Tag Archives: finance

Financing the Cannabis Industry Part 1: A Q&A with AFC Gamma CEO & Partner Len Tannenbaum

By Aaron Green
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Business often require outside capital to finance operating activities and to enable scaling and growth. Financing in the cannabis industry is notoriously challenging with regulatory obstacles at the local, state and federal levels. Recent market dynamics pose additional challenges for both financiers and cannabis operators.

We sat down with Len Tannenbaum, CEO & Partner of Advanced Flower Capital Gamma (AFC Gamma, NASDAQ: AFCG) to learn more about AFC Gamma and to get his perspective on recent market trends.

Aaron Green: In a nutshell, what is your investment/lending philosophy?

Len Tannenbaum: AFC Gamma is one of the largest providers of institutional loans to cannabis companies nationwide in all aspects of production: cultivation, processing, and distribution. Cannabis companies, no matter the size, traditionally lack the lending opportunities that other enterprises have available, and that’s where AFC Gamma comes in. As an institutional lender, we provide financial solutions to the cannabis industry.

AFC Gamma is a commercial mortgage REIT that provides loans to companies secured by three pillars: cash flows, licenses, and real estate. We provide term loans, draw facilities, and construction loans. Each loan is unique and tailored specifically to meet the needs of our borrowers. This unique partnership approach with our clients allows us to find solutions to help them expand and grow alongside them.

Since starting AFC Gamma, we have completed almost $500 million of transactions. We provide capital to an industry that others do not and, in turn, allow these operators to build cultivation facilities, production facilities, and dispensaries.

Green: What types of companies are you primarily financing?

Len Tannenbaum, CEO & Partner of Advanced Flower Capital Gamma

Tannenbaum: AFC Gamma seeks to work with operators, ideally in limited license states. We make loans to companies secured by three pillars: cash flows, licenses, and real estate. We tend to lend to operators in regulatory-friendly states, such as: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Arizona, New Mexico, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, and Nevada. Traditionally, we shy away from states like California, Washington and Oregon given our approach to lending. We have 16 borrowers in 17 states, and what we look for are companies that we can grow with over the long term.

Green: What qualities do you look for in a cannabis industry operator or operating group?

Tannenbaum: We tend to work with three different buckets of operators. You have the large publicly traded multi-state operators (MSOs) we have lent to, such as Verano. Then you have the tier right below the top tier MSOs, where you have some public enterprises like Acreage, who is one of our borrowers, and then some private companies such as Nature’s Medicine and Justice Grown. The third tier are smaller operators. They’re single or two-state operators, and we’re typically coming in to help them build out licenses that they want or help them expand within that state. That’s why state-by-state dynamics are so important to us and why we typically only lend to limited license states.

We look at portfolio diversity on a step-by-step basis rather than a borrower-by-borrower basis. We tend to focus on deals in limited license states and also deals that have real estate as collateral. We have found that REIT loans give our clients the most flexibility, and we are able to finance more companies this way.

Green: Capital market dynamics have led to significant public cannabis company revaluations in 2022. How has this affected your business?

Tannenbaum: Although capital market dynamics have made an impact on a significant number of public cannabis companies’ revaluations this year, our overall business hasn’t been affected too much and that’s because the other lending options available right now are not ideal choices for most borrowers. One of the ways a lender can achieve credit enhancements or securities is by raising capital in the public markets. When the markets are more challenging, those companies have a harder time accessing capital when they may need it most. In turn, this could cause slow growth overall, more cash conservation and it removes one of the benefits to lenders. We’d like everyone to have more robust equity from that standpoint, but the flip side is, if equity gets too high in price, those borrowers won’t come to us lenders and they’ll raise capital in the equity markets since the equity is cheap. We’re definitely conducting a lot of business because the equity market is not available to cannabis companies. If that were to change, while our loans would be theoretically safer, they would choose equity instead of debt.

Green: Debt on cannabis companies balance sheets have increased significantly in recent years. What is your perspective on that?

Tannenbaum: When equity markets were free and the valuations were high, cannabis companies raised money in the equity markets rather than take on debt. Now that the equity markets have been somewhat closed and valuations are much lower, we see their debt has increased over the past two years.

Green: How does the lack of institutional investor participation in the cannabis industry affect your business?

Tannenbaum: Right now, we are one of the biggest lenders in cannabis. Looking to the future, though, if the SAFE Banking Act passes, we could see an influx of institutional capital that would increase competition amongst cannabis-specific and mainstream lenders. From the outset, most of the competition will come from hedge funds, not big banks. This competition will drive down interest rates and attract borrowers like MSOs.

Green: What would you like to see in either state or federal legalization?

Tannenbaum: The Senate passing the SAFE Banking Act. Should this happen, lenders, including AFC Gamma, will be able to borrow cheaper, which will, in turn, allow lenders to lend cheaper. It will be a net positive for all operators. It could also be positive for lenders assuming they have the infrastructure and capabilities to scale and decrease the cost of capital once the money starts flowing and more deals are being made.

Green: What trends are you following closely as we head towards the end of 2022?

Tannenbaum: The most important trend we’re following is state by state trends. We’re excited to see new states getting their act together like New York. We’re excited about Georgia. We’re also looking forward to Missouri going rec. On the flip side, we’re also watching Virginia issue more than 400 licenses, diluting down the limited license states into basically an unlimited license state, which personally doesn’t make sense.

The other trend we’re watching across the country is cannabis prices. There is definitely a gray and legacy market that goes across border that should be enforced. That flow of cannabis product is depressing prices, especially in the unlimited license states. I believe there is a chance that trend starts reversing as many grows are now inefficient. The low end of inefficient grows are going to start closing, which may increase prices going into next year.

M&A in Cannabis: A Guide for Buyers and Sellers

By Abraham Finberg, Rachel Wright
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Mergers and acquisition activity in the cannabis space tripled from 2020 to 2021, and that pace is on track to continue in 2022. With big players entering the global cannabis market, we’re fielding more questions about mergers and acquisitions of cannabis businesses.

In this guide, we look at the evolution of the U.S. cannabis industry and some best practices and considerations for M&A deals in this environment.

The New Reality of Cannabis M&A Activity

The industry has evolved since adult use cannabis was first legalized in some U.S. states in 2012. More cannabis companies have a professional infrastructure—legal, financial and operational—with executive teams and board members ensuring the organization establishes proper governance procedures. Investors and private equity firms are showing more interest, and some cannabis companies have celebrated their first IPOs on the Canadian Securities Exchange (CSE).

At the same time, we are seeing a kind of “market grab” by multistate operators (MSOs) looking to acquire various licenses and expand their market share. MSOs tend to understand the current state of the market. For example, in California and some other states, there is a surplus of cannabis on the market for various reasons, partially due to so-called “burner distribution”—rogue distributors using licenses to buy vast amounts of legally grown cannabis at wholesale prices and selling the product on the black market, thereby undercutting retailers and other legal cannabis businesses. Another reason for the surplus is simply the entrance of many legal cultivators into the market over the past year.

Due to these trends, MSOs are interested in acquiring the outlets to be able to sell the surplus cannabis within California and other new markets.

Transferring Cannabis License Rights

One of the biggest challenges to M&A activity in the cannabis sector is the difficulty of transferring or selling a cannabis license.

Different types of cannabis licenses in California

Cannabis licenses are not expressly transferable or assignable under California law and many other states. However, the parties involved aren’t without options. For example, a business that is sold to a new owner may be able to retain its existing cannabis license while the new owner’s license application is pending, as long as at least one existing owner is staying on board. At the state license level, a change of up to 20% financial interest does not constitute a change in ownership, although the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) must be notified and approve the change.

This process can take a while—often a year or more—since licensing involves overcoming hurdles at the local level as well as the state level with the BCC. It’s crucial to talk with legal counsel about the particulars of the license and location early in the process to best structure the terms of the agreement while complying with state and local requirements.

Seeking a Tax-Free Reorganization in the Cannabis Space

In many cannabis mergers and acquisitions, the goal is to accomplish a tax-free reorganization, where the parties involved acquire or dispose of the assets of a business without generating the income tax consequences that would result from a straight sale or purchase of those assets.

IRC Section 368(a) defines various types of tax-free reorganizations, including:

Stock-for-stock exchanges (IRC Section 368(a)(1)(B)

In a stock-for-stock reorganization, all of the target company’s stock is traded for a portion of the stock of the acquiring parent corporation, and target company shareholders become minority shareholders of the acquiring company.

Often, it’s tough to meet the requirements to qualify for this type of tax-free reorganization because at least 80% of the target stock must be paid for in voting stock of the acquirer.

Additionally, companies may be saddled with too much debt. If the acquirer assumes that debt, it may be classified as consideration paid to the seller and therefore disqualify the transaction as a tax-free reorganization.

In other M&A deals, the acquiring corporation may be unwilling to assume the debt of the target corporation—perhaps because showing these items on its balance sheet would impact its debt-to-equity and other financial ratios.

Stock-for-asset exchanges (IRC Section 368(a)(1)(C)

Rather than acquiring the target company’s stock, the acquirer may purchase its assets. In a stock-for assets exchange, the buyer must purchase “substantially all” of the target’s assets in exchange for voting stock of the acquiring corporation.

A stock-for-assets format offers the buyer the benefit of not having to assume the unknown or contingent liabilities of the target. However, it’s only feasible if the acquirer purchases at least 80% of the fair market value of the target’s assets AND all or virtually all of the deal consideration will be stock of the acquirer.

Tax Consequences Arising from Sale of Assets

If the sale price doesn’t consist primarily of the buyer’s stock, the transaction may be a standard asset sale. This leads to very different tax results.

If the seller is a C corporation, it will typically face double taxation—paying tax once on the sale of assets within the corporation and again when those profits are distributed to shareholders. If the target company has net operating losses (NOLs), it can use those NOLs to offset the tax hit.

If the seller is an S corporation, it won’t have to pay corporate tax on the transaction at the federal level. Instead, shareholders will pay tax on the gain on their individual returns.

For the buyer, the benefit of an asset sale is that the assets acquired get a “step-up basis” to their purchase price. This is beneficial from a tax perspective, as the buyer can depreciate the assets and may be able to claim accelerated or bonus depreciation to help offset acquisition costs.

Reverse Triangular Merger

Often, in practice, we come across what is termed as a reverse triangular reorganization. In this type of merger,

  1. The acquiring company creates a subsidiary,
  2. The subsidiary merges into the target company before liquidating,
  3. The target company then becomes a subsidiary of the acquirer, and
  4. The target company’s shareholders receive cash.

Structuring the deal this way may work to overcome the hurdle of transferring the license but may not qualify as a tax-free reorganization.

Bottom Line

The circumstances and motivations for mergers and acquisitions in the cannabis industry are diverse. As a result, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to structuring the transaction. In any event, it’s crucial to start the process early and seek advice from legal counsel and tax advisors to minimize the tax burden and ensure that both parties to the transaction get the best deal possible. If you need assistance, contact your 420CPA strategic financial advisor.

An Interview with Bespoke Financial Co-Founder & CEO George Mancheril

By Aaron Green
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Founded in 2018, Bespoke Financial is the nation’s first fintech lender focused on the cannabis industry. Led by a premier team of experts in the credit, technology and cannabis industries, Bespoke Financial has financed more than $800M in GMV across the US cannabis industry and is on track to deploy $1B by end of year 2022 via their revolving lines of credit. Bespoke’s financing empowers cannabis companies to increase purchasing power, remove working capital limitations and accelerate growth in a rapidly growing industry. The company is backed by respected venture capital firms such as Casa Verde Capital, The General Partnership, Greenhouse Capital Partners and Ceres Group Holdings.

Bespoke recently entered into a milestone partnership with Blaze as the cannabis industry’s first tech-enabled B2B lending product available in CA & MA. Through this partnership, Bespoke and Blaze will be the first to bring “Buy Now Pay Later” to the industry. With just the click of a button, vendors can utilize this BNPL feature by paying directly within the Blaze platform via Bespoke’s financing with a 60-day repayment term on all vendor payments while minimizing dispensaries’ reliance on cash transactions. 

We caught up with George Mancheril, co-founder and CEO of Bespoke Financial to learn more about trends in cannabis lending and their unique partnership with Blaze. George was the company’s CFO prior to taking the CEO position in 2019. Prior to Bespoke, George was a VP at Guggenheim Partners in California. 

Aaron Green: What does it mean to be a fintech lender in cannabis?

George Mancheril: Bespoke Financial is a first mover in fintech lending for the cannabis industry, equipped with a robust network of investors, industry expertise and a multi-year track record solidifying our credibility in the space. We are focused on working with established cannabis companies who can use our financing to unlock growth, profitability, and success in the near- and long-term future.

Cannabis lenders must navigate a complex web of both cannabis and financing regulations, specific to each state, while trying to identify good borrowers in a nascent industry comprised of new companies. This has caused banks, traditional lenders, and institutional investors to avoid cannabis despite the unique growth opportunities and economic potential of the industry overall.

Green: What makes Bespoke different from other cannabis lenders in the business?

Mancheril: Unlike the few cannabis lenders active in the market, Bespoke Financial combines best-in-class technology and lending products designed to address the specific financing needs of the industry to better serve our clients. Our tech platform offers a simple interface for our clients to easily access financing, monitor loan balances, and manage payments. Bespoke’s technology allows us to service a broad array of clients in numerous markets across the US, offering our clients a reliable financing partner for their immediate and future needs.

Green: What markets do you serve in cannabis? Are you able to finance plant-touching operations?

George Mancheril, Co-Founder & CEO of Bespoke Financial

Mancheril: Bespoke works with cannabis companies across the entire supply chain within 15 U.S. cannabis markets, with the vast majority of our borrowers being plant-touching operations, Our portfolio comprises cultivators, manufacturers, distributors, dispensaries, non-plant touching cannabis brands, ancillary service providers and CBD companies. Our financing options have helped a wide variety of cannabis operations overcome working capital limitations and capitalize on new growth opportunities and increase profitability.

Green: You recently announced a “Buy Now Pay Later” partnership with Blaze. What problems do dispensaries have that you are solving for there?

Mancheril: As broader economic activity slows in the US with the threat of a recession impacting both businesses and consumers, dispensaries face supply, demand, and fundraising challenges:

  1. Consumer demand challenges:
    1. Cannabis consumers in 2022 are significantly more price sensitive than recent years for several reasons.
      1. High inflation over the past 1yr+ has reduced disposable income for consumers in the US.
      2. Post-COVID return to normalcy has allowed consumers to spend disposable income on many goods and services which were largely been unavailable since the beginning of 2020 (ie travel).
      3. Concern about a recession and slower wage growth has further reduced consumer spending.
      4. Illicit cannabis has always been the main competition for legal dispensaries with little enforcement or curtailing of black-market activity to note in the US.
    2. New cannabis consumers are gravitating towards smaller (but growing) product categories (edibles, concentrates, infused beverages, etc.) as opposed to just purchasing packaged flower. Dispensaries must carry a wide array of products and brands in order to better attract and service new and existing customers.
  2. Supply side challenges:
      1. Mature cannabis markets, such as California, have been saturated with over supply since Q2 2021 leading to inventory build ups and declining wholesale prices for cultivators, manufacturers, and brands (collectively referred to as suppliers). In this environment, suppliers are offering discounts to incentivize customers (i.e. dispensaries) who can:
        1. Purchase larger quantities more frequently to allow suppliers to move inventory before the product quality degrades.
        2. Pay COD for purchases as cashflow and capital are very important for suppliers during periods of economic stress.
      2. Dispensaries without the financial means to conform to suppliers’ preferences will be at a considerable disadvantage as they will continue to have trouble sourcing popular products at the lowest possible cost.
  1. Fundraising challenges:
    1. Cannabis’ federal illegality has resulted in a much smaller universe of potential capital providers. Once a potential lender or investor is identified, typically the application process requires time and resources to complete which puts dispensaries in an especially disadvantageous position. Large MSOs, who tend to attract most of the available capital, can rely on internal finance teams to source capital whereas dispensaries are much more constrained and require a simpler, faster, and easier application process.

Our partnership with Blaze to offer B2B BNPL to dispensaries addresses these challenges and more. With access to our financing, dispensaries are empowered with:

  1. Fast access to financing without a lengthy application process, entirely housed within the Blaze POS’ platform
    1. Dispensaries on the Blaze platform do not need to seek out lenders or weigh various financing options.
    2. No materials need to be gathered for the application.
    3. At the click of a button, dispensaries gain access to capital which they are free to use as they see fit with no obligation.
  1. Easy to understand financing
    1. No obligation: dispensaries have full discretion to use our financing only when they choose.
    2. No prepayment penalties or additional fees.
  1. Increased purchasing power, enabling dispensaries to
    1. Carry a wider array of cannabis products and brands to better service consumer needs.
    2. Purchase a higher quantity of inventory from suppliers to qualify for volume-based discounts.
    3. Pay COD for purchases to qualify for early payment discounts.
    4. Offer lower prices to cautious consumers as a result of these discounts, thereby increasing sales and gross profit while strengthening their relationships with suppliers.

Green: Can you explain your decision to launch in CA and MA first? 

Mancheril: While our ultimate goal is to offer B2B BNPL in all legal cannabis markets, we launched in CA and MA first because these states represent the largest and fastest growing markets in the US respectively. California was the first state that both Bespoke and Blaze launched in individually, so it was a natural starting point for our BNPL partnership. Massachusetts’ continued growth is compelling for any service provider and we believe our BNPL financing will be as successful addressing the needs and challenges in this newer market alongside those in more mature states.

Green: What trends are you seeing in US cannabis debt financing?

Mancheril: Since 2020, we’ve seen many MSOs increasingly rely on debt financing as opposed to equity capital. MSOs accounted for over ~80% of the debt raised over the past 2 years despite only representing a fraction of the broader cannabis market. Additionally, commercial real estate financing options for cannabis companies have increased over the same time period, driven by the growth of cannabis focused REITs. In general, by the end of 2021, we saw an increasing number of debt investors focused on higher yields participate in cannabis deals.

The recent macroeconomic volatility, increase in rates, and widening credit spreads in 2022 have slowed and slightly reversed the trends seen over the past 3 years. While banks and traditional lenders continue to wait for federal legalization, the vast majority of cannabis companies continue to have very limited access to debt financing options. Over the past quarter, we have seen debt investors leverage the recent illiquidity to negotiate higher interest rates and equity components in new debt deals, a trend we expect to continue until the broader economy strengthens or federal legalization gains traction.

At Bespoke, we empower entrepreneurs to grow their businesses without having to surrender control of their companies or visions. We are excited to continually be market leaders addressing this very vital need for cannabis companies of all sizes in all market environments.

Green: What trends are you following in US regulations and emerging markets?

Mancheril: The most recent headlines have been mixed for US cannabis regulations. Federal legalization is a huge point of focus with SAFE Banking failing (again) to survive the US Senate while the introduction of the revised CAOA offers a glimpse of hope. We believe federal regulatory changes will continue to be debated and discussed without any meaningful progress over the next 2 years but the current discussion of the CAOA revisions will provide the best insight on lawmakers’ priorities. On the local level, the list of states with adult-use sales continues to expand and we would expect to see a handful of new markets ushered in by voters in 2022.

Green: What would federal legalization mean for the cannabis lending industry? How do you stay ahead of the curve?

Mancheril: Federal legalization can occur in a variety of ways, including rescheduling cannabis (currently Schedule 1), descheduling cannabis entirely from the CSA, deferring to state specific regulation, implementing a national cannabis regulatory framework, or some combination of all of the above. The complexity of future regulatory changes makes the timeline for legalization difficult to forecast but we believe that the path forward will be comprised of multiple legislative changes over a number of years as opposed to a comprehensive reform addressing all the relevant points at once.

Based on the interests and goals of all stakeholders in this conversation, we believe that:

  1. Cannabis de-scheduling or rescheduling is unlikely to occur before 2025
  2. Any federal legislation which is approved will require long transition periods for new rules to be finalized, implemented, and adopted by relevant stakeholders (state regulators, courts, cannabis operators, financial institutions, etc.)
  3. Federal lawmakers may allow for financial institutions to service the cannabis industry prior to de-scheduling through limited scope legislation like SAFE banking
  4. Federal legislation will have a difficult time balancing deference to state specific cannabis regulation while enabling federal agencies such as the FDA and Treasury department to issue guidelines and rules for the broader industry. Too much federal agency interference will jeopardize existing & functioning cannabis markets while too much deference will impede vital oversight and consumer protection.
  5. We believe interstate commerce will not be allowed immediately following federal legalization. Interstate commerce will benefit larger MSOs and states with mature cannabis markets (which are hampered by oversupply) at the expense of smaller single state operators and new markets. State governments are motivated to legalize cannabis in the pursuit of tax revenue and economic opportunity for their constituents, both of which would be significantly reduced for newer markets competing with out of state operators.

Regardless of which path federal legalization takes in the coming years, the net benefit for the industry overall will be clear. Setting aside the societal benefit from expunging criminal records for non-violent offenders and freeing enforcement agencies to focus on more serious issues, any progress towards legalization would significantly reduce the challenges that cannabis operators face today. Cannabis companies will see a reduction in operating expenses, a wider array of options for basic business services like insurance and marketing, and an increase in consumer demand as the stigma of illegality fades into memory. Allowing banks to service the industry would remove cash as the primary form of payment, entice larger pools of capital to enter the cannabis market, and in general de-risk the industry tremendously. Bespoke will continue in our role as market leader and cannabis industry advocate in this new paradigm by empowering our clients with even greater access to the capital and services vital to their continued success.

The CLIMB Act: How the Cannabis Industry Could Benefit

By Zachary Kobrin
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The cannabis industry could receive a significant boost if the recently introduced Capital Lending and Investment for Marijuana Businesses (CLIMB) Act passes Congress. The bipartisan bill was introduced by Rep. Troy A. Carter, Sr., a Democrat from Louisiana, and Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican from Pennsylvania. It is intended to boost the cannabis industry by creating greater access to capital, banking insurance and other business services. Unlike the SAFE Banking Act (which specifically addresses banking services for the cannabis industry), the CLIMB Act was introduced “to permit access to community development, small business, minority development and any other public or private financial capital sources for investment in and financing or cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”

Rep. Troy A. Carter, Sr.

Currently, the cannabis industry faces a serious dilemma with regard to accessing not only traditional banking services, but also essential capital and financing sources. The latest member of the cannabis bill alphabet soup attempts to remedy this by addressing two key issues.

First, the CLIMB Act would permit access to key “business assistance” programs from various financial institutions by prohibiting any federal agency from bringing any civil, criminal, regulatory or administrative actions against a business or a person simply because they provide “business assistance” to a cannabis state-legal company. The CLIMB Act defines “business assistance” broadly to include, among other things, management consulting work, accounting, real estate services, insurance or surety products, advertising, IT and other communication services, debt or equity capital services, banking or credit card services and other financial services.

This provision of the CLIMB Act would immediately create more access to traditional insurance, lending and credit. This broad protection would not only apply to private entities providing “business assistance,” but arguably means that the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) could not be penalized by Congress or another government agency for providing loans to state-legal cannabis companies. Moreover, currently the cannabis industry does not have access to use credit cards, as major credit card companies refuse to permit such transactions. The CLIMB Act could pave the way for major credit card providers to begin permitting cannabis transactions. Permitting the use of major credit cards like American Express, Mastercard and Visa could result in an increase in sales for cannabis retailers.

The second, and possibly the most important, aspect of the CLIMB Act is that it would amend the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 to create a “safe harbor” for national securities exchanges like Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to list cannabis companies and would permit the trading of these cannabis businesses stock. Currently, plant-touching cannabis companies with operations in the U.S. can only be listed on a Canadian-based exchange and can also only be traded in the U.S. via the over-the-counter (OTC) markets. Trading securities on the OTC markets does not provide the same level of security as securities traded on a national exchange like Nasdaq or NYSE. Specifically, the CLIMB Act delineates that the federal illegality of cannabis is not a bar to listing or trading of securities for legitimate cannabis-related businesses.

Rep. Guy Reschenthaler

This provision of the CLIMB Act has two immediate effects. First, the CLIMB Act would allow for U.S. cannabis companies currently listed in Canada to list on the Nasdaq or NYSE. Second, this provision would allow more traditional, “blue-chip” industry companies currently listed on Nasdaq or the NYSE who haven’t been able to operate within the cannabis industry as a plant-touching entity, to enter the cannabis industry as an active participant.

In announcing the CLIMB Act, Representative Reschenthaler stated that “American cannabis companies are currently restricted from receiving traditional lending and financing, making it difficult to compete with larger, global competitors. The CLIMB Act will eliminate these barriers to entry, and provide state-legal American cannabis companies, including small, minority, and veteran-owned businesses, with access to the financial tools necessary for success.”

It is important to note that the CLIMB Act, like the SAFE Banking Act, only represents one small, but important step toward cannabis reforms. Neither proposal would legalize, de-schedule or reschedule cannabis. Rather, the CLIMB Act addresses very real-world, operational issues facing the cannabis industry. With that in mind, the CLIMB Act would certainly provide much needed clarity for issues facing all cannabis companies.

Passage of the CLIMB Act is not a forgone conclusion, but rather is quite uncertain. Other pieces of cannabis-related legislation, like the SAFE Banking Act, have passed the House of Representatives multiple times without the U.S. Senate taking any action. Moreover, the CLIMB Act was introduced with only two legislative supporters.

Soapbox

Give a Voice to Scientists in the Executive Suite

By Dr. Markus Roggen, Amanda Assen
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What do Aurora Cannabis, Tilray and Pfizer all have in common? They all produce and sell products used for medicinal purposes, they are top competitors in their field and they all have statements on their websites claiming that science is one of the most important things to their business. But unlike Pfizer, Aurora and Tilray do not have any positions in the executive suite for scientists or medical personnel. This led us to wonder, why does the structure of their corporate ladder (as well as so many other cannabis companies) not align with what they claim to be their values?

According to Aurora Cannabis, “Science is at the core of what we do”.1 Look up the definition of “core” and you will get “foundational, essential, central, and enduring.”2 Sounds important. Meanwhile, Tilray’s main page states: “For the therapeutic value and risks of cannabinoid-based medicines to be fully understood, Tilray believes it is critical to evolve current scientific understanding of the field.”3

aurora logoYou would assume that somebody in the executive suite would have a position and an educational background relating to the central and enduring part of a business, right? We looked at 10 of the biggest Canadian cannabis companies, their founders’ educational backgrounds and whether there were executive positions for science, R&D or medicine (Table 1). We also looked at the same data for the top 10 biggest pharmaceutical companies (Table 2). As expected, every pharmaceutical company had upper-level (C and/or P level) positions for scientists and/or medical personnel. However, only 2 of the 10 cannabis companies had this.

tilray-logoTo figure out why this is, (as scientists) we did some research. It turns out, the consensus is scientists are bad at commercialization. Scientists are rarely successful as CEOs because they are (usually) not good at attracting customers and get confused by things like revenue models.4 As Akshat Rathi bluntly put it, “just because you are the smartest person in the building does not make you capable to run a company.” In fact, many CEOs of life science companies got to the top by pursuing business, finance, marketing or sales. In the 90s, some life science companies took a chance on scientists and hired them as CEOs, but when they hit financial turmoil, they quickly undid this.5

So maybe scientists aren’t always cut out to be the CEO of a company. But that still doesn’t explain why so few large cannabis companies have a chief scientific/medical officer, or even a president of R&D.

Maybe we are looking in the wrong place. Maybe their value of science can be demonstrated by their spending on research. Typically, a larger agricultural company will spend 9% or more on R&D, and a smaller company will spend 2-4%.6 Meanwhile, the major pharmaceutical companies we looked at spent between 12 and 25% of their revenue on R&D during their most recent fiscal year. Since a cannabis company falls somewhere in between we approximate they would spend around 9-12%.

Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logoHowever, Canopy Growth was the only company that fell into our prediction range, spending 10.5% of their revenue on R&D in 2021.7 Tied for a distant second place were Charlotte’s Web and Aurora Cannabis (a subsidiary of Tilray), spending 4.6%. At the very bottom were Tilray which only spent 0.16% on R&D and TerrAscend which spent 0.21% during their most recent fiscal year.8,9 With most of the cannabis companies, we saw a gradual decrease in R&D funding over time, which intensified with the Covid-19 pandemic.

So why the heck are these companies going on about how they value science? To give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they do think they value science, but they don’t know how to value it.

 It’s hard for a company to take actions that show they value science if there are no voices for scientists at the executive level. After all, how can you make decisions based on science if nobody in the room understands it? Sure, we saw the argument that people who make it to the top can “learn enough science to ascend to the executive suite without much trouble”.5 But what is “enough science”? The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell?

This leads to our argument for putting scientists in the executive suites of cannabis companies and giving them a more powerful voice. Whereas scientists are not good at marketing, those in managerial roles tend to overly rely on intuition – even when the evidence is against them.10 For those relying on intuition, R&D is an easy target during times of crisis (like a global pandemic). Cutting costs in R&D yields a short-term immediate increase in profit and the negative impacts are often not felt until years later.11 However, cutting R&D investment is the opposite of what you should do during a time of crisis. Evidence suggests companies that maintain or even increase spending in marketing and R&D and focus on operational efficiency (such as process optimization) are the ones that will come out as the top competitors in the long run.12,13 Having a chief scientific officer or an executive for R&D with a scientific background can help sustain companies by promoting R&D during hard times and indicating what projects will be the most promising to help the company optimize their processes.

Having a scientist in the executive suite can also help keep everyone in check. “Senior execs live in a feedback loop of positive reinforcement making them unlikely to question their decisions,” according to Stefan Thomke and Gary Loveman.10 They claim the best way for those in managerial roles to avoid over relying on instinct and break out of that positive feedback loop is by “thinking like a scientist”. This involves not letting bias get in the way of truth, studying anomalies, being skeptical, developing strong hypotheses, producing hard evidence and probing cause and effect. To add to this, we think a major part of thinking like a scientist is by having at least one high up in the team. In our own company, giving equal value to scientific voices has resulted in all parties learning and thriving by making fact-based decisions.

Finally, scientists deliver! To be a scientist (with a PhD), one must master the field, find a gap in the knowledge, then fill that gap – all for little pay and no guarantee of a job at the end. This makes them dedicated workers whose main goal is to contribute something unique to their field, or in this case, their company.14 Having someone up top who is dedicated, passionate, innovative and trained to look for gaps in knowledge can be an invaluable voice in the executive suite. They are likely to point out potential money-saving solutions (i.e.: optimizing extraction conditions) that others up top may not have thought of on their own.

If you feel strongly that science is at the core of what you do, and you already know that R&D is crucial for the long-term survival of your company, you are already on the right track. In addition to this, consider giving a voice to scientists at the executive level in your company. The cannabis industry is still in its infancy. This means there is potential for R&D in more than just new product development. Basic stuff like extraction, modifying plants to be heartier against harsh conditions and pathogens, curing and safety testing processes have all barely been studied and optimized to reduce costs. These things won’t be solved by a Juris Doctor, an MBA or even an engineer, they will be solved by scientists, and it will take a scientist up top to ensure the whole company recognizes the importance of these projects.

Table 1: Top cannabis companies stats on founders and their educational backgrounds, presence of scientific executive positions and spending on research and development

Company Founders Founder’s Educational Backgrounds Science executive position? % Revenue spent on R&D
Aphria Inc.

(now owned by Tilray)

 

Cole Cacciavillani and John Cervini Cole: B. Eng

John: Born into a family greenhouse business

Chief science officer

Garry Leong: B.Sc. Chem,

M.B.A. Quality Management 15

NA
Canopy Growth Corp

 

 Bruce Linton and Chuck Rifici Bruce: Ba Public Policy, Minor: Economics. 16

Chuck: B. Eng, MBA

no 10.5% 17
Aurora Cannabis Inc.

(subsidiary of Tilray)

Terry Booth, Steve Dobler, Dale Lesack and Chris Mayerson Terry: Master Electrician18

Steve: B. Eng

Chris: Concrete business

Dale: Electrician and homebuilder

no 4.6% 19
Village Farms International Inc.

 

Michael A. DeGiglio BSc Aeronautic Science no No data available on R&D expenses
Tilray Inc

 

Brendan Kennedy, Christian Groh, Michael Blue Brendan: Ba. Architecture, Msc: Eng, MBA20

Christian: Ba. unknown, MBA21

Michael: Ba. Finance, MBA22

 

no 0.16% 23
Ayr Wellness Inc

 

Jonathan Sandelman Juris Doctor, Law Degree24

 

no No data on R&D spending available
TerrAscend Corp

 

Michael Nashat Pharm. D . Post doc in Neuroscience25 no 0.21% 26
HexoCorp

 

Sebastien St-Louis Ba. Economics, MBA 27

 

no 3.09% 28
Fire & Flower Holdings Corp

 

Trevor Fencott Ba (unknown), and Law degree29 no No data on R&D spending
Zenabis Global Inc

(now owned by hexo corp)

Rick Brar, Mark Catroppa, Monty Sikka Rick: Ba. (unknown)

Mark: Ba. Finance 30

Monty: Ba Accounting and Finance31

 

Chief science Officer:

Natasha Ryz PhD experimental medicine.32

 

 

NA

Table 2: Top pharmaceutical companies founders and their educational background, presence of executive positions for scientists and spending on R&D

Company Current Executives Educational Background Science executive positions? % Revenue spent on R&D
Amgen Robert A. Bradway BSc. Biology, MBA33

 

Chief Medical officer: Darryl Sleep, M.D. 33

Senior VP in R&D:

Jean-Charles Soria PhD molecular Biol, MD

18.5% 34
Sanofi Paul Hudson Ba. Economics, honorary doctorate in business35

 

Executive VP, R&D:

John Reed, MD, PhD in Immunology35

14.51% 36
Bristol-Myers Squibb Giovanni Caforio MD.37

 

Chief Medical Officer: Samit Hirawat, MD.

Rupert Vessey:

Executive VP: R&D PhD molecular immunology 37

 

24.58% 38
Takeda Christophe Weber PhD. pharmacy and pharmacokinetics, Msc. pharmaceutical marketing, accounting, and finance39

 

 

Director

President, R&D:

Andrew Plump, MD.  Ph.D. in cardiovascular genetics 39

14.25% 40
AbbVie Richard A. Gonzalez No college degree. Practical experience in biochemistry research. Vice chairman and president, R&D:

Michael E. Severino, MD, Bsc biochem41

 

12.60% 42
Novartis Vasant Narasimhan Bsc. Biology, MD, Msc Public policy President, Biomedical research, James Bradner M.D.

President innovative medicine, Victor Bulto: Msc. Chemical engineering, health economics, and pharmaeconomics, MBA. Chief medical officer, John Tsai BEng. MD43

 

18.04% 44
Merck Robert M. Davis Ba Finance, MBA, Juris Doctor45

 

Executive VP and president of Merck Research Laboratories; Dean Li MD, PhD cardiology45 25.14% 46
Johnson & Johnson Joaquin Duato

Vanessa Broadhurst

Peter Fasolo

Joaquin: MBA, Master of international management

Vanessa: Ba, Master of Business Administration

Peter: PhD in organizational behavior, Msc. Industrial Psychology, Ba Psychology47

 

Executive VP, Chief Medical Safety Officer; William Hait MD. PhD Oncology

Executive VP, Pharmaceuticals R&D; Mathai Mammen MD. PhD Chemistry

15.69% 48
Pfizer Dr. Albert Bourla

Sally Susman

Payal Sahni Becher

Rady Johnson

Albert: Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (biotechnology)

Sally: Ba Government

Payal: Ba psychology, Msc Psychology

Rady: Accountant49

 

 

Chief Development Officer:

William Pao: MD. PhD oncology

Chief Scientific Officer, Worldwide R&D:

Mikael Dolsten; MD. PhD Tumor Immunology49

17.01% 50
Roche Dr. Severin Schwan, William N. (Bill) Anderson, Dr. Thomas Schinecker, Dr. Alan Hippe Severin: Ba economics, PhD law

William: Msc in management and chemical engineering

Thomas: Bsc genetics, Msc molecular biology, Phd molecular biology

Alan: Ba, Phd in administration51

 

 

CEO Roche Diagnostics; Dr. Thomas Schinecker; PhD in Molecular Biology51

 

23.563% 52

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Cannabis M&A: Take Care of the Due Diligence Essentials

By Michael G. Lux
No Comments

As the regulated cannabis industry matures, M&A activity is expected to continue accelerating. Whether they are existing licensed businesses looking for acquisition opportunities or new investor groups seeking to enter or expand their positions in the industry, investors should recognize the special due diligence challenges associated with cannabis industry transactions.

Above all, investors should avoid the temptation to omit or short-circuit long-established due diligence practices, mistakenly believing that some of these steps might not be relevant to cannabis and hemp operations. Despite the unique nature of the industry, thorough and professional financial, tax and legal due diligence are essential to a successful acquisition.

Surging M&A activity

Over the past few years, as the cannabis industry matured and the regulatory environment evolved, M&A activity involving cannabis and hemp companies has undergone several cycles of expansion and contraction. Today, the expansion trend clearly has resumed. Although the exact numbers vary from one source to another, virtually all industry observers agree that 2021 saw a strong resurgence in cannabis-related M&A activity, with total transactions numbering in the hundreds and total deal values reaching into billions of dollars. Moreover, most analysts seem to agree that so far, the pace for 2022 is accelerating even more.

Today, many existing cannabis and hemp multistate operating companies are in an acquisitive mood as they look for opportunities to scale up their operations, enter new markets, and vertically integrate. At the same time, the projections for continued industry growth over the next decade have attracted a number of investment funds and private equity groups, which were formed specifically for the purpose of investing in cannabis and hemp businesses.

These two classes of investors often pursue distinctly different approaches to their transactions. Unlike the largely entrepreneurial cannabis industry pioneers now looking to expand, the more institutional investors are accustomed to working with professional advisers to perform financial, tax and legal due diligence as they would for a transaction in any other industry.

Among both groups, however, there is sometimes a tendency to misunderstand some of the transactional risk elements associated with cannabis M&A deals. In many instances, buyers who are generally sensitive to potential legal and regulatory risks will underestimate or overlook other risks they also should examine as part of a more conventional financial and tax due diligence effort.

For example, since much of the value of a licensed cannabis operation is the license itself, investors often rely largely on their own industry understanding and expertise to assess the merits of a proposed acquisition, based primarily on their estimation of the license’s value. This practice provides acquirers with a narrow and incomplete view of the deal’s overall value. More importantly, it also overlooks significant areas of risk.

Because cannabis acquisition targets typically are still quite new and have no consistent earning records, acquirers also sometimes eschew quality of earnings studies and other elements of conventional due diligence that are designed to assess the accuracy of historical earnings and the feasibility of future projections.

Such assumptions and oversights often can derail an otherwise promising transaction prior to closing, causing both the target and the acquirer to incur unnecessary costs and lost opportunities. What’s more, even if the deal is eventually consummated, short-circuiting the normal due diligence processes can expose buyers to significant unanticipated risk down the road.

Recurring issues in cannabis acquisitions

The most widely recognized risks in the industry stem from the conflict between federal law and the laws of various states that have legalized cannabis for medical or adult recreational use. The most prominent of these concerns relates to Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC 280E).

Although its use is now legal in many states, cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. IRC 280E states that any trade or business trafficking in a controlled substance must pay income tax based on its gross income, rather than net income after deductions. As a result, cannabis businesses are not entitled to any of the common expense deductions or tax credits other businesses can claim.

The practical effect of this situation is that cannabis-related businesses – including growers, processors, shippers and retailers – often owe significant federal income tax even if they are not yet profitable. Everyone active in the industry is aware of the issue, of course, and any existing operating company or investment group will undoubtedly factor this risk into its assessment of a proposed acquisition target.

The challenge can be exacerbated, however, by other, less widely discussed factors that also affect many cannabis businesses. These issues further cloud the financial, tax and regulatory risk picture, making thorough and professional due diligence even more critical to a successful acquisition.

Several of these issues merit special attention:

  • Nonstandard accounting and financial reporting practices. As is often the case in relatively young, still-maturing businesses, acquisition targets in the cannabis industry might not have yet developed highly sophisticated accounting operations. It is not uncommon to encounter inadequate accounting department staffing along with financial reporting procedures that do not align with either generally accepted accounting principles or other standard practices. In many instances, company management is still preparing its own financial statements with minimal outside guidance or involvement by objective, third-party professionals. Significant turnover in the management team – and particularly in the chief financial officer position –is also common, as is a general view that accounting is a cost center rather than a value-enhancing part of the management structure.

Such conditions are not unusual in young businesses that are still largely entrepreneurial in spirit and practice. In the cannabis industry, however, this situation is also a reflection of many professional and business services firms’ longstanding reluctance to engage with cannabis operators – a hesitancy that still affects some organizations.

When customary business practices are not applied or are applied inconsistently, acquiring companies or investors should be prepared to devote more time and attention – not less – to conventional financial due diligence. The expertise of professional advisers with direct experience in the industry can be of immense benefit to all parties in this effort.

  • Restructuring events or nonrecurring items in financial statements. Restructuring events and nonrecurring items are relatively common in many new or fast-growing businesses, and they are especially prevalent among cannabis operations. In many instances, such companies have engaged in multiple restructuring events over a short period of time, often consolidating operations, taking on new debt, and incurring various one-time costs that are not directly related to the ongoing operations of the business.

The inclusion of various nonrecurring items within the historical financial statements can make it much more difficult for a buyer or investor to accurately identify and assess proforma operating results, especially in businesses that have not yet generated consistent profits. Here again, applying previous experience in clearing up the noise in the financial statements can help improve both the accuracy and timeliness of the due diligence effort.

  • Run-rate results inconsistent with historical earnings or losses. A company’s run rate – an extraction of current financial information as a predictor of future performance – is a widely used tool for creating performance estimates for companies that have been operating for short periods of time or that have only recently become profitable. In cannabis businesses, however, run-rate estimates sometimes can be unreliable or misleading.

Because it is based only on the most current data, the run rate often does not reflect significant past events that could skew projections or recent changes in the company’s fundamental business operations. Because such occurrences are relatively common in the industry, the results of run-rate calculations can be inconsistent with the target company’s historical record of earnings or losses.

  • Historical tax and structuring risks new owners must assume. Like many other new businesses, cannabis operations often face cash flow and financing challenges, which owners can address through alternative strategies such as debt financing, stock warrants, or preferred equity conversions. Such approaches can give rise to complex tax and financial reporting issues as tax authorities exercise their judgment in interpreting whether these items should be reported as liabilities or equity derivatives. The situation is often complicated further by various nonstandard business practices and the absence of sophisticated accounting capabilities, as noted earlier.

As a consequence, financial statements for many cannabis companies – including a number of publicly listed companies – often contain complex capital structures with numerous types of debt warrants, conversion factors and share ownership options. Although an acquisition would, in theory, clean up these complications, buyers nevertheless must factor in the risk of previous noncompliance that might still be hidden within the organization – a risk that can be identified and quantified only through competent and thorough due diligence.

Not as simple as it seems

On the surface, the fundamentals of the cannabis industry are relatively straightforward, which is one reason it appeals to both operators and investors. For example, participants at every stage of the cannabis business cycle – growing and harvesting, processing and packaging, shipping and distribution, and ultimately marketing and retailing – can readily apply well-established practices from their counterparts in more conventional product lines.

The major exception to this rule, of course, is the area of regulatory compliance, which is still shifting and likely will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Outside of this obvious and significant exception, however, most other aspects of the industry are relatively predictable and manageable.

When viewed in this light and in light of the continued growth of the industry, it is easy to see why cannabis-related acquisitions are so appealing to existing business operators and outside investors alike. It is also easy to understand why buyers might feel pressure to move quickly to take advantage of promising opportunities in a fast-changing industry.

As attractive as such opportunities might be, however, buyers should take care to avoid shortcuts and resist the urge to sidestep established due diligence procedures that can reveal potential accounting and financial statement complications and the related compliance risks they create. The unique nature of the cannabis industry does not make these practices irrelevant or unnecessary. If anything, it makes professional financial, tax, and legal due diligence more important than ever.


Crowe Disclaimer: Qualified organizations only. Independence and regulatory restrictions may apply. Some firm services may not be available to all clients. Given the continued evolution and inconsistency of various state and federal cannabis-related laws, any company should seek competent legal advice relating to its involvement in the cannabis industry, including when considering a potential public offering as a cannabis-related company.

Cannabis Banking: The Ins, the Outs & the Unknowns

By Tamara L. Kolb, Amy Bean, Caitlin Strelioff
No Comments

As the legal cannabis market expands, banks and nonbank financial institutions (NBFIs) across the United States continue to explore how to safely provide banking and other financial services to cannabis-related businesses (CRBs) and other CRB ecosystem players. At the same time, these organizations are taking into account changes they might need to consider relative to their Bank Secrecy Act ( BSA), anti-money laundering (AML) and related compliance programs. 

Regulatory conundrum

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) identifies the cannabis plant and all its derivatives as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Schedule 1 controlled substances have a “high abuse potential with no accepted medical use,” and they cannot be “prescribed, dispensed, or administered.” Because cannabis remains classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the CSA “imposes strict controls on possession, manufacturing, distribution, and dispensing” of cannabis.

Under the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986 (MLCA) and the BSA as amended, covered banks and NBFIs are prohibited from providing financial services to businesses that are engaged in illicit activities. Because federal law prohibits the distribution and sale of cannabis, financial transactions involving CRBs are therefore deemed to be transactions that involve funds derived from illegal activities.

As of Feb. 3, 2022, 18 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to regulate cannabis for adult use. Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia and four territories have approved comprehensive, publicly available medical and cannabis programs. Eleven states allow for the use of low-THC, high-CBD substances for medical reasons in limited situations or as a legal defense.

The growing divide between federal prohibition and state legalization of the cannabis industry creates a precarious position for federally regulated banks and NBFIs with the main concern involving exposure to legal, operational and regulatory risk. The situation begs the question: How might the federal government and regulators pursue and prosecute players in the legal cannabis industry?

The current economic trajectory predicts that retail sales of legal cannabis products in the U.S. will surpass an estimated $41.5 billion annually by 2025, and many banks and NBFIs are eagerly awaiting the federal green light to do business with CRBs without fear of prosecution or legal ramifications.

From 2018 forward, Congress has made several attempts to pass legislation that would protect CRBs when cultivating, distributing, marketing, and selling cannabis products in their state-legalized form. These efforts to declassify cannabis-related activity as a specified unlawful activity have thus far been unsuccessful.

The House passing the MORE Act back in 2020

Passage of the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2021 (SAFE Banking Act) and the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (MORE Act) would enable banks and NBFIs to provide financial services to CRBs. The SAFE Banking Act would provide a safe harbor for banks and NBFIs that provide financial services to CRBs. The MORE Act would deschedule cannabis from the CSA entirely.

Questions to ask

Banks and NBFIs interested in providing financial services to CRBs should ask these questions:

  • Do we adequately understand our risk, and what are the implications for our organization? How should we augment our risk assessment process and our controls?
  • To what extent are we willing to accept the risk of banking CRBs? Do we have the ability to identify CRB customers, and if so, do we have any?
  • How should we advise the board of directors about setting risk appetite?
  • What customer due diligence (CDD) and enhanced due diligence (EDD) will we need to safely continue with existing customers and onboard new ones?
  • How will we monitor for unusual and suspicious activity? What will be the alerting and judgmental criteria?
  • How will our resource needs change so that we stay abreast of new processes and controls?

Risk appetite considerations

In order to determine whether to accept or prohibit CRBs, banks and NBFIs should identify the level of acceptable risk they are willing to take on. Several key components need to be considered, such as:

  • The board of directors’ stance on legal cannabis, given that good governance recommends and regulators expect that the board sets risk appetite
  • Cannabis laws in states within the customer footprint and the impact on customers’ communities
  • Risk profile, customer base, geographic location, products, and services
  • Relationship with regulators and any recent deficiencies or weaknesses in the BSA and associated compliance programs
  • Ability to implement appropriate controls and staffing

 Developing a strategic road map

If the decision is made to bank CRBs, banks and NBFIs should perform an assessment of compliance maturity for existing BSA/AML program processes and controls to identify potential gaps and develop a strategic road map that helps the organization achieve its vision for future state compliance and sustainable operations. 

A well-developed and well-articulated strategic road map visualizes what actions or key outcomes are needed to help organizations achieve their long-term goals. When creating the road map, banks and NBFIs need to demonstrate a keen understanding of their desired strategy, outcomes, markets, and products for onboarding and banking CRB customers. Specifically, banks and NBFIs need to define and explain how desired outcomes and business strategies create risk and exposure.

In addition to a road map, banks and NBFIs should develop and document a detailed risk-based approach that is aligned to the organization’s risk tolerance to determine necessary compliance steps when banking CRB customers.

Specifically, the following activities should be considered when developing a CRB banking program that meets regulatory expectations:

  • Identifying BSA/AML control gaps related to CRB risk identification and mitigation and formulating a plan to address them
  • Updating a board-approved policy framework
  • Updating detailed operating policies and procedures
  • Planning for capacity, developing job descriptions, and onboarding new personnel
  • Training for all three lines of defense, senior management, and the board
  • Developing and documenting a phased or full approach to acceptance of CRB customers
  • Developing and documenting a CRB program oversight policy

CRB risk framework

A three-tiered CRB risk framework first proposed in 2016 has quickly become the cannabis industry standard. The framework has evolved and expanded comprehensively to consider many types of CRBs, and evolving legal systems continue to refine the framework.

This framework is intended to help banks and NBFIs differentiate types of CRBs and their corresponding risks, and it separates CRBs into three tiers and details risks for each tier. The following exhibit summarizes the approach:

Risk framework by tier

Level Risk
Tier 1 Direct
Tier 2 Indirect with substantial revenue from Tier 1
Tier 3 Indirect with incidental revenue from Tier 1

Source: CRB Monitor

Even the most conservative of risk appetites equivalent to outright prohibition is not devoid of significant risk considerations. Residual risk frequently encompasses a large number of indirect connections in the total CRB ecosystem. Common examples are printers, lawyers, accountants, landlords, and even utilities and taxing authorities, and all of these are subject to regulatory scrutiny and, importantly, visibility to law enforcement. Also, policies to prohibit or restrict will be audited and examined for compliance, and exceptions will require explanations.

This panorama necessitates expertise and prudence in identifying and evaluating risks within the many layers of CRBs. For example, consider a bank or NBFI that banks a CRB’s employee or vendor. If a bank fails to properly implement controls that would allow it to identify and mitigate risk associated with banking CRBs, it will be susceptible to severe violations of the BSA, including civil money penalties, criminal penalties, and regulatory enforcement actions. 

Implementing necessary precautions

A well-developed road map should consider and implement the following activities:

  • Understanding the most current state and federal cannabis laws and regulations to ensure the bank or NBFI’s compliance
  • Understanding the local, state, or tribal program to ensure CRB customers are compliant with the program
  • Implementing a CRB risk assessment
  • Implementing executive approval practices for direct CRBs
  • Developing adequate risk ratings (possibly through a risk-based, tiered approach) and corresponding monitoring for CRB customers that includes:
    • Integrating various customer onboarding and AML solutions at both onboarding and periodic levels
    • Scheduling regular reviews to include recurring enhanced due diligence, site visits, and transaction monitoring
    • Monitoring for suspicious activity, including red flags, via open sources for adverse information about the CRB customers and related parties such as beneficial owners
  • Performing adequate CDD and EDD that will validate that the CRB-offered products, services, and programs are compliant with most current state laws and regulations by:
    • Collecting appropriate documentation as evidence of compliance, perhaps including a comprehensive onboarding questionnaire, beneficial ownership information, and contracts for the growing, harvesting, transporting and processing of the product
    • Reviewing applications and supporting documentation used to obtain a legal cannabis state license
    • Understanding the normal and expected activity of the organization’s CRB customers and their product usage
  • Developing adequate training programs and governance and oversight programs to address this customer type by:
    • Updating existing policies and procedures to review inherent risk presented by banking CRB customers
    • Updating annual training for employees
  • Auditing initial program design and periodic operational effectiveness

Moving forward cautiously

The ins, outs, and unknowns of cannabis banking are complex, and they require banks and NBFIs to be extremely vigilant with current policy and aware of new developments. Overall, the idea of creating a cannabis program might seem like a daunting task, but with appropriate guidance and care, organizations can provide services in compliance with laws and regulations.

Crowe disclaimer: Qualified organizations only. Independence and regulatory restrictions may apply. Some firm services may not be available to all clients. Given the continued evolution and inconsistency of various state and federal cannabis-related laws, any company should seek competent legal advice relating to its involvement in the cannabis industry, including when considering a potential public offering as a cannabis-related company.

State of the US Cannabis Payment Processing Market: An Interview with Executives at KindTap and Aeropay

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 traditional payment processors have been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.

Two companies, KindTap Technologies and Aeropay, are addressing the cannabis industry’s payment processing challenges with innovative digital solutions geared towards retailers and consumers.

We interviewed both Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, president at KindTap Technologies and Daniel Muller, CEO at Aeropay. Cathy co-founded KindTap in 2019 after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products. Daniel founded AeroPay in 2017 after a career in digital product innovation, most recently at GPShopper (acquired by Financial), where he oversaw the design and development of over 300 web and mobile applications for large scale Fortune 500 companies.

Green: What is the biggest challenge your customers are facing?

Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, co-founder and president at KindTap Technologies

Iannuzzelli: Our customers include both cannabis retailers and their end consumers. As long as cannabis is illegal at the federal level, normal payment solutions such as debit and credit cards cannot be accepted for cannabis purchases. This has resulted in heavy cash-based sales and unstable, transient work-around ATM payment solutions that can be ripped out with little notice, disrupting the entire business. The lack of a mature payment network to support retail payments for cannabis purchases is a huge challenge for all stakeholders. Cannabis retailers bear the high cost and safety issues of operating a heavily cash-based retail business. Consumers encounter several friction points that require them to change their behavior when purchasing cannabis relative to how they purchase everything else.

Muller: Our cannabis business customers have faced a constantly changing and, frankly, exhausting financial services environment. From the need to move and manage large amounts of cash, to card workarounds, added to the disappointment from legislation around the SAFE Banking Act, these inconsistencies have acted as a roadblock to their potential growth and profitability. Aeropay is in the position to be a stable, long-term, reliable payments partner ready to help them scale their businesses. We believe these opportunities are limitless.

Green: What geographies have got your attention and why?

Daniel Muller, CEO and founder of Aeropay

Iannuzzelli: KindTap’s focus is on the U.S. market where federal policy has created the need for alternatives to traditional payment networks. KindTap is available in every U.S. state where cannabis is legally sold. In terms of our distribution channels, KindTap’s digital payment solution was brought to market during the COVID-19 pandemic when curbside pick-up and delivery became critically important. These channels are where the exchange of cash at pick-up posed the greatest security risk to employees and customers. Our early integrations were with e-commerce platforms focused on delivery and pick-up orders, and our integration partners have strong customer bases in California and the northeast. So, while KindTap can provide its “Pay Later” lines of credit and “Pay Now” bank account solutions anywhere, we have heavier penetration in those regions.

Muller: California, for its established tech culture and how it plays into the cannabis industry – your product simply has to live up to their tech standards to be heard. Also, Chicago, our headquarters, with its newly emerged commitment to financing the cannabis industry and bringing with it a more traditional business approach. In Chicago, you have to have elevated standards of professional practices in any industry you enter. And of course, we love to watch emerging markets like New York and Florida as they head towards adult-use and what shape cannabis and payments will take.

Green: What are the broader industry trends you are following?

Iannuzzelli: We continue to see a strong transition from cash and ATM transactions over to digital payments. Since KindTap has a fully-integrated payment “button” on e-commerce checkout screens, the adoption rate of end consumers to that one-click experience is quite strong. We are also seeing trends of more “express lines” in the retail environment – for those KindTap users who paid online/ahead – and faster/safer delivery experiences to people’s homes since there is no longer the need to collect any payment upon delivery. We are firm believers in the delivery/digital payments combination and a strong increase of that trend as more states allow for delivery.

Muller: The cannabis industry is starting to normalize payments and mirror traditional online and brick-and-mortar. With bank-to-bank (ACH) payments, cannabis businesses can now offer modern customer shopping experiences including pre-payment for delivery orders without the need for a cash exchange at the door, offering the option to buy online pickup in-store and contactless in-store QR scan-to-pay customer experiences. With these familiar and customer-driven options now available, we are seeing widespread adoption, as well as meaningful increases in spend and returning customers.

Green: Thank you both. That concludes the interview!

About KindTap: 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. Learn more at kindtaptech.com.

About AeroPay: AeroPay is a financial technology company reimagining the way money is moved in exchange for goods and services. Frustrated with the current, antiquated payments landscape, we believe there is a better way to pay and a better way to get paid. AeroPay set out to build a payments platform that works for all- businesses, consumers, and their communities. Learn more at aeropay.com.

Cannin Commentary

Is Tilray Stock a Buy Post Fiscal Q2 Results?

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Canadian cannabis giant Tilray (NASDAQ:TLRY) announced its fiscal second quarter of 2022 results last week. The company reported net revenue of $155 million in Q2 which was an increase of 20% year over year. Tilray attributed these gains to its expansion in verticals that include alcohol as well as hemp-based wellness.

Despite an uptick in sales, Tilray’s gross margin reduced by 7% to $32.8 million as the Canadian cannabis market continues to wrestle with oversupply issues resulting in lower-priced products. Alternatively, Tilray claimed its cost-reduction program is running ahead of schedule and it expects to save $100 million by 2023, up from its earlier forecast of savings of $80 million.

Tilray reported a net income of $6 million in Q2, compared to a year-ago loss of $89 million. The fiscal second quarter was also the 11th consecutive quarter where Tilray reported an adjusted EBITDA. This figure stood at $13.8 million in Q2.

Tilray stock rose by 15% in the two trading days following its Q2 results.

What impacted Tilray in Q2 of fiscal 2022?

Tilray explained its Q2 results were solid as it has successfully built a cannabis and lifestyle brand. Further, the company continues to benefit from its scale, global distribution capabilities as well as operational excellence allowing it to increase sales and maintain profitability despite macro-economic headwinds.

Last year, Tilray completed its merger with Aphria making the combined entity the largest cannabis producer in Canada in terms of market share and sales. Tilray maintained its leadership position in the country despite market saturation and rising competitive challenges.

The company enjoys strong brand recognition and is focused on ensuring an adept pricing environment. It also believes marketing adjustments will allow Tilray to aggressively capture market share going forward.

Germany is the largest medical cannabis market in Europe where Tilray has a 20% share. It’s well-positioned to capture the adult use cannabis market as well in Europe, if and when cannabis is legalized in this region.

Tilray, similar to most other producers aggressively acquired companies in the past. Its acquisition of the U.S.-based SweetWater Brewing and Manitoba Harvest provides it a foothold in the world’s largest cannabis market. These two companies have invested in product innovation to enhance awareness and distribution.

Further, SweetWater and Manitoba Harvest are profitable and provide Tilray an opportunity to launch THC-based products in the U.S. when pot is legalized at the federal level.

What next for TLRY stock?

During its earnings call, Tilray disclosed its new parent name called Tilray Brands. It reflects the company’s evolutions from a Canadian licensed producer to a global consumer packaged goods company with a leading portfolio of cannabis and lifestyle CPG brands.

german flag

Tilray aims to post annual sales of $4 billion by 2024 which is quite optimistic given analysts expect revenue to grow to $980 million in fiscal 2022 and $1.2 billion in fiscal 2023. In order for Tilray to reach its lofty goals, it will have to acquire other licensed producers resulting in shareholder dilution.

Germany is expected to legalize marijuana at the federal level, making it the largest country to do so in terms of population. Tilray already has an EU GMP-certified facility operating in Germany which can increase production capacity to accommodate demand from the adult use segment.

Bottom Line: Is Tilray Stock a Buy Post Fiscal Q2 Results?

While Tilray’s stock gained pace, following its Q2 results, investors should understand that it was estimated to report revenue of $171 million in the quarter. Despite the cost synergies enjoyed by Tilray, the adult-use market in Canada is crowded as well as highly fragmented and should consolidate in the upcoming years which will allow companies to improve the bottom line.

Tilray stock is valued at a market cap of $3.2 billion which suggests its forward price to sales multiple is over 3x. Unlike most cannabis producers in the U.S. Tilray continues to post an adjusted loss making it a high-risk bet at current multiples.

Emerald Holding Acquires MJBiz for $120 Million

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

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

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

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

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

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