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.
Cannabis businesses have a lot to look forward to in 2020. After a bipartisan push through the House, the Safe Banking Act currently awaits passage in the Senate and then the president’s signature. If all goes well, the bill will allow the financial sector to finally service cannabis businesses – from banking to investments and insurance.
What else can cannabis business look forward to this year? Check out HUB’s Top 5 cannabis industry predictions for 2020.
Hemp/CBD products go to market in droves. The passage of the Farm Bill and the ease of shipping hemp across state lines has led to a production boom for the crop. With little federal regulation around manufacturing and distribution, hemp/CBD products from edible oils to clothing and anti-inflammatory lotions are extremely profitable. Expect final federal Domestic Hemp Production Program rules on acceptable levels of THC in hemp/CBD products to be published sometime in 2020. These will be based on the current rule draft. There’s a strong push to move industrial hemp into the federal crop insurance program, which is also likely to happen in 2020.
Product liability insurance is no longer a luxury. Thanks to significant vaporizer, battery and contamination claims currently in the courts, cannabis business can expect higher product liability premium rates in 2020. Expect rates to jump as much as 30 to 40%, depending on the resolution of these cases. For this reason, carriers will be more diligent about underwriting and may even ask for certification of insurance from vendors, and additional insureds on third-party policies. Exercising more caution and oversight when selecting vendors is a must for cannabis businesses operating in 2020 under this premise. It’s critical for all organizations to take a hard look at business practices before entering partnerships moving forward.
Phase II industry growing pains surface. Now that the cannabis gold rush is dying down, businesses are poised to enter Phase II of their growth.Those who failed to institute proper hiring processes, including background checks, as well as protocols to promote security and prevent theft are currently facing challenges. Significant industry consolidation is making way for cannabis conglomerates to become multi-state operators. Directors and officers that made poor investments or acquisitions are facing scrutiny at the hands of the SEC or business investors. Without D&O insurance, or adequate limits, directors and officers could find their personal finances drained. Insisting on adequate D&O protection going forward is a best practice for cannabis executives.
Product and state regulatory testing expands. High-profile manufacturers and distributors of cannabis are standardizing their cannabis, hemp and CBD ingredient labeling. However, many others are taking advantage of the lack of rules currently surrounding cannabis production by falsifying labels and misrepresenting THC content in products. This has led to recent lawsuits and claims. As a result, states will begin to administer product testing and license regulations and enforce carrying time limits, track and trace and bag and tag rules. Get ready for fines, penalties and increased non-compliance liabilities in 2020.
Increased availability of policies and limits. Both the cannabis industry and the number of insurance carriers entering the market continue to grow steadily. Businesses are enjoying higher liability limits as a result – to the tune of $15M on product liability and $60M on property. Coverage for outdoor cannabis crop is now a possibility, and workers’ compensation coverage can function as a blanket policy for businesses across state lines as well. Should the Safe Banking Act pass soon, stay tuned for additional insurance opportunities as well.
2020 Growth and Beyond
The 2020 presidential election will bring the federal legalization of cannabis to the forefront of public discourse. While the law may not change yet, passage of the Safe Banking Act and increased regulatory action at the state level will highlight the successes and failures of the 33 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized cannabis in some capacity. These will serve as a guiding light for federal legalization down the road.
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.
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 global cannabis industry is hitting thorny regulatory challenges everywhere these days as the bar is raised for international commerce. First it was recognition that the entire production industry in Canada would basically have to retool to meet European (medical and food) standards. And that at least for now for the same reasons, American exports are basically a no go.
However, beyond this, the battle over financial reporting and other compliance of a fiscal kind has been a hot topic this year on European exchanges.
As of this summer, (and not unrelated to the other two seismic shifts) there is another giant in the room.
The German version is actually Europe’s highest privacy standard, which means for the cannabis industry, this is the one that is required for operations here across the continent if you are in this business.
What is it, and what does it mean for the industry?
GDPR – The Elevator Pitch
Here is why you cannot ignore it. The regulation affects bankers as much as growers, distributors as much as producers and of course the entire ecosystem behind medical production and distribution across Europe and actually far beyond it. Starting of course, with patients but not limited to them. The law in essence, applies to “you” whoever you are in this space. That is why it becomes all that much more complicated in the current environment.
While this is complex and far reaching, however, there are a couple of ways to think about this regulation that can help you understand it and how to manage to it (if not innovate with it).
The first is, to American audiences at least, that GDPR is sort of like HIPAA, the federal American privacy civil rights statute that governs medical privacy law. Except, of course, this being Europe, it is far more robust and far reaching. It touches every aspect of electronic privacy including data storage, retention, processing and security that is applicable to modern life. And far, far, beyond just “patients.”
On the marketing side, GDPR is currently causing no end of headaches. Broadly, the legislation, which came into force this year, with real teeth (4% of global revenues if you get it wrong), applies to literally every aspect of the cannabis industry for two big reasons beyond that. Medical issues, which are the only game in town right now in Europe (and thus require all importers to also be in compliance) and financial regulatory requirements.
The requirements in Germany are more onerous than they are in the rest of Europe. Therefore, they also affect the cannabis industry in a big way, especially since there is at this point a great deal of European cultivation with the German (and now British) medical market in mind. Further Germany is becoming European HQ for quite a few of the Canadian LPs. That means German standards apply.
The UK, for those watching all Brexit events with interest, will also continue to be highly affected by this. Whether it stays in the EU or not, it must meet a certain “trusted nation” status to be able to transact with the continent in any kind of favoured nation status.
Bottom line? It is big and here and expensive if you screw it up. If considering doing any kind of business with European customers, start hitting the books now. Large mainstream media organizations in the United States and Canada right now are so afraid of the consequences of getting this wrong that they have blocked readership from Europe for the present. Large financial institutions also must not only be in compliance but compliance of companies also guides their investment mandates on the regulatory front.
For all of these reasons, the cannabis industry would do well to take note.
What Does This Mean for The Cannabis Industry?
The Canadian and rest of the global industry is still struggling with compliance and this will have some interesting repercussions going forward.patient data must be handled and stored differently
Immediately, this means that all websites that are targeted to German eyes (read Canadian LPs and international, even English-only press) should hire German side compliance experts for a quick GDPR audit. There are few European experts at this point, and even fewer foreign ones. It is worth a call around to find out who is doing this auf Deutschland and bite the bullet.
It also means that internally, patient data must be handled and stored differently. And furthermore, it is not just “patients” who have this right, but everyone who transacts with your electronic or other presence. That includes consumers, subscribers to email newsletters and other stakeholders in the industry.
As the cannabis industry also starts to embrace technology more fully, it will also have highly impactful influence on what actually passes for a compliant technology (particularly if it is customer facing) but not limited to the same.
On the marketing side, GDPR is currently causing no end of headaches. Starting with PR and customer outreach teams who are trying to figure out how much of their master mailing lists they can keep and which they cannot. On this front, Mail Chimp is undeniably the go-to right now and has also implanted easy to understand and use technology that is being adopted by European marketers and those targeting Europe.
Stay tuned for more coverage on GDPR as we cover how data protection and privacy regulations will impact cannabis businesses, their marketing and outreach, plus service design efforts (in particular to patients) and other areas of interest.
The Justice Department rescinding the Cole Memo, the Omnibus bill including Leahy Amendment protections, a host of potential bills for federal cannabis policy change: a lot has been happening in Washington D.C. recently with respect to cannabis business. With the National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) Cannabis Business Summit in San Jose fast approaching, as well as the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days, we thought it would be a good time to hear what NCIA has been up to recently.
We sat down with Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of NCIA, to learn what the organization is working on right now and how we might be able to make some real federal policy changes for cannabis.
CannabisIndustryJournal:With the Department of Justice rescinding the Cole Memo, working as a group to tackle federal policy reform is now more important than ever. Can you give us a 30,000-foot view of what NCIA is doing right now to help us work together as a group and affect policy change?
Aaron Smith: So our team in D.C. consists of three full-time staff members as well as lobbying consultants, who have been really focused on the appropriations process, which is the way we’ve been able to affect change in such a dysfunctional congress by affecting the budget and restricting law enforcement activities. The medical marijuana protections, formerly known as the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, [and now known as the Leahy Amendment] prevent the Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute state-legal medical marijuana businesses and patients. Going into the fiscal year, thankfully after a lot of hard work, we were able to include protections for medical marijuana, which just happened last week. Now we are really focused on the next year’s fiscal budget, working to hopefully expand those protections to cover all state-legal marijuana activity so the Department of Justice cannot go after all state-legal cannabis businesses, including those businesses in the recreational cannabis industry, which is certainly one of our priorities right now. As Congress starts to transition into fiscal year 2019 appropriations, the D.C. team is working with Capitol Hill staff and other cannabis groups in D.C. to ensure an organized, uniformed strategy through the appropriations process.
CIJ: What are some other priorities for NCIA in the House and Senate right now? What is NCIA focusing its resources on?
Smith: Another big issue for us is the 280E section of tax code, which prevents legal cannabis businesses from deducting normal business expenses. A lot of these businesses face upwards of a 70 percent effective tax rate. Working with our champions in Congress, we are working on reforms to 280E so we can make normal deductions and be treated fairly, just like any other legal business. The Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017 addresses this issue and has bipartisan support in the House and the Senate right now, and we are working to build more support for that. This bill currently has 43 cosponsors in the House.
The other big issue for us right now is banking reform, which is a very high priority for NCIA as it affects most of our members. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act of 2017 provides a “safe harbor” and additional protections for depository institutions who provide “financial product or service” to a covered business. This bill currently has 89 cosponsors in the House. NCIA’s D.C. team and lobbying consultants continue to push for cosponsors and support on these important bills.
CIJ: I saw that the Omnibus spending package includes Leahy Amendment protections for cannabis businesses through September. Would you consider that a win in your book? How are you working to maybe extend those protections?
Smith: It was a big win for us. It doesn’t always seem like it because it is really just maintaining the status quo, but we are up against an Attorney General lobbying congress to strip those protections and the house didn’t allow us to vote on it. But by including the Leahy Amendment in the budget we are not only protecting medical marijuana patients and businesses, but we sent a clear signal to Congress that the intention is not to go backwards. We have been playing some defense recently given the current administration’s policies. But we are working with our allies in congress to negotiate those protections for recreational businesses as well. Negotiations for that are just getting started now.
The fiscal year ends September 30th so the protections are in place for now, but Congress needs to pass another budget for the next fiscal year with those protections included. It’s hard to say when the vote will be, because they haven’t been passing budgets in a timely manner, but usually it’s in May or June, right around our Lobby Days. This is what we are focused on now, getting as many of these cannabis businesses and NCIA members out there to really show Congress what the legal industry looks like.
CIJ: NCIA is hosting the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days a little more than a month from now; do you have any goals for that event? Is there anything in particular you hope to accomplish there? How can cannabis businesses get involved?
Smith: The primary purpose of Lobby Days is to show members of Congress and their staff (many of whom have never had exposure to cannabis businesses) what a responsible industry really looks like. And it lets business owners come tell Congress how current policies and laws are affecting their business. It is great for the cause and helps change minds in DC.
Last year, we came out of Lobby Days with several new co-sponsors of cannabis legislation and we hope to get that again this year. It is a great opportunity to connect and network as well; some of the top people in the industry will be there.
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?
The writer now helmed to lead this effort is Alex Halperin, a business journalist in the U.S., who landed the gig apparently on the success of Weedweek – a highly cryptic weekly summary blog of mostly U.S.-based industry events and updates.How the Guardian will cover the industry and related issues will be interesting to follow.
This is also not The Guardian’s first foray into the topic. The media outlet, which got its start in the 1800’s in Northern England and expanded dramatically to reach a global digital audience over the past decade, has covered cannabis legalization on a fairly regular basis for the last four years. This new focus also comes at an interesting time. Apart from events in the U.S., Canada is moving forward with recreational this summer. And in Europe, the medical discussion continues apace. That said, it appears the Guardian is going to focus on the U.S. market, at least initially.
It will be interesting to see if that focus shifts (and if they allow other journalists outside of the U.S. to participate in the expanded coverage). While California might well be the largest state economy in general, the Canadian market is already larger and more developed, being regulated nationally across multiple provinces.
Another Mainstream Media Cannabis Column?
This is hardly news. The Guardian is actually treading on ground established already by most of the big news and business publications – including niche publications, blogs and of course, the trade press.
How the Guardian will cover the industry and related issues will be interesting to follow.
The purpose of the column apparently is to spark an “adult conversation” about cannabis – and how it is “changing modern life.” The initial focus on the U.S. market (and California in particular) may have seemed to make sense to a media outlet looking for outrageous stories. But as everyone knows, the U.S. is only one market – and further one still without federal protection.
However, the Guardian is also now competing with other business and mainstream publications that are already in this space. Main Street, the online business ‘zine helmed by Jim Cramer, created one of the first mainstream specialty cannabis sections almost four years ago with the coincidence of the Colorado rec market. Other notable publications and media outlets have significantly increased their coverage of cannabis as well. CNN has been reporting consistently on cannabis topics like legalization and U.S. federal reform efforts for some time now. Business Insider and Forbes have covered ongoing and growing investments and the financial side of things for several years. The Denver Post has its own entirely cannabis-focused subsidiary, The Cannabist.
And as public companies, in both the U.S. and elsewhere have begun to move through the legal thickets of legalization, business-focussed journals and blogs are even beginning to cover cannabis stocks. Starting with Motley Fool and Seeking Alpha (although again, most of this coverage is of companies outside the United States). Specialty publications are also of course, flourishing online, particularly with the beginning of an advertising market that is also beginning to establish itself, albeit around some still thorny regulatory issues.
In general, although the Guardian has a reputation as critical of the British monarchy, with strong left-leaning tendencies, its coverage of the industry has been fairly mainstream – so far at least.
Will that begin to change? And what will really be tackled and covered? And while the ostensible focus is what is going on in the world of cannabis in California (and presumably other foreign markets) could the Guardian’s ostensible new feature also be geared to drive reform at home? The U.K. has yet to even approach the topic of criminalization.
Strictly Necessary Cookies
Strictly Necessary Cookie should be enabled at all times so that we can save your preferences for cookie settings.
We use tracking pixels that set your arrival time at our website, this is used as part of our anti-spam and security measures. Disabling this tracking pixel would disable some of our security measures, and is therefore considered necessary for the safe operation of the website. This tracking pixel is cleared from your system when you delete files in your history.
If you disable this cookie, we will not be able to save your preferences. This means that every time you visit this website you will need to enable or disable cookies again.