The e-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury (EVALI) outbreak of 2019 caught the attention of many, and has brought with it the scrutiny of both regulators and plaintiffs’ attorneys eager to act as “civil prosecutors.” As Tolkien would say, the Eye of Sauron has now turned its gaze towards the cannabis vapor industry.
With the misinformation and negative publicity that the EVALI outbreak brought to the industry, vaporizer device manufacturers should expect more lawsuits to be filed against them through 2020 and beyond. The cannabis vapor industry should also expect the theories of defect alleged against their products to become more sophisticated as more plaintiffs’ attorneys enter the arena.
One theory of defect you should expect plaintiff’s attorneys to pursue in 2020 is what I generally refer to as “temperature control litigation.”
Here is the problem:
Typical additives in cannabis oil, while once thought to be safe, can degrade at higher temperatures into toxic chemicals. For example, the Vape Crisis of 2019 was largely attributed to a cannabis oil additive known as vitamin E acetate. While typically regarded as safe for use in nutritional supplements or hand creams, when used in cannabis oil, investigators believe vitamin E acetate can degrade into a toxic chemical when vaped—and is responsible for causing mass pulmonary illness for thousands of consumers.
Researchers do not fully understand how this process occurs, but chemists from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland found in a recent study that the key is understanding how temperatures affect chemicals when vaping. Through a process known as pyrolysis, the study found that vitamin E acetate can possibly degrade into ketene when vaped at higher temperatures—depending on the type of coil resistance, voltage and temperature configuration used in a vaporizer device. (Ketene has a high pulmonary toxicity, and can be lethal at high concentrations, while low concentrations can cause central nervous system impairment.) Similar studies have also shown that additives like Propylene Glycol (PG), Vegetable Glycerin (VG), and Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) can degrade into toxic chemicals at high temperatures—which has led Colorado to ban the use of PEG for inhalable cannabis products altogether.
More shocking, is that such temperature control issues are not limited to additives. It is very common for experienced users to experiment with low to high temperatures when vaping cannabis; it is believed that vaping cannabis at low temperatures (325-350°F) results in a mild high, while vaping cannabis at higher temperatures (400-430°F) results in a more euphoric feeling and intense high. But when cannabis is vaped at even higher temperatures (450°F +), industry experts do not really know if or how cannabinoids and terpenes degrade, which combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes affect degradation and what the health risks could be. It’s anyone’s guess.
These temperature control issues are further complicated due to the universal 5/10 thread. Most consumers purchase cannabis oil through pre-filled “carts” (cartridges)—that are compatible with 90% of vaporizer batteries on the market because of universal 5/10 thread connectors. But vaporizer batteries can operate anywhere from sub-300 degrees to 800 degrees and above. Coupled with varying battery voltages, ceramic coil quality and oil quality, vaporizer batteries can produce a wide range of operating temperatures. Consequently, it is possible users could connect a cart to a vaporizer battery (set at too high a temperature configuration) and risk pyrolysis, change the chemicals inside their cannabis cart, and cause unknown harm to themselves.
Unquestionably, all of the above will result in lawsuits. Companies that manufacture cannabis oil will be sued for failing to conduct emissions testing to properly evaluate safe temperature settings for use of their carts. Vaporizer device manufacturers will be sued for failing to publish warnings, instructions and adequate owner’s manuals regarding the same. And the rallying cry against the cannabis vapor industry will be damaging. Plaintiff’s attorneys will accuse the industry of choosing profits over safety: “The cannabis vapor industry knew cannabis oils could turn into toxic chemicals when heated at high temperatures, but instead of conducting long-term emissions testing to evaluate those concerns, the industry chose profits over safety. As long as the industry made money, no one cared what dangers arose from elevated temperatures—and consumers paid the price.”
With the above as background, it is critical for the cannabis vapor industry to get serious about product testing. The industry needs to know if and why certain cannabinoids, terpenes and additives can turn into toxic chemicals when they are vaporized at high temperatures—and how the industry can guard against such dangers. And to cover their bases, the industry needs to publish proper warnings and owner’s manuals for all products. The time to act is now.
On June 19, Charles Deibel, president and CEO of Deibel Bioscience, announced two important changes to his cannabis testing laboratory: First, they changed their name from Deibel Laboratories to Deibel Bioscience. Secondly, they achieved ISO/IEC 17025:2017 accreditation.
Deibel Labs is an internationally recognized corporation of 15 testing labs in North America that’s been around for about 50 years, serving the food, beverage and personal care industries. Starting in 2018, Deibel has ventured into the cannabis and hemp markets, and recently rebranded these labs as “Deibel Bioscience.” Currently, Deibel Bioscience operates in California and Illinois, with plans underway to open labs in Florida and Pennsylvania.
Deibel’s brand is very well known in the food testing industry and has recently become a prominent voice and industry advocate in the cannabis testing community. Charles Deibel’s father, Dr. Robert Deibel, was a pioneer of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. Charles Deibel has a long career in the laboratory testing space and even worked with the Department of Justice to help shape the legal case against Peanut Corporation of America and testified as an expert witness during the trial.
With respect to their accreditation, Deibel Bioscience of California (Santa Cruz) achieved it through the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA). The lab’s scope currently holds seven chemical and microbiological test methods as well as their sampling method, with plans to expand their scope to include four more chemical testing methods in the next month.
“At our level of testing services, any lab should be able to offer accurate testing, at a fair price and a reasonable turn-around time,” says Deibel. “These three qualities are no longer defining features; rather it is our high level of service and exceptional Technical Services acumen that set us apart.”
According to Deibel, their company is drawing on decades of experience in other testing industries to provide a high caliber of technical expertise. “We are a family owned and operated corporation and are not constrained by quarterly investor demands. Our size offers economics of scale that is reflected in our service and pricing.”
Under current federal law, financial institutions are extremely limited in the services and resources that they can offer to cannabis companies. Without access to traditional financing, cannabis companies have been forced to turn to outside investments to finance their operations. The private equity approach can be a “dank” opportunity for cannabis companies; however, these companies should be cognizant of the securities laws implications that are present with this type of business structure. The focus of most cannabis companies when forming their business is compliance with the regulatory scheme of their jurisdiction as it relates to the operation of a cannabis business. While compliance with these laws is important, it is also important that these companies ensure that they are compliant with the Securities Act of 1933 (the Securities Act) before accepting investments from outside sources.
Securities Act Application
Oftentimes, smaller companies don’t realize that they are subject to the Securities Act. However, the definition of a “security” under the Securities Act is very broad1 and under S.E.C. v. W.J. Howey Co., an investment in a common enterprise, such as a partnership or limited liability company, where the investor expects to earn profits from the efforts of others is considered a “security” and thus, subject to the rigorous requirements of the Securities Act.2 In general, all companies offering securities within the United States are required to register those securities with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) unless a registration exemption is available.3 A company can register its securities (i.e., its ownership interests offered to investors) with the SEC by filing a Registration Statement. These statements generally offer investors certain information about the company in order to enable investors to be able to make an informed decision about their investment. Filing a Registration Statement can be both time-consuming and costly, and most companies want to avoid filing one if they can. Luckily, the Securities Act offers certain exemptions from registration requirements to companies who meet certain standards.4 While there are numerous exemptions from securities registration, the most common exemptions used are the Regulation D5 exemptions, which provides three different exemptions based on the size of the offering and the sophistication of the investors, and the Rule 1476 Intrastate exemption.
Regulation D Exemptions
Rule 504-Limited Offerings
Rule 504, often called the “Limited Offering” exemption, provides an exemption from securities registration for companies who limit the offer and sale of their securities to no more than $5,000,000 in a twelve-month period.7 Unlike the other Regulation D exemptions, which are discussed in further detail below, the Limited Offering exemption does not have any limitations on the level of sophistication or number of investors.8 This means that companies who rely on this exemption do not have to verify the net worth or income of their investors or limit the number of investors in the company. Like all Regulation D exemptions, companies relying on the Limited Offering exemption are required to file a “Form D” with the SEC within 15 days of the first securities sale.9 A Form D is a relatively simple form which provides basic information about a company to the SEC, including the registration exemption that is being relied upon. A copy of Form D can be found here.
The “Private Offering” exemption can be found at Rule 506(b) of Regulation D.10 This exemption is commonly used for larger investment offerings with varying levels of investor sophistication. The Private Offering exemption can be used for investment offerings of any size so long as the company: (1) does not use general solicitation or advertising, such as newspaper articles or seminars, to attract investors; and (2) limits the number of “non-accredited investors” to no more than 35.11 “Accredited investors” are those investors whom the Securities Act deems sophisticated enough to properly weigh the risk of their investment in the company. In order to qualify as an accredited investor, the investor must:
Have an individual income of more than $200,000 in the past two years
Have a joint income with their spouse of more than $300,000 in the past two years
Have an individual net worth, or joint net worth with their spouse, in excess of $1,000,000 or:
Be a director, executive officer or manager of the Company.12
If the investor is a corporation, partnership, limited liability company or other non-trust entity, then to qualify as an accredited investor, it must either have assets in excess of $5,000,000 or each of its equity owners must meet one of the requirements for individuals listed above.13 If the investor is a trust, then the trust must: (1) have total assets in excess of $5,000,000 and the investment decision must be made by a “sophisticated person” (i.e., the person who is making the investment decision has such knowledge and experience in financial and business matters that he or she is capable of evaluating the merits and risks of an investment in the company); (2) have a trustee making the investment decision that is a bank or other financial institution; or (3) be revocable at any time and the grantor(s) of the trust must meet one of the requirements for individuals listed above.14
The Private Offering exemption allows a company to have an unlimited number of accredited investors, but only up to 35 non-accredited investors. However, companies should be very cautious of allowing non-accredited investors to invest in the company. The Securities Act requires that companies make extensive disclosures to non-accredited investors which are essentially the same requirements as the company would have to provide in a registered security offering. These requirements include providing investors with financial statements, operations plan, detailed descriptions of the company’s business, description of all property owned, discussion and analysis of the company’s financial condition and the results of operations, biographies of and descriptions of each officer and director, as well as other descriptions regarding the details of the company.15 Failure to provide the necessary information to non-accredited investors can disqualify companies from the benefits offered by the Private Offering Exemption. Companies should be very cautious when relying on the Private Offering exemption. If a company does choose to utilize the Private Offering exemption, they must file a Form D with the SEC within 15 days of the first securities sale.
Rule 506(c), the “General Solicitation” exemption, is similar to the Private Offering Exemption. Unlike the Private Offering exemption, companies relying on the General Solicitation exemption are permitted to use general solicitation and advertising to advertise their securities to potential investors.16 However, investors relying on the General Solicitation exemption must only sell their securities to accredited investors.17 Under Rule 506(c), the company selling the securities must take steps to verify the accredited-investor status of their investors.18 These steps can include reviewing past tax returns, reviewing bank statements, or obtaining confirmation from the investor’s attorney or accountant that such person is an accredited investor.19 Like the other Regulation D exemptions, companies relying on the General Solicitation exemption should file a Form D with the SEC.Private equity can be a dank opportunity for cannabis companies, but it is critical that these companies ensure that they are in compliance with all applicable securities laws.
Rule 147, known as the “Intrastate” exemption, provides an exemption from securities registration for companies who limit the offer and sale of their securities to investors who are residents of, if they are an individual, or have its principal place of business in, if they are an entity, the state where the company is organized and has its principal place of business.20 The Intrastate exemption permits general solicitation to investors who are in-state residents, and there are no limitations on the size of the offering or the number of investors, whether accredited or unaccredited. In addition, companies relying on this exemption are not required to file a Form D with the SEC. The Intrastate exemption can be very desirable to companies who wish to obtain a small number of key investors within their communities.
In addition to complying with the Securities Act, companies are also required to comply with the securities laws of each state where their securities are sold. Each state has its own securities laws which may place additional requirements on companies in addition to the Securities Act. Most states (including California, Colorado, Oregon, and Oklahoma) require that a copy of the Form D filed with the SEC be filed with the state securities commission if securities are sold within that state. Before offering securities for sale in any state, companies should thoroughly review the applicable state securities laws to ensure that they are in compliance with all state requirements in addition to the requirements under the Securities Act.
Additional Considerations for Cannabis Companies
Despite the fact that the purchase and sale of cannabis is illegal under federal law, cannabis companies are still subject to the Securities Act in the same manner as every other company. However, the SEC has issued a warning to investors to be wary of making investments in cannabis companies due to the high fraud and market manipulation risks.21 The SEC has a history of issuing trading suspensions against cannabis companies who allegedly provided false information to their investors.22 Cannabis companies who wish to rely on any of the registration exemptions under the Securities Act should ensure that they fully disclose all details of the company and the risks involved in investing in it to all of their potential investors. While cannabis companies are permitted to rely on the registration exemptions under the Securities Act, the SEC appears to place additional scrutiny on cannabis companies who offer securities to outside investors. It is possible to fully comply with the onerous requirements of the Securities Act, but cannabis companies should engage legal counsel to assist with their securities offerings. Failure to comply with the Securities Act could result in sanctions and monetary penalties from the SEC, as well as potentially jeopardize a cannabis company’s license to sell cannabis. It is extremely important that companies seek advice from legal counsel who has experience in these types of offerings and the requirements of the Securities Act and applicable state securities laws. Private equity can be a dank opportunity for cannabis companies, but it is critical that these companies ensure that they are in compliance with all applicable securities laws.
By Brett Schuman, Barzin Pakandam, Jennifer Fisher, Nicholas Costanza No Comments
The overwhelming majority of Americans now live in a state where cannabis is legal at the state level for at least some purposes.1 However, cannabis (excluding hemp) remains criminal under federal law for all purposes. This conflict between state and federal law presents challenges for participants in the state legal cannabis industry, including enforcing their contractual agreements. This is because a number of federal court rulings have called into question whether contracts involving cannabis are enforceable in federal court.
In this article, we explore how federal courts and state legislatures have addressed the enforceability of contracts relating to cannabis and provide some practical tips for cannabis companies to protect their contractual rights.
The “Illegality Defense” in Federal Courts
“No principle of law is better settled than that a party to an illegal contract cannot come into a court of law and ask to have his illegal objects carried out . . . .” Mann v. Gullickson, 2016 WL 6473215 at *6 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 2, 2016) (quoting Wong v. Tenneco, Inc., 39 Cal. 3d 126, 135 (1985)).
Bart St. III v. ACC EnterprisesApplying this principle, a number of federal courts have refused to enforce contracts relating to state-legal cannabis. For instance, in Bart St. III v. ACC Enterprises, LLC, No. 217CV00083GMNVCF, 2020 WL 1638329 (D. Nev. Apr. 1, 2020), the parties entered into a loan agreement wherein the plaintiff-lender, Bart Street III, loaned the defendant cannabis cultivators in Nevada approximately $4.7 million to fund operating costs, pay down debts and purchase land for a cannabis cultivation facility in Nevada. Id. at *1-2. The loan agreement specified that it was governed by Nevada law. The cannabis cultivators defaulted on the loan, and Bart Street III sued for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. The cannabis cultivators argued that they could not be liable for breach of a contract that is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, as amended (the CSA). Id. A federal judge in Nevada ruled that certain provisions of the loan agreement (i.e., a right of first refusal provision and another provision concerning disbursement of operating costs) were illegal under federal law and could not be enforced. The judge was unable to decide on summary judgment whether the illegal provisions could be severed from the other parts of the agreement, so on that basis the cannabis cultivators’ summary judgment motion was denied as to the breach of contract claim. However, the judge granted the cannabis cultivators’ motion as to the unjust enrichment claim based on the following reasoning: “Plaintiff cannot prevail for unjust enrichment because the parties’ contract involves moral turpitude. If the Contract is unenforceable, it is because Plaintiff invested in Defendants’ marijuana cultivation business primarily to obtain a pathway to an equity investment therein . . . . Providing funds in exchange for equity violates the CSA because it would allow the investor to profit from the cultivation, possession, and sale of marijuana . . . . Conspiracy to cultivate marijuana is a crime of moral turpitude.”
Polk v. GontmakherThe illegality defense was also raised in Polk v. Gontmakher, No. 2:18-CV-01434-RAJ, 2020 WL 2572536 (W.D. Wash. May 21, 2020), which involved two business partners—Polk and Gontmakher— who owned a licensed cannabis processing facility and retail store through an entity called NWCS. When Polk decided to leave the business, Gontmakher refused to acknowledge Polk’s ownership interest because Polk had a prior criminal record, which violated ownership requirements for cannabis businesses under Washington cannabis regulations. Polk sued Gontmakher for breach of a verbal partnership agreement and sought to recover past and future profits of the cannabis business. Gontmakher moved to dismiss, and the district judge granted the motion: “Mr. Polk’s claim that his requested relief would not require a violation of the CSA defies logic. He is demanding the future profits of a business that produces and processes marijuana in violation of federal law. How does Mr. Polk anticipate NWCS will generate these future profits? The Court cannot fathom how ordering [Gontmakher] to turn over the future profits of a marijuana business would not require them to violate the CSA. And as this Court has previously explained to Mr. Polk, it cannot award him an equitable interest in NWCS because to do so would directly contravene federal law.” Polk, WL 2572536 at *2.
J. Lilly, LLC v. Clearspan Fabric Structures Int’l, Inc.Certain federal district court judges have addressed the illegality defense directly, even when it has not been asserted by the parties. In J. Lilly, LLC v. Clearspan Fabric Structures Int’l, Inc., No. 3:18-CV-01104-HZ, 2020 WL 1855190 (D. Or. Apr. 13, 2020), a licensed cannabis cultivator in Oregon contracted with Clearspan, a lessor of commercial greenhouse equipment located in Connecticut, to lease greenhouse equipment for the facility and also have the facility constructed. After construction began, the cultivator notified Clearspan (and the sub-contractor) of numerous defects in the facility that were impeding cultivation efforts, and after Clearspan allegedly fixed only one defect, the cultivator sued for breach of the agreements and claimed lost profits due to the inability to cultivate cannabis, in the amount of $5.4 million. While Clearspan moved to dismiss the claims on the basis that the cultivator waived any contractual right to consequential damages, the District Court raised the issue of the illegality of the contracts under federal law sua sponte at oral argument. After supplemental briefing on the issue, the Court held that “awarding Plaintiff damages for lost profits [for the sale of cannabis] would require the Court to compel Defendants to violate the [CSA…and] provides an independent basis to dismiss Plaintiff’s lost profits claim in addition to” the issue of waiver, and other merits issues. Id. at *11-12.
And in Ricatto v. M3 Innovations Unlimited, Inc., No. 18 CIV. 8404 (KPF), 2019 WL 6681558 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 6, 2019), Ricato (an investor) and M3 (the intended cannabis operator and licensee) entered into an agreement to purchase a plot of land in California for M3 to develop as a cannabis processing facility. The investor sued to enforce the investment instrument, and M3 moved to dismiss. The court granted M3’s motion to dismiss on other grounds but noted that “it is not readily apparent to the Court that it could [even] enforce such a contract [as] ‘[m]arijuana remains illegal under federal law, even in those states in which medical marijuana has been legalized,’” such as California. Id. at *5, n.4.
Ricatto v. M3 Innovations Unlimited, Inc.However, under some circumstances a federal court may enforce a cannabis contract. In Mann v. Gullickson, Mann loaned Gullickson money to be used in a cannabis-related business. The agreement was governed by California law. When Gullickson defaulted on the promissory note, Mann sued for breach of contract. Gullickson asserted that the contract was illegal under federal law and moved for summary judgment. In an order denying Gullickson’s motion, the court said that “even where contracts concern illegal objects, where it is possible for a court to enforce a contract in a way that does not require illegal conduct, the court is not barred from according such relief.” 2016 WL 6473215, at *7.
Federal courts are wary of parties seeking the enforcement of cannabis contracts. If there is any possibility that the issuance of a court order enforcing the contract would result in a party violating the CSA, federal courts are likely to deny relief.
State Laws Protecting the Enforceability of Cannabis Contracts
At the state level, legislatures in some states that have legalized cannabis for adult use have enacted laws to protect the enforceability of cannabis contracts. These statutes specifically exempt commercial cannabis activities from general laws voiding contracts that are in furtherance of illegal activities. Examples of these state laws include:
Massachusetts: In December 2016, Massachusetts enacted a statute providing that “[c]ontracts pertaining to marijuana enforceable” and providing that contracts entered into by cannabis licensees or their agents, or by landlords of cannabis licensees, “shall not be unenforceable or void exclusively because the actions or conduct permitted pursuant to the license is prohibited by federal law.” (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 94G, § 10)
California: In January 2019, California enacted a statute providing that “commercial activity relating to medicinal cannabis or adult-use cannabis conducted in compliance with California law and any applicable local standards, requirements, and regulations” shall be deemed the lawful object of a contract and not contrary to law or against public policy, notwithstanding any law that requires all contracts have a “lawful object” under state or federal law. (Cal. Civil Code § 1550.5)
Nevada: In 2016, a ballot initiative was passed in Nevada, which was then codified under state law, declaring “[i]t is the public policy of the People of the State of Nevada that contracts related to the operation of marijuana establishments under this chapter should be enforceable,” and that such contracts “shall not be deemed unenforceable on the basis that the actions or conduct permitted pursuant to the license are prohibited by federal law.” (N.R.S. § 678B.610).
Similar statutes have been enacted in other states, including in Oregon (January 2018), Michigan (December 2018), Illinois (June 2019) and Colorado (January 2020). See Or. Rev. Stat. § 475B.535 (In Oregon, “[a] contract is not unenforceable on the basis that” commercial cannabis activity legal in Oregon is illegal under federal law); Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-601 (similar to Oregon); Mich. Comp. Laws § 333.27960 (Public policy in Michigan is that “…contracts related to the operation of marihuana establishments [are] enforceable.”); 410 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 705/55-75 (similar to Michigan).
However, many states that have legalized cannabis do not have statutes exempting contracts relating to cannabis activities from the illegality defense.
Contracting Tips for Cannabis Companies
Notwithstanding the uncertainty and inherent risks caused by the conflict between federal and state law, there are certain steps parties entering into commercial cannabis agreements can take to protect their contractual rights, including:
Always include a forum selection clause specifying resolution of disputes in state court and waiving any right to remove the dispute to federal court.
If entering into an agreement in a state that has enacted a statutory provision exempting cannabis contracts from the illegality defense, consider selecting that state’s law (as opposed to New York or Delaware law, which are often the jurisdictions of choice for transactional lawyers who don’t know better) in a choice of law provision.
If neither the parties nor the performance of the agreement have any nexus to a state that has enacted a statutory provision protecting the enforceability of cannabis contracts, consider incorporating the contracting entity in one of those states. In the same way that Delaware is the jurisdiction of choice for incorporating most companies, a state like California may on balance be the better choice for cannabis industry participants due to the legal recognition of commercial cannabis activity.
Consider using an arbitration clause in commercial cannabis agreements. These clauses require parties to arbitrate disputes that may arise in connection with the agreement. As a general rule, arbitration is both more efficient and less expensive than litigation, and arbitrators are less likely than federal judges to refuse to enforce an agreement because it relates to federally illegal cannabis activity.
Notwithstanding expanding legalization at the state level, and general federal tolerance of the state-legal cannabis industry, federal courts remain a dangerous place for cannabis companies. If possible, cannabis companies should specify state court (or arbitration) for resolution of disputes in their contracts, and they should choose a state law that expressly excludes cannabis contracts from the illegality doctrine.
Cannabis is legal for medical purposes in 33 states plus the District of Columbia; cannabis is legal for adults over 21 in 11 states plus the District of Columbia. Approximately 76.5% of the population of the United States lives in a state with some form of legal cannabis. See https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/popest/2010s-state-total.html#par_textimage_1574439295. This figure excludes Texas, which has a limited medical cannabis program as of this writing. However, if Texas is included, then over 85% of the population lives in a state with some form of legal cannabis.
This year, many issues have gotten put on a shelf as the world has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. The legalization of cannabis in many states has been one of those issues. But this time on pause has given the industry a chance to identify how it would like to move forward as an emerging market that has many benefits across medicine, from mental health to the economy.
For many of these reasons, cannabis use is coming out of the shadows and there has clearly been a shift in recent years from cannabis being an illicit item to becoming a boutique product in many circles. The transition of cannabis’ image from that of the stoner in his parent’s basement to the “it” consumable for the jet set has as much to do about science as it does sophisticated branding.
Approximately 24 million Americans in 2019 have used cannabis, about 10% say they consume it for medical purposes based upon a growing body of evidence supporting the use of medical cannabis for a number of conditions. There are also economic reasons why legalizing cannabis makes sense including increased revenue for the government, job creation and more.
As cannabis becomes legal across America—11 states have adopted laws allowing for recreational use, while 22 others permit only medical cannabis—it’s finally becoming the sprawling business its proponents have long envisioned.
And this has moved the mainstreaming of cannabis in today’s society from a taboo illicit drug to now being openly discussed at dinner tables.
First of all, our hats need to be taken off to the cannabis advocates who over the last 20 years have shaped an emerging industry, educating society and the government on the benefits cannabis can offer based on science.
The global cannabis community has collaborated with regulatory bodies to establish compliance and regulations as a starting point to help the general public understand sourcing products from legal entities is a safer way to get quality product to consume that is not compromised from unregulated producers.
In addition, technology advancements within the cannabis space have led to sophisticated track and trace solutions of raw materials and products through the supply chain. The data captured within these systems allows cannabis brands to tell a compelling authentication story to end consumers based on scientific facts.
This all leads to an emerging market that has open transparency, full traceability and establishing trust with consumers. The early master growers now work hand in hand with designer laboratories, perfecting and protecting their IP. A sophisticated supply chain has been put in place so consumers know where their cannabis was grown and by whom. Consumers understand which strains have been harvested and what hybrid models have been created. This is certainly no longer a bag of weed you purchased from a neighborhood friend, but a complex, innovative industry with established brands that have celebrities, ex-politicians and well know business executives involved now and the advocates that has been leading the charge for over 30 years are still the backbone to educate the masses on the benefits cannabis and hemp will bring to mankind over time.
Advertising your cannabis brand isn’t as easy as it should be—but then again, neither are most things about working in the modern cannabis industry. Here’s the good news: Today there are more avenues available for compliantly advertising your cannabis brand than ever before, particularly online.
So why don’t more cannabis brands run compliant digital ads? Generally speaking, it’s an issue of awareness. Since cannabis brands are currently disallowed from running their advertising campaigns through the modern digital advertising mainstays of Facebook, Instagram, and Google, most business owners believe that digital advertising as a whole is not allowed, and thus most cannabis companies are either underutilizing or completely overlooking their digital ad options.
In fact, the rules barring cannabis brands from advertising with Google and Facebook are specific to those platforms. While Facebook and Google—together known as “the Duopoly”—currently account for approximately half of digital advertising dollars spent in the U.S., the other half of the digital advertising pool—including sites like ESPN, HuffPost, Newsweek, Politico, Barstool Sports, and USA Today—is increasingly open to accepting ad buys from compliant digital cannabis and CBD advertisers. More publishers are opening their doors to cannabis ads every day, and many advertising professionals speculate that the COVID-19 pandemic may speed up the process, as publishers begin to look for new streams of ad revenue in order to weather the economic storm.
Where Can Cannabis Be Advertised?
Today, cannabis industry advertisers can easily run ads across hundreds of mainstream websites using programmatic advertising technology. This is true for both cannabis brands and CBD brands, though they use different programmatic platforms to do so: CBD brands (which we’ll address in more detail later) can use mainstream “demand-side platforms” (such as The Trade Desk) to run their ad campaigns, while cannabis brands can use new cannabis-specific platforms (such as Safe-Reach) created to address the unique compliance needs of the legal cannabis industry.
For those unfamiliar with the term, programmatic advertising refers to the automated buying and selling of online ad space using programmatic technology. In a nutshell, advertisers and their ad agencies use demand-side platforms (DSPs) to set the parameters of “bids” for certain ad impressions based on relevant attributes of the ad space and the viewer who will see it. Publishers put their ad space up for auction via supply-side platforms (SSPs), and ad exchanges play matchmaker to sell the ad impression to highest bidder in the time it takes the web page in question to load.
Cannabis-specific DSPs work with other cannabis industry leaders to develop sets of data relevant to cannabis advertisers; they then open these data sets within their platforms to help cannabis advertisers reach known cannabis consumers. These known consumers may be, for example, people who’ve downloaded apps like Leafly on their phones.
A key thing to note is that the cannabis ads themselves no longer need to be shown exclusively on these endemic cannabis sites and apps. In the past, digital cannabis advertisers were generally restricted to buying space on industry-specific sites like Leafly, High Times, and Weedmaps, which pushed prices up due to inventory limits and ran through ad budgets quickly. Ad networks like Mantis attempted to compile this inventory to make the buying process more scalable, but because cannabis has been (and remains) the fastest-growing industry in the United States since 2015, it’s no surprise that endemic cannabis ad inventory has been insufficient to meet demand.
Now, the data sets available through programmatic advertising technology allow ads to be shown to the same cannabis enthusiasts across any website, endemic or not. This makes digital advertising far more affordable for cannabis marketers, and allows for more advanced advertising techniques like building look-alike audiences, cross-device advertising, first-party data onboarding, and ad retargeting. These techniques can be used across all modern digital ad formats, including display, mobile, native, video and digital audio.
Still, even those marketers who are already aware that they can advertise digitally outside of Facebook, Google and endemic cannabis sites may struggle with knowing what they can say and show in their digital ads, particularly if they intend to run those ads in multiple locations or across multiple channels. The broadly applicable rules for running compliant digital cannabis ads are what we’ll discuss now.
Rules for Cannabis Ad Compliance
Thanks to cannabis’s continued federal classification as a Schedule I drug, current digital advertising regulations are governed by state cannabis laws, so they vary depending on where your business operates. This can become particularly confusing if you want to run digital advertisements visible to customers across multiple states (which some states allow—for those who don’t, cannabis ad tech will let you keep your ads within state or local borders too).
Luckily, most cannabis bills are crafted to resemble those that have been passed successfully before them, which means that state laws can be boiled down to a handful of broadly applicable guidelines no matter where you intend to show your ads. The current best practices for advertising cannabis are as follow:
No claims of health or medical benefits
No elements that could appeal to children (cartoon characters, etc.)
No false or misleading statements, including those made about competitors’ products
No testimonials or endorsements (e.g. recommendations from doctors)
No depiction of product consumption
No pricing information, potency statements, or promotional offers
Ads for infused products must state “For Adult Use Only”
Using these guidelines, cannabis marketers can more easily create ads to be approved for use in a variety of settings. A few states have their own additional rules: In Florida, a state approval process for ad creative also applies. In Alaska, Arkansas, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon and Washington, additional state-specific copy is required in the ad creative.
Note that it’s always important to double-check your state’s most recent requirements, as local rules may change over time. If you’re working with an advertising agency that specializes in the cannabis industry, they can help you with this process; cannabis-specific programmatic platforms like Safe-Reach will also check your ad creative against local requirements as part of their approval process.
Why Advertise Cannabis Digitally?
Prior to the advent of modern, cannabis-specific digital advertising technology, cannabis marketers were light years behind their mainstream industry counterparts in terms of the advertising channels they leveraged to get their message out. Traditional advertising tactics like billboards and print ad buys were popular among cannabis businesses early on due to the lack of digital ad publishers willing to work with them.
The problem with these traditional tactics is one of targeting, measurement, and reporting: It’s impossible to know who has seen your ads, how many of those viewers went to your website or dispensary after seeing them, and what your return on ad spend (ROAS) was. The fact that you can neither know nor control who will see your ad in a print newspaper or on a billboard is why most states have treaded cautiously with their advertising restrictions to avoid ads being seen by minors. In Washington state, for instance, no advertisement is allowed “within one thousand feet of the perimeter of a school grounds, playground, recreation center or facility, child care center, public park, library, or a game arcade admission to which it is not restricted to persons aged twenty-one years or older; on or in a public transit vehicle or public transit shelter; or on or in a publicly owned or operated property.”
With programmatic advertising, digital identity data allows advertisers to show their ads exclusively to an appropriate audience—for instance, adults ages 21 and over who live within state borders. Digital advertising also addresses the issues of measurement and reporting, which is why mainstream brands have already shifted en masse to choosing digital over physical ads: You can learn, down to the cent, the return on your digital ad investment, which makes the choice of continuing to advertise an easy one as long as ROAS remains positive. As of 2019, digital ad spending surpassed traditional (TV, radio, print, etc.) for the first time in history, and in 2020, eMarketer estimates that $151 billion will be spent on digital marketing versus $107 billion on traditional. By 2021, 70 percent of all digital ads—and 88 percent of display ads—will be bought and sold using programmatic technology.
As the fastest-growing industry in the United States, cannabis should also be one of the fastest-growing segments in digital advertising, but so far cannabis advertising efforts have been far off pace with the industry’s progress as a whole. However, that is beginning to change as savvy cannabis brands begin to understand and leverage their digital marketing options.
What About CBD Advertising?
The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp-derived CBD products in the United States, but did not offer guidance on selling, marketing or advertising them. Most CBD products are thus sold and marketed in a legal gray area, which is only made more confusing by Facebook’s and Google’s policies of rejecting these as “illegal drug” ads (a policy both platforms enforce irregularly). Although CBD brands should still try for approval, and some ads (especially those for hemp-derived CBD topicals) may be approved, CBD advertisers cannot rely on Facebook and Google for ongoing traffic, and ads may be taken down after initial approval regardless of legality.
That said, CBD business owners already have an even more extensive range of digital advertising options available outside of search and social than cannabis brands do. Some websites that do not yet accept cannabis ads will accept CBD ads, and mainstream ad tech platforms like The Trade Desk allow CBD ad buys as long as ad creative meets their internal guidelines for approval. Thus, the de-facto rules and regulations governing CBD advertising today are made by the platforms and publishers running their advertisements. To ensure ad approval on programmatic platforms like The Trade Desk, CBD brands should follow the same guidelines listed for cannabis brands above.
To sum up the current state of digital advertising compliance in the cannabis industry, cannabis and CBD brands should know that there are far more digital advertising options out there than most people realize, and that creating compliant ads is relatively straightforward as detailed above. That said, brands considering an investment in digital advertising should also keep in mind that the current window of opportunity for getting a head start on the competition is already closing day by day as brands begin to realize all the ways they can run compliant cannabis digital ads.
Programmatic Advertising: A Close Look at Cannabis (IAB)
The prospect of large events with 50 or more people in Illinois taking place in 2020 seems highly unlikely. Illinois released a plan called Restore Illinois that consists of five phases for reopening the economy. Illinois entered into Phase 2 in early May; it is not until Phase 5 that gatherings of 50 or more people are allowed, and only if there is a vaccine, or a highly effective treatment that is widely is available, or the elimination of new cases over a sustained period of time.
Regardless of federal and state guidance, we feel it would be irresponsible and premature to host a large gathering of people in a confined meeting space this year. That is why, instead of a three-day, in-person event, we will host a series of webcasts over the course of eight weeks in the Fall.
Every Tuesday, starting on September 8 and through Election Day, we will host two presentations and two Tech Talks, followed by a panel discussion. The Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference Series will culminate with a post-election analysis to take place November 10.
This will still be an interactive virtual conference, where attendees can ask questions and get in touch with speakers. We look forward to seeing everyone virtually there.
Although the COVID-19 crisis has halted many normal business practices, that doesn’t mean that high brand engagement rates have to come to a close. In many states, the cannabis industry has been deemed an essential business. This designation as ‘essential’ opens up a prime opportunity for social media accounts to achieve positive gains and educate people about the valuable benefits of cannabis, especially with so many people staying online for longer periods of time.
It’s been clear for years that social media marketing is one of the most cost-effective ways for a business to reach customers and prospects. However, when it comes to cannabis and cannabis-related businesses, serious social media challenges are everyday occurrences. So how are you supposed to effectively market your business when you can’t promote your products and services? As a marketing professional, I know it’s a tall order, but with some smart strategic moves, it can be done.
There are a few ground rules that cannabis businesses should follow during this ongoing crisis to keep their social media engagement metrics as high as their loyal customers, while remaining in compliance with the strict rules for cannabis marketing. While the laws vary from state to state, that pesky federal illegality and Schedule I designator the DEA is dragging its feet on means that you must pay careful attention to even the smallest details. When it comes to CBD products, the FDA has been outspoken on what not to do as well. Slip up, and mainstream social platforms like Instagram and Facebook can and will restrict or even remove your brand pages. Losing all your followers and posts and having to start from scratch is not fun.
You’ll also need to get creative with your posts. Remember, never promote products, or encourage your audience to get in contact with your business, so always review and proof carefully before posting anything to your feeds. Make these simple mistakes, and your business could be seen by the platform as directly or indirectly soliciting use of an illegal substance. Cannabis businesses already have enough headaches to contend with right now without inadvertently adding to them.
So what should you post and how often? Now is the time to double down on educational and lifestyle related content, and for sharing how your business is addressing the ongoing COVID-19 threat. Share any new procedures and precautions to underscore that your business is dedicated to safety for staff and consumers. Post often, but don’t overdo it. Your posting frequency will be a matter of trial and error, but aim for 3-4 times per week per channel, and be sure to tailor your posts for the platform it will appear on.
Educational content doesn’t automatically mean boring! Keep your content easy to read, and choose a single topical focus or benefit. Use a variety of formats – from publishing informative blogs and podcasts that you can share to your social media accounts to direct posts of how-to and behind-the-scenes videos and rich lifestyle imagery (no product photos, please). Posting these types of media with smart captions can help gain the attention of your audience and are easy for viewers to share with their friends and followers. Speaking of which…
Embrace earned media opportunities and social media influencers who can promote your brand. If you’re not familiar with the term, earned media is the bucket we use to describe content that’s being shared and talked about by users, or even created by them. That organic exposure to a wider audience is the highly desirable side-effect of having great content – positive attention that gets shared by others.
If you’re considering working social media influencers, look for those that are already engaged with members of your target audience or that would have appeal to your customers. Be sure they can demonstrate real ROI and that they understand the importance of remaining compliant with FTC and platform specific guidelines for posting, including compensation disclosures – before signing them. Many marketing and PR agencies provide vetting of influencers, and can even negotiate contracts, often at better rates. Before deciding if influencers are right for your brand, you may want to consult with a reputable agency that has experience with hiring (and firing) social influencers.
Finally, if you haven’t yet done so, consider establishing a profile on one or more of the rapidly growing cannabis-friendly social media platforms. These include sites such as Weedable, duby, and CannaSOS. There are also a number of social media platforms focused specifically on cannabis businesses and professionals, such as Leafwire and MJLink (formerly WeedCircles). If you’re still not sure or cannot tackle this yourself, consult with an experienced marketing agency. Now get out there (safely, of course) and conquer those social media platforms the right way! Stay the course, and by the time this crisis is over, your brand could achieve a more solid position on social media, and more engaged followers.
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 Chalice Farms:
Chalice Farms – Business Development Impact
Based in Oregon, this company is a retail and edibles brand in the Golden Leaf Holdings portfolio. Chalice Farms has a number of locations in the Portland area, capitalizing on an effective regional strategy.
However, 2019 was a tough year for Oregon cannabis companies. Increased competition and heavy market saturation led to plummeting prices, forcing Chalice Farms to implement layoffs last Spring. 2020 appears to show Chalice Farms doing much better than the previous year.
In addition to tightening operations, the company engaged in several new business development initiatives recently. They’ve expanded distribution of their signature fruit chews into California and Nevada. They also implemented a sales initiative called “an extended 420 celebration,” covering the month of April. All six of the company’s branded retail locations have pivoted to curbside pickup and home delivery during the coronavirus pandemic.
All of those initiatives led to a boom in earned media for Chalice Farms. They were mentioned on CNN and in Forbes, among other national news outlets. The company also improved their web activities considerably, adding keywords, backlinks and a notable increase in web traffic.
Chalice Farms ended the month of April on a high note, moving to the 11th hottest web property, according to data from Pioneer Intelligence. This continued into May; Chalice Farms claimed the #26 position on the Pioneer Index, the highest it has been to date.
A Cannabis Related Business (or CRB), whether a plant-touching operation or a provider of goods and services to plant-touching operations cannot seek protection from the bankruptcy court as it is a federal court and cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. As such, a CRB does not have the benefit of a court approved restructuring as provided by Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code and does not receive the benefit of an orderly liquidation as provided by Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. However, alternatives to bankruptcy do exist and are available to a CRB.
Before the emergence of the Bankruptcy Code, businesses and their creditors had very few options available to undertake a court-supervised restructuring or liquidation other than seeking the appointment of a court neutral, typically called a receiver or special master. That “neutral” would take the business or its assets into “legal custody” or custodia legis and begin the process of dissolving the entities, selling the assets or otherwise sell the business as a going-concern. In the 1880s and 1890s with the Gilded Age coming to an abrupt halt, this process was successfully used to restructure and recapitalize the failing network of over-extended railways and rail lines, leading to the consolidation in the market that remains to this day.
Cannabis businesses can be legal and now an “essential” business but, still cannot receive the benefits of bankruptcy court.During the Great Depression, the federal judiciary established “reference” courts to deal specifically with bankrupt businesses and individuals laying the foundations for the modern bankruptcy code which is still in effect today. Many of those first precedents used to establish the bankruptcy code and rules were drawn directly from the receivership case law and receivership statutes ever-present in the historical record of common law cases and common law countries, reaching all the way back to the Courts of Chancery in Britain established soon after the Norman invasion of the British Isles in 1066.
In the United States, the equitable power of courts to initiate receiverships or other insolvency proceedings and crafting orders and decrees based on equity, as opposed as based on law or statute, is codified clearly in Article III of the United States Constitution. Today, receiverships and special masters are still utilized by state and federal courts to remedy unique circumstances where a simple bankruptcy cannot address the inequities presented in that case.
State Court Powers & Financing of Receivership Estates
State courts in particular, and California especially, have a wide body of case law supporting the equitable powers of the court, the quasi-judicial immunity of the receiver and the many equitable tools available to receivers. These powers include the negotiation and transfer of liens, with liens attaching to proceeds of sales of assets, the dissolution of a business and the establishment of a claims process akin to a bankruptcy or assignment for benefit of creditors.
One of the many overlooked powers of a receiver is their ability to bring in outside financing or capital to fund the receivership estate to maintain a business as an ongoing concern or to provide short term leverage so that assets can be properly maintained, “dusted off” and sold.
This process of bringing in new capital is typically done by the issuance of receivership certificates. These certificates are approved, ahead of time, by the court and courts can authorize that such certificates prime all other claims (including sometimes administrative claims) and that these certificates can be reduced to a security interest recorded against real or personal property.
The Mechanics of a Receivership
However, because cannabis is approved at the state level, state courts retain their equitable powers and the power to appoint a receiver over a business in need of restructuring or liquidation. There are many avenues to get to court for this benefit, but the primary path to a receivership is either through a creditor (or group of creditors) filing a lawsuit and seeking the appointment of a receiver. This scenario can be done through cooperation and stipulation but can be hostile as well. The receiver option is available and open to address the needs of insolvency for this rapidly expanding industry.Or, a legal entity, can seek dissolution protection from the state court and seek a neutral dissolution officer (a receiver) to manage that process which may include the infusion of new capital through receivership certificates, the sale of assets to third parties, the negotiation and payment of liens and claims through a claims process and the final restructure of dissolution of the legal entity in a manner similar to a bankruptcy or assignment for benefit of creditors. This voluntary petition is permitted by statute and case law and is a mechanism available to a business that is unable to file for bankruptcy protection but is in dire need of court supervision and authority to work through its insolvency problems. Further, by court order, a receiver is able to establish banking relations where a CRB may be unable.
Typically, it is recommended that any receivership filing whether by creditors, claimants or the business itself, be guided by a well-written, explicit order that outlines the parameters of the receivership, the funding requirements and limits, the rights of claimants and some sort of stay of claims against the receivership estate to give the receiver the time needed to work through all of the issues in that receivership estate. Further, outside funding can be pre-approved by the court and the priority of that funding can be established through the open process that the court provides, much akin to a debtor in possession (DIP) financing motion in bankruptcy court.
Because of the unique circumstance that CRBs find themselves in here in California, where they are a legal and now an “essential” business but still cannot receive the benefits of bankruptcy court, the receiver option is available and open to address the needs of insolvency for this rapidly expanding industry.
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