According to a press release, the University of Colorado at Boulder is offering a new course focused on cannabis science through the Continuing Education program at the university during the upcoming Summer and Fall semesters.
The class is called Modern Cannabis Science and will involve a lot of genetic research. The course is sponsored by the Agricultural Genomics Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to scientific research and education in cannabis. In the press release, they describe the course as meant for students who are well informed, but “seek a deeper appreciation of scientific advancements in cannabis genetics.”
Here’s a snapshot of what students can expect to learn from it:
In Modern Cannabis Science, we will explore the range of Cannabis research currently available covering topics such as evolutionary history and global distribution, sex chromosomes, genetic contribution to chemotype, and analyses to aid law enforcement and forensic investigations. We will examine how genetic data allow us to understand relationships between strains and common categories in the Cannabis genus, and why this is important for breeding, policy-making, and medical purposes.
The press release suggests students who enroll can expect to use this knowledge in the cannabis industry. “For example, a budtender will be able to more accurately recommend strains to users,” reads the press release. “Similarly, medical personnel will more fully understand the relationship between strains, the compounds they produce, and how to properly advise Cannabis patients.”
The Canadian-German market connection has been a “thing” ever since the middle of the last decade. But this is not the only international cannabis connection. Indeed, firms in multiple countries have been developing international partnerships for quite some time – and not just deals involving the plant or its extracts, but on the cannabis technology front.
This year and going forward expect these to bear fruit, and in interesting ways.
What are the trends? And who is doing what?
Europe The entire European cannabis market has slowly been developing momentum since 2017 when Germany kicked off its first attempt at a domestic cultivation bid. The first German-grown cannabis is expected to hit pharmacies this fall, and further at a price that will keep everyone else hopping (€3.20 a gram from BfArM to distributors). However, because domestic cultivation was never expected to keep up with patient demand, Germany has become one of the hottest destination markets on the planet.
While there is clearly product still coming in from Canada, the big importer into Germany is actually from Holland (Bedrocan), right across a common border.
But Holland is not the only game in town anymore. Europe has long had promise as one of the most international cannabis markets in the world, simply because of relatively open, cross-border trade. Cannabis from Denmark, Portugal and Spain as well as Australia and South Africa have already made it into the German market. Greece, Italy and Poland are all moving into position as major sources of at minimum, floss if not extracts, along with growing interest in Eastern European entries (and not only the Czech Republic).
The intra-European market for cannabis is well underway, in other words, and this is likely to be an increasing trend, particularly as cannabis continues to make waves on the medical front as well as continually mounting evidence that the drug treats difficult to treat conditions including neurological disorders, cancer and the ever-present chronic pain.
Then of course, there is Israel, which is expected to be a big contender now that the country is finally in the export game.
Beyond the direct imports, however, there are also multiple country hops in play (such as Uruguay to Portugal to Germany). Malta is also increasingly shaping up to be an intriguing pass through port, if nothing else.
But of course, Europe is not the only international game in town.
The UK Despite all of the problems that British patients face in obtaining high quality medical cannabis at a price that is affordable, the UK has actually led the world in cannabis exports (benefitting so far only GW Pharmaceuticals). However many firms have also been cooperating to bring cannabis into the country (from Canada and Holland in particular so far). The biotech partnerships set up by firms like Canopy Growth are also expected to bear fruit as cannabinoid research begins to truly come into its own in the coming decade.
The Americas Despite the fact that exporting from the U.S. is still difficult (although some firms have managed to export hemp to Europe), there is a lot of cross border cooperation going on throughout the hemisphere (including investment and all kinds of creative partnerships). Canada of course, got its export game going early. Yet one of the more intriguing cross border stories of the last 18-24 months is the amount of South American cultivated cannabis ending up “north of the border.” Changing laws in the region make Latin America a major export location as well as a source for product bound elsewhere including Europe (see Columbia, Uruguay and Jamaica in particular). Mexico is expected to be a power player globally going forward too.
There are also many American firms who have developed strategic partnerships globally beyond the actual plant (including in Israel).
Israel The country is absolutely in the export market, but that is not the whole story. Earlier in the year, the country received its first import from Uganda. There are also multiple U.S. companies in partnership with Israeli firms, and this will increasingly play out in terms of both product and cannabis technology as the market continues to open internationally. American firms, in other words, are still largely prohibited from shipping from the U.S., but they can now do so from Israel, and further, anywhere in the world.
South Africa Another newcomer, South African firms are partnering internationally (including with American firms) to develop not only product but extraction technology. Cannabis firms here have also already shipped product to Canada and Europe.
Australia Agricultural exports generally are a major part of the Aussie economy, and cannabis is shaping up to be no exception. Domestic firms are increasingly exporting to Europe (in particular), but partnerships here will be intriguing to watch, particularly as the Chinese market comes into its own. And there are already plenty of firms with partnerships now established or in the last phases of inking out deals with Israeli firms. Canada has been the largest source of imports into the country since 2017.
Communication is key for efficient interaction between cultivation and business functions at any cannabis operator. So, what are the top four things cultivation directors should be discussing with their operations manager right now, as we face an uncertain Summer 2020 and unique COVID-related challenges (product demand uncertainty, reduced workforce, and immediate response to problems and issues):
Operators should be discussing “Who, and what, do I need to operate this facility and how do I make operations more streamlined without diminishing quality, consistency, and yield?”
Efficient operations should focus on labor workflow and circulation and document a clear understanding of how employees will move through the spaces while doing their jobs.
Having a “less labor” philosophy and understanding—a ‘first in and first out’ mentality—drives down cost of production.
By limiting employees’ need to cross paths and segregating processes (e.g. harvest, distro, packaging) in a facility, you can maintain biosecurity and limit the risks of cross-contamination
When working with fewer staff members, everyone should be trained to:
Operate all necessary equipment
Perform keys tasks like nutrient deliver or preventative maintenance
What sort of products do I use to cultivate, process, distribute and how will potential shortages affect my use/cost related to these?
Consider products and supplies that you can order in bulk
Examine and update your chemical regime to focus on products that are cheaper to freight ship, and located within the US or even your state
Mitigate the risk of availability by using products that are have no shelf-life or expiration issues, and those where the supply chain has not yet had disruptions
Automation and technology
What’s the availability to allow for remote monitoring and controls?
Cultivators can take some of the load off the reduced staff by automating critical tasks
Remote monitoring solutions will also allow for faster notification of crop issues
Integrating preventative maintenance tasks like equipment schedules and maintenance can increase efficiency
Ensure that conversations on yield expectations are as transparent as possible and set realistic and achievable goals
Build business models based on the correct numbers that take into account productions numbers on ‘high yield’ genetics versus lower-yielding plants (yield versus price)
Ensure you have a detailed plan that combines both plant density and production goals
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.
On May 13, months after the Israeli government originally signed off on cannabis exports, a free export order was finally approved by outgoing Minister of the Economy Eli Cohen. This is also sixteen months after the government approved exports of locally grown cannabis (at least in theory) and after the country began importing earlier this year as domestic patients were given priority for existing medical supplies.
However, all the internal barriers have now been officially removed. Exporters who wish to sell medical cannabis abroad are now able to obtain a license, as the order enters into full force by mid-June. The new regulation specifically requires that such products have obtained GMP certification (the pharmaceutical-grade cert required for all medical cannabis in Europe’s medical markets).
Licensing Already Underway
At least two Israeli companies have already obtained such licensing approvals. Cannabics, a company located in both Israel and Bethesda, Maryland, has obtained final approval of its drugs for export to both Canada and Europe, as well as Australia. The company is licensed by the Israeli Ministry of Health to conduct research and development on cannabinoid-based medications and cancer and operates a facility in Rehovot.
Cannabics describes itself as an American pharmaceutical company with R&D operations in Israel.
However, there is another interesting twist to all of this. Cantourage, a German company founded by entrepreneurs behind Pedianos, one of the two earliest importers of medical cannabis into the country (created in 2015 and subsequently purchased by Aurora), announced its import of the synthetic dronabinol to Germany from BOL Pharma, based in Israel, in late April. In doing so, they also became the first company to challenge Canopy Growth in its domination of the synthetic cannabinoid market which remains about one third of reimbursed prescriptions by volume (at least ffor publically insured patients) of cannabinoid medications.
Why Is This Development So Significant? The European and Canadian markets are clearly leading the world in at least the consumption of cannabinoid-based medications – which by definition are based on extractions of the plant, beyond floß (or flower). Israeli producers have been banned from entering these markets for the last several years due to internal political struggles domestically, and an apparent deal between Israel and American presidents Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump to delay market entry.
This delay also impacted Israeli firms hoping to enter the first German cultivation bid, which was finally decided last spring. It is expected that the first domestically cultivated product will be distributed to local apothekes as of this fall, although this may be slightly delayed as a result of fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
This delay is not expected to impact the import market in the country, which is the source of all flower-based medicine here, and will continue to be a strong market segment. The bid itself only called for a limited production of cannabis in Germany, and was already too little to meet the needs of domestic patients.
However, what the potential lag in German product also does is open a door for Israeli products to now enter the market before German-produced cannabis becomes available.
A Steep Uphill Climb What the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly affected, more than drug entry, however, is something almost as important – namely doctor education. For a producer or distributor to get sales via German pharmacies, they also have to ensure that doctors are prescribing the drug. This is a lot easier if the product is a generic, like dronabinol, because doctors can write prescriptions for a drug which can now be sourced from several sources. It becomes a little harder to do that with any formulated substance, and further one with a “brand” name. Especially because German doctors are right now are on the forefront of an uneasy “flattening the curve” scenario as the economy continues to cautiously resume somewhat normal operations.
The challenge that remains, indeed not just for Israeli entrants, but everyone with new product formulations, is educating doctors about prescribing such medications, and further, obtaining insurance approvals for those who have been prescribed such drugs.
Cost, which is beginning to be addressed by the regulated pricing established here for domestically produced cannabis, is still in the room too.
The Market Continues To Open Regardless of the struggle, and the costs involved, it is clear that the German market is obviously now finally opening to Israeli firms and on the processed medical front (as opposed to “just” flower).
Further it is also a sign that the market here is maturing, and even specializing.
No matter the obstacles, in other words, and despite the pandemic, the global market for cannabinoid drugs continues to expand.
In our previous posts, we discussed why state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses are likely not eligible to receive federal financial assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program due to the fact that these businesses are inherently engaged in federally illegal activities.
While our view has not necessarily changed, this post is intended to highlight the implications of a recent temporary restraining order prohibiting the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) from excluding strip clubs from receiving financial relief under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act or the “Act”).
The Case for Strip Clubs to Receive SBA Assistance
Last month, DV Diamond Club of Flint LLC (dba Little Darlings) sued the SBA in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan claiming, among other things, that the agency exceeded its authority under the CARES Act by excluding otherwise eligible strip clubs from receiving Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.
On April 6, 2020, Little Darlings, an adult entertainment establishment licensed in Flint, Michigan, applied for a PPP loan to mitigate its business losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to rapidly diminishing PPP funds and the rejection of applications submitted by other seemingly eligible adult entertainment establishments, Little Darlings filed a claim against the SBA alleging that the agency’s April 15, 2020 “Business Loan Program Temporary Changes; Paycheck Protection Program “ Rule (the Interim Rule) exceeded the SBA and Department of Treasury’s regulatory authority under the CARES Act.
The Interim Rule, in part, provided that:
“Businesses that are not eligible for PPP loans are identified in 13 CFR 120.110 and described further in SBA’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 50 10, Subpart B, Chapter 2, except that nonprofit organizations authorized under the Act are eligible.” 1
The Interim Rule effectively clarified that those businesses that “are identified” in 13 C.F.R. § 120.110 (the Ineligibility Rule) and “described further” in Standard Operating Procedure 50 10 5(K) are “not eligible for PPP loans.”
The Ineligibility Rule – 13 C.F.R. §120.110
In 1996, the SBA declared that certain types of businesses are not eligible to participate in SBA lending programs. Under the Ineligibility Rule (codified at 13 CFR § 120.110), certain sexually oriented businesses2 and “businesses engaged in any illegal activity,”3 in addition to other enumerated businesses, were barred from receiving SBA financial assistance.
In 2019, the SBA issued “Standard Operating Procedure for Lender and Development Company Loan Programs 50 10 5(K)” (the SOP) providing guidance to lenders regarding how to administer the Ineligibility Rule. The SOP explained that certain business types such as “Businesses Providing Prurient Sexual Material”i and “Businesses Engaged in any Illegal Activity,ii” among others, may be “ineligible” to participate in SBA programs.4
In addition to arguing that the SBA’s regulations violated Little Darlings’ Constitutional rights under the First and Fifth Amendments, Little Darlings alleged that the SBA lacked authority to promulgate regulations clarifying what businesses were eligible for PPP loans, as Congress intended to “increase eligibility” for PPP loans under the CARES Act by establishing only two criteria for PPP eligibility. Moreover, Little Darlings relied on the fact that Congress explicitly provided that “any business concern . . . shall be eligible” for a PPP loan if it met the criteria identified in 15 U.S.C. § 636(a)(36)(D)(i) of the CARES Act.
As a result, Little Darlings sought a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), Preliminary and Permanent Injunction enjoining the SBA from enforcing or utilizing the Ineligibility Rule or SOP to exclude otherwise eligible PPP loan applicants. As part of the orders, the SBA would be required to immediately notify all SBA lending banks to immediately discontinue utilizing 13 CFR § 120.110 or the SOP as criteria for determining PPP eligibility and to process all PPP loan applications without reference to such regulations and procedures.
On May 11, 2020, U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman granted Little Darlings’ TRO blocking the SBA from enforcing the Ineligibility Rule and SOP finding that Congress intended to provide temporary paycheck support to “all Americans employed by all small businesses that satisfied the two eligibility requirements – even businesses that may have been disfavored during normal times.”5
Notably, the Sixth Circuit refused to overturn the TRO reasoning that withholding loans from previously “ineligible” businesses, such as strip clubs, conflicts with the broad interpretation of the CARES Act.
Similar cases have also been brought in Illinois and Wisconsin on behalf of adult entertainment businesses that have been denied PPP relief. Notably, on April 23, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin issued a comparable injunction blocking the SBA from denying federal financial assistance to multiple Wisconsin gentlemen clubs.
Implications for Cannabis Businesses
As we previously discussed, one of the largest hurdles for cannabis businesses to receive federal financial assistance from the SBA is that applicants must make a good faith certification that they are not engaged in any federally illegal activity.6
The SBA has historically relied on both the Ineligibility Rule and SOP to uphold its position that “illegal activities” include both Direct Marijuana Businessesiii and Indirect Marijuana Businessesiv that “make, sell, service, or distribute products or services used in connection with illegal activity.”7
However, should Judge Leitman’s interpretation hold true and continue to prohibit the SBA from utilizing the Ineligibility Rule or the SOP as criteria for determining PPP eligibility, cannabis businesses (namely Indirect Marijuana Businesses8) may be eligible to receive PPP loans so long as they satisfy the eligibility requirements identified in the CARES Act.
Although it would ordinarily be absurd to conclude that Congress intended to provide financial assistance to businesses operating in clear violation of federal law (such as Direct Marijuana Businesses), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and the Sixth Circuit have concluded that the expansive definition of “any business concern” in the CARES Act is not subject to SBA limitations.
As Judge Leitman elaborated in his May 11, 2020 order:
“Congress’s decision to expand funding to previously ineligible businesses is not an endorsement or approval of those businesses. Instead, it is a recognition that in the midst of this crisis, the workers at those businesses have no viable alternative options for employment in other, favored lines of work and desperately need help. It is not absurd to conclude that in order to support these workers, Congress temporarily permitted previously excluded businesses to obtain SBA financial assistance.”
Therefore, although we believe it to be highly unlikely that cannabis businesses will actually receive PPP loans due to their continued violation of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and need to make a good faith certification that they are not engaged in any federally illegal activity, the door has been opened for certain types of cannabis businesses to potentially receive PPP loans should the SBA remain prohibited from relying on the Ineligibility Rule or SOP to disqualify otherwise eligible applicants.
See Interim Rule, p. 2812
12 C.F.R. § 120.110(p) Businesses which: (1) Present live performances of a prurient sexual nature; or (2) Derive directly or indirectly more than de minimis gross revenue though the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature
12 C.F.R. § 120.110(h) Businesses engaged in any illegal activity.
See the 2019 SOP, ECF No. 12-11, PageID.570
Specifically, U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Leitman reasoned that: “While Congress may have once been willing to permit the SBA to exclude these businesses from its … lending programs, that willingness evaporated when the COVID-19 pandemic destroyed the economy and threw tens of millions of Americans out of work…” In response to the SBA’s argument that such an interpretation would lead to “absurd results,” Judge Leitman stated: “[T]hese are no ordinary times, and the PPP is no ordinary legislation. The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the country’s economy, and the PPP is an unprecedented effort to undo that financial ruin.”
It is our position that Indirect Marijuana Businesses (or non plant-touching businesses that service state licensed marijuana establishments) will have an easier time alleging that they are not operating in violation of federal law than those businesses whose existence is inherently premised on cultivating and distributing marijuana in violation of the Controlled Substances Act
i Businesses Providing Prurient Sexual Material (13 CFR § 120.110(p))
A business is not eligible for SBA assistance if:
It presents live or recorded performances of a prurient sexual nature; or
It derives more than 5% of its gross revenue, directly or indirectly, through the sale of products, services or the presentation of any depictions or displays of a prurient sexual nature.
SBA has determined that financing lawful activities of a prurient sexual nature is not in the public interest. The Lender must consider whether the nature and extent of the sexual component causes the business activity to be prurient.
ii Businesses Engaged in any Illegal Activity (13 CFR § 120.110(h))
SBA must not approve loans to Applicants that are engaged in illegal activity under federal, state, or local law. This includes Applicants that make, sell, service, or distribute products or services used in connection with illegal activity, unless such use can be shown to be completely outside of the Applicant’s intended market.
Because federal law prohibits the distribution and sale of marijuana, financial transactions involving a marijuana-related business would generally involve funds derived from illegal activity. Therefore, businesses that derive revenue from marijuana-related activities or that support the end-use of marijuana may be ineligible for SBA financial assistance.
iii “Direct Marijuana Business” mean “a business that grows, produces, processes, distributes, or sells marijuana or marijuana products, edibles, or derivatives, regardless of the amount of such activity. This applies to recreational use and medical use even if the business is legal under local or state law where the applicant business is or will be located.”
iv “Indirect Marijuana Business” means “a business that derived any of its gross revenue for the previous year (or, if a start-up, projects to derive any of its gross revenue for the next year) from sales to Direct Marijuana Businesses of products or services that could reasonably be determined to aid in the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Examples of Indirect Marijuana Businesses include businesses that provide testing services, or sell or install grow lights, hydroponic or other specialized equipment, to one or more Direct Marijuana Businesses; and businesses that advise or counsel Direct Marijuana Businesses on the specific legal, financial/ accounting, policy, regulatory or other issues associated with establishing, promoting, or operating a Direct Marijuana Business. However … [the] SBA does not consider a plumber who fixes a sink for a Direct Marijuana Business or a tech support company that repairs a laptop for such a business to be aiding in the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Indirect Marijuana Businesses also include businesses that sell smoking devices, pipes, bongs, inhalants, or other products if the products are primarily intended or designed for marijuana use or if the business markets the products for such use.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, most testing laboratories have been classified as relevant for the system or as carrying out essential activities for national governments. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain activities and optimally assess the changes that are occurring, framed within the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Analytica Alimentaria GmbH, a testing laboratory with its headquarters in Berlin, Germany and a branch office in Almeria, Spain, decided to focus its management on the analysis of events and the options available, at the legal and employment level, to ensure continuity of activities and reducing, as much as possible, the damage for the parties involved: employees and company. Accredited by the International Accreditation Service (IAS) to ISO/IEC 17025:2017, Analytica Alimentaria GmbH is required to implement risk-based thinking to identify, assess and treat risks and opportunities for the laboratory. Since March 12, 2020 a crisis committee was established, formed by the six members of the company’s management, covering general management, human resources, direction of production, finance and IT. The committee meets every day and it intends to:
Minimize the risks of contagion
Be able to continue providing the service required by our clients
ensure that the company as a whole will survive the economic impact of the crisis
Take measures that are within the legality of both countries where the laboratory operates (Spain and Germany),
Manage internal and external communication related to the crisis
To achieve correct decision making, daily meetings of the committee were established, to review the situations that were presented day after day and the actions that should be carried out. Each decision was analysed in a prioritized, objective, collaborative and global way.
The basis of the lab’s action plan was a well-developed risk assessment. In addition to the risk of getting a droplet or smear/contact infection with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (risk I) by contact with other people, psychological stress caused by changing working conditions (home office), contact options and information channels were also identified (risk II).
As a result of the risk assessment, the conclusion was that a mix of various measures is the best form of prevention:
Avoid “super spreader” events
Regular communication between managers and personnel about the current situation and possible scenarios
The risk assessment took both areas into account. The following assessment was developed together with an external specialist and focused on risk I:
Protective measures / hygiene plan
Working hours and break arrangements
Limit the gathering of people and ensure a minimum distance:
Relocated work, break and mealtimes
Create fixed groups of shift-working staff
Time gap of 20 min. between the shifts
Enable home office wherever it is possible
Third party access
Few but “well-known” visitors:
Reduce the number of visits and keep internal contacts to a minimum
Ensure the contact chain
Inform visitors about the internal rules and obtain written consent
Isolation and immediate leave of the company:
Contactless fever measurement (in case of typical symptoms)
Leave the company or stay at home
If the infection is confirmed, find contact persons (including customers or visitors) and inform them about a possible risk of infection
Contact with other persons
Traffic route from home to work
Avoid public transportation:
Take a car, bicycle or go by foot
Enable mobile work and teleworking
Always keep a sufficient distance of 2.0 m from people:
If minimum distances cannot be maintained, wear protective masks or install physical barriers (acrylic glass)
Organize traffic routes so that minimum distances can be maintained (one-way routes, floor markings indicating a distance of 2 m)
Use digital meetings instead of physical ones
Remove virus-loaded droplet as often as possible:
Provide skin-friendly liquid soaps and towel dispensers
Shorten or intensify cleaning intervals
Hang out instructions for washing hands at the sink
Include instructions for proper hand-disinfection
Canteens, tea kitchens and break rooms
One person per 10 m² = minimum:
Reduce the number of chairs per table
Informative signs in every room, indicating the maximum number of permitted persons
Diluting or removing bioaerosols (1 µm virus-droplets):
Leave as many doors open as possible
Regular and documented shock ventilation every 30 minutes or more frequently, depending on the size of window
Operate ventilation and air-conditioning systems, since the transmission risk is classified as low here
Use of work equipment
Use tools and work equipment for personal use:
Regular cleaning with changing use (PC, hand tools, coffee machine, …)
If possible, use gloves when using equipment for a larger number of users
Use of protective masks as an additional measure, indicating that this does not replace keeping distance
Recommend wearing masks in commonly used areas and explain that they do not protect yourself, but help to protect others
Give clear instructions (written and oral) on how to use a mask correctly and explain the use and purpose of different mask-types
Distribute masks freely
A number of guidelines and concrete measures addressing the risks related to health issues are already in place. Those health issues in risk group II are more closely related to the psychological effects of the crisis, however, are also more complex to mitigate. The key strategy is communication and, in particular, actively listening to all employees of the company.
Analytica’s robust company culture, based on values established in coordination with the whole staff, has been of significant help during the crisis. The some 150 staff members are organized by over 22 team coordinators. During the crisis, active communication has been intensified significantly. The crisis management team set up regular alignment meetings with all the coordinators and with individual persons with particular situations. This way, not only was it possible to explain the development of the crisis and the subsequent measures, the conversations with coordinators were also the most important source of information enabling the appropriate decisions. The coordinators, closely aligned and in sync with management, were then able to communicate with their team members with a high degree of confidence. One outcome of the communication was a measure that proved very effective in fortifying trust within the company: all measures and evaluations, as well as a chronological review, are published in a dynamic internal report and are made available, with full transparency, to all staff members. Besides the many individual and group alignment meetings (usually held by video conference), this has been a key measure to establish confidence and security within the company.
On the other hand, the company made a great effort to balance the effect of the general closure of kindergartens and schools in Spain and Germany. Each case where staff members were required to care for children at home was studied individually and agreements were established, adapting shifts and making use of time accounts, to allow childcare at home without significant loss of income.
The success of the measures is shown by the continuous work of both laboratories during the crisis. Besides the personal tragedy of a possible infection, the identified risk to the company has the consequence of a (partial) quarantine due to an infected person in contact with the staff and the consequent loss of work-power which might lead, in extreme cases, to a closure of the laboratory. According to the governmental regulation in Germany, if an infection occurs (confirmed by the health department), contact persons cat. 1 (more than 15 min. contact face to face) are identified and sent to quarantine. Other contact persons, e.g. contact persons cat. 2 (same room without face to face) must be identified quickly with the collaboration of the infected person and notified and, if necessary, sent in quarantine. In this case, there is a confirmed emergency plan that maintains the laboratory’s ability to work, defining replacements and alternative work-flow strategies.
It has been part of our strategy to validate all our measures with the relevant guidance documents made available by the official competent institutions. The German Federal Office for Public Safety and Civil Protection (Bundesamt für Bevölkerungsschutz und Katastrophenhilfe) has published a guide, “Crisis Management in Companies, 9-point Checklist” especially for critical infrastructure companies in the CoVid-19 crisis.
Having been classified as a core business enterprise (Spain) and “relevant to the system” (Germany), we consider it important to use them as a reference to confirm our level of alignment with your proposal for crisis management.
An important effect, relevant to any leader in times of crisis, is that the confirmation of all points of such a checklist provides certain peace of mind regarding the question: Have we done everything we could?
These days, there are countless choices for cannabis operators when it comes to software. There are general tools like Trello, Airtable, Hubspot and Mailchimp. And then there is industry-specific software built just for cannabis operators.
The cannabis industry is fast-paced and highly regulated. So, there are certainly additional factors to consider in the search for software.
Because no two systems are exactly alike, it’s important to set up a decision-making framework in order to do a clean side by side comparison. Consider the following factors when evaluating software. Specifically, think about each one’s importance to the team and its ultimate goals.
Functionality is the most important factor in the evaluation process. But, before the demos begin, take the time to identify the problems this new software should solve for the company.
Will it help you automate or optimize your processes or just offer basic features that won’t make a meaningful impact on the bottom line? (The whole point!)
2. Customer Support
For some, the level of customer support is an afterthought. The team that will use the software needs prompt, attentive support both during onboarding and after.
How does one evaluate the level of customer service a software company offers?
Questions like these will gather the info needed to make a decision:
How many support specialists are there vs how many total customers?
What’s the turnaround time for a support ticket?
Can I schedule one-on-one calls after the onboarding period?
Describe your onboarding process – how many sessions or hours do we get with your team?
Ideally, the software company takes support very seriously. Because if they don’t, here’s what happens: the team won’t use it or worse, costly mistakes will be made.
Another aspect seldom considered is the company’s industry expertise. Software vendors that stay up to date on changing regulations can provide much more value than those who don’t. Test their knowledge and see whether they would make a solid resource for you.
Software built for the cannabis industry is likely to provide this kind of support. Some industry-specific vendors, that provide cannabis cultivation software for instance, are able to answer their customers’ ongoing Metrc questions. They can become your right hand in solving compliance and, oftentimes, operational challenges.
3. Ease of Use
Always keep in mind who the end user will be. Is it someone who’s tech-driven or not at all?
The trick is to balance complexity with ease of use. If complexity is feared, there’s a risk for selecting software too simple. In this case, the value of automation and cost savings isn’t gained.
At the same time, it’s important to stay mindful of how complicated or difficult it will be for the team to adopt and use.
What does a typical day look like for employees and will the software be an approachable, useful tool for them?
In a new, growing industry, there are many software vendors. How long have they been in business? Some have been around for years while others only months.
The last thing you want is for the software company to disappear off the face of the earth just when your team is on-boarded and trained. Also, beware of huge corporations that have turned their attention to the Green Rush and created a separate business unit just for cannabis. A lack of industry knowledge can be felt in the software application. If it’s being repurposed for our industry, chances are it won’t seamlessly work for our workflows.
Finally, ask what companies are currently using the software. Bonus points for recognizing any of them! It shows that established companies trust this vendor. In making the decision for which software to go with, this validation holds weight for many. Before signing a contract and implementing the new software, make sure to read the fine print!
5. Cost vs Value
At the top of everyone’s mind is price. In these tumultuous times, we’re all worried about the bottom line.
That said, review a software company for the value it can bring to your cannabis business. How much labor time will the software save due to its automation and streamlining? Is it quantifiable?
Budgeting for a more expensive software might actually make sense if the value is there. Crunch the ROI, to the best of your abilities, to see the impact its set of features can make.
How quickly and how often does the software provider innovate its product? Ask the company for examples of how they’ve listened and addressed requests for changes or additions to their software.
Also ask what their road map looks like for the year. What new features and changes will they be making?
Without updates, software can quickly become outdated and irrelevant. A perfect solution today is not a perfect solution two years from now. Select a vendor who’s committed to regular improvements.
7. Exit Strategy
Before signing a contract and implementing the new software, make sure to read the fine print!
Some companies will try to lock in a multi-year contract. Beware of contracts that will charge for early termination if you change your mind down the road.
Get the fine print and ask for clear terms of the commitment. In a fast-paced industry like ours, priorities and needs change often. Contract lock-up is not optimal.
The COVID-19 crisis is plunging the global economy into recession, changing consumer behavior and the world of business. Cannabis businesses are no stranger to operating in a challenging landscape. The constantly evolving legal status, regulatory hurdles and social stigma has forced founders in this space to be nimble and more financially wise with their capital.
While the market has experienced a seismic shift that has already attracted investors to inject capital into the cannabis industry and seen neighboring industries, including tobacco, alcohol and pharma, come into the fray, COVID-19 will change key industry structures and operations. To succeed and cultivate value, cannabis companies must adapt to the new realities of the marketplace to be well positioned for continued growth after the pandemic subsides.
With social distancing guidelines suddenly forcing brick-and-mortar retailers to move their businesses and customer experiences online and disruptions to the supply chain due to international travel and business directions, some businesses will struggle to stay afloat.
As consumer behaviour and online shopping patterns adjust to a new way of living (affecting B2B sales, online ordering, deliveries and manufacturing), leadership and strategic thinking will be paramount.
By understanding where the challenges and opportunities lie, cannabis businesses can thrive. Here are some focus areas and tactics to consider:
Targeted consumer segmentation through social media
When starting a cannabis business, it is key to understand who your core consumers are and what they want from their products. This has become even more acute because of the pandemic with consumers flocking to all sorts of health-focused products including CBD.
With everybody spending more time online, social media use is on the rise. Executing a social media plan to include influencer outreach can increase brand visibility, build a solid consumer base and create brand advocates.
Instagram is essential to a cannabis business building an online presence but it’s important that it doesn’t become a “hard sell, please buy me” channel. Plan and make Insta-worthy content that educates and entertains followers to increase engagement, click-through rates and leads. Brands may want to pair with an influencer on either a gifting or paid-for basis which will mean the brand appears in a potential customer’s feed as they interact with their favourite accounts.
The art is finding key influencers whose audience is one that you would like to interact with. This type of positioning will allow cannabis businesses to reach a new audience or group of people.
Marketing and PR
In times like these, many companies choose to pull back on communication activities and expenditures for fear of spending too much for what they perceive as little return, however, marketing and PR, when executed well, can be the lifeline of any business.
With so much noise in the market about the “next best thing in cannabis”, effective marketing and PR can distinguish brands that are credible and offer a strong value proposition to those that are all smoke and mirrors.
The current needs of businesses and consumers are much different than they were just a few short months ago, so it’s important to understand these needs and spending habits while combatting negative perceptions of cannabis.
As cannabis companies are not able to advertise like mainstream companies, a strong public relations and marketing strategy will enable firms to communicate their identity, build trust, shift perceptions through media coverage, enhance reputations and reach customers, partners and investors.
Businesses in every sector are cutting costs to keep their businesses afloat. This needs to be done strategically and requires senior leadership teams to explore cost reduction strategies and streamline non-essential costs.
This may mean further consolidation of cannabis companies and supply chains to manage cash flow and maximise resources. Companies may even look to create strategic partnerships with complementary businesses in the industry or push some firms towards mergers and acquisitions.
Business models will evolve as cannabis companies identify inefficiencies and reconfigure their operations and messaging. This could range from assessing their R&D capabilities, agricultural assets, manufacturing chains or route to market.
The postponement of countless CBD Expos, trade shows and cannabis conferences are creating new demand and opportunities for businesses. To reach prospective wholesale clients, investors and connect to their customer base, firms are entering the digital marketplace. Digital events, Zoom investor pitch panels and email marketing and sampling is on the rise and expected to grow over the coming months.
CBD brands should work in parallel with their retail partners to influence product samples in digital offers and create a touchless transaction. Buying products online is going to become a permanently entrenched habit, even when restrictions are fully lifted so it’s worth looking at how technology can support and enhance sales while offering a smooth customer experience.
Everyone in the cannabis industry will be affected by COVID-19 so maintaining positive relationships is vital in these tough times. Calling investors or partners to tell them what is going on with your business or checking in on others in your ecosystem means information can be shared to iron out any issues and help generate ideas to future proof the business. “A problem shared is a problem halved!”
COVID-19 is creating incredible business challenges. As we navigate the new normal, it’s important to adapt and grow. As more products come to market and brands/services develop distinguished offerings, expectations will change so cannabis businesses need to be ready for greener pastures.
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