Cannabis testing is important for both operators and consumers, but there are some differences in what is important to each group. Obviously, safety and efficacy are important to both. Cannabis is primarily tested for safety reasons to ensure that consumers are receiving a product that is safe to consume and accurately labeled. In addition, consumers may look for a potency they’re used to consuming or a certain terpene profile that gives them a desired effect. Cannabis operators, on the other hand, use testing results to improve their processes and to monitor product quality versus state specific regulatory requirements that could cause their products to pass or fail.
What cannabis operators need to understand about cannabis testing results
Historically, there was an education gap on the side of the operators when it came to interpreting results. The regulated cannabis industry is still quite new and cannabis operators were initially focused on getting products to market. While there was always a focus on regulatory compliance and safety, the same level of quality control that existed in other regulated industries like food production seemed to lag. That has changed as operators have become more sophisticated and are hiring experts skilled in interpreting results and quality control. For a laboratory, hiring scientists with a regulatory background offers the operators the experience needed to ensure they’re getting accurate results that are easy to understand. This has led to more meaningful collaboration between labs and operators who work together to understand what test results mean to their processes and business operations.
A common problem is that some operators see testing as just a speed bump. This doesn’t have to be the case. Third-party testing is an integral part of getting safe products to consumers. Businesses need to find a lab that understands their objectives and knows how to support the manufacturing and production cycles. Establishing a testing protocol with a lab will help ensure that there are no surprises and that products can be tested and sold as quickly as possible.
Now that operators and labs are speaking the same language, the challenge becomes translating that information into a consumer-friendly format. Consumers don’t necessarily need (or want) to explore the minutiae of every tested analyte, but they can easily grasp high level results in the form of charts and graphs. Translating the testing results into an easy-to-digest format allows consumers to better understand the products they are buying.
What are the main components of test results cannabis businesses should look for?
The first and most obvious results to look for is what was tested and if any tests delivered a failing result. A failing result is determined by comparing the tested values against the state requirements. If a product has failed testing in any area, operators will need to work with the lab and their internal teams to determine exactly what the issue is and if it can be rectified. Failing of any state required test (pesticide, microbial, metals, ….) means the product cannot be sold in its current form. Depending on the state, failing results may be required to be confirmed by another lab, processed further to remove the failing contaminants or destroyed. The production cycle to grow, process and manufacture cannabis products can take anywhere from 120 to 160 days with many different processes and handlers. Despite attempts to control all the variables that impact final product quality, failing tests do occur.
Once businesses have passed the state-required testing, the remaining tests are focused on product characteristics including potency and terpene profile. The potency of a product measures the levels of cannabinoids and influences both production and marketing decisions. Lower potency flower may be extracted for distillate products while higher potency flower will demand a higher price and will most likely be sold as flower or processed into concentrate products. Cannabinoid profiles go well beyond just CBD and THC. Understanding the full cannabinoid profile of a product is an important factor in how it can be marketed, and how it will be used.
The terpene profile of a product is also quickly becoming just as important to medical and adult use consumers. Terpenes play a major role in the effects that consumers experience with cannabis products. In the past, consumers relied heavily on strain names to purchase products that they believed would give them the effects that they were looking to achieve. Moving forward, we believe that consumers will be more interested in a product’s terpene profile given the strong influence that terpenes have on effects. In states like Nevada, cannabis businesses put terpene profiles on their product labels and cannabis consumers are starting to select products based on terpenes rather than raw potency numbers.
What is the most important factor in cannabis testing results?
Trust is the most important factor when testing cannabis. Operators need to trust that their lab is providing consistent, accurate and timely results. Consumers need to be able to trust what they read on the certificate of analysis, and they ultimately need to trust that the products they buy will deliver the effects that they expect.
The easiest way for businesses to increase trust in their products and testing results is transparency. When there is transparency from the testing lab to the business and customers, it will help build trust and establish a brand for the long term.
Another important aspect of this process is ensuring businesses share the right information with consumers and educate them as to what it means to them. Information overload, without explanation, will only lead to confusion. It’s important to educate employees, especially those interfacing with customers, on how to interpret and explain test results in a way that consumers can understand.
It can be challenging to translate highly technical test results into consumer-friendly language but being able to do so will enable businesses to build a stronger relationship with customers. This isn’t something that businesses need to figure out by themselves. Rely on your trusted lab partners to help design and deliver easy to understand, consumer friendly certificates of analysis. Consumers want to be educated and understand what is in their products, and how the products will work for them. Trust, transparency and education will help cannabis operators strengthen relationships and continue to grow their business.
No business is perfect, especially when humans are part of the equation. But, how do you tackle fixing quality issues as they arise? The goal of this article is to shed some light on the value of a CAPA program and why many states are making them mandatory for cannabis businesses.
Let’s consider the following situations:
Analytical lab results for a production batch test above the limit for a banned pesticide or microbial contamination
You open a case of tincture bottles and some are broken
A customer returns a vape pen because it is leaking or ‘just doesn’t work’
Document the issue?
Perform some sort of an investigation, asking questions of the people involved?
Ask for a retest? Then, if the test comes back positive, move on?
Let’s go through each one of these and understand why the suboptimal answer could be costing your business money:
You don’t document the issue
I hear excuses for skipping on documentation all the time.
“It’s not a big deal”
“It was a one off”
“The glasses probably broke in transit”
“They are cheap and easily replaceable”
“It’s not worth the time”
In the situation of a couple of broken bottles in a shipment, what if it was the seventh time in the last two months? If you haven’t been documenting and tracking the issue, you have no way of knowing if it was a single occurrence. Remember when you were surprised that your filling team did not have enough bottles? Those broken bottles add up. Without documenting the incident, you will never know if it was truly a one-time mistake or the sign of a deeper issue. The reality is, it could be sloppy handling on the production line, issues with the shipper or even a sign of poor quality coming from the supplier.
Have you ever compared the number of fills vs the number of bottles ordered? How much money have you already lost due to those broken bottles adding up? Do you have the ability to answer this question?
You perform an investigation
Let’s say a customer returns a leaky vape pen. You perform an investigation by asking the production workers what they think went wrong. They say that it’s very difficult to get the seal for the cartridge into place. Their supervisor tells them to try harder, refunds the customer and moves on. But, why is it difficult to get the seal into place? Is it a design flaw? Should a special tool be used to assemble the cartridge properly? Without getting to the root cause of why the seals are leading to leaking cartridges, you are doomed to have repeat issues. Numerous studies have found that less than one in twenty dissatisfied customers will complain, and that approximately one in ten will simply leave for another brand or provider. How much is this unresolved issue truly costing your business?
Asking for a retest and if it passes, releasing the product and moving on.
Suppose a major producer of cereal received test results for its most popular cereal that were positive for levels of heavy metals that research has shown to be linked to cancer or developmental issues in children. Now, suppose the company stated that it was an isolated incident and a retest showed that the product met acceptable limits. Further investigation showed no paperwork, save for a couple of emails and a phone call between the lab and the producer. Would that give you peace of mind? This is known as “testing into compliance” and was the subject of a landmark lawsuit in 1993 that Barr Laboratories lost.
For many the answer would be a hard NO. But this happens every day. In Colorado, 12.5% of cannabis batches failed final product testing in 2018 and 2019. That’s one in eight batches! What happened to those products? Good question.
Enter: CAPA (Corrective Action and Preventive Action) programs! For people with a background in quality and GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices), CAPA is a household name. And, it’s quickly becoming a requirement that cannabis regulatory bodies are looking at. Colorado was the first state to explicitly require CAPA programs for all license holders effective January of this year and has provided a free resource for them. But, for the large majority of people, including those in the cannabis industry, it’s just another acronym.
What does a CAPA program do?
The benefits are numerous but two major ones are:
An effective tool for investigating the true root cause
First of all, a CAPA program provides the framework for a tool for investigation – as Murphy’s Law posits – things go wrong all of the time. Whether you have a manual, labor-intensive process or a highly automated operation, the equipment is programmed, maintained and monitored by humans. The logical sequence of problem solving within a CAPA program allows you to thoroughly investigate and determine the root cause of the issue. With a complete understanding of root cause, you are then able to eliminate it and prevent future occurrences – not just in the one area investigated, but in all similar situations throughout the company.
System for continuous improvement
Anyone who is in the market for a new car lately can appreciate the technological advances. In the 1980s, it was air bags and ABS brakes (those of you that drive in snowy climates and remember having to pump your brakes can appreciate technological advancements). Bluetooth technology for hands-free communication and radio control is another example of continuous improvement in cars.
This is one of the biggest predictors and differentiators between profitable and successful companies with satisfied clients and one that is barely scraping by. The cost of poor quality adds up!
Key inputs in a CAPA system
If the output is an improved system and lower cost of quality, we need to make sure we’re considering the potential inputs.
Information that feeds into your CAPA system:
Every complaint must be recorded. Gather as much information as possible, but at a minimum: the product type/SKU, the customer name and date of purchase. If possible, the batch or product ID.
This is not necessarily to identify products for a recall, but to prevent…
Laboratory test results
This should not be restricted to final product testing, but include any in-process inspections. Say you have a product repeatedly failing final testing, what if it’s actually been consistently failing or very close to failing at the very first in-process inspection? It’s also important to work with your laboratory to understand their method validation process, including the accuracy, precision, robustness, etc.
Most people consider “environmental controls” to be things like temperature and humidity control. While that is true, it can also include pest and contamination control. Poorly designed infrastructure layouts are major contributors to product cross contamination as well.
Undetected supply chain issues (remember the broken bottles?) can add up fast! CAPAs for suppliers cannot just include supplier monitoring, but improvement in how you communicate your needs to your suppliers. It’s easy to overlook non-cannabis raw materials as sources of microbiological and chemical contamination. Conduct a risk assessment based on the type of contact with your product and the types of contamination possible and adjust your supplier qualification program accordingly.
Are you ready to recognize the benefits of a CAPA program?
One more major benefit of CAPA programs to mention before we go is … Preventive via predictive analytics.
In Colorado, 15% of the final tested cannabis flower products continue to fail, mostly due to mold and mildew. A quality system, with effective data capture that is funneled into a CAPA program can easily reduce this by 75%. For even a small business doing $2M per year in revenue, that equates to a revenue increase of nearly $200,000 with no additional expenses.
Whether you are operating in the State of Colorado or elsewhere, a CAPA and Recall program will provide immense value. In the best case, it will uncover systemic issues; worst case, it forces you to fix mild errors. What are you waiting for?
ASTM International, the international standards development organization, has proposed a cannabis standard for establishing retail cybersecurity protocols. Their D37 cannabis committee is currently working on the development of the standard.
The standard is designed to establish best practices for protecting critical databases in dispensaries, like inventory data, customer and patient information. The guide, developed by subcommittee D37.05, addresses “the company or government organizational need to mitigate the likelihood of cyberattacks and reduce the extent of potential cyberattacks, which can leave sensitive personal data, corporate information, and critical infrastructure vulnerable to attackers,” reads the scope of the project.
Technical Lead for the subcommittee and president of ezGreen Compliance, Michael Coner, says they hope to provide SOPs for retail operations to protect business data while staying compliant. “Cybersecurity is among the most prevailing issues concerning the cannabis industry as well as the global cannabis economy,” says Coner. “Establishing strong cybersecurity protocols for dispensary retail owners will help ensure the protection of data to maintain the integrity of cannabis consumers’ personal information.”
The ASTM committee is currently inviting stakeholders such as retailers and regulators to help with things like “identifying new data security issues that arise while operating active retail dispensary businesses.”
Growing awareness and public support for medical cannabis around the world has pushed regulatory authorities to consider the legalization of medical cannabis, which remains the major factor driving growth for the medical market. Cannabis-based medication has conventionally been used and studied to be an effective therapeutic solution for various disorders. Increasing R&D activities for the development of novel solutions and applications has led to various formulations being approved by The United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA). For instance, in 2020, the FDA had approved application of Epidiolex for treating seizures related to tuberous sclerosis complex in patients aged one year and above. On account of shifting interest towards the benefits of medical cannabis and significant technological advancements, application of medical cannabis is increasing rapidly, which is positively impacting the overall business space.
According to Global Market Insights, Inc., the medical cannabis market size was valued at USD 22.4 billion in 2020 and will record exceptional growth numbers in the coming years, considering the emergence of the following trends:
Development of new products by key market players
Prominent players operating in the medical cannabis industry such as Canopy Growth Corporation, Aurora Cannabis Inc., Aphria Inc., GW Pharmaceuticals, ABcann Medicinals Inc., The Supreme Cannabis Company, etc. are focusing on strategies pertaining to product development and acquisitions in order to gain a strong market presence. Citing an instance in 2018, GW pharmaceuticals, announced that it had received an FDA clearance for its first plant-based pharmaceutical cannabidiol for treating rare pediatric epilepsies. Apparently, the approval helped the company expand its portfolio while giving it the innovator’s advantage in cannabis-based treatments.
Rising demand for treating nausea conditions
Medical cannabis is finding extensive usage in the treatment of nausea conditions especially for the patients undergoing chemotherapy, as a part of cancer treatment. Numerous tetrahydrocannabinol- and cannabidiol-based medications have been approved for treating the symptoms of nausea. The rising incidences of cancer and nausea segments across medical cannabis markets is anticipated to register a substantial CAGR of 18.4% through 2027.
Increasing preference for topical route of administration
Topical administration of medical cannabis is gaining prominence as topical solutions such as lotions and creams can be directly applied to the skin for the treatment of an injury. They are also replacing opioids for injury-related pain management as these have shown several side effects. Topical products also allow for self-administration that’s minimally invasive, while exhibiting limited side effects. With increasing adoption of topical route of administration, the segment is estimated to register an appreciable valuation of $5 billion by 2027.
Higher sales through dispensaries
Dispensaries have become a prime distribution channel globally. Considering the stringent regulatory scenario around medical cannabis, its consumption and sales are highly monitored by authorities in order to avoid any abuse or instances that lead to addiction. It is relatively easy for both suppliers and consumers to engage in a conventional brick and mortar store model under a regional medical cannabis program. Given that, dispensaries are anticipated to retain dominance in the market over the coming years. In 2020, the segment had held a sizeable market share of 58.4%.
Rising consumption of medical cannabis in Latin America
South American countries like Argentina and Chile are the major consumers of medical cannabis in the region. While Argentina has legalized the domestic cultivation of cannabis, Chile is known to have a history of medical cannabis with various clinical trials being performed since 2014. The country is one of the leaders in the LATAM medical cannabis industry wherein the regulatory authorities keep on simplifying the laws time and again. With favorable regulatory scenarios, the regional market is projected to expand significantly by recording a CAGR of 20.9% through 2027.
Attendees registering for this complimentary webinar will see Toby Astill, Ph.D., cannabis testing expert and global market manager for Cannabis & Hemp at PerkinElmer present on pesticide testing and automation. He is available for a live Q&A at the end of the event. In addition to getting the opportunity to chat with Toby Astill on August 25, a recording of the presentation will be made available to all who register.
This virtual event will help attendees better understand how an innovative automation hardware and software workflow allows cannabis & CBD laboratories to complete their pesticide and mycotoxin assays more efficiently and confidently.
Data will be presented to show the workflow suitability for cannabis flower, the benefit of adding an autonomous sample preparation platform and software solutions to integrate multiple data streams into one compliance framework. References will show that having a validatable protocol and SOP for the cannabis testing industry is key in ensuring the highest quality of cannabis reaches the consumer.
During a press conference held today, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden and Senator Cory Booker introduced the preliminary draft for the Cannabis Administration And Opportunity Act, a bill that would remove cannabis from the list of controlled substances.
“This is the first time in American history that the majority leader of the United States Senate is leading the call to end prohibition of marijuana,” Sen. Booker said toward the end of their remarks. Sen. Wyden stressed the history of the failed war on drugs, the successes of his state’s legalization and the need to include minority-owned small businesses in the new legislation.
Sen. Schumer emphasized the need for revisions to the bill, bipartisanship and cooperation as they present the preliminary draft to their colleagues. “The waste of human resources because of the historic overcriminalization has been one of the great historical wrongs for the last decades and we are going to change it,” Sen. Schumer said.
While the bill is still in the early stages of its draft, the promising new legislation offers a few provisions that cannabis industry advocates and stakeholders have been hoping to see. Firstly, it would completely remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. It sets up a framework for states to establish their own policies around cannabis, much like the current state of affairs in the industry and also akin to how the federal government treats alcohol.
Speaking to the social equity matters that Sen. Wyden emphasized, the bill would immediately expunge all federal records of non-violent cannabis crimes as well as establish a small business grant program for funding equity applicants, those impacted by the drug war and funding for state-level social equity programs.
Cannabis has long been considered a green industry by the masses.
As a standalone item, the cannabis plant is very environmentally friendly. This is particularly true when it comes to hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant with a huge range of environmental benefits. An extremely versatile and robust crop, hemp uses far less land and water than other common crops and even captures carbon dioxide and regenerates soil. Approximately 20,000 products can be made from its seed, fiber and flower, from biodegradable plastics to food supplements, meaning all in all – it is an environmentally and economically sustainable crop
Yet as with most things, when cultivated in mass, the cannabis plant isn’t quite so green anymore. With its high demand for water, land and artificial lighting, cannabis cultivation can actually leave a large environmental footprint (this does however, pale in comparison to the food industry).
What’s more, many firms do not properly understand how to correctly treat and apply chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and use a machine gun approach to growing their crops. This can result in unnecessary bleed waste, which in turn can kill micro-organisms and contaminate soil, water and other vegetation. Packaging has also been cited as particularly environmentally unfriendly in the cannabis industry, with several organizations using single use plastic for their products, due to the strict guidelines attached to packaging products of a medical or pharmaceutical nature.
So as the CBD, medical and even adult use cannabis industries become increasingly commercialized across the globe, there is risk cannabis might start moving in the wrong direction when it comes to sustainability.
Still relatively new, the cannabis sector is nascent and exciting, with the global cannabis market size valued at $10.60 billion in 2018 and projected to reach $97.35 billion by the end of 2026. Yet as the industry grows, so too will its footprint.
I’ve seen it first-hand. The industry being hugely competitive, so for companies vying for precious investment and fighting for a spot on the stock market, often, sustainability is the last thing on their minds. In my opinion, this is wrong. Not only morally – we all play a part in looking after our planet – but it’s also a poorly calculated business decision.
It’s no secret sustainability and ESG have become a hot topic when it comes to investing. Just yesterday, Credit Suisse told CNBC that the pandemic has accelerated the trend towards sustainable investments. The bank has even introduced an exclusion strategy whereby those investing can actively exclude controversial sectors.
So with the environment firmly on investors’ minds, cannabis firms need to realize that actually, if they want to secure the support of forward-thinking shareholders, they need to consider more than just the bottom line and truly take the sustainability of their operations into account.
Luckily, there are practices which cannabis cultivators can take on board to reduce their environmental footprint. To start with – growing outdoors. This enables cannabis farmers to harness the sun’s natural power, saving them money on electricity bills and increasing energy efficiency. With cannabis being a rather thirsty plant, water use is also a major concern – although this is nothing compared to the amount of water used by cotton plants. However, it is in fact possible to design indoor operations which recycle close to 100% of the water use, including capturing the perspiration from plants – at AltoVerde this is something we are looking to implement in our upcoming Macedonian sites.
Firms keen to improve on sustainability should also cultivate in a way in which soil is fully replenished and repaired after use – this is called regenerative farming, and it’s extremely effective for maintaining and improving soil quality, biodiversity and crop yields. Another interesting concept is the use of hemp. Some farmers have started using hempcrete – a concrete-like material made from harvested cannabis plants. As if the recycling aspect wasn’t good enough, hempcrete is actually carbon negative, meaning the production of hemp for hempcrete removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it produces.
It’s been incredibly exciting to be a part of the cannabis industry and I am excited to watch its growth in the years to come. It’s taken hard work for the sector to improve its traditionally poor image and to be accepted across the globe, so now, cultivators must lead by example and stop industry from being branded as one which pollutes. By transitioning to more environmentally sustainable practices, firms will be doing their bit for the planet, attracting the investors of tomorrow and ensuring their own success for years to come.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulations, supply chain and consumer demand.
The California legal flower market is the largest in North America. According to recent BDSA data, monthly cannabis sales in January 2021 were $243.5 million. Flower sales represented 35.6% of overall sales, or about $87 million, representing a $1 billion yearly run rate for 2021 flower sales in California.
Union Electric was founded in California in 2020 as one of OpenNest Labs’ first incubator brands. Its model is uniquely asset-light, and focused on filling an area of opportunity with a consumer-first approach, aimed at an underserved market: the working-class customer. The name Union Electric was inspired by the punching-in and punching-out aspect of working a union job — more specifically, the average cannabis user’s job. The name also represents the brand’s union of stakeholders: Customers, cultivators and retailers alike, working together to provide affordable, quality products.
Max Goldstein is the CEO of Union Electric and Founding Partner at OpenNest Labs. Max incubated Union Electric at OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio he helped co-found, and launched the brand in 2020 the day after COVID lockdowns began in California. Prior to Union Electric, Max worked at Google managing a 90 person, 12-market partnerships team.
Aaron Green: How did you get into the cannabis industry?
Max Goldstein: I’ve had a fun entrepreneurial and professional journey. I started my career in my 20s with Google working in the marketing department sitting at the intersection of new product development and customers. During that time, I really learned the ins and outs of bringing products to market and building brands. I had to understand how to value and champion the customer, or the user. At Google, I was sitting at the intersection of people building products that are affecting billions of people’s lives and users and customers that potentially have really cool insights and feedback. It was an incredible learning experience. I was able to focus on what I’m good at, which is that early stage of businesses and most importantly, listening to the consumer and developing products and services that they ultimately really want.
Near the end of 2018, I co-founded OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio. We came together as a four-person partnership to form OpenNest, as an assortment of skill sets, with all of us contributing an area of focus that we could really combine our experiences to take focused and concerted efforts at building brands that resonate with different consumers across various form factors in cannabis and health. My partner Tyler Wakstein has been in the cannabis industry for several years and helped launch the brand, hmbldt (which is now Dosist) and a number of other projects in the cannabis space.
Green: Was Union Electric an incubation project out of OpenNest?
Goldstein: Yes. Union Electric is the first project we incubated out of OpenNest. We launched the day after the pandemic. So, it was interesting timing.
At Union Electric we’re focused on the core, everyday consumer of cannabis. I think a lot of folks, particularly the new money that have come into the industry, have often focused on new form factors or things that they think the new cannabis consumer is going to enjoy or appreciate. Because quite frankly, that’s their level of familiarity with the industry. For us at Union Electric, we want to hit the end of the market with exactly what they want and that is high-potency, affordable flower with a brand that really stands for something and has values.
Union Electric is positioned as an advocate for the legal cannabis industry as a whole. We look at the stakeholders and the work that needs to be done across the board. The idea of just being one member of the value chain and not trying to ultimately uplift and elevate everyone in that value chain, it’s just not going to work in cannabis. We’ve seen a lot of people trying to go at this alone and I think the pandemic, if anything, showed that you’re only as good as your partners. We truly believe that the investment in our partners, in the local communities and everyone that’s really touching this industry is critical to ultimately building success for one company because a rising tide raises all ships.
Green: How did you settle on the name Union Electric?
Goldstein: One of the things that we wanted to do was focus the brand on who we see as the core consumer, which is somebody that is working hard, like a shift worker punching in and punching out and putting in the long hours on a daily basis and using cannabis as a critical part of their personal wellness and relief. There are elements of that which we certainly want to tap into. The “Union” represents our stakeholder approach, which is, all of us are in this together and our tagline “roll together” represents that. The “Electric” part is what we’ve seen cannabis sort of representing culturally, and for people more broadly. This is an exciting product that’s going to change a lot of people’s lives and, and I just don’t think there’s anything else in our lifetimes that we’re necessarily going to be able to work on from a consumer-packaged goods perspective, that’s going to change as many people’s lives. It’s electric. That’s how we came up with the name.
The coloring and a lot of the brand elements that we focused on were about providing transparency and simplicity to the marketplace: big font and bold colors. There are little nuances with our packaging, like providing a window just so people can see the flower on our bags. We look at the details and made sure that we’re ultimately out of the way of the consumer and what they want, but providing that vehicle that they’re really comfortable with.
Green: You have an asset-light business model, focusing on brand and partnerships. How did you come to that model?
Goldstein: I think everyone who’s operating and working in cannabis right now is looking at strategy and what the model is that’s going to work for them. We’re ultimately going to find out what works, which is why this industry is so fun and exciting. Our specific approach is really under the assumption that vertical integration in a market that’s maturing as quickly as California is going to be hard, if not impossible – it’s just too competitive. There are too many things going on in order to be successful in California. You have to be really good at cultivation, really good at manufacturing, really good at distribution, and then ultimately, you have to be able to tell a story of that process to ensure sell-through and that you really resonate with the consumer.
I think the big, missed opportunities that we’re seeing are that a lot of great cultivators are not marketers or storytellers. They really do need people that are there to help amplify and provide transparency to their stories. There are amazing stories out there of sacrifice and what cultivators have done to create a new strain. We all enjoy Gelato. What’s the process to make that happen or to create any other new strain? It’s fascinating. It’s too hard for a lot of these cultivators to go out and tell that story themselves. So, we act as a sales and marketing layer on top of the supply chain to provide visibility, transparency and trust with the consumer so that they know who grew their product, how it was grown, when it was cultivated and that they can build a real strong relationship with that cultivator as well.
It’s also hard to be a brand that’s using 19 different suppliers, selling the same genetics and expecting the same results. As an example, we’ve gotten Fatso from one of our partners, Natura. We’ve also gotten Fatso from Kind Op Corp (fka POSIBL). We renamed one of the strains – by adding a number on the end – just so that the consumer knew that we’re not saying that this is the same product, because it’s not. It’s from a different farmer and there’s going to be differences. While it does create a little bit more complexity for the consumer, we ultimately believe that every consumer has a right and will expect to know that type of information in the future.
Green: You launched Union Electric one day after the COVID lockdowns began in California. How did you navigate that landscape?
Goldstein: A lot of praying to the cannabis gods! It was really an incredibly challenging and difficult time. We were all concerned about the impacts of the virus. There were moments where we didn’t even know if dispensaries would be open, particularly in states that just legalized. You went from something being completely illegal to an essential business in 12 months. As a team, we were just trying to hold on to our hats and focus on product and partnerships.
Fortunately, with a brand like ours and the price point that we’re operating at, we just needed to consistently be on the shelves and available, and to be present with the bud tenders. So, we focused on that and shoring up our supply chain and just trying to wait it out. COVID forced a lot of cannabis companies to make a lot of decisions quickly and I think in some ways, because we have not been in the market for 24 months under one paradigm, we were pretty quick to be able to adjust and keep the team super lean to fit the emerging and rapidly changing environment. We learned a lot. We focused on partnerships and we leaned into the model that we set out to build which is being asset-light and focusing on the sell-through.
Green: I understand you have a 2% giveback program. Tell me about that.
Goldstein: The 2% giveback program was something that we wanted to put on the bag from day one. It’s on every bag that we made and put out into the market. We’ve seen a lot of cannabis companies come in and invest tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure. Then, month 24 they realize “oh, crap, I gotta figure out what I’m going to do to get back and actually tap into the issues that are most important to cannabis consumers.” These are issues like social equity, equitable development of the industry, and ensuring that cannabis companies and its owners are active, responsible members of society.
What we’re going to focus on with our giveback program is working with our supply chain partners. We highlight the local communities, because when you look at the landscape in California, two thirds of its municipalities still don’t allow cannabis operations. We’re in a heart and minds battle still, even here in California, just proving that the operators here are not criminals and that they’re not going to bring negativity to local communities.
As we scale in California and scale to other states, the giveback program for us is a platform and a medium to work with our supply chain partners to make sure that we’re giving back and investing every step of the way. As founders and operators, it’s how we show that we are being mindful of the importance of equitable development of the industry. Ultimately, prosperity is going to come if everyone is getting a piece of the pie.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Goldstein: I’m a student of history (I was a history major) and I was very fortunate to be part of a big evolution of technology development starting in 2011 working at Google and other tech companies. In some ways, this is the second generational industry that I’ve been a part of, and I have a lot of regrets about how the first one developed – not that I necessarily was the chief decision maker. The idea that large tech companies would always act responsibly (i.e. “Don’t be evil”) didn’t really pan out. I think it was an ignorant thought process as a person in my young 20s.
What I’m most interested in learning is: Can the cannabis industry develop consciously? Can you keep the greed and the things that bring industries down at bay? How can I, as an operator, be the best facilitator of that future? I’m always thinking how I can continue to bring in the people around us and around me as the CEO of Union Electric to ensure that we’re always focused on that.
Green: Great, that concludes the interview. Thank you, Max.
Goldstein: Thanks Aaron.
From Union Electric: Union Electric Cannabis will be offering their first Regulation CF crowdfund raise in an effort to give everyday consumers a stake in one of California’s fast growing cannabis brands. Due to the ever-evolving legal status of cannabis in the US, there have been very few opportunities for individuals to invest early on in American cannabis brands. This decision to give everyday cannabis smokers access to investing in their favorite cannabis brand (for as little as $100) is a natural manifestation of Union Electric’s mission: Collective power and championing accessibility for the plant. You can learn more about their raise by visiting https://republic.co/union-electric
Bespoke Financial was the first licensed FinTech lender focused on the legal cannabis industry. Founded in June of 2018, Bespoke offers four types of lending products: Invoice financing, inventory financing, purchase money financing and a general line of credit. With just over two years of originating loans to clients, they have benefitted from being a first mover in the cannabis lending space.
George Mancheril is the founder and CEO of Bespoke Financial. He has over fourteen years of experience in finance, with a special focus on asset-based lending, off balance sheet financing of commercial assets and structured credit. Following a stint with Goldman Sachs, he worked at Guggenheim Partners Investment Management’s Structured Credit Group in Los Angeles where he worked on structuring esoteric asset financing for a variety of commercial assets including airplanes, container leases and receivables.
Since 2018, Mancheril and his team at Bespoke Financial have deployed over $120 million in principal advances without any defaults and across eleven states. We sat down with Mancheril and asked him about the history of his business, how it’s been received so far and how the past few years of financial activity in the cannabis sector might shape the future.
Cannabis Industry Journal: What is Bespoke Financial in a nutshell?
George Mancheril: Bespoke Financial is the first licensed FinTech lender focused on the legal cannabis industry. Bespoke offers legal cannabis businesses revolving lines of credit that address the top problem in the industry – lack of access to non-dilutive, scalable financing to capitalize on growth opportunities and improve profitability. Due to the federal illegality of cannabis, traditional banking institutions cannot work with our clients even though these operators are working within the legal regulatory framework of their state. Bespoke solves this problem for businesses across the cannabis supply chain along with ancillary companies affected by the lack of access to traditional capital markets.
CIJ: How does your company help cannabis businesses?
Mancheril: Bespoke Financial offers 4 lending products – all are structured as a revolving line of credit but each allows our clients to access capital in a unique way based on their specific needs. Our Invoice Financing product, allows businesses to borrow capital against their Accounts Receivables in order to manage general business expenses, particularly if the borrower’s business growth is slowed due to a long cashflow conversion cycle. Inventory Financing and Purchase Money Financing allow our clients to finance payments to their vendors, which helps our clients achieve economies of scale by increasing their purchasing power. Lastly our general Line of Credit allows for the most flexibility for our clients to utilize our financing by either financing payments made directly to vendors or drawing funds into the client’s bank account to manage business expenses.
CIJ: I know the company is only a few years old, but can you tell me about your company’s success so far?
Mancheril: [Clarification, Bespoke was founded in June 2018 so we’ve been around for 3 years but we now have over 2 years of originating loans to clients.] Bespoke Financial has benefitted by being a first mover in the cannabis lending space as the first licensed lender specifically addressing the financing needs of cannabis operators, starting in early 2019. Over the past 2 years we have developed and refined our proprietary underwriting model to identify over 50 active clients spanning the entire cannabis supply chain. Since inception, Bespoke has deployed over $120 million in principal advances without any defaults to date and expanded our geographic footprint across 11 states. Our growth and success highlights our company’s expertise in structuring financing solutions which address the unique capital needs of cannabis companies.
CIJ: Can you discuss how the recent M&A activity, current and recent market trends, as well as the pandemic has affected your company’s growth?
Mancheril: The cannabis industry overcame a variety of challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, ending the year with record sales in both new and existing markets. The support from state and local governments, evidenced by the industry’s essential business designation and the easing of regulations, coupled with increasing consumer adoption of cannabis combined to increase the industry’s demand for capital throughout the pandemic. Bespoke was well positioned to partner with cannabis companies across the supply chain and was proud to help our clients thrive during this pivotal period.
Coming into 2021, the cannabis industry and investors shared a very positive outlook for the future based on the previous year’s experience and expectations of material easing of federal regulation. While M&A activity in the industry has increased over the past 6 months, the overall consensus has been that both the frequency of exit opportunities and the corresponding valuations will continue to increase as federal decriminalization opens new sources of capital and materially changes investors’ valuation assumptions. In general, we’ve seen cannabis companies focused on both capitalizing on the increasing opportunity presented by the industry’s organic growth and maximizing the benefits of future regulation changes by utilizing the resources and capital currently available to increase revenue, expand into new markets, and work towards profitability. All of these factors have further compounded the industry’s demand for financing and we expect to see continued growth in our lending activity in line with the industry’s growth.
CIJ: Who has been your most successful client?
Mancheril: We have a handful of cases studies and client success stories here on our website. One of the most exciting growth stories we have seen has been our client DreamFields whose in-house brand, Jeeter, is now the #1 pre-roll brand in the state of California. Prior to working with Bespoke, the brand was not ranked in the top 25 but was able to grow sales over 1,000% within the first year of working with us and achieve the #1 spot in their product category.
If you are interested in adding a new delivery option for your cannabis dispensary, choosing a third-party service is a great move. Generally speaking, the most significant selling points of third-party delivery services are overhead cost and convenience.
Not only will third-party delivery services run your entire courier operation under a single platform, but they will also streamline your sales process with the latest technology. In addition, working with a third-party vendor will help you avoid financial risk with workers’ compensation and auto insurance expenses.
Please consider the following points to build a successful partnership with a third-party cannabis delivery service.
Research Your Local Market Regulations
Before you can outsource a delivery option for your cannabis dispensary, you need to research if it’s legal to do so in your given market. Whether medical or adult-use, each state has unique regulations for delivery services. In addition, individual counties and municipalities within these states also have their own rules concerning cannabis delivery on a more granular level.
As an illustration, Denver, CO, has had an adult-use cannabis market since 2013, but the city just passed legislation approving delivery services. So, starting in late summer 2021, third-party vendors will be the only businesses allowed to deliver cannabis in Denver legally. As can be seen, just because cannabis is legal in a particular state doesn’t mean delivery is always an option.
How Do I Vet a Potential Delivery Partner?
You must be discerning when starting a partnership with a third-party cannabis delivery service. As these delivery companies will be representing your brand in the field, you want to make the best choice possible. Luckily, there are some specific parameters you can follow in vetting a potential delivery partner.
License: Perhaps the most critical part of vetting a delivery partner is ensuring they have the appropriate license. Especially in hotbeds like California, countless unlicensed cannabis businesses are in operation, including delivery services. Therefore, asking to see their paperwork should be the very first step in vetting.
App & User Experience (UX): Taking a good look at the User Experience (UX) provided by a third-party vendor’s app or website is a great way to vet them. In the end, delivery services are all about convenience. If their ordering software is robust and offers flexibility and great reporting, they will likely provide you the springboard to retain your repeat buyers.
OSHA Certification: Another critical factor to consider when vetting a delivery partner is OSHA training. Those companies who have taken steps to train their employees on safety protocol appropriately will likely make good partners.
How Does Online Ordering Work with My System?
Payment processes for cannabis dispensaries are incredibly complex. Moreover, since cannabis is still federally illegal, major credit cards and banks do not accept charges from dispensaries. Because of such complexities, the prospect of accommodating deliveries might prove to be a challenge.
Enter Scarlet Express. Third-party cannabis companies like Scarlet Express can integrate with your established system to seamlessly add delivery payments. They even offer customizable software that integrates with your menu provider and POS system while also importing essential brand elements like logos and colors.
If you are a small cannabis dispensary that has never developed online ordering, certain third-party vendors can also help you build out an eCommerce page on your website.
What About Compliance & Seed-to-Sale Tracking?
Compliance is one of the essential elements of running a successful cannabis business. However, compliance regulations can get tough to follow when you begin dealing with third-party delivery companies, namely because cannabis products change hands several times before they are finally sold to the consumer.
The state has thoroughly vetted any third-party delivery service that has received a license. Therefore, not only are they up-to-speed on compliance protocol for your given market, but they are also trained on the appropriate seed-to-sale software. With these controls in place, you can trust they assume legal responsibility for cannabis products after leaving the dispensary.
To operate compliantly, third-party delivery services time-stamp their orders, which can then be tracked through GPS in the delivery car. Finally, all cannabis products are stored within a secure lock box that is only opened at the time of delivery.
Adding a delivery option for your cannabis dispensary is a great way to entrench yourself with your clients. Working with a third-party delivery service is a painless way to expand your business.
When considering a partnership with a cannabis delivery service, be sure to thoroughly vet them and make sure they share your goals and vision. In doing so, you will ensure an invaluable partnership that will continue long into the future.
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