistov
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The rise of the East Coast cannabis market gained another foothold in late March 2021 when New York became the most recent state to legalize adult use cannabis, joining ranks with other Atlantic stalwarts, including New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

In doing so, it opened the door to an industry that many experts agree could exceed $7 billion annually, once the market is fully established. That’s potential the cannabis market hasn’t seen since Washington became the first Pacific state to legalize adult use cannabis, almost 10 years ago (followed shortly after by Colorado, then Oregon in 2014 and California in 2016).

Unfortunately, the leaders of this great country have yet to follow suit, and cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. For those in the cannabis market, this means that state-licensed cannabis businesses must cultivate and sell their products within the confines of the state in which they are licensed. Nothing can cross state lines. Even if a business is licensed in both Vermont and New York, it can’t ship product from one state to the other without running afoul of federal legislation. Most in the East Coast cannabis market view this as a negative.

Virginia became the first state in the South to legalize adult use cannabis

While it certainly makes things more difficult, a small group of forward-thinking investors and entrepreneurs see this for what it really is: an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and establish state-specific grow operations and other supply-chain waypoints, where none or few currently exist. Think of the current state of the East Coast cannabis market as a beachhead. Right now, the industry is defined by state lines. But when the federal government finally legalizes adult use cannabis from coast to coast—and it’s only a matter of time before it does—those state lines will essentially disappear. When they do, the beachheads established now will become the infrastructure for the entire Eastern seaboard.

Take Virginia, for example. It shares its border with five states that have legalized medical cannabis but have yet to cross the bridge into adult use sales (West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina). A Virginia-based grow operation built now has the potential to serve not just those five states but other contiguous markets including Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Carolina, and even Alabama, Georgia and Indiana. A relatively small investment now could pay huge dividends in just a few years, when the market literally blows wide open.

It’s this incredible potential that makes the rise of the East Coast cannabis market one of the most important developments in the last five years. And while the potential scale of grow operations and other cannabis businesses is certainly essential to the conversation, let’s not forget that “niche products” within the East Coast cannabis market are still very much up for grabs.

If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that consumers are willing to pay a premium for high-quality, organically grown cannabis. Both new and long-time cannabis enthusiasts will choose — even demand — high-quality, organically grown cannabis that looks, smells and tastes fresh and doesn’t rely on harmful fertilizers, heavy metals or pesticides. They’re also enthusiastic about supporting brands that have a commitment to sustainable, eco-friendly operations.

The demand for high-quality, organically grown cannabis continues to increase

It’s very much like the current trends we see in the grocery store aisles. Manufacturers and consumers alike are seeing the value of “whole foods.” After decades of relying on heavily processed fare, both suppliers and end-users are benefiting from higher-quality ingredients. Consumers want to know what’s in the stuff they’re putting into their bodies. When it comes to cannabis, they want to know that what they’re taking to alleviate their anxiety doesn’t include harmful chemicals. This demand has the capacity to push revenue even higher.

And when the dam finally breaks and businesses can ship product from state to state, the idea is for growers to be well-positioned geographically to become suppliers of high-quality, organically grown cannabis, for every state east of the Mississippi.

Cannabis businesses in states such as Colorado have had the past decade to prepare for the coming boom, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to join the party. The rise of the East Coast market parallels what Colorado and the other Pacific states experienced in the early-to-mid teens—the potential to become a very real industry, with huge capacity for growth and profit. Get in on that action now!

The East Coast cannabis market—and, indeed, the entire U.S. market—also sits on the verge of another game-changing trend: following in the footsteps of other markets and realizing sooner rather than later that high-quality, organically grown, eco-friendly cannabis is the next stage of the game. Few investors and entrepreneurs see that right now, but the astute businessperson can capitalize on both trends now and position themselves and their businesses for huge returns in the very near future. The rise of the East Coast cannabis market makes that a very real possibility.

A Q&A with Matt Hawkins, Co-Founder & Managing Partner at Entourage Effect Capital

By Aaron Green
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The cannabis industry saw close to $15.5B in deals across VC, private equity, M&A and IPOs in 2020 according to PitchBook data. Early and growth stage capital has been a key enabler in deal activity as companies seek to innovate and scale, taking advantage of trends towards national legalization and consolidation. Entourage Effect Capital is one of the largest VC firms in cannabis with over $150MM deployed since its inception in 2014. Some of their notable investments include GTI, CANN, Harborside (CNQ: HBOR), Acreage Holdings, Ebbu, TerrAscend and Sunderstorm.

We spoke with Matt Hawkins, co-founder and managing partner at Entourage Effect Capital. Matt started Entourage in 2014 after exiting his previous company. He has 20+ years of private equity experience and serves on the Boards of numerous cannabis companies. Matt’s thought leadership has been on Fox Business in the past and he has also recently featured on CNBC, Bloomberg, Yahoo! Finance, Cheddar and more.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Matt Hawkins: We’ve been making investments in the cannabis industry since 2014. We’ve made 65 investments to date. We have a full team of investment professionals, and we invest up and down the value chain of the industry.

I had been in private equity for 25 years and I kind of just fell into the industry after I’d had an exit. I started lending to warehouse owners in Denver that were looking to refinance their mortgages out of commercial debt into private debt, which would then give them the ability to lease their facilities to growers. I realized there would be a significant opportunity to place capital in the private equity side of the cannabis business. So, I just started raising money for that project and I haven’t looked back. It’s been a great run and we’ve built a fantastic portfolio. We look forward to continuing to deploy capital up to and through legalization.

Green: Do you consider Entourage Effect Capital a VC fund or private equity firm? How do you talk about yourself?

Hawkins: In the early stages of the industry, we were more purely venture capital because there was hardly any revenue. We’re probably still considered a venture capital firm, by definition, just because of the risk factors. As the industry has matured, the investments we make are going to be larger. The reality is that the checks we write now will go to companies that have a track record of not only 12 months of revenue, but EBITDA as well. We can calculate a multiple on those, and that makes it more like lower/middle-market private equity investing.

Green: What’s your investment mandate?

Matt Hawkins, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Entourage Effect Capital

Hawkins: From here forward our mandate is to build scale in as many verticals as we can ahead of legalization. In the early days, we were focused on giving high net worth individuals and family offices access to the industry using a very diversified approach, meaning we invested up and down the value chain. We’ll continue to do that, but now we’re going to be really laser focused on combining companies and building scale within companies to where they’re going to be more attractive for exit partners upon legalization.

Green: Are there any particular segments of the industry that you focus on whether it’s cultivation, extraction or MSOs?

Hawkins: We tend to focus on everything above cultivation. We feel like cultivation by itself is a commodity, but when vertically integrated, for example with a single-state operator or multi-state operator, that makes it intrinsically more valuable. When you look at the value chain, right after cultivation is where we start to get involved.

Green: Are you also doing investments in tech and e-commerce?

Hawkins: We’ve made some investments in supply chain, management software, ERP solutions, things like that. We’re not really focused on e-commerce with the exception of the only CBD company we are invested in.

Green: How does Entourage’s investment philosophy differ from other VC and private equity firms in cannabis?

Hawkins: We really don’t pay attention to other people’s philosophies. We have co-invested with others in the past and will continue to do so. There’s not a lot of us in the industry, so it’s good that we all work together. Until legalization occurs, or institutional capital comes into play, we’re really the only game in town. So, it behooves us all to have good working relationships.

Green: Across the states, there’s a variety of markets in various stages of development. Do you tend to prefer investing in more sophisticated markets? Say California or Colorado where they’ve been legalized for longer, or are you looking more at new growth opportunities like New York and New Jersey?

Hawkins: Historically, we’ve focused on the most populous states. California is obviously where we’ve placed a lot of bets going forward. We’ll continue to build out our portfolio in California, but we will also exploit the other large population states like New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. All of those are big targets for us. 

Green: Do you think legalization will happen this Congress?

Hawkins: My personal opinion is that it will not happen this year. It could be the latter part of next year or the year after. I think there’s just too much wood to chop. I was encouraged to see the SAFE Banking Act reappear. I think that will hopefully encourage institutional capital to take another look at the game, especially with the NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange open up. So that’s a positive.

I think with the election of President Biden and with the Senate runoffs in Georgia going Democrat, the timeline to legalization has sped up, but I don’t think it’s an overnight situation. I certainly don’t think it’ll be easy to start crossing state lines immediately, either.

Green: Can you explain more about your thoughts on interstate commerce?

Hawkins: I think it’s pretty simple. The states don’t want to give up all the tax revenue that they get from their cultivation companies that are in the state. For example, if you allow Mexico and Colombia to start importing product, we can’t compete with that cost structure. States that are neighbors to California, but need to grow indoors which is more expensive, are not going to want to lose their tax revenues either. So, I just think there’s going to be a lot of butting heads at the state level.

The federal government is going to have to outline what the tax implications will be, because at the end of the day the industry is currently taxed as high as it ever will be or should be. Anything North of current tax levels will prohibit businesses from thriving further, effectively meaning not being able to tamp down the illicit market. One of the biggest goals of legalization in my opinion should be reducing the tax burden on the companies and thereby allowing them to be able to compete more directly with the illicit market, which obviously has all the benefits of reduced crime, etc.

Green: Do you foresee 280E changes coming in the future?

Hawkins: For sure. If the federal illegality veil is removed – which means there’ll be some type of rescheduling – cannabis would be removed from the 280E category. I think 280E by definition is about just illegal drugs and manufacturing and selling of that. As long as cannabis isn’t part of that, then it won’t be subject to it.

Green: What have been some of the winners in your portfolio in terms of successful exits?

Hawkins: When the CSC started allowing companies in Canada to own U.S. assets, the whole landscape changed. We were fortunate to be early investors in Acreage and companies that sold to Curaleaf and GTI before they were public. We are big investors in TerrAscend. We were early investors in Ebbu which sold to Canopy Growth. Those were huge wins for us in Fund I. We also have some interesting plays in Fund II that are on the precipice of having similar-type exits.

You read about the big ones, but at the end of the day, the ones that kind of fall under the radar – the private deals – actually have even greater multiples than what we see on some of the public M&A activity.

Green: Governor Cuomo has been hinting recently at being “very close” on a deal for opening up the cannabis market in New York. What do you think are the biggest opportunities in New York right now?

Hawkins: If it can get done, that’s great. I’m just concerned that distractions in the state house right now in New York may get in the way of progress there. But if it doesn’t, and it is able to come to fruition, then there isn’t a sector that doesn’t have a chance to thrive and thrive extremely well in the state of New York.

Green: Looking at other markets, Curaleaf recently announced a big investment in Europe. How do you look at Europe in general as an investment opportunity?

Hawkins: We have a pretty interesting play in Europe right now through a company called Relief Europe. It’s poised to be one of the first entrants to Germany. We think it could be a big win for us. But let’s face it, Europe is still a little behind, in fact, a lot behind the United States in terms of where they are as an industry. Most of the capital that we’re going to be deploying is going to be done domestically in advance of legalization.

Green: What industry trends are you seeing in the year ahead?“We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis.”

Hawkins: Well, I think you’ll see a lot of consolidation and a lot of ramping up in advance of legalization. I think that’s going to apply in all sectors. I just don’t see a scenario wherein mom and pops or smaller players are going to be successful exit partners with some of the new capital that’s coming in. They’re going to have to get to a point where they’re either selling to somebody bigger than them right now or joining forces with companies around the same size as them and creating mass. That’s the only way you’re going to compete with companies coming in with billions of dollars to deploy.

Green: How do you see this shaking out?

Hawkins: That’s where you start to look into the crystal ball. It’s really difficult to say because I think until we get to where we truly have a national footprint of brands, which would require crossing state lines, it’s going be really difficult to tell where things go. I do know that liquor, tobacco, beer, the distribution companies, they all are standing in line. Big Pharma, big CPG, nutraceuticals, they all want access to this, too.

In some form or fashion, these bigger players will dictate how they want to go about attacking the market on their own. So, that part remains to be seen. We’ll just have to wait and see where this goes and how quickly it goes there.

Green: Are you looking at other geographies to deploy capital such as APAC or Latin America regions?

Hawkins: Not at this point. It’s not a focus at all. What recently transpired here in the elections just really makes us want to focus here and generate positive returns for investors.

Green: As cannabis goes more and more mainstream, federal legalization is maybe more likely. How do you think the institutional investor scene is evolving around that? And is it a good thing to bring in new capital to the cannabis market?

Hawkins: I don’t see a downside to it. Some people are saying that it could damage the collegial and cottage-like nature of the industry. At the end of the day, if you’ve got tens of billions of dollars that are waiting to pour into companies listed on the CSC and up-listing to the NASDAQ or New York Stock Exchange, that’s only going to increase their market caps and give them more cash to acquire other companies. The trickle-down effect of that will be so great to the industry that I just don’t know how you can look the other way and say we don’t want it. 

Green: Last question: What’s got your attention these days? What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about?

Hawkins: We’re constantly learning about just where this industry is headed. We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis. We all saw the correlation between cannabis and alcohol prohibition. The reality is that the industry is mature enough now where you can see similarities to industries that have gone from infancy to their adolescent years. That’s kind of where we are now and so we spend a lot of time studying industries that have been down this path before and see what lessons we can apply here.

Green: Okay, great. So that concludes the interview!

Hawkins: Thanks, Aaron.

Learning from The First Wave Part 3: Seven Basic Questions About Local Cannabis Ordinances & Real Estate

By Todd Feldman
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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.

Looks great but . . . where are the sprinklers? Does it need a seismic upgrade? How about floor drains?
Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash

Cannabis-specific requirements:

  • 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.

General requirements:

  • 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.

7. What Are the Local Cannabis Taxes?

Cannabis tax rates may be determinative. For example, Oakland imposes a 6.5% gross receipts tax on manufacturers that have gross receipts of less than $5M, and 9.5% on manufacturers that have gross receipts over $5M. In comparison, Santa Rosa only imposes a 1% gross receipts tax on manufacturers.

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.


References

  1. For example, see Part II of the City of Oakland’s Administrative Regulations and Performance Standards, and The City of Los Angeles’s Rules and Regulations for Cannabis Procedures No. 3 (A)(14).
  2. For example, compare 16 CCR § 5044 (“Video Surveillance System”) with The City of Los Angeles’s Rules and Regulations for Cannabis Procedures No. 10 (A)(7).

Flower-Side Chats Part 1: A Q&A with Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected

By Aaron Green
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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.

Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected

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!