Tag Archives: finance

How Section 280E is Still Hindering the Cannabis Industry

By Jay Jerose
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The cannabis industry is an unprecedented industry and one under constant review and control. Following the November 2020 elections, fifteen states and Washington DC have legalized adult use cannabis, a number that will continue to grow as legalization slowly becomes more widely adopted in other states. Beyond that, a continuously growing number of states allow residents to purchase legal medicinal cannabis, and many have also decriminalized adult use. However, it still remains a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act and is therefore illegal on all accounts at the U.S. federal level, which creates a number of issues for businesses in the cannabis industry duly operating in states where it has been legalized.

Not only is it difficult for cannabis companies to avail themselves of alternative banking solutions, but there are also obstacles in place preventing these companies from taking advantage of notable tax deductions. The primary obstacle being Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 280E.

What is Section 280E?

Section 280E is a relatively short code section, only 77 words to be exact, but it carries significant weight and can have a debilitating effect on the taxable income of marijuana [sic] related businesses (MRB). Section 280E of the IRC prohibits taxpayers who are engaged in the business of trafficking certain controlled substances, including cannabis, from deducting typical business expenses associated those activities. Section 280E, which was enacted in 1982 during the “War on Drugs” era, has become increasingly relevant for cannabis businesses. The cannabis industry has grown substantially in recent years with annual market values expected to reach $30 billion by 2025.

However, while Section 280E greatly restricts the tax deductions of state-legal cannabis businesses, there is some reprieve. Current IRC provisions permit state-legal cannabis businesses, including growers, producers, wholesalers or retailers, to deduct the Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) in computing their US federal income tax liability, despite the application of Section 280E.

Impact of Section 280E on Businesses

 What does Section 280E mean for cannabis businesses today? It is intended to prevent dealers from claiming tax deductions for their business expenses, interpreted to include state-legal cannabis businesses, reduced deductions that result in increased taxable income and MRBs will face higher federal tax rates. 

The IRC disallows any deductions or credits paid or incurred during a tax year if those deductions or credits relate to trafficking controlled substances. The courts have taken the position that the term “trafficking” in this case means “engaging in a commercial activity – that is, to buy and sell regularly.” Simply, the law denies cannabis businesses any U.S. federal income tax deduction for ordinary and necessary business expenses, despite being duly licensed as a legal business in their state of operation.

Typically, the ability to deduct ordinary business expenses means that a business is subject to federal tax on its net income (i.e., gross receipts minus expenses). However, the definition of Section 280E and the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I substance severely hinders legal cannabis companies from taking advantage of tax deductions for actual economic expenses incurred in the ordinary course of business, which results in a significantly higher effective tax rate as compared to other businesses.

Legal Actions and Challenges to Section 280E

There have been court challenges and concessions made to Section 280E. Specifically, the 2007 court case Californians Helping to Alleviate Medical Problems, Inc., v. Commissioner. This court case reinforced the precedence that Section 280E does not apply to cost of goods sold. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines cost of goods sold to be “expenditures necessary to acquire, construct or extract a physical product which is to be sold.” Generally, for a retail MRB, this means that the direct cost of acquiring cannabis products for resale. Deductions for rent, utilities, wages, insurance and other operating costs common to ordinary businesses are generally disallowed. New York State has specifically indicated that it intends to follow Section 280E for its own income tax calculations, disallowing these same deductions against New York taxable income

Tax Court and Section 280E

The Tax Court has also been aggressive in tamping down efforts by MRBs to separate cannabis related and non-cannabis related activities. The courts argue that these separate activities constitute a single trade or business when they share a close and inseparable organizational and economic relationship. In addition, the risk of cannabis related activities tainting a taxpayer’s other business concerns exists if services or employees are shared between an MRB and a non-MRB. Allocation of expenditures to cost of goods sold, as well as any allocations of costs between MRB and non-MRB entities, need to be well thought out and supported by defensible tax and accounting positions.

The Future of MRBs and Section 280E

All indications point to an increased frequency of IRS audits of MRBs compared to audits of non-cannabis related businesses. Therefore, documenting the methodology behind the calculation of costs of goods sold is even more important for MRBs. It is vital to consult with a tax advisor to ensure you are maximizing your cost of goods sold deductions and preparing the best documentation possible to support your 280E tax positions.


Disclaimer: The information presented in this article should not be considered legal advice or counsel and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. If the reader of this has legal or accounting questions, it is recommended they consult with their attorney or accountant.

Cannin Commentary

Why Should You Add Columbia Care to Your Cannabis Portfolio?

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Investors looking to gain exposure to the cannabis space have several options given the increase in the number of cannabis producers in the past decade, the recent wave of legalization in the U.S. and a rapidly expanding addressable market. However, one undervalued cannabis stock with enticing growth prospects that remains a top buy today is Columbia Care (OTC: CCHWF). Let’s see why we are bullish on the large-cap multi-state operator right now.

What is Columbia Care?

Columbia Care is one of the largest cannabis producers in the world with 31 manufacturing and cultivation facilities. It has 99 dispensary locations in the U.S. with more than two million square feet of cultivation capacity and over 300 acres of outdoor cultivation capacity.

The company’s rapid expansion over the last few years has allowed Columbia Care to increase sales from $77.45 million in 2019 to $179 million in 2020. Wall Street expects sales to more than triple to $626 million this year and grow by another 55% to $970 million in 2022. In case Columbia Care manages to meet analyst estimates, the company would have grown its revenue at an annual rate of 132% between 2019 and 2022.

While several of Columbia Care’s peers, especially in Canada, are grappling with negative margins, this cannabis company is racing towards profitability. It has already narrowed its operating losses from $81 million in 2019 to $31.5 million in the last 12-months. Analysts expect its bottom-line to improve from a loss per share of $0.48 in 2020 to earnings of $0.27 per share in 2022.

We can see that Columbia Care is valued at a forward price to 2022 sales multiple of less than 2x given its market cap of $1.15 billion. Its price to earnings multiple is also quite attractive at 11.8x. 

What’s Next for Columbia Care Investors?

Columbia Care has a strong presence in markets such as Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania that provide limited licenses to cannabis producers. This allows Columbia Care to improve customer engagement and ensure repeat purchases of its products.

In the second quarter of 2021, it increased revenue by 232% year over year to $110 million. Its adjusted EBITDA also rose to $16 million, compared to a loss of $4.7 million in the prior-year period.

Columbia Care acquired Medicine Man for $42 million.

Now, Columbia Care has shifted focus to larger cannabis markets including New York, Arizona, Columbia and New Jersey. In Q2, its sales in Arizona and Illinois rose by 23% and 15% respectively, on a sequential basis.

The cannabis heavyweight recently completed the acquisition of Medicine Man, a Colorado-based cannabis producer, for $42 million. Columbia Care explained the acquisition will be accretive to its bottom-line and is valued at 4.5x projected EBITDA for 2021.

Columbia Care has improved its gross margins to 42% in Q2, from 36% in the prior-year period. Its operating costs have also fallen from $61 million to $51 million in the last year, making it one of the best cannabis stocks on the market today.

Bottom Line: Why Should You Add Columbia Care to Your Cannabis Portfolio?

Columbia Care expects its total addressable market in licensed U.S. states to reach approximately $31 billion by 2026. In the event that cannabis is legalized at the federal level, this figure will surge significantly higher. Additionally, Columbia Care is well poised to gain traction in the future and leverage existing expertise, as it already has wholesale distribution agreements in 13 operational markets.

Its capital expenditure investments continue to generate returns as the company continues to benefit from economies of scale and higher margins.

Columbia Care stock is currently down about 60% from its 52-week high, providing cannabis investors the opportunity to purchase a quality growth stock at an attractive multiple.

For these reasons, we believe investors should consider adding Columbia Care to their cannabis stock portfolios while it’s still trading at a discount.

Cannin Commentary

3 Cannabis Stocks That Can Gain Over 50% According to Analyst Estimates

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Welcome to the Cannin Commentary Column. We’re happy to announce our partnership with Cannin Investment Group, a cannabis investment analysis firm. In this new column, we will provide readers with a taste of Cannin’s insights and analysis that they offer to their members. Throughout the new installments of this column, you’ll find articles that will touch on investment tips, trends, predictions, market updates and more.


Companies in the cannabis sector have the potential to increase your wealth at an enviable rate over the upcoming decade. But what are the 3 cannabis stocks that can gain over 50% according to analyst estimates?

The wave of cannabis legalization sweeping through the U.S. right now as well as the prospect of decriminalizing or even legalizing adult-use will be key drivers for licensed producers.

Here, we take a look at three cannabis stocks in Columbia Care, Green Thumb Industries and Cresco Labs that should be on your buying radar right now. Each of these stocks is also trading at a deep discount according to Wall Street estimates, allowing investors to derive market-beating gains in the next year.

Columbia Care

U.S.-based multi-state operator, Columbia Care (OTC: CCHWF) is valued at a market cap of $1.12 billion. The company has already increased revenue from $77.4 million in 2019 to $179 million last year.

Now, Wall Street expects sales to more than triple year over year to $625 million in 2021 and surpass $970 million next year. These stellar growth rates in revenue should allow Columbia Care to improve its bottom-line from a loss per share of $0.48 in 2020 to earnings per share of $0.3.

Columbia Care has a presence in 18 jurisdictions across the U.S. and Europe where it operates 31 cultivation and manufacturing facilities.

The company generated $110 million in revenue in Q2 which was 232% higher than the prior-year period. Columbia Care has 73 active dispensaries and another 26 under development, enabling it to target a rapidly expanding addressable market that is forecast to touch $31.6 billion by 2026.

So, is Columbia Care a cannabis stock that can gain over 50%? Well, analysts tracking Columbia Care stock have a 12-month average price target of $9.38 for the stock which is more than 200% higher than its current trading price.

Green Thumb Industries

A cannabis giant trading 46% below its all-time high, Green Thumb Industries (OTC: GTBIF) is valued at a market cap of $4.4 billion. Headquartered in Illinois, Green Thumb Industries has 13 manufacturing facilities, licenses for 111 retail locations and currently operates in 14 domestic markets.

In the second quarter of 2021, the company’s revenue rose by 85% year over year to $222 million – driven by strong demand in Pennsylvania and Illinois. The Q2 of 2021 was also the fourth consecutive quarter where Green Thumb reported a profit, with a net income of $22 million compared to a loss of $13 million in the prior-year period.

Green Thumb currently has 65 retail stores and just opened a third store in the state of New Jersey which is a market that recently legalized cannabis for adult use. While retail sales in New Jersey are expected to begin next year, Green Thumb’s presence in the medical space will enable the company to gain traction in the highly competitive adult-use cannabis vertical as well.

So, is Green Thumb Industries a cannabis stock that can gain over 50%? Well, analysts expect Green Thumb stock to rise by 95% in the next 12-months given its average price target of $37.54.

Cresco Labs

The final stock on our list is Cresco Labs (OTC: CRLBF), another cannabis heavyweight valued at a market cap of $2.16 billion. A vertically integrated cannabis operator, Cresco Labs currently has 40 dispensaries in 10 states and has grown its sales from $43 million in 2018 to $476 million in 2020.

Most states have a limit on the licenses they are allowed to issue and this barrier to entry allows Cresco and peers to enjoy a competitive advantage in the markets they operate in. Cresco Labs reported revenue of $210 million in Q2, a rise of 123% year over year.

It reported a net profit of $2.7 million in Q2 compared to a loss of $41 million in the prior-year quarter. Cresco expects to generate $1 billion in sales by the end of 2021, making it among the first cannabis companies to reach the milestone.

We believe Cresco is certainly a cannabis stock that can gain 50%. Wall Street expects Cresco Labs stock to gain over 60% compared to its current trading price.

Payment Processing & Consumer Credit: An Interview with KindTap Co-Founder

By Aaron Green
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Federal regulations have made compliant credit processing in the cannabis industry difficult to achieve. As a result, most cannabis retailers operate a cash-only model, limiting their ability to upsell customers and placing a burden on customers who might rather use credit. While some dispensaries offer debit, credit or cashless ATM transactions, regulators and payment processors have recently been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.

KindTap Technologies, LLC operates a financial technology platform that offers credit and loyalty-enabled payment solutions for highly regulated industries typically driven by cash and ATM-based transactions. KindTap offers payment processing and related consumer applications for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers. Founded in 2019, the company is backed by KreditForce LLC plus several strategic investors, with debt capital provided by U.S.-based institutions.

We interviewed Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, co-founder and chief payments officer at KindTap Technologies. Cathy co-founded KindTap after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products.

Aaron Green: Cathy, thanks for taking the time today. How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, co-founder and chief payments officer at KindTap Technologies

Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli: I’ve been in the payments industry for a long time. I was doing some consulting a few years ago for a client in Colorado and that gave me exposure to the issues in cannabis like the fact that you couldn’t have real payments in cannabis. Then, a close family member with health issues turned to medical cannabis when nothing else seemed to work. I was amazed by the difference it made in her life. At that point, I put those two things together and I said, I need to focus on helping this industry get a real cannabis payments solution because I thought it was ridiculous that you had an industry of this size and importance that had been abandoned by the payments industry.

Aaron Green: Can you highlight some of your background prior to entering cannabis?

Corby Iannuzzelli: Throughout my career, I’ve been a banker, I’ve been a payment processing executive and I’ve been a consultant. So, I’ve kind of done it all in the payments and financial services space.

Aaron Green: Why is it that most dispensaries only take cash?

Corby Iannuzzelli: In the US, even though cannabis is legal in many states, it’s still illegal federally. There are big banks and card networks like Visa, MasterCard, etc., who are national, even global companies and frankly, the executives of those companies don’t want to end up in jail for violating national laws. So, they have put cannabis dispensaries on what’s called a “prohibited merchants” list. This means you cannot accept Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, or similar payments as a cannabis business and so it’s forcing the industry to a cash-based solution.

About the only thing you’re seeing that’s not cash in dispensaries are ATMs. But if you think about it, ATMs are machines where the consumer goes and pulls cash out and pays upwards of $5 or more in fees for doing that. They then hand that cash back to the dispensary who then has the costs of having to deal with that cash. The industry is just stuck in a cash-based business until federal legislation changes.

Aaron Green: I’ve been to some dispensaries where they accept credit cards or debit cards. What is going on there?

Corby Iannuzzelli: I’ve heard reports of consumers who’ve been able to use a credit card or a debit card in a dispensary. Sometimes the processor who sold that solution to the dispensary says, “Oh, it’s compliant, I guarantee you it’s compliant.” But if you dig in, that’s not the case. And eventually, Visa or MasterCard figures it out and shuts it down. In some cases, it’s outright fraud where the processor who sold the payment terminal to the dispensary is misrepresenting it as say a doctor’s office rather than a dispensary. There’s no merchant category code in the payment networks that says this is for processing dispensary payments, so they pretend it’s something else until they get shut down.

When they do get shut down, I’ve heard of cases in Las Vegas where it was basically 100% Visa or MasterCard one day and 100% cash the next day. It completely disrupted the whole business. It’s not just the retail store, but the inventories and everything else throughout the business.

“About the only thing you’re seeing that’s not cash in dispensaries are ATMs”

There have also been some cases where you’ll see something called a cashless ATM. In a store, they call it a debit card transaction. It’s really a cashless ATM where the consumer is making what looks to the ATM network like a cash withdrawal in $10 or $20 increments, but the consumer is getting a receipt instead of cash, and they’re turning around and handing that receipt back to the dispensary who then makes a change because the cashless ATM only dispensed in $10 or $20 increments.

Now ATM networks are looking at these cashless ATM transactions to see if they are compliant. Do consumers know the fees that they’re paying? Are these transactions coming in and looking to the network like real cash when it’s not? Cashless ATM transactions are probably the most common thing you see, but that’s being called into question after the Eaze incident where a large company was misrepresenting its terminals. The federal government stepped in and called it bank fraud and the individuals behind it, the executives, are in jail. Since then, the networks are looking at this and saying, what about these cashless ATMs? Are those transactions within our rules, or is there something funny going on here?

Aaron Green: So, to summarize here: you’ve got federal regulations at the national level that says that cannabis banking is not allowed so major institutions are not offering it. Yet you found a way through the regulations and compliance issues. I’m curious can you pull back the curtains a little bit and tell us how you came up with a solutionhere?

Corby Iannuzzelli: Well, we came up with the solution by stubbornly refusing to believe that cannabis payment processing could not be done in a compliant manner. We just said, “there is a compliant way to do this, let’s figure it out.” We took the same components that are out there for the financial services and payments industry and reassembled them in such a way that we do not violate any rules. We do not use any of the Visa, MasterCard, Discover or Amex rails, we built our own network. We have direct contracts with the merchants and direct contracts with the consumers. We control everything and all the funds flow through regulated financial institutions. So, we designed something that looks and acts to consumers and retailers the way Visa and MasterCard look and act when a consumer goes to make a purchase, but they run on a separate set of payment rails and in compliance with banking regulations and state regulations. When you’re looking at the problem from a different perspective, sometimes you can come up with a better answer.

Green: On the consumer side, what does that user experience look like?

Corby Iannuzzelli: Our product is completely digital. The consumer experience starts with integration at the online checkout. When it’s an e-commerce shopping cart and somebody is placing an order, they will see a button called “Pay with KindTap.” The first time they click that button they’re automatically brought to our integrated web app where they do a quick and easy application for our digital revolving line of credit product. If approved, they instantly go back to the checkout screen and their first purchase will just happen immediately, with flexible payment options over time. If the consumer decides they don’t want our KindTap credit and would rather have a pay now-product where we pull the funds from their bank account, then the consumer can do so. So, there is no physical card per se, it’s integrated like PayPal or Affirm at the point of checkout online. For the consumers who use KindTap credit, there is a mobile app where they can see their transactions, view statements, pay their bills, etc.

Additionally, there is a loyalty program for all purchases – KindTap credit or through the consumer’s bank, because we feel very strongly that a lot of the reasons consumers choose to pay with one card over another is the points and the rewards that they get. So, we’re providing loyalty rewards with KindTap so that consumers can get rewarded for that spending with KindTap and it’s better for the retailers.

Green: On the retailer side, what does that experience look like and what is your business model?

Corby Iannuzzelli: We are not going store by store doing integrations, rather, we’re integrating with various software, delivery and e-commerce providers. That gives us broad reach and ability to expand rapidly in various state markets where cannabis is legal. Once a merchant says “yes, I want to be a member of the KindTap Merchant Network,” then we work to get them set up on our platform in a matter of days. The merchants receive continuous support from our success team, marketing co-investment and a depth of analytics reporting. We made the entire process and ongoing operations streamlined and frictionless for both merchants and consumers.

Aaron Green: What are the benefits of moving from cash to credit type of payments?

Corby Iannuzzelli: On the retail side, there are the obvious benefits of not having all the security, safety and theft issues associated with operating a physical cash business. Consumers very often don’t carry cash anymore, except when they’re making a cannabis purchase. There are a lot of hidden costs to retailers because payments are not just about moving money from the consumer to the business.

“I really am optimistic that with so many scientific breakthroughs we’ve had that we’re going to be able to figure this out.”Payment options – or lack thereof – can shape where people shop, how much they spend and what they buy. It’s a proven science how consumers make impulse purchases. If you’re a cash-based business in cannabis, and you’re trying to get somebody to make an impulse purchase, and they walked in with $100, then you can’t get them to spend more than $100, no matter how creative your marketing is! The consumer is limited by how much cash they have in their bank account or in their pocket at that point in time. So, it’s really about the upsell that comes with the bigger basket sizes that retailers experience when you move from a cash-based business to credit and suddenly, the merchant doesn’t have to deal with long lines of consumers on payday when the store was beyond slow two days before. Now the consumer can spread purchases with the thinking, “I’d rather not be the one standing in that line on payday. I’m going to go Wednesday [instead of Friday] because I have KindTap credit so I can budget and manage my cash flow throughout the month rather than around my paydays.”

So, we think that the lack of an efficient and effective payment system for cannabis is holding back sales. We all focus on how much the industry is growing. KindTap thinks about how much faster it could be growing if it was supported by a decent payment system.

Aaron Green: What are some other cash-only markets you are looking at?

Corby Iannuzzelli: We are laser-focused on the cannabis ecosystem and bringing a compliant credit and loyalty-based digital payments solution to cannabis merchants and customers and rewarding those stakeholders for accepting/using KindTap. Additionally, we are planning to extend the KindTap Merchant Network so that consumers can use/earn our loyalty points with other goods and services they’re purchasing that are adjacent to cannabis or that are important to the cannabis consumer. That’s the direction we’re going.

Aaron Green: Today people can receive gas points for spending with their credit card. Now with KindTap, you can spend to get cannabis points?

Corby Iannuzzelli: That’s exactly right.

Aaron Green: What in either cannabis or your personal life are you most interested in learning about?

Corby Iannuzzelli: Personally, I am most interested in seeing breakthrough technologies in climate change. We’re going to need to correct this situation and I’m reading about collecting carbon dioxide from the air and burying it in the earth and things like that. I really am optimistic that with so many scientific breakthroughs we’ve had that we’re going to be able to figure this out. Certainly, it’s going to take a lot of smart people and a lot of investment, but I really look forward to watching them do their stuff and hopefully taking us out of this nightmare situation that we’re heading into if we don’t make some changes.

Aaron Green: Thanks Cathy, that concludes the interview.

Corby Iannuzzelli: All right, thanks Aaron!

3 Pillars of Cannabis Banking Compliance

By Mark Lozzi
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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).

Cannabis is a high-risk industry so extra due diligence is needed

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.

The high-risk nature of the industry requires a level of diligence on all parties to a transaction

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.

Flower-Side Chats Part 9: A Q&A with Andrew Thut, Chief Investment Officer of 4Front Ventures

By Aaron Green
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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.

Andrew Thut, Chief Investment Officer of 4Front Ventures

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.

Sen. Schumer unveiling the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act

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!

Thut: Thanks Aaron.

Current Trends in Banking for Cannabis-Related Businesses

By Paula Durham, CFE, CCCE
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Cannabis is still federally illegal and is included on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), along with such other substances as heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamines.1 It is a federal crime to grow, possess or sell cannabis.

Despite being federally illegal, 36 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized the sale and use of cannabis for medical and/or adult use purposes,2 and both direct and indirect cannabis-related businesses (CRBs) are growing at a rapid rate. Revenue from medical and adult use cannabis sales in the US in 2019 is estimated to have reached $10.6B-$13B and is on track to reach nearly $37B in 2024.3

Because the sale of cannabis is federally illegal, financial institutions face a dilemma when deciding to provide services to CRBs. Should they take a significant legal risk or stay out of the market and miss out on a significant revenue opportunity? So far, the vast majority of financial institutions have been unwilling to take the risk, resulting in a dearth of options for CRB’s. Until recently, cannabis business operators had few options for financial services, but times are changing.

This piece will discuss current trends in banking for cannabis-related businesses. We will cover differences in legality at state and federal levels, complexities in dealing in cash versus digital currencies, Congressional actions impacting banking and CRBs and how banking is changing. The explosion of state legalization of cannabis over the past several years has had a strong ripple effect across the US economy, touching many industries both directly and indirectly. Understanding the implications of doing business with a CRB is both challenging and necessary.

Feds Versus States

Money laundering is the process used to conceal the existence, illegal source or illegal application of funds.4 In 1986 Congress enacted the Money Laundering Control Act (MLCA), which makes it a federal crime to engage in certain financial and monetary transactions with the proceeds of “specified unlawful activity.”5 Therefore, CRB transactions are technically illegal transactions under the MLCA.

Financial institutions therefore face a risk of violating the MLCA if they choose to do business with CRBs, even in states where cannabis operations are permitted. In addition, financial institutions could also face criminal liability under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) for failing to identify or report financial transactions that involve the proceeds of cannabis businesses operating legally under state law.6

Federal authorities continued to aggressively enforce federal cannabis laws

In short, because cannabis is illegal at the federal level, processing funds derived from CRBs could be considered aiding and abetting criminal activity or money laundering. States, however, began legalizing cannabis in 1996, and by 2009, thirteen states had laws allowing cannabis possession and use.7 Despite this legislation, federal authorities continued to aggressively enforce federal cannabis laws.8 That changed under the Obama administration when, shortly after being elected, President Obama stated that his administration would not target legal CRB’s who were abiding by state laws.[9] In an attempt to provide clarity in this murky environment, beginning in 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued three memos designed to guide federal prosecutors in this area. However, none of the DOJ memos issued from 2009 through 2013 addressed potential financial crime related to the legal sale or distribution of cannabis in states allowing the use of medicinal or recreational cannabis.

To assist financial institutions in navigating potential financial crime implications of banking CRBs, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) issued guidance in 2014 that clarified how financial institutions could conduct business with CRBs and maintain compliance with their Bank Secrecy Act requirements (2014 Guidance).9 According to the 2014 Guidance, financial institutions may choose to interact with CRBs based on factors specific to each institution, including the institution’s business objectives, the evaluated risks associated with offering such services, and its ability to manage those risks effectively.

The 2014 Guidance requires those who choose to provide services to CRBs to design and implement a thorough customer due diligence review that includes, in part, analyzing the licensing of the entity, developing an understanding of the business operations of the entity, and ongoing monitoring of the entity.9 In addition, financial institutions are required to file a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) for every transaction they process for a CRB, should they choose to accept the business.

Although the 2014 Guidance does outline a path for financial institutions to engage with CRBs, it does not change federal law and, therefore, does not eliminate the legal risk to financial institutions.10 By its very nature, the 2014 Guidance was a temporary fix, subject to changing views of different administrations, evidenced by the fact that all three of the DOJ guidance documents noted above were rescinded by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions on January 4, 2018.12 The DOJ enforcement posture could change once again in a Biden administration. Biden is on record as favoring decriminalization, and Attorney General candidate Merrick Garland has stated that if confirmed he will deprioritize enforcement of low-level cannabis crimes. Garland also believes using limited government resources to pursue prosecution of cannabis crimes states where cannabis is legal does not make sense.12

Because of the uncertainty and high risk, most banks remain unwilling to serve CRBs. Those that do serve CRBs charge exorbitant fees (fees of $750-$1,000 or more per account per month are not uncommon), pricing many smaller operators out of the financial services market.

Cash is King – Or Is It?

Cannabis operators have discovered the old adage “cash is king” is not necessarily true when it comes to the cannabis space. Bank-less CRBs are forced to utilize cash to pay business expenses, which can be particularly difficult. Utility companies, payroll companies, and taxing authorities are just some of the providers that are difficult, if not impossible, to pay in cash. For example, cannabis operators have been turned away from IRS offices when attempting to pay large federal tax obligations in cash. Likewise, cannabis operators have been unable to utilize payroll processing companies to administer payroll and benefits for their businesses because the processors won’t take cash. CRBs can’t use Amazon or other online retailers because online providers cannot accept cash.

Because dealing in cash is so difficult, CRB operators look for workarounds such as using personal credit/debit cards to purchase business equipment and supplies. This doesn’t eliminate the cash problem, however, because the credit card holder will likely have to accept cash as reimbursement. Such transactions could be considered an attempt to hide the source of the cash, which is, by definition, money laundering.

CRBs often have large sums of money onsite

Some bank-less CRBs try to skirt the system by obtaining bank accounts in the name of management companies or other entities one step removed from the actual business. While operators often choose this route in an effort to streamline business and operate out of the shadows, it again runs afoul of banking laws. Transferring cannabis related financial transactions to another entity is actually the very definition of money laundering – which, as noted above, is defined as the process used to conceal the existence or source of “illegal” funds.

In addition to the difficulties in making payments or purchasing business supplies, operating in a cash-heavy environment poses significant safety risks for cannabis operators. CRBs often have large sums of money onsite and transport large sums of cash when purchasing product or paying bills, making them a target for robbery. In 2017, there was a spate of dispensary robberies across the Phoenix Metro area, including one at Bloom Dispensary that took place during operating hours.13

Managing all that cash increases the cost of doing business as well, in the form of increased labor, insurance, and security costs. Cash must be counted and double counted, which can be time consuming for staff, not to mention the time it takes to deliver physical cash payments to hither and yon. Ironically, lack of banking significantly decreases transparency and clouds the waters of compliance, as operating strictly in cash makes it easier to manipulate reported financial results.

Potential Congressional Solutions

In recent years Congress has undertaken several efforts to pass legislation designed to address the state/federal divide on cannabis, which would likely clear the way for financial institutions to provide services to CRBs, including:

  • R. 1595 – Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (“SAFE Act”);
  • 1028 & H.R. 2093 – Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act); and
  • 2227 – Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 (MORE Act).

The climate in Washington DC, however, did not allow any of these initiatives to pass both houses of congress. Had any been sent to the White House, President Trump was unlikely to sign them into law.

The cannabis industry has new reason to believe reform is on the horizon with shift in political leadership in the White House and Senate. Newly anointed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently committed to making federal cannabis reform a priority, and President Biden appears committed to decriminalization, reviving the hope of passage of one of these pieces of legislation.

The Changing Banking Landscape

Even though there is little in the way of formal protections for financial institutions, and with the timeline for a legislative fix unknown, an increasing number of banks are working with cannabis operators.

According to FinCen statistics, there were approximately 695 financial institutions actively involved with CRBs as of June 30, 2020. It is important to note that these statistics are based on SAR filings, which banks are required to file when an account or transaction is suspected of being affiliated with a cannabis business. However, some of these SARs may have been generated on genuine suspicious activity rather than on a transaction with a known cannabis customer.

Number of Depository Institutions Actively Banking
Cannabis-Related Businesses in the United States
(Reported in SARS)14

There are arguably more banking institutions offering services to CRBs than ever before. The challenges for CRBs are (1) finding an institution that is willing to offer services; (2) building/maintaining a compliance regime that will be acceptable to that institution; and (3) cost, given the high fees associated with these types of accounts. 

How CRBs Get Accepted by Banks

The gap between CRBs’ need for banking and the financial services providers’ sparse and expensive offerings to the sector has created an opportunity for third-party firms to intervene and provide a compliance structure that will satisfy the needs of the financial institutions, making it easier for the CRB to find a bank.

These third-party firms perform extensive BSA-compliant due diligence on applicants to ensure potential customers are following FinCen guidance required to receive banking services. After the completion of due diligence, they connect the CRBs with financial institutions that are willing to do business with CRBs and provide checking/savings accounts, check writing capability, and merchant processor accounts. These firms often provide additional services such as armored car and cash vaulting services. Some of these firms also offer vendor screening, pre-approving vendors before any payments can be made.

One such firm, Safe Harbor Private Banking, started as a project implemented by the CEO of Partners Credit Union in Denver, Colorado, who set out to design a cannabis banking program that would allow Partners to do business with Colorado CRBs.15 The program was successful and has since expanded into other states who have legalized cannabis. Other operators include Dama Financial and NaturePay.

While these services offer hope for many CRBs, the downside is cost. These services perform the operations necessary to find, open, and maintain a compliant bank account; however, the costs of compliance are still high, pricing some small operators out of the market.

Is Digital Currency an Answer?

 Digital currency is also making its way into the cannabis world. Digital currency, or cryptocurrency, is a medium of exchange that utilizes a decentralized ledger to record transactions, otherwise known as a blockchain. One of the largest benefits of blockchain is that it is a secure, incorruptible digital ledger used for, among other things, financial transactions.16 Blockchain technology offers CRBs a transparent and immutable audit trail for business and financial transactions. Several cannabis-specific cryptocurrencies have sprung up in the past several years, including PotCoin, CannabisCoin, and DopeCoin, to name a few.

In July 2019, Arizona approved cryptocurrency startup ALTA to offer services to the state’s medical cannabis operators.17 ALTA describes itself as a “digital payment club where cash-intensive businesses pay each other using digital tokens instead of cash.”18 ALTA members purchase digital tokens that are used to pay other members using a proprietary blockchain based system. The tokens are redeemable for US dollars at a stable rate of 1:1, and CRBs do not need a bank account to participate in the ALTA program.

ALTA proposes to pick up members’ cash and exchanges it for tokens, which are then used to pay other members for goods and services. Tokens may be redeemed for cash at any time.18 The company has been approved by the Arizona State Attorney General, and one of the first members they hope to enlist is the Arizona Department of Revenue (ADOR). Enlisting ADOR into the program would allow dispensary members to pay state taxes digitally rather than hauling large amounts of cash to ADOR offices.

Similarly, Nevada recently contracted with Multichain Ventures to supply a digital currency solution to the Nevada cannabis industry. Nevada Assembly Bill 466 requires the state create a pilot program to design a “closed loop” system like Venmo in an effort to reduce cash transactions in the cannabis sector. Like ALTA, Nevada’s proposed system will convert cash to tokens which can then be transacted between system participants.19

While both proposals are promising for Arizona and Nevada CRBs, the timeline as to when, or if, these offerings will come online is unknown. Action on cannabis reform at the federal level may render these options moot.

Looking to the Future

Although states are legalizing cannabis in one form or another in growing numbers, the fact that cannabis is still federally illegal poses a significant barrier to accessing the financial services market for CRBs. While most banks are still reluctant to offer services to this rapidly growing industry, there are more banks than ever before willing to participate in the cannabis industry. Recent changes in leadership in Washington DC offer a positive outlook for cannabis reform at the federal level.

As the “green rush” continues to envelop the country, financial services options available to CRBs are slowly growing. Many new options are now available to help CRBs find a bank, develop compliance programs, and manage the cash related problems encountered by most CRBs. However, these solutions may be out of reach for the budget-conscious small operator. Also, there are a number of cryptocurrency solutions designed specifically for CRBs; however, when, or if, these solutions will gain significant traction is still unknown.


References

  1. Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C., Subchapter I, Part B, §812.
  2. “State Marijuana Laws”; National Conference of State Legislatures, February 19, 2021.
  3. “Exclusive: US Retail Marijuana Sales On Pace to Rise 40% in 2020, near $37B by 2024”. Marijuana Business Daily, June 30, 2020.
  4. Kaufman, Irving. “The Cash Connection: Organized Crime, Financial Institutions, and Money Laundering”. Interim Report to the President, October 1984.
  5. S. Code § 1956 – Laundering of Monetary Instruments.
  6. Rowe, Robert. “Compliance and the Cannabis Conundrum.” ABA Banking Journal, September 11, 2016.
  7. “History of Marijuana as a Medicine – 2900 BC to Present”. ProCon.org, December 4, 2020.
  8. Truble, Sarah and Kasai, Nathan. “The Past – and Future – of Federal Marijuana Enforcement”. org, May 12, 2017.
  9. FIN-2014-G001, BSA Expectations Regarding Marijuana-Related Businesses.
  10. Cannabis Banking Coalition Statement.
  11. Sessions, Jefferson B. “Memorandum for All United States Attorneys”. January 4, 2018.
  12. “Attorney General Nominee Garland Signals Friendlier Marijuana Stance”. Marijuana Business Daily, February 22, 2021.
  13. Stern, Ray. “Robbers Hitting Phoenix Medical Marijuana Dispensaries: Is Bank Reform Needed?” The Phoenix New Times, April 11, 2017.
  14. FinCen Marijuana Banking Update, June 30, 2020.
  15. Mandelbaum, Robb. “Where Pot Entrepreneurs Go When the Banks Just Say No.” The New York Times, January 4, 2018.
  16. Rosic, Ameer. “What is Blockchain Technology? A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners.” com, 2016.
  17. Emem, Mark. “Marijuana Stablecoin Asked to Play in Arizona Fintech Sandbox.” CCN.com, October 25, 2019.
  18. http:\\Whatisalta.com\
  19. Wagner, Michael, CFA. “Multichain Ventures Secures Public Sector Contract with Nevada to Supply Tokenized Financial Ecosystem for the Legal Cannabis Industry”, January 26, 2021.

A Q&A with George Mancheril, Founder & CEO of Bespoke Financial

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Bespoke Financial was the first licensed FinTech lender focused on the legal cannabis industry. Founded in June of 2018, Bespoke offers four types of lending products: Invoice financing, inventory financing, purchase money financing and a general line of credit. With just over two years of originating loans to clients, they have benefitted from being a first mover in the cannabis lending space.

George Mancheril is the founder and CEO of Bespoke Financial. He has over fourteen years of experience in finance, with a special focus on asset-based lending, off balance sheet financing of commercial assets and structured credit. Following a stint with Goldman Sachs, he worked at Guggenheim Partners Investment Management’s Structured Credit Group in Los Angeles where he worked on structuring esoteric asset financing for a variety of commercial assets including airplanes, container leases and receivables.

Since 2018, Mancheril and his team at Bespoke Financial have deployed over $120 million in principal advances without any defaults and across eleven states. We sat down with Mancheril and asked him about the history of his business, how it’s been received so far and how the past few years of financial activity in the cannabis sector might shape the future.

Cannabis Industry Journal: What is Bespoke Financial in a nutshell?

George Mancheril: Bespoke Financial is the first licensed FinTech lender focused on the legal cannabis industry. Bespoke offers legal cannabis businesses revolving lines of credit that address the top problem in the industry – lack of access to non-dilutive, scalable financing to capitalize on growth opportunities and improve profitability. Due to the federal illegality of cannabis, traditional banking institutions cannot work with our clients even though these operators are working within the legal regulatory framework of their state. Bespoke solves this problem for businesses across the cannabis supply chain along with ancillary companies affected by the lack of access to traditional capital markets.

CIJ: How does your company help cannabis businesses?

George Mancheril, Founder & CEO of Bespoke Financial

Mancheril: Bespoke Financial offers 4 lending products – all are structured as a revolving line of credit but each allows our clients to access capital in a unique way based on their specific needs. Our Invoice Financing product, allows businesses to borrow capital against their Accounts Receivables in order to manage general business expenses, particularly if the borrower’s business growth is slowed due to a long cashflow conversion cycle. Inventory Financing and Purchase Money Financing allow our clients to finance payments to their vendors, which helps our clients achieve economies of scale by increasing their purchasing power. Lastly our general Line of Credit allows for the most flexibility for our clients to utilize our financing by either financing payments made directly to vendors or drawing funds into the client’s bank account to manage business expenses.

CIJ: I know the company is only a few years old, but can you tell me about your company’s success so far?

Mancheril: [Clarification, Bespoke was founded in June 2018 so we’ve been around for 3 years but we now have over 2 years of originating loans to clients.] Bespoke Financial has benefitted by being a first mover in the cannabis lending space as the first licensed lender specifically addressing the financing needs of cannabis operators, starting in early 2019. Over the past 2 years we have developed and refined our proprietary underwriting model to identify over 50 active clients spanning the entire cannabis supply chain. Since inception, Bespoke has deployed over $120 million in principal advances without any defaults to date and expanded our geographic footprint across 11 states. Our growth and success highlights our company’s expertise in structuring financing solutions which address the unique capital needs of cannabis companies.

CIJ: Can you discuss how the recent M&A activity, current and recent market trends, as well as the pandemic has affected your company’s growth?

Mancheril: The cannabis industry overcame a variety of challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, ending the year with record sales in both new and existing markets. The support from state and local governments, evidenced by the industry’s essential business designation and the easing of regulations, coupled with increasing consumer adoption of cannabis combined to increase the industry’s demand for capital throughout the pandemic. Bespoke was well positioned to partner with cannabis companies across the supply chain and was proud to help our clients thrive during this pivotal period.

Jeeter was able to grow sales over 1,000% within the first year of working with Bespoke

Coming into 2021, the cannabis industry and investors shared a very positive outlook for the future based on the previous year’s experience and expectations of material easing of federal regulation. While M&A activity in the industry has increased over the past 6 months, the overall consensus has been that both the frequency of exit opportunities and the corresponding valuations will continue to increase as federal decriminalization opens new sources of capital and materially changes investors’ valuation assumptions. In general, we’ve seen cannabis companies focused on both capitalizing on the increasing opportunity presented by the industry’s organic growth and maximizing the benefits of future regulation changes by utilizing the resources and capital currently available to increase revenue, expand into new markets, and work towards profitability. All of these factors have further compounded the industry’s demand for financing and we expect to see continued growth in our lending activity in line with the industry’s growth.

CIJ: Who has been your most successful client?

Mancheril: We have a handful of cases studies and client success stories here on our website. One of the most exciting growth stories we have seen has been our client DreamFields whose in-house brand, Jeeter, is now the #1 pre-roll brand in the state of California. Prior to working with Bespoke, the brand was not ranked in the top 25 but was able to grow sales over 1,000% within the first year of working with us and achieve the #1 spot in their product category.

A Q&A with Rob Sechrist, President of Pelorus Equity Group and Manager of the Pelorus Fund

By Aaron Green
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The cannabis industry in the United States represents about a $50 billion asset class making it one of the largest new asset classes in the country. Commercial real estate lending is a key enabler for companies seeking to expand and scale. Pelorus Equity Group is one of the largest commercial lenders in cannabis with over $170 million deployed since its first cannabis transaction in 2016.

Since 1991, Pelorus principals have participated in more than $1 billion of real estate investment transactions using both debt and equity solutions. Pelorus offers a range of transactional solutions addressing the diverse needs of cannabis related business operators. While most cannabis private equity lenders focus on real estate acquisition and refinancing, Pelorus has leveraged its experience in more than 5,000 transactions of varying size and complexity to offer value-add loans, a rarity in the industry.

We spoke with Rob Sechrist, president of Pelorus Equity Group and manager of the Pelorus Fund. Rob joined Pelorus in 2010 after several years in the California real estate market. In 2018, Pelorus launched the Pelorus Fund where Rob is currently the manager. The Fund converted to an REIT in 2020.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Rob Sechrist: Pelorus is a value-add bridge lender. We’ve been lending for a long time, originally in the non-cannabis space. We’ve done 5000 transactions for over a billion dollars – more than a lot of banks.

In 2014, our local congressman Dana Rohrabacher passed the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment that defunded the Department of Justice from prosecuting any cannabis related business in a medically licensed state. We were a supporter of that legislation and once that passed, we took a serious look at utilizing our expertise in being a value-add lender and applying it to the largest asset class of real estate that is newly coming about today. That cannabis related asset class is about $50 billion.

Rob Sechrist, president of Pelorus Equity Group and manager of the Pelorus Fund

We decided that we had the expertise to move into this space and to build these facilities out for our borrowers so that the cannabis use tenants would have a fully stabilized facility and make it operate. After the amendment passed in 2014, by 2016 we had originated our first transaction. Since that time, we’ve originated 51 transactions in the cannabis space for over $177 million so far. It wasn’t that big of a pivot when you’re just providing the value-add loan.

“Value-add” in the loan business means that a portion of the loan amount, let’s just say is a million dollars, maybe 250,000 of that, is a pre-approved budget to go back into the property. In cannabis property those are typically tenant improvements and/or equipment to fully stabilize that tenant. So, we’re the first fully dedicated lender in the nation exclusively to cannabis and we’ve done more transactions than anybody else in the nation.

Green: What are some challenges of cannabis lending compared to traditional lending?

Sechrist: The number one challenge in cannabis is that you must disclose to your investors that you’re originating the loans to cannabis use tenants. Many people have concerns that lending indirectly might be federally illegal. If you did not disclose that to your investors when you form that capital stack to fund these transactions, you’re going to run into issues. So, you would need to create a vehicle where you disclose to your investors that you’re intending to lend into cannabis and it’s still federally illegal. Doing one-off stand-alone transactions deal by deal is not sustainable if you’re going to be a large lender.

There are other challenges. Because cannabis is still federally illegal, it gives insurers and other third parties the ability to deny a claim, or certain lender protections. Some examples include errors and omissions insurance, title insurance, property insurance, etc. and all of them say in those policies that if you’re doing something federally illegal, then the policy is null and void. So, you must think your way through very carefully all the things that could potentially be an issue. You also have to disclose to those third parties and find a way to get them to acknowledge it to make sure you have the coverage if you ever have to make a claim. That’s a very difficult process.

Green: How has the investor profile in cannabis lending changed over time?

Sechrist: Our fund was structured to allow for institutional capital from the inception. We were able to do that because we are completely non-plant touching. Our fund only lends to the owners of commercial real estate. We do not lend to any cannabis licensed operator directly whatsoever. Our borrowers – the owners of the properties – would then have a lease agreement with the cannabis use tenant. Even if it’s an owner-operator, those are separate entities. That’s how we’ve distinguished ourselves.

Pelorus Equity Group, Inc. Logo

Regarding the investor profile, the first $100 million plus we raised was primarily from retail investors who were individuals writing checks up to a million dollars. Once we had three years of audited track record and our fund was $100 million, we then pivoted over to family offices and institutional investors and pension funds. We’re now working primarily with those types of investors.

The reason that we started with retail investors is that it’s very easy for me to explain our model to a single decision maker and answer their questions. Once I move into family offices or institutional investors, the opportunity goes to a credit committee where I’m relying on some other party to educate the investor about our investment. It’s enormously challenging at that point if it’s not me doing the talking. I know the answers, but I’m having to rely on somebody else to answer questions. We’ve tried to educate everybody we speak with and craft our documentation in such a way that even when it’s not myself answering the questions directly, people can understand how we thread the needle through some of the legal hurdles.

Green: How do you prioritize deal flow, and what are the qualities of a successful loan applicant?

Sechrist: We typically maintain a pipeline of around $150 million in transactions at any one time.

Applicants must have real estate. We’re not doing business loans or operator loans directly to tenants or business operations. So, that’s the starting point. We want a real estate piece of collateral where we feel more than comfortable with the loan-to-value and ratios and the loan to cost and other figures, that we feel that this transaction is going to be a success for our borrower and ultimately the tenant.

Next, we will only work with very experienced operators who have a proven track record where this is not their first transaction. Ideally, we are working someone who is looking to expand their operations and who is ready to either move from being a tenant of their previous facility and buying their next facility.

The next aspect that we’re looking for is the strength of the borrower’s guarantor. They must be able to qualify to support that transaction. Many of our transactions are millions or 10s of millions of dollars. You must have a sponsor that can support that size of a transaction.

Green: What sort of value-adds should a cannabis property owner look for in their lender?

Sechrist: Most people that are looking for loans are only familiar with getting loans for themselves on their owner-occupied house. Most loans have points, they have a rate and a term, loan-to-value and things like that.

“We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments.”When you move into construction loans or value-add lending, there are other elements that are more important than the pricing of the loan. The number one thing is to get that property fully stabilized and built as quickly as possible. Cannabis tenants are generating 10 to 15 times more revenue per month than non-cannabis tenants.

If you go to a bank and borrow money it may be a third of what it costs to borrow from us, but they process draws maybe once a month. So, if you’re having to advance the money for improvements of the property, and then the bank reimburses once a month, at a certain point you’re not going to be able to advance any more money until you get reimbursed. The project comes to a stop. So, in your mind, you might have saved an enormous amount on the pricing of the rate, but it’s costing you dearly in revenue and opportunity costs. We typically process 50 to 100 draws post-closing on transactions, and we get that facility built and the money reimbursed to all the contractors on a multiple-times-a-week basis. It’s happening in real flow all the time.

A typical problem for a tenant is that the tenant improvements are orders of magnitude higher than a non-cannabis tenant – anywhere from $150 to $250 per square foot. In addition, the equipment is often enormously expensive as well. It’s tough to put money into a buildout for a building that you may not own. Our vision at Pelorus was, let’s not force these tenants – the cannabis operators – to raise equity at the worst possible time when they’re not generating revenue through the facility. Let’s shift that capital balance for those tenant improvements and equipment from the from the tenant to the owner of the building, which is where it’s secured and adds value to that building anyway. Our vision was to shift that money from the balance sheet of the tenant over to the owner of the real estate so the tenant didn’t have to sell equity to come up with that money. Then the tenant is paying for the improvements in the lease rate and the borrower is paying for improvements in the note rate. And so we’ve shifted tenant improvements from being an equity component to now it’s just priced in the debt. This way you know what the terms are and you know what your total exposure is there.

We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments. Most of our peers in the space don’t look at it that way. They just do the acquisition or the refinance. They don’t do anything for the tenant improvements. They don’t do anything for the equipment. The tenant is left out there to either raise that equity or the borrower – the owner of the real estate – is having to come up with that additional capital on their own. We think you’re set up for failure in that circumstance. So, we blend all that into one capital stack. It’s important that the tenants can get all the way up to being able to cash flow and support that facility and be fully stabilized so they can refinance into a lower cost bank or credit union transaction.

Green: What federal policies and trends are you monitoring?

Sechrist: First, I think that it’s important to remind people that the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment has protected everybody from any prosecution. So, there’s no jeopardy out there that exists. The second thing I like to tell people is there are 695 banks on FinCEN’s website of cannabis Tier 1 depositors, and of those, we’re tracking numerous FDIC insured state banks and credit unions that are lending directly. We’ve been paid off by banks.

So, there’s this massive misconception that there’s no banking at all and that everything is happening by cash. The only cash buildup that happens is at the retail dispensary level because credit cards aren’t allowed for retail sales at the dispensaries. Out of the 2,000 transactions that we’ve either processed or reviewed, not one has ever not had banking set up. So, it is a big misnomer that there’s no depositor relations for Tier 1 banking, which is plant touching.

Tier 2/3 depositors are ancillary, which is what we are at Pelorus. There are 100 private lenders and dozens and dozens of state and federal credit unions or state banks and credit unions, not federal, that are FDIC insured and lending. Those banks are difficult to get loans from because they only want to do urban environments. They want to do fully stabilized companies and they want to use alternative views and the facility has to have seasoning for cash flow. It’s difficult to qualify for them. So, banking and lending exists out there, and most people are not aware of that.

Green: What are you most interested in learning about? This could be either in cannabis or in your personal life.

Sechrist: My two passions are snowboarding and racetrack driving. I just came back from the Mille Miglia race in Italy, and I do a lot of driving on the racetracks. I’m always looking to learn from those experiences.

In the cannabis sector, social equity programs are happening across the nation and cannabis licenses are being issued to operators. We would like to help participate in some system of educating these applicants that win the awards. Lending to an owner of a property who just won a license but has no experience is going to be problematic. Somebody needs to be thinking that out and making sure that these people that win have enough experience and education to set them up for success. Cannabis is one of the most complicated businesses ever, and they’ve got this license as their ticket, but they need to know how to make sure they’re going to be successful.

Green: Great Rob, that concludes the interview.

Sechrist: Thanks Aaron.

Flower-Side Chats Part 6: A Q&A with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis

By Aaron Green
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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 in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

The Michigan cannabis market is making pace with big time cannabis players like California (#1) and Colorado (#2). For the first quarter of 2021, combined cannabis sales in Michigan were nearly $360 million. At that pace, Michigan could see combined sales of $1.4 billion — well outpacing 2020 sales of $984 million.

Gage is the exclusive cultivator and retailer of world-leading cannabis brands including Cookies, Lemonnade, Runtz, Grandiflora, SLANG Worldwide, OG Raskal, and its own proprietary Gage brand portfolio in Michigan. The company recently secured a $50M investment in an oversubscribed round which included a $20M investment from JW Asset Management.

We spoke with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis. Fabian started Gage in 2017 after meeting his operating partners in Michigan. Prior to Gage, Fabian worked as an investment banker racking up a number of firsts in cannabis industry financing and M&A transactions.

Aaron Green: Tell me how you got involved in the cannabis industry.

Fabian Monaco: My background is in investment banking – specifically 10 years of capital market experience. I was fortunate enough to be part of the initial team that brought Tweed, now Canopy Growth public. In fact, I worked on a lot of firsts in the industry: the first acquisition, the first $100 million financing, the first IPO in the space. Shortly after that, I went to XIB Financial, which co-founded Canopy Rivers with Canopy Growth. I was working on that when I encountered these two phenomenal operators. At the time, I had visited over 100 of these cultivation facilities and these were some of the best operators in the business. So that led me to start Gage in 2017.

Green: Where is Gage currently operating?

Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis

Monaco: In the U.S., we are purely operating in Michigan. We do have a licensing agreement with a small producer in Canada, so you will see the brand there.

Green: Tell me about your choice to settle the company in Michigan initially?

Monaco: If you look at Michigan as a historical cannabis market, it was the second largest cannabis market from a medical card holder standpoint for nearly a decade, only behind California. This was probably the case until 2019, where they went to adult use. So, for us, we knew this medical base was going to be a great platform to an outsized adult-use market. And already we see that April was $154 million in sales, adding up to over a $1.8 billion dollar run rate. That’s the third highest run rate in the country, only behind California and Colorado.

Green: What is it that makes Michigan different? You talked about medical cannabis already. Is there anything else about the demographics in Michigan or the consumer base that makes Michigan special in that sense?

Monaco: In Michigan, over 70% of the population is old enough to consume. So, when you take a look at how much of the population is 21-years-old plus, relative to other markets, the total addressable market in Michigan is just huge. Then when you take a look at their consumption habits, especially when it comes to flower, Michigan is consuming some of the highest amounts on a per capita basis. Those two stats set up a scenario where we foresaw the potential of the market. To be honest, the market has exceeded our expectations. We didn’t think it would be this strong this quickly. Right now, the state is looking to be a $3 billion market by 2024 – and it could easily surpass that.

Green: Any plans for expansion beyond Michigan?

Monaco: We’ve been to eight or so different states in the past 60 or 75 days really trying to educate ourselves on the licensing structure, the markets there and the key players in those respective markets. What are some of the costs, in terms of acquisitions? We really want to branch out the Gage brand into other states across the US. The thing is, we believe in the model that Trulieve deployed. They really focus on being the number one player in a very, very big market. For instance, Trulieve is obviously one of the top players in Florida. We’re trying to mimic that strategy.

Trulieve is a dominant market force in Florida

Once we have that deep market penetration, that market share, then we’ll start to get into other states. But for now, why would you want to go and rush out to another state when you’re already in the third largest market in the country?

Green: Are there any criteria you look for in a potential expansion state?

Monaco: We look at consumption habits. We want states with similar demographics to Michigan. Close proximity states also allows us to quickly go from one state to the other without having to take a multi-hour flight to get there. States we’re considering are Northeast and Midwest states, like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland.

Green: What kind of consumer trends are you seeing in Michigan as it relates to products?

Monaco: Flower continues to dominate. In a market like Michigan, we have some of the top flower consumers in the country on a per capita basis. We specialize in flower and flower only, so this created a perfect scenario where we are able to ramp up our brand quite quickly, from a flower standpoint.

Now that we have that brand equity, that brand power, we are going to potentially delve into other categories, including extract-based products, such as vape carts and concentrates. You hear talk about these new beverages, but we’re not seeing that take off in this market as much as people think it would. Flower still remains at the top and that’s something we highly anticipate going after for quite some time.

Green: Can you tell me about your vertical integration strategy?

Monaco: We’re one of the larger retail portfolios in Michigan right now. We have 13 locations. Nine are operational. So, we’re really in a great spot overall in terms of how big of a platform we do have – one of the larger ones – and, frankly, in one of the larger markets in the country.

The Cookies flagship dispensary in Detroit, Michigan

We actually have a little bit of a unique scenario on the cultivation side of things. We have our own three cultivation assets that are going to be producing, on average, about 1,000 pounds of product over the next couple of months as they fully ramp up. We’ve actually contracted out a lot of our cultivation. Cultivation is time consuming, and it’s also very, very costly to build out. Luckily for us, we’re a really well-established and strong brand. We had the opportunity to contract out our growing. So, we have 10 different contract growth partners. These are phenomenal cultivators, again, some of the best in the state. They grow Gage and Cookies branded product for us. We have a great breakdown from a financial standpoint. We share the retail revenue with them on a 50/50 basis. They pay a little bit too, for packaging and testing. So, basically for $0 we’re getting product on the shelf where we’re achieving 50% plus gross margins. It’s a phenomenal setup for us on the cultivation side where we went from two cultivation assets in the latter half of last year to now eight different cultivation assets, moving to 13 by the end of the year.

On the processing side, we’re just actually finishing our processing lab. We should have extract-based products launched in Q3. We’re really excited to have our own line of extract-based products. We plan to focus on vape carts to start – a very popular category in Michigan on the retail side of things.

Green: Are those cultivations all indoor?

Monaco: Yes, we’re big proponents of indoor flower. It allows us to control the quality of our flavors and consistency in our strains when we grow indoors. From our consumers, there is a very strong demand for indoor grown high-premium, high-quality products.

Green: What sets Gage apart from other competitors in Michigan?

Monaco: I think focus. We just focused on our flower. We focus on our post-production process. We hang dry everything, we hand trim everything, and we hand package everything. That’s a little bit more time consuming. It’s a little more costly. But all that effort shows in the end product which is key.

A lot of people think you can grow great quality product, you cut it down, you dry it and put it in the pack and it’s going to be great. You really need a strong attention to detail, especially in a big consuming market like Michigan, because again, they are a refined consumer. They’re looking for the best. They’ve already been consuming some of the best quality products in the country for many years now. So for us, we put a painstaking process in place for flower production, not only from the growing standpoint, but also through the end of that post production process.

Ancillary to our cultivation process is also consistently providing new varieties of flavors on the flower side of things to the consumers. When you look at the successful brands in California, what makes them special is that they’re consistently pheno hunting, coming out with new flavors. This is similar to the wine industry where the best wineries come out with a new kind of grape or mix and consumers get excited, they rush out and buy half a dozen bottles or a dozen bottles.

It’s a very similar scenario in the cannabis industry. I hate when people say that cannabis is a commoditized industry. It’s so far from the truth. You look at brands like us or Cookies, Jungle Boyz and you can see their constant innovation, their constant drive. They are always bringing something new for the consumers to try. That’s what really sets apart the best brands.

Green: What’s got your attention in the cannabis industry? What are you interested in learning more about?

Monaco: I’m always intrigued with new ways of consuming. Across the U.S. and well-developed markets like California and Colorado, you see all these interesting new ways to consume the product. You’ve got patches, sublingual strips, etc. There are so many unique ways. I am currently seeing how they play out. Are they fads? Do people get excited about them initially, and then go back to their vape carts, pens and typically dried flower pre-rolls? I’m always trying to educate myself to see what’s on the market. What’s new? Who has a new drink? How does it hit? Are people excited about it?

Also, I am constantly learning about new brands that come out. There are so many new small brands that don’t necessarily have the scale or the capital to really expand, but are producing some of the best products in the country in a cool, unique form of packaging, etc..

Green: Alright, great. That concludes the interview!

Monaco: Thanks, Aaron.