The bar-like establishments add a new dimension of potential revenue — and risk — to an industry that is expected to add almost $100 billion to the U.S. economy this year. This new and emerging segment within cannabis isn’t happening in every legal state, but more are starting to enact regulations to provide for some type of on-site consumption.
These new ventures need insurance policies tailored to address the risks of serving cannabis products, which could be looked at similarly to liquor liability for bars and restaurants.
Whether it’s alcohol or cannabis, these products impair people’s judgment, meaning everyone reacts differently to them. But how do you know when to cut someone off?
Cannabis lounges could be held liable & run risk of being sued for overserving
If a cannabis lounge faced a lawsuit alleging that it overserved a patron, leading to a third-party bodily injury, the business’ Commercial General Liability (CGL) Insurance and Products Liability Insurance could potentially cover costs such as legal defense, medical expenses and settlement amounts. Until such a case occurs, it is not yet known how exactly these lawsuits would be covered by insurance.
Because of the short history of cannabis lounges in the U.S., something like this is largely untested, making it hard to speak to exactly how a scenario would play out. Many of the existing cannabis insurance policies are highly exclusionary, meaning it could exclude a loss that is deemed to have arisen out of the use of cannabis.
Recent liquor liability lawsuits have shown the potential for a significant loss is clear. In early April 2022, a $20 million lawsuit was filed against a nightclub in Houston, Texas, alleging it overserved customers and allowed underage drinking, contributing to a drunk driving crash that killed a teenager.
In December 2021, a jury in Texas awarded the family of two drunk driving victims over $301 billion after a lawsuit alleged the driver was overserved at a bar before the accident; though largely symbolic, the settlement marked the largest personal injury award in U.S. history.
With these cannabis lounge establishments more or less encouraging intoxication of patrons on their premises, it’s very similar to a liquor liability type situation. If someone overindulges at a lounge, leaves and causes a crash resulting in injury or death, that could come back to the establishment.
While it remains to be seen how cannabis overserving lawsuits could play out in American courts, it’s worth noting Canada forbids on-site consumption of cannabis products and any loss or damage will not be covered by their insurance policies – despite it being legal country-wide.
Lawsuits possible over product issues, budtender advice
Even cannabis operations that do not allow on-site consumption can face liability related to the products they sell, making Products Liability Insurance and Product Recall Insurance necessary for growers and retailers. They should also consider Employment Practices Liability (EPL) Insurance to cover staffing-related allegations such as discrimination and ask their insurance broker whether budtender liability is included in their CGL Insurance policy.
Budtenders, or individuals who work at cannabis retailers, are not allowed to offer medical advice to consumers. They must walk a fine line between giving advice versus general information on products. Although we are not aware of lawsuits that have been filed over a budtender’s advice, it would ultimately be up to the courts and lawyers as to how those proceedings would play out.
Budtender liability is not very different from professional liability insurance, and it’s more like an incidental coverage based off the budtender’s informal advice. There are, indeed, insurance carrier partners today that offer that service.
CGL Insurance can also cover in-store slip-and-falls and other third-party injuries and property damage. Because most cannabis retail stores are fairly small, these incidents have been rare, but GCL cannot be overlooked. Businesses must be prepared for anything to happen – and need to know that no risk is too small.
Theft, vandalism among top threats to cannabis businesses
Whether or not a cannabis business includes a lounge for cannabis use, any business in this industry may be more vulnerable to certain risks, including theft and vandalism.
In the U.S., where many cannabis companies operate on a cash-only basis because of banking difficulties tied to recreational products being federally illegal, a recent surge in cannabis shop robberies has led to calls for a new banking bill. Some of these incidents have even turned deadly, including an April 30 dispensary robbery in Los Angeles, California, during which one man was reportedly shot and killed.
Large amounts of cash are on-hand daily at these premises, and workers might have to make multiple bank runs throughout the day, leaving a heightened exposure and risk for robberies.
From robberies and vandalism to fires and flooding, Commercial Property Insurance is a key protection for cannabis retailers. Equipment Breakdown Insurance may also be needed, particularly when the stores contain expensive refrigeration equipment. The potential loss is large in this industry, especially at growing facilities, and there’s a lot at stake with such high-value equipment.
Security systems, employee training can help reduce risks
Many insurance carriers require business owners to install alarm systems, video monitoring equipment or safes to help reduce potential property losses, and employees should be trained to use the alarm systems consistently. Policyholders and business owners should also know there is a lot they can do to curb some of the risks, such as businesses doing background checks on every hire and taking steps to ensure they are hiring individuals they can trust.
Installing bars on glass windows and doors is another loss prevention measure that is strongly encouraged because it adds an additional layer of security to get through – it won’t be an easy or quick process to break-in and will trigger the alarm system.
The importance of working with an insurance broker
Working with an insurance broker who is specialized in the cannabis industry can help business owners better explore available coverage options. With cannabis or any type of risk, you should always work with someone who has knowledge and expertise in that area. When you work with someone who knows the ins-and-outs of the regulations, you can have more peace of mind.
Understanding your policy in its entirety is also essential, as these policies have any number of different limitations and exclusionary forms that could preclude you from collecting if you had not understood and followed the language of the policy.
In a transportation situation, for example, you might have a risk warranty that always requires two drivers in that vehicle, or GPS monitoring on the vehicle. In the event of a claim, if the investigation determines the business did not have those items present at the time of loss, that claim will not be covered.
In a rapidly growing and changing industry, business owners should not underestimate the value of working with a team of insurance experts who keep a close pulse on the quickly evolving industry. Brokers are aware of the different legal environments in each state or even each city or county. Cities and counties can add different levels of compliance matters, so as a buyer, you can be confident that you have the most recent information and are in compliance with state law and any insurance requirements that may be present. Being able to explain the differences between the markets and the coverage options is beneficial to any business owner in this ever-changing industry.
Despite the popularity of cannabidiol (CBD) infused edibles among consumers there are storm clouds on the horizon for this market. The potential threat stems from continuing uncertainty about the regulatory status of CBD in the United States (US) and the European Union (EU). Recent statements by government agencies in both areas are reminders that regulators could make decisions or take actions that would suddenly end the viability of this market. Any company that sells, or is planning to sell, CBD infused edibles such as bakery items, candy and beverages needs to understand what the regulators are thinking now and what might happen in the future.
in the US, the 2018 Farm Bill created a category of products called hemp that are derived from the Cannabis sativaplant and contain less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This law also explicitly confirmed the authority of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate the safety of hemp-derived infused edibles. This means CBD needs to navigate the New Dietary Ingredient pathway for dietary supplements, and either the food additive petition process or the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) pathway for foods before it can be used as an ingredient in a food. All three of these processes require that someone (an individual, a company or a group) acting as a petitioner or notifier must submit safety data to the agency or arrange for a safety evaluation by independent experts.
In the EU, CBD is regulated as a Novel Food in a process that is triggered by a submission to the European Commission. The submission must include safety data that is evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In England and Scotland, CBD products are also novel foods and are evaluated using a process like that in the EU. As in the US, it is the responsibility of an applicant to provide the safety data.
The standard used by the FDA to judge the safety of new food substances in all three pathways is that there should be a “reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that the substance is not harmful under the conditions of its intended use.” The standard used by EFSA for novel foods is, “the food does not, on the basis of the scientific evidence available, pose a safety risk to human health.”
It is important to realize that both in the US and the EU the safety standard for evaluating new food substances only considers the safety of that substance. The laws or regulations that define agency authority do not allow for consideration of any potential benefits. Approval (or rejection) must be based solely on the safety of the substance. Further, safety is evaluated in the context of the intended use of the substance, the planned level of use and the resulting consumer exposure to that substance.
What do we know about FDA’s and EFSA’s current thinking about CBD safety?
Unfortunately, both the FDA and EFSA have made it abundantly clear that they believe the available scientific data does not meet the required safety standards. FDA has issued multiple warning letters to companies that sell CBD products and has rejected two NDI notifications for CBD. Although these actions were primarily based on non-safety issues (illegal health claims and the drug exclusion provision in the FD&C Act, respectively), in each case the FDA also raised safety concerns. This was done by saying that the agency is not aware of any data that would support a GRAS determination or that the products raise “concerns about the adequacy of the safety evidence.” This doubt echoes statements from the agency in public meetings and advisories. These doubts were expressed as recently as June 2022 during a meeting of the FDA Science Advisory Board.
Similarly, EFSA has stated that they feel that there are critical gaps in the existing CBD safety data. In April 2022, they published a statement with a detailed analysis of the relevant scientific literature and explicitly identified critical data gaps. EFSA said that these data gaps prevented them from evaluating CBD as a novel food.
What do the regulators see as data gaps?
Although the details of each of the data gaps are technically complex, for both the FDA and EFSA they fall into few broad categories.
The first is that the agencies feel that they need better information on how CBD behaves in the human body. This is described as understanding the absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion (ADMA) of CBD. The agencies also would like to see data on whether repeated use of CBD might cause damage to specific organs that does not occur from single exposures.
The second need is for more data related to the negative effects that have been observed in some previous work. This includes effects on the liver and reproductive system. In particular, the agencies would like to know whether it is possible to identify a level of exposure that is low enough to not cause any negative effects. This is termed the No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL). In an ingredient safety assessment, the NOAEL is used to establish a safe intake level, called the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI). Comparing the ADI to the expected exposure for the intended use allows the regulators to assess overall safety for a substance. If the expected exposure is below the ADI, the substance is considered safe. Both agencies feel that the existing data do not allow them to identify a NOAEL for CBD.
The third data need relates to the composition of the CBD products used in safety studies. Food safety determinations are based on the total composition of an ingredient that is produced using a fully defined process. Even if the potential ingredient is 95% or 99% pure, a safety evaluation needs to know what is in that other 5% or 1%, and that this is the same from batch to batch. For example, the presence or absence of residual processing chemicals (such as extraction solvents) and the nature and concentration of substances such as other cannabinoids and terpenes will differ between manufacturers and processes. These differences could affect the overall safety profile for each CBD product. Therefore, it is considered important that studies supporting a safety determination for a new substance be carried out with the actual article of commerce.
Unfortunately, many different CBD preparations have been used in past studies, and in most cases these preparations were poorly characterized. This makes it difficult or impossible to combine the safety data obtained using one product with data obtained with a different product. For example, data obtained using CBD isolates from two different sources cannot be combined unless it can be shown that they were made using the same process and have the same overall composition.
What does this mean for the future?
Neither the FDA nor EFSA is likely to take any positive action on CBD until they receive safety data that fill the gaps that they have identified.
Given these data problems, it is likely that there will be little or no movement on regulatory approvals for CBD in edibles (or dietary supplements in the US) for at least several years. In the US, these products will remain in legal limbo, with state regulations playing the leading role in determining what is allowed on the market. Products with health claims will continue to be particularly vulnerable to FDA action. The situation in the EU will be at least as confusing because, in the absence of action from EFSA, the regulatory and market status of CBD edibles will be determined by each member country independently.
In view of this uncertainty and business confusion, that are three ways that companies making CBD and CBD edibles can respond. First, in the short term, they can develop and implement manufacturing processes that ensure that their products are consistent from batch to batch and that they have the intended dose of CBD per serving or per product unit. This includes working with the analytical community and organizations such as AOAC and ASTM to ensure that there are validated testing methods available for the CBD and for the final edible products.
In the medium term, business risk management plans for companies that make CBD and CBD infused edibles should consider the possibility that new scientific data will push food safety authorities to actively conclude the CBD does not meet the current regulatory safety standards. In that case, the regulators might start to act against all CBD-containing products.
Businesses should also be aware that the agencies could make a positive safety determination but that they would use the available data to establish a low maximum allowed dose per serving or set very low limits on the presence of specific contaminants such as other cannabinoids.
In the longer term, the CBD industry as a whole might consider advocating for legislative changes. The best statutory fix is likely to be one that that regulates all cannabis-derived products in a system or agency that is separate from the food safety system. This approach is being used in Canada under the Cannabis Act. It is also similar to the way that alcoholic beverages are regulated in the US. This approach, if appropriately designed, could avoid the need for safety determinations but might also limit market access. While this approach could bring clarity and certainty to the market, it is important to remember that it will take time and effort to create a functionally system under this scenario.
There are many market reports that forecast on-going high rates of growth for the CBD market. However, the regulatory and scientific developments that are likely to occur of the next couple of years will determine whether those projections can become reality.
Companies making these products need to monitor changes and prepare to respond to either positive or negative events.
These companies should also remember that edible products are mostly made from food ingredients using standard food product processes. It is critical that these products be made under a system that prevents food-borne hazards.
According to a press release published last week, SC Labs is in the midst of a multi-state expansion under new leadership. The company hired Jeff Journey as their new CEO, coming from a VP position at Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Last year, in what seemed like an initial move to establish the lab on a coast-to-coast level, SC Labs developed a hemp testing panel that covers a number of contaminants on a national regulatory level. The hemp testing panel they developed purportedly meets testing standards in states that require contaminant levels below a certain action limit.
In the press release that was published last week, they hinted at another announcement coming soon: a new partnership with Michigan-based Can-Lab. This, coupled with hints at further expansion and their current presence in California, Colorado and Oregon, means Journey will have his hands full and his sights set on nationwide cannabis testing.
“We’re looking forward to partnering with cannabis and hemp brands at every stage of the supply chain to share our innovative and forward-thinking scientific expertise so they can deliver safe products to the marketplace,” says Journey. “As cannabis legalization expands across the country, the testing industry is rapidly shifting and scaling to meet both market and regulatory demands.”
The leadership team will still have a few familiar faces, such as Jeff Gray as chief innovation officer and Josh Wurzer as chief operating officer. “The most important assets we can offer as a multi-state operator are scientific expertise, financial stability, and unquestionable integrity, the principles on which SC Labs has long stood for and will continue to provide to our valued customers,” says Journey.
Having a well-built grow room with adequate lighting, the ability to properly control the environment, proper nutrient feedings, a good pest management plan, well trained employees and an experienced cultivation manager are very important to the overall output of cannabis plants. However, even if you have all those measures in place, there’s no guarantee of success. One factor that is often overlooked is how many harvests you can get per year, as clearly the more harvests you can get in a given time period, the more likely your chances of success are in this competitive industry. This is why having a good cultivation plan in place, with proper foresight and planning, is so essential to success.
Increasing yield or production output in a cannabis cultivation facility can often be as simple as having the right cultivation plan in place to ensure that you are harvesting the maximum number of times per year. All it requires is a well thought out plan, and best of all, that does not cost any money if you have someone with enough cultivation experience assisting you and will earn back more than the cost of paying a consultant to get such a plan in place.
In this article I will explain why changing nutrients, grow media or even a cultivation manager may not necessarily increase yield, quality or your chance of success. What you should be focusing on is your cultivation plan and the scheduling of your cultivation cycles.
Why changing nutrient companies may not necessarily increase your yield
For the most part, nutrient companies use the same ingredients in their product lines and often buy them from the same source, but they combine them in different forms and ratios to create their “unique” product. You can go to a grow store, pick five different nutrient products, read the labels and compare the different nutrients in each one. You will find for the most part that they are very similar. Generally speaking, you could pick any one of those five nutrient companies and have great results. Mixing nutrients into a nutrient tank needs to be done precisely and if your employees are not doing it properly this can lead to plant health issues. In larger cultivation facilities, often nutrient dosers are used to inject fertilizer into the irrigation lines without having to mix nutrients. However, if the dosers are not set to the proper ratios, this can also lead to plant health issues.
There are a few companies that I really like that have a different approach to plant nutrition, which saves time and can prevent human error associated with mixing and applying liquid nutrients. Soilscape solutions, Organics Alive and Beanstock Agriculture all have nutrient lines that are intended to be used with soil or soilless media that can be amended into the soil which provide a slow steady release of nutrients that the plants can uptake as needed. This avoids the risk of human error in repeatedly applying liquid nutrients to the plants.
Why changing grow medium and nutrients will not necessarily improve your yield but may increase yourquality
Whether it is rock wool, coco fiber, a soilless mix or living soil, everything has a limit. Giving your plants the proper amount of water and the frequency at which you water, along with having sufficient room for the roots to grow are key factors to ensuring plant health. If your plants aren’t getting watered properly, no matter what media you are growing in, you will be having problems. Changing things like grow media won’t result in instant success, as there will always be a learning curve when making changes to your cultivation. If you cannot adapt quickly enough, you can quickly create major problems.
You would be better off to master the grow media you are currently working; you will have more chance of success making slight alterations to your current media than you will if you switch your grow media altogether. There are so many different nutrient lines, soil companies, coco coir companies and the truth is any of them can lead to success.
Changing grow media and nutrients do play a large role in quality though. With cannabis being legalized in many states, the overall quality of cultivation inputs have increased, especially nutrients. However, in general, with some exceptions, the quality of cannabis has not necessarily increased along with the increase in quality of nutrients. One exception: I would argue that switching from salt nutrients and rock wool, to organic living soil will result in an improvement to the flavor, quality and terpenes of the cannabis.
A lot of people use rock wool with salts because it’s easier to scale up than if you are growing in soil, but some quality is also sacrificed. Soil is heavy and messy and most people throw their soil away which takes a lot of money and labor to do. Reusing your soil is one of the best ways to save time, money and increase quality. I had a friend that grew the same variety, same lights, same ventilation but grew hydroponically with salt-based nutrients and he would always say the cannabis I grew, organically, tasted better. The same was true when we grew the same variety outdoors. He used salt-based fertilizer, I used amended soil with water. There wasn’t really a comparison in flavor and the yield was not compromised either! This was his opinion not mine.
I think the vast majority of consumers have not seen the type of quality that someone in Northern California who has been smoking and growing for 20 plus years has seen. Quality is relative to what you have been able to acquire. Most people especially nowadays will never see the quality that used to be common when we didn’t treat the sacred herb like a commodity. When you do it for the love of the plant it shows. Remember, quality is relative to your experience and if salty weed is all you know, you are probably missing out.
Why changing your Cultivation manager may not necessarily increase your yield
Every cultivation facility should have an experienced cultivation manager who is knowledgeable in the areas of nutrient requirements, pest management, environmental requirements, managing employees and overall facilities operations. If a grow room cannot sustain the proper environmental set points, blaming the problems and issues that arise on the cultivation manager is not fair. It is a common problem in the cannabis industry – the owners of a company are not seeing the results that they want and think that by replacing the cultivation manager it will solve all their problems. In reality, often the problem results from upper management or owners of the company not providing the cultivation manager the tools necessary to perform their job at the highest level. Another common problem is when owners fire the cultivation manager and replace them with lower-level employees to manage the facility. The problem with this is those employees do not have enough experience nor the attention to detail to successfully run a cultivation facility. The result is that yield and quality suffer tremendously.
You should be harvesting every 60-70 days
The reality is there is no one specific thing you can try or buy that will result in success. It is everything combined, the HVAC system, lights, genetics being grown, water quality, air quality, root zone temperature, ability to control environment, having a clean facility, disease free plants, knowledgeable cultivation manager etc. that are required to operate a successful cultivation.
But all of that is less important to yield than a good cultivation plan. Cultivation methods directly tie into the overall production of a facility. But, regardless of whether you’re growing in soil, hydroponics, using LED or HPS, have low or high plant counts, if you don’t have the ability to harvest a grow room, clean and replant within a very short amount of time (ideally one or two days) then you’re going to be losing out on profit.
If you’re cultivating strains that finish flowering in under 60 days you should be getting six harvests per year. If you are cultivating strains that finish flowering in 60 to 70 days you should be getting five harvests per year. To do this, you will need to have the appropriate amount of plants that are ready to be flowered to refill your grow room or greenhouse ready to flower. With a little bit of planning and foresight you will be able to do this, and you will be on your way to producing your highest yield potential.
If you are struggling to have enough plants that are ready to flower once you are done harvesting and cleaning your grow room, having trouble planning your cultivation schedule to maximize production, or struggling to maintain a mother and clone room to supply your own plants or planning for the appropriate amount of labor, contact Floresco Consulting and talk with one of our cultivation advisors to get you back on track. We can guide you to ensure you are harvesting, cleaning and replanting every 60 days. Contact us today to get your facility producing at its maximum potential.
Christopher Lacy and The TGC Group recently won a Tier 3 conditional license under New Jersey’s social equity licensing program. Their story is one of misfortune, persistence, family and the dreadful effects that cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs has had on impoverished BIPOC communities.
Chris’s father was a sharecropper in Mississippi before he moved to Illinois and started a family. Growing up in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, Chris was surrounded by gangs and crime. He started selling drugs when he was 12 and went to prison for cannabis before he was old enough to drink. When he got out, he saw firsthand the effects that incarceration has on a person, their family and their community.
When it was first announced, Illinois’s social equity program seemed revolutionary and one that other states soon followed, setting the stage for markets all over the country to establish social equity licensing programs. However, legal hurdles, red tape and intense litigation have bogged down the system, causing severe delays. Chris and Taneeshia are still waiting to hear back about approval of their license application, years later.
Good news came recently when they were notified that they were awarded a conditional license in New Jersey. With the help of his family, business partners and The Garden State, The TGC Group is moving forward with launching their business. We caught up with Chris, to check in on his business’s progress, hear his story and see if it might inspire others to take a similar path.
Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your story with cannabis
Christopher Lacy: I grew up on a dead-end block in a little town in Illinois on the far south side of Chicago called Robbins. It has a very high crime rate and a very impoverished community so as you could imagine we grew up pretty poor. I personally didn’t feel the effects of poverty until just before I turned 13. I guess that became more obvious as I started hanging out and seeing that most of my friends had more than 2 pairs of pants. I starting selling drugs when I was 12 years old. When I was about 16-17 years old, I had started trying to grow cannabis. Like any task, it takes time to develop the skills produce a good product. Cannabis definitely has it challenges when it comes to cultivating a product that could be considered good.
It’s not like there was an abundance of information out there specific to cannabis cultivation to aid in the task so besides the basic book knowledge of horticulture, you had to grind it out. It took me a couple years to really get it figured out. Once I did get it going, I started expanding. At first it was basements in the suburbs. We’d grab really nice houses and fill the basements with plants. When that wasn’t enough, we started doing warehouses. There was no real limit, outside of capital and the desire to not draw attention via odor or traffic from workers, if you could produce it, the demand was there. I did go to prison for a short stint when I was 20 years old for delivery of a controlled substance. 0.8 grams. After I got out of prison, I had a very successful illegal operation growing and selling cannabis. Life was pretty good for a few years. I wasn’t rich or anything like that but I was able to be around my family and provide the things that I was denied when I grew up. I don’t blame my parents for what I went through growing up. Because of my father’s age, I’m generation 1 out of the sharecropping era. My parents believed in one thing and that was learning. I tried to instill that into my kids as well. Being a father feels really good to me. Unfortunately, that dream was ended when I was arrested in one of our warehouses in Illinois. I did 3.5 years, locked down 21 hours a day for growing weed.
While serving my time I was able to really take a look at myself and develop a new me. I established some new core principles that I would hold close to my heart. One of them being not going back to jail for the sake of a dollar. I was not going back to prison. I had kids when I was young so I missed out on a big part of their childhoods. I had three daughters and two sons at the time that were of an age where having a stable home plays a huge role on how the child will turn out in the future compared to a typical American lifestyle. When I got out of jail, my kids came and lived with me during and after high school but some serious damage had already been inflicted. I worked a job as a truck driver and did the best that I could to support my family, but I never really gave up on cannabis in the back of my mind. My older brother used to always tell me that I didn’t learn what I knew about weed for nothing and that one day it would all make sense.
For the next few years, we just grinded it out as a family. It wasn’t the ideal situation but we made it work. And when we couldn’t make it work, we lived with it! I just was glad to be there doing Chemistry homework with the kids. That shows what happens when a father is at home with his family. We get college grads.
When the message came out that Illinois was going to do craft grow licenses, I got really excited. I figured this was my chance to do what I love and to make a living doing it. I had no idea how I was going to get to where I wanted to be but I figured if I could just put one foot in front of the other, sooner or later I would get there. I caught a break when my nephew, Edward Lacy, introduced me to someone who understood the application process. She introduced me to some of the most wonderful/helpful people in the world. People who literally wanted to help true social equity applicants like myself. With the help of these new friends, we were able to drop our first application in Illinois. After we submitted that application, that is when the first story came out about us in Cannabis Industry Journal. This story helped me get into a conversation with Cresco labs and I was able to get into a situation that really changed how I saw cannabis production. I got to work around some of the smartest people in the industry for just under a year. I can’t thank Charlie, Barrington and the rest of the guys at Cresco enough for the opportunity. From there, I knew it had to be my destiny to grow cannabis for a living. I just kept beating up the phones and emails. Something was gone give.
CIJ: When we last spoke, you were trying to get a social equity license in Illinois, can you tell me about that? How did it go?
Chris: Ultimately, after 2 years of waiting, we were denied a license in Illinois. When I first got this news. it took me about a week to get out the bed. Lol. It took my wife to pull me through. I can only imagine the pain that all the other disappointed groups are feeling, Ultimately, we all couldn’t win in Illinois so it is what it is. But definitely a big shout out to all the successful applicants that did win. You all have a torch to carry that should ignite the black and brown communities.
From the political standpoint in Illinois, it’s just not conducive for social equity applicants to succeed due to all of the legal hurdles, courts, lawsuits, etc. Not to say that the Illinois process is truly different from other states going through similar processes, New Jersey and other states went through a similar process when social equity licenses were announced. The laws that helped me qualify are what came out of the legal battles in New Jersey. The issue is the resources available for legal fees, holding property, and the time required to see these things through; this all equals dollars and that’s just something lacking in most social equity groups.
CIJ: So, what made you look at New Jersey?
Chris: After I had submitted my application in Illinois, I began looking for financial support. I knew this would be my limiting factor because access to the type of capital required to get a grow facility off the ground is quite substantial. For the most part no one returned calls but I called one financial institution in particular, VenCanna Ventures, and for some miraculous reason, they returned my call. I’m not sure what made them; but we kept an open line of communication going all while we were dealing with Illinois. I knew these guys were good because they were behind an impressive project in Ohio that actually won LEED certification. When I look back on it, it felt like a one-year interview. Then one day this past winter David McGorman, the CEO, asked me to partner up with him in New Jersey. It was exactly what we both needed. He has the expertise in finance and I bring the operations side.
Once we had that team together, we put together a strategy to try and apply in New Jersey. We built the application and New Jersey actually had some very unique laws. If you had a cannabis conviction, you could qualify. Also, my oldest daughter, Janeace, whom I think my prison time hurt the most, actually lives in New Jersey with my granddaughter. So, she’s our resident in the state that helped us win the application and now a part owner, which led us to where we are now. I just couldn’t be more excited about all of this. It just feels right
We won a tier 3 conditional license and now we’re working on finding a good facility and building the operation.
CIJ: How did you set up your social equity license application for NJ?
Chris: It was a process very similar to Illinois except that the process was split into two phases. A conditional license and an annual license. Phase one was winning the conditional license. This is a more condensed application compared to what I was used to. After filling out the application, we had to submit a bunch of documents and proof of incarceration. That was for the conditional license. We still have to convert the conditional to the annual. The conditional basically tells us that we qualify and we can move forward with the rest of the business plan, find some property and spend some money on a lease. We’re still in that process for converting to annual, but we have won the conditional.
CIJ: What is your plan now that you’ve received conditional approval?
Chris: Right now, we’re working on property and securing a space for our facility. We are pretty close to nailing down a couple good locations. One of the locations that I am really excited about is in Somerset County. If we can lock down the property, submit everything to the state as far as our SOPs, security plans, cultivation plan, design, etc. we can try get approval to convert to the annual license and then we can start the build out. The good thing about the two-step process is that it really helps when it comes to spending money. Basically, if you don’t win a conditional, don’t go out spending tons of cash trying to hold onto property.
CIJ: You’ve come a long way from being put in prison for cannabis, to now being close to establishing a business in New Jersey. What made you decide to stick with the business of cannabis?
Chris: You know, I can’t really describe it very well. It was just one of those feelings, you know it felt good to me. It drew me in when I was a young kid, although, I actually didn’t try using cannabis until I was 21. That’s when I first used it and it really jelled with me. Also, I’ve always loved gardening.
My father was a sharecropper in Mississippi, when our family moved to the suburbs of Chicago the first thing he did was plant a huge garden. I grew up in the garden and around plants. He used to spend so much time in that garden and I loved being there with him. We grew everything out there year after year until he was too old to keep it up. I can’t imagine a more peaceful environment then out in the fields with the plants.
It was also therapeutic, not just the obvious therapeutic aspects of cannabis, but also how therapeutic gardening is. Working with cannabis plants can be a challenge. To try to achieve unique terpene and cannabinoid profiles has always been a lot of fun for me. I love the challenge. Pushing genetics as far as I can to really experience what different cultivars have to offer. It is just one of those things that has always stuck with me and I really enjoy it. Once it became legal, a world of opportunity opened up for me.
You know, people say if you do something you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. I was a truck driver after I got out of prison, and I really didn’t like it. I had to have neck surgery from the pounding my spine took. I had to work long hours, man I hated doing it. On the flip side, cannabis is something I love to do. And this is about me trying to control my own destiny, control my own life. I don’t have to struggle mentally and physically just to provide for my family. That’s what keeps me going – the drive to do what I love to do to provide for my family. I see cannabis cultivation as more of an art than I do anything else. The guy behind the growing at any facility in the country could share with people what he believes to be fire. I just love to provide an experience and there’s nothing more satisfying than a satisfied customer. Everything about this process seems to fit perfectly with my life.
CIJ: It’s a pretty inspiring story. How do you hope your story might inspire others to follow in your footsteps?
Chris: I don’t want someone to follow in my steps as far as breaking the law and going to prison. I had to learn this the hard way, you know I didn’t agree with the law, but it doesn’t matter. Whether you agree or disagree with the law, I don’t advise anyone to be a criminal.
On the other hand, I do believe that black and brown people have been impacted by the war on drugs the most. In whatever capacity they can, they should chase the opportunity in this country as the cannabis market evolves. It’s a new industry, it’s a way for people to build wealth, to maybe raise their families out of poverty. So in that sense, yes, I do hope people see my story and see that they could do this too. And if you still out there getting it the best way you know how, God Bless you! Lord knows it breaks my heart every time I see someone get arrested for cannabis. Hopefully that shit stops soon and we can get these mothers and fathers who are basically prisoners of a bogus war, reunited with their families and hopefully they get a chance to rebuild.
This a chance to build generational wealth if it’s done right. I would hope that anyone looking for an opportunity, look into the cannabis space. I know its evolving fast and the window might seem like its closing but that isn’t the case. This is more like the 2nd inning of a baseball game. There plenty of time to get going.
I don’t think I’m the best role model. I just keeping fighting. And my advice for black and brown folks that might have gone to prison or might be put in a similar situation is this: Its never over. It’s never too late, no matter what somebody does. It’s not the end of the road. It’s just a bump at that moment. Just keep fighting. One step at a time. I do hope that people reach out to me.
I would love to work with anyone as long as they on a positive path, especially convicted felons. God Bless the felons! That’s my number one priority on my list. The guys that have been to prison, the non-violent drug offenders. Our society has a way of shunning those people. Some of the smartest people I’ve met in my life were in prison. It doesn’t speak to the character of an individual because they went to jail. If the system is supposed to work then why is it so hard for a convicted felon to get another chance? Of course, a few people have traversed this path successfully but there are so many more.
CIJ: I know your business is called The TGC Group. Out of curiosity, what does that acronym stand for?
Chris: We’re called TGC New Jersey under our license there and we applied in Illinois under the name, The TGC Group. TGC stands for a lot of things. It has a lot of meanings. I came up with it when I was in prison. I called it The Gathering Company. It was an idea I had because I was reading The Wall Street Journal every day in prison. I wanted to gather people under one umbrella.
But also, my name is Chris, my wife’s name is Taneeshia, (whom I am forever grateful for helping me pull my life together) and we have a son we named Grant. So, the first letter of each of our names also make TGC. It also stands for The Good Choice, because it is a good choice. The Ganja Connoisseur is another good one. I just hope that it grows to be known as a quality brand of cannabis that one can count on for consistent high-quality cannabis. Consistency and quality are what we’re striving for relentlessly.
I hope people read this article and feel inspired. We have a responsibility to give back to the community. We have a responsibility to rebuild what’s been destroyed in our communities. I am just trying to do my part. I was not a nice guy growing up, you know I was a gangbanger. But now, I want to rebuild and give back to my community the best way I can in Chicago. Not just my community, I want to give back to New Jersey communities, because we’re in their house now. I want to give back to Mississippi communities, where my family comes from. I’m not in this to get rich, I am in this to build communities. God willing, we will
What do Aurora Cannabis, Tilray and Pfizer all have in common? They all produce and sell products used for medicinal purposes, they are top competitors in their field and they all have statements on their websites claiming that science is one of the most important things to their business. But unlike Pfizer, Aurora and Tilray do not have any positions in the executive suite for scientists or medical personnel. This led us to wonder, why does the structure of their corporate ladder (as well as so many other cannabis companies) not align with what they claim to be their values?
According to Aurora Cannabis, “Science is at the core of what we do”.1 Look up the definition of “core” and you will get “foundational, essential, central, and enduring.”2 Sounds important. Meanwhile, Tilray’s main page states: “For the therapeutic value and risks of cannabinoid-based medicines to be fully understood, Tilray believes it is critical to evolve current scientific understanding of the field.”3
You would assume that somebody in the executive suite would have a position and an educational background relating to the central and enduring part of a business, right? We looked at 10 of the biggest Canadian cannabis companies, their founders’ educational backgrounds and whether there were executive positions for science, R&D or medicine (Table 1). We also looked at the same data for the top 10 biggest pharmaceutical companies (Table 2). As expected, every pharmaceutical company had upper-level (C and/or P level) positions for scientists and/or medical personnel. However, only 2 of the 10 cannabis companies had this.
To figure out why this is, (as scientists) we did some research. It turns out, the consensus is scientists are bad at commercialization. Scientists are rarely successful as CEOs because they are (usually) not good at attracting customers and get confused by things like revenue models.4 As Akshat Rathi bluntly put it, “just because you are the smartest person in the building does not make you capable to run a company.” In fact, many CEOs of life science companies got to the top by pursuing business, finance, marketing or sales. In the 90s, some life science companies took a chance on scientists and hired them as CEOs, but when they hit financial turmoil, they quickly undid this.5
So maybe scientists aren’t always cut out to be the CEO of a company. But that still doesn’t explain why so few large cannabis companies have a chief scientific/medical officer, or even a president of R&D.
Maybe we are looking in the wrong place. Maybe their value of science can be demonstrated by their spending on research. Typically, a larger agricultural company will spend 9% or more on R&D, and a smaller company will spend 2-4%.6 Meanwhile, the major pharmaceutical companies we looked at spent between 12 and 25% of their revenue on R&D during their most recent fiscal year. Since a cannabis company falls somewhere in between we approximate they would spend around 9-12%.
However, Canopy Growth was the only company that fell into our prediction range, spending 10.5% of their revenue on R&D in 2021.7 Tied for a distant second place were Charlotte’s Web and Aurora Cannabis (a subsidiary of Tilray), spending 4.6%. At the very bottom were Tilray which only spent 0.16% on R&D and TerrAscend which spent 0.21% during their most recent fiscal year.8,9 With most of the cannabis companies, we saw a gradual decrease in R&D funding over time, which intensified with the Covid-19 pandemic.
So why the heck are these companies going on about how they value science? To give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they do think they value science, but they don’t know how to value it.
It’s hard for a company to take actions that show they value science if there are no voices for scientists at the executive level. After all, how can you make decisions based on science if nobody in the room understands it? Sure, we saw the argument that people who make it to the top can “learn enough science to ascend to the executive suite without much trouble”.5 But what is “enough science”? The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell?
This leads to our argument for putting scientists in the executive suites of cannabis companies and giving them a more powerful voice. Whereas scientists are not good at marketing, those in managerial roles tend to overly rely on intuition – even when the evidence is against them.10 For those relying on intuition, R&D is an easy target during times of crisis (like a global pandemic). Cutting costs in R&D yields a short-term immediate increase in profit and the negative impacts are often not felt until years later.11 However, cutting R&D investment is the opposite of what you should do during a time of crisis. Evidence suggests companies that maintain or even increase spending in marketing and R&D and focus on operational efficiency (such as process optimization) are the ones that will come out as the top competitors in the long run.12,13 Having a chief scientific officer or an executive for R&D with a scientific background can help sustain companies by promoting R&D during hard times and indicating what projects will be the most promising to help the company optimize their processes.
Having a scientist in the executive suite can also help keep everyone in check. “Senior execs live in a feedback loop of positive reinforcement making them unlikely to question their decisions,” according to Stefan Thomke and Gary Loveman.10 They claim the best way for those in managerial roles to avoid over relying on instinct and break out of that positive feedback loop is by “thinking like a scientist”. This involves not letting bias get in the way of truth, studying anomalies, being skeptical, developing strong hypotheses, producing hard evidence and probing cause and effect. To add to this, we think a major part of thinking like a scientist is by having at least one high up in the team. In our own company, giving equal value to scientific voices has resulted in all parties learning and thriving by making fact-based decisions.
Finally, scientists deliver! To be a scientist (with a PhD), one must master the field, find a gap in the knowledge, then fill that gap – all for little pay and no guarantee of a job at the end. This makes them dedicated workers whose main goal is to contribute something unique to their field, or in this case, their company.14 Having someone up top who is dedicated, passionate, innovative and trained to look for gaps in knowledge can be an invaluable voice in the executive suite. They are likely to point out potential money-saving solutions (i.e.: optimizing extraction conditions) that others up top may not have thought of on their own.
If you feel strongly that science is at the core of what you do, and you already know that R&D is crucial for the long-term survival of your company, you are already on the right track. In addition to this, consider giving a voice to scientists at the executive level in your company. The cannabis industry is still in its infancy. This means there is potential for R&D in more than just new product development. Basic stuff like extraction, modifying plants to be heartier against harsh conditions and pathogens, curing and safety testing processes have all barely been studied and optimized to reduce costs. These things won’t be solved by a Juris Doctor, an MBA or even an engineer, they will be solved by scientists, and it will take a scientist up top to ensure the whole company recognizes the importance of these projects.
Table 1: Top cannabis companies stats on founders and their educational backgrounds, presence of scientific executive positions and spending on research and development
Definition of Core. Merriam-Webster Dictionary https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/core?utm_campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld.
Tilray Brands WebPage. https://www.tilray.com/.
Rathi, A. Why scientists make bad entrepreneurs—and how to change that. Quartz (2015).
Mintz, C. Science vs. Business: Who Makes A Better CEO? Life Science Leader (2009).
Fuglie, K., King, J. & David Schimmelpfennig. Private Industry Investing Heavily, and Globally, in Research To Improve Agricultural Productivity. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (2012).
Thomke, S. & Loveman, G. Act Like a Scientist. Harvard Business Review (2022).
Knott, A. M. The Trillion-Dollar R&D Fix. Harvard Business Review (2012).
Gulati, R., Nohria, N. & Wohllgezogen, F. Roaring Out of Recession. Harvard Business Review (2020).
Soferman, R. Why You Shouldn’t Cut R&D Investments In Times Of Crisis And Recession. Forbes (2020).
Madisch, I. Why I Hire Scientists, and Why You Should, Too. Scientific American (2018).
Havn Life Sciences Inc. Announces Appointment of Gary Leong as Chief Science Officer. https://apnews.com/press-release/accesswire/science-business-life-sciences-inc-aphria-inc-319a516963144b308d146d97dee0dc69 (2020).
Bruce Linton. Elite Biographies https://elitebiographies.com/biography/bruce-linton/.
Aurum Labs, a cannabis testing laboratory based in Durango, Colorado, announced last week that they have become certified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) for all of the compliance testing required for hemp products. The press release says they are the first independent lab that is actually based in the state to receive the CDPHE certification for every compliance test.
Last year, Colorado rolled out hemp testing regulations that are some of the most comprehensive in the world. The required pesticide screening includes testing for more than 100 different types of pesticides. The new rules, along with the certification requirement, make it difficult for labs to enter the market, with only eleven total labs certified by the CDPHE for various hemp compliance panels and only five certified for every type of test, according to the department’s website.
Most of the companies on that list certified to conduct hemp compliance testing are familiar labs with large footprints, such as Eurofins, Kaycha Labs, Columbia Labs, SC Labs, InfiniteCAL and ACS Labs. Most of these labs are out of state and by the looks of it, only four independent, Colorado-based labs are certified so far: Aurum Labs, Gobi Analytical, Botanacor Labs and Minova Labs. Gobi and Minova, however, are not yet certified for pesticide testing, while Aurum appears to be certified for all compliance testing. Botanacor Labs, based in Denver, was certified back in June of 2021 to every compliance test except for pesticides.
“It’s difficult to compete with these large, private-equity-funded labs, but Aurum is passionate about serving the evolving hemp industry” Liz Mason, director of operations at Aurum Labs, said in a press release. “We are committed to staying on the scientific forefront to give the most comprehensive services to our clients.”
Then in February this year, the state’s health agency sent a third email. This one notified patients that they were recalling more than 650 products and ingredients. “As you know, the Department recently conducted a statewide review of all vaporized medical marijuana products containing added ingredients,” reads the email to patients. “After finishing this review, the Department has determined that certain vaporized medical marijuana products containing some added ingredients have not been approved for inhalation by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).”
The recall generated a lot of controversy for the state’s medical cannabis market, leaving patients, dispensaries, processors and other cannabis businesses with little guidance from the state’s health department. Cannabis companies in Pennsylvania, like Curaleaf, Jushi and Trulieve, formed a coalition and sued the state’s health department in February, alleging that regulators ordered the recall preemptively and did so without going through the proper channels, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
On June 2, the coalition of cannabis companies won and a judge stopped the recall. The very next day, the health department took issue with the judge’s decision and filed an appeal with the PA Supreme Court. For now though, as the appeal makes its way to Pennsylvania’s top court, the recall is lifted and dispensaries can restock their shelves with vape products.
Elevating Edibles: Defining the Next Cannabis Experience
Sam Rose, Director of Operations, Herve
Attendees will learn during this session:
Luxury edibles and form factor: Moving away from get high first and think about what you’re consuming second, a pivot from sugar filled, bad tasting edibles to delicious and refined ingredients. Non-juvenile form factors, healthier options, efficacy
Concentrates and infusion: Providing the consumer with the right high using the right ratios and concentrates. Bioavailability, highlighting the plant, absorption method (sublingual)
Giving the consumer what they NEED not what they WANT: We’re at a fragile point in time where people are either trying cannabis for the first time or experimenting with it again for the first time in a long time. We need to make sure these people have a good experience and not scare them away. High MG edibles and high % Flower is not the way to do this – the how high for cheap model is really toxic for the industry. We need to educate, we need to provide clean low dose edibles and more curated flower.
TechTalk: Millipore Sigma
Dr. Sunil P. Badal, Senior Scientist, Innovations/Advanced Analytical R&D, MilliporeSigma
Cannabis Beverages: The Rise of a New Market & a New Consumer Christiane Campbell, Partner, Duane Morris, LLP
Attendees will learn during this session:
The current landscape and regulatory red tape surrounding cannabis beverage brands
Selecting and adopting a cannabis beverage brand
Protecting a cannabis beverage brand
TechTalk: Berlin Packaging
Julie Saltzman, Director of Cannabis Business Development, Berlin Packaging
One Symbol to Rule Them All! Harmonization is Finally Here! Darwin Millard, Owner & Founder, TSOC LLC, ASTM Subcommittee Co-Chair
A picture is worth 1000 words, but with a hogbog of “universal” symbols, is something getting lost in translation? ASTM International’s new standard, ASTM D8441/8441M, Specification for an International Symbol for Identifying Consumer Products Containing Intoxicating Cannabinoids, serves to establish a truly harmonized international warning symbol. Learn about the significance and use of this all-important standard from one of the members of ASTM Committee D37 on Cannabis who helped developed it.
Leafreport released the findings from their expansive CBD testing study that revealed some pretty alarming results. According to their study, only 7% of CBD brands they sampled actually conduct legitimate contamination testing for pesticides, heavy metals and microbial contamination.
Leafreport is an Israeli company founded in 2019 that does product reviews, independent testing and provides educational resources for consumers. The company produces studies on CBD products in the market and reports their results on its website. Back in 2020, the watchdog company conducted independent lab testing on 22 different CBD-infused beverages and found a lot of inconsistencies with the actual amount of CBD found in the beverage and what the product’s label claimed.
In this latest study, finalized in late May of 2022, the consumer advocacy group found a lot of inconsistencies throughout the CBD market. For their study, they reviewed 4,384 products from 188 brands, with the goal of looking at overall transparency in the CBD products market. Judging by the results they share, the CBD market is unsurprisingly not very transparent.
Here are some highlights from this most recent study:
20% of the brands reviewed didn’t carry out any purity tests to check for the presence of microbes, pesticides, or heavy metals. In 2021, 25% of the brands Leafreport reviewed didn’t carry out any purity tests.
42% of brands test almost all of their products for potency (90%-100% accurate) and share their third-party lab results with consumers — the same as in 2021.
Only 12% of brands had all their products fall within acceptable potency variance limits.
88% of brands that tested their products for potency had at least one product test beyond the 10% variance for potency, in comparison to 84% in 2021.
28% of brands didn’t carry out any testing at all for pesticides (such as glyphosate), 26% didn’t test for the presence of any heavy metals (such as arsenic), and 24% didn’t test for microbes (like bacteria).
Two brands carried out no lab testing at all for either purity or potency, compared to 3 brands in 2021.
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