Cresco Labs, one of the largest multistate operators (MSOs) in the country, announced the acquisition of Bluma Wellness Inc., a vertically integrated cannabis company based in Florida.
Cresco Labs, with roots in Chicago, Illinois, operate 29 licenses in 6 states across the United States. With this new acquisition, Cresco Labs solidifies their ubiquitous brand presence in the most populous markets and cements their position in Florida, a new market for them.
According to the press release, the two companies entered an agreement where Cresco will buy all of Bluma’s issued and outstanding shares for an equity value of $213 million. They expect the transaction to be completed by the second quarter of this year.
Charles Bachtell, CEO of Cresco Labs, says their expansion strategy is based largely on population. “Our strategy at Cresco Labs is to build the most strategic geographic footprint possible and achieve material market positions in each of our states,” says Bachtell. “With Florida, we will have a meaningful presence in all 7 of the 10 most populated states in the country with cannabis programs – an incredibly strategic and valuable footprint by any definition. We recognize the importance of the Florida market and the importance of entering Florida in a thoughtful way – we identified Bluma as having the right tools and key advantages for growth.”
Bluma Wellness operates through its subsidiary, One Plant Florida, which has 7 dispensaries across the state and ranks second in sales in the state. They also have an impressive delivery arm of their retail business, deriving 15% of their revenue from it.
Multi-state operators (MSOs) are on the rise in the United States, navigating complex regulatory frameworks to drive profitability through economies of scale and scope. C21 Investments is a vertically integrated cannabis company with operations in Nevada and Oregon; traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CXXI) and on the OTCQX (CXXIF). The company recently secured a commitment from Wasatch Global Investors, JW Asset Management (Jason Wild/TerrAscend) and CB1 Capital Management (Todd Harrison) who, in addition to C21’s CEO, provided an equity commitment for repayment of all convertible debt.
We spoke with Bruce Macdonald, Chairman of C21 Investments. Bruce joined C21 in 2018 after reviewing the company as a personal investment and getting to know the senior management team. Prior to C21, Bruce had a long and successful career in finance and capital markets at one of Canada’s largest banks.
Aaron Green: Can you give a brief overview of C21?
Bruce MacDonald: C21 is a cannabis company that has operations in both Nevada, and in Oregon. Oregon is fundamentally a wholesale business, and we recently announced a divestment of some non-core assets in the state. Our cash cow and where we currently see our best opportunity for future growth is our Nevada operations. We run a seed-to-sale business in the state with two dispensaries doing about $35M a year in revenue, with a 40% EBITDA Margin, and servicing 600,000 customers.
Aaron: Can you tell me about a little bit about your background and how you got involved in a cannabis company?
Bruce: I spent 37 years working for RBC in the capital markets business. I started as a floor trader, back when there was such a thing as a floor, and over the years held a number of positions, ultimately working my way up to Chief Operating Officer of the bank’s global capital markets division. Throughout my time, I built a lot of businesses, which was why C21 and this opportunity was so interesting to me.
My involvement in the cannabis sector was a bit of an accident, but it’s turned into a passion. It actually found me. I was an investor in the C21 IPO. I sat down with management to understand the investment and given my experience, they asked if I would consider becoming a member the Board. Since joining the Board, my involvement has been primarily focused on strategy and the financing side of the business. While I certainly didn’t anticipate it, it’s turned into a 24/7 gig and a challenge I am thoroughly enjoying.
Aaron: Can you tell me about the history of C21 becoming a MSO? Did you start in one state?
Bruce: While this history predates my time at the company, my understanding is that as a Canadian company, we had first mover advantage to be able to access public funding and get established in the US cannabis space. As part of that, the team at that time reviewed approximately 100 different properties. Because we were based out of Vancouver, the focus was primarily the Western states like Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. Arizona wasn’t in the game yet. The first transaction C21 did was in Oregon, with a company called Eco Firma. In all, there were four acquisitions in Oregon, and one in Nevada. In fact, it was the investment in Silver State (Nevada) that was by far the most meaningful. As far as our Oregon assets are concerned, we have worked hard to integrate and streamline them into an efficient operation.
So, when I joined the Board, we were just completing the paperwork on the acquisitions, and finalizing our strategy and business plan to go forward.
Aaron: Today there are a number of MSOs. How does this more crowded market impact your value proposition; how do you think about gaining and maintaining strategic advantage?
Bruce: It’s important first to start with strategy. From a strategic perspective, we had the advantage of being the first operator in Nevada with Silver State. Sonny Newman, our CEO, started the business back in 2013. We run a seed-to-sale business so we have a deep knowledge of all aspects of the operation and really know the Nevada market. In fact, 70% on a dollar volume basis of the 700 SKUs that we sell are products that we manufacture. It’s a critical piece of our strategic advantage.
What I would say is our most important strategic advantage is the fact that C21 is a stable, self-sustaining operator. What I mean by that is we’re one of the few businesses that actually makes money. This is what really allows us to be strategic and disciplined in our approach to growth. For example, it’s been more than 18 months since we did our last capital raise and that’s by choice. Every decision we make is through the shareholder lens and focusing on delivering value to customers and shareholders.
Looking at our value proposition, simply put, it comes down to four things – the right products, at the right price, in the right location, with the right environment. Some people might call this motherhood, but there’s a lot of work that goes behind each of them.
Great quality products, that’s table stakes. You have to be a top-notch grower and generate quality products that people demand if you want to build a loyal customer base. Right price – to some it sounds like just putting the right sticker on the package – it’s not. It’s all about making sure you are efficient in your operations because to be profitable, you have to be a low-cost producer to deliver on a lower price promise. Tons of work has gone into our operation around being a “right price” business.
Right location is another important element of our value proposition. We wanted to build a loyal customer base which for us meant focusing more on locals than on tourists. This is why Sonny positioned the dispensaries on commuter paths.
The last key factor is having the right environment to sell our products. In Nevada, the company ended up building fit-for-purpose dispensaries rather than fitting ourselves in a strip mall. We cater to over 600,000 clients a year. Now we’re doing 10,000 curbside pickups a month. With that type of volume, logistically speaking you need ample parking, a well-lit exterior so people feel safe, and of course, great curb appeal. These factors are essential in maintaining a loyal customer base.
Aaron: Tell me more about Silver State Relief and why it has been so successful?
Bruce: I think what you’re really asking for is: what is Sonny’s secret sauce? There are a few ingredients that go into it. As I highlighted, it was a purposeful decision to build a business with a loyal customer base focused primarily on locals. That needs product, price, and convenience. Sonny lives in the Reno area, which is one of the main reasons Silver State is located up North.
Critical to success has been the culture of the organization. Let’s start with the company being nimble and I’ll give you an example. The early days of the pandemic included the complete shutdown of dispensaries. We went from serving over 1500 customers a day in our stores to the next day being told that we could offer delivery only. Within a week, we were able to pivot and had lockboxes, regulatory approvals and a delivery capability. When you look at our Nevada operation, we ended up with just a 10% dip in our revenues for the quarter, even though we had to live through six weeks of delivery-only and then a phase of curbside-only.
Another key element of the culture is our laser focus on cost management. We’ve talked a little about cost management, but it’s absolutely critical, especially in the context of the high cost of capital that we see in this sector. Add to that the punitive tax impact of 280e where federal tax is applied to gross margins which means SG&A and interest are non-deductible expenses for tax purposes. So, to enhance our profitability, we are intent on having the lowest SG&A of the public cannabis companies. We’re also among the lowest in interest expense. That whole drive for efficiency has given us a formula and a mantra that has allowed us to have a stable business with significant cash flow. We get to make strategic decisions — not hasty or desperate ones — and focus on what’s good for the shareholder.
Aaron: How was C21 capitalized?
Bruce: We did a $33M raise on the RTO of a listed shell company. That was how C21 was established, and then signed contracts with the Oregon and Nevada properties.
Aaron: I recently saw a press release about expanding the Nevada cultivation. Can you give me some more details?
Bruce: We announced that we are tripling our capacity within our existing 100,000 square foot warehouse facilities. We’re going to build out another 40,000 square feet, and we currently use 20,000. That’s the tripling. Expanding our cultivation was clearly the next logical step in our growth story. This should yield us an additional 7,500 pounds of high-quality flower. We can do this very cost effectively with about $6M in capex, and we anticipate funding the project internally. We will still leave another 40,000 square feet of expansion capacity as market needs justify.
This announcement was significant, but I don’t think it was fully understood by the market. Just to play with some numbers, 7,500 pounds of flower has a wholesale market value today of about $17M. It will cost us approximately $2M in incremental operating expense to add these additional grow rooms. We already pay the rent, so we just need to pay for the people, power, fertilizer and product testing. When you do the simple math, we see this as a big win for shareholders and extremely accretive on an after-tax basis.
Historically, we always used to grow more than we needed, but with the increase in demand that’s going on in the market, we now run at a flower deficit. In the near term, this build-out will allow is to meet our current retail needs, with the balance that we will sell on the wholesale market. Ultimately, this positions us well on a seed-to-sale basis to support our plans to extend our retail footprint in Nevada.
Aaron: It sounds like the decision was made based on both revenue growth and supply chain consolidation?
Bruce: Yes, and just the pure profitability of it! You can’t get a bigger, better bang for your buck from spending $6M to generate $17M with ongoing operating costs of $2M.
Aaron: The next question here is about the recent note restructuring and, and how the debentures was restructured. How’d that come about and what is the advantage now of having gone through that process?
Bruce: This all fits into our medium-term growth strategy. For C21, the first thing we focused on was getting our house in order to ensure that we were efficient and profitable. We knew we needed to have a scalable machine to grow. The second step, which the debt restructuring relates to, was around fortifying our balance sheet. To support our growth plans, we needed to have a solid foundation.
Our balance sheet had two things that needed fixing. One was that we had an $18M obligation coming due to our CEO. The effect of the restructuring extended this obligation over the next 30 months at favorable terms. Additionally, $6.5M of convertible debentures were reaching maturity in January of 2021. And while the debentures were in the money and theoretically would convert to shares, we didn’t want to take the risk that our stock price could drift a bit and all of a sudden there could be significant cash required for redemptions. We’ve seen a lot of companies suffer significant unwanted dilution when their debentures get out of control. So, we approached Wasatch, Jason Wild’s JWAM and CB1 Capital, three seasoned investors, who provided a backstop whereby they would purchase any shares not taken up by people though the conversion of their debentures, so that we would be able to pay any debenture holders back cash with the money we would receive as the investors took shares. In exchange for providing this backstop, C21 gave them an upside participation in the form of warrants. I think it was absolutely critical to get this in place. And it’s phenomenal to have these three names in our corner. We couldn’t imagine better partners.
Aaron: So, what’s next for C21?
Bruce: I hope you are getting the feeling that here at C21 our objective is to play the long game. That means we make measured decisions with the interest of shareholders top of mind. We’ve worked hard in 2020 to get our house in order, fortify our balance sheet, and generate significant cash flow. I think we’re clocking in at around $12M in trailing annual cash flow, which interestingly, is about the same number that Planet 13 is doing. That’s obviously a fantastic result for a company with $150M of market cap.
“We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics.”When we think about our medium-term growth strategy, we will continue to make our decisions through a cash flow and earnings lens rather than hype and flash. While we will remain opportunistic with respect to strategic alternatives, the core of our expansion is going to focus on where we already have a proven track record: Nevada. We’re big believers that to achieve long term success, you have to own your home market. And what I mean by that is today we’re about 5% of the Nevada market. Owning your home market looks more like a 15% share. That is our focus. I think we’ve shown that our disciplined approach delivers results – results such as having top five metrics in Net Income, Cash Flow and EBITDA Margin, across the range of public companies that we can see.
I think it’s key we’re getting noticed. We talked about the strategic investors, but we’re also one of the 17 plant-touching companies that’s in the MSOS ETF. So, we’re going to follow our clear growth trajectory, focused on the bottom line and delivering for shareholders. If you look under the hood right now, you see a 10% cash flowing company, which is a pretty rare bird in our industry. We’re excited about where we are.
One thing I haven’t touched on in great detail is our plans for expanding our retail footprint. How do you grow in the dispensary space? Aaron, I think what’s key here is looking at the expected return relative to the cost of capital. For example, if you targeted buying a dispensary with $20M in revenues, and are able as we are, to generate 25% in after-tax cash based on those revenues, then once optimized, it would generate $5M in earnings. An asset like this is going to trade at roughly one and a half times revenues. So, you’re going to have to pay $30M. For the people that have been going out and borrowing money at 15%, their annual cost would be $4.5M. We’re not going to give four and a half to the moneylenders, it just doesn’t make sense for shareholders. We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics. It is something we believe will be afforded to companies with stable earnings and profitability such as ours. Of course, no deal’s a deal until it’s on the tape, but we are very hopeful that we have cracked the code ahead of SAFE Banking to get capital costs down. This is just a little bit of an inside look into our thought processes.
Aaron: Okay, awesome. All right. That concludes the interview.
After a slow start following a disappointing 2019, M&A in the cannabis space closed 2020 with a bang, with more than $600 million in deals announced immediately following the November elections. Prospects for the New Year are expected to continue the explosive year-end trend with a backlog of nearly $2 billion in deals heading into 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic boosted sales of cannabis products, and election results opening up five new states to legal cannabis use and possible federal regulatory reform are further boosting prospects. Analysts now predict the U.S. cannabis market is poised to double by 2025.
Growth is expected to be led by multi-state operators who have achieved scale, cleaned up their balance sheets and stockpiled dry powder for roll-up acquisitions. Cannabis companies raised nearly $134 million in the two weeks before Election Day, a 185% increase over the same period last year. Most of the money flowed to multistate operators. In addition, the biggest stocks by market capitalization saw a roughly 20% bump ahead of the election and now are trading at record volumes, providing plenty of stock currency for further acquisitions.
Among the headline acquisitions last year:
Curaleaf continued its multi-state expansion with two of its largest acquisitions – the all-stock purchases of its affiliated cannabis oil company Select and of Grassroot, another MSO player. Curaleaf is now the largest cannabis company in the world based on annualized revenues, with annualized sales of $1 billion and operations in 23 states and 96 open dispensaries. Curaleaf also raised $215 million privately last year end for further expansion.
Close behind, Aphria and Tilray announced in December that they will merge, creating what they say will be the largest cannabis company in the world with an equity value of roughly $3.8 billion. The combined entity will have facilities and offices in the U.S., Canada, Portugal and Germany. The deal is expected to close during the second quarter of this year.
Also in December, Illinois-based Verano Holdings LLC unveiled plans to go public at a $2.8 billion valuation through a reverse takeover of a Canadian shell company. That deal followed the announcement that Verano will merge with Florida-based AltMed.
In addition, publicly traded New York cannabis firm Columbia Care signed a definitive agreement last month to acquire Green Leaf Medical, a privately held Maryland-based cannabis manufacturer and retailer, for $45 million in cash and $195 million in stock. The acquisition is expected to close this summer. Including Green Leaf’s inventory, the Columbia Care will operate 107 facilities, including 80 dispensaries and 27 cultivation and manufacturing facilities. Columbia Care also took advantage of cannabis fever last year by raising $100 million privately.
Also in December, Ayr Strategies announced it would acquire Liberty Health Sciences, one of the largest cannabis companies in Florida, for $290 million in stock, as well Garden State Dispensary, a New Jersey marijuana company for $41 million in cash, $30 million in stock and $30 million in the form of a note. This follows Ayr’s $81 million acquisition of an Arizona medical marijuana operator in November. Voters approved marijuana use in Arizona and New Jersey in November. Ayr has completed a string of acquisitions in Nevada, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio and, upon the closing of December’s deals, New Jersey and Florida.
Not all cannabis companies will rely on acquisitions, however. Trulieve, as an example, has focused its efforts on Florida and organic growth. It remains to be seen whether a multi-state approach fueled by acquisitions or a single-state organic growth model will prove the more lasting. Growth and profitability in the short term likely will continue to be hampered by limits on economies of scale due to federal restrictions and differing state laws.
In light of the maturing industry and the 2019 bust, the valuation model for acquisitions in the cannabis space is evolving from one based on sales, typically associated with emerging growth industries, to a more mature industry model based on profits or Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA). Most cannabis MSOs have stabilized and generate positive EBITDA, which justifies the evolution away from a sales-driven model.
From a legal standpoint, the same limitations that have vexed the cannabis industry for years will continue to challenge deal makers until there is greater clarity on the federal front. Institutional investor reluctance, financial industry constraints, haphazard state regulation and the unavailability of federal forums such as national copyright and trademark registration will continue to be issues for acquirers and their lawyers in the space.
Acquisition agreements will continue to have to address the federal Damocles’ sword should expected relaxation of federal enforcement under the Biden administration and further legislative relief does not materialize as expected. Although the U.S. House in December passed the “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act” (MORE) to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, the Senate did not take up the bill in 2020 and it will have to be re-introduced in 2021. Notably, the MORE Act does not affect existing federal regulation of cannabis, such as the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, under which the FDA has limited the use of CBD in certain products despite hemp being removed from the Controlled Substances Act in 2018.
The cannabis M&A market is moving into a more mature phase, as MSOs will be choosier in their approach rather than continuing the land-grab mentality of years past. Due to improved financial strength, 2021 should see these MSOs continuing to expand their footprints either within existing states or new ones. Although uncertainties abound, further consolidation and expansion through add-on acquisitions is likely to continue apace in 2021, providing plenty of opportunities for deal makers and their lawyers.
According to a press release published today, a number of businesses in the cannabis cultivation market have announced they are launching the Sustainable Cannabis Coalition (SCC). The group’s purpose is to “measure, document and improve sustainable cannabis cultivation and manufacturing through education and proliferation of best practices.”
The SCC founding members include: Cohn Reznick, Anderson Porter Design, Valiant, Wholly H2O, Cloud Farming, Argus Controls, Conviron, Gro iQ, Trulieve, Byers Scientific, 365 Cannabis, GMP Collective, Omega Equipment and Supply, Simplifya, PathogenDx, Grow Generation and Outlaw Technology.
The press release says that the SCC will work with industry stakeholders to promote environmental sustainability best practices that can be implemented at scale. “The SCC will be a trusted resource providing foundational best practices to further promote economic benefits of sustainability as the industry continues to grow.”
The SCC will begin its campaign by publishing informative blog posts and podcast interviews on a biweekly basis, with plans to address each vertical in the cultivation and manufacturing supply chain, highlighting environmental sustainability best practices.
According to Peter Dougherty, CEO of Gro IQ and co-founder of the SCC, their mission is to get leaders in the industry to collaborate on promoting the best ways for businesses to become more sustainable. “We will accomplish this by having our founding members companies, which
represent every major link in the cannabis cultivation, manufacturing and distribution supply chain, provide data driven business cases for sustainability based on their area of expertise and then amplifying that content through each other’s websites and social media channels,” says Dougherty.
“With investors across the industry incorporating Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors into the investment process, the creation of a coalition to address sustainability in this space is critical,” Dougherty says. “The SCC is uniquely poised to impact the industry as it continues to rapidly evolve. As leaders in this space, it is our responsibility to provide data driven sustainability guidance to the industry while protecting both consumers and the environment.”
Their content will be available for free to anyone on their website. Dougherty says they have already received a tremendous amount of interest prior to the launch, so he expects their sphere of influence to expand rapidly.
As of now, the SCC serves as an informal coalition among businesses with no plans to expand too much beyond their current size. The primary goal is dissemination of educational content to start. However, they do encourage folks to check out their website and sign up.
In a press release published in December of 2020, CSQ announced they have added a new licensed certification body to the program: QIMA/WQS, which is a provider of independent third-party certification, inspection, and training services for the food industry.
The CSQ program is marketed as the world’s first cannabis certification to meet GFSI criteria, which is expected to get benchmarked in 2022.
The CSQ scheme is built on four standards:
Growing and Cultivation of Cannabis Plants
Manufacturing and Extraction of Cannabis
Manufacturing and Infusion of Cannabis into Food & Beverage Products
Manufacturing of Cannabis Dietary Supplements
The first CSQ certifications are expected to be awarded this month. Being a licensed certification body for the CSQ program means QIMA/WQS will conduct document evaluations as well as on-site inspections to ensure companies are meeting the CSQ standards prior to certification.
“At QIMA WQS, we see an enormous potential to support and provide quality certification to the entire cannabis supply chain. Joining CSQ and its innovative approach is an exciting step into the diversification of our services and growth,” says Mario Berard, CEO of QIMA/WQS.
Cannabis presents a plethora of challenges for entrepreneurs not seen in more traditional industries. Akin to the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, the cannabis industry has seen an astonishing flurry of business over the past decade. Within this dynamic landscape, new cannabis companies come and go on a near-daily basis.
To capitalize on novel markets’ potential, hopeful entrepreneurs from all walks of life have “jumped headfirst” into the cannabis space. This new breed of entrepreneurs must not only be smart, but they must also be challenging. Yet, as the cannabis industry evolves under the forces of legalization and innovation, our understanding of what defines cannabis entrepreneurs continues to change.
Cannabis businesses are shaped by the regulations, challenges and opportunities of specific market niches. As such, cannabis entrepreneurs have evolved with the environments in which they do business.
California & Proposition 215
California paved the way for the industry of today by legalizing medical cannabis in 1995. Since the passage of historic Proposition 215, cannabis has continued to gain momentum across the globe. This progress has happened through the visions and hard work of small business owners.
The early days of legal cannabis in California are now criticized for their lack of regulation. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, all you needed to start a cultivation business in California was a place to grow a garden. While early dispensaries did need local business licenses, they could legally purchase and sell untested products from unlicensed growers.
The genealogy of the modern cannabis industry can be traced directly back to the days of California’s Prop 215. During this era, the first cannabis dispensaries were founded – this model has since been replicated thousands of times. Also, the Prop 215 model gave rise to America’s first legal, commercial cannabis farms.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in California’s medical space focused primarily on developing the blueprints for a brand-new industry. To this end, they did not have the time or luxury to finetune the businesses for such things as operational efficiency and brand awareness. Even more, these people did not have to deal with such complexities as employee screening, product testing and seed-to-sale tracking.
Medical Cannabis Entrepreneurs
New medical markets stand in stark contrast to those seen in the early days of California. To this end, today’s medical markets operate within a web of stringent government regulations. For entrepreneurs, these rules set forth major emphases on both compliance and technology.
The Pennsylvania medical cannabis industry provides an excellent platform for understanding how the regulatory system of a market shapes entrepreneurial paths. For instance, medical cannabis cards are only issued to patients that meet the minimum criteria of 23 qualifying conditions, including severe conditions like aids, cancer and epilepsy. Beyond that, cannabis dispensaries in Pennsylvania must meet a slew of challenging criteria to operate and pay large sums of money in licensing fees.
To handle the regulatory requirements in places like Pennsylvania and remain profitable, medical cannabis entrepreneurs are incredibly dependent on technology. To this end, dispensaries utilize point-of-sale (POS) and seed-to-sale software to track inventory and stay compliant carefully. Even more, they use state-of-the-art security systems to safeguard their operations.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in medical markets must be able to run compliant operations and support their businesses with requisite technology. These elements stand in stark contradiction to the “wild west” mentality that pervaded the early industry. As such, it’s safe to assume that the rules of today’s markets force entrepreneurs to be more professional than in the days of CA Prop 215.
Adult-Use Cannabis Entrepreneurs
The most considerable difference between medical and adult-use cannabis companies has to do with their available customer base. Importantly, adult-use cannabis companies are only bound by minimum age requirements and state borders. Furthermore, limited restrictions on licensing create highly competitive markets that require sophisticated sales and marketing operations.
As there are no limits on potential customers, and limited regulations on license counts, business opportunities in adult-use markets are primarily directed by supply and demand rules. Because competition is the driving force in adult-use markets, entrepreneurs in this vertical have a good deal in common with peers outside the cannabis industry.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of adult-use entrepreneurs is an emphasis on branding and marketing. As adult-use markets mature in places like Colorado, a phenomenon known as “brand concentration” occurs when a few companies come to dominate a majority of the market. As smaller companies fight for market share, they must develop professional brands that appeal to a broad customer base.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in adult-use markets must master the skills required in medical cannabis while also expanding their knowledge base in modern business dealings. Of these, the development of professional brands is one of the most defining characteristics of adult-use entrepreneurs.
It’s astonishing to see how much the cannabis industry has grown and matured looking back just a few short years. As business opportunities come about with new legalization efforts, entrepreneurs quickly rise to take advantage of untapped markets. As the cannabis business continues to evolve with the times, entrepreneurs must pivot to stay compliant, relevant and successful.
While the early Prop 215 market in California barely resembles today’s industry, it’s important to remember where we came from. Namely, our understanding of the contemporary cannabis business results from everyone who came before us. As the industry progresses, we will continue to complement established best practices with the requisite innovations that come with new opportunities.
Cultivation businesses should consider specializing in just one stage of the cannabis cultivation process. The industry has focused heavily on vertical integration, and some regulating bodies require licensees to control the entire cannabis value chain from cultivation and processing to retail. This requirement is not always in the best interest of the consumer or the business, and will likely change as the industry evolves. Not only will companies specialize in each step of the value chain, but we’ll see even further segmentation among growers that choose to focus on just one step of the cultivation process. Cannabis businesses that want to position themselves for future success should identify their strengths in the crop production process and consider specializing in just one part.
Elsewhere in commercial horticulture, specialization is the norm. It is unlikely that the begonias you bought at your local garden shop spent their entire life inside that greenhouse. More likely, the plant spent time hopping between specialists in the production chain before landing on the retail shelf. One grower typically handles stock plant production and serves as a rooting station for vegetative cuttings. From there, rooted cuttings are shipped to a grower that cares for the plants during the vegetative stage. Once they’re an appropriate height for flowering, they’re shipped to the last grower to flower out and sell to retailers.
Cannabis businesses should consider imitating this model as a way to ensure competitiveness in the future. In the US, federal law does not yet allow for the interstate transport of plants containing THC, but the process can be segmented within states where vertical integration is not a requirement. As we look ahead to full federal legalization in the US, we should anticipate companies abandoning the vertical integration model in favor of specialization. In countries where cannabis cultivation is federally legal, entrepreneurs should consider specialization from the moment they begin planning their business.
Cultivators that specialize in breeding and genetics could sell seeds, rooted cuttings, and tissue culture services to commercial growers. Royalties could provide a recurring source of income after the initial sale of seeds or young plants. Contracting propagation activities to a specialist can result in consistently clean rooted cuttings that arrive certified disease-free at roughly ¼ the cost of producing them in-house. This not only frees up space at the recipient’s greenhouse and saves them money, but it eliminates the risks inherent in traditional mother plant and cloning processes. If a mother plant becomes infected, all future generations will exhibit that disease, and the time, money, energy, labor, and space required to maintain healthy stock plants is substantial. Growers that focus on large scale cultivation would do well to outsource this critical step.
Intermediary growers could specialize in growing out seeds and rooted cuttings into mature plants that are ready to flower. These growers would develop this starter material into healthy plants with a strong, vigorous root system. They would also treat the plants with beneficial insects and inoculate the crop with various biological agents to decrease the plant’s susceptibility to pest and disease infestations. Plants would stay with this grower until they are about six to 18 inches in height—the appropriate size to initiate flowering.
The final stage in the process would be the flower grower. Monetarily, this is the most valuable stage in the cultivation process, but it’s also the most expensive. This facility would have the proper lighting, plant support infrastructure, and environmental controls to ensure that critical grow parameters can be tightly maintained throughout the flowering cycle. The grower would be an expert in managing late-stage insect and disease outbreaks, and they would be cautious not to apply anything to the flower that would later show up on a certificate of analysis (COA), rendering the crop unsaleable. This last stage would also handle all harvest and post-harvest activities—since shipping a finished crop to another location is inefficient and could potentially damage the plants.
As the cannabis cultivation industry normalizes, so, too, will the process by which the product is produced. Entrepreneurs keen on carving out a future in the industry should focus on one stage of the cultivation process, and excel at it.
Heat-not-burn is a non-combustion technology consisting of a heating source and either an oven that the user packs cannabis into or a stick pre-filled with cannabis. The cannabis is heated to a lower temperature than a combusted joint or bowl to create an aerosol that the user inhales. Heat-not-burn in this way is distinct from traditional vaping where a liquid or oil is heated to become a vapor and inhaled.
Omura is a design company that has developed a platform product for the heat-not-burn market.
We spoke with Mike Simpson, CEO and co-founder of Omura. Mike co-founded Omura in 2018 after an international design career where he spent much of his time in Japan working with consumer products.
Aaron Green: Mike, what trends are you following in the market?
Mike Simpson: I’m always tracking trends in the heat-not-burn space. Because of my background, I know that the tobacco industry inspires a lot of the technology in the cannabis space. If you look at all the vape pens, that technology was initially developed for big tobacco, which then later was adopted by cannabis. I’m always looking to stay educated on what’s happening in the tobacco industry, as I know it’s directly tied to my work in cannabis.
I’m also looking at what’s happening all over the world with legislation. I’ve been studying it for years, but this past year has been phenomenal. Seeing five new states go to some level of legalization, the federal law and new states legalizing cannabis in the 2020 Election. I believe the Biden/Harris victory will have a major impact on the industry, however we still have to see what happens with the Senate. These next couple of years are going to be very interesting to see how things shape out for cannabis.
Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?
Mike: I am interested in learning how the world is going to behave next year with this new life that’s been thrusted upon us. How effective is the new vaccine going to be? How are people going to retrospectively look at this year, and the lifestyle that they used to have before going into COVID? How much of it’s going to become permanent? How much of this Zoom life will we continue to enjoy? In the future, will office spaces become obsolete? How much will we still be using home deliveries? Do we actually want to go to restaurants again? That’s what I’m very interested in learning about is how human behavior and the world will change because of what’s happening right now.
Aaron Green: How did you get started at Omura?
Mike Simpson: Great question. I moved to Japan as a designer working for Lego and set up their design office for Lego toys. After Lego, I started working instead with Nike and Adidas designing performance sneakers and apparel for a couple of years until I found Big Tobacco — which is where my Omura story begins. I rapidly found myself in a position where I was creating new technologies, for the consumption of nicotine and tobacco. While working on an early project, I was asked if I knew any science fiction writers. Thanks to Lego, I just so happened to know Syd Mead, the designer for popular sci-fi films including BladeRunner, Tron and Aliens. So, I called him and we worked on a project which was aimed at setting the future of the smoking industry. Obviously, this was a brilliant project for someone like myself to get involved in. We came up with several scenarios that depicted the future of what tobacco consumption would look like, and each of them essentially included vaporization. This was before the vaporization days which made it kind of a difficult sell. I spent many years working on where we could use existing technologies in order to execute some of these scenarios. Ten years later, I moved to California, and I started studying the cannabis space for Big Tobacco which ultimately led me to Omura.
Aaron: Can you give me a reference point on the date when you were back in California?
Mike: I came here eight years ago, and I was in Japan pretty much 10 years prior to that.
Essentially what I realized when I got to California was that cannabis was perfect for heat-not-burn because of all the cannabinoids and the terpenes. You heat it up, and you get all of the good properties out of it without the need for combustion. There were already hundreds of products in the market, which validated that people love doing it.
However, there was a ritual: you needed to buy the flower, grind it, pack the device, select the temperature and then use the same mouthpiece repeatedly. And it doesn’t stop there. When the session is finished, you dig out the used flower with a metal spatula or brush. After every 10 or 15 times you have to clean it with rubbing alcohol to get rid of any existing residue from those sessions. This is just a big messy job with a massive amount of inconsistency and variability. For me, it was mind blowing that people would even go through this procedure. With Omura, I knew we needed to simplify that process. Our product comes with a pre-filled flower stick with an exact dose, that you place in the device very simply. You then use the stick as the mouthpiece and when you’re finished, throw the flower stick in the trash. It’s compostable and biodegradable. So we eliminated all of those pain points.
Aaron: Great! Where are you guys based out of?
Mike: Venice, California.
Aaron: So, what makes the Omura vaporizer different from other heat-not-burn products? You mentioned you have the disposable cartridge. Is there a design philosophy around it that you can talk more about?
Mike: Omura comes with 12 flower sticks in child-proof packaging. What makes us different is that we have our proprietary flower stick and device that work together. With our heat-not-burn technology, you get all the terpenes, but when you set fire to it, as you would with other products, you mask that with smoke. Our product is different from anything else in the market, because it has simplified the user experience through efficiency, user interaction and also through design as well.
The other founders come from deep design and technology backgrounds, designing technologies for Apple and Philips Electronics, so it was an important focus for us with Omura. Our newest device, the Series X was designed by Michael Young, a world-renowned industrial designer who has built an impressive portfolio of innovative products.
With Omura, we’re bringing sophistication of the design world into the cannabis world. It’s not just about simplifying the experience and making a great kind of efficient method of consumption, it’s also about creating something for everyday use that is beautifully designed and easy to use.
Aaron: The Series X is Omura’s latest device. Can you tell me what changes you’ve implemented to make it better than the first version?
There are a few differences between the Series 1 and Series X: First, the new design fits in the palm of your hands so it’s discreet. It comes with a USB-C charging base that automatically connects with magnets. We’ve also improved the efficiency of the oven. The first device boiled 94% of the cannabinoids, this one now boils 99%. We’ve increased user-efficiency, by removing the button from the Series 1 making it so all you have to do is put the flower stick in and the device starts automatically. Additionally, we wanted to give users an option between a hotter or cooler experience so we added an extra heat curve, as we recognize that some of our CBD users prefer more of a terpene experience.
Aaron: Can the user modify that with an app?
Mike: It is a very simple switch on the bottom of the device that allows you to toggle between the higher and lower temperature curves
Aaron: Okay, cool. Can we talk about your supply chain a little bit here? Do you manufacture everything in Los Angeles? Or do you have partners?
Mike: Everything is designed in the US and manufactured in China. Which is fairly common throughout the industry. Shenzhen is well known for making products for the vaping industry. We create empty tubes filled in a batch production process. All the flower is grown here in the US. To clarify, we aren’t a plant-touching company. We don’t have a cannabis license. When it comes to THC, we have partnership deals. We work with select cannabis brands which is how we are able to sell in dispensaries. On the other hand, our CBD model is split. We have two brands of our own. Libertine, which is more of a male-focused Gen Z brand. Then we have Oriel, which is more of a wellness brand, catered to women.
Aaron: So how would an aspiring brand get on your platform?
Mike: Good question. Any brand or company who is interested in partnering with Omura can contact us through our website, www.omura.com,on Instagram @Omura or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We would then assess them to see if they’re a good fit. Currently we’re looking to span quite a large kind of demographic as far as appeal. So, if these prospective partners are in a territory, whether it be California or another state, have good market share and high-quality flower, then we would be very open to having a conversation.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview — thanks Mike!
Anyone owning and operating a cannabis business should know the value of proactive compliance management to operate successfully. For consumers, the view into the world “behind the budtending counter” is limited to the cool looking packaging, test results and the overall “vibe” of products they may want to try.
In our experience, as the oldest cannabis compliance firm, we’ve audited and visited hundreds of facilities and have seen the proverbial “Wizard behind the curtain”. We know “how the sausage is made.” And, as one can expect, it’s not always as glamorous in the back of the house as it appears on the shelf.
As markets expand and people buy into existing or new cannabis businesses, amid a world of thousands of competing companies and products, consumers need to ask themselves: “What do I know about the companies and products I consume?”
More and more, the question of consistent quality keeps coming up in the cannabis industry. Recalls are still ongoing in the news as products continually fail testing for potency and contamination.
Colorado, for example, is considered the shining jewel of the US industry in terms of experience, quality and integrity. However, consumers may be shocked to learn that a majority of dispensaries in the state do not operate by stringent SOPs, nor do they verify packaging and labeling for compliance, or review test results of products coming in and going out of their shops.
Starting January 1, 2021, these retailers finally have to develop and implement recall procedures in the event of contaminated products or cannabis that is causing adverse side effects. Later this year, vape pens will finally have their vapor tested instead of just the concentrate therein.
These liabilities or lack of compliance infrastructure may very well be a ticking time bomb no consumer in their right mind would want to deal with.
Bad Product/Brand Experience
Non-compliance and inconsistency on the part of operators translates directly into negative experiences for consumers. Whether its consuming a product that tastes like chlorophyll or enjoying a product the first time only to find a completely different experience the next time around, consumers experience the cost of non-compliance the most.
Beyond products, most consumers recognize their brand experience when shopping for products. Since the invention of Weedmaps, customers have always expressed their like or dislike for particular dispensaries and delivery services. Operators know these reviews from a customer’s experience can make or break their business and brand.
We always tell cannabis operators that a brand is a double-edged sword. As easily as it can strike through competitors, it can just as easily damage one’s own business.
Examples include SweetLeaf and Kushy Punch whose brands, once well-known and popular, are now synonymous with the worst of the worst given their histories of non-compliance and shut downs.
For consumers, finding consistent, quality products at a fair price is often the most important consideration to avoid the cost of a bad experience with cannabis. For visitors or first-time consumers, this could mean the difference between trying cannabis again or deciding it’s simply not for them.
Contamination & Illness
The worst-case scenario for consumers, especially patients, is the cost of consuming contaminated products or otherwise having adverse effects from the use of cannabis. While cannabis itself is one of the least harmful substances known to man, contaminated cannabis can be dangerous or deadly.
In the early days of the industry and in many emerging markets with poor to no oversight, these lessons are learned most severely. From the use of non-commercial washing machines being used for water-based extracts that tested positive for E. coli to recalled products ladened with Eagle 20 (which contains the harmful pesticide known as Myclobutanil), the industry has been reactive to safety measures and complying with best practices.
Still, some states persist with limited to no testing and simply label products with a warning to consumers that they are using cannabis at their own risk without testing for safety or efficacy.
Most consumers may be shocked to know that most cannabis companies do not adhere to good agricultural practices or good manufacturing practices (GAP/GMP) to ensure consistent quality and safety standards in similar industries such as nutraceuticals and food manufacturing.
Patients already weakened by disease states – including auto-immune disorders – are most at risk and understand all too well the costs of hospitalization, medical bills and loss of quality of life. For the average adult user, these risks are the same and there is often little to no recourse with the dispensary or product manufacturers if the product slips through contamination testing because of the non-compliance of product validation on flower or infused products.
For companies, outdated and inaccurate SOPs as well as production batches are the only line of defense to protect the company from product liability lawsuits filed by consumers in the event of contamination and illness. Most cannabis companies do not manage this aspect of their business effectively and simply assume they are sufficiently compliant without proactively measuring such compliance and adjusting operations as necessary.
Consumers would do well to remember that the modern industry is infantile in its development compared to other heavily regulated industries. Cannabis companies are babies learning to crawl while major food and beverage, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical, and alcohol and tobacco industries are far ahead of the game. The US industry, is arguably, already behind the compliance curve comparative to other nations already placing stricter regulations and standards on licensees.
For customers, this can be a confusing experience given that no two batches of flowers will taste the same let alone give a consumer exactly the same effect.
Already, customers are learning Sativa and Indica are imaginary cultural terms to describe generalized characteristics of major and minor cannabinoids and terpenes in each strain which produces a variety of effects – despite state limitations on labeling these active ingredients.
Vape pens are under increasing scrutiny as regulators discover long-term effects of vape use from the tobacco industry causing EVALI in consumers and being deemed as dangerous. As with anything new, the data and science simply aren’t there to truly tell customers what the effects may be over the long run. It has taken decades for tobacco, as an example, to go from doctor-recommended to carcinogenic.
Similarly, Big Cannabis of the future may be facing similar concerns that aren’t being warned about currently on their products and consumers could face unknown long-term consequences. In no way is this a condemnation of cannabis and early research shows cannabis is much safer than either alcohol or tobacco.
The point is to emphasize that over the long run, compliance is key to tracking the consistency and safety of products to avoid long-term liability and costs on consumers. Consumers would be wise to gravitate towards compliant brands and companies that focus on consistent quality and safety to minimize potential long-term negative impacts and costs.
Accountability & Transparency
Customers must first understand where the buck stops and who is responsible for what as it applies to cannabis and the cannabis products they consume. This can vary between states from vertically integrated models to horizontal models which allow for independent businesses to buy and sell cannabis between each other.
In the case of cannabis, the restrictions on METRC and other state “seed to sale” tracking systems make it nearly impossible for customers to return products and unclear on how to file complaints.
METRC and other seed to sale systems dictate that dispensaries must be able to track originating sources of cannabis back to another licensed facility. As such, once the consumer buys a faulty vape pen, for example, it’s gone from the dispensary inventory. Bringing it back in physically creates non-compliance issues for the dispensary as they cannot virtually account for the physical addition back into inventory.
No one ever said making sausage was a pretty or easy process. That’s why most consumers don’t want to think about how it’s done.
This example is a simple one to showcase the importance of compliance in the cannabis business and the complexities businesses must go through to operate. What is more applicable and important for consumers to understand is how non-compliance and inconsistency can affect them negatively – beyond messy fingers from leaky vape carts.
These types of unexpected issues represent significant costs for cannabis operators in recalls, fines, lawsuits and fees which is what most people think the “costs of non-compliance” mean.
However, and in addition to the literal cost mandated by regulation, there are the costs owners don’t think about: in the time and fees charged by the professionals to solve these issues, the time and stress spent on production, the increase or decrease in supply, mitigating product liability, and brand recognition and damage due to poor quality or recalls.
All of these factors simply drive up the costs of products for consumers and decrease the reliability of finding consistent, quality products and brands that customers can count on.
As we always say at iComply:
“It is always more cost-effective to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to operational cannabis compliance management.”
Consumers would be wise to recognize which companies are proactive in managing their compliance. And companies would be wise to get ahead of these customer costs by being the proactively compliant companies that consumers want and need.
To say 2020 was a historic year is an understatement.
Arizona landed in a solid eighth place among the top ten most successful cannabis states thanks to its expansive medical cannabis program. To close out the year, voters approved Proposition 207, also known as the Smart and Safe Arizona Act (SSAA), making Arizona one of 15 states, plus Washington D.C., to legalize the adult use of cannabis, which is expected to rocket the state’s overall cannabis sales to new heights.
It’s essential to this conversation that we clarify the two sides of this rapidly growing industry. Medical cannabis is a form of treatment, the adult use and consumption of cannabis is a choice. During the pandemic, in many medical cannabis states, the medical cannabis industry was deemed an essential service and allowed to continue providing valuable medicine to patients and caregivers. As medical cannabis programs continue to provide safer therapeutic options which are complementary to or serve as an alternative to many traditional treatments and narcotics, especially opioids, patients can be confident the need for medical programs will continue. Arizona’s adult use cannabis program imposes greater limitations on quantity and potency, while also requiring higher standards for packaging. We saw a trend during the pandemic as again, many states prioritized and allowed their medical programs to continue, while limiting adult use facilities, in the same manner as other non-essential businesses.
It’s also worth noting that we have seen many inevitable changes in patient behaviors during the pandemic, including an increased need for medical cannabis. There was a patient demand for convenience, safety and no-contact services, increased online ordering, scheduling and curbside pick-up or delivery. Many of these services were already on the rise in popularity throughout the various legal states. While Arizona’s recreational program prohibits delivery until at least 2023, retail adult use consumers will expect some of these services to extend to the new market. As life after the COVID-19 pandemic continues on and the need for some of these safer more convenient options also continues, we hope to see them more permanently implemented from a legal and regulatory perspective. For now, here are the highlights we’ll see come into play in the first few months of 2021 as Arizona adopts its new adult use cannabis program.
Smart and Safe Arizona Act (Prop 207):
Legalizes the sale, possession (one ounce) and consumption of adult use cannabis for adults at least 21 years old.
Adds a 16 percent excise tax on adult use cannabis sales, in addition to the state’s 5.6 percent, totaling a 21.6 percent tax.
Allocates an estimated $300 million in Arizona revenue to be divided between community college districts, municipal police, sheriff and fire departments, fire districts, highway funds, public health programs, infrastructure, and a new Justice Reinvestment Fund.
Allocates more than $30 million annually for addiction prevention, substance treatment, teen suicide prevention, mental health programs, and justice reinvestment projects.
Provides opportunities for expungement of certain lesser cannabis-related crimes such as possession, consumption, cultivation or transportation.
But of course, state law is just one part of the equation. Adult use cannabis facilities must be licensed separately from state to local levels, including counties to cities to local municipalities, all of which may also adopt rules and requirements through zoning and land use ordinances. Swift and certain timelines established by the Smart & Safe Act dictate the speedy launch of this new program, first utilizing the existing medical cannabis infrastructure.
Many Arizona consumers are under the impression that they’ll be able to walk into a dispensary on January 1, 2021 and buy cannabis. But that is not the case. They’ll have to wait until the Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS) completes the early applicant licensing process, which begins in January 2021. Currently, local and multistate operators are waiting for AZDHS to complete the rules and regulations for the adult use cannabis program. Here are two of the most significant steps to be navigated in the upcoming weeks:
Smart and Safe Arizona Act (Prop 207) – Step 1: The Rulemaking Process
AZDHS has been tasked with developing the rulemaking process for the Smart & Safe Act. The first draft of the adult use cannabis program rules has already been released, primarily consisting of the application requirements for the early applicant process. AZDHS collected its first round of public comments for consideration on Thursday, December 17, 2020. The exact details and parameters of the adult use cannabis program will not be finalized or known for certain until AZDHS completes the rulemaking process. We anticipate the next draft of adult use cannabis rules to be released sometime in early January.
Smart and Safe Arizona Act (Prop 207) – Step 2: The Application Process
AZDHS will begin accepting early applicants under the Smart & Safe Act on January 19, 2021, closing the process on March 9, 2021. Current medical cannabis license holders who apply for and acquire an adult use license in the early applicant process will be authorized to a dual-licensed dispensary (both medical and adult use license), as well as one offsite manufacturing facility (which may later be amended to include both medical and adult use manufacturing license), and offsite cultivation.
Early adult use license applicants are reserved for those that currently hold in good standing at least one Medical Marijuana Registration Certificate (“Medical Marijuana License”) and applicants applying to counties with no current operating dispensaries. Any county with a single operating dispensary (a medical cannabis dispensary) will be allocated an adult use license (dual license) as long as the medical license holder is in good standing for the application. All adult use licenses allocated to those counties without a current operating dispensary must keep that dispensary within that county.
AZDHS will have 60 days to process each application. Adult use licenses for counties without a current operating dispensary will be allocated through a random selection process, if more than two applications are received for that county. Additionally, upon the conclusion of the early applicant process, any adult use license that has not yet been awarded through that process, will be available to the general public and allocated through a random selection process.
This brings us to later phases of implementation of the Smart & Safe Act: within approximately six months of the adoption of the initial recreational program rules, AZDHS must develop and adopt the rules and regulations for the Social Equity Ownership Program (SEOP). The primary goal of the SEOP is to allocate 26 adult use licenses to “communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of previous cannabis laws.” In other words, communities disproportionately and negatively impacted by cannabis criminalization. Smart & Safe is light on the exact manner and process at this point, so Arizona voters and cannabis companies will look to AZDHS for the development and implementation of this important part of the adult use program. Stay tuned.
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