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The Cannabis Industry Sees Record Growth Despite Continuous Obstacles

By Jay Virdi
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Worth an estimated $54 to $67 billion, the bourgeoning U.S cannabis industry continues to grow at record pace despite conflicting state and federal laws that cause obstacles at every turn.

This conflict remains a source of uncertainty for retailers, cultivators and the general public. And, unfortunately, the palpable tug of war between the states and the federal government will only increase when legalization is introduced at the federal level, putting tax dollars up for grabs.

A tug-of-war between the states and the federal government makes it difficult for cannabis businesses to obtain bank accounts, insurance and investors. It also means additional security and compliance challenges. It is the reason that the cannabis industry is an unsupportive environment for start-ups and employees who face primitive or even dangerous R&D conditions in order to advance the extraction process.

As cannabis companies fight to grow their market share, many lag behind when instituting a proper risk management structure from R&D to daily operations. Cannabis businesses that haven’t incorporated risk management will need to in 2021, especially when seeking to secure funding from PE firms.

As the 8th fastest growing industry in the U.S., maturing at more than 25% annually, adult use and medical cannabis sales are unlikely to decrease anytime soon. Rather, experts predict continued growing pains – and gains – to shape the U.S. cannabis industry in 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to increase the growth of the cannabis industry— with a few roadblocks

Deemed “essential businesses,” many retail outlets and dispensaries stayed open throughout the pandemic and adopted new ways of serving customers, from curbside pick-up to drive-through windows and deliveries. At the same time, the pandemic hindered growth for some cannabis operations on the cusp of obtaining a license, as many applications were put on hold when state offices closed their doors for months. In some cases that meant raised capital was pulled and funding ceased. For start-ups who are seeking to apply again in 2021, it’ll be an uphill climb.

As a result of routine COVID-19 inspections in 2020, state officials uncovered a host of other issues at cannabis operations, including improper labeling, poor health and safety practices, lack of PPE compliance by staff and customers, incorrect counting of cash and more. In extreme cases, these visits resulted in regulatory fines and shutdowns. This led to the need to use seed money for something other than the organization’s original mission. In 2021, these scenarios are likely to turn into lawsuits from shareholders and activate directors & officers (D&O) and employment practices liability (EPL) claims from laid-off workers. These accusations dovetail with another major charge often levied against cannabis businesses —lightning speed growth without the business operations and risk management protocols necessary to support it.

Many cannabis businesses have not procured the necessary liability insurance coverage for the great risk that come with rapid growth. Whether it’s D&O and EPL policies as in the case above, or cyber, property or general liability (GL) policies, it’s critical to think more holistically about insurance coverage. Cannabis operations need to work with an insurance broker who specializes in the cannabis industry and understands different operations and business location, as exposures vary greatly.

R&D extraction dangers lead to unique risks

extraction equipmentIn 2021, extraction will be a major focus for cannabis organizations. Operations will continue searching for a competitive advantage to increase yield and develop superior products. Cannabis extractors will experiment with new ways to apply existing laboratory methods utilizing ethanol and CO2 as well as innovative cultivation methods adopted from the agriculture industry, using water and light exposure and different nutrients. R&D becomes a potential liability when cannabis extractors modify the use of existing equipment for a different type of extraction. Flammable products are often required, and explosions can occur.

If you are considering experimenting with R&D, engage your insurance broker to ensure the risk is covered within your existing policies and to explore best practices for experimentation and varying equipment use.

Desire for more security both inside and outside the operation

A cannabis operation’s security risk is two-fold. In light of the looting and civil unrest across the U.S. this year, heightened security measures were necessary for cannabis businesses to secure their goods. Additionally, a common risk— employee theft —increased as well.

Cannabis retail operations maintain a large supply of cash and product. As looting occurred, it was impossible to relocate cannabis product away from retail storefronts as a majority of state regulations prohibit cannabis to be removed from retail facilities. Owners and operators who did so risked being fined for non-compliance or losing their license.

The majority of cannabis theft — as high as 90% by some estimates — is employee related. In many cases, employees in cannabis grow facilities and retail storefronts scheme to cheat employers. Part of the challenge is that state regulations require plant and production facility blueprints to be publicly available. Thieves are using these layouts to plot their infiltration. In other scenarios, cannabis operators are recording walk-throughs of their facilities and publishing online documentaries. These also leave operators vulnerable.

Employers can increase security by restricting access exclusively to employee areas, while also investing in better internal access controls. Conduct an audit of your work areas with your cannabis insurance broker who can provide you with a list of best practices and do’s and don’ts for reducing theft.

Complications continue in compliance, banking and financial services 

Even though cannabis is legal for medicinal or recreational use in 43 states, businesses still struggle to secure bank accounts, business loans and insurance coverage. Small local banks and savings and loan businesses may be more willing to engage with cannabis businesses in 2021, while large institutions will keep shying away.

At every stop of the supply chain, cannabis business operators need to be proactive when developing strategies to manage risk. That means implementing risk management protocols to protect their business, their workforce as well as securing the proper insurance coverage.

This also includes growing the cannabis business’ safety net by engaging necessary insurance policies, appropriate to the business’ size and exposure, including cyber, environmental liability and crime policies, or applying for emerging loan programs in an effort to secure additional capital.

Evolution of the industry into 2021 and beyond

While the cannabis industry is evolving and changing, much will ultimately remain the same in 2021. Even if the U.S. government takes steps to federally legalize cannabis, a bill would not go into effect until later in the year at best, more likely in 2022 or beyond. Until a bill is passed, cannabis businesses will look to remain viable beyond the state level. For all cannabis businesses, 2021 will be about building on what they’re already doing and preparing for what will hopefully come next.

Cannabis Industry Insurance Outlook for 2020

By , T.J. Frost
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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.  
  4. 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.
  5. 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.