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Unnecessary Obstacles for the Canadian Edibles Market

By Steven Burton
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The edible cannabis market in Canada is still green. Delayed by a year from the legalization of dried flower, the edibles and extracts market poses significant opportunities for manufacturers. Edibles and extracts typically have higher profit margins than dried flower (“value-added” products) and consumer demand appears to be high and rising. So, what is causing trouble for cannabis companies trying to break into edibles and extracts? Below are four observations on the market potential of edibles in Canada.

Canada’s Edibles Market: The Numbers

In 2020, Canada – the largest national market in the world for cannabis products – grew more than 60%, largely as a result of the introduction of new products introduced in late 2019, often called “Cannabis 2.0,” which allowed the sale of derivative products like edibles. Deloitte estimates that the Canadian market for edibles and alternative cannabis products is worth $2.7 billion, with about half of that amount taken up by edibles and the rest distributed amongst cannabis-infused beverages, topicals, concentrates, tinctures and capsules. More recently, BDSA forecasts the size of the Canadian edibles market to triple in size by 2025 to about 8% of the total cannabis dollar sales.

Source: BDSA

In December 2020, the Government of Canada reported that edibles made up 20% of total cannabis sales; Statistics Canada data shows that 41.4% of Canadians who reported using cannabis in 2020 consumed edibles. While sales have gone up and down over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are clear indications that there is a substantial demand for edibles and extract products, which can be consumed more discreetly, with greater dosage precision and with fewer adverse effects (as opposed to smoking).

While sales of regulated edibles products continue to grow, edibles, extracts and topicals sales in Canada are facing a similar problem as dried flower sales: inventory growth is outpacing sales. Unsold stock sitting in inventory is growing at a dramatic pace, showing a clear lag in demand for these products on the legal market. How do we understand this contradiction?

1) Complex Regulatory Standards are a Major Barrier

Cannabis edibles compound the already existing problems around the conceptualization of cannabis products regulation. How should it work? Edibles can be considered in any of the following categories:

  • Cannabis as a pharmaceutical with medical application. Requires strict dosage and packaging requirements;
  • CBD as a nutraceutical with health benefits claimed. Requires specific nutraceutical regulations be followed;
  • Food product to be consumed. Must comply with food safety regulations around biological, chemical, physical hazards through a risk-based preventive control program. A full supply chain and ready-to-recall based system of regulatory standards need to be followed.

Incorporating elements from each of these three regulatory regimes into a single regulatory standards body is a confusing logistical and compliance challenge for both the regulators, and the producers and retailers of the product.

In mid-2019, the Government of Canada released the Good Production Practices Guide for Cannabis. This merged cannabis-specific regulations with food safety-specific regulations. Rigorous food safety requirements were combined with equally rigorous cannabis production and processing requirements, resulting in extremely laborious, detailed and specific regulations. These span everything from building design and maintenance, to pest control, to employee sanitation, to traceability – at all levels of the process. Navigating these regulations is a challenge, especially for many smaller producers who lack the necessary resources, like automation technology, to devote to understanding and tracking compliance.

2) Low Dosage Regulations Give an Edge to the Illicit Market

When edibles were legalized, THC dosage was capped at 10mg per package. For more experienced consumers, especially those who are dealing with chronic pain and other medical needs, this limit is far too low – and the unregulated market is more than able to fill this gap. One analyst from Brightfield pointed out that the dosage restriction, in combination with other regulations, will make it harder for the edibles market to grow in Canada.

It also makes the unregulated market almost impossible to beat. Barely more than half of cannabis consumers in Canada buy exclusively from government-licensed retailers, while 20% say that they will only buy unregulated products. According to a Deloitte report, 32% of legacy cannabis consumers said that unregulated products were better quality, and 21% reported that they preferred unlicensed products because there were more options available. Almost half of respondents also reported that quality was the biggest factor that would cause them to switch to regulated sources, and 28% said that higher THC content would prompt them to switch.

3) There is a Big Price Disparity between Legal and Illicit Edibles

As a result of dosage requirements and other factors, price per gram of regulated edible product is much higher than that of flower, unregulated edibles and edibles available through regulated medical distributors.

If you take the BC Cannabis Store’s price for Peach Mango Chews as an example: a 2pc package is $5.99. Since the dosage limits at 10mg per package, that’s the equivalent of $0.60/mg or $600/gram. A quick Google search reveals that an easily available edible from a medical cannabis distributor contains 300mg of THC and sells for $19.00, a price of $63.00/gram.

That means that not only is 10mg too low a dose for many users to achieve the result they were looking for, but the dosage restriction also makes the products less attractive from both a nutrition and cost standpoint. Deloitte reportsthat higher prices is the reason that 76% of long-time cannabis consumers continued to purchase from unregulated sources. The regulated industry as a whole is missing its legal market opportunity, where consumers prefer a lower price product with a greater range of dosage availability.

4) The Range of Products Available is Too Limited for Consumers

For most of 2020, chocolate edibles were the dominant product in this category in the Canadian market, garnering 65% of all edibles sales. But is this reflective of consumer wants? Despite a demand for other kinds of edibles like the ever-popular gummies, there are still only a few edible brands that offer the range of products consumers are asking for. According to research from Headset, there are 12 manufacturers in Canada making edibles but only two of them produce gummies. In comparison, 187 brands make gummies in the United States.

While some of this delay is likely due to the long licensing process in Canada and the newness of the market, there are other factors that make it challenging to bring a variety of products to market. The province of Quebec, Canada’s second-largest province, has banned the sale of edibles that resemble candies, confections, or desserts that could be attractive to children – giving yet another edge to unregulated sellers who can also capitalize on illegal marketing that copies from existing candy brands like Maynard’s.

When companies do want to introduce new products or advertise improvements to existing product lines, they are restricted by stringent requirements for packaging and marketing, making it harder to raise brand awareness for their products in both the legal and unregulated markets. Industry players are also complaining about government restrictions on consumers taste-testing products, which further compounds challenges of getting the right products to market.

In the meantime, illicit producers have also shown themselves to be savvy in their strategies to capture consumers. It is not uncommon to find illicit products packaged in extremely convincing counterfeit packaging complete with fake excise stamps. New consumers may assume the product they are purchasing is legal. Availability of delivery options for higher dosage, lower price illicit products is also widespread. All of this adds up to significant competition, even if it were easier to meet regulatory requirements.

Conclusion: Significant Room for Growth Remains Limited by Government Regulations

These four challenges are significant, but there are a number of opportunities that present themselves alongside them. A year and a half into the legalization of edibles, cannabis companies are getting a better picture of what Canadian consumers want and low dosages are proving to be desirable for Canadian consumers in some areas.

Some of the many infused products on the market today

In particular, sales of cannabinoid-infused beverages far outpaced other edibles categories last year, likely tied to the availability of these products in stores over the summer of 2020. BDSA’s research has shown that, in contrast with American consumers, the lower THC dosage for cannabis beverages is an advantage for Canadian consumers. Major alcohol brands like Molson Coors and Constellation Brands are investing heavily in this growing product area – though there the dosage limits also apply to how many products a consumer can buy at a time.

At the same time, the large quantity of unsold cannabis flower sitting in storage also poses an opportunity. While its quality as a smokeable product may have degraded, this biomass can be repurposed into extracts and edibles. Health Canada has also shown some responsiveness to industry needs when it shifted its stance to allow for Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP), which will help improve shelf life of products.

While strict regulatory obstacles remain, challenges will continue to outweigh opportunities and the illicit market will remain a strong player in the edibles market. As regulations become clearer and producers become more accustomed to navigating the legal space, barriers to entry into the regulated cannabis market and specifically the extracts and edibles market, will decrease. Meanwhile, those getting into the edibles market will do well to be wary of the challenges ahead.

The (Arrested) Rise of Craft Cannabis in Canada

By Steven Burton
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It’s no secret that the rollout of cannabis legalization has underperformed in countries like Canada. Since legalization in October of 2018, industry experts have warned that the projections of the big cannabis firms and venture capitalists far exceeded the expected demand from the legal market.

Today, major production facilities are closing down, some before they even opened, dried flower inventory is sitting on shelves in shocking quantities (and degrading in quality), and an extremely robust illicit market accounts for an estimated 80% of the estimated $8 billion Canadian cannabis industry. None of those things sound like reasons for optimism, but while some models for cannabis business are withering away, others are beginning to put down stronger roots. Crucially, we are beginning to see new business models emerge that will be able to compete against the robust black market in Canada.

The Legal Cannabis Industry Can’t Compete

Legal rollout in Canada could easily be described as chaotic, privileging larger firms with access to capital who were able to fulfil the rigid – and expensive – regulatory requirements for operating legally. But bigger in this case certainly did not mean better. The product these larger firms offered immediately following legalization was of a lower qualityand higher price than consumers would tolerate. In Ontario, cannabis being shipped to legal distributors lacks expiration dates, leaving retailers with no indication of what to sell first, and consumers stuck with a dry, poor quality product.

The majority of existing cannabis consumers across the country prefer the fresher, higher quality and generally lower priced product they can easily find on the illicit market. That preference couldn’t be clearer when you look at the growth of inventory, which is far outpacing sales, in the graph below:

Source: Government of Canada

Which brings us to the crux of the matter: when it comes to building up the Canadian cannabis industry, what will succeed against the black market that has decades of expertise and inventiveness behind it?

Rising From the Ashes: Craft Growers and Other Small-Scale Producers

The massive facilities like Canopy’s may be shutting down, but our friends over at Althing Consulting tell us that those millions of square feet facilities are being replaced by smaller, more boutique-style cultivation facilities in the 20,000 ft tier, which are looking to be the future of the industry.

Consumers have consistently shown a strong preference for craft cultivators and other small-scale producers who produce higher quality, more varied products that are more responsive to consumer needs. It also hasn’t hurt that prices are also coming down: Pure Sun Farms in Delta, BC is consistently selling out of their $100/ounce special, which is highly competitive even with the illicit market.

This vision of the industry matches up better with the picture we’ve been getting from other legalization projects around the world. It also squares with other indicators of success. Despite the small market capture of the legal market, industry employment numbers are still relatively high, especially when compared with more established legal consumer products markets such as beer. In fact, craft cannabis growers now employ nearly as many people as the popular craft brewing sector here in British Columbia.

But in order to make the craft cannabis market actually competitive in both the regulated and unregulated spaces, the government will have to address four major challenges.

Challenge #1: License Distribution is Uneven and Chaotic

A December 2020 report by Ontario’s auditor general contains admissions by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), Ontario’s cannabis industry regulator, that they lack the capacity and resources to manage the number of applications for private cannabis retailing. Problems relating to the issuing of licenses, including long delays and difficult requirements, are widespread across provinces. One way this becomes clear is by looking at the very uneven distribution of stores across the country in the graph below.

Source: MJBiz Daily

Challenge #2: Basic Regulatory Compliance is Complex and Time-Consuming

Smaller-scale micro cultivators, whose good quality craft product remains in high demand, still face prohibitive barriers to entry into the legal market. Licensing from Health Canada is one onerous challenge that everyone must tackle. Monthly reporting requirements have in excess of 477 compliance fields. Without additional support to navigate these requirements – including automation technology to ease the administrative burden – these smaller producers struggle to meet the minimum regulatory standards to compete in the legal market.

Challenge #3: A Long-Distance Road to Compliance and Safety Means Higher Costs

Even with all regulatory requirements satisfied, cannabis cultivators can’t sell their product from “farm to fork” (to borrow a phrase from the food industry). Many growers ship their product to be irradiated in order to ensure they are below the acceptable microbial threshold set by Health Canada. While irradiation positively impacts the safety of the product, new evidence shows that it may degrade quality by affecting the terpene profile of the plant. Furthermore, only a few facilities in Canada will irradiate cannabis products in the first place, meaning that companies have to ship the finished product sometimes thousands of kilometers to get their product to market.

Next year, Health Canada looks set to lower the limit on microbials, making it virtually impossible to avoid cannabis irradiation. If Health Canada follows through, the change will be a challenge for small-scale cultivators who strive to prioritize quality, cater to consumers who are increasingly becoming more educated about terpene profiles, and seek to minimize the environmental impact of production.

Challenge #4: It is Virtually Impossible to Market Improved Products

Finally, there is a marketing problem. Even though the regulated market has made dramatic improvements in terms of product quality from legalization two years ago, Health Canada’s stringent marketing restrictions means that cannabis producers are virtually unable to communicate these improvements to consumers. Cannabis producers have little to no opportunity to reach consumers directly, even at the point of sale – most legal sales are funneled through government-run physical and online stores.

What Can a Thriving, Legal Cannabis Market Look Like in Canada?

The good news is that change is being driven by cannabis growers. Groups like BC Craft Farmers Co-Op are pooling resources, helping each other navigate financial institutions still hostile to the cannabis trade, obtain licenses and organizing craft growers to advocate to the government for sensible regulatory changes. As a result of their advocacy, in October, the federal government initiated an accelerated review of the Cannabis Act’s restrictive regulations related to micro-class and nursery licenses.

Now, more co-op models are popping up. Businesses like BC Craft Supply are working to provide resources for licensing, quality assurance and distribution to craft growers as well. Indigenous growers are also showing us how cannabis regulation could work differently. Though Indigenous cultivators currently account for only 4% of Canadian federal cannabis licensees (19/459), that number looks to be growing, with 72 new site applications in process self-identified as Indigenous, including 27 micro cultivators. In September, Williams Lake First Nation entered into a government-to-government agreement with the province of British Columbia to grow and sell their own cannabis. The press release announcing the agreement includes the following statement:

“The agreement supports WLFN’s interests in operating retail cannabis stores that offer a diverse selection of cannabis products from licensed producers across Canada, as well as a cannabis production operation that offers farm-gate sales of its own craft cannabis products.”

More widespread adoption of the farm-gate model, which allows cultivators to sell their products at production sights like a winery or brewery, has a two-fold benefit: it better supports local, small-scale producers, and it offers opportunities in the canna-tourism sector. As the economy begins its recovery alongside vaccine rollouts and restrictions on travel ease, provincial governments will have the chance to leverage the reputation of unique regional cannabis offerings (i.e. BC bud) through these farm-gate operations.

While the cannabis legalization story in Canada has had its bumps, the clear path forward for greater legal market success lies in increased support for micro-cultivators. By increasing support for these small-scale producers to navigate regulatory requirements, more will be able to enter the legal market and actually compete against their illicit counterparts. The result will be higher quality and more diverse products for consumers across the country.

Soapbox

Stemming the Cannabis Black Market

By Matthew Zandi
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On July 18, 2019, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in California served search warrants at 56 illegal cannabis cultivation sites. This operation was spearheaded by 390 law enforcement personnel, whose mission was to combat the ongoing problem of illegal cannabis cultivation sites throughout California.

The raids resulted in:

  • 47,939 marijuana plants confiscated
  • 2,132 pounds of processed cannabis
  • 47 tons of cannabis plants disposed
  • 2 Butane Honey Oil Labs located
  • 71 firearms
  • 49 arrests

The target of the operation was illegal cultivation sites. Individuals or licensed businesses with permits to grow cannabis legally were not affected.

Illegal cultivation is far from just a California problem. For example, if Oregon halted cannabis production today, the state would not experience a shortage as it has a six-year surplus.

The fear for investors and legal growers is that, if some growers turn to the black market to unload excess inventory, federal enforcement will come into play, which will set back the legal cannabis industry to the stone age. Oregon is currently making moves to limit licensure for legal production, but some active licenses may also need to be revoked, which would leave those licensees with vast investment losses. In other words, legalized cannabis’s massive economic market is not without financial problems of its own.

Don’t Make a Federal Case Out of It

Several states have legalized recreational cannabis with the intention of reimagining this vast underground market as an above-board business that bolsters the state’s economy via transparent dealings. To date, however, the federal government has refused to budge regarding cannabis’s status as an illegal Schedule 1 substance. This classification puts cannabis on a par with opioids. As such, those states that have legalized recreational cannabis are extremely motivated to keep these businesses on the up and up and not to pique federal interest.

Black Market Vulnerability

One of the tenets of legalizing cannabis is stemming the proliferation of black-market suppliers and minimizing the negative effects that the “war on drugs”has had in minority communities. These positive impetuses have yet to flourish. As a result of the illegal status of cannabis at the federal level, cannabis-legal states are forced to operate as islands.

Generally, taking legally purchased cannabis across state lines – from a legal to an illegal state – is illegal, and this is not only confusing but is also a recipe for complications. This leaves cannabis-legal states vulnerable to black market activity. These pockets of legal recreational cannabis that are popping up around the country loosen the constraints of the cannabis movement while the legality of this movement remains problematic. The results are an environment that’s extremely hospitable to black market activity.

Supply and Demand

The reality is that – due to supply and demand – cannabis costs about half as much in cannabis-legal states as it does in states in which it’s illegal. Black market growers in legal states destabilize the market. Those legit companies which remain above board, pay their taxes and jump through every legal hoop, cannot compete with black market interlopers who eschew such niceties.

The point made by detractors of legal cannabis isn’t lost on the rest of us – the black market is burgeoning.States that have legalized production have inadvertently made it easier for illegal producers to hide in plain sight, and the line between legal and illegal operations can become blurred. This creates new frustrations for law enforcement and naturally cuts into the legal cannabis trade. The situation has left some opponents to legalization demanding new crackdowns – others characterize such suggestions as amounting to a new war on drugs.

No Going Back

Detractors of legalized cannabis claim the somewhat chaotic effects related to the current patchwork approach to legalization are a result of opening the gates to legalization in the first place. However, putting the genie of legalized recreational cannabis back in the bottle simply isn’t feasible for operational, financial and political reasons. With the proliferation of attendant illegal operations, however, it is becoming more and more clear that leveling the playing field – via some form of federal legalization – is inevitable. The current state-by-state solution leaves too much wiggle room for the illegal transport of cannabis from those states with looser restrictions to those states with tighter protocols. If politics is choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable, the billion-dollar cannabis conundrum is a great example. The question may no longer be should we legalize cannabis but, instead, how do we legalize cannabis.In other words, we need to find a path forward, and focusing only on the pitfalls that we’ve experienced so far isn’t going to get us where we need to be.

A Tale of Two Choices

The point made by detractors of legal cannabis isn’t lost on the rest of us – the black market is burgeoning. As such, we have an important decision to make. A blanket prohibition of cannabis may no longer be practicable, so we’re left to choose between legal and overt practices across the board or a hodgepodge of semilegal practices with covert ops in tow. Fostering illegal activity is rarely in our nation’s best interests, which leaves legalizing cannabis at the federal level as possibly the most practicable solution.

Protecting Public Health

As more states embrace the legalization of recreational cannabis, public health concerns remain an issue. Many of these illegal cultivators use chemicals that are banned in the United States and do not properly dispose of chemicals or waste products that destroy the environment, contaminate drinking water and have the potential to harm or even kill residents and domestic animals. Not only is this activity harmful, growers often steal electricity and water from surrounding residents.

Cobbling together a pastiche of laws, however, inevitably bolsters black market activity and does nothing to help protect public health. Even the staunchest proponents of legalizing cannabis don’t want minors involved in the equation. Additionally, few debate that unchecked usage is a healthy option. Quasi-legislation at the state level (and on a state-by-state basis), however, provides neither a check nor a balance.

Onward and Upward

The most likely next step for safeguarding public health, for stemming black-market activity, and for generating maximum revenues is toward thoughtful and comprehensive national legalization that comes sooner rather than later. In the meantime, law enforcement should protect the public, legal operations, investors, and the environment from the black market.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Guidepost Solutions or its clients.