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Soapbox

Politically Motivated Investigations of Legitimate Cannabis Businesses: One More Reason for Cannabis Operators to Return to the Black Market?

By Tracy A. Gallegos
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In June 2020, John W. Elias, a prosecutor in the United States Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, testified to the U.S. House Committee Judiciary that investigations of cannabis mergers were pursued based on Attorney General William Barr’s personal dislike for the cannabis industry rather than legitimate antitrust issues. Specifically, Elias testified, among other things, that since March 2019, the Antitrust Division has conducted ten investigations of mergers in the cannabis industry. Further, Elias testified that, “While these were nominally antitrust investigations, and used antitrust investigative authorities, they were not bona fide antitrust investigations.” Elias went on to state that, with respect to a proposed $682 million merger between two cannabis companies, MedMen and PharmaCann, career staff in the Antitrust Division initially examined the transaction to determine whether there should be no investigation, a brief investigation or a full investigation. Upon conclusion of its review, career staff determined that “the cannabis industry appeared to be fragmented with many market participants in the states that had legalized the product.” Accordingly, staff concluded that the proposed combination between MedMen and PharmaCann was “unlikely to raise any significant competitive concerns.”

John W. Elias, DOJ whistleblower and acting Chief of Staff to the Assistant Attorney General

Notwithstanding the career staff’s determination, Attorney General Barr ordered the Antitrust Division to issue “Second Request” subpoenas. According to Elias’s testimony, a “Second Request” subpoena is a full investigation of a proposed merger. Moreover, Elias stated, “Across the entire American economy, the Antitrust Division performs the full Second Request investigation on around 1-2% of the thousands of mergers filed each year – ordinarily, only the most concerning deals.” Based on the foregoing, Elias testified that Attorney General Barr’s decision to pursue the MedMen/PharmaCann combination was based on his dislike for the cannabis industry rather than any legitimate antitrust concerns.

There are some immediate impacts to Attorney General Barr’s decision – not limited to the MedMen/PharmaCann merger but potentially reaching any cannabis companies considering a merger or similar transaction. For example, a politically motivated probe would more than likely result in a drop of stock prices for publicly trade cannabis companies. Moreover, non-bona fide antitrust investigations of cannabis businesses could result in proposed merger transactions eventually not coming to fruition.

However, Attorney General Barr’s decision could arguably have longer term and more widespread effects on the cannabis space, and could affect situations not involving mergers or other proposed business combinations. In particular, the fact that legitimate cannabis businesses that comply with all applicable laws are still subject to unwanted and unnecessary scrutiny conceivably could lead to something that regulators had hoped would be curbed through the legalization of cannabis for adult use: cannabis operators gravitating towards the omnipresent black market. Despite cannabis being legal in 33 jurisdictions for medicinal use and 11 jurisdictions for adult use, the black market continues to thrive for several reasons, one of them being that the cost of regulatory compliance is so significant. Attorney General Barr’s decision may have created another reason for cannabis operators to abandon their plans to continue operating as or become legitimate businesses and instead revert back to operating in the black market.

Indeed, Attorney General Barr’s decision is a concern for cannabis operators because it shows that, notwithstanding that any particular operator may be compliant with state and/or local regulations, it does not mean that such cannabis operator is going to be permitted to conduct “normal” business that a non-cannabis business would be able to conduct, simply because of the underlying nature of the business. Stated differently, following the rules does not mean that a cannabis business will be left alone by people in charge who simply do not like the cannabis space.

Attorney General William Barr

Cannabis operators are very mindful of being targeted because of the nature of their business, and having regulations in place with which they could and would comply provided them with some level of certainty that they would not be targeted, or so they thought. Particularly in states like California where the regulations are complex, current and aspiring cannabis operators tend to be very concerned about being compliant with cannabis regulations from the inception of their business operations, believing that being compliant will assist them in flying under the proverbial radar and not become targeted unnecessarily simply because they are in the cannabis space. Attorney General Barr’s decision may have taken away or, at the very least, significantly decreased, that level of certainty. His decision to investigate a proposed merger of two legitimate cannabis businesses sends the message that it does not matter if a cannabis business is being compliant, and that there are other, completely subjective reasons why its operations could be investigated. This makes it extremely difficult for current and aspiring cannabis operators to determine what actions they can take to avoid unwelcome investigations or other scrutiny. If a cannabis operator is unable to mitigate scrutiny by complying with rules, this raises the concern that cannabis businesses will go back to black market activity, not only because the cost of compliance is high, but because being compliant does not necessarily protect them.

Attorney General Barr’s decision is likely not the only instance of a decision regarding cannabis businesses that was made notwithstanding existing statutes or regulations that do not support such a decision. In fact, since adult use became legal in certain jurisdictions it is not uncommon to see news discussing applicants for cannabis licenses who were denied licenses, notwithstanding that those applicants complied with all applicable laws and regulations. When applicants were denied even after complying with all rules and regulations, and when no other legitimate reason was cited for the denial, there is an indication that the denial was based on political or other personal feelings concerning the cannabis space. This not only potentially calls into question the integrity of the cannabis space, but again could lead cannabis operators back to the black market.

There are many costs of regulatory compliance for a cannabis operator, including, without limitation, high application and license fees, development and mitigation fees and exorbitant taxes. Other than the fees and taxes assessed on cannabis businesses, there are other expenses, such as the cost to construct a facility, security costs and the general operational costs that all businesses must pay, such as rent or payroll. What incentive does a cannabis operator have to expend significant resources – time, money and otherwise – to become a legitimate, licensed cannabis business if doing so does not provide any type of protection against investigations that are politically motivated or otherwise based on negative personal feelings toward the cannabis space? It may be that Attorney General Barr’s decision has given cannabis operators one more reason to reconsider going back to black market activity.

Jennifer Whetzel

Branding for Cannabis Companies 101: Part 1

By Jennifer Whetzel
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Jennifer Whetzel

Busy entrepreneurs often skip steps in their business development process, particularly in the cannabis space. Since this is a new industry, there isn’t a long history of marketing/advertising efforts to look back on; the standards are still being developed. But more often, businesses simply may not have a budget large enough to pay an agency, and they may not feel confident executing these efforts on their own.

Fortunately, you can do a lot independently to get your name out there. This three-part series will give you a quick primer on branding – what it is, why it’s important and how to do it. But first, we need to discuss the differences between branding, marketing and advertising so that you know what kind of tools you have at your disposal.

What is Branding?

Branding should be considered a prerequisite to marketing and advertising.

Branding: Who
Marketing: What & Why
Advertising: Where & When

Branding is simply thinking about your company from the inside-out. It’s asking yourself questions about the kind of person your brand would be, down to its beliefs, personality and sense of style. Ultimately, we do this to build a deep emotional connection with potential customers. When you know who you are and put yourself out in the world, you’re signaling to them that you are a good match for each other.

When you have a brand that consistently forms emotional relationships with customers, that bond converts to both income and long-term company value, making your spending on marketing and advertising go further. It gives you a competitive advantage over companies with weak or non-existent branding (and in the U.S. cannabis industry, there are plenty of those). Moreover, it’s a key factor that venture capitalists and friendly Fortune 500s look for in potential investments.

So, what should you be asking yourself when it comes to branding? Start with exploring the fundamentals. Decide on the philosophical, emotional and visual characteristics of your brand.

As far as the philosophical questions go, it’s important to codify your mission, brand values, customer promise, core competency and future vision to build a strategic brand. Think about what you’re offering, how it will change lives, and what unique qualities will help you make it all happen.

The Four Ps: Product, Price, Place and Promotion.The philosophical characteristics help you decide who you are. Your emotional characteristics are the ones that connect you with the world. These would include your creation story, your brand personality and tone of voice. How does your brand see and respond to the world? Why? People love consistency. Having a consistent presentation makes your brand feel more authentic; in turn, people are more receptive to you.

The visual qualities are how the world should see you. These assets should include your color palette, fonts, imagery and logo. Making decisions about your brand’s appearance may feel subjective and overwhelming to people, but it doesn’t have to be. Basically, evaluate these ideas and assets in terms of how your audience is likely to respond to these elements. For example, how does your happy-go-lucky audience feel about a logo that is lime green versus corporate blue? Which color best reflects your brand sensibility? You know who you are; the visual characteristics are how you plan to show it.

Marketing

As a discipline, marketing traditionally involves making strategic decisions about the four Ps: Product, Price, Place and Promotion. These decisions become significantly easier once you have defined your brand.

Essentially, marketing addresses the way your brand lives in the world. It tells potential customers what you sell, and why they should choose your brand. It involves making thoughtful decisions and having a strategy for decisions such as product names and your corporate culture.

You also need to think about your pricing strategy and how that manifests in front of customers. For example, are you a high-end product with a premium price or the Walmart of weed? What’s your customer service strategy? Are your budtenders in flannel or lab coats?By now, you know who your brand is and how you want to present it to the world. Now you need to get consumers to see it that way. That’s where advertising comes into play.

Marketing also involves decisions about collateral—namely, your product packaging, brochures, signs and trade show booths. It also impacts your brand’s in-person presence. That could include experiences like events your company attends, trade shows where you have a booth or table, sensory experiences or even AR/VR experiences with your product.

By now, you know who your brand is and how you want to present it to the world. Now you need to get consumers to see it that way. That’s where advertising comes into play.

Advertising

Generally, advertising relates to paid campaigns that are carefully written and designed to tell potential customers where, when, why and how to connect with your brand and buy your products and services.

Fortunately, you have the tools to thrive by putting in the work to get to know your brand.These campaigns are often launched within the space of owned media, such as television commercials, radio and print ads and billboards. There are tons of digital and social media options. Your job is to find the ones that your customers interact with and decide what you want to say about yourself. For example, what kind of sites would you want to place ads on? What state of mind are customers in when they go to those sites? And what message do you want them to get from you in that moment?

Normally, answering these questions would be daunting. But since you’ve already decided who your brand is, you may already know what colors you want to use for this ad. You’ve already considered what your mission is. You know how your brand should appear to the world. And since you’ve unlocked these truths, you’ll be able to develop campaigns that feel genuine, unique, and memorable.

Connecting with consumers and making them remember you isn’t optional. It’s what will ultimately decide whether your business survives or not. Fortunately, you have the tools to thrive by putting in the work to get to know your brand. It’s tough, and it may not come easily at first. But we don’t start a business because it’s easy. We accept the risks and frustrations because we love what we do. Tell everyone why they should too.