Late last month, Mastercard decided to halt their debit card transactions with cannabis dispensaries, notifying financial institutions and payment processors to stop processing purchases. This isn’t the first digital payment solution to swiftly exit the industry – late last year, vendors turned off services to their cashless ATMs. These abrupt decisions have made major headlines, shocking cannabis dispensary owners, operators and consumers as they scramble to shift focus back to the remaining legal payment tools.
For the cannabis industry veterans like myself, these exits aren’t a surprise at all. Why? Cannabis is federally illegal and federal regulations restrict banks and other financial services companies from working with cannabis businesses – even if it is legal at a state level. Due to this massive legal hurdle, cannabis dispensaries often lack access to typical banking services and have limited payment options for consumers, making it challenging to manage and facilitate payments.
Some believe that this decision by Mastercard, the second largest payments provider in the world, and by other payment vendors, coupled with the political pressure to legalize cannabis could help push legalization or the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to help mitigate the lack of access to banking services in the longer term. Even though cannabis represents an economic opportunity – MJBizDailyestimates that combined medical and adult use cannabis sales could reach $33.6 billion by the end of 2023, and $53.5 billion by 2027 – hurdles to legalization mean that, for now, cash will be the most prevalent payments option.
Let’s Talk About Cash
Cash remains the longstanding and most prevalent payment option in cannabis. However, it presents difficulties for businesses. Physical cash is difficult to manage for dispensaries for several reasons, primarily due to the costs to count, track and manage cash volumes and the labor required to count the cash. In fact, in most dispensaries, associates count cash an average of six times a day. Each time cash is manually counted, dispensaries risk miscounts, shrinkage, security and safety concerns due to robberies.
This manual labor required to oversee a business’s balance sheet and keep dispensaries operating is inefficient and unsustainable, and many have attempted to incorporate debit payments or cashless ATM transactions to help mitigate the costs associated with cash. However, while cash presents logistical and operational challenges for dispensary owners, it remains one of the more dependable payment options consumers and dispensaries have for cannabis transactions. Dispensaries can integrate simple strategies to improve their cash handling and operate more efficiently.
Best practices with cash management for dispensaries
The biggest and most impactful strategy is incorporating cash automation tools to help secure, count and manage their payments. The largest and oldest dispensary in Washington D.C. incorporated sophisticated automation tools into their cash handling practices, which have alleviated massive headaches and burdens from store associates, managers and its accounting team, who previously relied on manual cash processes to count, sort and manage their cash.
This cash-handling technology has improved count accuracy, saved time for staff, improved visibility and enabled real-time reporting. These tools have transformed the day-to-day duties of staff. The dispensary’s accounting team and associates no longer get overwhelmed when anticipating increased cash flow on 4/20 or other holidays because they have tools that eliminate the extreme costs of handling cash. Additionally, they now confidently support audits as they have complete reports of each transaction by user, date and time. Before automation, audits were next to impossible to execute confidently.
The greatest benefit of cash automation tools is the near elimination of shrinkage, a term referring to the cash lost due to employee theft or miscounts. With cash automation, cash is as affordable as digital payment options, with the added confidence that cash won’t disappear as a payment option for consumers.
Have a Cash Strategy
While Mastercard’s decision to leave the cannabis industry leaves dispensaries in the lurch, the cannabis payments ecosystem continues to evolve and transition quickly. Dispensaries must be agile and incorporate strategies for the payment options, both inbound from consumers and outbound to their vendors, that they can rely on.
As the cannabis industry continues to evolve, embracing cash automation will be crucial for sustainable growth and success. Cash automation is a transformative solution for cannabis reducing the cost of managing cash while addressing the unique challenges associated with high cash volume operations. Embracing cash automation allows dispensaries to thrive in an evolving industry while maintaining control over their cash ecosystem, no matter who enters or exits the payments space.
Cannabis sales in the United States are expected to hit $100 billion by 2030, and yet dispensary owners still face hurdles before getting up and running, namely obtaining the right insurance coverage. Unlike a coffee shop or clothing store, it can be difficult to secure the insurance coverage needed to satisfy the requirements prescribed by the state and/or commercial leasing agreements.
Yet a simple answer to the dilemma exists. Increasing demand for cannabis business owner policies has prompted some retail insurance brokers to provide convenient turnkey solutions via digital commercial insurance platforms. These platforms circumvent the traditional underwriting process that could trudge on for weeks, allowing cannabis businesses to ramp up operations sooner.
Currently about 30% of insurance customers interact with and purchase from their insurance provider digitally for their business needs. This can be a game changer for a fast-growing cannabis business operator.
What do you need to obtain insurance online?
Obtaining insurance online lets dispensaries secure a complete, holistic insurance policy in one quick pass to cover the industry’s unique risks.
Like any other commercial business package policy, you’ll need to provide details about your business and its operations when harnessing a digital insurance platform.
The first piece of information needed will be proof of licensing with the applicable state or commonwealth where the business operates. This piece is critical since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level. In addition, businesses will need to have other basic data on hand before finding coverage online, including:
The legal name of the business
Tax identification number
Annual or monthly sales projections
Number of employees
A Closer Look at Cannabis Coverages
Crime, extreme wealth conditions and legal challenges count among the risks faced by cannabis dispensaries. Here are three essential coverages important for cannabis business owners and operators.
Commercial property insurance.Owned cannabis dispensary properties can face perils such as fire, storms, theft and vandalism. Buildings hold value and need to be repaired or replaced if any adverse events occur. Leased properties may contain equipment and fixtures owned by the business and subject to the very same hazards. Commercial property coverage can help cover the cost of replacing business contents and inventory if damaged through a peril covered by the policy.
General liability insurance. Cannabis retail outlets experience a high volume of foot traffic from customers, vendors and technicians, for example. As such, trips, slips and falls could occur and lead to lawsuits. General liability insurance helps cover legal defense costs should any of these parties seek to recover compensatory damages from accidents and mishaps on the property or occurring elsewhere in a business-related capacity.
Product liability coverage. Issues such as quality control with infused products and concentrates can be a concern for cannabis purveyors. Lawsuits arising from mislabeled or improperly tested products likewise need to be defended by cannabis businesses. Comprehensive product liability coverage can meet the needs of cannabis dispensaries promoting and selling a unique variety of product offerings.
Outside the standard commercial package offering, dispensaries can opt for coverage such as business interruption insurance, which helps pay overhead costs if the operation must temporarily cease due to a covered peril.
Cannabis businesses also often need to retain workers compensation insurance that helps pay for lost time and/or medical bills incurred by employees who become ill or injured on the job. Commercial crime policies help cover losses that may occur on premises or in transit in a cash-centric business.
If cannabis industry owners and managers use an online platform for their insurance needs, they could secure a certificate of insurance in as little as 24-48 hours. HUB’s digital commercial insurance platform, powered by Insureon, is one such direct-to-consumer solution. The platform is ideal for licensed retail cannabis dispensaries in all legal US states.
As the cannabis industry experiences a significant shift toward general acceptance and mainstream adoption, new modes of operation are popping up everywhere. The evolution and expansion of the industry beg for constant innovation, and the integration of NFTs and cryptocurrencies as payment options is at the crossroads between tech and cannabis.
Crypto and NFTs have grown in popularity in recent years. Non-fungible tokens are an interesting asset in the art and collectibles world, while cryptocurrency has made a name for itself by providing a unique kind of financial independence. More and more payment processors are embracing these new payment methods, and the cannabis industry is also slowly welcoming them.
In order to fully understand the cannabis-crypto connection, Swaroop Suri, founder of Melee Dose, a cannabis brand that’s been embracing NFTs and crypto as payment options, shared some insights. Their innovative approach to creating unique cannabis experiences with technology and creative branding makes them a pioneer of this movement.
What’s Happening with Cannabis and NFTs?
NFTs and cryptocurrency are exciting developments in an industry that carries the reputation for having a rocky relationship with the banking industry. The legal gray area surrounding the connection between cannabis businesses and the banking industry has given way to an onslaught of challenges, with many banks shunning cannabis because of its federally illegal status. While traditional banking can limit cannabis companies’ access to basic financial services, the decentralization that’s characteristic of blockchain opens up many doors.
In recent years, different brands have tested the waters by using cryptocurrencies and NFTs to enhance marketing and offer alternate payment options. While it’s still early in the game, trends are starting to appear.
One of these trends is using NFTs in marketing and branding, creating unique digital assets that can be collected. This gives an air of exclusivity, creates more immersive experiences, and helps forge a brand identity. NFTs are often a great tool to engage with customers and create a sense of community.
Melee Dose recently started integrating NFTs from Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) into product packaging and branding. This has allowed the brand to offer unique experiences, foster community engagement, enhance storytelling and demonstrate adaptability to an ever-changing world.
“This collaboration merges the worlds of fashion, art and technology, providing our customers with exclusive “IRL” products incorporating digital assets and driving brand affinity”, says Swaroop Suri. “By embracing the digital revolution and connecting with the influential BAYC community, we aim to redefine consumer experiences and build lasting relationships with our audience.”
Crypto Payments Aren’t Futuristic Anymore
Payment is another trend to look out for. Cryptocurrencies are becoming more accepted in many big industries, including cannabis. With traditional banks limiting access to banking services, crypto allows cannabis companies to offer decentralized and secure payment options.
Cryptocurrency offers more enhanced privacy than traditional payment methods, which is great for those who want to stay under the radar. Lower transaction fees are another plus, as a decentralized system is more flexible. The speed of crypto payments is also an enticing feature, as payments are usually processed more quickly than traditional payment methods.
So, how are brands accepting crypto as payment? Is it safe? Melee Dose started accepting cryptocurrency payments on their e-commerce store by partnering with Coinbase Payments, a leader in the crypto industry with a strong reputation and ease of integration.
Cryptocurrency may seem perilous to those who don’t know much about it, but siding with the right company can help ease those fears. Addressing concerns about crypto volatility, Suri “opted for a feature provided by Coinbase Payments that allows for immediate conversion of cryptocurrency payments into our local currency, ensuring stable revenue despite market fluctuations.”
By working closely with reliable payment partners like Coinbase Payments and implementing necessary features, companies like his are able to successfully overcome crypto roadblocks, providing customers with increased flexibility and convenience.
The Future of Crypto, NFTs & Cannabis
The future of integration between cannabis, crypto and NFTs is exciting and always on the move, meaning there are opportunities constantly arising and challenges ahead we have yet to tackle. As cannabis legalization continues to evolve, we might expect changes in regulatory frameworks that impact how cryptocurrency is used in the industry. While we can’t say what those changes might be, the fact that NFTs and crypto have become mainstream indicates a clear adoption, as the industry finds ways to integrate them. From blockchain integration and creative marketing to payment options and immersive experiences, they are here to stay.
Swaroop Suri and his team might’ve gotten in on the game early, but they know the future is expansive: “It’s possible that NFTs could become a significant part of cannabis marketing strategies in the future,” He says. “The cannabis industry can use NFTs in various ways, such as tracking crops and using intellectual property to promote products through packaging artwork, which is what our team at Melee Dose has accomplished.”
NFTs won’t stop there. “There is a possibility to use NFTs for establishing VIP programs that offer exclusive discounts and access”, Suri says. “The ownership of an NFT could grant special privileges and perks to customers when shopping with an e-commerce company, fostering a deeper connection with the brand and community and leading to customer loyalty in the long run.” NFTs offer diverse possibilities for cannabis brands to improve their marketing techniques and get creative.
When it comes to crypto payments, brands will surely continue to add crypto as an option in addition to merchant processors. Highly-regulated industries like cannabis can find many benefits in crypto, as experienced by Suri: “Accepting cryptocurrency can mitigate some of these issues by providing an alternative payment option that is not subject to the same restrictions as traditional payment methods.”
The excitement surrounding crypto and NFTs is understandable, and as the cannabis industry introduces new opportunities for those who are at the intersection of these two global forces, companies everywhere are changing their relationship with technology.
There are other brands hopping onto the this train as well. Household cannabis brands and popular companies like Plain Jain, Highland Pharms, American Green and Pharma Hemp are just some of the many that have begun accepting crypto as payment.
As the industry continues to evolve and grow, staying ahead of the curve and embracing technology with critical thinking and environmental consciousness is key. As a new, dynamic and exciting space with as many opportunities as it is filled with challenges to tackle down the road surrounds us, the one thing we know for sure is that this is just the beginning.
This year we have seen some awesome evolution in the design industry. Retail cannabis design is leading the way. Here are some trends to keep an eye out for as we approach the new year and look at the artistic elements that are elevating the cannabis retail experience.
Goodbye all white Apple store. Hello bright colors of the rainbow. Design pioneers are tired of the safety of neutrals. Pattern mixing, bold use of colors, lights and art that blur the lines between ‘wildly tacky and holy cow that’s amazing.’ We’re not talking about a few fun pops of color; we’re talking full walls of color, bold displays and fixtures. Cannabis isn’t for the meek and it’s so exciting to finally see it reflected in design.
Experiential Retail & Sensory Immersion
The new vision for cannabis dispensaries (specifically in adult use locations) is one that absolutely combines multiple sense-touching points within the space and flexes the space to include adjacent hybrid areas. This is mostly driven by the Gen Z consumer. A quick example would be if the dispensary has florals or greenery, the shopper will want to feel like they’ve been transported to the great outdoors. Feel the wind, smell the grass, hear the birds. You get the idea, a full immersion into whatever theme or vibe the brand is putting out there. Customers love being transported to a new place and interior retail design is absolutely the coolest way to do it. This ties into the recent social media trend, ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), where you can experience a tingly euphoric feeling triggered by a carefully created clip. We love the way our environment can sway the senses away from the everyday and into somewhere extraordinary.
The goal here is to pull customers into the store and offer them something far more than a quick and dirty sale. Experiential spaces will also have those hybrid areas that merge the brand with something other than cannabis. This is tricky due to compliance, but we are loving the mixture of yoga, spa, lounge, arcades, art gallery and even bowling within a dispensary. If you’ve shopped at Sheels, you know all about this. A full ferris wheel, restaurant, aquarium and spa inside the sporting goods store. This is definitely a trend that reshapes the standard shopping model and is unique to cannabis.
Are we being bombarded with digital, phygital and AI in our everyday lives? Maybe. And cannabis customers love every drop of it. More and more we are seeing interactive, digital, full-on wall displays that make you feel like you’re at a museum exhibit. The initial investment can be spendy, but the ultimate flexibility and control (and shopper ooh’s and aah’s) make it all worth it. Imagine an incredible wall showing farm footage, where you can touch the image of the plant and an info bubble pops up describing the terpene and showing it being distilled into a tincture. Bored? Flip it to footage of your latest social event. Whatever you want your customers to see and interact with is completely up to you. More and more we are seeing the digital arts incorporated into dispensary design.
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.”
By Dr. Markus Roggen, Amanda Assen, Dr. Tom Dupree No Comments
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.
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.
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
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. 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.
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.
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.
Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C., Subchapter I, Part B, §812.
“State Marijuana Laws”; National Conference of State Legislatures, February 19, 2021.
“Exclusive: US Retail Marijuana Sales On Pace to Rise 40% in 2020, near $37B by 2024”. Marijuana Business Daily, June 30, 2020.
Kaufman, Irving. “The Cash Connection: Organized Crime, Financial Institutions, and Money Laundering”. Interim Report to the President, October 1984.
S. Code § 1956 – Laundering of Monetary Instruments.
Rowe, Robert. “Compliance and the Cannabis Conundrum.” ABA Banking Journal, September 11, 2016.
“History of Marijuana as a Medicine – 2900 BC to Present”. ProCon.org, December 4, 2020.
Truble, Sarah and Kasai, Nathan. “The Past – and Future – of Federal Marijuana Enforcement”. org, May 12, 2017.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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