Constellation Brands, the beer brewer behind Corona and Modelo, has finally admitted the obvious. Its four-billion-dollar bet on the Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth in 2018 was a long-term play for market share, not immediate profitability. Indeed, Canopy has yet to turn a profit and its shares are down 30% from this time last year. So far Constellation has lost $71.1 million of its investment in the cannabis industry company leader. That is 19.25% of its total investment in 18 months. In other words, hardly insignificant.
That said, Canopy is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “down for the count.” If their overexpansion plans and statements over the last three years have been, at best, optimistic, they have not done anything broadly different than any of their other major competitors (see Aurora for example). And have still emerged, financial bloodbath although it has been so far, four years after entering the European market at least, with global presence that is not going anywhere. Even if in some markets overall sales are lower than hoped or anticipated.
At least two quarters of real reorganization and reshuffling in every office on every continent the country does business in have at least resulted in a major victory in Luxembourg at least that will bear fruit for years to come. That is a strategic victory worth a few dings along the way.
Starting, almost certainly, in 2021, when changing laws in Europe will also allow the company to bring together its background and reach in the spirits industry to a world that is finally opening to the blending of the cannabis world into the same.
This year, in other words, will almost certainly see the company continue to service its existing steady business in multiple countries – however unfancy that may be. And it is decidedly not glam here. In places like Germany the company is essentially only holding onto market share in the medical market by its purchase of the largest dronabinol maker in the country.
That said, beggars cannot be choosers. Aurora in contrast, is looking at a serious review of its cultivation licenses and practices. In the meantime, Canopy snagged a lucrative contract for a strategic, central country in the European debate – Luxembourg – that no matter how small, that will create at least a trickle of medical sales until the country changes its laws.
One of the things that the Canadian cannabis industry has in spades, and this is absolutely true of Canopy, is accurate business acumen about market entry timing and overall strategy.
No matter how much cannabis industry execs, in other words, have only been positive and upbeat before, this statement by Constellation also signals a change in the way Canopy presents itself externally.
Mistakes have been made. It is time to clean house and move on.
What other new industry in the lifetimes of those alive today, continues to admit its mistakes and pivots less than a decade after its global birth in continual pivot and expansion mode? The only other one that comes close is of course the internet. And these days, more specifically, Internet 2.0.
So, as the world says hello to 2020, Canopy seems to be sending its new year message. Trimming the sails after a wild, wild year, and setting course again, for a greener horizon.
The hemp industry has experienced and continues to see a surge of growth and awareness nationwide. Following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, permanently legalizing the crop and removing hemp from its classification as a controlled substance, consumer demand for hemp and hemp products like CBD have skyrocketed.
Unfortunately, there remain many challenges. Confusion about hemp’s legal status – and the differences between hemp and its intoxicating cousin, marijuana – has too often stymied commerce in the industry, particularly with traditional banking products and merchant services being limited in their availability to those trying to grow their businesses.
This month, we witnessed a breakthrough development. Upon the bipartisan urging of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Ron Wyden, four federal banking regulatory agencies – Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network – joined by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors – issued joint guidance confirming the legal status of hemp and the requirements for banks providing financial services to businesses.
The new guidance achieves many necessary benchmarks integrating hemp and banking, such as no longer requiring banks to file suspicious activity reports for customers solely because they are engaged in the growth or cultivation of hemp in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. Further, the guidance clarifies the difference between hemp businesses and marijuana businesses – adding yet another point of relief to banks concerned with national and state legality.
The hope is that the joint guidance should alleviate any fear of audits or regulatory crackdowns that have slowed financial institution integration with the hemp industry. However, this does not require banks or financial entities to participate in business with hemp companies. Nor does this guidance directly address the legality of hemp-derived CBD commerce.
With all of this in mind, there is still work to be done. Priority #1 is passage of the SAFE Banking Act. This bipartisan legislation, initially focused on providing a green light to marijuana banking in states where pot is legal, was amended to ensure a separate safe harbor for hemp, with far fewer hoops since it is not a controlled substance. It also directs federal financial agencies to provide clear guidance to both banks and other financial institutions – such as credit card companies – that hemp and CBD commerce are legal. The bill was passed overwhelmingly by the House in September and we are hopeful to see full Senate consideration soon.
Banking is one of the key targets that the hemp industry is aiming to secure, as this will allow for an increase in legal hemp business growth and practices. The goal of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable is to provide consumers with safe and legal hemp products along with the knowledge that the companies are meeting the highest standards and complying with national and state law.
The past year has been another strong year in cannabis. Investors continued to pour money into the burgeoning industry — surpassing 2018 investment totals in just 40 weeks — and new markets opened up for recreational and medical cannabis. And following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD has proliferated and become one of the hottest health supplements in the country.
But as the year winds down, the industry appears to be poised for a more challenging shift in the new year, as once-heady expectations for some big companies don’t pan out and some states clamp down, rather than loosen up, certain regulatory hurdles.
Here are some financial trends to keep an eye on in cannabis over the next year:
Finding New Capital Investment Will Be Tougher
After an initial investment boom in recent years, cannabis investors are realizing not everything colored green turns to gold. With public cannabis companies not performing as well as hoped and restrictive tax laws still plaguing the industry, investors are growing more cautious when it comes to cannabis. Add in other macroeconomic trends that are pointing to a global economic slowdown, and 2020 is shaping up to be a tough year to find cannabis capital.
That’s not to say funding will completely dry up, but operators and business owners must be aware that investment deals that perhaps closed in a matter of days in previous years, likely will take weeks or months while investors dig deeper into books and perform higher levels of due diligence before inking a deal. This means cannabis businesses must carefully plan and watch their cashflow and pursue fresh capital or investment earlier rather than later.
Expect More M&A and Consolidation
With the green rush reaching a crest of sorts, reality is setting in for some smaller cannabis operators. Expect to see more consolidation with smaller dispensaries and cultivators being bought up and absorbed by the big kids. More limited capital and investment options coupled with continued regulatory and legal uncertainties mean unsustainable operating costs for independent and smaller operators, which means the only way to survive may be to sell to a larger player.
New Markets & Regulations
The new year brings new states opening up to recreational or medical cannabis sales, as well as newer or altered regulations in existing markets. Cannabis firms must keep an eye on these new markets and regulations to best determine whether they plan to expand or not.
How stringent or lenient regulations are written and executed will determine the size and viability of the market. One state may severely limit the number of licenses it issues, while others may not put any limit. For example, Oklahoma issues unlimited licenses to grow hemp at $1,500 a piece. While that sounds promising for smaller hemp producers, it also could potentially lead to an oversaturation in the market. On the flip side, a more restrictive (and costly) licensure structure could lead to a far more limited market where only the industry’s largest players will be able to compete.
Cannabis businesses also should keep an eye out for new regulatory hurdles in existing cannabis markets. For instance, California is raising its excise tax on cannabis beginning Jan. 1. That will result in higher costs for both consumers and cannabis companies. High state and local taxes have been a challenge industrywide because they make legal operators less competitive with the illicit market. Also, a proposed rule in Missouri could ban medical cannabis operators from paying taxes in cash. Such a rule would prove problematic for an industry that has had to rely on cash because of federal banking regulations.
Credit Card Payments
While cannabis businesses may face several new and recurring hurdles in 2020 on the financial front, at least one looming change should make business easier: credit card payment processing. Because of cannabis’ continued banking woes, dispensaries and other plant-touching operations have not been able to accept credit cards. Though federal banking limitations remain in place, in 2020 we will see payment processors introduce new, creative and less expensive ways to navigate current banking limitations that will allow cannabis sellers to take credit cards. Opening up payments in this way will not only make transactions and record keeping easier for customers and businesses alike, it also will attract consumers who don’t use cash.
While some of these trends may prove challenging, in many ways they are signs that the cannabis industry is shifting and maturing as we enter a new decade. Many hurdles remain, but the size and momentum of the industry will only continue to grow in 2020 and beyond.
Ever since California legalized medical use of cannabis in 1996, entrepreneurial people and people with money have been looking to turn the cannabis trade into a bonafide industry. The cannabis Green Rush has been a fast and chaotic ride as growing legalization opened myriad opportunities. It seemed for a while that pot was too big to fail.
Yet the second quarter of this year saw the majority of publicly traded cannabis companies recording double-digit losses (with 10 top cannabis stocks with a combined value of $55 billion losing an estimated $21 billion in collective value). Meanwhile, some of the industry’s most recognizable brands are under pressure to cut costs in favor of demonstrable profitability. It is clear that investors have become leery of inflated and unsustainable valuations.
But pot isstill too big to fail.
Polls show an ever-growing majority of Americans believe cannabis should be legal, and the number of states with legal weed continues to grow. The state-sanctioned market will reach nearly $13 billion in sales this year, according to BDS Analytics, with about a quarter in California, the largest, most mature legal market in the world. Total U.S. sales are on track to reach $30 billion by 2024. Legal cannabis remains the biggest investment opportunity of our times, but the Green Rush may be over. And that’s a good thing.
Get over the “green rush” mentality
From the Gold Rush to the Dot Com Boom, great opportunities have tended to create irrational mobs. Have you ever watched a group of Black Friday shoppers? In a frenzy, you often do not stop to evaluate if something is a bargain or if you even need the item. In the investment world, that type of frenzy leads to bubbles. When the Dot Com bubble burst in 2000, almost half the industry’s rising tech companies shuttered their doors, and an estimated $4-6 trillion in shareholder wealth vanished.
A similar thing is happening in cannabis.
The end of the Green Rush means we can now focus on safeguarding cannabis’ future, and not pillaging it for a quick profit.Growing legalization has created an influx of capital, but much of the early institutional money and retail investors went to Canada, where the absence of a federal prohibition allowed for a robust financial market to flourish. Canopy Growth Corp. was the first large-cap cannabis company to go public in 2016, followed by other large licensed producers or LPs. Because they are not violating U.S. laws, Canadian cannabis companies were able to uplist to the NASDAQ and NYSE as well.
American cannabis companies on the other hand – unable to freely tap capital markets at home, flooded Bay Street looking to go public on the Canadian Securities Exchange, and the rush went on hyperdrive. Soon market caps became grossly inflated, and too many cannabis companies that were barely showing profit took big gambles with other people’s money. Now, those investors are paying the price.
But a burst bubble is a good thing. It is a correction that forces companies to focus on priorities and fundamentals, and cannabis is no different. The end of the Green Rush is the start of a real industry with surviving operators becoming even stronger, less reliant on speculation and more focused on performance.
There will always be companies going public to create liquidity, and there will always be venture funding at the ready for any promising new startup. But cannabis will only survive if companies focus less on raising money and more on actually running their businesses.
Cannabis is creating unprecedented cultural and lifestyle shifts. It’s helping shape how people assess, diagnose and treat a broad span of health and wellness issues. Cannabis is helping to break the barriers of opioid addiction, and it’s even beginning to rival the alcohol industry. One out of every five beer drinkers in a Nielsen Market Insights report said they will spend less on store-bought beer due to consuming cannabis. Among the 65 percent of people who purchased over-the-counter drugs for pain relief, 35 percent said they will consider cannabis as a substitute.
The end of the Green Rush means we can now focus on safeguarding cannabis’ future, and not pillaging it for a quick profit.
While you may not have heard of CannTrust Holdings so far, that is now about to change. A summer spectacle of double dealing and corporate greed has put this Canadian cannabis company on the global map.
Unfortunately, the current meltdown underway is indicative of more to come.
A Summary Of The Story So Far
CannTrust, a company which serves 72,000 Canadian patients and got into the game early, decided to do what it saw other companies doing all around them. That covers a lot of ground (good and bad at this point). Regardless, the most relevant recent twist to the saga came when the company hired a new CEO, Peter Aceto last October.
Aceto however, along with the now also fired co-founder and chair of the board Eric Paul, decided to continue growing and harvesting unlicensed product. Worse, this occurred while boasting in public of their productivity gains on the way to securing a hefty investment of capital this spring. $170 million. The grow rooms finally got their certification in April.
What is even more embarrassing however, is that this was a round led by the much-vaunted investors the industry has been courting assiduously for the past several years. Specifically, in this case? Institutional banks like Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Credit Suisse Securities and RBC Capital Markets.
But that is “just” the North American hemisphere. The rather unfortunately named CannTrust (certainly at this point) also had a European footprint – notably Denmark. Unlicensed cannabis ended up there too, of course. Stenocare A/S, the company at the receiving end of the same, reported receipt of product from the unlicensed rooms on July 4.
As far as such things go, however, you have to give it to CannTrust company executives. In terms of setting standards if not benchmarks and “records”, they certainly seemed to have set a few, although probably not the ones they aspired to. If not, with certainty, their investors.
A Surprise Or Inevitability?
That said, for many who have been sounding warnings for at least a year, the 2019 Summer of Canadian Cannascandal is certainly starting to confirm what many have been saying for quite some time. This is not the first time a securities exchange, for one, has sounded the alarm. Deutsche Börse delisted the entire North American public cannabis industry last summer briefly. Then they revised their policy, reluctantly, after Luxembourg changed its stance on medical use. That said, they are still watching with a standing policy of bouncing any company that runs afoul of their rules.
The problems, issues and more bubbling at the center of this cannameltdown, in other words, are not limited to just one company or country.
And everyone knows it.
Accounting For Past Mistakes
For those who are counting, the value of all of that illegally grown CannTrust product is not insignificant. Estimates are floating in the CA$50-70 million range. The problem is, of course, nobody is sure what numbers to rely on. CannTrust employees knowingly provided inaccurate information to the new CEO if not regulatory body until a whistle-blower provided a few more details.
That said, for all of the hullabaloo, one thing this story also does is point a bright spotlight on the lax enforcement of even this pretty easy-to-understand regulation.
The question, however is, if CannTrust thought it could get away with this kind of blatent flouting of the rules, if not lax oversight, are there any other companies who might have also done similiar things?
After all, even the pesticide scandal of 2016 did not occur at just one company either.
Where Are The Proceedings?
This is a rolling story, which began to break at the beginning of last month when Health Canada issued a non-compliance order to CannTrust and impounded 5,200 kg of dried cannabis that was apparently grown in unlicensed grow rooms on July 3.
There have already been some jaw dropping revelations so far (beyond the executive decision to even go down this road in the first place) no matter how attractive pimping numbers was. Starting with things like fake walls being erected to hide the grow. And then of course pictures that have been all over social media of late, of the now departed CEO Aceto being photographed directly in front of said unlicensed rooms too.
As a result, the drama has continued to unfold in a highly predictable way.
By August 1, CannTrust Holdings, a Canadian cannabis company listed on both the New York and Toronto stock exchanges, was facing a “quasi-criminal investigation” by the Canadian Joint Serious Offenses Team. This is a coalition of law enforcement agencies including the Ontario Securities Commission, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Financial Crimes Unit, and the Ontario Provincial Police Anti-Rackets Branch.
But CannTrust’s issues don’t end there. This is an international story that is just beginning. Government regulators in Europe if not elsewhere are paying attention.So are shareholders, and their lawyers.
Canapar SL, an Italian organic hemp producer has just announced it is breaking ground on what it is being billed as “Europe’s largest hemp processing facility.”
Located on Sicily, Canapar is already established as a manufacturer and processor of CBD oil and concentrates. On its roadmap already is to become a leader in the CBD-infused cosmetics, skincare and beauty industry with the additional benefit of bearing the “Made in Italy” imprimatur. In addition to the upscale export market of course, Italy is Europe’s fourth largest consumer of such products.
There has been much noise made about the CBD market in Europe, which even surprised experts by the end of year when it reached a magical 1-billion-euro sales cap.
However, things are not all smooth sailing on this front, no matter how much the market exploded. With the success of CBD, in Switzerland, Spain and beyond, regulators in Europe began looking at how the entire enchilada was regulated.
CBD isolates are falling into a very strange gray territory at the present across the continent. Why? As a plant extract, extracted CBD from cannabis absolutely falls into territory ruled “novel food” in the EU. In effect, what this means is that anything with CBD distillates that do not come from hemp, now requires an expensive licensing process to prove they are not harmful. In places like the UK, Spain and Austria, this became so contentious that police raided Spanish stores over health food products. The UK is now requiring tighter licensing and labelling for these products. Last December, the Austrians banned the entire industry. Take that, Switzerland!
CBD distillate made from hemp, however, seems, for now, to have survived this battle, which is why the strategic investment of Canopy last December was also so intriguingly timed. Why? It appears to be the loophole in the EU in which CBD producers will have to hang their hats until the broader CBD question is answered satisfactorily at both the UN and EU level.
Producing hemp distillate on the Italian island of Sicily also represents an interesting step for the entire cannabis industry as it develops in the country. There have been many efforts to legalize cannabis because this will then end the direct involvement of the Mafia. Perhaps the multi million investment from Canopy will be enough foreign capital to start to do the trick if not turn the tide.
But Won’t CBD Just Be “Rescheduled” By the UN?
There are many reasons why this is a strategic move for Canopy (if not producers moving in similar waters). Yes, CBD is likely to be descheduled by the UN at some point in the near future, but this still will not solve the larger question of “novel food” issues until the EU formally issues regulations on the same. Until then, EU will be a state by state hop for CBD, much as the United States has been so far. And will be, until that debate is settled across the EU at least, sourced from hemp.
With Italian food products export just behind things like cosmetics, Canapar is clearly moving into strategic and potentially highly lucrative territory.
Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold is the founder of MedPayRx, a blockchained ecosystem that does not use utility tokens, and that is currently going to pilot in Europe designed to eliminate such risks.
As reported here in Cannabis Industry Journallast year in a three part series, there are considerable dangers of utilizing blockchain in the cannabis industry (as well as other industry sectors) that directly affect all commercial operators as well as consumers of both the recreational and medical kind. These remain largely unsolved.
These include regulatory and compliance issues in every direction, starting with banking and securities law, but also include privacy and consumer protections. They also fly in the face of regulations imposed by governments to control inflation, set prices for medications and food, and prevent monopolies.
Beyond that, they also pose considerable if so far unexamined liabilities for businesses operating in this space (including uncontrollable volatility in basic business operations) that very much impact the basic cost of doing business.As of the beginning of this year, however, the situation is back in the news.
The Skinny On Paragon As of November last year, the company was sanctioned by the SEC in a precedent setting case on the issue of whether “utility tokens” are securities or not. In fact, the SEC found that Paragon illegally marketed and distributed digital securities under the false pretension that they were not securities. Paragon, in turn, reached a settlement with the SEC that it would return any funds received by investors prior to October 15, 2017 and pay a fine to the SEC.
As of the beginning of this year, however, the situation is back in the news. Because of the settlement agreement, it appears that a pump and dump group operating through the exchange YoBit managed to raise the token briefly from about $.10 a token to $10 in an effort to raise the cost of compensation from Paragon. This absurd rally was completely unsustainable, and as a result, fell back to $0.3 per token (albeit tripled the price of the token). But the fact that it happened at all is illustrative of the extreme risk now faced by the industry itself from this kind of tech and financial model.
Why? It means that all users (token holders) of such an ecosystem and for any purpose, would be directly exposed to such risks in the future. And on literally an hour-by-hour basis.
Utility tokens in other words, as defined by all such models (and Paragon is far from the only one), are used not only for investment in such businesses, but then bought downstream, via exchanges, by people who wish to transact in the network itself. And that is the real danger to businesses themselves by adopting such models.
Problem 1 – Utility Tokens Are Securities
The biggest issue at the heart of this conversation is this: Tokens are recognized now as securities, and further still operating in a world where pump and dump on the exchanges is a major liability for all who buy the tokens for any purpose. This means for example, that anyone who must buy a system cybercoin to transact within a blockchained ecosystem (from consumer to business manager overseeing international distribution of their product from the commercial end) would face unprecedented volatility that does not exist by using regulated currencies. Good old dollars and euros for example do not pose this kind of existential risk to businesses themselves.
In the Paragon case directly, for example, owning Paragon crypto means that monthly rent at the incubator would fluctuate in cost based on the unregulated cost of the coin, not a prenegotiated rental agreement in regular currency for space (which is far less volatile). In the current environment, such space just tripled in price.
Beyond that, no consumer in California, for example, would want to have to face the added cost of buying a hyped token (at artificially raised prices) before they can access the newest, coolest strain of bud.
Such systems in other words, are NOT just a fancy form of a digital payment solution (like Paypal). What they do dramatically increases the risk of price volatility in all business operations (also called “cost of goods sold” or COG), andto the end user while also directly exposing all to such risk at every point of production, processing and sales.
Why?Latency issues are also a major issue.
Because the cost of conducting normal, basic business operations would be directly exposed to speculating investors. Even local businesses, in other words, would be completely vulnerable to not just the fluctuations domestically or even internationally caused by doing business in multiple jurisdictions and traditional currency risk, but have direct and unprecedented exposure to a much less regulated and far more volatile price environment globally. And further one that affects literally the entire manufacturing and distribution process.
Problem 2 – Network Congestion
Latency issues are also a major issue. This is a bit more technical and complicated, but is one of the bigger reasons why most blockchain technology and solutions are still incapable of dealing with commercial industry requirements. Much less keep regulated industries in any space, in compliance.
Here is one way to think of the problem. If you have many users on a blockchain network all at once, speed of transaction goes way down and associated costs go way up.
The tokenized asset in other words, has to compete not only with people buying the token as an investment, but those using them to buy goods and services on the commercial side AND the industry processing taking place behind the scenes to fulfil and track product. This has been easy to see with Bitcoin in particular, but is not limited to the same.
Further, prioritization on a network itself (and the costs involved to overcome them, also paid in tokens) then unfairly creates a monopoly environment because of the added costs involved to speed up otherwise normally processed and critical operations. The biggest boys on the block(chain) win. Always. That is antithetical to anti-trust law.
Problem 4 – Undermining Basic Government Regulations On Cost Of Purchase
Here is the biggest conundrum, particularly facing the international cannabis industry now in the process of exporting across international borders. Governments (particularly in Europe) routinely set prices on medicine (in particular), for large contractual purchases and to insure the continued survival of public healthcare (which in Europe and the UK covers most people). See the German cultivation bid for cannabis as a prime example. The government is forcing the industry to submit prices via competitive bid that are expected to come in somewhere between 1-1.5 euro per gram. This in turn will affect not only domestically grown but imported cannabis – and from all points on the globe as the industry opens up.
That process is impossible in an environment where the cost of production itself would be (in a price volatile blockchained delivery system) inherently unpredictable and unstable because the price of production and distribution is itself a speculated upon commodity that can vary, literally, at the speed of a pump and dumped token, sold on any unregulated exchange, anywhere in the world. And as a result, is also illegal.
The International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC) in Berlin is now officially over. The speeches have been made, the parties have been attended. The hard-working crew behind it all has wrapped up, checked out and is off to Vancouver. And most of all, the marathon of meetings and deal discussions that were the mark of this budding and certainly by now established market are done. Even if there are still details to be ironed out in all the new business in the coming months.
As always, the dilemma for conference attendees was how to spend the limited time in this concentrated cannabis gathering. With all of the networking and excitement, people still wanted to hear the experts who spoke on topics ranging from cannabis financing to actually doing business in Germany to new medical advances. Traffic in the expo section was also heavy, as attendees visited the wide range of vendors. Producers and distributors of both plant and derived product were present, along with vape companies brave enough to compete with Storz and Bickel on their own turf, various tech solutions and of course, international consultants.
As the dust clears and the contracts get signed, what are the takeaways from the second edition of the ICBC in Berlin?
Germany Is Going Green
The simplest takeaway? The ICBC Berlin is not a market to be missed in the future for the global cannabis executive. Even if you are an American firm (and for the most part still largely excluded from a rapidly expanding worldwide trade that is establishing itself now with authority), you need to be here. The contacts you make are global, and you do not want to be left out. For foreign investors interested in this market, it is a must. For everyone else, this is a meet and greet, not to mention education, barnone. The German medical and even prosumer CBD market is attracting the world.
Yes, there have been ups and downs even in the last three weeks that include the crashing of the German bid along with news stateside that the Trump Administration is going to hang Jeff Sessions out to dry for Russia with his latest “Make American States Great For Cannabis Again” contortion.
But here on the other side of the Atlantic, it is clear that the federal cannabinoid horse has left the barn. There are now rumorsfloating that the bid is not yet entirely dead (now apparently in a legal purgatory of appeals and even potentially “bid amendments”) that nobody is willing to go on record to discuss. Beyond that, however, as was clear from the frenzied deal-makingon the floor and off it at the ICBC, the market is open, distributors are finding new channels to move product, and patients demanding access are not leaving the streets.
Far from it. In fact, the budding nascent umbrella national non-profit campaign designed to open access for patients and educate doctors, The German Patients Roundtable, had a huge second meeting during the conference, with both German and international attendees from countries including Israel and South Africa.
The CBD and THC genie cannot be stuffed back into the local bottle. And everyone knows it. This is federal medical reform, and even better, covered under German national public health insurance. Despite the hiccups and challenges that still remain, this is open blue water for a medical market that has never existed anywhere to date.
Anyone with a GMP facility, Euro cleared export rights and crop or product ready to ship will be welcome here in a market that at this point, cannot get enough plant or oil. Edibles are still a to-come discussion.
To the extent that this is also negative, it is very clear that the market is still highly inefficient. Producers who do have productare not being found by those on the ground who want to sell it to patients. That will also begin to change. But for now, many on the ground are playing a digitalized Rolodex game of “who do you know” that still consists of personal emails between conference-met colleagues if not LinkedIn contacts and impromptu (and freebie) favors. Those who hope to gain an income merely by connecting the source of product and outlets the old fashioned way are also about to be left in the dust by a market that will not be held back and activist businesses who are eyeing both the United States and Canada right now (if not Israel and Australia), and translating all of that into both euros and German.
It is also very clear that the savvy Germans who were largely left out of the bid proceedings last time do not mean to sit this party out – and are angling to get into the game however they can. This is taking some interesting forms, but processing and testing are going to be huge issues of the market here for a long time to come. And so is home-grown, high-quality CBD. The German government is even offering tax credits for growing certain kinds of hempright now. Sound familiar Kentucky?
Trends and Takeaways
It is not just the Canadians who are going to get market share. The Canadian LPs are still in a good position to dominate the early market but it is clear that there is still room for others to enter. Whether the government allows an appeal of the court’s decision to hold up, there is a quick bid “redo” for the top 10 finalists, or a second bid, the market has now arrived and is in its second year.
CBD is going to be an important path to other kinds of provision and cultivation. Despite the widespread misconceptions about Germany being a “CBD only” market (it is not), it is clear that a consumer CBD only strategy will be an interesting path into the market here but not one for the faint of heart. The Canadian companies in particular are beginning to move into the realm of big pharma (their market caps certainly are). But it is also clear that more local competition is hip to the same. And as a result, even this part of the market will be a highly competitive one.
German firms are first at this gate, beyond the big Canadian LPs, but they are not the only ones now in the market. See Dutch, Austrian and Swiss firms, many with pharmaceutical company credits and market entry already under their belt. Not to mention producers from both Greece and the Baltics. Everyone on the import side is eyeing the opening market and stalled bid as a fantastic opportunity. Look for products from these locales as testing and certification protocols become more effective.
Central to all of these developments? The conference is theplacefor the global cannabis industry to meet and get to know one another, put together by Alex Rogers and a seasoned, international team behind the ICBC.
Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold has just raised the first funds for her blockchain-based company, MedPayRx in Germany (and via traditional investment funding, not an ICO). She will also be speaking about the impact of blockchain on the cannabis industry in Berlin in April at the International Cannabis Business Conference.
You have probably heard of cryptocurrencies, tokens and smart contracts. You might have also heard, even if you did not understand the significance, that IBM recently suggested that the Canadian government use their form of blockchain, called Hyperledger, to track the recreational cannabusiness. Or that a large LP called Aurora is also looking at this space (as are other licensed producers large and small). Or maybe you have seen an item in the mainstream news about an ICO for a cannabis company that is now also going terribly wrong.
What on earth is going on?
These are all related issues, even if highly confusing and disjointed. Blockchain technology and cryptocurrency are hot right now and getting hotter – both in the mainstream world and in the cannabis industry globally. But for all its fans, the drumbeat for caution is also growing louder the more mainstream this technology (and the legitimate cannabis industry) becomes.
The many problems the entire cannabis vertical has with banking has make this current development almost inevitableOn the technology and finance side, that is why so many big names right now are urging caution. Nouriel Roubini, professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, is just the latest to do so – and for reasons that everything to do with history. Including recent history ten years ago, when the world stood on the brink of a financial disaster thanks to unchained derivatives. The biggest worry in fact, right now, is about the financial implications of widespread adoption of the technology, beyond the tech itself and how it may (and may not) be legitimately used. Which itself is a huge question.
So why all the fuss?
This is revolutionary technology which is also being introduced into the market at a time when decentralized processing for automation is on the horizon. But also because blockchain can be used to create tokens or digital coins that act like financial instruments. And once created, such tokens can be issued much like money or even stock, to raise additional funds – for both start-ups and ongoing enterprises. The best thing though? This technology was invented to create a decentralized form of value exchange and trust-less, anonymized auditing and verification. No traditional financial institutions or even governments needed, wanted or should apply (at least in theory).
The many problems the entire cannabis vertical has with banking has make this current development almost inevitable. Not to mention accessing investment cash (although this is certainly changing outside the United States). Compliance issues in every direction are another wrinkle this tech will help solve. Starting with tracking product but also rapidly expanding to uses including protecting users’ privacy and facilitating access to high-quality, inspected product for qualified users and buyers. Not to mention other areas that are literally space-age but coming fast. Look for cool stuff coming soon involving both AI (artificial intelligence) and IoT (internet of things).
It is a fascinating, complex space. However, one aspect of this world, in particular, Initial Coin Offerings – or ICOs are getting attention right now. Why? They can be an incredibly efficient way to raise money for companies – both ones currently in business and start-ups with little more than a whitepaper or business plan and perhaps a working prototype. More and more of the successful ICOs are, however, for an existing company or are even attached to an asset, including a license, a prototype or a fund of money (or other combinations). They also rely on blockchain and alternative currency or tokens (sometimes also referred to as smart contracts) to work.
From a technology perspective, you can “mint” new coins relatively easily these days, sourced from a variety of different kinds of blockchain. Or even combinations thereof. You also can issue tokens or altcoins without an ICO.
In a world where there is vastly expanding cannabis opportunity, and many of these hopeful entrepreneurs are both digitally astute but without access to traditional capital, what could be better?
From a financial and investor perspective, ICOs are a hybrid form of an IPO meets social media. “Coins,” “tokens” and “smart contracts” –or cyber currency collectively– are digital forms of cash, contracts, membership cards, discounts or even authorizations for identity. There are many ways tokens can be used, in other words. This by way of saying there are also important differences too. Not all tokens are the same. Not all are used as “money.” Some are but have assets assigned to them (like real estate). Others, particularly smart contract tokens, are strictly functional (pay funds when product is delivered and verified). The one caveat here is that the exchange of any token or altcoin will also cost money. Why? It is the electricity cost of computer processing the request for transfer. Plus access and service fees. There is no such thing as a “free” token. How tokens are priced, sold, bought, maintain value and for what purposes, is a debate if not process function that will not be solved anytime soon. Starting with the fact that some blockchains are more energy efficient (and sourced from green energy) than others.
To add to all of this confusion, not all ICOs function the same way. Some do give investors ownership in the company or specific portfolios that even include real-world assets. Others offer to use pooled funds to buy assets (like real estate or an expensive license). Many rely on the “coin” issued as a kind of discount scheme, reward mechanism and in many cases, direct discounted payment for future goods and services, of both the digital and real world kind. Many offer banking services directly, including in the very near future, the ability to exchange cyber cash for the fiat variety at even remote ATMs. Sound futuristic? It is coming and soon.
Most ICOs in the market now, however, rely on the following supposition: Issue a token with a unique name. Put up an ICO website. Encourage investors from anyplace on the planet with an internet connection, to use either crypto or fiat currency to buy tokens in the issuing startup as an investment that will give the new company funds to operate and build out services or the application (whatever that is). Also, plan to use the tokens for an exchange of some kind in the future (either for other coins or a good or service). Watch the value of the coin increase (for whatever reason) while informing investors (or contributors) that this is not really a security but a “utility” token that is expected but not guaranteed to become more valuable. Retire early with the prospect of having brokers of expensive real estate in places like London and Dubai come calling.The public tide of opinion, even if regulations are slow to move, is on the side of reform if not outright advocacy.
That will not be the case for the vast majority of ICOs, however, no matter what returns, goods or services they offer. Even if they also have vibrant communities already using their services (whatever those are). It will not be the case for most of the cryptocurrencies upon which such ICOs are based (most at the moment are based on Ethereum, NEO, Hyperledger or combinations of the three). There will be more of those too. And not every blockchain will make it (cryptocurrencies and tokens are based on an origin protocol or blockchain much like computer operating systems are either PC or Mac or mobile phones are Android or Apple). Some speak to one another well. Most do not “exchange” easily – even between themselves – let alone back into good old cash. And while nobody wants to be the Betamax of blockchain, there will, inevitably, be quite a few of them. When that happens, any economic value of the coins and even contractual relationships created with them disappear as well. Add in extreme price volatility in the current market pricing of these tokens, and you begin to get a sense of the risk profile involved in all of this.
The real hurdle, not to mention expense, comes when transferring back from the world of crypto to the one of fiat (regular money). Being a Bitcoin billionaire (there are about 1,000 individuals who own about 40% of the entire global Bitcoin issuance) is no fun if you have no place to spend it.
A Rapidly Changing Marketplace
In the past 18 months, cryptocurrency and ICOs have gotten increasing attention because of the increasing value of all kinds of cyber currency (far beyond Bitcoin). The total market cap for all forms of cryptocurrency itself zoomed past $700 billion at the turn of the year. That is impossible to ignore. You might have heard of some of these currencies too. There is ETH, Litecoin, Bitcoin Cash, Dash, even Dogecoin (created originally as a joke on an internet dog meme). Right now, in fact, at some of the most expansive exchanges, there are literally hundreds of these coins which are constantly bought and sold if not exchanged and used.
And then there are the sums ICOs are bringing in some cases, flagrantly flaunting regulatory agencies and doing end runs on the global banking system that cannot keep up with them. The top ICO of 2017, a company called Block.one and registered in the Cayman Islands, so far holds the record at $700 million and counting. Filecoin, the second largest ICO last year, raised $262 million in one month from August to September. And then, of course, there is the cannabis industry-specific case of Paragon – now headed for class-action lawsuit litigation over their $70 million pre-and ICO sale intentions.
It would be logical to assume, given the eye-watering sums potentially involved not to mention the large role a smart digital media footprint has to do with an ICO’s success, beyond its service or technology offerings, that this would be a perfect place for cannapreneurs to turn for funding. The global market is opening for cannabis reform at the same time the crypto craze meets Fintech Upheaval is occurring – in fact, these two things are happening almost simultaneously.
Thanks to regulatory realities and an ongoing stigma, there is still no institutional investment in the industry in the United States (that is rapidly changing other places). These are two new industries and dreams are large.
In the legit cannabis space, so are the expenses.
The price of opening a dispensary in most U.S. states tops a million dollars right now. In Europe, the price of entry is even more expensive. A GMP compliant grow facility in Western Europe, plus the money for lawyer’s fees and negotiations for the license itself will set you back anywhere from $20 million and up, depending on the location. Even staying afloat in the industry once the doors are opened is a challenge. And loans, even for outstanding invoices, are still tough to come by in an industry where banking services of the simple business account kind are a challenge. Particularly in the United States.
The public tide of opinion, even if regulations are slow to move, is on the side of reform if not outright advocacy. Why shouldn’t a reform-group-rooted ICO aspire to own or provide ongoing business financing to a community-minded canna farm in California, Canada, Germany, Israel or Australia? Or even Greece?
However, right now, with some noted exceptions, the cannabis business remains at minimum, a dangerous place to consider issuing altcoins that act like financial instruments or raise money with them. Why and how?
Trump Administration-Israeli relations had the distinct whiff of cannabis to them in the first week of February. In a development potentially just as impactful as transplanting Israel’s capital to Jerusalem, it has now emerged that Israel’s president, Benjamin Netanyahu, has effectively scotched, at least temporarily, the country’s budding medical cannabis international export plans on the eve of finally launching them.
What this latest act of international “diplomacy” will eventually impact in the long run is anyone’s guess. There will, however, be winners and losers out of this situation, both now and in the long term.
On the surface (and to gentiles) it might be hard to understand why Israel effectively shot itself in the foot from a global perspective. But cannabis falls into complicated geopolitical and religious crevices at home too. Bibi, as Netanyahu is referred to by an international Jewish audience, has just scored political points over the Jerusalem showdown. Why rock the boat over a plant that has so recently gained legitimacy just in Israel? Remember the country only partially decriminalized recreational use in 2017. However, Israel has explored legal medical cannabis for quite some time, and Tikun Olam, the country’s flagship producer, has been growing cannabis since 2007.
The quote from Netanyahu that has been widely circulated in the press says a great deal. “I spoke with Trump and he told me about his general opposition to the legalization of cannabis, and I’m not sure Israel should be the export pioneer.”
The fact that apparent encouragement of this policy came from the Israeli Finance Ministry only underscores the gravity of the impact for the losing side – and what was also probably threatened. Uruguayan pharmacies, who began distributing medical cannabis legally, walked away from customers last year after their banks were first informed by U.S. partners that they would either have to cut off the pharmacies or sever ties and access to the entire U.S. banking system. The cannabis trade was estimated to be worth between $1-4 billion per year to Israeli firms.
That said, this will also be a short-lived hiccup. Netanyahu apparently wants to see more medical evidence before moving forward with the plan. That means Israel will be in the race, but not for the next 12 to 18 months (minimum).
This will also not affect the cannabinoid-related export of intellectual property, where Israel has also led the cannabinoid discussion and for several generations now. Recipes, breeding instructions and even seeds cross borders more easily than plants. If anything, it will merely sharpen and shape the start up nation’s many budding cannapreneurs in a slightly different focus.
Canadian, Australian and a few other exporters also win. As of 2018, there will also be multiple European countries and EU-based firms importing and exporting (even if it is to each other).
The U.S. legal state cannabis movement has just been served a two fisted punch in the face by the White House. The Trump administration, in fact, has doubled down, in the space of less than five weeks, on its views towards cannabis legalization.
This also means that there will be no U.S. firms in any position to join a now global and exploding legitimate cannabis industry that stretches from the American hemisphere north and south of the U.S. itself. Not only will American producers not be able to get export approvals themselves from the U.S. government, but they may well be facing federal prosecution back home.
It will also be interesting to see whether this heralds any post-Cole memo prosecutions of the many Israeli entrepreneurs already operating in the U.S. state cannabis space. American and Israeli entrepreneurs with IP to protect are also the losers here, no matter how much this is being fought on the California front right now. That is just a state battle. IP must be protected federally.
Investors in the U.S. who had already been tempted to invest in the Canadian cannabis industry, now have little incentive to invest domestically or in Israel, no matter how big and bad California is. There is clearly budding (and less politically risky) competition elsewhere.
It goes without saying, of course, that this decision also hurts consumers – both recreational consumers and medical patients.
This is clearly sabre rattling of the kind intended to make news both internationally and abroad. However, in direct terms, it will have little impact to the overall growth of the industry, no matter who is doing the growing, distributing and ex-im. The cannabis industry will also clearly not stop being a political business for the near term.
Look for prosecutions this if not next year in the U.S. – potentially in California or another high profile “impact” state. We might see pressure on Netanyahu at home, and probably from abroad as well, to get Israel into the cannabis game globally.
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