On May 15, BioTrackTHC was announced the conditional winner for Maine’s seed-to-sale tracking system government contract. The award is still pending final approval from the State Procurement Review Committee and the successful negotiation of the contract.
BioTrackTHC, a Helix TCS subsidiary, announced in a press release their conditional award earlier this month. The contract means that BioTrackTHC would partner with the state to provide software for tracking both medical and recreational cannabis products from the immature plant to the point of retail sales.
The contract could go for as long as six years, through 2025. If this contract receives final approval from the state internally, then this will become the ninth government contract for BioTrackTHC. Patrick Vo, CEO of BioTrackTHC, expects a quick deployment of the software once the contract is finalized. “We are excited to be working with the State of Maine and are grateful for their vote of confidence in our team’s ability to execute upon state-level tracking contracts and rapidly deploy a sound and secure technology solution,” says Vo.
Zachary L. Venegas, Executive Chairman and CEO of Helix TCS, Inc, says BioTrackTHC’s technology is leading the industry in shaping regulatory oversight for legal cannabis. “As states and countries begin to rollout or expand legal cannabis programs, our technology continues to lead as demonstrated by this Intent to Award and our multiple recent contract extensions with our partners,” says Venegas. “We look forward to playing a vital role in shaping the global cannabis industry and ensuring that it is able to operate efficiently and transparently.”
Within two days of announcing the opening of license applications for growing hemp, the Illinois Department of Agriculture received roughly 350 applications. According to the Lincoln Courier, that number has since grown to 575 applications in the past couple weeks. The Illinois Department of Agriculture has already issued 341 licenses for growing and 79 for processing, as of last Friday.
According to Jeff Cox, Chief of the Bureau of Medicinal Plants at the Illinois Department of Agriculture, a lot of this excitement comes from farmers wanting to branch out from the state’s traditional crops, such as corn and soybeans. “Corn and soybean prices have not been the best over the past few years, and so I think they see this as an opportunity to have a different source of income on their farm,” Cox told the Lincoln Courier.
Morgan Booth, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Agriculture told the Chicago Tribune that they were expecting this kind of enthusiasm among farmers. “We knew there was a lot of interest in it,” says Booth. “We were very pleasantly surprised.”
Back in late December of 2018, after the Farm Bill was signed into law, the Illinois Department of Agriculture was quick to jump on the hemp train. They announced their intentions to submit plans for a program to the federal Department of Agriculture, opened a 90-day public comment period, and finalized the rules in April. The state’s regulators hoped to expedite the process and have farmers growing hemp by June 1, which appears to be successful. Dozens of hemp farmers throughout the state are anticipating their first crops will be in the soil by the end of the month.
Sanitation is not just sweeping the floors and wiping down the table – sanitation has a wide-ranging function in a cannabis food manufacturing facility. For example, sanitation covers the employees (and unwanted pests), food-contact equipment (and non-food-contact equipment), trash disposal (including sewage), and more. Ultimately, sanitation systems maintain a clean environment to prevent foodborne illness from affecting human health. Fortunately, there are resources and tools to ease into establishing a robust sanitation program.
Overall, the main goal of sanitation is to produce safe food, to keep consumers healthy and safe from foodborne illness. With the cannabis industry growing and gaining legalization, cannabis reaches a larger, wider audience. This population includes consumers most vulnerable to foodborne illness such as people with immunocompromised systems, the elderly, the pregnant, or the young. These consumers, and all consumers, need and deserve safe cannabis products every experience.
1) General maintenance of the facilities: The buildings and fixtures of the food manufacturing facility cover a lot of ground – hiring a maintenance team will divide the responsibility, ensuring the entire facility can be maintained in a clean and sanitary condition. Furthermore, a team can build out a tool like a preventative maintenance program to restrict issues from ever becoming issues.
2) Control of the chemicals used for cleaning and sanitizing: Not all chemicals are equal – select the appropriate cleaning and sanitizing chemicals from reputable suppliers. Obtain the right knowledge and training on proper use, storage, and proper protective equipment (PPE). This ensures the safe and effective application of the chemicals in minimizing the risk of foodborne illness.
3) Pest control: Understand the environment within the facility and outside the facility. This will aid in identifying the most common or likely pests, in order to focus the pest control efforts. Keep in mind that internal pest management programs can be just as successful as hiring external pest control services.
4) Procedures for sanitation of both food-contact and non-food-contact surfaces: Developing sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs) provides guidance to employees on appropriate cleaning and sanitizing practices, to balance effective and efficient operations. A master sanitation schedule can control the frequency of indicated sanitation procedures.
5) Storage and handling of cleaned portable equipment and utensils: Cross contamination in storage can be minimized with tools such as controlled traffic flow, signage, training, color coding, and more.
6) Water supply, plumbing, and sewage disposal: Routine inspections of plumbing, floor drainage, and sewage systems prevent unintended water flow and damage.
7) Toilet facilities: Clearly defining standards for the toilet facilities and setting accountability to everyone who uses them will ensure that the toilet facilities are not a source of contamination for the food products.
8) Hand-washing facilities: Good manufacturing practices (GMPs) include proper hand washing and proper hand washing starts with suitable hand-washing facilities. For example, frequent checks on running water, hand soap, and single use towels ensure that all hands are clean and ready to produce safe food.
9) Trash disposal: While trash can be a source of cross contamination, trash can also attract and harbor pests. Scheduling regular trash disposal and controlling traffic flow of waste are two ways to minimize the risk of cross contamination from trash.
Even after meeting these requirements, sanitation programs can be more sophisticated. An example is to institute an environmental monitoring program to verify and validate that the sanitation program is effective. Another example is in identifying and measuring key performance indicators (KPIs) within the sanitation program that can improve not just the sanitation processes, but the operations as a whole. Principally, sanitation is cleanliness on the most basic level, but waste management can encompass sanitation and grow into a larger discussion on sustainability. All in all, sanitation programs must reshape and evolve alongside the company growth.
Sanitation is interwoven throughout the food manufacturing process; sanitation is not a single task to be carried out by a sole individual. As such, it is beneficial to incorporate sanitation practices into cannabis food manufacturing processes from the beginning. Protect your brand from product rework or recalls and, most importantly, protect your consumers from foodborne illness, by practicing proper sanitation.
There has been a move towards the legalization of cannabis for medical and/or recreational use across many countries and US states in recent years, leading to greater demand for accurate potency and safety testing. Despite this, there are currently no standardized regulations between states or countries for quality control including content, composition, adulterants, potency or levels of toxic residues. As such, in many cases where regulations are in place, testing is generally carried out at a small number of approved independent testing laboratories.
The need for self-regulation has led to the growth of portable gas chromatography (GC) being used in the field of cannabis testing.This lack of clarity makes it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions about what they are purchasing, an issue which could be damaging to the industry’s changing reputation. As it stands, producers of cannabis and cannabis-derived products can supply goods with potentially harmful contaminants such as fungi or pesticide residues, which are potentially threatening to human health. Most cannabis products sold legally in the US are required to be tested and labelled for THC, the chemical responsible for most of cannabis’s psychoactive effects. A US study found that as few as 20% of recreational cannabis products are accurately labelled with only 17% of products reviewed accurately labelled for THC content (i.e. within 10% of the labeled value). It also found 23% were under labelled, and 60% were over labelled.
If cannabis were to be categorized as a regulated pharmaceutical drug, it would be rigorously tested to comply with stringent rules and regulations regarding quality and safety of the product, as are all other drugs. However, as there is currently no centralized regulatory body that oversees this, the responsibility of quality assurance falls to the grower, manufacturer and sometimes the consumer.
The Need for Cannabis Analysis
The most common requirement when testing cannabis is positive identification and quantification of the total THC:CBD ratio. In a highly competitive marketplace, this information is important, as cannabis consumers tend to equate THC levels with price. In many instances, lower THC products are cheaper and higher THC concentrations make products more expensive. Without robust systems in place for sufficient testing, this information cannot be accurately determined, meaning the customer often cannot make an informed decision.
In addition to potency testing, one of the core issues facing the industry and by extension, the end consumer, is the prevalence of pesticides in cannabis products. In the Netherlands, the Ministry of Environment and Health reported that over 90% of cannabis plants tested had pesticides on them. While steps have been taken to tackle this, the lack of cohesion in testing standards combined with the onus on individual labs to carry out testing, has led to some issues within the industry.
Many individual retailers in the U.S. and internationally are self-testing for impurities such as pesticides, heavy metals and microbials. While there is a clear need for standard testing across all locations, the need for self-regulation at present has led to the growth of portable gas chromatography (GC) being used in the field of cannabis testing.
Using GC as an analytical tool
With the increased need for quality control and quality assurance in the largely unregulated cannabis industry, technology is now more accessible to smaller companies and to people with minimal laboratory experience. There are a range of cannabis testing packages available for smaller individual labs which offer more mobile testing with affordable packages. The lower entry price makes GC analysis affordable for more laboratories while still delivering reliable, high quality results.
Portable GC instruments can offer high quality potency testing, pesticide screening, terpene and flavor profiling, and residual solvents analysis. These instruments can give growers and processors an accurate result of cannabinoid percentages, a fundamental piece of information for growers and dispensaries. Systems can be configured for manual injection or a range of autosampler options can be added.
GC enables the rapid and accurate identification and quantification of the THC:CBD ratio. This is important for companies which are carrying out self-testing as it allows their customers to have assurances in the short term over the quality of their product, as well as reducing any potential risks to public health.
An example of this in practice is the use of GC by Dutch company Shamanics which carries out testing service for coffee shops in the Netherlands. The company conducts terpene analysis and potency testing to assure the quality of the products it supplies, with a portable GC, which offers the flexibility required without any established guidelines on testing in place.
When testing for potency using the GC, they look for total THC and CBD by converting the acidified versions of the cannabinoids into neutral forms within the heat of the GC injector. The process has flexibility which means that if they need to see both the acidified and neutral versions, they can do this by derivatizing the sample. The accuracy of this process is crucial to Shamanics and similar companies within the industry so that they can accurately judge the quality of a product, and relay this information to retailers and consumers.
The future of GC in standardized testing
While the growing availability of portable GC instruments and the increasing sophistication of individual labs means more companies are able to self-test products, there is still a significant hurdle to overcome in terms of standardising and regulating both the medical and recreational cannabis markets. Where regulation is brought in it should be consistent across states and countries and most importantly, it should be monitored and enforced. In the meantime, responsible producers are using the technology available to them to provide consumers with guarantees that their cannabis products are safe and of a high quality.
A steep spike in demand has created a race to the finish line in the hemp industry, but marketing a CBD product before FDA regulations are in place can be tricky. However, there is plenty you can do now to set your CBD company up for success.Let’s look at how CBD brands can get their marketing ball rolling in order to stay ahead of the curve.
Start With How You’re Different
Despite being a new market to many consumers, the hemp industry is well established and highly competitive. Leaders such as Charlotte’s Web and CV Sciences (AKA Plus CBD Oil) are publicly traded, but the market remains extremely fragmented with small mom-and-pop shops winning out in their respective locales. The number of competitors is intense and growing. In late 2018, Congress gave hemp its blessing by including it in the farm bill. As a result, “the market will continue to grow at a fast pace,” says Steve St. Clair, CEO of Enerhealth Botanicals. CBD is now officially mainstream. With thousands of competitors, it is of utmost importance that brands pull away from the pack.
Brand strategy is something that CBD companies should outline now. How is your product different? Why would a consumer pick your brand over another? These questions can be defined by talking to your current customers, observing holes in the marketplace and understanding the key advantages you have over other companies.
Consider how messaging varies for Colorado Hemp Honey compared to Epidiolex. The first leads with messaging centered around not just the quality of their honey, but why honey is a great source of fuel, especially for athletes (“Bee your best”). The latter speaks directly to families with children who suffer from seizures (“Seizures are shared. So is Relief”). While Colorado Hemp Honey might put an emphasis on attending extreme sporting events, Epidiolex would find greater benefits in focusing their efforts elsewhere.
That same brand strategy can be used when considering product extensions. According to Heath Thomson, director of business development at CFH, knowing how your company serves its customers can guide you toward product development. “There’s booming demand for CBD across consumer demographics, use cases and product types. While this presents immense opportunity, CBD is not a cure-all and not every product type that is in development or new to the market is appropriate for medicinal or dietary supplement use cases,” says Thomson. “For example, many CBD suppliers/manufacturers are chasing water soluble CBD, but do we really need CBD enhanced water?”
Nail Your Brand Online
Armed with a brand strategy, it’s time to build something consumer facing: your website. Mass market retailers are beginning to launch their CBD programs; however, they have dozens of brands to choose from when it comes to building stock. Brands with an established presence, clear purpose and consistent brand identity will have a leg up on fly-by-night companies.
In marketing, a brand’s website is considered its digital headquarters. Investing in a clean website with clear communication is a must. A strong website will establish trust among consumers (and retail partners) and further communicate how your brand is different from the rest.
Beyond branding, e-commerce functionality is an important revenue driver. A consumer may feel self-conscious purchasing CBD in store (there is still quite a bit of stigma surrounding the product), but clicking “check out” in the privacy of their own home is easy.“Earned media is where companies can separate from the pack and become category leaders.”
Own Your Email List
When it comes to driving revenue, there is no replacement for email. Some marketers personally feel their inbox is too full and so they cringe at the thought of adding to the constant stream of media we all face. The stats are undeniable though: the ROI of the typical email program is 73%.
When it comes to email, you (the marketer) set the guardrails. Unlike with paid advertising, your account won’t be shut down simply due to the nature of your product. Even with a modest 20% open rate, you’re reaching far more consumers than on social media (where brands only get 1% organic reach), and in a much more meaningful way.
Build Your PR Strategy
Two weeks of trying to run an advertising campaign for a hemp company will teach you one thing: when it comes to CBD, paid media is a minefield. To date, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, and Amazon still do not permit promotion of CBD products on their platforms. As a result, brands must lean more heavily on earned channels, such as PR.
“Earned media is where companies can separate from the pack and become category leaders. Press is more than just free advertising when it comes to hemp or cannabis. Consumers want to know that what they’re putting into their body is safe, and with so much legal grey area they’ll be even more wary than with other supplements,” says James Clark, co-founder of Room 214. “News coverage – especially in the right publication – is like a seal of approval for your product and reaches audiences currently blocked by advertising.”
Leaders in the CBD industry already play a strong game when it comes to PR, but there’s plenty of room for more.
Prepare for Constant Change
This point cannot be stressed enough: over the next two to three years, everyone in the hemp industry needs to buckle up. The constant change in this ever-budding market means you must be ready to make quick turns and adjustments. This is even true in the exercise of writing this article, as every morning I wake up to news about new regulations in various states and motions from the FDA to hold hearings.
The impact constant change has on paid media is not to be underestimated. Over the course of just a few weeks, an advertising vendor may change their policies regarding hemp products. My team has seen this happen time and time again. They would spend a day getting a campaign rolling, see great success within a few days and then see the account had been suspended shortly after. While there are cannabis-specific advertising platforms such as Mantis, mainstream networks are still turning down hemp-based brands.
This sort of up-and-down movement requires patience, and a strong “try, try again” attitude. Applying the Dunkirk Marketing Model will help brands keep their eyes on the horizon while faced with these daily obstacles. With your focus on end goals, you must also be prepared for quick adjustments and split-second decisions.
Get Started Now
While CBD companies face far more obstacles than other CPG companies when it comes to promotion, your marketing should not take a back seat. How you build your brand today will position you to earn the trust of consumers tomorrow. Spend time building a solid foundation by getting to know your core customer. Outline a messaging plan and your brand’s positioning, and invest in owned and earned channels such as your website, email marketing and PR.
Last week, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) published an Examination Guide to provide further clarity for how they assess the legitimacy of trademarks for cannabis products. For the uninitiated, the 2018 Farm Bill, which President Trump signed into law on December 20, 2018, removed hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act. In order to register a trademark in the United States, the mark must be used in a lawful setting, meaning that the USPTO does not register trademarks for products that violate federal law- even if it is legal under state law.
In their guidance document, the USPTO identifies the distinction between hemp and other cannabis varieties as the basis for either issuing or refusing a trademark registration. This means that in the trademark application, companies need to specify that the cannabis product is derived from hemp, or cannabis with less than 0.3% THC in dry weight.
The USPTO clarifies that applications for trademarks that involve CBD filed before December 20, 2018 will be refused, but if they amend the filing date to after that date, the registration will be examined. Below is a direct quote from their examination guide clarifying this:
For applications filed before December 20, 2018 that identify goods encompassing CBD or other cannabis products, registration will be refused due to the unlawful use or lack of bona fide intent to use in lawful commerce under the CSA. Such applications did not have a valid basis to support registration at the time of filing because the goods violated federal law. However, because of the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill, the goods are now potentially lawful if they are derived from “hemp” (i.e., contain less than 0.3% THC). Therefore, the examining attorney will provide such applicants the option of amending the filing date and filing basis of the application to overcome the CSA as a ground of refusal.
Under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), using a drug in a food or dietary supplement that is currently undergoing clinical trials is illegal (as is the case here- see Epidiolex for an example of CBD being used as an active ingredient in an FDA-approved clinical trial). According to the USPTO, this means that “registration of marks for foods, beverages, dietary supplements, or pet treats containing CBD will still be refused as unlawful under the FDCA, even if derived from hemp, as such goods may not be introduced lawfully into interstate commerce.”
Regarding trademarks for services involving “cannabis and cannabis production,” the USPTO also issued guidance. This section of the Examination Guide pertains to companies applying for a trademark that fall in the category of ancillary services, such as growing supply companies, lighting, nutrients, pest control and packaging, among other service providers. Basically, this section boils down to the same distinction the Farm Bill made between hemp and other varieties of cannabis. An applicant for a trademark needs to make clear their identification of services offered as involving cannabis containing less than 0.3% THC.
The increasing appeal and public acceptance of medical and recreational cannabis has increased the focus on the possible food safety hazards of cannabis-infused products. Foodborne illnesses from edible consumption have become more commonplace, causing auditors to focus on the various stages of the supply chain to ensure that companies are identifying and mitigating risks throughout their operations. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans developed and monitored within a cannabis ERP software solution play an essential role in reducing common hazards in a market currently lacking federal regulation.
What are cannabis-infused products?
Cannabis infusions come in a variety of forms including edibles (food and beverages), tinctures (drops applied in the mouth), sprays (applied under the tongue), powders (dissolved into liquids) and inhalers. Manufacturing of these products resembles farm-to-fork manufacturing processes common in the food and beverage industry, in which best practices for compliance with food safety regulations have been established. Anticipated regulations in the seed-to-sale marketplace and consumer expectations are driving cannabis infused product manufacturers to adopt safety initiatives to address audit concerns.
What are auditors targeting in the cannabis space?
The cannabis auditing landscape encompasses several areas of focus to ensure companies have standard operating procedures (SOP’s) in place. These areas include:
Product development – including risk analysis and release
Accurate labeling – allergen statements and potency
Product sampling – pathogenic indicator and heavy metal testing
Water and air quality – accounting for residual solvents, yeasts and mold
Pest control – pesticides and contamination
In addition, auditors commonly access the reliability of suppliers, quality of ingredients, sanitary handling of materials, cleanliness of facilities, product testing and cross-contamination concerns in the food and beverage industry, making these also important in cannabis manufacturers’ safety plans.
How a HACCP plan can help
Whether you are cultivating, harvesting, extracting or infusing cannabis into edible products, it is important to engage in proactive measures in hazard management, which include a HACCP plan developed by a company’s safety team. A HACCP plan provides effective procedures that protect consumers from hazards inherent in the production and distribution of cannabis-infused products – including biological, chemical and physical dangers. With the lack of federal regulation in the marketplace, it is recommended that companies adopt these best practices to reduce the severity and likelihood of compromised food safety.
Automating processes and documenting critical control points within an ERP solution prevents hazards before food safety is compromised. Parameters determined within the ERP system are utilized for identification of potential hazards before further contamination can occur. Applying best practices historically used by food and beverage manufacturers provides an enhanced level of food safety protocols to ensure quality, consistency and safety of consumables.
Hazards of cannabis products by life-cycle and production stage
Since the identification of hazards is the first step in HACCP plan development, it is important to identify potential issues at each stage. For cannabis-infused products, these include cultivation, harvesting, extraction and edibles production. Auditors expect detailed documentation of HACCP steps taken to mitigate hazards through the entire seed-to-sale process, taking into account transactions of cannabis co-products and finished goods at any stage.
Cultivation– In this stage, pesticides, pest contamination and heavy metals are of concern and should be adequately addressed. Listeria, E. coli, Salmonella and other bacteria can also be introduced during the grow cycle requiring that pathogenic indicator testing be conducted to ensure a bacteria-free environment.
Harvesting– Yeast and mold (aflatoxins) are possible during the drying and curing processes. Due to the fact that a minimal amount of moisture is optimal for prevention, testing for water activity is essential during harvesting.
Extraction – Residual solvents such as butane and ethanol are hazards to be addressed during extraction, as they are byproducts of the process and can be harmful. Each state has different allowable limits and effective testing is a necessity to prevent consumer exposure to dangerous chemical residues.
Edibles– Hazards in cannabis-infused manufacturing are similar to other food and beverage products and should be treated as such. A risk assessment should be completed for every ingredient (i.e. flour, eggs, etc.), with inherent hazards or allergens identified and a plan for addressing approved supplier lists, obtaining quality ingredients, sanitary handling of materials and cross-contamination.
Following and documenting the HACCP plan through all of the stages is essential, including a sampling testing plan that represents the beginning, middle and end of each cannabis infused product. As the last and most important step before products are introduced to the market, finished goods testing is conducted to ensure goods are safe for consumption. All information is recorded efficiently within a streamlined ERP solution that provides real-time data to stakeholders across the organization.
Besides hazards that are specific to each stage in the manufacturing of cannabis-infused products, there are recurring common procedures throughout the seed-to-sale process that can be addressed using current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP’s). cGMPs provide preventative measures for clean work environments, training, establishing SOPs, detecting product deviations and maintaining reliable testing. Ensuring that employees are knowledgeable of potential hazards throughout the stages is essential.Lacking, inadequate or undocumented training in these areas are red flags for auditors who subscribe to the philosophy of “if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.” Training, re-training (if necessary) and documented information contained within cannabis ERP ensures that companies are audit-ready.
The importance of proper labeling in the cannabis space cannot be understated as it is a key issue related to product inconsistency in the marketplace. Similar to the food and beverage industry, accurate package labeling, including ingredient and allergen statements, should reflect the product’s contents. Adequate labeling to identify cannabis products and detailed dosing information is essential as unintentional ingestion is a reportable foodborne illness. Integrating an ERP solution with quality control checks and following best practices ensures product labeling remains compliant and transparent in the marketplace.
Due to the inherent hazards of cannabis-infused products, it’s necessary for savvy cannabis companies to employ the proper tools to keep their products and consumers safe. Utilizing an ERP solution that effectively manages HACCP plans meets auditing requirements and helps to keep cannabis operations one step ahead of the competition.
Last weekend, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the introduction of a bill that would legalize adult-use cannabis, allowing medical dispensaries to begin sales for anyone over the age of 21. According to the Chicago Sun Times, the major focus for Governor Pritzker on legalizing cannabis is on things like social equity and criminal justice.
Rather than touting the tax dollars that could be raised, like other state governments are often eager to highlight, Governor Pritzker’s announcement was about racial equality and helping those disproportionately affected by the drug war. “We are taking a major step forward to legalize adult use cannabis and to celebrate the fact that Illinois is going to have the most equity-centric law in the nation,” Governor Pritzker told members of the media during a press conference. “For the many individuals and families whose lives have been changed, indeed hurt, because the nation’s war on drugs discriminated against people of color, this day belongs to you, too.”
The legislation includes a provision for automatically expunging about 80,000 convictions related to cannabis, allowing those with convictions to work in the newly-legal Illinois cannabis industry. It also includes a provision for license applicants to be designated as social equity applicants, where lawmakers are hoping to encourage minority-owned business growth. They plan on waiving fees as well as helping social equity applicants get better access to capital and business loans.
During the press conference, Sen. Steans mentioned they want to make sure revenue from the new market will benefit residents of Illinois. According to the Chicago Sun Times, the bill allows for 25% of tax revenue would go to helping those disproportionately affected by the drug war and 20% would go to mental health and substance abuse treatment.
That revenue, an estimated $170 million, will mainly come from licensing fees in 2020. Cannabis products with less than 35% THC content would be taxed at a fixed 10% rate, while products with more than 35% THC would be taxed at 20%. The bill would also allow people in Illinois to grow up to five plants at home.
In today’s innovation marketplace, everybody wants to be the first. Tech and non-tech companies alike are racing to raise capital for crypto, blockchain and AI, yet these sectors and technologies are still not even close to mass adoption.
Today’s entrepreneurs are obsessed with disruption. While this is obvious in the world of tech, it may soon be overshadowed by the nascent cannabis industry in the United States. Every time a new state opens an application submission period for a new cannabis dispensary, hundreds of companies apply. Each new market and state have pre-existing demand. Until recently, obtaining cannabis was difficult for many and illegal.
Most of these companies apply in good faith, only to run into unforeseen problems as the regulatory landscape changes. This is part of the risk inherent to pioneering and disrupting industries. Often, the latecomers who learn from pioneers’ mistakes are the ones who earn the greatest successes.
The Difference Between Pioneering and Innovating
In the world of commerce, paving the way for a new product to hit the market is usually a thankless, time-consuming task. It exposes the weaknesses of the market’s operators and invites newcomers to disrupt the already unstable status quo.
Although household names like Levi’s and Wells Fargo owe their success to the California Gold Rush, historians pay relatively little attention to the hundreds of thousands of casualties the Gold Rush caused. Pioneers paved the way, and innovators – like Levi Strauss – profited from the result.
Similarly, when it comes to cars, Peugeot and Tatra are not household names like Ford and Honda. Henry Ford’s assembly line innovations and Honda’s unbeatable factory flexibility led to those younger companies becoming far more successful than their older counterparts.
Pioneers change the way an industry operates. Airbnb did not succeed because it offered superior service compared to the powerful and deep-pocketed hotel industry. It succeeded because it improved the model that HomeAway and VRBO launched years prior – and did so in a way that undermined the hotel’s typical strengths while capitalizing on their weaknesses.
Although pioneering the creation of new business models is an admirable thing to do, it’s not for everyone. Airbnb has been fighting regulators since the very beginning. The company has been forced to pay fines and taxes that simply didn’t exist until Airbnb’s business model came into being.
Uber’s regulatory troubles regularly make headlines around the world. Although it successfully disrupts every market it enters, established taxi companies and newcomers like Taxify often get the last laugh when they implement Uber-like functionality into existing business models. Uber found it too difficult to compete in China and sold its business to local newcomer Didi Chuxing.
All of these cases demonstrate that being the first or early to introduce a business concept comes with many challenges. Pioneering disruption is not equal to innovation, and the cannabis industry will follow the same course.
Cannabis Industry Pioneers vs. Innovators
In the cannabis industry, being the first often meant living in constant fear of being arrested. During the early years of medical cannabis legislation, it was unclear whether federal authorities would raid and prosecute cannabis cultivators and dispensaries.
Every new cannabis market offers important, expensive lessons to future cannabis entrepreneurs:
California changed its cannabis product packaging laws several times before its market went live.
Oregon’s lack of state inspectors led to a laboratory testing bottleneck and an upsurge in black market cannabis diversion that the state’s last audit called “currently unstoppable.”
The two largest medical marijuana cultivation facilities in Illinois cost about $40 million to build, yet they compete over a market of less than $10 million.
Major pioneers like Medmen have paid enormous sums of money to gain entrance into regulatory environments they can’t accurately predict profits from.
Newer cannabis industry entrepreneurs are taking notice of all these obstacles and implementing plans to overcome them. It’s likely that the next generation of medical and recreational dispensaries will have far greater success than today’s biggest names, primarily due to this fact.
Consider the fact that all three of the S&P’s biggest cannabis industry companies have valuations far in excess of their actual sales. It is possible that these large, deep-pocketed organizations will generate enough revenue to justify their valuations, but in the meantime, newer players will enter the picture with greater responsiveness and startup efficiency.
Newcomers to the cannabis industry are setting themselves up for success with highly targeted business objectives, strong executive teams and high-impact advisors. They are navigating the regulatory landscape with more agility than early cannabis pioneers can muster, obtaining lower price-to-sales ratios in the process.
This is the hallmark of innovation. While disruptions and inventions typically take the form of new products or services, innovations expand marketplaces and lay the groundwork for new interactions between economic actors in those marketplaces.
What Tomorrow’s Cannabis Innovators Can Do Now
States like Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey are currently leaning towards recreational marijuana legislation like those currently in place in Colorado and California. Cannabis entrepreneurs need to be creative in their assessment of the opportunities these new environments create.
Opening a cannabis company is no small task. As regulators gradually come to agree on the requirements each state will ask its business owners to meet, the next generation of pioneering cannabis entrepreneurs will have to adapt. At the same time, a relatively small contingent of innovators – the new generation of Levi Strauss’s – will coincide to provide much-needed products and services to the incoming rush.
These innovators will not be limited to one side of the industry. Innovation thrives on integration, and tomorrow’s cannabis entrepreneurs are going to develop streamlined solutions for tackling today’s inefficiencies in ways that simply are not possible right now. These lean, sophisticated startups will use that path paved by the first generation of cannabis industry incumbents.
Cannabis innovators will need to develop solutions for minimizing the costs and complications of setting up companies in highly regulated environments. This can mean anything from developing superior seed-to-sale tracking POS integrations to building a more efficient supply chain and a path to the consumer.
With luck, the next generation of cannabis entrepreneurs will look to the past when informing their strategic decisions for the future.
As the cannabis industry continues to grow, demand for insurance products is also increasing. While insurers have been cautious about entering a market that carries the stigma of a Schedule I drug, the cannabis industry is clamoring for insurance coverage options tailored to meet the needs of key players— distributors, growers, processors and retail dispensaries.
The escalating need for insurance products tailored to these cannabis business sectors has not expedited an increase in coverage offerings. The slow entry of insurance carriers into the cannabis sector can be tied to a reluctance to insure an industry with emerging and often unknown risks. This will begin to change as more information becomes available on what loss ratio trends look like in the cannabis industry.
For now, there is a wait-and-see stance held by insurance carriers. This presents a major concern for cannabis-related businesses that are subject to risk at every stage of the supply chain, with particular exposure for theft, general liability, crop loss, and product liability.some degree of crime and theft coverage is needed for these enterprises to help manage the risks associated with a cash-based business
For cannabis companies, the use of paper currency is a huge part of their risk exposure. Federal banking regulations have limited these businesses to dealing mostly in cash, which makes them a prime target for crime and fraud. Currently, only one carrier will insure coverage for cash and theft risk, and the policy is limited to $1 million for most risks. This is inadequate coverage since many operators have more than that amount on-site.
In states with legislation legalizing cannabis, the cannabis sector will be able to move away from operating in cash if Congress passes the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would protect financial institutions from liability for federal prosecution that could arise from servicing cannabis-related businesses authorized under state law. Until banking regulations give the cannabis industry the ability to operate as legitimate businesses with the stability and safety that would deter criminal activity, some degree of crime and theft coverage is needed for these enterprises to help manage the risks associated with a cash-based business.
Cannabis-related businesses need the same general liability coverage as other businesses to protect their premises and operations from lawsuits involving public contact. However, standard general liability policies—which exclude Schedule I substances from coverage—were not created with cannabis businesses in mind. It is still difficult for these businesses to obtain adequate general liability as a result of the legal uncertainty associated with the industry.
Product liability exposures for cannabis businesses encompass a wide range of areas, including edibles, vaporizers, pesticides, mold/fungus, misrepresentation, label claims, breach of warranty, deceptive practices, and failure to warn.
A major area of exposure concerns accidents resulting from impairment. A cannabis cultivator, processor, distributor, or retailer potentially may be considered liable in the event a product defect results in injury after reasonable use or when label defects fail to warn users that a product may have psychoactive effects.
Another area of risk exposure involves products that contain THC, the psychoactive compound that gives cannabis users a high. As the number of THC-containing products such as edibles and tinctures increases, so does the potential exposure to product liability claims for manufacturers and retailers.
The California Cannabis Track-and-Trace (CCTT) system also has implications for product liability. The CCTT is a statewide system used to record the inventory and movement of cannabis and related products through the commercial supply chain. All state cannabis licensees, including those with licenses for cultivation, manufacturing, retail, distribution, testing labs and microbusinesses, are required to use this system. The product liability impact lies in its capacity to determine responsibility along the supply chain from seed to sale.
For example, if a plastic vape pen explodes, a product liability lawsuit could have repercussions for many touch points across the supply chain beyond the manufacturer of the pen–all of which can be identified through CCTT. Entities that touch cannabis products such as soil suppliers or delivery persons also have product liability risk exposure. Personal injury attorneys can find incident-related parties easily and determine liability. This makes it particularly important to add these parties to the policy as additional insureds to help reduce claims exposure.
Another area of concern for risk exposure is crop loss. Crop insurance is generally hard to obtain due to the significantly different nature of cannabis crops compared to traditional crops like corn or soybeans.
An indoor crop insurance policy covers cultivators when there is loss resulting from threats such as fire, theft, and sprinkler leakage. However, crop insurance policies generally do not cover losses resulting from mold, rot, disease, changes in climate, or fertilization issues. Many growers forgo this coverage and instead elect to absorb losses and regrow their crops.
Outdoor crop coverage is generally unavailable, or the cost is prohibitive. Any potential for writing outdoor crop insurance for the cannabis industry essentially disappeared as a result of the recent wildfires in California. These devastating fires highlighted the pressing need for property damage and business interruption coverage for growers and dispensaries and other downstream businesses whose supply was disrupted. This lack of available outdoor crop insurance is one of the more notable gaps in available cannabis business insurance coverage.
While cannabis businesses operating in states that have legalized medical and/or recreational cannabis use have challenges getting adequate insurance coverage, there is some good news on the insurance front for those in California. Last year, California’s insurance commissioner announced approval for carriers to offer insurance coverage specifically to cannabis businesses. The state also approved a cannabis business-owners policy (CannaBOP) program that provides a package policy containing both property and liability coverage for qualifying dispensaries, distributors, manufacturers, processors and storage facilities. Colorado is on the verge of being the second state to approve its version of a CannaBOP program.
While more insurance carriers are beginning to write cannabis coverage, the limited insurance options and policies with restrictive plans currently offered todaydo not meet the needs of the cannabis industry. Insurers must catch up to the coverage requirements of this sector by offering more options tailored to growers, retail dispensaries, processors and distributors with better terms and better pricing.
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