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A Dank Opportunity: Private Equity in the Cannabis Industry & Compliance with the Securities Act

By Kayla Kuri
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Under current federal law, financial institutions are extremely limited in the services and resources that they can offer to cannabis companies. Without access to traditional financing, cannabis companies have been forced to turn to outside investments to finance their operations. The private equity approach can be a “dank” opportunity for cannabis companies; however, these companies should be cognizant of the securities laws implications that are present with this type of business structure. The focus of most cannabis companies when forming their business is compliance with the regulatory scheme of their jurisdiction as it relates to the operation of a cannabis business. While compliance with these laws is important, it is also important that these companies ensure that they are compliant with the Securities Act of 1933 (the Securities Act) before accepting investments from outside sources.

Securities Act Application

Oftentimes, smaller companies don’t realize that they are subject to the Securities Act. However, the definition of a “security” under the Securities Act is very broad1 and under S.E.C. v. W.J. Howey Co., an investment in a common enterprise, such as a partnership or limited liability company, where the investor expects to earn profits from the efforts of others is considered a “security” and thus, subject to the rigorous requirements of the Securities Act.2 In general, all companies offering securities within the United States are required to register those securities with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) unless a registration exemption is available.3 A company can register its securities (i.e., its ownership interests offered to investors) with the SEC by filing a Registration Statement. These statements generally offer investors certain information about the company in order to enable investors to be able to make an informed decision about their investment. Filing a Registration Statement can be both time-consuming and costly, and most companies want to avoid filing one if they can. Luckily, the Securities Act offers certain exemptions from registration requirements to companies who meet certain standards.4 While there are numerous exemptions from securities registration, the most common exemptions used are the Regulation D5 exemptions, which provides three different exemptions based on the size of the offering and the sophistication of the investors, and the Rule 1476 Intrastate exemption.

Regulation D Exemptions

Rule 504-Limited Offerings

Rule 504, often called the “Limited Offering” exemption, provides an exemption from securities registration for companies who limit the offer and sale of their securities to no more than $5,000,000 in a twelve-month period.7 Unlike the other Regulation D exemptions, which are discussed in further detail below, the Limited Offering exemption does not have any limitations on the level of sophistication or number of investors.8 This means that companies who rely on this exemption do not have to verify the net worth or income of their investors or limit the number of investors in the company. Like all Regulation D exemptions, companies relying on the Limited Offering exemption are required to file a “Form D” with the SEC within 15 days of the first securities sale.9 A Form D is a relatively simple form which provides basic information about a company to the SEC, including the registration exemption that is being relied upon. A copy of Form D can be found here.

Rule 506(b)

The “Private Offering” exemption can be found at Rule 506(b) of Regulation D.10 This exemption is commonly used for larger investment offerings with varying levels of investor sophistication. The Private Offering exemption can be used for investment offerings of any size so long as the company: (1) does not use general solicitation or advertising, such as newspaper articles or seminars, to attract investors; and (2) limits the number of “non-accredited investors” to no more than 35.11 “Accredited investors” are those investors whom the Securities Act deems sophisticated enough to properly weigh the risk of their investment in the company. In order to qualify as an accredited investor, the investor must:

  1. Have an individual income of more than $200,000 in the past two years
  2. Have a joint income with their spouse of more than $300,000 in the past two years
  3. Have an individual net worth, or joint net worth with their spouse, in excess of $1,000,000 or:
  4. Be a director, executive officer or manager of the Company.12

If the investor is a corporation, partnership, limited liability company or other non-trust entity, then to qualify as an accredited investor, it must either have assets in excess of $5,000,000 or each of its equity owners must meet one of the requirements for individuals listed above.13 If the investor is a trust, then the trust must: (1) have total assets in excess of $5,000,000 and the investment decision must be made by a “sophisticated person” (i.e., the person who is making the investment decision has such knowledge and experience in financial and business matters that he or she is capable of evaluating the merits and risks of an investment in the company); (2) have a trustee making the investment decision that is a bank or other financial institution; or (3) be revocable at any time and the grantor(s) of the trust must meet one of the requirements for individuals listed above.14

The Private Offering exemption allows a company to have an unlimited number of accredited investors, but only up to 35 non-accredited investors. However, companies should be very cautious of allowing non-accredited investors to invest in the company. The Securities Act requires that companies make extensive disclosures to non-accredited investors which are essentially the same requirements as the company would have to provide in a registered security offering. These requirements include providing investors with financial statements, operations plan, detailed descriptions of the company’s business, description of all property owned, discussion and analysis of the company’s financial condition and the results of operations, biographies of and descriptions of each officer and director, as well as other descriptions regarding the details of the company.15 Failure to provide the necessary information to non-accredited investors can disqualify companies from the benefits offered by the Private Offering Exemption. Companies should be very cautious when relying on the Private Offering exemption. If a company does choose to utilize the Private Offering exemption, they must file a Form D with the SEC within 15 days of the first securities sale.

Rule 506(c)

Rule 506(c), the “General Solicitation” exemption, is similar to the Private Offering Exemption. Unlike the Private Offering exemption, companies relying on the General Solicitation exemption are permitted to use general solicitation and advertising to advertise their securities to potential investors.16 However, investors relying on the General Solicitation exemption must only sell their securities to accredited investors.17 Under Rule 506(c), the company selling the securities must take steps to verify the accredited-investor status of their investors.18 These steps can include reviewing past tax returns, reviewing bank statements, or obtaining confirmation from the investor’s attorney or accountant that such person is an accredited investor.19 Like the other Regulation D exemptions, companies relying on the General Solicitation exemption should file a Form D with the SEC.Private equity can be a dank opportunity for cannabis companies, but it is critical that these companies ensure that they are in compliance with all applicable securities laws.

Intrastate Exemption

Rule 147, known as the “Intrastate” exemption, provides an exemption from securities registration for companies who limit the offer and sale of their securities to investors who are residents of, if they are an individual, or have its principal place of business in, if they are an entity, the state where the company is organized and has its principal place of business.20 The Intrastate exemption permits general solicitation to investors who are in-state residents, and there are no limitations on the size of the offering or the number of investors, whether accredited or unaccredited. In addition, companies relying on this exemption are not required to file a Form D with the SEC. The Intrastate exemption can be very desirable to companies who wish to obtain a small number of key investors within their communities.

State Requirements

In addition to complying with the Securities Act, companies are also required to comply with the securities laws of each state where their securities are sold. Each state has its own securities laws which may place additional requirements on companies in addition to the Securities Act. Most states (including California, Colorado, Oregon, and Oklahoma) require that a copy of the Form D filed with the SEC be filed with the state securities commission if securities are sold within that state. Before offering securities for sale in any state, companies should thoroughly review the applicable state securities laws to ensure that they are in compliance with all state requirements in addition to the requirements under the Securities Act.

Additional Considerations for Cannabis Companies

Despite the fact that the purchase and sale of cannabis is illegal under federal law, cannabis companies are still subject to the Securities Act in the same manner as every other company. However, the SEC has issued a warning to investors to be wary of making investments in cannabis companies due to the high fraud and market manipulation risks.21 The SEC has a history of issuing trading suspensions against cannabis companies who allegedly provided false information to their investors.22 Cannabis companies who wish to rely on any of the registration exemptions under the Securities Act should ensure that they fully disclose all details of the company and the risks involved in investing in it to all of their potential investors. While cannabis companies are permitted to rely on the registration exemptions under the Securities Act, the SEC appears to place additional scrutiny on cannabis companies who offer securities to outside investors. It is possible to fully comply with the onerous requirements of the Securities Act, but cannabis companies should engage legal counsel to assist with their securities offerings. Failure to comply with the Securities Act could result in sanctions and monetary penalties from the SEC, as well as potentially jeopardize a cannabis company’s license to sell cannabis. It is extremely important that companies seek advice from legal counsel who has experience in these types of offerings and the requirements of the Securities Act and applicable state securities laws. Private equity can be a dank opportunity for cannabis companies, but it is critical that these companies ensure that they are in compliance with all applicable securities laws.


References

  1. See 15 U.S.C § 77b(a)(1)
  2. 328 U.S. 293 (1946).
  3. 15 U.S.C § 77f.
  4. See 15 U.S.C § 77d.
  5. 17 CFR § 230.500.
  6. 17 CFR § 230.147.
  7. 17 CFR § 230.504.
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. 17 CFR § 230.506(b).
  11. Id.
  12. 17 CFR § 230.501.
  13. Id.
  14. Id.
  15. 17 CFR § 230.502; 17 CFR § 239.90; 17 CFR § 210.8; 17 CFR § 239.10.
  16. 17 CFR § 230.506(c).
  17. Id.
  18. Id.
  19. Id.
  20. 17 CFR § 230.147.
  21. Investor Alert: Marijuana Investments and Fraud. (2018, September 5).
  22. Investor Alert: Marijuana-Related Investments. (2014, May 16).

3 Essential Components of Microbial Safety Testing

By Heather Ebling
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Microbial contamination on cannabis products represents one of the most significant threats to cannabis consumers, particularly immunocompromised patients who are at risk of developing harmful and potentially fatal infections.

As a result, regulatory bodies in the United States and Canada mandate testing cannabis products for certain microbes. The two most popular methods for microbial safety testing in the cannabis industry are culture-based testing and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR).

When considering patient safety, labs should choose a method that provides an accurate account of what is living on the sample and can specifically target the most harmful microbes, regardless of the matrix.

1. The Method’s Results Must Accurately Reflect the Microbial Population on the Sample

The main objective of any microbial safety test is to give the operator an indication of the microbial population present on the sample.

Figure 1: MA data collected directly from plant material before and after culture on 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms.

Culture-based methods measure contamination by observing how many organisms grow in a given medium. However, not all microbial organisms grow at the same rate. In some cases, certain organisms will out-compete others and as a result, the population in a post-culture environment is radically different than what was on the original sample.

One study analyzed fifteen medicinal cannabis samples using two commercially available culture-based methods. To enumerate and differentiate bacteria and fungi present before and after growth on culture-based media, all samples were further subjected to next-generation sequencing (NGS) and metagenomic analyses (MA). Figure 1 illustrates MA data collected directly from plant material before and after culture on 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms.

The results demonstrate substantial shifts in bacterial and fungal growth after culturing on the 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms. Thus, the final composition of microbes after culturing is markedly different from the starting sample. Most concerning is the frequent identification of bacterial species in systems designed for the exclusive quantification of yeast and mold, as quantified by elevated total aerobic count (TAC) Cq values after culture in the total yeast and mold (TYM) medium. The presence of bacterial colonies on TYM growth plates or cartridges may falsely increase the rejection rate of cannabis samples for fungal contamination. These observations call into question the specificity claims of these platforms.

The Live Dead Problem

Figure 2: The enzyme is instantaneously inactivated when lysis buffer is added

One of the common objections to using qPCR for microbial safety testing is the fact that the method does not distinguish between live and dead DNA. PCR primers and probes will amplify any DNA in the sample that matches the target sequence, regardless of viability. Critics claim that this can lead to false positives because DNA from non-viable organisms can inflate results. This is often called the Live-Dead problem. However, scientists have developed multiple solutions to this problem. Most recently, Medicinal Genomics developed the Grim Reefer Free DNA Removal Kit, which eliminates free DNA contained in a sample by simply adding an enzyme and buffer and incubating for 10 minutes. The enzyme is instantaneously inactivated when lysis buffer is added, which prevents the Grim Reefer Enzyme from eliminating DNA when the viable cells are lysed (see Figure 2).

2. Method Must Be Able to Detect Specific Harmful Species 

Toxic Aspergillus spp., which is responsible for at least one confirmed death of a cannabis patient, grows poorly in culture mediums and is severely underreported by current culture-based platforms. And even when Aspergillus does grow in culture, there is a certain non-pathogenic Aspergillus species that look remarkably similar to their pathogenic cousins, making it difficult to speciate using visual identification alone.

Figure 3: The team spiked a known amount of live E. coli into three different environments

Conversely, qPCR assays, such as the PathoSEEK, are designed to target DNA sequences that are unique to pathogenic Aspergillus species, and they can be run using standard qPCR instruments such as the Agilent AriaMx. The primers are so specific that a single DNA base difference in the sequence can determine whether binding occurs. This specificity reduces the frequency of false positives in pathogen detection, a frequent problem with culture-based cannabis testing methods.

Additionally, Medicinal Genomics has developed a multiplex assay that can detect the four pathogenic species of Aspergillus (A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger, and A. terreus) in a single reaction.

3. The Method Must Work on Multiple Matrices 

Figure 4: The team also placed TSB without any E. coli onto a petrifilm to serve as a control.

Marijuana infused products (MIPs) are a very diverse class of matrices that behave very differently than cannabis flowers. Gummy bears, chocolates, oils and tinctures all present different challenges to culture-based techniques as the sugars and carbohydrates can radically alter the carbon sources available for growth. To assess the impact of MIPs on colony-forming units per gram of sample (CFU/g) enumeration, The Medicinal Genomics team spiked a known amount of live E. coli into three different environments: tryptic soy broth (TSB), hemp oil and hard candy. The team then homogenized the samples, pipetted amounts from each onto 3M™ Petrifilm E. coli / Coliform Count (EC) Plates, and incubated for 96 hours. The team also placed TSB without any E. coli onto a petrifilm to serve as a control. Figures 3 and 4 show the results in 24-hour intervals.

Table 1: DNA was spiked into various MIPs

This implies the MIPs are interfering with the reporter assay on the films or that the MIPs are antiseptic in nature.

Many MIPs use citric acid as a flavoring ingredient which may interfere with 3M reporter chemistry. In contrast, the qPCR signal from the Agilent AriaMx was constant, implying there is microbial contamination present on the films, but the colony formation or reporting is inhibited.

Table 3: SenSATIVAx DNA extraction can successfully lyse the cells of the microbes
Table 2: Different numbers of DNA copies spiked into chocolate

This is not an issue with DNA-based methods, so long as the DNA extraction method has been validated on these matrices. For example, the SenSATIVAx DNA extraction method is efficient in different matrices, DNA was spiked into various MIPs as shown in Table 1, and at different numbers of DNA copies into chocolate (Table 2). The SenSATIVAx DNA extraction kit successfully captures the varying levels of DNA, and the PathoSEEK detection assay can successfully detect that range of DNA. Table 3 demonstrates that SenSATIVAx DNA extraction can successfully lyse the cells of the microbes that may be present on cannabis for a variety of organisms spiked onto cannabis flower samples.

Jennifer Whetzel

Branding for Cannabis Companies 101: Part 1

By Jennifer Whetzel
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Jennifer Whetzel

Busy entrepreneurs often skip steps in their business development process, particularly in the cannabis space. Since this is a new industry, there isn’t a long history of marketing/advertising efforts to look back on; the standards are still being developed. But more often, businesses simply may not have a budget large enough to pay an agency, and they may not feel confident executing these efforts on their own.

Fortunately, you can do a lot independently to get your name out there. This three-part series will give you a quick primer on branding – what it is, why it’s important and how to do it. But first, we need to discuss the differences between branding, marketing and advertising so that you know what kind of tools you have at your disposal.

What is Branding?

Branding should be considered a prerequisite to marketing and advertising.

Branding: Who
Marketing: What & Why
Advertising: Where & When

Branding is simply thinking about your company from the inside-out. It’s asking yourself questions about the kind of person your brand would be, down to its beliefs, personality and sense of style. Ultimately, we do this to build a deep emotional connection with potential customers. When you know who you are and put yourself out in the world, you’re signaling to them that you are a good match for each other.

When you have a brand that consistently forms emotional relationships with customers, that bond converts to both income and long-term company value, making your spending on marketing and advertising go further. It gives you a competitive advantage over companies with weak or non-existent branding (and in the U.S. cannabis industry, there are plenty of those). Moreover, it’s a key factor that venture capitalists and friendly Fortune 500s look for in potential investments.

So, what should you be asking yourself when it comes to branding? Start with exploring the fundamentals. Decide on the philosophical, emotional and visual characteristics of your brand.

As far as the philosophical questions go, it’s important to codify your mission, brand values, customer promise, core competency and future vision to build a strategic brand. Think about what you’re offering, how it will change lives, and what unique qualities will help you make it all happen.

The Four Ps: Product, Price, Place and Promotion.The philosophical characteristics help you decide who you are. Your emotional characteristics are the ones that connect you with the world. These would include your creation story, your brand personality and tone of voice. How does your brand see and respond to the world? Why? People love consistency. Having a consistent presentation makes your brand feel more authentic; in turn, people are more receptive to you.

The visual qualities are how the world should see you. These assets should include your color palette, fonts, imagery and logo. Making decisions about your brand’s appearance may feel subjective and overwhelming to people, but it doesn’t have to be. Basically, evaluate these ideas and assets in terms of how your audience is likely to respond to these elements. For example, how does your happy-go-lucky audience feel about a logo that is lime green versus corporate blue? Which color best reflects your brand sensibility? You know who you are; the visual characteristics are how you plan to show it.

Marketing

As a discipline, marketing traditionally involves making strategic decisions about the four Ps: Product, Price, Place and Promotion. These decisions become significantly easier once you have defined your brand.

Essentially, marketing addresses the way your brand lives in the world. It tells potential customers what you sell, and why they should choose your brand. It involves making thoughtful decisions and having a strategy for decisions such as product names and your corporate culture.

You also need to think about your pricing strategy and how that manifests in front of customers. For example, are you a high-end product with a premium price or the Walmart of weed? What’s your customer service strategy? Are your budtenders in flannel or lab coats?By now, you know who your brand is and how you want to present it to the world. Now you need to get consumers to see it that way. That’s where advertising comes into play.

Marketing also involves decisions about collateral—namely, your product packaging, brochures, signs and trade show booths. It also impacts your brand’s in-person presence. That could include experiences like events your company attends, trade shows where you have a booth or table, sensory experiences or even AR/VR experiences with your product.

By now, you know who your brand is and how you want to present it to the world. Now you need to get consumers to see it that way. That’s where advertising comes into play.

Advertising

Generally, advertising relates to paid campaigns that are carefully written and designed to tell potential customers where, when, why and how to connect with your brand and buy your products and services.

Fortunately, you have the tools to thrive by putting in the work to get to know your brand.These campaigns are often launched within the space of owned media, such as television commercials, radio and print ads and billboards. There are tons of digital and social media options. Your job is to find the ones that your customers interact with and decide what you want to say about yourself. For example, what kind of sites would you want to place ads on? What state of mind are customers in when they go to those sites? And what message do you want them to get from you in that moment?

Normally, answering these questions would be daunting. But since you’ve already decided who your brand is, you may already know what colors you want to use for this ad. You’ve already considered what your mission is. You know how your brand should appear to the world. And since you’ve unlocked these truths, you’ll be able to develop campaigns that feel genuine, unique, and memorable.

Connecting with consumers and making them remember you isn’t optional. It’s what will ultimately decide whether your business survives or not. Fortunately, you have the tools to thrive by putting in the work to get to know your brand. It’s tough, and it may not come easily at first. But we don’t start a business because it’s easy. We accept the risks and frustrations because we love what we do. Tell everyone why they should too.