Tag Archives: compliant

An Interview with Würk CEO & Chairman, Scott Kenyon

By Aaron Green
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The cannabis industry operates in a legal gray area between federal restrictions and state legalization in a constantly changing regulatory environment. Maintaining payroll and HR compliance is a burden cannabis companies face that grows exponentially with geographic expansion of the workforce.

Würk allows cannabis companies to manage payroll, human resources, timekeeping, scheduling and tax compliance, minimizing compliance risks in the ever-changing cannabis regulatory environment. The company uses its expertise and trusted partnerships to provide guidance on 280E tax law, accounting and banking. Its platform is designed to scale nationally with the growth of the industry while incorporating the local laws and regulations unique to individual states. Their clients include Cresco Labs, Canndescent and NUG.

We caught up with Scott Kenyon to ask about Würk’s approach to human capital management, challenges facing cannabis businesses and industry trends. Scott sat on the Board of Würk before becoming its CEO and chairman. Prior to Würk, Scott held leadership roles at Dell and Phunware.

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

Scott Kenyon, CEO and Chairman of Würk

Scott Kenyon: My wife and I were early investors in a few companies in Colorado and Nevada. From early on (this was back in 2015) we learned the hard way of cannabis and how difficult it is to run these businesses, especially in those early days. We’ve progressed a ton over the years, but it’s still very difficult to run cannabis businesses.

I joined Würk about five years ago as a board member. I came on as CEO at the beginning of 2021 after our founder and previous CEO Keegan Peterson, who was an early trailblazer in the industry, passed away. So, I’ve been CEO at Würk for about 18 months.

Green: Tell me about Würk and the main problems you’re trying to solve.

Kenyon: Early on we were focused on establishing getting out of the cash business for these cannabis companies. Allowing them to pay payroll, taxes and be tax compliant electronically was a huge early advantage for us as a company. Now, fast forward seven years later and a lot of different banks (credit unions) are in the industry and that is allowing people to move money. So, that’s not as big of an advantage for us anymore, but early on that was huge.

Our advantage now is the scars on our back, for lack of a better phrase, from what we’ve gone through over the last seven years. We anticipate. We prevent. And most importantly we’ve seen all those problems for our customers. Last year, a big thing of mine was being “Smokey the Bear.” We want everybody to be Smokey the Bear: prevent fires and prevent issues for our customers. When I came in, we were the world’s best firefighters. I didn’t want that title. I wanted to prevent issues for our customers. That takes you from being a vendor to a partner.

If you look at it, on our platform we have 80% of the enterprise cannabis market, about 60% of the mid-market and then low single digits in the small business space. We have that market share because we provide invaluable experience and guidance to our customers. The biggest MSOs have different challenges from a “Joseph and Scott” dispensary, or a “Mary and Jane” grow facility. We’re able to adapt to all those different segments.

At the core of our product, we offer payroll services and what we call HCM – human capital management. That’s everything from scheduling, applicant tracking systems processing and paying your payroll taxes. So, we have the full gamut of product offerings that any type of HCM or HRIS software system does, whether you’re outside of cannabis or inside of cannabis, we’re offering the same thing.

Green: How does Würk differ from say a Professional Employer Organization (PEO)?

Kenyon: We aren’t a PEO. We don’t manage employees. At a high-level, a PEO is basically managing HR for these companies. Our platform enables HR professionals to go out there and do that. PEOs are more popular down in the small business space, because people are not at the scale to hire an HR team. We’re similar in that we’re processing payroll and have all the software that these companies need, but we’re different in that we’re not running their HR for them.

Green: How do you work benefits into the mix?

Kenyon: We leave it to the client, and we integrate their benefits provider into our platform so it’s an easy one-stop shop. We have single sign-on for a lot of our integrations. For the HR organizations, we want them to log into our platform and everything they need will be there.

Green: How is SAFE banking going to affect the HR industry in cannabis?

Kenyon: It’s going to be great for the industry, obviously. For HR specifically, it’s going to bring in more providers of payroll and more competitors for us for sure. But also it’s going to bring in more providers of services that can come in and offer that right now because of the federal illegalization.

Green: How does 280E affect your business and your customers?

Kenyon: We don’t guide people around 280E because that’s a tax specific matter. We refer them to their tax experts. We process payroll tax, which is different than what 280E affects. I think 280E was a big challenge, it’s still a big challenge, but that’s mostly because people didn’t really understand it. I think 280E was a problem five to seven years ago. In the last two years most companies are very familiar with it. That doesn’t mean 280E is the right thing. I think 280E is an awful thing. And while I think I hope SAFE banking is the first thing to fall legislatively, I think 280E has a good chance of getting across first.

On any given day my opinion on which will go first changes. I just want something to get across the line.

Green: What are some unemployment and payroll challenges your customers face?

Kenyon: We really watch unemployment changes and changes in job descriptions or job codes. For example, if an unemployment rate changed, and that unemployed person moved to a different place, which happened a lot during COVID, that company needed to report that and they needed to collect the appropriate charges or taxes there.

Green: What geographies are you in right now?

Kenyon: As of January 1, we had people on our platform in 46 states and just under 600 different jurisdictions. So, even though cannabis isn’t legal in all those states, big companies have employees across the United States.

Green: How do you help your users manage compliance across multiple jurisdictions? That must be a complex undertaking.

Kenyon: Our platform automatically plugs into the states that have electronic notifications around laws, which most states do. In our tax department, we have certain group members that are experts, let’s say, in the west coast. So, we assign people to certain regions to ensure that they have the best knowledge.

From our support piece, where a lot of our customers come in, somebody might say, “Hey, I have a unique question for Utah” and we’ll say we have a person that is specialized in Utah, but we don’t force them there, we just give them the option. But in our tax queue, we actually direct the customer like, “Hey, here’s a Massachusetts Question, so that goes to a particular person because they are our Massachusetts expert.”

Green: How do you deal with timekeeping issues like overtime?

Kenyon: Well, our system does that automatically. Let’s say they’re working overtime in a state that’s difficult to keep time for like California. In the state of California, if they’re working overtime on a Saturday or Sunday or a holiday, that’s a whole different calculation than working longer on a Thursday night. So, our platform is made to automatically calculate that for our customers. There’s no manual adjustments or coaching happening there. We just follow the state law based on where the employees are.

Green: Are you seeing any unionization of employees within the cannabis industry?

Kenyon: There’s unionization in many of our states, I don’t know the exact number, but California being the biggest, there’s a lot of union representation. Illinois is probably the second biggest union state on our platform. I’m assuming New York will be once it becomes adult use.

Green: How does Würk approach cybersecurity?

“Cannabis customers don’t want to buy on the illicit market. They want to buy from a trusted source. It just takes time to make that happen.”Kenyon: Well, we approach it very seriously and I recommend everybody take cybersecurity seriously. We test our internal systems regularly. We test our employees through phishing scams. And we’re always just trying to educate our team on the risk that we have.

I can’t share specifically the prevention steps that we’re taking, but I can tell you we partner with some of the biggest experts and make sure that we’re following everything that they’re recommending. More importantly, we’re testing for human failures, because where most failures happen is with people.

Green: What trends are you following in the industry right now? 

Kenyon: Any type of activity in Congress is going to be huge for this industry. So that’s something I always keep abreast of. The next thing that comes down the line which is tied to that is interstate commerce: How is interstate commerce going to really come into play? And how does that change this industry?

Within the industry, the big question is how do we combat the illicit market? Over the last five years, I’ve heard all kinds of different ideas. But in the end, I think we have to out-innovate the illicit market, and that’s what I’m most excited about.

There are new product categories, beverage being one that is starting to gain traction. How are these new products and new variations of the cannabis plant able to treat and help people in ways that we’ve never thought of? That’s part of out-innovation. I was reading an article today about new terpenes that were discovered and how 100 products could come from each one of those new terpenes. I think we’re just still at the tip of the iceberg of product innovation.

How do we fight the illicit market? I think that is just through coming up with new products that treat different illnesses and ailments, that allow customers to get away from pharmaceuticals. Cannabis customers don’t want to buy on the illicit market. They want to buy from a trusted source. It just takes time to make that happen. They’re not going to do it when there’s a huge price difference, but they will do it when there’s a huge product difference. And right now, our products are very similar to what you can find on the illicit market. You can find vapes, you can find gummies, you can find all that in the illicit market. We’ve got to out-innovate the illicit market.

Green: What in your personal life are you most interested in learning about?

Kenyon: I am the father of two teenagers right now and I really like to learn how to be a better parent to them because it’s really frickin’ tough!

Green: Great, that concludes the interview!

Kenyon: Thanks, Aaron.

Perfecting Your Packaging for Cannabis Beverages

By Julie Saltzman
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Some consumers participating in the legal cannabis market want to avoid inhalable products. They are concerned about the effects of the smoke or they want their usage to be discreet — without the pungent aroma emanating from burning cannabis flower. For those consumers, edibles are the preferred option and a growing product category.

Within the edibles space, the beverage segment — with limited product options in some states — may offer significant potential for growth. In 2021, cannabis-infused beverages accounted for only 1% of total legal cannabis product sales and about 5% of the edibles segment in the United States, reports market researcher BDSA. But cannabis beverage sales are growing around the U.S.

In California, cannabis drinks grew their market share in the edibles category from 4% in 2018 to 7% in 2021. Nevada saw beverages increase their share of edibles revenues from 7% to 10% in the same time frame. And cannabis beverages’ share of edibles sales in Massachusetts went from less than 1% in 2019 to 8% in 2021.

Pegged at $180 million in revenue last year, the cannabis beverage market is projected to reach nearly $500 million by 2026, predicts BDSA.

Today, gummies and chocolate products dominate the edibles category. Although beverages are currently a small segment of edible sales, they may have some inherent advantages — familiarity, faster-acting products from improved bioavailability, and taste and flavor innovations — over other cannabis products. Since beverages can incorporate many different flavors from fruity, cola and sweet to coffee, tea, sour and bitter, these myriad flavor variations can mask or minimize any off-tastes associated with THC.

Viewed as part of their everyday regimen, consumers drink beverages for hydration, nourishment, refreshment and enjoyment. Cannabis beverages are well-suited for consumers’ lifestyles, while gummies and chocolates may be perceived as sugary treats and special occasion items.

Cruise Beverage B Happy Nitro-Infused CBD Drinks.

Brand owners are beginning to recognize the limited availability of products and growth potential of cannabis-infused beverages and are looking to enter the category. Packaging plays a key role in cannabis beverages, with sustainability, regulatory compliance (e.g., child-resistant), labeling compliance (e.g., warning symbols and text), convenience and branding all contributing to the success of the expanding product category.

Sustainable Packaging

Consumers, especially younger generations, are concerned about the environment and support brands that align with their values. According to the 2020 Sustainable Market Share Index from the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, sustainability-marketed products delivered about 55% of the market growth in consumer packaged goods (CPG) from 2015 to 2019 in the U.S. despite being only 16% of the market. Sustainability-marketed goods grew seven times faster than products not marketed as sustainable and nearly four times faster than the overall CPG market.

As a primary consumer touchpoint, packaging is a good way for cannabis beverage brands to show their commitment to the environment. But finding the most sustainable packaging option for a particular application may not always be as straightforward as it seems. Many considerations are involved — material choice (e.g., plastic, glass, or aluminum), recyclability of the material, the weight of the material, recycled content of the final package, package design (minimalist vs. excessive), transportation costs and other factors like reusability.

To help facilitate the process, Berlin Packaging uses life cycle analysis to determine a product’s environmental impact or carbon footprint over its entire life cycle, including sourcing & raw materials extraction (minerals resource use), manufacturing (energy and water usage), distribution (freight miles, fuel usage) and end-of-life (recovery, recycling, reprocessing).

We have the know-how to improve the sustainability of any packaging material — whether it be lightweighting, use of post-consumer recycled (PCR) content, greater recycling rates and more.

Regulatory Compliance

Because legal cannabis products are regulated by individual states and not at the federal or national level, the regulations for cannabis packaging requirements can vary widely from one state to another. However, there are some common rules that all states follow.

Child-resistant capable cap fits snugly over the top of a can.

All cannabis products — including beverages — require child-resistant packaging to meet the standards of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. For aluminum cans, Berlin Packaging offers a child-resistant capable mechanism that fits snugly over the top of a can. Available in polypropylene or a bio-based resin, the single-use device can be custom developed to fit the exact specifications of the customer’s cans. In-stock products are available for standard 202 can ends.

Along with child-resistant capable packaging, states also require some type of warning symbol and statement on the label to indicate the product contains cannabis. Depending on the state, the symbol may be a triangular or diamond shaped in a bright or contrasting color to call attention to it on the label. The symbol typically houses a cannabis leaf image or “THC”.

Convenience

Like any packaged drink, cannabis beverages need to check all the boxes for consumer convenience — easy to drink, portability, cupholder friendly and resealable.

Users can easily reseal PET and glass bottles with continuous thread or lug finish closures, but cans present a challenge. Berlin Packaging offers a solution with a resealable can that opens like a traditional stay-on-tab. Here’s how it works. Lifting the pull tab breaks the tamper-evident band and unlocks the slider mechanism. Pulling the slider opens the can and makes the familiar venting sound — even after reopening.

The configuration of the opening creates a smooth laminar flow to improve the drinking experience. Moving the slider back to its original position and pushing down the pull tab, which produces a clicking sound, reseal the closure. The tamper-evident band remains on the can underneath the pull tab.

Branding

Cannabis beverages come in drops, shots, syrups, carbonated, iced tea, lemonade, fruity, water, sports & energy, mocktails, tea, coffee and hot cocoa.

Because cannabis has been associated with medicinal uses, many consumers use cannabis products to manage their wellbeing and health. Thus, some cannabis products have been positioned to relieve stress, promote relaxation and sleep, reduce pain and inflammation, improve mental focus, enhance mood or simply for indulgence and enjoyment.

Product positioning and the experience the brand owner wants to create for the consumer can help inform the brand design, personality, and narrative or storytelling. It’s also important that the brand design and messaging resonate with the product’s target audience.

Studio One Eleven, Berlin Packaging’s in-house innovation division, can help cannabis beverage marketers with their product branding from concept to commercialization. We offer market research and consumer insights, brand strategy and visual branding design, brand name development, structural package design, and more. Our services are available at no additional charge in exchange for a customer’s packaging business.

Cruise Beverage distributes nitrogen-infused CBD drinks with all-natural ingredients in 12-oz aluminum cans under the B Happy brand. The team at Studio One Eleven helped Cruise Beverage and its B Happy brand tell their story of free-spirited enjoyment with updated branding, expressive flavor names (i.e., Loosen Up Lemon, Peaceful Pear, Mellow Mango, and Blissful Blood Orange), and unique packaging graphics.

Uplifting illustrations speak to the brand’s sense of freedom and relaxation, and the hand-drawn style reflects the craftsmanship of the CBD beverage product. A white background with flavorful pops of color says clean and fresh, while tiny bubble imagery communicates the delightful effervescence of the fizzy drinks.

State of the US Cannabis Payment Processing Market: An Interview with Executives at KindTap and Aeropay

By Aaron Green
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Federal regulations have made compliant credit processing in the cannabis industry difficult to achieve. As a result, most cannabis retailers operate a cash-only model, limiting their ability to upsell customers and placing a burden on customers who might rather use credit. While some dispensaries offer debit, credit or cashless ATM transactions, regulators and traditional payment processors have been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.

Two companies, KindTap Technologies and Aeropay, are addressing the cannabis industry’s payment processing challenges with innovative digital solutions geared towards retailers and consumers.

We interviewed both Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, president at KindTap Technologies and Daniel Muller, CEO at Aeropay. Cathy co-founded KindTap in 2019 after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products. Daniel founded AeroPay in 2017 after a career in digital product innovation, most recently at GPShopper (acquired by Financial), where he oversaw the design and development of over 300 web and mobile applications for large scale Fortune 500 companies.

Green: What is the biggest challenge your customers are facing?

Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, co-founder and president at KindTap Technologies

Iannuzzelli: Our customers include both cannabis retailers and their end consumers. As long as cannabis is illegal at the federal level, normal payment solutions such as debit and credit cards cannot be accepted for cannabis purchases. This has resulted in heavy cash-based sales and unstable, transient work-around ATM payment solutions that can be ripped out with little notice, disrupting the entire business. The lack of a mature payment network to support retail payments for cannabis purchases is a huge challenge for all stakeholders. Cannabis retailers bear the high cost and safety issues of operating a heavily cash-based retail business. Consumers encounter several friction points that require them to change their behavior when purchasing cannabis relative to how they purchase everything else.

Muller: Our cannabis business customers have faced a constantly changing and, frankly, exhausting financial services environment. From the need to move and manage large amounts of cash, to card workarounds, added to the disappointment from legislation around the SAFE Banking Act, these inconsistencies have acted as a roadblock to their potential growth and profitability. Aeropay is in the position to be a stable, long-term, reliable payments partner ready to help them scale their businesses. We believe these opportunities are limitless.

Green: What geographies have got your attention and why?

Daniel Muller, CEO and founder of Aeropay

Iannuzzelli: KindTap’s focus is on the U.S. market where federal policy has created the need for alternatives to traditional payment networks. KindTap is available in every U.S. state where cannabis is legally sold. In terms of our distribution channels, KindTap’s digital payment solution was brought to market during the COVID-19 pandemic when curbside pick-up and delivery became critically important. These channels are where the exchange of cash at pick-up posed the greatest security risk to employees and customers. Our early integrations were with e-commerce platforms focused on delivery and pick-up orders, and our integration partners have strong customer bases in California and the northeast. So, while KindTap can provide its “Pay Later” lines of credit and “Pay Now” bank account solutions anywhere, we have heavier penetration in those regions.

Muller: California, for its established tech culture and how it plays into the cannabis industry – your product simply has to live up to their tech standards to be heard. Also, Chicago, our headquarters, with its newly emerged commitment to financing the cannabis industry and bringing with it a more traditional business approach. In Chicago, you have to have elevated standards of professional practices in any industry you enter. And of course, we love to watch emerging markets like New York and Florida as they head towards adult-use and what shape cannabis and payments will take.

Green: What are the broader industry trends you are following?

Iannuzzelli: We continue to see a strong transition from cash and ATM transactions over to digital payments. Since KindTap has a fully-integrated payment “button” on e-commerce checkout screens, the adoption rate of end consumers to that one-click experience is quite strong. We are also seeing trends of more “express lines” in the retail environment – for those KindTap users who paid online/ahead – and faster/safer delivery experiences to people’s homes since there is no longer the need to collect any payment upon delivery. We are firm believers in the delivery/digital payments combination and a strong increase of that trend as more states allow for delivery.

Muller: The cannabis industry is starting to normalize payments and mirror traditional online and brick-and-mortar. With bank-to-bank (ACH) payments, cannabis businesses can now offer modern customer shopping experiences including pre-payment for delivery orders without the need for a cash exchange at the door, offering the option to buy online pickup in-store and contactless in-store QR scan-to-pay customer experiences. With these familiar and customer-driven options now available, we are seeing widespread adoption, as well as meaningful increases in spend and returning customers.

Green: Thank you both. That concludes the interview!

About KindTap: KindTap Technologies, LLC operates a financial technology platform that offers credit and loyalty-enabled payment solutions for highly-regulated industries typically driven by cash and ATM-based transactions. KindTap offers payment processing and related consumer applications for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers. Founded in 2019, the company is backed by KreditForce LLC plus several strategic investors, with debt capital provided by U.S.-based institutions. Learn more at kindtaptech.com.

About AeroPay: AeroPay is a financial technology company reimagining the way money is moved in exchange for goods and services. Frustrated with the current, antiquated payments landscape, we believe there is a better way to pay and a better way to get paid. AeroPay set out to build a payments platform that works for all- businesses, consumers, and their communities. Learn more at aeropay.com.

How to Make Sure Your Cannabis Delivery Service Is Compliant

By Claudia Post
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On-demand cannabis delivery services are a rapidly growing part of the industry. Having a delivery option available for your dispensary’s patient population is a critical component of your service offering. This is especially true when considering medical cannabis patients who might have conditions that hinder their mobility or patients who just prefer the anonymity or convenience of delivery rather than visiting a dispensary.

So I ask you – why don’t you have a delivery service option available for your dispensary?

While there are several models for cannabis delivery, depending on the state you live in, the biggest challenge dispensary owners face is ensuring that their delivery service continues to meet all compliance standards.

Beware, one misstep in your delivery process could mean serious implications for your dispensary and you – including being shut down.

Keep reading to learn how you can provide your customers and patients with a delivery service while remaining compliant with your state’s rules and regulations.

How to Keep Your Cannabis Delivery Service Compliant

Part of keeping your cannabis delivery service compliant is understanding how to start a delivery service from the ground up. Keep in mind that the costs will vary depending on how you structure your company. Things to think about – insurance, technology, merchant processing, driver recruiting and whether or not your drivers will be independent contractors or employees.

Some states require a retailer’s license while others require a specific deliver license

Additionally, you will have to consider the regulations that are standard in your state.

For instance, if you don’t do your research, you won’t know whether or not you need two drivers in the car, whether or not you need a lockbox, or if you’re required to have handhelds for payment. Other requirements will depend on the state in which you live.

Here are the most important things you’ll need to do to get started:

Do Your Homework 

The first thing you need to do to ensure that your service is compliant is research your state’s delivery protocol. That means obtaining the proper licensing or certifications necessary to move cannabis products from one place to another.

It should be noted that in some states, like Washington, cannabis delivery providers must also obtain a retailer’s license. You’ll also need to determine whether your state allows delivery for only medical cannabis or both medical and recreational.

Please keep in mind the following – cannabis is not federally recognized as legal. Therefore, the only deliveries you can make are intrastate deliveries.

In some states you’re required to have handhelds for payment.

Lastly, you’ll need to pay close attention to how you can advertise your cannabis delivery service. The guidelines vary from state to state, and they typically include regulations for content, imaging and location.

Is Owning a Delivery Service Right for You?

Delivery, in general, is not easy. The delivery business is difficult to integrate into the highly regulated cannabis market; it becomes extraordinarily difficult to manage.

It’s great to have a delivery service, but are you a good salesperson? Do you understand marketing, positioning and messaging? Have you ever written SOPs or standard operating procedures? There are so many questions to ask yourself when you want to own a business.

Consider Working With Logistics Experts

While it may be tempting to create an in-house delivery service all on your own, think twice.

It’s best to partner with a third-party logistics partner, like Scarlet Express. These partners are experts in cannabis delivery services and will arm you with everything you need to be successful.

Most cannabis logistics companies can also scale right along with your business, so you don’t have to worry about “outgrowing” their services.

As a new or small dispensary owner, taking on the challenges of cannabis delivery can be incredibly difficult but not impossible when you work with a company that has tried and true systems in place. Lots of things to consider, seek out experts – like Scarlet Express.

Meet Looming Federal Cannabis Regulatory Compliance Management with Automation & Confidence

By Steven Burton
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Federal regulation of the cannabis and hemp sectors is coming sooner rather than later — and this is mostly good news for cannabis businesses and consumers. But cannabis producers already struggling to meet complex and ever-changing local regulations (where they exist) will be facing a new set of challenges with another level of regulatory oversight and compliance.

Navigating multi-jurisdictional regulatory compliance management requirements is near-impossible with legacy manual systems. That’s why it’s time to leverage the right enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, so that you and your team can meet these compliance management complexities with confidence and ease. Whether you manufacture flower, edibles, beverages, supplements or other dispensary products, here’s what you need to know to stay agile and profitable as more changes loom.

Federal Legalization is Coming

To date, there are 18 states with adult use cannabis markets, 37 with medical cannabis programs, and an additional 13 that have some level of decriminalization. At the federal level, there have already been several attempts at cannabis law reform, with even more on the table in the coming year.

One of the most promising is the Republican-led States Reform Act, filed in November 2021. The central tenant of this proposed legislation is to remove cannabis and cannabinoids from listing as a Schedule 1 Drug under the Controlled Substances Act.

Importantly, if this law passes, it would allow individual states to pursue their own cannabis policies and remove the current risks companies face when going against current federal anti-cannabis scheduling.

The States Reform Act also proposes a three percent federal tax on all cannabis sales and that all cannabis sales fall under the ​​Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB’s) control. The States Reform Act would — finally — guide the regulation of hemp-derived products through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has also been working on another reform bill, specifically the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), which he plans to introduce in April 2022 to further emphasize the criminal justice aspects of legal reform in the context of the War on Drugs.

While the government’s track record on cannabis regulatory reform hasn’t been as progressive as many would like, at this point there is widespread public support and proposed bills from both sides of the aisle. As a result, the US may finally see some movement on cannabis law reform in the very near future.

How to Prepare for Federal Regulatory Compliance Management

With federal regulation looming, it’s time for licensed producers to elevate their internal systems. Whether you work with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or cannabidiol (CBD), the regulatory protocols in an already complex marketplace are going to change.

This is especially paramount for those producing cannabis or hemp beverages, edibles and supplements. You will need comprehensive and efficient systems to facilitate this transition. An ERP should reduce compliance headaches and ensure your business is ready to scale when a national marketplace launches.

Automate Data Gathering

It is no longer cost effective to manage seed-to-sale traceability with manual data capture. With the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of data points required at most commercial facilities on a routine basis, data logging is by far the best way to start compliance automation.

Automated ERP systems, which capture essential information across your entire operation, ensure access to real-time data for forecasting, accounting, regulatory compliance reporting and traceability. That means using software that captures and logs intel from across your organization about quality control, inventory and traceability, all without arduous manual input.

The best and most successful ERP systems should be used by all employees to collect data, from sorters/pickers to fork lift drivers to supervisors to senior management. For this to happen easily, the solution must be accessible and user friendly for all employees. ERP systems that can be easily integrated with tablets and smartphones (as well as IoT devices) reduce the need for expensive terminals on the production floor and make data collection a straightforward part of daily operations.

Build Systems to Facilitate Growth from the Start

A rigid ERP system that can’t grow with you is not a smart long-term investment. An adaptable multi-platform system evolves with your company and constantly changing regulatory compliance requirements. A solution that provides access to the entire facility, instead of being limited to individual users, ensures that growing teams can easily contribute to data quality from the plant floor all the way up to the executive office for actionable insights.

Markets are opening up across the country and quite soon, many companies will be looking to expand their operations nationally. As a result, you’ll need systems that can scale, cover additional facilities, keep up with increased production, and even work across different jurisdictions.

Having instant access to detailed operational information delivers greater business oversight at the micro and macro levels – insight that is crucial for expansion, profitability, and cost-cutting measures. Companies with the right systems in place will effectively manage the resulting federal complexities to deliver on regulatory expectations and capture a competitive market share.

Leverage Regulatory Frameworks and Technology from the Food Industry

The Canadian example demonstrates clearly that the regulatory frameworks from the food and beverage industry are the most applicable to the cannabis sector – more so than for pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals or alcohol. This is most obvious in lucrative value-added markets like edibles and extracts, which are actually also food products.

Issues like dosage standardization, controlling common hazards, managing traceability chains and inventory, and introducing quality standards (including third party certifications like organic and SQF) are all crossovers from the food industry.

Just as the compliance automation wave has hit the food industry in recent years, manufacturers of infused products and extracts can then use the same technology to reduce safety and quality control costs as well as documentation and administrative costs. The lesson? Cannabis industry leaders don’t need to totally reinvent the wheel.

Cannabis Producers Need an ERP System Tailored to Their Needs

In Canada, cannabis manufacturers have learned all too well what a few little mistakes can do to reputation and profitability. MJBiz Daily reported in 2021 that the Canadian government had issued more than CDN $1.3 million (USD $1 million) in fines since legalization. That’s a lot of regulatory compliance issues. Considering there are nearly 500 compliance fields to fill out for monthly reporting, mistakes are difficult to avoid, especially if you rely on a manual system.

FDAlogoThe story is similar in the United States. State regulatory compliance management requirements are complex and arduous for individual companies and employees. When federal regulation does come, US-based producers will very likely face even more strenuous reporting requirements to multiple jurisdictions.

Cannabis companies will need a data-driven system in place to align with the FDA’s Cannabis-Derived Products Data Acceleration Plan. Finding food safety and traceability software that makes reporting easier, automatic, and less prone to human error is paramount to success. As you prepare for the looming federal legislation, look for an ERP system that covers all the bases, including one that:

  • Improves Market Agility: Expedites opening new facilities in new markets as they come online
  • Evolves with Regulatory Changes: Facilitates the transition from unregulated markets into federally regulated ones
  • Automates Reporting: Protects you from regulatory compliance management bumbles stemming from manual input and human error
  • Reduces Workload: Optimizes workflow and reduces labor costs associated with manual input
  • Is Comprehensive: Covers all bases, including food safety, quality control, traceability, production management, and even occupational health and safety

If you aren’t automating the capture of essential information across the entire operation, you won’t be prepared for the regulatory burdens likely to come with federal cannabis legislation. To stay compliant and on top of what will likely be an incredibly competitive marketplace, you are going to need real-time data — data that will provide precise seed-to-sale traceability, product recall capability, and reporting.

Digitizing safety, traceability and complex production management through one state-of-the-art ERP system allows cannabis companies to reap the rewards of data-driven, automation technology almost immediately without the significant capital expenditure on large-scale equipment or robotics. From there, navigating regulatory complexity becomes not only streamlined and operationalized, but an actual market advantage for future growth.

Think Your Cannabis Business Complies with Temp and Part-Time Employment Regulations? You Might Be Surprised

By Stacy Bryant
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As a fast-growing cannabis company, ensuring your business stays compliant with regulatory agencies of all kinds—planning departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and so on—is critical for survival. But is your business also compliant with temporary and part-time employment regulations? Violating these often-overlooked regulations can land your company in hot water at best and force you to shut your doors at worst. Here’s what you need to know about risks, regulations, compliance issues and more.

The 30,000-Foot View: Part-Time and Temporary Employees 

Cannabis has proven itself to be a high-turnover industry. But in the ever-shifting, post-COVID landscape, many cannabis employers are seeing the financial and logistical benefits of hiring part-time and temporary workers.

Though the terms “part-time” and “temporary” are sometimes used interchangeably, the fact is, there are legal differences in the definitions of part-time versus temporary work. For starters, temporary employees must work for less than a year at a specific organization, and their work must have a defined end date. Temporary employees, or “temps,” often fill vacant roles in a temporary capacity, such as roles previously occupied by someone on parental leave.

Many full-time employees in the cultivation space are defined as “agricultural workers”

Part-time employees, on the other hand, can work indefinitely for a company—but they must work less than 40 hours per week. And, side note, if a part-time employee works more than 1,000 hours in a calendar year, they could be eligible for retirement benefits—so hiring managers, bear that in mind.

For employers, there are some tangible benefits in hiring part-time or temporary workers. For starters, there are often fewer upfront costs associated with hiring part-time workers (like workers’ compensation and healthcare). Establishing a strong part-time and temp employment strategy also allows for employers to quickly scale up or down based on market tendencies or shifts.

Understanding the Risks of Hiring Part-Time or Temporary Workers

While hiring part-time and temporary workers can help businesses stay agile and responsive to market demands or fill vacancies created by recent resignations, many businesses hire these types of employees without a full understanding of associated regulations. And it can get even trickier: many full-time cannabis industry workers in the cultivation space aren’t considered “employees” at all—they’re defined by the federal government as “agricultural workers.”

It’s essential that businesses classify part-time workers and independent contractors correctly. Attempting to claim a worker is part-time when they’re really a full-time employee (a practice known as “misclassification”) can save a business tax dollars in the short-term but lead to sanctions and hefty penalties down the line. For example, if a worker is misclassified and the Department of Industrial Relations finds out, they can sue the former employer for unpaid wages.

Potential fallout from noncompliance with classification or wage and hour issues includes massive fines, potential litigation and more. Federal agencies are extremely sensitive to cannabis business regulatory violations, it’s vital to adhere to proper staffing regulations and compliance. The wrong kind of attention can tank your business’s reputation and halt your operations altogether. I’ve personally worked with numerous cannabis businesses in their hiring and payroll initiatives, and I’ll say this: It may seem like a headache to cross all the “Ts” and dot all the “Is” in the beginning, but it will make a massive difference down the line.

Understanding the Regulations for Hiring Part-Time or Temporary Workers 

All employers must adhere to the regulations set forth by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates that part-time employees must be treated the same as full-time employees. That means they must be paid minimum wage, be paid overtime should they exceed their determined hours, have the opportunity to take job-protected unpaid leave, and so on. I really want to stress how essential it is that employers classify their workers appropriately.

It’s also worth noting that many states have specific regulatory structures for employment, both full- and part-time.

In the heavily regulated cannabis industry, employers must exercise strict due diligence to meet all OSHA standards. Additionally, they must identify all occupational hazards and account for employees’ overtime and double time. Grow operations must also adhere to the Field Sanitation Provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which includes providing toilets, drinking water, hand sanitation facilities and hygiene information.

Avoiding Compliance Problems with Planning and Diligence 

There’s a lot more to hiring workers than businesses realize, especially in cannabis. Most companies don’t intend to be noncompliant with regulations—they simply don’t know the regulations, or they’re overwhelmed by hiring and growing so quickly. To make sure you’re compliant, you might consider building out your HR team, educating yourself as the business leader and reaching out to staffing and HR professionals in the space who can answer your questions. In this rapidly growing industry, which seems to shift and change every day, planting your feet firmly on solid regulatory ground will serve to benefit you in the event of federal legalization, massive business growth or initiatives you may want to undertake in the future.

3 Pillars of Cannabis Banking Compliance

By Mark Lozzi
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Few people will disagree that financial compliance isn’t the most exciting topic within the cannabis industry. But compliance is, and always will be, the engine grease to the legal cannabis market. Cannabis operators have the arduous task of dealing with multiple layers of compliance, both operational (maintaining and adhering to regulations enforced by the state licensing board) and financial. These compliance measures include managing everything from seed-to-sale systems for all plant-related activity to on-site requirements like facility access points and alarms systems to name a few.

With complex compliance requirements for the business, the last thing cannabis operators want to think about is financial compliance. We created Confia on this notion. Just as cannabis regulators impose the tracking of plants through the supply chain via a seed-to-sale system, we have developed a storyboard similarly designed to follow the money, which is the equivalent of a transaction-to-deposit system.

Having experience in regulatory technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the world’s largest banks across multiple countries. This experience has afforded us the luxury of working alongside regulators, chief compliance officers and chief risk officers, understanding how risk is perceived by financial institutions and how it ought to be mitigated. It was this access and knowledge that allowed us to effectively reform, enhance and improve the antiquated BSA programs with a technology-enabled process. Leveraging technology is a necessity, almost a requirement, for the cannabis industry as legalization nears and banking access begins to broaden.

Jamming cannabis requirements into an existing BSA program doesn’t scale well. BSA programs are very manual, descriptive and process oriented. So, we’ve taken our prior experience and success in banking to form Confia, distilling the complexities and simplifying the deliverables surrounding cannabis banking compliance. To best articulate cannabis banking requirements, I break it down into three pillars.

Pillar One: KYC-Enhanced Due Diligence

The first pillar is the client-onboarding bucket or KYC – Know Your Customer. In the complex world of cannabis banking, banks must know and understand their clients to great depths. It’s not enough to simply know that the client exists; you also have to understand whether or not that client could be a potential risk to the bank, and one step further, the financial system. Cannabis is a high-risk industry, so the KYC requirement is escalated to a deeper diligence and review, called Enhanced Due Diligence (EDD).

Cannabis is a high-risk industry so extra due diligence is needed

Banks need to know and understand their customers’ story, and all the key parties (officers, directors, and those with key decision-making powers or access to the bank accounts) within that organization. This includes reviewing personal, business, and legal history – not to mention watchlists and negative news presence. An initial onboarding review must then be followed with daily screening and monitoring of all watchlists and adverse media. Typically, banks do KYC refreshes every three years. In cannabis, a full refresh should be done annually with the daily monitoring systems in place.

The high-risk nature of the industry also requires a level of diligence on all parties to a transaction, even if one of the parties, whether a payer or recipient, is not a client of your bank. Unlike traditional banking sectors, reliance on other banks’ KYC programs is far less defensible in the cannabis industry.

Pillar Two: Transactional Monitoring & Detection

Tracking and monitoring the actual financial transactions comprises the second pillar required for cannabis banking. At Confia, we have focused on streamlining processes, so the cannabis operator can seamlessly support the compliance obligation for every transaction. A bank must demonstrate supporting documentation for every cannabis transaction, and gathering such information is a large undertaking in and of itself and can pose future issues if not done properly, see the pitfalls for lack of compliance. Banks are obligated to understand the nature and reason for each transaction, the source of funds, ensure cannabis licenses are in good standing for all parties, and collect evidence such as accounting records and seed-to-sale data.

Core to transaction monitoring in the traditional sense, is the overarching support through anomaly detection. Relying on information is important, but testing those inputs keeps everyone honest. It is important to evaluate transactions from a holistic point of view relative to peers and relative to the general contents of a transaction. This anomaly detection layer is your last line of defense, and as new information is collected, it continues to refine itself.

Pillar Three: Filing and Reporting Requirements

The third component to compliant cannabis banking is regulatory filing and reporting. Once a client is onboarded, the account requires an initial suspicious activity report or SAR-Initial within 30 days of that client being approved by the bank. Then, a report must be filed every 90 days after that for all the transactions of that cannabis operator. Banks must file the SAR-Initial and the Continuing-SAR reports for each cannabis client they have.

The high-risk nature of the industry requires a level of diligence on all parties to a transaction

Solutions like Confia automate the filing process and support the filing with transactional data evidenced on our distributed ledger of record. This provides immutable audibility and simplifies the process for all parties involved.

Compliance Requirements After US Legalization

The anticipation of federal legalization and banking reform bills has many operators hoping for easier banking. Yet, in my opinion, regulatory oversight and audits will likely increase after such reform or legalization. As other financial institutions start to support cannabis, it will inadvertently create greater opportunity and expose the financial system to nefarious or illegitimate transaction activity. This is why cannabis banking will be carefully monitored by regulators, and more so, why banks will be slow and pragmatic in standing up their internal cannabis banking programs. Some banks may forever avoid the cannabis industry due to the known pitfalls of an industry specific program, while others may simply mitigate the possible exposure to reputational risk.

Choose Wisely: Pitfalls for Lack of Compliance

Financial compliance is the responsibility and duty of the banks, but the real losers and result of non-compliance always fall on the cannabis operators. Regulatory action against an institution may result in the bank shutting down its cannabis program or may require them to complete a remediation of all their cannabis transactions for a certain period from its clients. At the end of the day, regardless of action, the cannabis operator is the one being punished. Operators either lose their bank account and have business massively disrupted, or they are asked to provide all the compliance docs for a historic period, which is a huge undertaking and operational distraction, ultimately impacting business and productivity. So, choose your banking partner wisely.

Summarizing Key Banking Requirements

In summary, banking in the cannabis industry will undoubtedly remain a high-risk industry, with or without legalization. Although banking opportunities may expand as US policies change, there will be continued compliance and regulatory requirements for the foreseeable future.

  • Onboarding and ongoing screening are critical
  • Evidence for every transaction is a significant portion of compliance and must not be dismissed
  • Evaluating activity with broader strokes is essential in mitigating against money laundering
  • Managing the staggered filing timelines and due dates for each client

Compliance is the most crucial factor in cannabis banking at this point. It cannot be overlooked or taken for granted. Cannabis operators must take an active role in evaluating the compliance programs of their financial providers. To open a bank account is one thing, but the consideration and effort that goes into keeping a bank account is the difference that will protect your business in the long run.

Colorado to Bolster Hemp Testing Rules, Rollout Delayed

By Aaron G. Biros
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Earlier this year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) announced a plan to introduce new testing rules for the state’s growing hemp industry. Under the new regulations, hemp products must be tested for residual solvents, heavy metals and pesticides, in addition to making sure they contain less than 0.3% THC.

The CDPHE are planning on a gradual rollout to prevent any supply chain issues or a lab testing bottleneck, similar to what we’ve seen in other states launching new testing requirements in years past, such as Arizona or California. Well, the Colorado rollout appears to be hitting similar snags and because of supply chain issues related to instruments and consumables in laboratories, the implementation of those testing rules is somewhat delayed. What was originally supposed to be implemented over the summer was pushed back to an October 1 deadline, and that deadline has now been pushed back to 2022.

The pesticide testing list to be implemented January 1, 2022

As a result of supply chain shortages and the learning curve to test for such a wide range of pesticides, Colorado is opening hemp testing to out-of-state labs in an effort to stay on schedule with the rollout. Dillon Burns, lab manager at InfiniteCAL, a cannabis testing company with locations in California and Michigan, just completed an audit with the CDPHE in their work to get certified and start conducting hemp testing for businesses in Colorado.

Burns says they’re well-acquainted with the list of pesticides because of how similar the list is to California’s requirements. “For the pesticide testing rules that were supposed to go into effect on August 1st, it’s basically the same list as California just with slightly different action levels,” says Burns. “I would say these action limits are generally stricter – they have much lower LOQs [limits of quantification].”

The pesticide testing list (continued) to be implemented January 1, 2022

Come January 1, 2022, they are expecting an additional 40 pesticides to be required under the new rules. “But currently, it’s still unclear when these regulations will actually go into effect,” says Burns. The full pesticide testing list is currently slated to be implemented on April 1, 2022.

The supply chain issues referenced above have a lot to do with what the state is asking labs to test for. Previously, most of the pesticides tested for under Colorado’s adult use and medical cannabis programs could be analyzed with an LC/MS. A handful of pesticides on the new list do require GC/MS, says Burns. It’s entirely possible that a lot of labs in Colorado just don’t have a GC/MS or are in the process of training staff and developing methods for using the new instrument. “Cleanliness of these instruments is such a priority that it takes time to acquire the right skill set for it,” says Burns.

Dillon Burns, Lab Manager at InfiniteCAL

The new testing rollout isn’t just another compliance hurdle for the cannabis industry; these rules are about protecting public health. Dillon Burns said he’s seen hiccups in California with the amount of new hemp farmers getting into the space. “The hemp products we’ve tested in California often fail for pesticides,” says Burns. It’s a lot easier in most states to get a license for growing hemp than it would be for growing adult use cannabis. “You’ll see a lot more novice growers getting into hemp farming without a background in it. They’ll fail for things they just haven’t considered, like environmental drift. We see a lot of fails in CA. Hemp is bioaccumulating so it presents a lot of problems. If they’re not required to look for it, they weren’t monitoring it.”

When asked how the market might react to the new rules, Burns was confident that Colorado knows what they’re doing. “I don’t anticipate that [a testing bottleneck] happening here. The regulators are reasonable, supportive of the industry and opening it up to out-of-state labs should help in preventing that.”

Best Practices for Training New Hires and Documenting Operations

By Dede Perkins
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Let’s just say it. There is an undeniable chaos in the cannabis industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a big or small operator, it’s likely that you don’t have a documented system for creating and managing ever-changing SOPs or for consistently training all employees on the most current versions of those SOPs. This chaos is often the result of rapid growth, mergers and acquisitions, and the ever-present turnover in our industry. When department leadership changes, and it often does, established policies and procedures are often left behind. In some cases, this is a positive sign of growth. As a company outgrows SOPs and as it develops more sophisticated ways to cultivate, extract, process, manufacture, package and sell cannabis and cannabis products, inevitably, the old ways of doing business need to be replaced. For those operators who have prioritized operational excellence, whether they want to position their company for new investment, merger or acquisition, or just want to create a consistent and standardized, branded product, it’s critical to get control of SOPs, training and documentation.

Food processing and sanitation
By standardizing and documenting safety procedures, manufacturers mitigate the risk of cannabis-specific concerns

As with most big goals, to obtain operational excellence, you need to break the goal into manageable steps. Assuming you have accessible quality policies and procedures in place, properly training employees when they first start work and on an ongoing basis as policies and procedures change is the number one key to successful operations. When employees know how to do their job and understand what is expected of them, they are positioned for success. When employees are successful, it follows that the company will also be successful. Documenting operations is a second important step in obtaining operational excellence. While training and documentation appear to be different, in best-practice organizations, they are inextricably linked.

One Set of SOPs

Those of us who have been in the cannabis industry for a while have experienced firsthand or heard stories of facility staff working off of two sets of SOPs. There’s the set of SOPs that are printed or digitally available for the regulators, let’s call them the “ideal” set, and then there are the SOPs that actually get implemented on a day-to-day basis. While this is common, it’s risky and undermines the foundation of operational excellence. Employees often know there are two sets of SOPs. Whether they express it or not, many are uncomfortable with the intentional or unintentional deception. When regulators arrive, will they have to bend the truth or even lie about daily operations? Taking the time to establish and implement one set of approved SOPs that is compliant with both external regulations and internal standards is good for employee morale, productivity and ultimately, profits.

What’s the best way to get control of a facility’s SOPs? Again, break it into manageable steps:

  • First, task someone with reviewing all SOPs that are floating around. Determine if any are non-compliant, which ones need to be tossed and which ones need to be revised so they work for the company as well as outside regulatory authorities.
  • At a minimum, establish a two-person team to draft, review, publish and distribute the final SOPs. Ensure that at least one member of the team has management level authority. Assign that employee the responsibility of reviewing the SOPs before “publication” and distribution.
  • Archive, delete, or actually throw away outdated or non-compliant SOPs
  • Revise or create new best-practice SOPs that are in compliance with external regulations and internal standards
  • Establish a system to update SOPs when external regulations and internal standards change
  • Use a naming convention that distinguishes draft SOPs from final SOPs, for example, “Post-Harvest Procedure, FINAL”
  • Inform employees that they will be retrained on the new SOPs and that approved SOPs will always have the word “Final” in the title
  • Store the final SOPs in an easily accessible location and give employees access, not only during training, but on an ongoing basis

Centralized Repository for Final SOPs

Storing final, approved SOPs in one easily accessible, centralized location and giving employees access sounds simple, but again, this is the cannabis industry, so this often doesn’t happen. Many of us have or are currently working for an organization that stores SOPs in multiple places. Each department may have its own way of updating, disseminating and storing SOPs. Some SOPs are stored in a printed binder stuffed in a drawer or left on a bottom shelf. Others are stored digitally. Some use both systems, which creates confusion. Who knows if the digital versions or the printed versions are the most current? Surely someone knows, but often the front-line staff do not.“Once you’ve established a single set of compliant SOPs and have stored them in one accessible location, it’s time to train your employees.”

Establishing a centralized repository for final, approved SOPs is the foundation of operational excellence. It lets employees know that operations are organized and controlled, and it reassures regulatory authorities and external stakeholders—think insurers, bankers, investors—that the company prioritizes compliance and organization. And external stakeholders who believe that an organization is proactive and well-run tend to be more forgiving when the inevitable missteps occur. Companies that are organized, have effective training systems, regularly conduct internal audits to identify potential issues and take identifiable action steps when necessary to remediate issues, receive fewer deficiency notices, violations and fines than their less organized competitors.

Train Employees

Many states require cannabis operators to provide a specific number of training hours prior to an employee beginning work, and a specific number of continuing and refresher training hours annually. Once you’ve established a single set of compliant SOPs and have stored them in one accessible location, it’s time to train your employees. To do so, set clear expectations and decide who is responsible for what. Is the HR manager responsible for initial onboarding and training? Are department managers responsible for ongoing and annual training? Create a training responsibility chart that works best for your company; write it down and share with all stakeholders.

Documenting all key areas of operation on a recurring basis will help you keep track of a large facility and workforce

The next step is to figure out how to train your employees. Individuals have different learning styles, so ideally, you’ll offer multiple ways for them to master the requirements of their position. Assign written materials and if possible, attach short videos showing the best way to complete a task. Follow up with a quiz to determine comprehension and a conversation with a department lead or manager to answer questions and review the key take-aways. Ideally, the department manager or lead employee will work with the employee until they are competent and comfortable taking on new assigned tasks and responsibilities.

Sum It Up 

Operational excellence begins with:

  • Knowledge of and access to current external rules and regulations and internal standards
  • One set of approved and easily accessible policies and SOPs that comply with both external and internal standards
  • An initial training system with clearly assigned roles, responsibilities, and goals
  • An ongoing training system with clearly assigned roles, responsibilities, and goals
  • Systems to:
    • Test knowledge before employees begin unsupervised work
    • Stay up-to-date with all changes to external rules and regulations and internal standards
    • Control policy and SOP revision process
    • Inform all stakeholders when policies and SOPs change
    • Test that employees understand new standards
    • Document all key areas of operation on a recurring basis
    • Address deficiencies and evaluate whether SOP revisions are warranted
    • Document and implement necessary remediation when necessary

For those of you rolling your eyes and thinking you don’t have time for this, ask yourself, “Can you afford not to?”

For those of you committed to operational excellence and doing what it takes to get there, congratulations on being a visionary leader. Your efforts will pay dividends for your own company and will help the cannabis industry grow into a well-respected, profitable industry that improves lives.

Current Trends in Banking for Cannabis-Related Businesses

By Paula Durham, CFE, CCCE
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Cannabis is still federally illegal and is included on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), along with such other substances as heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamines.1 It is a federal crime to grow, possess or sell cannabis.

Despite being federally illegal, 36 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized the sale and use of cannabis for medical and/or adult use purposes,2 and both direct and indirect cannabis-related businesses (CRBs) are growing at a rapid rate. Revenue from medical and adult use cannabis sales in the US in 2019 is estimated to have reached $10.6B-$13B and is on track to reach nearly $37B in 2024.3

Because the sale of cannabis is federally illegal, financial institutions face a dilemma when deciding to provide services to CRBs. Should they take a significant legal risk or stay out of the market and miss out on a significant revenue opportunity? So far, the vast majority of financial institutions have been unwilling to take the risk, resulting in a dearth of options for CRB’s. Until recently, cannabis business operators had few options for financial services, but times are changing.

This piece will discuss current trends in banking for cannabis-related businesses. We will cover differences in legality at state and federal levels, complexities in dealing in cash versus digital currencies, Congressional actions impacting banking and CRBs and how banking is changing. The explosion of state legalization of cannabis over the past several years has had a strong ripple effect across the US economy, touching many industries both directly and indirectly. Understanding the implications of doing business with a CRB is both challenging and necessary.

Feds Versus States

Money laundering is the process used to conceal the existence, illegal source or illegal application of funds.4 In 1986 Congress enacted the Money Laundering Control Act (MLCA), which makes it a federal crime to engage in certain financial and monetary transactions with the proceeds of “specified unlawful activity.”5 Therefore, CRB transactions are technically illegal transactions under the MLCA.

Financial institutions therefore face a risk of violating the MLCA if they choose to do business with CRBs, even in states where cannabis operations are permitted. In addition, financial institutions could also face criminal liability under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) for failing to identify or report financial transactions that involve the proceeds of cannabis businesses operating legally under state law.6

Federal authorities continued to aggressively enforce federal cannabis laws

In short, because cannabis is illegal at the federal level, processing funds derived from CRBs could be considered aiding and abetting criminal activity or money laundering. States, however, began legalizing cannabis in 1996, and by 2009, thirteen states had laws allowing cannabis possession and use.7 Despite this legislation, federal authorities continued to aggressively enforce federal cannabis laws.8 That changed under the Obama administration when, shortly after being elected, President Obama stated that his administration would not target legal CRB’s who were abiding by state laws.[9] In an attempt to provide clarity in this murky environment, beginning in 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued three memos designed to guide federal prosecutors in this area. However, none of the DOJ memos issued from 2009 through 2013 addressed potential financial crime related to the legal sale or distribution of cannabis in states allowing the use of medicinal or recreational cannabis.

To assist financial institutions in navigating potential financial crime implications of banking CRBs, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) issued guidance in 2014 that clarified how financial institutions could conduct business with CRBs and maintain compliance with their Bank Secrecy Act requirements (2014 Guidance).9 According to the 2014 Guidance, financial institutions may choose to interact with CRBs based on factors specific to each institution, including the institution’s business objectives, the evaluated risks associated with offering such services, and its ability to manage those risks effectively.

The 2014 Guidance requires those who choose to provide services to CRBs to design and implement a thorough customer due diligence review that includes, in part, analyzing the licensing of the entity, developing an understanding of the business operations of the entity, and ongoing monitoring of the entity.9 In addition, financial institutions are required to file a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) for every transaction they process for a CRB, should they choose to accept the business.

Although the 2014 Guidance does outline a path for financial institutions to engage with CRBs, it does not change federal law and, therefore, does not eliminate the legal risk to financial institutions.10 By its very nature, the 2014 Guidance was a temporary fix, subject to changing views of different administrations, evidenced by the fact that all three of the DOJ guidance documents noted above were rescinded by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions on January 4, 2018.12 The DOJ enforcement posture could change once again in a Biden administration. Biden is on record as favoring decriminalization, and Attorney General candidate Merrick Garland has stated that if confirmed he will deprioritize enforcement of low-level cannabis crimes. Garland also believes using limited government resources to pursue prosecution of cannabis crimes states where cannabis is legal does not make sense.12

Because of the uncertainty and high risk, most banks remain unwilling to serve CRBs. Those that do serve CRBs charge exorbitant fees (fees of $750-$1,000 or more per account per month are not uncommon), pricing many smaller operators out of the financial services market.

Cash is King – Or Is It?

Cannabis operators have discovered the old adage “cash is king” is not necessarily true when it comes to the cannabis space. Bank-less CRBs are forced to utilize cash to pay business expenses, which can be particularly difficult. Utility companies, payroll companies, and taxing authorities are just some of the providers that are difficult, if not impossible, to pay in cash. For example, cannabis operators have been turned away from IRS offices when attempting to pay large federal tax obligations in cash. Likewise, cannabis operators have been unable to utilize payroll processing companies to administer payroll and benefits for their businesses because the processors won’t take cash. CRBs can’t use Amazon or other online retailers because online providers cannot accept cash.

Because dealing in cash is so difficult, CRB operators look for workarounds such as using personal credit/debit cards to purchase business equipment and supplies. This doesn’t eliminate the cash problem, however, because the credit card holder will likely have to accept cash as reimbursement. Such transactions could be considered an attempt to hide the source of the cash, which is, by definition, money laundering.

CRBs often have large sums of money onsite

Some bank-less CRBs try to skirt the system by obtaining bank accounts in the name of management companies or other entities one step removed from the actual business. While operators often choose this route in an effort to streamline business and operate out of the shadows, it again runs afoul of banking laws. Transferring cannabis related financial transactions to another entity is actually the very definition of money laundering – which, as noted above, is defined as the process used to conceal the existence or source of “illegal” funds.

In addition to the difficulties in making payments or purchasing business supplies, operating in a cash-heavy environment poses significant safety risks for cannabis operators. CRBs often have large sums of money onsite and transport large sums of cash when purchasing product or paying bills, making them a target for robbery. In 2017, there was a spate of dispensary robberies across the Phoenix Metro area, including one at Bloom Dispensary that took place during operating hours.13

Managing all that cash increases the cost of doing business as well, in the form of increased labor, insurance, and security costs. Cash must be counted and double counted, which can be time consuming for staff, not to mention the time it takes to deliver physical cash payments to hither and yon. Ironically, lack of banking significantly decreases transparency and clouds the waters of compliance, as operating strictly in cash makes it easier to manipulate reported financial results.

Potential Congressional Solutions

In recent years Congress has undertaken several efforts to pass legislation designed to address the state/federal divide on cannabis, which would likely clear the way for financial institutions to provide services to CRBs, including:

  • R. 1595 – Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (“SAFE Act”);
  • 1028 & H.R. 2093 – Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act); and
  • 2227 – Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 (MORE Act).

The climate in Washington DC, however, did not allow any of these initiatives to pass both houses of congress. Had any been sent to the White House, President Trump was unlikely to sign them into law.

The cannabis industry has new reason to believe reform is on the horizon with shift in political leadership in the White House and Senate. Newly anointed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently committed to making federal cannabis reform a priority, and President Biden appears committed to decriminalization, reviving the hope of passage of one of these pieces of legislation.

The Changing Banking Landscape

Even though there is little in the way of formal protections for financial institutions, and with the timeline for a legislative fix unknown, an increasing number of banks are working with cannabis operators.

According to FinCen statistics, there were approximately 695 financial institutions actively involved with CRBs as of June 30, 2020. It is important to note that these statistics are based on SAR filings, which banks are required to file when an account or transaction is suspected of being affiliated with a cannabis business. However, some of these SARs may have been generated on genuine suspicious activity rather than on a transaction with a known cannabis customer.

Number of Depository Institutions Actively Banking
Cannabis-Related Businesses in the United States
(Reported in SARS)14

There are arguably more banking institutions offering services to CRBs than ever before. The challenges for CRBs are (1) finding an institution that is willing to offer services; (2) building/maintaining a compliance regime that will be acceptable to that institution; and (3) cost, given the high fees associated with these types of accounts. 

How CRBs Get Accepted by Banks

The gap between CRBs’ need for banking and the financial services providers’ sparse and expensive offerings to the sector has created an opportunity for third-party firms to intervene and provide a compliance structure that will satisfy the needs of the financial institutions, making it easier for the CRB to find a bank.

These third-party firms perform extensive BSA-compliant due diligence on applicants to ensure potential customers are following FinCen guidance required to receive banking services. After the completion of due diligence, they connect the CRBs with financial institutions that are willing to do business with CRBs and provide checking/savings accounts, check writing capability, and merchant processor accounts. These firms often provide additional services such as armored car and cash vaulting services. Some of these firms also offer vendor screening, pre-approving vendors before any payments can be made.

One such firm, Safe Harbor Private Banking, started as a project implemented by the CEO of Partners Credit Union in Denver, Colorado, who set out to design a cannabis banking program that would allow Partners to do business with Colorado CRBs.15 The program was successful and has since expanded into other states who have legalized cannabis. Other operators include Dama Financial and NaturePay.

While these services offer hope for many CRBs, the downside is cost. These services perform the operations necessary to find, open, and maintain a compliant bank account; however, the costs of compliance are still high, pricing some small operators out of the market.

Is Digital Currency an Answer?

 Digital currency is also making its way into the cannabis world. Digital currency, or cryptocurrency, is a medium of exchange that utilizes a decentralized ledger to record transactions, otherwise known as a blockchain. One of the largest benefits of blockchain is that it is a secure, incorruptible digital ledger used for, among other things, financial transactions.16 Blockchain technology offers CRBs a transparent and immutable audit trail for business and financial transactions. Several cannabis-specific cryptocurrencies have sprung up in the past several years, including PotCoin, CannabisCoin, and DopeCoin, to name a few.

In July 2019, Arizona approved cryptocurrency startup ALTA to offer services to the state’s medical cannabis operators.17 ALTA describes itself as a “digital payment club where cash-intensive businesses pay each other using digital tokens instead of cash.”18 ALTA members purchase digital tokens that are used to pay other members using a proprietary blockchain based system. The tokens are redeemable for US dollars at a stable rate of 1:1, and CRBs do not need a bank account to participate in the ALTA program.

ALTA proposes to pick up members’ cash and exchanges it for tokens, which are then used to pay other members for goods and services. Tokens may be redeemed for cash at any time.18 The company has been approved by the Arizona State Attorney General, and one of the first members they hope to enlist is the Arizona Department of Revenue (ADOR). Enlisting ADOR into the program would allow dispensary members to pay state taxes digitally rather than hauling large amounts of cash to ADOR offices.

Similarly, Nevada recently contracted with Multichain Ventures to supply a digital currency solution to the Nevada cannabis industry. Nevada Assembly Bill 466 requires the state create a pilot program to design a “closed loop” system like Venmo in an effort to reduce cash transactions in the cannabis sector. Like ALTA, Nevada’s proposed system will convert cash to tokens which can then be transacted between system participants.19

While both proposals are promising for Arizona and Nevada CRBs, the timeline as to when, or if, these offerings will come online is unknown. Action on cannabis reform at the federal level may render these options moot.

Looking to the Future

Although states are legalizing cannabis in one form or another in growing numbers, the fact that cannabis is still federally illegal poses a significant barrier to accessing the financial services market for CRBs. While most banks are still reluctant to offer services to this rapidly growing industry, there are more banks than ever before willing to participate in the cannabis industry. Recent changes in leadership in Washington DC offer a positive outlook for cannabis reform at the federal level.

As the “green rush” continues to envelop the country, financial services options available to CRBs are slowly growing. Many new options are now available to help CRBs find a bank, develop compliance programs, and manage the cash related problems encountered by most CRBs. However, these solutions may be out of reach for the budget-conscious small operator. Also, there are a number of cryptocurrency solutions designed specifically for CRBs; however, when, or if, these solutions will gain significant traction is still unknown.


References

  1. Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C., Subchapter I, Part B, §812.
  2. “State Marijuana Laws”; National Conference of State Legislatures, February 19, 2021.
  3. “Exclusive: US Retail Marijuana Sales On Pace to Rise 40% in 2020, near $37B by 2024”. Marijuana Business Daily, June 30, 2020.
  4. Kaufman, Irving. “The Cash Connection: Organized Crime, Financial Institutions, and Money Laundering”. Interim Report to the President, October 1984.
  5. S. Code § 1956 – Laundering of Monetary Instruments.
  6. Rowe, Robert. “Compliance and the Cannabis Conundrum.” ABA Banking Journal, September 11, 2016.
  7. “History of Marijuana as a Medicine – 2900 BC to Present”. ProCon.org, December 4, 2020.
  8. Truble, Sarah and Kasai, Nathan. “The Past – and Future – of Federal Marijuana Enforcement”. org, May 12, 2017.
  9. FIN-2014-G001, BSA Expectations Regarding Marijuana-Related Businesses.
  10. Cannabis Banking Coalition Statement.
  11. Sessions, Jefferson B. “Memorandum for All United States Attorneys”. January 4, 2018.
  12. “Attorney General Nominee Garland Signals Friendlier Marijuana Stance”. Marijuana Business Daily, February 22, 2021.
  13. Stern, Ray. “Robbers Hitting Phoenix Medical Marijuana Dispensaries: Is Bank Reform Needed?” The Phoenix New Times, April 11, 2017.
  14. FinCen Marijuana Banking Update, June 30, 2020.
  15. Mandelbaum, Robb. “Where Pot Entrepreneurs Go When the Banks Just Say No.” The New York Times, January 4, 2018.
  16. Rosic, Ameer. “What is Blockchain Technology? A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners.” com, 2016.
  17. Emem, Mark. “Marijuana Stablecoin Asked to Play in Arizona Fintech Sandbox.” CCN.com, October 25, 2019.
  18. http:\\Whatisalta.com\
  19. Wagner, Michael, CFA. “Multichain Ventures Secures Public Sector Contract with Nevada to Supply Tokenized Financial Ecosystem for the Legal Cannabis Industry”, January 26, 2021.