As a fast-growing cannabis company, ensuring your business stays compliant with regulatory agencies of all kinds—planning departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and so on—is critical for survival. But is your business also compliant with temporary and part-time employment regulations? Violating these often-overlooked regulations can land your company in hot water at best and force you to shut your doors at worst. Here’s what you need to know about risks, regulations, compliance issues and more.
The 30,000-Foot View: Part-Time and Temporary Employees
Cannabis has proven itself to be a high-turnover industry. But in the ever-shifting, post-COVID landscape, many cannabis employers are seeing the financial and logistical benefits of hiring part-time and temporary workers.
Though the terms “part-time” and “temporary” are sometimes used interchangeably, the fact is, there are legal differences in the definitions of part-time versus temporary work. For starters, temporary employees must work for less than a year at a specific organization, and their work must have a defined end date. Temporary employees, or “temps,” often fill vacant roles in a temporary capacity, such as roles previously occupied by someone on parental leave.
Part-time employees, on the other hand, can work indefinitely for a company—but they must work less than 40 hours per week. And, side note, if a part-time employee works more than 1,000 hours in a calendar year, they could be eligible for retirement benefits—so hiring managers, bear that in mind.
For employers, there are some tangible benefits in hiring part-time or temporary workers. For starters, there are often fewer upfront costs associated with hiring part-time workers (like workers’ compensation and healthcare). Establishing a strong part-time and temp employment strategy also allows for employers to quickly scale up or down based on market tendencies or shifts.
Understanding the Risks of Hiring Part-Time or Temporary Workers
While hiring part-time and temporary workers can help businesses stay agile and responsive to market demands or fill vacancies created by recent resignations, many businesses hire these types of employees without a full understanding of associated regulations. And it can get even trickier: many full-time cannabis industry workers in the cultivation space aren’t considered “employees” at all—they’re defined by the federal government as “agricultural workers.”
It’s essential that businesses classify part-time workers and independent contractors correctly. Attempting to claim a worker is part-time when they’re really a full-time employee (a practice known as “misclassification”) can save a business tax dollars in the short-term but lead to sanctions and hefty penalties down the line. For example, if a worker is misclassified and the Department of Industrial Relations finds out, they can sue the former employer for unpaid wages.
Potential fallout from noncompliance with classification or wage and hour issues includes massive fines, potential litigation and more. Federal agencies are extremely sensitive to cannabis business regulatory violations, it’s vital to adhere to proper staffing regulations and compliance. The wrong kind of attention can tank your business’s reputation and halt your operations altogether. I’ve personally worked with numerous cannabis businesses in their hiring and payroll initiatives, and I’ll say this: It may seem like a headache to cross all the “Ts” and dot all the “Is” in the beginning, but it will make a massive difference down the line.
Understanding the Regulations for Hiring Part-Time or Temporary Workers
All employers must adhere to the regulations set forth by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates that part-time employees must be treated the same as full-time employees. That means they must be paid minimum wage, be paid overtime should they exceed their determined hours, have the opportunity to take job-protected unpaid leave, and so on. I really want to stress how essential it is that employers classify their workers appropriately.
It’s also worth noting that many states have specific regulatory structures for employment, both full- and part-time.
In the heavily regulated cannabis industry, employers must exercise strict due diligence to meet all OSHA standards. Additionally, they must identify all occupational hazards and account for employees’ overtime and double time. Grow operations must also adhere to the Field Sanitation Provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which includes providing toilets, drinking water, hand sanitation facilities and hygiene information.
Avoiding Compliance Problems with Planning and Diligence
There’s a lot more to hiring workers than businesses realize, especially in cannabis. Most companies don’t intend to be noncompliant with regulations—they simply don’t know the regulations, or they’re overwhelmed by hiring and growing so quickly. To make sure you’re compliant, you might consider building out your HR team, educating yourself as the business leader and reaching out to staffing and HR professionals in the space who can answer your questions. In this rapidly growing industry, which seems to shift and change every day, planting your feet firmly on solid regulatory ground will serve to benefit you in the event of federal legalization, massive business growth or initiatives you may want to undertake in the future.
Vaping is a multi-billion dollar cannabis product category representing more than 20% category share in the US, according to a recent Headset.io report. The 2019 vaping crisis, whereby lung injury and several deaths were caused by the adulteration of vapor pen cartridges with vitamin E acetate, highlighted the importance of safety and emissions testing for vapor pen products. In addition to volatile organic compounds, metals and ceramics contained in the heating elements of cartridges are also a concern. While the FDA has a robust program for emissions testing in nicotine products, they do not currently regulate cannabis. Cannabis vaping is currently regulated at the state level in the United States.
Cannabis vaping is popular among minors owing to its discrete nature. In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 14.7% of teens reported vaping cannabis in 2018. In a separate research study, University of Michigan researchers found that teens vaping cannabis were two times more likely to experience respiratory issues than teens who smoked e-cigarettes.
We spoke with Corey Mangold, CEO and founder of PurTec Delivery Systems, to learn more about cannabis vaping safety and their PurGuard technology. Prior to entering the cannabis space, Corey founded a software company in 1998. He also founded the advertising agency Gigasavvy in 2008, which he recently exited from in March 2021.
Aaron Green: How did you get started in the cannabis industry?
Corey Mangold: I got started in the cannabis industry in 2016. My daughter was away at college in San Luis Obispo and got pregnant and was going to have a baby, which obviously I was excited about. I decided to have her come down to Southern California and start a company together, as I’ve done multiple times in my career successfully. I wanted to show her the ropes, and teach her everything from finance to HR, to business development, marketing – everything it takes to be successful – and give her the tools that she would need to be successful for her life.
Green: What kind of things were you into before 2016?
Mangold: I founded my first company in 1998 in the software industry and had that company up until 2005. In 2008 I started another company called Gigasavvy, a nationally recognized advertising agency out of Irvine, California, which I successfully exited in March of 2021.
When deciding to start a company with my daughter, we were interested in the cannabis industry – I think everybody was back in 2016. In 2016, I had started using cannabis again after probably about a 16- or 17-year hiatus. I was using a vape because I had children in the house. I went to literally anywhere I could and bought every type of cartridge on the market. What I found was that their user experience was not like what it was on the nicotine side of vaping. I reached out to associates of mine who had been manufacturing vapes since 2011, starting with the blue e-cigarette, and we engineered a unique device that was proprietary and completely unlike anything on the market. It was incredible, and still to this day, I think it’s probably the best 510 thread cart on the market. We launched that under the Orchid Essentials (CNSX: ORCD, OTC:ORVRF) brand in California and Oregon.
Green: Is that cart something that you sell to other brands as well, or is it purely for the Orchid brand?
Mangold: Yes, purely for the Orchid brand, but it’s what inspired me to start PurTec Delivery Systems. After a few years of struggling in this industry because we didn’t have the access to capital needed – Orchid is a US company traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CSE:ORCD, OTC:ORVRF) – and dealing in a substance that’s federally illegal, there was no access to any traditional financing, be it factoring or inventory financing. We were literally creating as much product as we could every month and then selling out almost instantly, and then waiting till the next month to get money in from all our accounts to make more. We had to slug it out. We did get into a little over 500 stores in California and Oregon, but it was just a battle, and I didn’t really want to be touching cannabis.
In 2020, I had a breakthrough in my strategy. I was watching the TV show Gold Rush and I watched one of the guys go and have to buy a new wash plant. He pulls up to this dealer’s yard that sells wash plants and tractors. I saw this dealer had a lot of inventory and clearly a lot of money, and I realized the place to make money was selling the shovels, not really digging for gold. I said to myself if I have the best shovel out there, why am I digging? I should just be innovating new shovels and selling shovels. Hence, I started PurTec Delivery Systems and now for the last year and a half have been 100% focused on developing advanced vaporizer technologies.
Green: Tell me more about PurTec.
Mangold: I founded PurTec with the sole intention of creating safe vaporizers for consumers. We conducted an 18-month safety study in Switzerland with our partners, on vaping devices in the market. I learned a lot of things that I already knew but wanted to see it proven by independent laboratories and by PhDs and MDs, and really see what was so concerning to me. For the last year and a half, we have sought to develop a safe line of vaporizers. I’m very cognizant about what’s going on in my body and want to know what’s going on internally with these products. I don’t think anyone would be using them if they knew what was really going into their lungs.
Green: What are some of the things that consumers should be thinking about when it comes to vape safety?
Mangold: Consumers should be thinking about all the different aspects from inhaling vaporized heavy metals to ceramics. Ceramic particle inhalation is one of my biggest concerns. I think it’s been ignored. I think all the manufacturers know about it and I think it’s been swept under the rug. I think it’s one of the threats that we have. There should be regulatory bodies that are out there protecting consumers like the FDA, hence why I believe federal legalization is so important, because if the FDA was involved not even one of these products would be on the market because the first thing the FDA would do would be very extensive emissions testing to find out what compounds and potential toxins are entering into your body.
Green: There’s clearly a need for safety and regulation in the space, but from where you’re sitting, is there a demand? When consumers go into a store, one of their main focuses is: what’s the THC content? How do you see consumer demand for safety and how do you think about building that awareness?
Mangold: I don’t think there is consumer demand yet. The consumer demand right now is for getting medicated and having fun or getting whatever relief or primary reason you use cannabis. I can point to a direct correlation with the opioid epidemic. No one knew they were as horrible as they are, and doctors were prescribing them left and right, and everyone thought it was okay. People think these cannabis products are okay because they’re on the shelf in every licensed dispensary, and the California Department of Health and the Department of Health in every other state and country has been involved to some degree. So, consumers think that they’re safe. The problem is they’re likely not just like we weren’t with opioids.
I don’t think the consumer demand will be there for quite some time until we start seeing a lot of long-term health impacts where we start seeing people getting lung disease, we start seeing people getting iron lung, different potential brain issues from inhaling adhesives and heavy metals. I think once the health impacts are seen clinically – just like we saw with the opioid crisis – once that was really in the forefront, everybody saw with their own eyes, and then they were aware that there was a problem. So, I think that it’s important to become aware of the potential health impacts, but I think it will take quite some time before that happens.
Green: It sounds to me like you want to get ahead of the industry on this because if it does go federally legal, there will be more stringent requirements. How do you think about that from a product design and development perspective to get ahead of a problem that exists but isn’t reflected in current regulations?
Mangold: The best thing we can do right now in the cannabis vape industry is to look at what the nicotine vape industry is doing. It is controlled by the FDA and there are standards for vaporizers in other parts of the world that are very stringent, like the AFNOR standards, which are in the European Union regulations for vaporizer safety.
What we do is we find the most stringent standards in the world, and we test our products to those standards. If the standards get stricter, we can develop our products and re-engineer them to meet those new requirements. Right now, all our products are emissions tested at AFNOR standards and over-engineered even for those standards. We also are constantly working on reduction of potentially hazardous materials: reductions of heavy metals; only using proven safe and effective materials and FDA approved materials like SAE 316L surgical stainless steel; and using improved ceramics that are not as brittle as the ceramics being used by almost every single manufacturer out there. There’s a lot of things that can be done. It takes supply chain management, understanding the technology and having strong solid teams of scientists and doctors that know this stuff much better than anyone else in the industry does, and leveraging their expertise.
Green: You recently launched a safety feature for minors. Can you tell me more about that?
Mangold: Yes. Two weeks ago, we launched a new software application called PurGuard. PurGuard is a massive innovation and is the first of its kind that we’re aware of. It’s a piece of software that pairs with any device, whether it’s a disposable pod system or a 510 cartridge. You then pair it to your phone and take a picture of your government ID. Then the camera looks at your face, runs quick facial recognition and runs an age check through the largest age-checking platform API in the world. Then based on location and legal age of the user’s location – some states are 18 and different countries have different rules – it validates your ability in your market to be consuming that product. This technology works in 180 different countries.
Once that occurs and the device is ready for you to use, we have another feature that we’ve developed. There is an auto-lock feature that we have where if you’re a parent, like me, and you have kids in the house, you can turn your device to auto-lock right from your phone. When you walk away from your phone and are 10 feet away, your Bluetooth connection will break, and it will automatically lock the device and so your child can’t walk into your bedroom and take your device.
This technology is important to us. Consuming cannabis is horrible for the health of minors. There are serious mental effects on brain growth that occur from using cannabis at a young age because the brain is still developing up until about the age of 23 to 25. So, it’s not safe for them to be using. Of course, I’m sure we all smoked when we were in high school, but the ease of use of vape and the discretion, I think allows minors to use significantly more cannabis than previous generations did 20, 30, 40 years ago. It’s a massive problem right now and I think it’s just a matter of time before the FDA requires such protections. This industry can only survive if we protect minors. So, we’re getting ahead of the curve and setting the standard.
Green: What kind of hardware does PurGuard work with?
Mangold: PurGuard works with every single type of device that we manufacture: 510 thread cartridges, disposables, and pods. If it’s a 510-thread cartridge, the battery has to be a PurTec battery, and the cartridge has to be a PurTec cartridge. They communicate to each other through certain technologies, and it can even recognize what oils are in the cartridge or the pod or the disposable. Moreover, we can tell what strain it is, when it was manufactured, what the potency levels are and more. It records all the usage statistics. We’ve also proven with our hardware, the actual milligram contents being consumed per hit, or draw based on volume, and draw duration. We can track and report to people and say, “Hey, you’re consuming 100 milligrams of THC a day, that’s too high, you need to slow down and maybe go down to 50 milligrams a day.” That will be what is required as it is being required in the nicotine industry under the FDA pre-market tobacco applications (PMTA). When the FDA comes into cannabis, they’re going to want to see the same thing. They’re going to want to know that cannabis products are not promoting people to use more, and they are trying to get people to use less. It doesn’t mean stop using it, but use it in moderation, like everything in life. You shouldn’t be drinking a bottle of whiskey a day. You probably shouldn’t be smoking a pound of weed a day either. Everything in life is moderation and this application not only protects minors but also teaches us about our consumption habits.
Green: A theme here is “skating where the puck is going to be.” What kind of trends are you looking at right now in the industry?
Mangold: The biggest trend I see right now in the industry is disposables. We’ve seen that the trends in cannabis consumption trail behind the nicotine industry by 2-4 years. We see a lot of our customers and potential customers shifting into disposables and are now seeing a very large spike in sales of disposables. I think that’s a big trend, but with that comes another major issue: we now have lithium-ion batteries being thrown away at astonishing rates and going into landfills. PurTec has an answer for that that we’ll be launching here in the next four to six months That will be I think the biggest innovation in regards to eco-friendliness within the vape industry. That’s where I see things going right now.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Mangold: The thing that interests me most, and what I’m most interested in learning about is regulations. Not the regulations themselves, but how regulations are drafted. I’ve sat in several meetings with rules committees for different regulatory bodies throughout the United States and it is laughable. I was recently in a state I’m not going to mention. I asked them what scientists and what doctors they have consulted with and they said none. I just found that dumbfounding. The state regulatory bodies are making decisions without doing due diligence and without bringing in subject matter experts in some cases.
I’m very interested in learning about how we can change our regulatory bodies. Taxpayers pay these salaries and their job at the end of the day is to protect consumers. I think that these cannabis regulatory bodies need to be way more involved with their state’s Department of Health, as well as with the FDA, and National Institute of Health and looking at this as a holistic approach. How do we protect consumers? This is a drug. It’s like anything else out there. If you’re selling tomatoes that were sprayed with a certain pesticide, you must do the research and you have to know what’s in that product before you start putting it in people’s hands. Otherwise, you may have people dying left and right. So, I’m very interested in learning more about regulatory bodies and how they need to evolve and hopefully I can help push them into evolving sooner rather than later.
Green: Great, that concludes the interview, Corey.
The industry’s most influential trade show is coming back to San Francisco! We’re thrilled to be gathering in person December 15-17, 2021 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center for the 7th Annual Cannabis Business Summit & Expo.
At the premier cannabis business event, industry entrepreneurs, experts, and thought leaders will come together to learn, network, and discover new products & services to help their businesses grow. With unique content presented by the best and brightest minds in the industry, unmatched networking opportunities, and 400+ exhibitors, this is an experience you won’t want to miss.
For the uninitiated, delta-8 THC is a cannabinoid that can be synthesized from cannabidiol (CBD) derived from hemp. It is an isomer of delta-9 THC, the more commonly known psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis. Delta-8 THC does produce psychoactive effects, though not quite as much as its better-known cousin, delta-9 THC.
Due to loopholes in federal and state laws, namely the 2018 Farm Bill specifying that hemp must contain less than 0.3% Delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC is technically legal across the country. It grew in popularity across the United States very quickly over the past year, largely due to online sales.
Following the surge in sales, a number of states including Colorado, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington have implemented some form of regulation or outright ban on products containing delta-8 THC. Christopher Hudalla, president and chief scientific officer of ProVerde Laboratories, told Chemical & Engineering News that he has a lot of safety concerns about the whole delta-8 THC craze. Hudalla says he’s more concerned about the processing involved to produce it in large quantities. “These are pretty aggressive synthetic conditions that use strong acids,” Hudalla says. “They might be using strong bases to neutralize. They can use metal catalysts. I hear different people doing it different ways.”
The FDA shares similar concerns. Their fourth point in the consumer update mentions that delta-8 THC products “often involve use of potentially harmful chemicals” in its production. They even claim that some manufacturers might be using unsafe household chemicals to synthesize delta-8 THC. “The final delta-8 THC product may have potentially harmful by-products (contaminants) due to the chemicals used in the process, and there is uncertainty with respect to other potential contaminants that may be present or produced depending on the composition of the starting raw material,” reads the FDA report.
In their consumer update, they note that between December 2020 and July 2021, they received 22 adverse event reports. Of the 22 reports, 14 were hospitalized following ingesting a delta-8 THC product. Notably, those reports included reactions consistent with symptoms from overconsumption of delta-9 THC, such as vomiting, hallucinations, trouble standing, and loss of consciousness.
The FDA says that national poison control centers received 661 cases of delta-8 THC products, with 41% being unintentional exposure, 39% involved pediatric patients and 18% required hospitalization.
In the consumer update, they tell the public that delta-8 THC products have not been evaluated by the FDA and that they “may be marketed in ways that put the public health at risk.” This includes marketing it as a hemp product, which it is. Still though, many consumers associate hemp products with somewhat innocuous things, like CBD oil, which is mostly harmless.
The FDA also mentions in the update that delta-8 THC does have psychoactive and intoxicating effects. The FDA says they are notifying the public about the delta-8 THC due to an uptick in adverse event reports, marketing that is appealing to children and concerns regarding manufacturing with unsafe chemicals and contaminants.
Few people will disagree that financial compliance isn’t the most exciting topic within the cannabis industry. But compliance is, and always will be, the engine grease to the legal cannabis market. Cannabis operators have the arduous task of dealing with multiple layers of compliance, both operational (maintaining and adhering to regulations enforced by the state licensing board) and financial. These compliance measures include managing everything from seed-to-sale systems for all plant-related activity to on-site requirements like facility access points and alarms systems to name a few.
With complex compliance requirements for the business, the last thing cannabis operators want to think about is financial compliance. We created Confia on this notion. Just as cannabis regulators impose the tracking of plants through the supply chain via a seed-to-sale system, we have developed a storyboard similarly designed to follow the money, which is the equivalent of a transaction-to-deposit system.
Having experience in regulatory technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the world’s largest banks across multiple countries. This experience has afforded us the luxury of working alongside regulators, chief compliance officers and chief risk officers, understanding how risk is perceived by financial institutions and how it ought to be mitigated. It was this access and knowledge that allowed us to effectively reform, enhance and improve the antiquated BSA programs with a technology-enabled process. Leveraging technology is a necessity, almost a requirement, for the cannabis industry as legalization nears and banking access begins to broaden.
Jamming cannabis requirements into an existing BSA program doesn’t scale well. BSA programs are very manual, descriptive and process oriented. So, we’ve taken our prior experience and success in banking to form Confia, distilling the complexities and simplifying the deliverables surrounding cannabis banking compliance. To best articulate cannabis banking requirements, I break it down into three pillars.
Pillar One: KYC-Enhanced Due Diligence
The first pillar is the client-onboarding bucket or KYC – Know Your Customer. In the complex world of cannabis banking, banks must know and understand their clients to great depths. It’s not enough to simply know that the client exists; you also have to understand whether or not that client could be a potential risk to the bank, and one step further, the financial system. Cannabis is a high-risk industry, so the KYC requirement is escalated to a deeper diligence and review, called Enhanced Due Diligence (EDD).
Banks need to know and understand their customers’ story, and all the key parties (officers, directors, and those with key decision-making powers or access to the bank accounts) within that organization. This includes reviewing personal, business, and legal history – not to mention watchlists and negative news presence. An initial onboarding review must then be followed with daily screening and monitoring of all watchlists and adverse media. Typically, banks do KYC refreshes every three years. In cannabis, a full refresh should be done annually with the daily monitoring systems in place.
The high-risk nature of the industry also requires a level of diligence on all parties to a transaction, even if one of the parties, whether a payer or recipient, is not a client of your bank. Unlike traditional banking sectors, reliance on other banks’ KYC programs is far less defensible in the cannabis industry.
Pillar Two: Transactional Monitoring & Detection
Tracking and monitoring the actual financial transactions comprises the second pillar required for cannabis banking. At Confia, we have focused on streamlining processes, so the cannabis operator can seamlessly support the compliance obligation for every transaction. A bank must demonstrate supporting documentation for every cannabis transaction, and gathering such information is a large undertaking in and of itself and can pose future issues if not done properly, see the pitfalls for lack of compliance. Banks are obligated to understand the nature and reason for each transaction, the source of funds, ensure cannabis licenses are in good standing for all parties, and collect evidence such as accounting records and seed-to-sale data.
Core to transaction monitoring in the traditional sense, is the overarching support through anomaly detection. Relying on information is important, but testing those inputs keeps everyone honest. It is important to evaluate transactions from a holistic point of view relative to peers and relative to the general contents of a transaction. This anomaly detection layer is your last line of defense, and as new information is collected, it continues to refine itself.
Pillar Three: Filing and Reporting Requirements
The third component to compliant cannabis banking is regulatory filing and reporting. Once a client is onboarded, the account requires an initial suspicious activity report or SAR-Initial within 30 days of that client being approved by the bank. Then, a report must be filed every 90 days after that for all the transactions of that cannabis operator. Banks must file the SAR-Initial and the Continuing-SAR reports for each cannabis client they have.
Solutions like Confia automate the filing process and support the filing with transactional data evidenced on our distributed ledger of record. This provides immutable audibility and simplifies the process for all parties involved.
Compliance Requirements After US Legalization
The anticipation of federal legalization and banking reform bills has many operators hoping for easier banking. Yet, in my opinion, regulatory oversight and audits will likely increase after such reform or legalization. As other financial institutions start to support cannabis, it will inadvertently create greater opportunity and expose the financial system to nefarious or illegitimate transaction activity. This is why cannabis banking will be carefully monitored by regulators, and more so, why banks will be slow and pragmatic in standing up their internal cannabis banking programs. Some banks may forever avoid the cannabis industry due to the known pitfalls of an industry specific program, while others may simply mitigate the possible exposure to reputational risk.
Choose Wisely: Pitfalls for Lack of Compliance
Financial compliance is the responsibility and duty of the banks, but the real losers and result of non-compliance always fall on the cannabis operators. Regulatory action against an institution may result in the bank shutting down its cannabis program or may require them to complete a remediation of all their cannabis transactions for a certain period from its clients. At the end of the day, regardless of action, the cannabis operator is the one being punished. Operators either lose their bank account and have business massively disrupted, or they are asked to provide all the compliance docs for a historic period, which is a huge undertaking and operational distraction, ultimately impacting business and productivity. So, choose your banking partner wisely.
Summarizing Key Banking Requirements
In summary, banking in the cannabis industry will undoubtedly remain a high-risk industry, with or without legalization. Although banking opportunities may expand as US policies change, there will be continued compliance and regulatory requirements for the foreseeable future.
Onboarding and ongoing screening are critical
Evidence for every transaction is a significant portion of compliance and must not be dismissed
Evaluating activity with broader strokes is essential in mitigating against money laundering
Managing the staggered filing timelines and due dates for each client
Compliance is the most crucial factor in cannabis banking at this point. It cannot be overlooked or taken for granted. Cannabis operators must take an active role in evaluating the compliance programs of their financial providers. To open a bank account is one thing, but the consideration and effort that goes into keeping a bank account is the difference that will protect your business in the long run.
Earlier this summer in July, Senators Chuck Schumer, Ron Wyden and Cory Booker held a press conference where they introduced the first draft of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). During the press conference, the Senators laid out the foundation for their comprehensive cannabis legalization measure, emphasizing the need to address social equity and social justice matters, while also asking for support in revising the draft bill.
In response to that call for input on the draft legislation, a number of nonprofits and trade organizations last week submitted comments. Among the organizations to submit comments on the new legislative proposal to end federal cannabis prohibition were a lot of cannabis advocacy organizations: The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) and the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR). To refresh your memory, CPEAR is a controversial trade organization founded in March of this year by corporate interests in big alcohol and tobacco.
Regardless of the interests behind the organizations, all of them seemed to have comments that aligned with one another. All of the comments submitted by those organizations had a common theme: social equity. Even CPEAR submitted comments highlighting the importance of “providing substantial opportunities for small and minority-owned businesses.”
The NCIA’s comments are perhaps the most comprehensive of the group, outlining an equitable, state-centric and small business-focused plan for federal cannabis reform. The MCBA’s comments reflect its mission and focus on things like restorative justice, minority participation, equitable access and inclusion.
The MPP’s comments are noteworthy because of their concerns regarding a number of regulations. Karen O’Keefe, state policies director at the MPP, says certain aspects of the regulatory scheme need clarification. “Our two major areas of concern are: the possible upending of state licensing and regulatory systems — driving sales underground — and the impact on medical cannabis access, including for those under the age of 21,” says O’Keefe.
NORML’s feedback is also particularly poignant. They ask to leave medical cannabis markets exempted from the federal excise tax proposed and for the federal government to balance roles shared between the FDA, TTB and ATF to ensure that individual state markets won’t be adversely affected by federal regulation.
The rise in the number of optimistic regulatory frameworks instigated by various regional governments will positively anchor the forecast for the cannabidiol (CBD) market. The growing awareness regarding the benefits and effects of the product as an alternative treatment method has accelerated its preference among consumers and suppliers. Moreover, the continued advancements in the approval processes by various authorities worldwide have also made way for numerous opportunities supporting CBD market growth.
According to a report by Global Market Insights, Inc, the global CBD market size could exceed $108.8 billion by 2027.
Growing presence in cosmetics
The overall industry share from creams and roll-on products is poised to hit a 35.8% CAGR up to 2027. This is owing to the increasing scope of CBD in cosmetic applications as it is highly effective in treating skin conditions. This, as well as its anti-inflammatory characteristics from a medicinal perspective, are leading to increased demand for CBD products like creams and roll-ons.
Scope in the treatment of mental health
CBD market value from anxiety/stress applications exceeded USD 1.5 billion in 2020 due to the growing need for helping mental health. The World Health Organization reported that over 4.5% of the total population in Europe suffers from depression. This escalating anxiety and stress rate has encouraged healthcare practitioners to increasingly make use of CBD-based medications.
Higher demand for oral administration
Demand for oral cannabidiol administration held nearly 45% of the industry proportion in 2020 due to its growing preference considering the gradual relief of pain compared to other disorders. The increasing dependency on the oral administration route for product development by several manufacturers will add positive impetus to market growth.
Medical benefits of cannabis
Annual revenue of the CBD market from the segment of the market dealing with THC (and CBD) products is expected to cross USD 30.1 billion by 2027. This is largely due to its increasing penetration across various countries and regions on account of its legal status. Furthermore, the relatively higher THC content of the compound has led to its growing usage to combat medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, among others.
Online distribution to see a considerable footprint
The online CBD industry was responsible for more than 46% of the market in 2020. This is mainly due to the numerous advantages of online channels, like on-time delivery and adequate inventory, compared to their offline counterparts. Besides, this distribution platform minimizes the operational costs related to the maintenance of brick and mortar retail.
Australia to lead the regional landscape
Australia dominated the Asia Pacific CBD market by holding over 25% of the market share owing to the expanding geriatric population and the liberal stance of the regulating bodies in the region. The permittance to the medicinal and cosmetic use of CBD products is likely to spur regional adoption. The rising amendments in regulatory scenarios have also triggered awareness regarding the potential benefits of the product in the country. For instance, in April 2020, the Australian government released a new proposal for over-the-counter CBD in a bid to relax its narcotic scheduling whilst making it a Schedule 3 substance.
Providers of various CBD products are actively indulging in numerous growth strategies, like acquisitions and partnerships, to reinforce their market presence. For example, Mota Ventures Corp., in January 2020, acquired Spanish producer and online retailer, Sativida OU in a USD 2.2 million deal. The acquisition expanded the company’s presence in Europe and Latin America.
Although the demand for CBD is likely to experience certain hesitation from consumers in the short term, the market will witness lucrative growth in the long run. However, counterfeit and substandard quality products may potentially restrain industry expansion to some extent.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
4Front Ventures Corp. (CSE: FFNT) ( OTCQX: FFNTF) is a multi-state operator active in Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan and California. Since its founding in 2011, 4Front has built a reputation for its high standards and low-cost cultivation and production methodologies earned through a track record of success in facility design, cultivation, genetics, growing processes, manufacturing, purchasing, distribution and retail. To date, 4Front has successfully brought to market more than 20 different cannabis brands and nearly 2,000 unique product lines, which are strategically distributed through its fully owned and operated Mission dispensaries and retail outlets in its core markets.
We interviewed Andrew Thut, chief investment officer of 4Front Ventures. Andrew joined 4Front in 2014 after investing in the company in 2011. Prior to 4Front, Andrew worked in investment banking and later moved on to public equity where he was a portfolio manager at BlackRock.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Andrew Thut: I came at it from the investment side of things. I started my career as a junior investment banker right out of school and then I was a public equity analyst and Portfolio Manager. I ran small-cap growth portfolios for BlackRock where I was on the team for a better part of 11 years.
One of my friends, Josh Rosen, who came from the finance industry, got interested in the cannabis industry really in 2008. He founded 4Front as a consulting company officially in 2011 and I came in as an investor. After that original investment, I left BlackRock and I was looking for something different to do. I was tired of chasing basis points and running public market portfolios. Josh said to me “This industry needs more talent,” and I became more and more involved at 4Front as the years went on. In 2014, I came into the business full time. Originally, I was someone that was kind of the gray hair in the room when we were applying for licenses. We had to go to different municipalities and convince them that we were going to be responsible license holders. I also spent a lot of time on the capital raising side for our business leveraging my career in corporate and more traditional public finance. These are incredibly complex businesses that require a fair amount of capital in some places. So, that’s how I originally got into the business.
These are complicated businesses in a lot of cases. The “sausage making” in cannabis is incredibly complicated. There’s friction at every step along the way. As an example, when you’re buying a building where you want to cultivate your product, you can’t get a mortgage from a typical bank.
While those of us that have been in the industry like to gripe and complain about it, this friction is also the opportunity. Because more traditional investors can’t invest in this industry yet, it allows us more time to build our businesses and have some protective moats around it from a competition standpoint until those folks do come in. So, all this friction is a pain and it’s brutal, but it’s also the opportunity here in cannabis.
Green: Can you speak to the transformation of 4Front from consulting to MSO?
Thut: The original business was consulting. Our original investor was sensitive about touching the plant – it’s one thing to offer services to a federally illegal business, it’s another thing to directly run a federally illegal business. For example, 4Front would have consulting clients that were interested in acquiring a license in Massachusetts. Because of our expertise and our standard operating procedures, we could apply for licenses in limited license states on behalf of our clients and help them show regulators competence and give the regulator’s confidence that these operators knew what they were doing. So, we would help our clients win the licenses and then once those licenses were won, our operations folks would come in and help them get up running.
When I came into the business we said, “well, geez, we have quite a track record helping clients win licenses and get open. If we’re good at winning these licenses and getting them open, why aren’t we just doing this on our own behalf?” So, in 2015, we shifted the business from consulting to being a multi-state operator. We leveraged our capabilities in regulatory compliance and winning licenses to go and get those on our own behalf. We also leveraged our financial expertise in M&A to add to our portfolio, so what we ended up with was a seven-state portfolio at the time.
Green: Chief Investment Officer is an uncommon title, even in the MSO space. What does your day-to-day look like?
Thut: I spend an awful lot of time helping management plot our strategy, and then figuring out how we are going to pay for our growth. Not only structuring finances for the company, but also having contact with our existing and new investors.
I spend a lot of my day to day thinking about where we want to be as a business and what geographies we want to be in. If you look at cannabis longer term, we have less interest in being cultivators or farmers. We think that’s going to be the most quickly commoditized piece of the value chain. We like retail as a business, but I think that we have less interest in managing hundreds of retail locations scattered across the country. We ultimately want to be a finished goods manufacturer. What we think is going to matter longer term is establishing low-cost production.
There is a lot of price elasticity in the end markets for cannabis meaning if you get customers a quality product at a much better price than the competitor, you’re going to take outsize market share. To offer that lower price, you have to be efficient. Over the years, we have figured out how to bring the labor cost out of our production. We have 25 different brands with 1000s of different SKUs of products that have dominant market share in states like Washington. And we’re now putting them into Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, and hopefully New Jersey.
Green: Do you have a preference towards acquisition, or do you seek growth through internal investments?
Thut: We are always weighing build versus buy. We want our products to have dominant market share, or very strong market share in every state we are in, and we have a lens towards what gets us there faster and most efficiently. For instance, we have two cultivation facilities and one production facility here in Massachusetts – about 15,000 square feet of canopy in the state. That will just about serve our three retail locations in Massachusetts.
Back to our bigger investment thesis, we believe that we should be a finished goods wholesaler in every state that we’re in. We know our products are incredibly well received and we know that consumers love our price point. In Massachusetts, for instance, we’re currently evaluating if we need more capacity from a cultivation standpoint and a production standpoint. And if we do where do the lines cross in terms of whether we should build versus buy that additional capacity?
We are currently in five states, including our facility in Washington has dominant market share in one of the toughest markets in the world for cannabis – somewhere close to 9% market share in Washington. Our brands are in the top 10 of every single category from flower to vapes, to edibles everything across the board. And what we’re doing our strategy is simple. It’s taking those tried-and-true products and operating procedures that have been so effective in Washington, and we’re replicating them in other states where we have licenses: Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan, California and hopefully New Jersey. We’re looking for more state, but we want to be deep in the states we’re in.
We also have a lot of confidence that you know, having been having translated some of these, having been able to effectively take our Washington success story and port it to other states. We’re looking for other states to sort of bring into the portfolio because we feel like we’re in a position now to stamp it out.
At our facility in Washington, which is the number one edibles manufacturer in that state, we produce the edible Marmas which is our the number one selling gummy in Washington. We produce 3,500 boxes of those in one shift using 25 people in Washington. Our facility is one of the lowest cost producers in the country.
We are opening what we think is going to be a very disruptive facility in Southern California right now. The facility is 170,000 square feet of purely automated finished goods production. So, rather than making 3,500 boxes of our gummy squares in one shift using 25 people, with the automation that we have in California, we can make 30,000 boxes. So, 10x one shift for the same number of people. We look more like the Mars Candy Company than most investors would think of when they see a typical cannabis company. We’re bringing that kind of scale and automation.
Green: What are some of the industry trends that you’re watching closely?
Thut: We keep a close eye on limited license states. States like Massachusetts and Illinois. For various reasons Massachusetts is very tough to get zoned. So, there’s going to be a limited number of players in a state like Massachusetts, which means you can have pretty good moats around your business and pricing will hold up over several years. We love limited license states like that, where price is going to hold up. On the other hand, we’re not afraid to enter a state like California where we think our low-cost production expertise uniquely qualifies us to go into a huge market like that and be disruptive and take a lot of the pie.
“You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry.”What we’re seeing in terms of industry trends, particularly on the THC side of this business, has just been phenomenally strong. You’ve had robust medical markets where, by and large, we’re seeing those dominoes start to fall quickly and going recreational. When that happens, the size of the market increases – call it from 2% of the population to as much as 10% of the population. So, from a state regulatory standpoint, having states go form medical to adult use is a huge deal in terms of the market opportunity.
We’re also seeing states get a lot more comfortable with the idea of selling cannabis. I’ve been around for close to seven years in this industry. When I started and I went into a municipality, and I said we wanted to open a cannabis store you’d have people following me to my car with pitchforks. As these municipalities open and public acceptance comes around, people are realizing that these stores are providing jobs and providing a good tax base for communities. So, the acceptance of cannabis has a snowballing effect that just continues to roll.
It’s not just the ultra-frequent users of cannabis who are totally driving the bus in terms of the demand growth for your business. You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry. So, the fundamentals of this industry are phenomenal. I think that we’re probably in the second inning of what is a mega-trend of legalization of cannabis and the investment opportunity here.
Green: I think one of the interesting things about the fundamentals is you’ve got this hardship of 280E, that all the companies are facing, and yet you still have groups that are surviving, profitable and growing. What are your thoughts on 280E’s effect on cannabis businesses? Do you foresee anything happening there?
Thut: There was a huge liquidity crunch in cannabis in 2019, meaning it was hard for people to come up with capital to grow their businesses. You had a bunch of companies that had licenses who didn’t really know how to operate and weren’t really focused on profitability. That liquidity crunch of 2019 made people get religious about being profitable and being efficient with capital allocation. Fast forward to 2021 and if you look at the top 10 cannabis MSOs in the US, I think we’re all profitable.
So, here you have an industry with accelerating top line growth and they’re already profitable. That profitability should only improve as you’re able to leverage your operating expenses and that’s a unique thing. When the internet craze was started in 1999 you had companies that a weren’t profitable, didn’t have business models, and no one really knew what they wanted to be. You have companies here in cannabis that are growing the top line 50% a year, and they’re profitable, and they’re trading at under 10 times EBITDA, which is totally disjointed.
So, that leads me to your question on to 280E. 280E has been a problem. Banking has been a problem. Having to list our companies over the counter instead of on exchanges like the NASDAQ and NYSE – that’s been a problem in terms of attracting capital. But the good news is Senator Schumer, Senator Booker and others have put out some bold initiatives on what they want to achieve from a legalization standpoint. From an investment standpoint, the biggest thing that investors should be focused on is access to banking, which is included in the senators’ proposed legislation.
Once we get access to banking services, the federal government is basically acknowledging cannabis as an industry will be able to not only have more traditional financing for our growth, but it will also lead to uplift into exchanges and real institutions like the Fidelity’s and the BlackRock’s of the world being able to come and invest in these companies. It also acknowledges 280E is an antiquated law. Getting rid of 280E will give us a much lower tax rate and will allow us to have a bigger proportion of our pretax cash flow into growing our businesses rather than having to go outside for that funding. My crystal ball is probably no better or worse than others in the industry, but if you fast forward 18 months to two years, I have a tough time seeing 280E still in place.
Green: Last question here. What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about in the cannabis industry?
Thut: I’m just fascinated to see how these various business models will play out. People are placing bets on picks and shovels. People are placing bets on whether being a finished goods manufacturer works. People are placing bets on whether a retailer business model is going to win the day.
If you look at the leadership in the cannabis industry today, it’s totally different than it was four years ago. People that were foregone winners four years ago like MedMen had to do significant recaps. I put Acreage in that sort of bucket too. The leadership had shifted and so I’m really curious to see just from an intellectual standpoint, how this business evolves.
I sometimes scratch my head, you know, do you really want to be a cannabis company with 200 retail locations? You’re going to have a tough time growing same store sales in three to five years in 200 retail locations. So, I’m just most curious in proving out our thesis of being finished goods producers and low cost finished goods producers in the value chain. I’m most curious in seeing how that plays out. I think we are seeing our strategy play out in the most competitive markets in the world. We have a high degree of conviction that we’re on the right track here, but our eyes are always open and we’re always making little pivots here and there trying to make sure to stay on top of the sweet spot in the value curve.
If you describe the cannabis industry generically and you didn’t say cannabis, you said “widget” I think it’s the most fascinating Business School case ever presented. If you’re taking this market that already exists, it’s just illegal. So, all it needs to do is switch from the black market to the legal market and then you’re always trying to plot a course and steer the ship towards where the highest value creation can be. So, I’m fascinated to see how it’s going play out here.
Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks Andrew!
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.
The legalization of cannabis in the U.S. has been long in the making. Back in the early 1970s, states such as Oregon, Texas and Colorado began the process of decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis. Fast forward 50 years or thereabouts, and the momentum toward legalization is undeniable.
True, cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, but state after state is legalizing the substance for medical and adult use. California was the first to do so for medical usage in 1996. Since then, several others have jumped on the medical cannabis bandwagon, and a total of 19 states have legalized cannabis for adult use. It seems, then, that it’s just a matter of time before the federal government follows suit.
A Bit of Background
There are two key federal laws concerning cannabis that criminalize its use: the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (CDAPCA) and the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which is part of the CDAPCA. The CSA became effective in 1971 and grouped cannabis along with heroin, LSD and cocaine as Schedule I drugs that are tightly regulated and deemed illegal by the federal government. For its part, the CDAPCA, also enacted in the 70s, was an element of the U.S. “War on Drugs,” and served to significantly restrict manufacturing and distribution of cannabis, among other substances, and amp up related security laws.
Times have certainly changed over the decades, and so has public sentiment about cannabis use. In fact, over 91% of U.S. adults say that cannabis should be legal for adult use or medical use—this according to the Pew Research Center. Clearly, more and more states are hearing this message loud and clear given the uptick in jurisdictions legalizing the substance, be it for medical or adult use purposes.
The Booming Legal Cannabis Market
The legal cannabis business is on fire, with recent estimates suggesting that the size of the global market will climb to $84 billion by 2028. This is a staggering number that spells opportunity for budding (pun intended) entrepreneurs in the U.S. and beyond, not to mention tax authorities. It gets even better when taking into account the popularity of CBD products. CBD, which is derived from the cannabis plant but does not contain THC and is legal in the U.S., has become an integral part of the wellness industry. Experts predict that the global CBD market is on its way to reaching a value of $55 billion in years to come.
What This All Means for the Future of Cannabis at the Federal Level
No doubt about it, legal cannabis is big business. But that business is being thwarted by the failure of the federal government to change course and legalize the substance. With cannabis still considered a Schedule I drug, federal banks are unable to provide access to financial services for companies selling cannabis-related products. As otherwise stated, because federal law makes cannabis illegal, banks cannot do business with cannabis companies, which is problematic for so many reasons.
But good news could be on the horizon. The SAFE Banking Act of 2021, which would provide a safe harbor for banking institutions providing services to cannabis clients, was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and referred to committee. Whether the legislation passes in its current form is anyone’s guess, though our federal legislature does seem to be nearing the relaxation of existing cannabis restrictions.
This is evidenced as well in the U.S. Senate, where the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act was recently introduced and is currently pending. That legislation would, among other things, remove cannabis from the CSA, introduce regulations to tax cannabis products, expunge prior convictions, and maintain the authority of states to set their own cannabis policies.
Of course, there’s no certainty that 2021 will be the year when cannabis is finally legalized (or at the very least, decriminalized) federally. Still, we’re closer to that eventuality than ever before.
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