Tag Archives: digital

Emerald Holding Acquires MJBiz for $120 Million

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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In a press release sent out today, Emerald Holding, Inc. announced they have completed their acquisition of MJBiz for $120 million.

Emerald Holding, Inc. is a large, publicly traded business-to-business events producer and content conglomerate with a number of publications and events in industries like design, equipment, retail, safety & security and technology. Founded in 2013, the company has become a leading operator of B2B trade shows in the US, with their largest shareholder being the Toronto-based investment group called Onex Corporation.

MJBiz, founded in 2011, is known in the cannabis industry for their content platform, MJBizDaily, as well as the world’s largest cannabis trade show, MJBizCon.

As part of the agreement to acquire MJBiz, Emerald Holding will retain senior management in the company for day-to-day operations. The agreement also includes the potential for future payments, depending on the company’s performance through the end of this year.

Hervé Sedky, President and CEO of Emerald Holding, says they have been big fans of the MJBiz brand for a long time. “We have long admired MJBiz’s sterling reputation for being the most trusted event and content producer serving the business side of the cannabis and hemp industries and their respective participants,” says Sedky. “This is a transformational acquisition for Emerald as it represents an important next step in the implementation of our strategic initiatives and underscores our commitment to evolve and grow our customers’ businesses 365 days a year.”

The two founders of MJBiz, Cassandra Farrington and Anne Holland, will stay on with the company in a consulting capacity. According to Farrington, who is also chair of the MJBiz Board, says they went with Emerald because they value the company’s uniqueness. “Our organization has experienced massive growth since its inception, initially as a how-to resource to help dispensary owners run their businesses better, into our position today as the leading commercial resource for the cannabis sector,” says Farrington. “Integrating with a larger organization provides the additional resources and channels to unlock the next phase of MJBiz’s growth and is the right next step in our evolution as a business.”

Soapbox

User-Generated Data Brings Revenue: It’s Time for the Users to Get Some

By Dr. Markus Roggen, Amanda Assen, Dr. Tom Dupree
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You generate the product, you should benefit from it too.

If you are not paying for the service, you are the product. This pithy phrase is often heard in discussions about social media’s use of personal information and user-generated content. The idea can be traced back to a 1973 short film that critiques television’s impact on culture and politics. Although about television, the quote, “you are the end product delivered en masse to the advertiser,” still rings true when talking about major online corporations.

We have all seen it with big corporations. In the first three months of 2021, of Facebook’s $26.2B revenue, a whopping $25.4B was from advertising sales. However, the space for an advertisement to be delivered en masse to the public is not the only thing purchased from Facebook. Access to personal information such as your search history, likes and posts are also purchased by companies to determine which advertisements they should target you with.Access to user-generated data by advertisers has sparked privacy and ownership concerns regarding large internet platforms. The idea of being surveilled all the time is uncomfortable, and many large corporations like Facebook have royalty-free and transferable licenses to your posts.

Similarly, many websites in the cannabis industry gain value from information submitted by consumers. As an example, the website Leafly provides over 1.3 million consumer product reviews that are often used for purchasing decisions. These reviews play a role in attracting more people to websites that operate with a similar system to Leafly, and in turn advertising space to reach those people is sold. According to their About page, more than 4.5 million orders for advertising space are placed with businesses on Leafly each year, generating annually about $460 million in gross merchandise value. So, the users work for free to attract an audience to these websites for the advertisers, and the websites make money from advertisers.

Can we empower users with ownership of their content, data and participation in profits?

Frustrated social media users exclaiming “We are the product!” does nothing to change our reality. It is unlikely we will change how big corporations like Facebook work, but can we ensure users receive some of the benefits in our own cannabis industry? Many of these websites, especially those for medicinal cannabis, are designed to genuinely help users. Can we further increase this feeling of having a transaction with the websites rather than feel like we are being sold to advertisers? The world of NFTs may offer some guidance.

An NFT (or non-fungible token) acts as a digital certificate of authenticity. Unlike cryptocurrencies (like Bitcoin), each NFT is unique, so it cannot be exchanged or multiplied. They are kept on a blockchain system, which is a growing list of computationally secure ledgers. The blockchain allows proof of ownership to be established for the person with the NFT, and prevents others from being able to tamper with or claim ownership of the artwork, game, tweet or cat picture it is assigned to. Although non-exchangeable, NFTs can be traded on a digital marketplace, like how a physical piece of art can be auctioned.

While NFTs and cryptocurrencies are certainly not without controversy and flaws, an NFT-like system that provides users with proof of ownership for their data and grants them control over what is done with it may be the way of the future for websites in the cannabis industry. Just like Facebook, when it comes to sales, online display advertisements are some of the top revenue generators for websites in the cannabis industry that utilize user-generated content. With an NFT-like system, users could be granted a royalty for their content, which would obligate websites to give a portion of their profits to the users when their content is sold to an advertiser. Users may be able to have a portfolio of their generated content, have some control over who can access their content and who their personal data can be sold to.

Websites that are more focused on cannabis for medicinal use often pride themselves on being more patient-focused and professional – no pothead puns or crass logos. An NFT-like system might be especially beneficial for these companies, as it would further increase the emphasis of trust and respect for users. In this case, an NFT-like system could be used to assign ownership of reviews to individual website users. Since these reviews attract new people to these websites, when access to a user’s data is sold to advertisement companies, then a portion of that revenue is given to the people who created the reviews. The estimated amount of revenue that reviewers help to bring into the company can be calculated and distributed accordingly. While this may seem like it would cause a significant loss of revenue for the websites, the increased trust that would come with this system would likely promote more users, generating an overall increase in revenue and credibility. Users could become more engaged and spend more time writing reviews, increasing web traffic considerably. Advertisers would be more attracted to the larger audience and the prestige of having their advertisement on a well-respected site.

An NFT-like system could hold large internet corporations accountable.

The new normal is corporations on the internet making money from the content created by users. In return, users receive none of the monetary benefits and have their personal information shared with hundreds of businesses. An NFT-like system, although theoretical, may be able to empower users to hold large corporations accountable for what is done with user-generated data. It is unlikely we can change big companies like Facebook, but if adopted early, this may be plausible in our cannabis industry. This in turn may not only give more ownership to the website users, but could also benefit the websites, and the advertisers. Overall, the product should be the website and the services it provides. An NFT-like system might help promote this and could make users who generate value for the website partners in business.

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.

Can Cannabis Get Even More Social?

By Mark Goldwell
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Cannabis has always had it tough when it comes to marketing. Part of it is simple logistics. A DTC playbook, heavily contingent on growing a brand’s audience and pushing folks to purchase products through digital marketing, isn’t a possibility for them. Despite its mainstream acceptance, most large ad platforms like Facebook and Instagram won’t touch it because of its tenuous legality. Banner ads don’t convert and only end up on specific platforms like Pornhub or Weedmaps anyway.

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

And because the legal status changes on a state-by-state basis, it’s extremely difficult for a brand to span across multiple markets. Just think: why would someone living in Florida care about a cool cannabis brand in Detroit if they weren’t in that industry or have ties to that state? This also makes influencer marketing tough because people aren’t finding the coolest people in their respective states to follow. They’re just finding people they think are interesting.

That leaves budtenders  point of sale experts  that hold a huge position of educating and steering folks towards products. Most folks are newer to cannabis  or cannabis has grown up a ton since their past casual experience with it. Budtenders offer an informative, hyper-local solution with extremely limited reach to a narrow market.

But the future shows promise. A new wave of platform marketing has emerged with new formats and lots of room to cultivate and grow for cannabis brands. With a little understanding of what’s driving the success of social media newcomers and evolving mainstays, cannabis companies can potentially find new avenues for marketing and brand-building success.

Going Native

There’s currently a lot of opportunity through the larger cannabis retail and native ordering apps – ones like Weedmaps, Leafly and others that have widespread brand recognition within the cannabis community and a growing array of social media-like features. These are places that already segment according to markets, with a built-in, educated audience open to creative approaches to branding and marketing.

These types of apps are also becoming the norm more and more. Especially since the pandemic, dispensaries are doing most of their volume through online orders and pickup. As a result, making sure you show up, look great and convey your unique position on these platforms is incredibly important.

Listening and Learning

Whether it’s Clubhouse or other upcoming rivals on the horizon, audio platforms are great because they can serve as a means to have an honest, direct and enlightening conversation about cannabis. This is great news for budtenders who can help a brand expand their reach by facilitating these sorts of conversational consumer relationships. As the cannabis market matures rapidly, people will need a safe place to normalize consumption, talk about dosage or about how normal consumers (not just stereotypical potheads, but every day, “constructive members of society”), are able to use cannabis effectively in their day-to-day lives.

A lot of other visually-based platforms are about curation or presentation of an ideal life and less about learning or sharing  a place where audio platforms can shine.

Old is New

In some cases, it’s not about just using new platforms but finding better ways to utilize old ones. For example, legal or not, a lot of folks are about discretion when it comes to their cannabis. They want to get questions answered and learn about brands and products via peers and experts, but they don’t want their bosses or grandparents knowing that they’re hitting a pen between meetings or before brunch.

That’s why time-based content platforms  Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and others  that offer individuals and brands some measure of safety, as well as controlled messaging, will help continue to normalize cannabis.

Another non-cannabis example worth emulating is Psilodelic, a psilocybin gummy brand that’s super low-dose and decently branded, using Instagram in a creative way. Purposefully making their accounts private and going without a public hub, the only way to buy the product is to follow and DM them. “Hacking” the platform in this way means they have to shut down and open up new accounts all the time, but they’ve done an amazing job offering a product that, similarly to cannabis, is sometimes inaccessible, and have done it in a way that’s simple and feels more elite. That’s creative entrepreneurship.

In the end, using these changing platforms means approaching them as tools to foster a better relationship with people. The brands that succeed will have dead-simple instructions and information that really helps to empower folks to look at cannabis in a different way. Then, as we finally reach legalization, these brands will find themselves better equipped to step into the mainstream, confident in the meaningful relationships they’ve already cultivated.

The Importance of Smart Cannabis Packaging

By John Shearman
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Regardless of their size, all consumer package brands spend a significant amount of money and resources on packaging to attract consumers’ attention. We are all very visually oriented and gravitate to items that pique our interests. Cannabis brands are no exception when it comes to branding their products. Packaging plays a big part in carrying their brand forward and standing out on the dispensary shelves. When I was in Las Vegas at a CBD tradeshow in early 2020, I visited a dispensary, and it was beautiful. I remember commenting to a colleague that was with me how spectacular the product packaging was in the glass cases. One had unique artwork on each different product they offered, and it was indeed art. Yes, I did purchase this one that pulled me in.

The cannabis industry in the United States presents a challenge to brands because there is no overall federal guidance for packaging. Each state is controlling the cannabis legislation and, with it, the packaging guidelines. So multi-state operators (MSOs) have to manage each state as a separate entity and abide by the packaging regulations, which is not very efficient and adds a cost burden. As the industry matures and becomes federally legal across the country, packaging regulations will be easier to implement.

Louis Vuitton bags are one of the many goods that are commonly counterfeited
Image: UK Home Office, Flickr

Let’s take a look at counterfeit products across all product categories. There is a significant global problem with counterfeits, as articulated by the below statistics.

The total global trade in fakes is estimated at around $4.5 trillion. 

Fake luxury merchandise accounts for 60% to 70% of that amount, ahead of pharmaceuticals, entertainment products and representing perhaps a quarter of the estimated $1.2 trillion total trade in luxury goods.

Digital plays a big role in this and perhaps 40% of the sales in luxury fakes take place online.

Customs and Border Patrol confiscated $1.3 billion worth of counterfeit goods in the U.S. for Fiscal Year 2020. (The value of 2020’s seizures are actually down compared to the $1.5 billion worth of counterfeit goods seized by CBP in 2019).

Unfortunately, the figures above are concerning, and the cannabis industry will face the same counterfeit issues that will add to these stats in the future. What can be done to help fight the problem and alleviate the pain for cannabis brands? Smart technology.

The trend towards “smart technology” varies by sector, but the underlying concept involves building levels of technology systems designed to impede or limit the highly sophisticated counterfeiter from replicating or replacing products. These levels typically include a forensic level control on the product, digital systems to track the material and customer facing systems to articulate the underlying value to the consumer.

Building these levels of smart technology into cannabis-products and packaging allows consumers to authenticate real versus fake, and in the case often in cannabis, legal versus illegal. Molecular technology is one forensic level of control option that can be used as a unique identifier for product authentication. Each brand would get its unique identifier to apply to the raw materials that make up its product, such as oil or an isolate. Then a sample can be tested at the origin point and subsequent nodes in the supply chain using a remote testing device. All the digital data is captured in a secure cloud database for traceability and transparency to the end consumer, to show them the authenticity of the product they are consuming. The same molecular technology can be applied to the ink or varnish for packaging and labels. A great application to help combat counterfeits and product diversion across the globe.

Counterfeiters can create near duplicate versions of the original

Another engaging platform is called StrainSecure by TruTrace Technologies. Their SAAS platform allows cannabis manufacturers to track all their product batches and SKUs tied to a blockchain. It also facilitates the interaction between the manufacturer and third-party testing facilities to conduct product testing and reporting. The data is captured within the platform, and with easy access dashboard views, it provides the insights to authenticate products at any time.

A company out of Australia called Laava is producing a product called Smart Fingerprints. It’s the next evolution of QR codes. The Smart Fingerprints can be applied to each package, providing a unique identifier that consumers can read with a mobile phone application. The consumer is provided with information concerning the product’s authenticity and any additional information the brand wants to share with the user. Smart Fingerprints are a great example of customer engagement at the point of activity that is secure.

The above three solutions show the availability of advanced technologies the cannabis industry can implement on its packaging and products to ensure authentic and safe products are sold to consumers. It provides consumers with vital information and insights about products so they can make informed buying decisions. There is no one silver bullet solution that provides all the answers. As with every high value product, counterfeiters will work to create near duplicate versions of the original until it becomes unsustainable to do so. It will take a technology ecosystem to seamlessly connect and provide actuate and timely information between supply chain partners and ultimately the end consumer. As the US works to separate the legal from illegal production for both the adult use and medical supply of cannabis, the looming challenge will be on protecting and communicating authenticity, packaging will be the first step in this.

Digital Marketing Tips to Help Grow Your Cannabis Business

By Steven Clayton
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The cannabis industry is quickly growing with the chance of sales tripling to $30 billion by 2023. With many rules and regulations that business owners must follow, marketing your cannabis business can be a challenge. While many may not know where to start with marketing, there are organic and simple tactics that owners can implement that can help drive more traffic to your website, resulting in more leads and sales.

Digital marketing is the most effective way to improve your brand’s online presence, reach your target audiences, rank higher on Google searches and ultimately drive more sales. Today, 81% of people turn to the internet before making a purchasing decision, but determining what digital marketing efforts are most valuable can be a daunting task for business owners. When looking to implement digital marketing strategies, businesses should leverage the 80/20 rule—focusing efforts on the 20% of the digital marketing tactics that yield 80% of the most impactful results. With this in mind, some of the key digital marketing tactics to implement today include:

Keep up with Reputation Management

This dispensary ad appeared on Variety.com

Having positive reviews for your company is key to having customers come back, and for new customers to try your business out. With 72% of customers not making a buying decision until they’ve read reviews, companies should prioritize soliciting for reviews from customers and stay up to date on the reviews that are coming in. Businesses should respond to all reviews, whether good or bad, as this shows to customers that the brand cares and values the customers opinion and feedback and wants to continue creating a positive experience for everyone. Reviews should be shown prominently on the business’s website for customers to clearly read and can also be used in emails or social media posts.

Make Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Top of Mind

Focusing on developing a solid SEO strategy ensures that customers can find your company on Google when they are searching. In оrdеr to rank well in search engine results, websites need search engine optimization (SEO), which is a powerful tool and a must if your company wants to be found online by customers. With Google processing 12.18 billion search queries in July 2020 alone and 93% of all online experiences beginning with a search engine, making sure your business can be clearly found and seen online is imperative for your cannabis business’ success. Keeping your website and basic information—such as hours, contact information and prices—up to date will keep your SEO high. 

Incorporate Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

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

Gathering customer emails is KEY and your business should have a solid plan on how to capture them, whether that’s an incentive for providing an email when they enter the site or one at checkout in the retail shop. Businesses should have the customer’s name, phone and email as a baseline to use to email or text blast out the latest promotions. From there, companies can also create a loyalty program for customers in order to give them an incentive to keep purchasing from your business. By creating targeted and personal messaging to customers with the help of CRM tools, loyalty is created to the brand, which can increase purchasing power and the amount spent.

Embrace Social Media

Social media is a part of almost everyone’s life and it’s the perfect opportunity to give customers an inside view into your company, the products you sell and any promotions or specials going on. Utilizing Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is essential for directly reaching your customer base with visually appealing and timely content. Social media is an opportunity to get personal with your brand and build relationships with your customers for them to see what kind of brand you are. Social pages should remain up to date and should be keeping up with the comments that followers are saying.

As more dispensaries and cannabis businesses pop up across the country, marketing your business may seem like a challenge for business owners, but simple and useful digital marketing tools can be incorporated into the business plan to create more quality leads and sales. Ensuring you have a strong digital presence for customers to find you and learn about your business online is the key to success.

Cannabis Registry Reality Check: Privacy Must be Paramount

By Shadrach White
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The task of preserving privacy for any records platform, especially a cannabis registry, cannot simply be relegated to ones and zeros lurking in some forgotten codebase. This past year taught us many lessons, especially related to the trauma unleashed by vulnerabilities in government domains. We learned time and again that a registrant’s privacy must be the first order of business for the architects of registries.

But the first order of business isn’t the last order of business. That intention and effort to secure privacy must then be communicated and reinforced through real-world reality checks.

Lapses in data security and rising distrust for government institutions block the efficacy of well-intentioned and vital registries. Those states launching new registries in 2021 are at a precarious crossroads as public trust erodes.

As I write this, we’ve just learned illicit operators hacked a third-party service provider for the Washington State Auditor’s office. The attack compromised the personal data of 1.4 million users seeking unemployment benefits. Security hacks are a cautionary tale, whose impact is felt too often.

But many in the government sector are staring at a once-in-a-generation challenge to launch new registries – those related to cannabis – with privacy top-of-mind from the initial Request For Bid.“The question isn’t when these privacy-first registries will be implemented, it’s a question of whether they’ll be implemented proactively ahead of hacks or after the damage is done.”

Here’s how:

Table Stakes for New Cannabis Registries

These suggestions are just the beginning, and I see them as the minimum buy-in to begin the architecture of a new cannabis registry. They include:

  • End-to-end data encryption while in transit and within the system while the data is at rest.
  • A solution that is a cloud-native web application which is managed as a service for maximum uptime and strong security posture.
  • Registries should also leverage algorithms and machine learning to ensure accurate data entry by analyzing incorrect or duplicate data before it is saved within the system.

Beyond HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires privacy and security measures to protect Personal Health Information (PHI). Debate exists on whether compliance is a requirement for all entities transacting in the medicinal cannabis space. While some state registries are exempt from HIPAA, others choose to provide HIPAA compliance not just for the optics, but the known benefit to users’ privacy and confidence. New cannabis registries should commit to HIPAA-compliance to set a trusted new privacy standard for medical patient credentials and legal authorization for the use of cannabis for medical purposes.

That’s just the start. Registries should also ensure SOC2 Type II certification, which safeguards security, site availability, confidentiality and privacy through independent third-party auditors.

Connect with Confidence

Registries function as a hub of information in an often-confusing cannabis space. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control displays more than 25 links wired into its top navigation bar alone. Each link sends the curious to new resources. Registries must establish themselves as credible resources, especially when directing users to third-party sites.

One example is for cannabis registries to provide secure access to healthcare professionals who are verified by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). These healthcare professionals are licensed to distribute controlled substances including cannabis. Each third-party link should offer the same high-level of scrutiny to enshrine confidence and credibility in the registry.

Next-Generation ID Cards

A cannabis registry card should not just be a document, but a toolset that attests to the identity and the authority of the carrier represented. An illicit counterfeiting market seeks to exploit registry card vulnerabilities. Next generation ID cards present the best defense against counterfeiting and illegal use with robust security measures. That starts with assuring that any credential is mobile ID compatible with iOS Wallet and GooglePay for mobile identification.

ID cards should also include:

The automated modification of the document bearer’s photograph to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) standards. This critical modification makes the photograph easier to use for ID verification; it also facilitates the detection of photograph substitution.

A two-dimensional barcode compiles information contained in a one-dimensional barcode. It also delivers confirmation of other data shown on the card or in the system such as license authorization and limitations. Adding additional material to the physical document such as holograms, UV image, micro-printing or laser perforations offers another level of protection against illicit use or counterfeiting.

While cannabis registries are the beginning, they’re not the end. Driving efficacy for government registries needed for COVID19 track-and-tracing, cannabis plant track-and-tracing and vaccine distribution require the same attention to privacy, security and ultimate useability. A sea change is required – not just for the sake of those who use the registries but also for those who must implement, deploy and maintain those registries. The question isn’t when these privacy-first registries will be implemented, it’s a question of whether they’ll be implemented proactively ahead of hacks or after the damage is done. I believe the government sector leaders exploring new cannabis registries offer the wisdom and foresight to choose the proactive approach.

Jane & Leafly Join Forces: An Interview with Socrates Rosenfeld, CEO of Jane

By Aaron Green
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As retailers accept the end of in-store shopping as we know it and start adjusting to e-commerce, an improved and more involved customer experience will be imperative for an e-retailer to grow, let alone stay afloat.

Jane recently announced a strategic partnership that combines Jane’s best-in-class product catalog and business tools with Leafly’s consumer marketplace and reach. Together, the companies will build solutions that empower cannabis retailers with fast and simple online shopping experiences that increase consumer purchase behavior. The partnership will seek to help instill consumer trust in the online shopping experience, build stronger customer acquisition tools for retailers, and help dispensaries grow their ecommerce capabilities with consistency and automation.

This strategic partnership comes after a massive year of growth for both Jane and Leafly. In the past year, Jane powered over 17 million orders and $2 billion in cannabis sales, while Leafly has seen more than 4,500 cannabis retailers in North America leverage their platform to bring new customers through the door.

Socrates Rosenfeld, CEO of Jane

We spoke with Socrates Rosenfeld, CEO of Jane to learn more about e-commerce and online marketplaces and how Jane and Leafly came together as partners, rather than competitors. Prior to Jane, Socrates was an Apache helicopter pilot for the US Army later transitioning to consulting with McKinsey.

Aaron Green: Socrates, thanks for taking the time today. What trends are you seeing and following in the industry?

Socrates Rosenfeld: Always happy to chat about the industry. Thanks for having me.

If you were to ask me that question a year ago, I’d say having a digital footprint was something that would give a dispensary or a brand a nice advantage. Today, it’s a must-have for survival. Where it used to be one or the other; online or offline, now we are able to merge the two by replicating a physical store into a digitized form to extend its reach far beyond its walls.

As things become more digitized, information becomes more necessary to run operations. With that we are able to meet the expectations of the consumers who are accustomed to convenience and curation. The omnichannel experience provides the best of both worlds. Access and ease of search with the ability to pick up or have the product delivered the same day from a locally owned and run business.

Reviews are one of the most important aspects of this unification of online and offline. It is something that is lost in solely offline purchases, that we’re now able to collect and organize. This product information allows us to provide customers the purchasing power to make a well-informed decision.

At Jane, we believe it is possible to create wins for the dispensaries, brands and customers – and digitization creates the opportunity for that to happen. I think there’s no better incubator in the world than the cannabis industry to prove that online and offline retail can work in harmony.

Aaron: Jane is the largest e-commerce platform in North American cannabis and Leafly is the largest marketplace in North American cannabis. What’s the difference between an e-commerce platform and a marketplace?

Socrates: Great question. There is definitely some overlap between the two, which is why it makes so much sense for us to collaborate. Ultimately though, our focus and expertise are different. Jane’s ecommerce platform serves as the industry’s digital infrastructure that pushes digital products across various order origination points like a dispensary’s own website, a brand’s own website and now, Leafly’s marketplace. Paired with Leafly’s industry-leading content and market information, together we can complete the entire online cannabis shopping experience – from product discovery through order fulfillment.

Aaron: At first glance, one might think that Jane and Leafly are competitors. How did you see it differently? And how did this partnership come about?

Socrates: Not only is our tech complementary, but we are aligned on mission – to empower consumers, dispensaries and brands with the integrity of the plant in mind.

We want to make it simple for consumers to reach the products that will be most helpful for them. We want to make it possible for dispensaries and brands, regardless of their size, to be able to compete on an even playing field.

It all comes back to being good stewards of the industry. Education and access create a healthy demand for a diverse range of products. That means that the plant stays in the hands of many – safeguarding it from homogenization.

Aaron: How do consumers benefit from the partnership?

Socrates: It really is all about bringing this industry in line with any other retail vertical and meeting the customer where they are. It unlocks more avenues for customers to discover products and access a vast catalog of information and verified customer reviews. Bottom line, this partnership makes shopping for cannabis as simple as shopping online for everything else in the world, while also ensuring the success of the sellers.

Aaron: When you say the sellers, are you talking about the dispensary or the brands?

Socrates: Both, we want to provide value for the entire ecosystem. We can do that directly for dispensaries and brands by enabling an automated ecommerce platform that they can use to power their own website. At Jane, we know that technology can unlock value for everyone, where it is not a zero-sum game and success for one means success for the other. With Jane, both the dispensaries and the brands win.

Aaron: What kind of regulatory challenges do you face through the partnership?

Socrates: There are no real regulatory challenges for the partnership itself. The entire industry operates under regulatory challenges, but it is those regulations that have been the catalyst for innovation. I see the opportunity for legal online payments and national product distribution to play a large role in shaping the industry soon, and a partnership like this will ensure a seamless transition for the industry as things continue to evolve.

Aaron: Final question. What are you personally interested in learning more about?

Socrates: I’ve always been curious about disruptive models. The companies, not just in tech, but any company that has set out to do things differently and has been able to hold true to a vision. That’s what interests me, and I think I will always have something to learn and draw inspiration from. 

Aaron: Excellent, that’s the end of the interview, Socrates!

Socrates: Thanks, Aaron.

ImEPIK Launches Cannabis Edibles Safety Course

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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ImEPIK is a research-based online training company that is known for digital safety training in the food industry, offering courses on things like preventive controls. The company announced last week that they are launching their first class dedicated to the cannabis industry.

The two-part Cannabis Edibles Safety Course is designed to help edibles manufacturers put the quality and safety of their products above all. Part I, “GMPs and the Pyramid of Edible Safety” is now live and includes three modules covering cannabis edibles production under a food industry framework. The course gets into prerequisite programs, the principles of hazard analysis and provides an intro to the company’s “Pyramid of Edible Safety.”

The course is intended for employees that are new to the production of cannabis-infused products, those who are on the front lines of a production facility, or for those who might need a refresher on the basics.

“Part I of the Cannabis Edibles Safety Course prepares cannabis employees to support the sanitation, production and QA managers and the facility’s compliance with regulatory and safety goals,” says Kathryn Birmingham, Ph.D. ImEPIK’s chief operating officer. “The course reflects not only the ‘tried and true’ practices from the food industry, but the nuances of cannabis edibles production are also accounted for in ImEPIK’s course.” Birmingham says the course is designed for employees who work at both large and small facilities.

“ImEPIK has a reputation for providing engaging food safety training that gives production employees the technical knowledge they need to make safe products,” says Jill Droge, ImEPIK’s chief creative and business development officer. “It’s more difficult than ever to make time for training, yet it is one of the most impactful things that manufacturers can do to ensure that their products are safe and will be well received by the market.”

Part II is expected to launch in early November and is designed for supervisors and managers.  Keep an eye on imepikcannabissafety.com for the latest course releases.

The UK Cannabis Industry Needs New PR Strategies

By Kajal Shah
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The cannabis marketplace is an ever changing one. The opportunities being generated in the UK space are immense. Yet despite the countless benefits cannabis can bring to the economy, patient care and supporting health and wellness for consumers, an image problem continues to persist.

Despite its expansive growth, there is still a lot of uncertainty and misinformation. Having worked with several cannabis businesses in recent years, I firmly believe there are a myriad of ways in which the industry can benefit from PR support. A strong PR strategy can not only drive media coverage, but help to reach customers, shorten sale cycles, bolster brand reputation and drive change within political and regulatory circles.

Whether you are a flourishing cannabis brand, a start-up or ancillary cannabis business, PR can help you stand out from the competition and become a credible voice in this competitive market.

Here are some key ways in which cannabis businesses can profit from PR:

Campaigning for progress

Each category of the cannabis sector faces its own reputational challenges. Medical cannabis is perhaps the most significant of these, yet it still goes largely misunderstood by the general public. This, along with regulatory restrictions and a lack of education in the clinical community means cannabis stigma continues to exist.

For the thousands of patients suffering with the likes of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, still struggling to access this fully legal drug, this is a tragic, pressing issue. There are several families and individuals across the UK who campaign for medical cannabis access to be improved, by leveraging their story via the press and lobbying Parliament. Some of these high-profile families have been supported through strategic communications at The PHA Group, most notably Hannah Deacon, the mother who successfully campaigned for the first NHS cannabis license for her son, as well as the parents of toddler Charlie Hughes, who are currently seeking Judicial Review against NICE.

Both cases offer strong proof of the powerful role PR can play in supporting those in need of medical cannabis. Through speaking to media and generating coverage of the stories of both families, the complex issue of medical cannabis access has been thrust into the public eye, this in turn putting fresh pressure on the Government to address this through much-needed change. For cannabis leaders and professionals looking to invest in PR, it is critical that your PR partner understands the key issues, culture and complexities of the industry to create credible stories and campaigns to gain cut through in the media.

Reputation enhancement

CBD is the most established sector of the UK cannabis industry, having become firmly attached to the lifestyle scene in recent years with its broad spectrum of health and wellness products. With approximately 7.3 million people in the UK using CBD products each year through a market already worth an estimated £300 million, the industry is predicted to grow at a rapid rate, with experts claiming this figure will more than triple in the next five years.

Just some of the many hemp-derived CBD products on the market today.

Despite its impressive growth, the industry has faced its own stumbling blocks. Until this year, CBD had been in a period of regulatory uncertainty and the industry faced understandable criticism when high profile cannabis probes found over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD promised on the label. This did nothing to help the already precarious public perception of CBD in the UK, meaning firms have had to work extremely hard to heal their reputations and ensure their brands are deemed trustworthy by consumers going forward.

With hundreds of brands claiming to be the best option, establishing credibility and becoming a trusted voice is key. Educating your audience by positioning company experts will help to keep your audience up to speed on the most current information and allow your brand to achieve an authoritative voice within the cannabis space.

Amplifying awareness 

Driving awareness drives revenue. It doesn’t matter if your story and products are revolutionary if nobody knows they exist! PR can help build a narrative which conveys the purpose of your business, along with its vision and products, whilst promoting key insights to keep your company relevant. The power of public relations in this regard is very similar to that of positive word-of-mouth.

Strategic brand building

UKflagCannabis companies can’t advertise like mainstream companies, so they must tread carefully in the marketing of their products. However, there are great possibilities within PR. Through case studies and careful product placement, PRs can work carefully with CBD companies to raise awareness of the benefits of their products and solidify their brand image, without risking trouble with the ASA. With CBD brands and manufacturers springing up left and right, there are opportunities aplenty for PR firms to lend support, whether that’s from a consumer perspective, across food and drink, beauty or general wellness, or from a strategic business view.

Stories sell. It’s vital for a brand that wants to develop a sustainable, long-term plan to build a story which resonates with its audience. Strategic PR can therefore increase brand value and coupled with a digital marketing and social media strategy, boost engagement and elevate the profile of the business.

A wealth of opportunities

The legal cannabis industry is gaining traction and is one to watch. In relation to medical cannabis, the industry has called for change to improve patient access and pressure has been exerted on the government and regulatory bodies to normalise cannabis as an effective treatment for a myriad of health conditions In parallel, the CBD sector is only set to grow and in recent years, there has been increasing interest and investment into hemp, a versatile variety of the cannabis plant hailed as the next big thing in sustainability.

Cannabis is a commonplace yet spectacularly complex plant. It therefore needs a PR strategy which can uncover key angles and opportunities across a multitude of avenues to position brands within the space for success and growth.

Whilst there is still much to learn and navigate in cannabis, PR has an important role to play in changing attitudes as the industry continues to expand and evolve. I am excited to see where it goes next.