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Leaders in Infused Products Manufacturing: Part 1

By Aaron Green
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Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.

This is the first article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this first piece, we talk with Keith Cich, co-founder of Sunderstorm, Inc. and the brand Kanha Gummies. Keith and his business partner, Cameron Clarke, started Kanha Gummies in 2015 after long careers outside of the cannabis industry. In 2015, they went all in and started the brand, which grew to be a major player and driving force in the California market.

Next week, we’ll sit down with Mike Hennesy, director of innovation at Wana Brands. Stay tuned for more!

Aaron Green: Keith, nice to meet you. Thank you for taking the time today. Tell me about how you got Sunderstorm off the ground and how you got involved in the company?

Keith Cich: Absolutely. So, my business partner, Cameron Clarke, is a lifelong friend. We met as undergraduates at Stanford University. I went on to work on Wall Street and did commercial real estate. Cameron has been a serial entrepreneur, from a much more technical side working in software. He was actually one of the first people to bring the Açai Berry to market and put it on the shelves of Whole Foods. So, he’s kind of the science and operations guy and I’m the finance and business guy.  It’s been very synergistic.

Keith Cich, co-founder of Sunderstorm, Inc.

By 2015 we had both traveled extensively and were big advocates of plant medicine and cannabis as another form of plant medicine. We also have a 15-year track record of going to Burning Man together. Really, explorations in consciousness and plant medicine were what tied us together. When cannabis came up as a business opportunity, we just kind of looked at each other and said, you know, we have a lot of business experience to bring to the table. We have a love of the plant and an appreciation for how it will impact society. So, we kind of went all in in 2015 under proposition D, and set up operations in Los Angeles at that time.

Aaron: How did you decide to get into infused products from the list of choices?

Keith: Yeah, we initially set up extraction, but we felt that cultivation and extraction would ultimately be commodities.  However, if you could develop popular brands you could carve out valuable shelf space and have longevity.

We acquired a small gummy company in February 2016. In the beginning of it all – I call it “Cannabis 1.0.” At that time, a lot of the packaging was really oriented around men in their 20s focused on “high consumption.” The packaging was a lot of black and skull and crossbones, and it didn’t really represent who Cameron and I were as people. You know, we were a little bit older and well-traveled. And we just felt like when adult use would come in that brands would take a different pathway. So, we hired a branding person to come in and help with packaging.

We really focused on a product that would appeal to females because it was clear they were going to be 50% of the market – and packaging that would really appeal to older people, which we thought would come on board once the stigma of cannabis was reduced. And so, we really set up Kanha gummies, at that time in early 2016, to be this adult use product that would appeal to a wide spectrum, both medical users as well as adult users in the time that would come in the not too distant future.

Aaron: Yeah, that’s interesting. You talked about how you thought about differentiating in the early days getting off the ground. How do you think about differentiating today?

Keith: The two things that really set Sunderstorm apart from the crowd is automation and innovation. We were the first gummy company to invest hundreds of thousands in European confectionery equipment, which allowed us to scale our business, but more importantly, produce an identical product every time. The reason we hear people come back to Kanha gummies is that they have the same replicable experience every time, which is really the key to CPG companies. So, it’s really stringent automation that allowed us to develop precise dosing. In fact, in 2019, we won the award from CannaSafe, which is the largest lab in California, for the most accurately formulated edible. We dialed in manufacturing and that’s what set us apart in the early years.

My partner is really geared towards science and implementing new delivery systems for cannabinoid products. We were the first company to come out with a nano edible about a year ago in 2019 and we are still the leader in offering consumers nano-molecular delivery systems. What does that mean? One of the common problems with edibles is that it takes 45 minutes to an hour for it to kick in. We all know friends who take a cookie and double up on the cookie and end up having too big of an experience. Rapid onset curbs that risk. Our nano gummy kicks in about 15 to 20 minutes, and it’s got just this really nice journey to it. We’ve separated the audience between the people that have our classic gummies, which takes longer to kick in, maybe a little bit stronger and the nano technology, which has a really fast onset, and really kind of a discrete journey. We stay ahead of the competition today, because of the nanotechnology that we’ve implemented in gummies.

As I always say, it’s not about how much vitamin C you take – it’s more about how much vitamin C gets in your blood stream. And it’s the same with cannabis, right? It’s how much THC and CBD or other molecules get in your system. So it’s about really having the highest bioavailability and the best performing products. And that’s what our customers have come to believe about Sunderstorm.

Aaron: You’ve talked about a couple new products from Kanha. At a high level, can you talk about your process for ideating and creating a new product?

Keith: Sure. I could use an example of a product that we’ve just kind of relaunched. It’s called the Tranquility gummy and it’s targeted for sleep. What we’ve discovered is there’s a whole host of medical reasons why people take cannabis – as well as the adults who take cannabis for entertainment – but sleep is a major issue for Americans of all ages. It’s surprising. It impacts 20 year olds and it impacts 60 year olds.

Part of the process of coming up with a product is trying to figure out what’s the need in the marketplace. So in this case, we really looked and said, hey, let’s target sleep and see if we can experiment and come up with a product. Our first round of Tranquility had a mix of CBD and THC in it because both of those are valuable for sleep. CBD is a chill-pill that kind of makes you calm so you can go to sleep. THC is often something that helps people stay asleep.

“We go through many iterations of a product before it actually hits the marketplace.”In that product, we also added 5-HTP, which is a serotonin booster, which once again, people take when they have anxiety or stress. So it’s kind of a stress reliever, and it helps you be calm, which again, I think a lot of the problems for people who have an issue with going to sleep, it’s having so much on their mind that they can’t stop the monkey mind to actually enter into sleep to begin with.

We also added just a small amount, one milligram, of melatonin. We know that Melatonin is a sleep aid, but you don’t want to take so much melatonin that your body stops producing melatonin because you’re taking the supplements. So at the end of the day, you want to just encourage and coax your body into healing and not overkill it with a pharmaceutical. Right?

So that was our first generation and we worked with that but my partner looks through a lot of research that’s occurring on different cannabinoid particles, and it became clear that CBN, which is kind of a new cannabinoid that’s hitting the press, actually had really strong properties for sedation and keeping people asleep. So, we added the largest dose of CBN in any gummy, and then re-launched that product a month or two ago. And we’re getting incredible feedback from shops that they’re selling out. It’s awesome, because people are actually taking the gummy and having the effect of falling asleep and staying asleep.

It’s the combination of the different factors. No one factor is so overwhelming like a pharmaceutical drug. But it’s the combination of the different factors together that make for a great product. And we fortunately have dozens of people in our company who are happy to do R&D for our new products. We also have some people outside the company that are consultants and experts as well. We go through many iterations of a product before it actually hits the marketplace. And that’s the second thing: it’s a lot of rigorous R&D testing of products before we launch it for the end consumer.

Aaron: Yeah, so if we can touch on that, can you tell me about your experience with your most recent product launch? Whether it’s the NANO5 or the Tranquility gummies? How did you think about preparing the market for the launch? Preparing your team for the launch? And then how did it go?

Keith: I’ll talk about our sublingual line called NANO5. Again, it’s a nano product where every molecule of CBD or THC is wrapped in a molecule of fatty lipids, so that when you spray it on your tongue, it tricks your body into absorbing it directly into the bloodstream and doesn’t actually go through the digestive tract and the liver. The bioavailability of these sublinguals is high and 70 to 80% of the cannabinoids actually get into your bloodstream.

We’ve done blood sampling tests versus your standard tincture. Your standard tincture is just MCT oil and cannabis, it’s pretty crude, kind of caveman-ish, quite frankly, when compared to the delivery of pharmaceuticals are today. NANO5 is a much more advanced delivery system.“We’re here to really try to educate people the best that we can.”

Now we have the product… right? This is a sophisticated product that’s challenging for bud tenders to explain when consumers come in with their medical needs. We had to create a lot of written brochures about how the product works, what the dosages are and that sort of stuff. Then our sales people go in and actually train the shops. They’ll pull bud tenders out and do training sessions and talk about NANO5, what makes it different from other tinctures, what medical conditions is it good for, etc. It’s kind of old fashioned, in-store training.

Then we finally have implemented a new piece, which is digital bud tender and consumer training. We are leveraging a platform for bud tender training, we talk with the shop, talk about the product and if the shop manager agrees we send a link out to all the bud tenders who take a quiz. The bud tenders get educated on an online platform, take a quiz, and then when they pass the quiz, they get a licensed sample of the product to try themselves so they have firsthand experience.

What we find in many shops is that the consumer is still not that educated about cannabis, particularly for medical uses, and particularly what I call the “new consumer” that hadn’t used cannabis in their lives, because it had such a high stigma to it and now with the reduction of the stigma it means a 40 or 50 year old woman might go into a store to find something to help with pain, or help with anxiety. Now, the bud tender can use the training that they’ve learned on NANO5, and understand that this could be a good product for them, and then talk about it intelligently and give some materials to the consumer before they walk away.

It can be intimidating for consumers to go into a shop, you know, it’s a new experience. It’s like going to the doctor’s office, you don’t always hear what they say, because you’re kind of nervous. So giving them the written materials, and even a test to follow up on online really allows for a form of education that is in tune with the user needing to learn at their own speed and really to just take away what’s important for them.

Aaron: Did I hear you correctly? The user – the end consumer – can also do a quiz?

Keith: Yes. Sunderstorm is about science and education. There’s a lot of assumptions in the marketplace that may not be correct. So, we’re here to really try to educate people the best that we can. And we really believe the rest of the world acts in a digital manner for education. In some ways, cannabis is a little bit behind the times because it’s difficult to advertise on Facebook and traditional venues. So we have one hand tied behind our back when we’re dealing with the digital world. But we at Sunderstorm are big believers that digital will be the way that cannabis consumers learn about brands, learn about products and learn about cannabinoids, and we want to be at the forefront of that education process.

Aaron: OK, we talked about some challenges. One of the challenges I hear a lot is about sourcing ingredients for infused products. How do you go about sourcing ingredients in your infused product lines?

Keith: Our primary ingredient that we source is distillate. And starting back in prop 215 days, we have a zero parts per billion policy on pesticides. What we discovered is before lab testing and licensure came in place is that 80 to 90% of the oil out there actually had pesticide levels that were way beyond safe. It really took licensing and the implementation of lab testing to change that regime. We now buy distillate from third party extractors and we have a handful of really big, really solid players onboard who provide that oil to us. The key is that if there’s any detectable trace of pesticides, we send it back and they replace it with a not-detect batch. So for us, that’s really the key to the whole supply chain: starting with oil that’s clean and really good quality.“Delivering the product in a compliant manner has been one of our logistical challenges, but one that I think we’ve done quite well at day in and day out.”

Fortunately, we’re one of the bigger brands in the industry so we have a little clout to make sure that the people that give us our oil are giving us their top shelf, and not their bottom shelf. We then have also made it a point to use only natural flavoring and natural coloring in our gummies. Believe it or not some of the red coloring actually is derived from beets and beet juice. We use spirulina as a source for our blue green colors. All of the gummies that we produce, not only have no pesticides, but they have no artificial flavors and no artificial coloring, which is of course standard in mainstream gummies that you buy at CVS or the local drugstore. So we really feel like we want to put out a healthy product and Cameron and I always look at each other, like, ‘we wouldn’t sell a product that we wouldn’t put into our own bodies.” And we’re very health conscious, you know, buying organic produce and not wanting pesticides to be inside us.

Aaron: Can you give me an example of a challenge you run into frequently, and this could be a business challenge, a marketing challenge, financials… something that you run into frequently?

Keith: Yeah, so we not only manufacture our products in California, but we also do self-distribution to over 500 retailers, meaning in store dispensaries and delivery services throughout California. With these 500 customers, we have two distribution points, one in LA and one in the Bay Area where I’m located. It’s an amazing challenge logistically. Not only are we running a manufacturing operation that requires precision – and it’s highly regulated – but we run a distribution company that’s highly regulated. For us the challenge is how do we efficiently deliver product to the Oregon border when we’re manufacturing in LA? We’ve had to spend a lot of time developing protocols for logistics and distribution to be able to basically meet demand throughout the state. And we’ve been growing like crazy. We add 10 new shops probably every week.

Delivering the product in a compliant manner has been one of our logistical challenges, but one that I think we’ve done quite well at day in and day out.

Aaron: What kind of trends are you looking at in the industry? And what keeps you excited?

Keith: I think COVID-19 has touched every aspect of our lives and it is impacting how we consume cannabis. Because it’s a respiratory disease, I think people have been wanting to shy away from smoking flower or vaping to keep their lungs healthy as a precaution in case they get it. So edibles have been kind of a natural choice for that. As well as the simple act of sharing something; sharing a joint raises a lot of safety risks, especially during the pandemic. It’s a lot easier to share a single gummy out of a bag safely.

Secondly, what I’ve noticed is that parents have their kids at home and yet they still want to consume cannabis as they did before. Edibles have been big because of discretion. So mom or dad can pop a gummy and have a spritzer before dinner and enjoy the night and my theory is happy parents make happy kids. So discretion has been critical.

Then I think there’s a whole round of new entrants that I mentioned before. These are people that maybe smoked weed in college or high school and haven’t touched it for 20 years and now that the stigma has been reduced, they’re coming back to the marketplace and wanting to explore. They may try a vape product, but very few of them want to smoke, as the country is generally pretty anti-smoking.

I think edibles and gummies have been a way for new cannabis consumers, particularly those who are older, to come and enjoy the positive effects, the medical effects and the social lubricant that cannabis offers, while being safe and discreet at the same time. I think COVID has definitely changed the way that that people think about consuming cannabis.

Aaron: Okay, awesome! Lastly, what would you like to learn more about? What are you interested in?

Keith: I have a degree in philosophy and religion. I’m a big fan of the evolution of consciousness. I think that is the container of the story through which we view human civilization and I honestly think we’re at a turning point for how humans in Western society view plant medicine.

I think cannabis is just the first to come along and be legalized. They’ve been doing phase II and III clinical trials on psilocybin and end of life anxiety. People, particularly war veterans, are using ecstasy or MDMA for depression.

What we’re discovering is that what we think we know about the mind is only the tip of the iceberg on how the mind works. I’m interested in exploring how these plant medicines impact individually with our psyche. Secondly, what happens to society when we reach a tipping point and a majority or at least some significant portion are taking these plants and medicines on a regular basis? It opens us up to a whole new perspective on ourselves, on society and on the universe that we live in. So I read a lot in those fields. And that’s what really excites me.

Aaron: Great. So that’s the end of the interview. Thank you for that.

Cannabis Contracting: The Potential Invalidity Defense Created By Federal Prohibition

By Brett Schuman, Barzin Pakandam, Jennifer Fisher, Nicholas Costanza
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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:

  1. Always include a forum selection clause specifying resolution of disputes in state court and waiving any right to remove the dispute to federal court.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Conclusion

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.


References

  1. 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.

How to Grow a New Cannabis Business Amid a Pandemic

By Hannah Deacon
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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:

  1. 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.

PlugPlay, a California cannabis brand, stays relevant with creative posts like these.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Cost cutting

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.

  1. E-commerce capabilities
Pivoting to e-commerce is nothing new, but getting creative with product offerings and marketing initiatives will set you apart from the typical CBD retailer

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.

  1. Industry Relationships

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.

Managing Supply Chain Challenges During a Crisis

By Daniel Erickson
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Discussion of supply chain disruption has permeated media reports almost daily since the advent of the current COVID-19 crisis – from shortages of toilet paper to cleaning products and meat. Cannabis businesses have not been immune to impacts on their supplies, and for an industry that faces unique challenges during normal times, a disrupted supply chain has emerged as one of the biggest issues to business due to the coronavirus. Deemed essential in many states, cannabis has weathered the storm relating to government-imposed restrictions only to face logistics problems or a scarcity of supplies necessary for manufacturing and/or distributing products to consumers. For many companies, cannabis ERP software has provided a necessary and supportive structure to efficiently manage and mitigate supply chain challenges during this unprecedented time – facilitating continuity and trust in the supply chain for their customers.

What is COVID-19’s impact on the cannabis supply chain?

During this pandemic, the global supply chain has been disrupted due to factory closures, worker illness, slowed production, closed ports and altered transportation routes – leading to shipping delays and fewer supplies available, from cultivating essentials and vaping accessories, to baking ingredients for edible manufacturers and packaging materials. A quarantined workforce, as well as a shortage of healthy crop care and production workers necessary to grow and harvest crops, has also had an effect. Similar to other current supply issues, there has been significant inventory depletion as consumers prepared to stock up on cannabis products for “stay at home” orders in anticipation of spending extended periods of time at their residence. Uniquely pertinent to the cannabis industry, due to the lack of federal legalization, regulation occurs at the state level and therefore each state governs its cannabis inventory available for sale. These factors have all led to the two biggest problems facing today’s cannabis industry – companies lacking visibility into their inventory and the fact that many do not have alternate vendors for their supplies to meet current consumer demands.

How a cannabis ERP software solution can help

During a disruption to the supply chain such as the COVID-19 outbreak, natural disasters, or other unexpected events, here are three ways an industry-specific ERP system supports effective supply chain management for the cannabis industry:

1) Continuous management and monitoring of inventory and effective material planning – With a real-time tracking system that monitors the movement and storage of inventory by managing and automating transactions and providing lot tracking and traceability, cannabis companies have up-to-the-minute access to crucial inventory data. Accurate analysis of future requirements, as well as procurement guidelines that include minimum order quantities and safety stock levels, ensure the proper planning and reordering of materials – avoiding lags in production due to inventory shortages. Using the information recorded in an ERP solution’s centralized database, such as vendor lead times, shelf life and production timelines, buyers and planners are able to effectively utilize materials requirements planning (MRP) functionality to factor supply, demand and forecasted requirements to plan production and purchasing. Customer purchasing fluctuations throughout the year for holidays and seasonal consumer trends are also tracked in the system, and its analytics software provides growers, cultivators and manufacturers with the visibility to mitigate supply shock and analyze previous periods of hardship to provide actionable insight.

An integral part of inventory control includes testing protocols and quality processes that are automated in an ERP solution. These workflows and approval processes ensure that specific quality standards are met and non-compliant raw materials are quarantined, removed from production and issues are rectified – keeping undeclared substances, harmful chemicals and impure ingredients from infiltrating the supply chain or ending up in finished goods. During these critical and trying times, assurances that materials and ingredients are safely managed and monitored is imperative.

2) Maintenance of supplier information and rankings – A cannabis ERP solution provides features for managing supplier and item specific details to monitor and control which materials can and should be purchased from each vendor. A strong relationship with each supplier is critical in gathering this information, as this helps assign and manage a risk level with each supplier. Current and accurate information (either provided by the vendor or acquired from on-site visits) regarding sanitation programs in place, security measures, physical distancing policies and other details ensures that a cannabis company starts with a foundation of quality raw materials for their products. An ERP solution maintains a list of these approved suppliers to provide already vetted and documented alternatives should a primary supplier’s materials be unavailable. Once vendors are recorded they can be ranked in order of preference and/or risk level so that if a supplier becomes unavailable, another can be quickly identified and used in its place. An ERP’s maintenance of approved supplier lists is an industry best practice that provides supply chain visibility to enhance the assurance of safety.

3) Establishment of supplier transparency through audit rights and communication – An ERP’s ability to manage and monitor all supplier transactions and communications helps facilitate audit rights to evaluate the financial viability of vendor partners. Data is collected regarding vendor price points, historical transactions, average lead times and quality control results in order to identify vendor trends and build a risk assessment with a scorecard rating system for each supplier. Potential supply chain issues can be identified in real-time – such as price increases or delivery delays – prompting communication with suppliers to address problems or triggering the change to an alternate source for materials. Transparency and open communication are key to vendor analysis by researching all suppliers. An ERP solution’s maintenance of current, accurate information is essential to keeping a consistent inventory.

A centralized ERP system facilitates the maintenance and management of the supply chain when a crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19 hinders supplies from arriving or the safety of vendor materials comes into question. Inventory management best practices within the solution help to avoid production lags due to inventory shortages, materials planning provides insight into scheduling and production, and quality assurance procedures prevent harmful products from being sold to consumers. By utilizing features such as the approved supplier and alternative supplier processes within the system should a primary suppliers’ materials be unavailable, there is no need to scramble to find replacement vendors, as they are already vetted and documented within the solution. The system also provides transparency of supplier information to make key decisions regarding vendor rankings and risk level. While the cannabis supply chain is relatively new and untested, proactive companies have the technological tools available in an ERP solution at their disposal to weather the current crisis and face future industry challenges head-on.

Marguerite Arnold

Canopy Growth Makes Multi-Billion Dollar Conditional Acquisition Deal

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

The first German cannabis bid may have come to an end more or less, and with a whimper rather than a bang (not to mention the inevitable still-to-be-settled legal challenges). However even as the dust settles, one of the biggest “names” in cannabis and the company formerly expected to win at least a few of the tender lots is looking elsewhere.

Namely Canopy Growth, which was a finalist in the first round of the tender, has not shown up as a finalist firm in Germany this time (at least not so far).

However, it is clear the firm has other intentions afoot, namely U.S. expansion.

In an unprecedented move, Canopy announced its intent to buy the largest U.S. based producer of cannabis, a firm called Acreage Holdings, just before Easter. The conditional deal is being consummated in both cash ($300 million) plus stock swaps, and will not finally close until federal reform has come in the U.S. In fact, the deal makes the bet that the entire issue of U.S. federal reform will be solved within the next decade.

Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logoIn the meantime, however, what this also does is place one of the world’s largest cannabis companies in the middle of what is largely seen as the world’s most valuable overall cannabis market. Further it does so in an environment where the company benefits from Acreage’s considerable market and political clout. Former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner (a fierce opponent of legalization until it was personally convenient and profitable) is on the board of Acreage.

But there are those who might still be confused about why this deal happened. Canopy after all is fond of saying that its first focus is the “more valuable” medical rather than recreational market. And the U.S. market has many challenges still, that stem from a lack of federal reform. In fact, Canopy has frequently said in the past that they would not enter the U.S. until federal reform occurs. What gives?

What The Deal Also Does…

It is not “just” entry into the U.S. recreational market, albeit still on a state level that is significant about the deal. That starts with its timing.

When trying to understand the motivations of Canadian cannabis companies, especially ones who have eschewed the U.S. market in the past (at least until federal reform passes), it is also necessary to understand that they operate in a shifting world of global strategy that is never as straightforward as one might think. And often has nothing to do with cannabis per se.

Namely, while this deal places Canopy in the middle of the U.S. state industry it also does something else. It positions Canopy as a U.S. producer just two months after a new international pharmaceutical trade deal went into force (on February 8) called an MRA.

MRA agreements, also known as Mutual Recognition Agreements, are essentially trade deals between countries to accept the equivalency of their pharmaceutical production and supply chain.

On the cannabis front, the existence of MRAs between existing countries as cannabis has become legal, has also largely dictated the new international cannabis trade (see Canada and Germany as a perfect example) although this has been held as a closely held secret by the largest cannabis company executives (some of whom have previously denied that this was driving their expansion across Europe).

However, thanks to the agreement on this MRA in February, as of July of this year, Europe and the U.S. will formally kick off a situation where the European and therefore German health authorities will formally recognize American GMP processes.

That means that on the pharma front, Canopy has also essentially re-entered the European market, albeit by a bit of a backdoor. It also means that Canopy can immediately start to import cannabis drugs at least, made in the U.S. into the European and by extension, German market.

Cannabis drugs have been going in the opposite direction across the Atlantic to the U.S. for at least a year now (see the GW Pharma’s Epidiolex adventure last year). And further over the U.S.-Canadian border if now only bound for academic research (see Tilray).

It also may mean that they can import medical cannabis itself to be used as “medicine” or processed into one in Europe.

Does This Mean That U.S. Federal Reform Is Imminent?

Not necessarily. In fact, keeping the U.S. market in general out of the global cannabis trade, while allowing the top companies to participate both in the cross-state market and the global pharmaceutical one benefits the biggest companies. Conveniently, this also allows U.S. cannabis “pharmaceutical” producers to enter the EU in force just as Israel is expected to (third quarter this year). This also puts the “deal” U.S. President Trump and Israeli President Netanyahu cut on the subject to delay Israeli sales in an entirely new light (and one that should outrage both Americans and Israelis in the industry on this front even more). Not to mention every European hopeful producer unaware of the larger game afoot.

That said, what federal U.S. legalization will do is drop the operating costs of the larger U.S. entities now engaged in multi-state operations.

Cannabis in other words is not likely to be legalized in the U.S. before the next presidential elections for reasons that have everything to do with the profits of a few – and for that reason will certainly be a major theme in the next national political race.

And in the meantime, the biggest companies, Canopy included, are not only laughing all the way to the bank (although their shareholders are another story), but setting themselves up to be at the ground floor DNA of the global cannabis business as it establishes itself in every country of the world.

Child-Resistant Packaging Designed for Adults

By Pate Gustafson
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As the cannabis industry grows so does the crucial need for child-resistant (CR) packaging solutions. There’s a long list of federal regulations that are required for any cannabis product to ensure that the package is both difficult for children to open, yet easily accessible for adults. This formula can often be difficult; add design into the mix and your packaging solution just got extremely complex.

However, brand image and appeal does not need to be sacrificed over packaging requirements. With the use of print effects, interactive elements, and captivating colors and designs, companies can create the ideal paperboard packaging for cannabis products while staying within federal regulations.

Let’s start with the packaging requirements first.

Child-resistant packaging can look aesthetically pleasing with the right design

CR Packaging Requirements for Cannabis Products

Depending on the state you do business in, your cannabis product is subject to a variety of child-resistant regulations that will keep children safe from potentially harmful materials. These regulations create packaging that is unappealing and inaccessible to children. Key elements of CR packaging for cannabis include:

  • Packaging must have resealable features
  • Packaging must exhibit a clear and detailed information label
  • Packaging must have an opaque appearance
  • Packaging must make product unappealing and unattractive to children

CR compliance requires that packaging undergo rigorous tests. The general concept is for the packaging to be difficult for children under 5 to open, while simultaneously being easy for adults to open and close.

These regulations create an immensely safer product for children. However, these same regulations limit the creative opportunities that normal packaging can provide, making most packaging for cannabis unattractive for adults.

CR Regulations & Packaging Challenges

Although CR regulations for cannabis products are vital to keeping children safe, these regulations cause a lot of roadblocks in the creative department.

Follow these tips to create a high-quality, CR-compliant cannabis carton packaging that the market will love.One of the most significant impacts these regulations have made on cannabis companies is the difficulty to align a brand image with these regulations. Every company has a brand image with which they need to align their entire marketing plan, including packaging designs. Add in strict CR regulations, and it becomes extremely difficult to balance the two.

Another key challenge in this process is structural design limitations. Businesses use inventive and innovative structural designs to help differentiate their products in a growing and crowded market. Cannabis products experience a significant disadvantage here. Cannabis companies must incorporate an opaque appearance and resealable features while also attempting to design a packaging structure that is attractive and eye-catching to consumers.

Designing CR-Compliant Cannabis Packaging that is Appealing to Adults

Although CR requirements make it challenging for companies to inject creativity into packaging designs, innovative solutions in the market do exist. These offer the best of both worlds by meeting the necessary CR guidelines, while maximizing branding, structural elements and print effects.

Incorporate Captivating Colors

Since there are no color restrictions for CR packaging, one of the best ways for a brand to express itself is through color. Companies are free to express themselves to tell a brand story utilizing unique colors in their packaging.

Before choosing a color palette, brands should ensure that packaging designs meet overall branding requirements. Consistency across branding, marketing and other avenues, will make any brand more recognizable and memorable. Colors can also set cannabis products apart from the hundreds of other products.

Smart packaging design can be simple with some good printing effects

Get Creative with Structural Design

Although CR regulations seem extremely restricting structurally, there are plenty of ways to still have a structurally appealing cannabis carton packaging while still in compliance with CR regulations. Just remember that cannabis packaging must be resealable and opaque.

In order to capitalize on your structural design process, experiment with different carton structures. Generally, carton packaging is rectangular or square but there’s ample opportunity for a variety of forms. Experimenting with designs, whether a straight carton or cartons with built-in trays, is an important step in finding the best packaging design that protects, promotes and differentiates the product it holds.

Never Overlook Print Effects & Finishes

Print effects and finishes are often an afterthought for cannabis carton packaging. Print effects and specialty finishes can make all the difference when looking for ways to set any cannabis product apart. The perfect finishing can take an average cannabis carton to the next level. Popular print effects include:

EmbossingJust because you have to stay aligned with CR regulations doesn’t mean that packaging should be plain and unattractive. 

Embossing is the art of incorporating a raised image, design, or pretty much any textural component in a packaging’s design. The process of embossing allows for artwork and specific elements to stand out against the background of the paperboard material.

Debossing

Debossing, as its name implies, is the opposite of embossing. Instead of creating a raised pattern, debossing creates a pressed imprint. It’s a great way to create a tactile experience and bring something extra to a packaging design while staying compliant with CR regulations.

Embossing and debossing can be used in conjunction with a variety of foil effects and other print finishing processes.

Making Interactive Experiences

The packaging is only as memorable as the process of opening it. Making packaging memorable requires focusing on creating an experience. Elements such as reveal flaps, tear-aways, doors and more are unique ways to add interactivity to a package design. This is great for increasing engagement and brand loyalty within your target market. Who says adults can’t have fun too?

Just because you have to stay aligned with CR regulations doesn’t mean that packaging should be plain and unattractive. Follow these tips to create a high-quality, CR-compliant cannabis carton packaging that the market will love.