Cannabis laws are changing at a rapid pace across all 50 states and around the world. Currently, Cannabis is legal in 11 states for adults over the age of 21, and legal for medical use in 33 states.
Across the nation, many states have been struggling to enact a viable medical and potential adult use cannabis system since Initiative 59 and the “Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 1998.”
Unfortunately, the program has been continuously impacted by the federal government’s presence, first with the passage of the Barr Amendment by Congress overturning the early legalization progress and continuing to delay the onset of the first medical sale at a dispensary until 2013. The federal government continues to exert influence and control over the program expansion including adding Congressional riders on every proposed update including the latest “Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2019.”
In Washington DC for example, 18 organizations including the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the ACLU and Law Enforcement Action Partnership petitioned the US House and Senate Financial Services Subcommittees to remove the rider given that “[the] Current law has interfered with the District’s efforts to regulate marijuana, which has impacted public safety. Without the ability to regulate marijuana sales, the grey market for marijuana flourishes despite the need and want of the District leadership and residents alike to establish a regulatory model.”
States with limited availability of medical cannabis, possession laws or with the ability to legally gift up to one ounce and the constant pressure by the federal government, the grey market has expanded with public safety and the safety of these pop-up businesses put at risk. The current state health and safety laws require a seed-to-sale tracking system and testing at independent labs for all medical cannabis, however the grey market consumers are afforded no such protection. The District of Columbia is unique in the US cannabis landscape as it grapples with the local government trying to provide clarity, safety and equity to a medical and adult use community, but it is hampered by what it can and cannot control through federal influence.
As the United States continues to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, control and use of tax revenue will move to center stage in all these communities and the cannabis tax revenue will return to focus.
Cannabis tax revenue has shown a massive disparity between projection and reality. In 2018, California projected upwards of one billion dollars in cannabis tax revenue, but in reality was only able to recover a third of that amount. California in response continues to increase the excise tax and even proposed changes to taxes dependent on the amount of THC, creating new pressure on producers, in-part pushing some back into the grey market.
During the pandemic, Colorado enacted emergency rules to extend cannabis sales online. Allowing customers to pay for cannabis via the web and then pick up their purchases at the store. In a testament to what is considered a “critical businesses” the cannabis industry is given opportunity to expand during the pandemic, but still hampered by severely limited access to standard e-commerce options as credit card merchants still remain concerned that cannabis sales are illegal under US federal law. Alaska, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois and Oregon also allowed online sales and curbside pick-up, but remain limited in sales as federal banking and access to credit is limited as the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act remains in limbo.
Overarching technologies such as DNA tracking that provide a clear indicator that the cannabis is produced and tested from legal sources, can be proven safe and protects local legal businesses’ products against out of market cannabis would provide such clarity.
As the country moves forward from the COVID-19 health crisis, all legal and safe ways to rapidly restart the economy will be needed, the cannabis economy will be no exception. We should be looking to this emerging market right now to help safely drive revenue and taxes into our states.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent shockwaves around the world, and they’re still rippling today. Businesses had to quickly pivot from in-person transactions and services to virtual operations, or close down until stay at home orders and other restrictions eased or lifted. While it varies from state to state, due to statutory and rule based operating requirements, requiring facilities to be open a certain amount of hours per week, many were deemed essential. These circumstances create a huge set of complex challenges for anyone in business to navigate, from workers and their families to management and owners, let alone vendors and ancillary businesses.
The bright side is being in an industry where plot twists are not uncommon. Cannabis is legal and highly regulated state by state, illegal on a federal level, so it’s always full of strategic problems to solve. With so many people, businesses, ever-shifting regulations, and financial interests at stake, the need for strategic legal services are the constant. From a purely business and regulatory standpoint, the pandemic has provided some in the cannabis industry with quantum leaps forward in operations and service, and many of them may likely become the new norm.
For people with anxiety (#everydemographic2020) and other debilitating medical conditions, perception is shifting towards the importance and benefits of cannabis as a medicine and alternative therapeutic treatment option, on pace with a larger global trend towards personal and shared wellness. There’s more freedom for consumers to participate recreationally in states with adult use programs too. Extended families and friends in other states may not have the same access to cannabis. We live in a socially driven world, and the awareness of the medicinal properties of cannabis has rapidly grown nationwide across broad demographics. The gateway drug stereotype and stigma is slowly but surely fading away.
Momentum and shift in consumer behavior, need and the shifting perspective of healthcare providers is affecting more state regulators. They’ve worked with the cannabis industry to modify and adjust operational rules as needed to ensure medicinal access during the ever-changing COVID climate. Although current rules and regulations haven’t been lifted in any way, this is a step in the right direction. However, recreational states are less likely to consider that portion of the cannabis market essential and look for ways to prioritize medical dispensaries over recreational.
Medical Cannabis Businesses Deemed Essential
The most immediate problems to solve in many states were social distancing and waiting areas – where to keep patients/customers? There are state guidelines and regulations for operations during COVID, plus CDC general safety and sanitation considerations for workers and consumers alike. Lawyers and regulators are working to make sure that these stores are open and operating safely, have established safety protocols, number of customers allowed inside the store, minimum hours of operation, and to allow for special elderly hours and accommodating patients with compromised immune systems.
One of the biggest operational changes has been an increase in the facilitation of online ordering and curbside pickup to help keep patients safe. Employees are wearing gloves and PPE as an added precaution. This puts the health of the patients and employees first, while still allowing businesses to operate.
More and more patients are not all that enthusiastic about making in-person appointments that may put them at risk. In every state, people waver between venturing out for necessities so they’re buying larger quantities and stocking up when they can, and cannabis is no different. Cash-paying customers must still pay in-person. As federal regulations continue to hinder additional payment options and protections, demand for change grows on both sides.
Staffing in a Pandemic
Like all employers, it’s easier for larger cannabis companies to accommodate employees who are sick or may have been exposed. It’s often more difficult for smaller operations. For many employees, the decision to go into work sick means rent and food, because the employer can’t offer additional sick pay.
In most states, employees have to have some type of state card to work in a store. It’s hard to find replacements and pay for sick leave. There’s no call for a temp agency solution due to clearance needed by cannabis employees. If the business has to shut down, it might not be able to bounce back. So in some states, cannabis businesses have suffered setbacks, but not to the extent as other industries such as hospitality, food and beverage, and tourism.
Crunching the Numbers
The cannabis industry is also excluded from PPP loans and other federal aid. True plant-touching cannabis companies can’t access those funds, adding extra financial stress to operations. The irony is for the majority of cannabis operations nationwide, the biggest change was not the increased regulatory requirements for social distancing, sanitation and safety, it was handling the incredible increase in product demand under circumstances that include financial and staffing stress.
One Arizona-based dispensary was averaging around $300K a month before COVID-19. Today, business has more than tripled to nearly $1 million a month. In mature legal state Colorado, a record $155 million in recreational product sales for June reflects a six percent increase over the previous month’s sales. The Colorado Department of Revenue collected $33.6 million from the industry in June. Colorado’s medical dispensary sales record was set in May, just shy of $43 million, dropping down to about $40.8 million in June. Both are still setting records for business volume. For 2020, revenue already exceeds $203.3 million, in contrast to roughly $302.5 million in cannabis-related revenue in 2019.
Heightened Supply, Demand & Opportunities
Heightened demand and the search for new market ventures means investors are taking notice. People sheltering or working from home are spending more time online, too. Many are searching for healthcare; others for promising investment opportunities. Legalization has been a long journey, state by state. Everyone inside the cannabis and hemp industries has learned to roll with the punches – expect ongoing legal needs, and to do strategic short- and long-term planning. How to anticipate change and pivot on a dime. It’s a must.
With the healthcare system struggling or strained in many areas of the country, non-essential primary care has shifted to telemedicine. Federally, the DEA granted permission to do so that extends for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency. The problem? State-level regulations may prohibit the prescription of Schedule III drugs via telemedicine, or limit the amount and refills. For essential healthcare, limited appointments or emergency-only availability remains a concern. Innovative new cannabis products help fill that gap.
There will be more challenges as elections approach and beyond. For those in cannabis, we’re used to being ready for anything. Stay tuned.
At the outset of 2020, the cannabis industry appeared poised for a series of incremental changes: a number of states were considering decriminalization and legalization measures, and support was growing for federal legislation allowing cannabis businesses access to banks and financial services. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which disrupted state legislative sessions (and legislative priorities), obstructed signature gathering for ballot initiatives, and reshuffled federal priorities. However, despite all of these changes, the cannabis industry has seen significant developments across the country. Beyond of course the many challenges and losses brought by the pandemic and its aftermath, in some ways, it may prove a boon for the industry.
Legalization and Decriminalization
Currently around a dozen states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, while just under two dozen states allow use of medicinal cannabis. With support for legalization measures steadily growing in most states, a number of major states seemed poised to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis, including large potential markets in the Northeast such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. And in many other states, advocacy groups were well underway gathering signatures to qualify legalization measures for the November 2020 ballot. When the pandemic hit, however, state legislatures largely suspended their normal operations, and signature gatherers were stymied by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements.
Despite these major obstacles, legalization and decriminalization legislation has continued to move forward in a number of states, and still others will have legalization referenda on the ballot for November’s election. Perhaps more important than these initiatives themselves are the diverse states that are moving toward loosening of restrictions around cannabis: rather than being limited to a handful of especially liberal states, cannabis advocates are seeing tangible progress is every geographic area, among states whose political leanings span the spectrum.
While the Northeast corridor had planned to undertake legalization efforts in a coordinated fashion this year, those results were put on hold given the seriousness of initial COVID-19 outbreaks in the greater New York area. However, the New Jersey General Assembly nevertheless passed decriminalization legislation, though the matter has not yet cleared the New Jersey Senate, and the appetite for full-scale legalization remains strong there, with a ballot initiative going directly to voters in advance of the New Jersey Legislature considering the issue. The Commonwealth of Virginia enacted decriminalization legislation also, and a legislative caucus in Virginia has pledged to introduce recreational legalization legislation this summer when Virginia convenes a special legislative session. Voters in Mississippi and South Dakota will be able to vote on ballot initiatives to legalize recreational cannabis, and similar ballot initiatives are underway or likely in Arizona and Nebraska. Advocates in Arkansas and Oklahoma had also hoped to bring initiatives to the ballot, but have encountered practical and legal obstacles to gathering the required signatures in time for this year’s election.
These myriad initiatives reflect a strong shift toward legalization of recreational cannabis across the country, and the ability to continue gathering signatures and momentum despite stay-at-home orders and social distancing underscores the growing popularity of the movement. Whether through the legislature or directly by the ballot, it seems all but certain that the number of states permitting recreational cannabis will grow significantly this year.
COVID-19 Business Closures
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the early months of 2020, most states instituted various forms of stay-at-home orders that required the closure of nonessential businesses. While these policies had—and continue to have—serious impacts on businesses of every type, cannabis companies have largely seen strong economic growth notwithstanding.
One of the most important developments in this space came in the context of state and local governments designating certain businesses as “essential” for purposes of business closure orders. In nearly every state to consider the issue—Massachusetts being the main outlier—state and local governments recognized cannabis companies as essential, which allowed them to operate during the shutdown.
The “essential” designation largely carried between both recreational and medicinal cannabis jurisdictions. And this matters because of what it means for the industry. State and local governments clearly realize the important medicinal role that cannabis plays for patients dependent on it for treatment, and the overlapping customer bases of mixed dispensaries further contributed to keeping cannabis companies open during the pandemic. Even in states where certain dispensaries operate solely in a recreational capacity, those jurisdictions recognized the importance of allowing access to a safe recreational substance, like alcohol, during prolonged stay-at-home orders.
Similarly, likely as a result of those same stay-at-home orders, cannabis companies largely saw significant increases in sales revenue. More customers visited retail establishments, and those customers often purchased more product per visit. This resulted in better-than-expected sales revenue for cannabis companies, and also produced increased tax revenues for state and local governments.
The cannabis industry saw more than just increased sales, however. In the process of issuing emergency rules for the cannabis industry during quarantine, a number of state and local jurisdictions either began to allow cannabis deliveries or expanded its availability, a shift in policy that may stick around well after the pandemic subsides.
One final impact of the pandemic may also help push legalization initiatives forward in the coming years: decreased tax revenue and major budget gaps. Due both to a decrease in economic activity like shopping and dining, as well as the unexpected health care costs associated with responding to the COVID-19 crisis, state and local budgets are expected to see significant shortcomings for years to come. In response, state and local governments are starting to see cannabis as a significant and viable source of tax revenue. For example, various cities in California that had previously been reluctant to permit recreational cannabis are beginning to welcome cannabis companies in hopes of making up for lost tax revenue. Similarly, in New Mexico, where legalization has remained a heated topic of discussion, Gov. Lujan Grisham has explicitly expressed her regret that the state failed to legalize cannabis, recognizing that tax revenues from the industry could have reached upwards of $100 million. Other state and local governments are coming to similar realizations, which should help propel expanded access to legal cannabis in coming years.
Major changes in the cannabis industry in 2020 have not been limited to the states. In the midst of changes and crises across the country, the federal government has been making meaningful progress in two major respects, COVID-19 notwithstanding.
First, cannabis companies are edging closer to having full access to banks, bank accounts and related financial services. The SAFE Banking Act, championed by Rep. Perlmutter, has made it through the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. However, as Congress continues to toil away at future COVID-19 relief legislation, political signals from Washington, D.C., suggest there is a reasonable likelihood that the protections of the SAFE Banking Act will be included, in some form, in the next round of major COVID-19 legislation out of Congress. The enactment of these banking provisions will provide substantial relief to cannabis companies who have largely been excluded from opening bank accounts and utilizing the services major banks provide. Additionally, allowing access to banks and their services should further facilitate the rapid growth in the cannabis economy we are witnessing elsewhere, and this movement could further legitimize the industry as part of a broader push for federal legalization.
Second, after a four-year delay, the DEA has finally proposed draft rules to expand the DEA’s limited cannabis research program. For decades, all cannabis research to date has relied on limited supplies of cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi. Now the DEA is finally following through on its promise to further develop, refine and expand its research program by allowing additional suppliers and market participants to play a role in cannabis research. While the rules proposed are not without detractors and critiques—and the rules themselves have not been finalized—this marks an important step forward to a better understanding of the effects of THC on consumers, not only because more research is needed to understand a substance consumed by millions annually, but also because the limited supply of cannabis on which researchers currently rely has been shown to differ substantially in appearance, consistency and chemical composition from cannabis that is commercially available in states across the country. With an expanded research regime comes the hope that scientists will be able to develop new and innovative cannabis-derived medications, while also furthering our understanding of how THC affects health and the body.
At every level of government, the year in cannabis so far has proven to be far more eventful than many predicted. And the COVID-19 crisis has not slowed progress. There appears to be continued momentum to further mature how cannabis is treated at every level of government, which signals that significant changes are on the horizon. Industry observers will be closely focused on how the rest of the year proceeds, especially with a presidential election on the horizon.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised to clarify that New Jersey has not yet decriminalized marijuana. A decriminalization bill passed the New Jersey General Assembly, but the New Jersey Senate has not acted as of this writing.
Before jumping into what cannabis businesses can do amid this pandemic, it is crucial to explore the specifics behind how the virus impacted the industry as a whole. From a surface level, it seems obvious what happened: dispensaries had to implement social distancing protocols, require both customers and employees to wear masks and limited the number of customers that can be present on the point-of-sale floor room. But COVID-19 did not merely make shopping experiences a tab bit inconvenient.
Cannabis producers, and especially those involved in manufacturing cannabis goods, experienced an apparent disruption in their production schedules. If the metals and plastics were sourced from Wuhan, Shenzhen or any other dense industrial area in China, supplies suddenly stopped coming, and producers were left with limited production options. Businesses did not consider the value of having various vendors and instead put all their stock in one source. A disruption in production inherently impacts dispensaries.
COVID-19 impacted more than just supply chains, however. For instance, investors are now less likely than before the pandemic to invest in early-stage cannabis companies. Competition for capital now far outweighs the supply for cannabis companies, and we have seen (and will continue to see) a drop in company valuations. Indeed, COVID-19 is affecting more than just currently existing operators but those yet struggling to create cannabis businesses of their own.
Vendors & Supplies
A broad survey conducted by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) between February 22, 2020 and March 5, 2020 found that 75% of U.S. companies had experienced supply chain disruption as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. An estimated 90-95% of all components utilized in cannabis vaporizer pens were sourced from manufacturers in Shenzhen, China. In contrast, very few companies used domestic manufacturers. While this is just one example, it is equally important to note that cannabis-specific equipment and supply shortages were not the only factors that disrupted cannabis businesses. Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) presented challenges for cannabis dispensaries, producers and manufacturers that continued to operate during the “shelter in place” orders.
Operators must establish a resilient supply chain. Do not simply limit your options to one specific region, as this can be a costly mistake. Operators must cultivate an in-depth understanding of their supply chain beyond critical suppliers and their stress points; they need to develop and follow a systematic supply process that takes potential disruptions and stress points into account. When vetting potential vendors, always ask detailed questions that elicit evidence-backed responses. Ask vendors where they source their materials from, whether they have any history of experiencing disruptions in their supply chain and what kind of setbacks they have suffered as a result of COVID-19.
Investing in Your Core Business
In light of COVID-19, operators must invest in solutions that increase efficiency and improve the customer’s experience. This entails ensuring your customer safely enters and leaves your dispensary with a product they are satisfied with—the essence of any retail operation. Your operation should focus on enhancing customer flow as opposed to encouraging aimless roaming. Having an open-space, Apple store style dispensaries might have been a popular option before, but times have changed, and dispensaries must adapt.
Guided purchases offer not just more efficient transactions, but also serve to ensure that your waiting room isn’t backed up with an endless stream of unmanageable customers. Depending on your locally-mandated COVID-19 protocols, your dispensary will likely not be permitted to hold a high number of customers in the store, nor should it during this pandemic. Each customer service representative must be active as opposed to passive, directly asking customers what they are interested in, offering product or strain choices when customers seem unsure and answering questions as thoroughly as possible to avoid confusion and inherently delays. Be sure to emphasize the value of guided purchases to your employees and how they can promote the safety of both themselves and their customers.
The uncertainty of COVID-19 and its impact on the general economy has left many individuals “clocked out.” Simply put, many people feel that they should wait until things go back to normal before making any critical decisions. As essential businesses, cannabis operators cannot afford to make this same mistake. Now is not the time to sit back, reflect and wait for the vaccine. Instead, operators must work to precisely assess how COVID-19 impacted their business and execute a clear plan of action to address foreseeable problems.
Execution is far more important than perfection; you’ll need to make changes on a dime and avoid spending excessive hours obsessing over debating specific actions rather than taking them. It is far more essential to get tasks done versus ensuring they are perfect. If something is not working in your business, it must be readdressed or removed entirely from the protocol. It is far better to make necessary changes now amid the pandemic as opposed to reactively waiting and seeing what may come next following it.
Stay nimble by cutting out any factors that may be slowing down your company’s efficiency. Is your point-of-sale system causing issues? Can you use a better payment processing tool? Are any employees underperforming? Are there any internal policies that may be hindering your employees’ ability to work as optimally as possible? These are some of the many factors that must be considered to ensure your business stays agile and adaptable. Determine what is working against you and execute a plan of action to address. Do not wait and do not take shortcuts around regulations.
Understanding the Shift in Purchasing Behavior
Regardless of whether or not a vaccine for COVID-19 is completed anytime soon, operators must know that there is no “returning to normal.” People’s habits and behaviors have changed due to this virus, whereas slow browsing of items might have been preferable for some individuals before COVID-19; this is likely not the case today. Furthermore, research groups like Accenture have found that most customers expect their shopping habits to change permanently.
In the study mentioned above, shopping more consciously is one of the two top priorities for customers during this pandemic. According to Accenture, “[c]onsumers are more mindful of what they’re buying. They are striving to limit food waste, shop more cost consciously and buy more sustainable options. Brands will need to make this a key part of their offer (e.g., by exploring new business models).” Furthermore, customers are now more likely to shop locally; this is why community engagement would be especially important to ensure you develop transparency and trust between your brand and your customers. Understanding this shift in purchasing behavior will remain one of the more crucial tasks of any cannabis operator.
Expanding Sales Avenues
More and more customers are now relying on online and curbside purchases than ever before. Dispensaries must look to their current sales avenues and determine where key focuses should be made. Use your sales data to determine where customers are making their purchases the most, be it through third-party delivery services such as Eaze, standard home delivery, online ordering or curbside pickup. Focus on identifying friction and streamlining the user experience on all customer-facing platforms and services. Equally, consider which platform your customers are using the most to make purchases; are they making more online purchases, or do most still prefer direct shopping at the store? Remember that having more products doesn’t necessarily mean more revenue. You must also identify which products are performing well and which have low margins.
These considerations can help strengthen your highest performing platform while working to fix any more inferior performing platforms. As stated before, stay nimble; if something is not working out, cut it out from your business model, and move forward. Do not be afraid to cut poor-performing platforms to hone your focus on the successful ones. Since post-COVID-19 shopping behavior is likely to stay permanent, these changes may still be applicable following a slowdown or cessation of the virus.
Delighting Your Customers
Virus or not, customer satisfaction remains one of the most crucially defining points for the future of your business. Your customers must be safe and must be happy with their purchase. To ensure this outcome, you need to maintain adequate safety policies while equally promoting streamlined purchases. Although a limited number of individuals may be annoyed with over-the-top safety precautions, most customers will enjoy the heightened security that comes alongside these types of measures.
Contactless service, such as having customers scan their identification upon entry or encouraging more credit card versus cash transactions, can increase customer satisfaction, as they will feel a stronger sense of security when shopping at your dispensary. Focus on streamlining curbside pickup. Things such as requiring vehicle descriptions (e.g., license plate numbers, color, make) for curbside pickup purchases can go a long way in helping employees quickly identify customers.
Equally, be sure there is hand sanitizer available near the entrance of your dispensary. This adds a further sense of security for your shoppers. Delivery should be consistent; delays and setbacks must be minimal to win the confidence of your customers. Take the extra steps to ensure your dispensary is clean and products hygienic. All these factors work to increase customer satisfaction while maintaining their safety, and more importantly, impact the level of trust your customers have in association with your brand.
Scaling Operations Taking Advantage of Limited Competition in Emerging Markets
As stated before, several individuals—including existing and emerging cannabis businesses—are clocked out following COVID-19. This mindset is not only detrimental for operations but can also impact how you scale your business. New markets are coming online and will continue to do so as regulators are increasingly incentivized to replenish government coffers. Riverside County in California, for instance, is now allowing for capless licenses for all cannabis business types. However, what remains the key focus for regulators is expanding the number of delivery and distribution operators. In Massachusetts, delivery endorsements for dispensaries are available without a set deadline to social equity applicants and do not have a defined cap. In Illinois, the cap for transporters was equally removed, and each applicant who scores above 75% will receive a license.
These types of licenses are now more valuable than ever before for two reasons. The first reason is that regulators are keener to award delivery and transporter licenses than other types. Secondly, customers now prefer home delivery over shopping in stores due to COVID-19. With more people clocked out during these times, you have far more opportunities and far fewer competitors during application processes. Use this time to truly develop a strategy for expansion, as the chance might not come so quickly again.
As a final point, be sure to expand your online presence during this time. Although you may not have the capacity to reflect your company’s personality and value through quick in-store transactions, you can use social media to encourage product reviews, social interactions, and recommendations. Invest in marketing through social media platforms. Platforms such as TikTok have helped form communities of like-minded individuals. Use platforms such as that to highlight your company’s personality and values, avoid being “salesy” and focus more on being funny, entertaining and just alive. Character adds value to your business.
People want to laugh, to feel safe and they want to live. Create social interactions and immersion and always prioritize being honest and transparent with your customers. This final point stands as equally as important as the rest of the considerations highlighted throughout this article. Stay nimble, stay active and stay alert! Do not view the chaos behind this pandemic as a pit, and instead see it as a ladder. Track down opportunities, do not be afraid of change, and, more importantly, do not wait for an answer to COVID-19, be the answer.
The cannabis industry is fraught with hypocrisy. Cannabis is good medicine as has been established by the numerous patients we have seen who are now off of their opioids, benzos and sleep agents due to the addition of medical cannabis products to their regimen. We see patients using cannabis when nothing else has worked and they tell us about their decreased suffering on a daily basis and thank us profusely for staying open during the COVID-19 shutdown, due to our designation as an essential business in Maryland.
The fact that this essential business has seen an increase in business due to the anxiety surrounding Covid-19 is an indication that our society will be dealing with the ramifications of anxiety, PTSD and depression for a long time to come as we deal with the fallout from the pandemic. Our forced shutdown of the workforce has resulted in the opportunity to look deeply at our basic assumptions and policies. Policing and incarceration for what is now a medically-necessary component to society is the crime. We believe that we have the opportunity to rectify the errors of our past and release those still imprisoned for cannabis possession, use, etc.
Further, as evidenced by our country’s recovery from the great depression, the legalization of alcohol certainly helped to bolster the economy. The US has the same opportunity with the cannabis industry. Tax revenue from the legalization of cannabis nationwide is sure to add a much-needed economic boost to help us recover from the disaster of this pandemic.
Our country has had an unfortunate historical relationship with a plant that has the potential to ease suffering safely and bring about some much-needed economic stimulation. It’s high time we fix the mistakes of our past and create a kinder and more inclusive future.
Although the COVID-19 crisis has halted many normal business practices, that doesn’t mean that high brand engagement rates have to come to a close. In many states, the cannabis industry has been deemed an essential business. This designation as ‘essential’ opens up a prime opportunity for social media accounts to achieve positive gains and educate people about the valuable benefits of cannabis, especially with so many people staying online for longer periods of time.
It’s been clear for years that social media marketing is one of the most cost-effective ways for a business to reach customers and prospects. However, when it comes to cannabis and cannabis-related businesses, serious social media challenges are everyday occurrences. So how are you supposed to effectively market your business when you can’t promote your products and services? As a marketing professional, I know it’s a tall order, but with some smart strategic moves, it can be done.
There are a few ground rules that cannabis businesses should follow during this ongoing crisis to keep their social media engagement metrics as high as their loyal customers, while remaining in compliance with the strict rules for cannabis marketing. While the laws vary from state to state, that pesky federal illegality and Schedule I designator the DEA is dragging its feet on means that you must pay careful attention to even the smallest details. When it comes to CBD products, the FDA has been outspoken on what not to do as well. Slip up, and mainstream social platforms like Instagram and Facebook can and will restrict or even remove your brand pages. Losing all your followers and posts and having to start from scratch is not fun.
You’ll also need to get creative with your posts. Remember, never promote products, or encourage your audience to get in contact with your business, so always review and proof carefully before posting anything to your feeds. Make these simple mistakes, and your business could be seen by the platform as directly or indirectly soliciting use of an illegal substance. Cannabis businesses already have enough headaches to contend with right now without inadvertently adding to them.
So what should you post and how often? Now is the time to double down on educational and lifestyle related content, and for sharing how your business is addressing the ongoing COVID-19 threat. Share any new procedures and precautions to underscore that your business is dedicated to safety for staff and consumers. Post often, but don’t overdo it. Your posting frequency will be a matter of trial and error, but aim for 3-4 times per week per channel, and be sure to tailor your posts for the platform it will appear on.
Educational content doesn’t automatically mean boring! Keep your content easy to read, and choose a single topical focus or benefit. Use a variety of formats – from publishing informative blogs and podcasts that you can share to your social media accounts to direct posts of how-to and behind-the-scenes videos and rich lifestyle imagery (no product photos, please). Posting these types of media with smart captions can help gain the attention of your audience and are easy for viewers to share with their friends and followers. Speaking of which…
Embrace earned media opportunities and social media influencers who can promote your brand. If you’re not familiar with the term, earned media is the bucket we use to describe content that’s being shared and talked about by users, or even created by them. That organic exposure to a wider audience is the highly desirable side-effect of having great content – positive attention that gets shared by others.
If you’re considering working social media influencers, look for those that are already engaged with members of your target audience or that would have appeal to your customers. Be sure they can demonstrate real ROI and that they understand the importance of remaining compliant with FTC and platform specific guidelines for posting, including compensation disclosures – before signing them. Many marketing and PR agencies provide vetting of influencers, and can even negotiate contracts, often at better rates. Before deciding if influencers are right for your brand, you may want to consult with a reputable agency that has experience with hiring (and firing) social influencers.
Finally, if you haven’t yet done so, consider establishing a profile on one or more of the rapidly growing cannabis-friendly social media platforms. These include sites such as Weedable, duby, and CannaSOS. There are also a number of social media platforms focused specifically on cannabis businesses and professionals, such as Leafwire and MJLink (formerly WeedCircles). If you’re still not sure or cannot tackle this yourself, consult with an experienced marketing agency. Now get out there (safely, of course) and conquer those social media platforms the right way! Stay the course, and by the time this crisis is over, your brand could achieve a more solid position on social media, and more engaged followers.
By Steve Levine, Megan Herr, Meghan Brennan No Comments
On Thursday April 23, 2020, Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) introduced the “Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act” in the House. Blumenauer and Perlmutter have been influential in protecting state-legal cannabis businesses from federal interference, most recently under the 2020 federal appropriations rider.
If passed, the Act would allow state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses to take advantage of the multi-trillion dollar stimulus packages designed to help small businesses harmed by COVID-19.
As we previously discussed, cannabis businesses harmed by COVID-19 remain ineligible to receive federal financial assistance due to their engagement in “federally illegal” activities. Consequently, cannabis businesses cannot receive assistance from the Small Business Administration (SBA) thereby making them ineligible to receive Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and other SBA financial assistance, including Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs), traditional 7(a) loans, 504 loans, and microloans.
To provide the industry with much needed economic relief, the legislation states that cannabis businesses would no longer be prohibited from (i) participating in the PPP, (ii) receiving EIDL loans, or (iii) receiving emergency EIDL grants purely on the basis that the business is a “cannabis-related legitimate business”1 or “service provider.”2
Additionally, the Act clarifies that the SBA and its officers, directors and employees would “not be held liable pursuant to any Federal law or regulation solely for providing a loan or a loan guarantee to a cannabis-related legitimate business or a service provider.”
Even though states have varied in their approach to continue medical and retail cannabis operations amid the coronavirus outbreak, a majority of states that allow some form of sale and consumption of cannabis have designated the cannabis industry as “essential” and open for operation.3 Some states have gone as far as allowing home delivery, curbside pick-up, and telemedicine consultations.
Nonetheless, despite the cannabis industry’s designation as “essential,” cannabis businesses (including those who service the cannabis industry) will continue to be precluded from receiving federal financial assistance until the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act, or similar legislation, is passed. It is important to note that, even if passed, the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act would likely provide little relief, as the majority of the funds to be administered by the SBA have already been accounted for.
What does this mean to you?
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for the heavily-taxed and financially burdened cannabis industry to receive assistance under the stimulus packages, the Act, even if passed by Congress, faces an uphill battle in the Republican-held Senate.
The term “cannabis-related legitimate business” means a manufacturer, producer, or any person that – (A) engages in any activity described in subparagraph (B) pursuant to a law established by a State or a political subdivision of a State, as determined by such State or political subdivision; and (B) participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling cannabis or cannabis products, including cultivating, producing, manufacturing, selling, transporting, displaying, dispensing, distributing, or purchasing cannabis or cannabis products.”
The term “service provider” (A) means a business, organization, or other person that – (i) sells goods or services to a cannabis-related legitimate business; or (ii) provides any business services, including the sale or lease of real or any other property, legal or other licensed services, or any other ancillary service, relating to cannabis; and (B) does not include a business, organization, or other person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling cannabis or cannabis products, including cultivating, producing, manufacturing, selling, transporting, displaying, dispensing, distributing, or purchasing cannabis or cannabis products.”
Unlike their retail neighbors who have been forced to move inventory online to survive, many cannabis businesses are considered essential and remain open during the current pandemic. With that, though, comes a tremendous responsibility to maintain optimal protocol for safe operations and customer shopping.
Whether you run a retail or production operation, allow only essential vendors (i.e. delivery, service companies) into the facility and have non-essential staff telecommute, when possible. Some businesses may want to consider splitting shifts for the management team as well.
Each state and local municipality will have their own rules when it comes to protocols for open retail establishments. Where those are more stringent than the following recommendations, adhere to the more stringent rule.
Cannabis Production Facility Best Practices
While not being face-to-face with cannabis customers on a daily basis, production facilities are the first and possibly only ones to handle the raw product the customer will eventually consume. For this reason, it’s important to conduct a refresh training session on sanitation procedures and new COVID-19 protocol for all production employees. Consider the following critical procedures for cannabis production facilities:
Review current production sanitation procedures and adjust accordingly, focusing on high touch points and potentially contaminated surfaces. Include office items such as keyboard, phones, and kitchen areas.
Review the business’ call-in sick policy and make sure employees know they can – and should – do so if they’re under the weather.
Sanitize high touch points every 30 minutes or less.
Instruct employees to wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after blowing their nose, coughing, sneezing, going to the bathroom, before eating and when touching any communal surface, including door handles and surfaces. Wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times while working with raw product, including gloves and masks.
If an employee coughs or sneezes in a production area, instruct them to do so into the elbow of their outer garment, and immediately change following proper donning techniques. Instruct them to avoid touching their face.
Cannabis Retail Facility Best Practices
Retail cannabis establishments must realize first and foremost that those with compromised immune systems may be frequenting their store to purchase medical cannabis. Consider, evaluate and appropriately publicize protocol relative to employee interactions with customers, including:
Enable mobile or order-ahead features along with curbside pickup and contact-less delivery, when possible. Where this isn’t an option, limit the number of customers in the store at a time.
Consider moving to appointment-only operations, or restricted hours for those over 65.
Reduce store visits by recommending patients order their prescription for the maximum allowable 60 days.
Designate an employee to champion personal sanitation and social distancing. Create an entry sanitation station and require all customers to use it upon entry. Maintain social distance of 6-ft. minimum between customers. Place markings on the floor to designate this.
Limit sales to only sealed products.
Sanitize high touch points twice an hour, including ID check booths, display cases, phones, keyboards, etc. and provide adequate PPE for all, including gloves, masks, etc.
Install separation barriers, like thick plastic or plexiglass at each cashier station.
The requirements of keeping an essential business open will vary by location and will likely change as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. Regularly check for changes to the rules of your local jurisdiction and adapt accordingly.
The cannabis industry is not immune from global setbacks. Discussions about how resistant the vertical is to this (next) setback have been widely disseminated, from mainstream news to the blogosphere.
Yes, the UN punted global reform down the pike another 9 months – affecting the international industry. And so far, the entire vertical has been left out of the relief bill in the United States (although there are lobbying efforts everywhere to correct the oversight on subsequent bills now almost inevitably in the legislative hopper).
However, there are signs that the industry is actually gaining credibility if not forging new victories during a time likely to go down as this century’s “Great Depression.”
Here is a look at some of the trends afoot that are already bearing fruit and bringing relief.
Cannabis Business Is Essential Business
Some important battles have been won in many states in the U.S. as well as several other countries (including but not limited to Canada). This starts with the designation of the industry as “essential,” at least on the medical side. The issue of delivery and cashless payments have been on the front burner just about everywhere. And this time, there are few if any objections with a national lobby to voice said concerns.
In Europe of course the conversation is also different depending on where you are, but there are still signs that things are clearly changing.
In the UK, authorities have made it easier for cannabis importing. In Germany, pharmacies are on the front line in a way unseen just about anywhere else.
And in Spain, with most patients reliant on cannabis clubs, the lockdown and subsequent hardship for the most vulnerable has led to widespread calls to make deliveries a possibility. Even if the clubs are not functioning as “lounges,” their operators might not get fined for opening their doors, much less “importing” product from the outskirts of town to a central distribution point.
Pivoting To Respond In Times Of Crisis
It is impossible to forget that the emergent industry has been on the forefront of the medical industry and certified production for a long time, even if that, at least up to this point, has received little respect.
Health Canada has asked testing labs to repurpose their activities for Covid-19 testing.
Canadian and American producers are also on the front lines of providing PPE (personal protective equipment) that can be multi-purposed. Masks, gowns and gloves have all been donated from multiple companies. Others are literally repurposing ethanol used for extraction to make hand sanitizer for vulnerable populations. More than a few, including in Europe, have directly been involved in helping to fundraise for foodbanks.
GMP Licensing and Other Developments Still Cooking
While some companies waiting for certification have been stymied because of a lack of foreign travel (EU-GMP requires German inspectors to travel to Canada for example), there are other indications that global companies are finding the way through anyway.
New deals are being inked all over the planet, including international provision deals from unlikely places. This is in part because new export and sales channels are being forged – literally out of desperation. See the story of Little Green Pharma and Astral Health, an Australian company now exporting to the UK (a first). Or the New Mexico company Ultra Health, which just started to export to Israel. Not to mention the source of Israel’s other international purchase of cannabis this month – from Uganda of all places.
Down under, things are certainly developing in an interesting way during the crisis. Indeed, New Zealand decided to proceed with its own cannabis cultivation, with signs that more reform is on the agenda for later in the year.
Back in the Northern Hemisphere, North Macedonia, home of one of the most developed cannabis economies adjacent to Europe, is literally one amendment away from entering the European and global business with flower as well as extracts (which is on the table this month as the government begins to reconvene.)
In summary, while times are tough, everywhere, the entrepreneurs who have forged their way through laws of man to create reform, are also showing up to battle against this century’s so far most emergent threat.
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