Part One of this series took a look at how the regulated cannabis market can only be understood in relation to the previous medical market as well as the ongoing “traditional” market. Part Two of the series describes how regulation defines vertical integration in California cannabis.
If you are considering getting involved in California cannabis, imagine the following sentence in ten-foot-tall letters made out of recently ignited $20 bills:
Before you put any money down on property, carefully examine the local cannabis ordinance and tax rates.
This article is written in the form of advice to a newbie cannabis entrepreneur in California, but it will discuss issues that are also of significance to investors, as well as (to various degrees) cannabis entrepreneurs in other states.
Here are seven basic questions that you need to ask about local regulations (in order, except for Number 7).
1. What’s Your Jurisdiction?
If you’re in city limits, it’s the city. If you’re outside city limits, it’s the county.
2. Does the Jurisdiction Allow Cannabis Activities?
If the answer is yes, go to the next question. If the answer is no, pick another jurisdiction.
3. Where Does the Jurisdiction Allow Cannabis Activities?
A zoning ordinance will limit where you can set up shop. The limitation will probably vary by license type.
4. How Does the Local Ordinance Affect Facility Costs?
The short answer is: in many ways. Your local ordinance is a Pandora’s box of legal requirements, especially facility-related requirements.1 Read your local cannabis ordinance very carefully.
Generally speaking, the cannabis ordinance will set out two types of requirements – those that are specific to cannabis and those that apply generally to any business.
Typically incorporate state cannabis laws by reference.
Have significant overlaps with state cannabis laws. For example, the state requires commercial-grade locks and security cameras everywhere cannabis may be found on a given premises. Local ordinances generally include similar requirements – keep in mind that you will need to comply with a combined standard that satisfies both state and local requirements.2
Vary greatly according to type of activity. For example, manufacturers will need to comply with Health & Safety Code requirements that can have a major impact on construction costs.
Vary greatly by jurisdiction when it comes to equity programs.
Include by reference building and fire codes, which can require very expensive improvements. Note that this means your facility will be inspected by the building department and the fire department.
Can include anything from Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements to city-specific requirements, such as Design Guidelines.
Will be zealously enforced because you’re a cannabis business.
5. What is the Enforcement Policy?
It may be that your local jurisdiction will give you temporary local authorization after meeting some, but not all, of the requirements. For example, you may be able to begin operations once you’ve provided your city or county with your cannabis permit application, a zoning clearance and a business permit. In this jurisdiction, you would be able to bring your building up to code sometime after you begin operations.
On the other hand, your local jurisdiction may require you to meet every requirement – from cannabis-specific security requirements to general building code and ADA requirements – before you can begin operations. Depending on the type of cannabis business (and facility condition), this might be inconsequential. Or it might mean that you will have to pay more than a year’s worth of rent (or mortgage) before you can start making money.
6. Can You Choose a Facility That Saves You Time and Money?
Of course, you won’t have to spend much time or money bringing your facility up to code if it’s already up to code. How likely it is that you will find such a facility varies wildly according to the type of cannabis activity in question. In general:
Service-side activities (delivery retail, storefront retail, distribution) are in many respects similar to their non-cannabis counterparts. From a facilities standpoint, the major differences come from security requirements. So, it may be possible to save time and money by choosing a facility that is already up to code for a similar use.
Manufacturing activities are trickier, since you will need food-grade facilities and equipment. You may be able to save money by setting up shop in a commercial kitchen.
Extraction with volatile solvents is a special (and particularly expensive) case, since it is inherently dangerous and requires special facilities.
Outdoor cultivation may be relatively unproblematic if it has an appropriate water source.
Indoor cultivation is expensive because of climate-control and lighting requirements. Buildings potentially suitable for large-scale indoor grows frequently come with significant problems. Former warehouses will typically require major power upgrades, while former factories may have inconvenient architecture and/or hidden toxic waste. In all cases, internal reconstruction is likely to be necessary, and will trigger all sorts of building and fire code requirements.
Local cannabis ordinances and taxes can make or break your business, so you need to understand them before you commit to a location. The seven basic questions listed above are designed to get you started.
This article is the opinion of the author and is not intended to be legal or other advice.
On February 22, 2021, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed three bills into law, all of which legalize adult use cannabis in the state. A21 is the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act. A1897 is the accompanying decriminalization legislation and A5342 addresses discrepancies between the bills referencing underage possession.
The legislation becomes effective immediately upon the Governor signing the bills, but New Jersey residents won’t see legal adult use cannabis until June 2021, the deadline for the five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission to establish detailed regulations. Possession of cannabis will also not be legal until sales are underway.
The license application window will open 30 days prior to the regulatory deadline. The legislation provides for licenses in cultivation, manufacturing, wholesale, distribution, retail, delivery and testing labs. Until 2023, cultivator licenses will be capped at 37. 25% of all of the licenses are earmarked for microbusinesses that are owned locally and have less than ten employees.
According to New Jersey-based cannabis lawyer Jennifer Cabrera of Vicente Sederberg LLP, the bills include a number of provisions aimed at promoting social equity in the cannabis industry and repairing damage caused by prohibition. The language mandates that 30% of licenses must go to businesses owned by women, minorities or disabled veterans. At least 25% should be allocated to residents of impact zones, which are municipalities that have more than 120,000 residents that: rank in the top 40% of municipalities in the state for cannabis-related arrests; have a crime index of 825 or higher; and have a local average annual unemployment rate that ranks in the top 15% of municipalities.
Advocates across the state are applauding the government’s work to include social equity provisions in the bills. States like Illinois and Massachusetts initially received a lot of praise for including a number of social equity provisions in their legalization plans, but the rollout has left a lot to be desired. Social equity applicants in Illinois are still waiting on licensing as lawsuits play out in court following allegations of corruption and ineffective distribution.
However, it looks like New Jersey is taking a much more thorough approach to social equity issues than other states. “New Jersey has adopted some of the strongest social equity provisions we’ve seen,” says Cabrera. “Contemplating these issues at the outset of the process will likely prove to be a big advantage for the state. It is much easier to build these considerations into the system than it is to go back and incorporate them later.” In other words, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure an equitable regulatory framework is established.
Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey says the state’s laws can set a new standard for what justice can look like. “This is a new beginning – and the culmination of years of advocacy – and we must keep in mind that it is only the start,” says Sinha. “Signing these laws puts in motion the next phase of this effort: to work relentlessly to transform the principles of legalization into greater racial and social justice in New Jersey.”
It is estimated that New Jersey’s adult use cannabis market could be worth more than a billion dollars. As the state begins their rollout and implementation, all eyes are on New York and Pennsylvania, which are both expected to legalize adult use cannabis within the next two years. Both Governor Cuomo of New York and Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania have been clamoring for adult use legalization in recent months.
In a press release sent out this week, A2LA announced they have accredited Cannalytics to ISO 17025:2017. With the finalized accreditation in December 2020, Cannalytics is the first cannabis testing laboratory in Puerto Rico to get accredited to the standard.
Jorge Diaz, owner and director of Cannalytics, says their two main objectives are business excellence and quality. “Being the first ISO/IEC 17025 accredited cannabis laboratory in Puerto Rico affirms our mission to provide continuous quality science to our clients while safeguarding the health of Puerto Rico’s medical cannabis patients,” says Diaz.
Cannalytics is a medical cannabis and hemp testing lab based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They offer compliance and R&D analysis in their suite of testing services.
“We are glad to see the continued growth of our cannabis program in a new territory, which further promotes the value that accreditation adds in ensuring quality in this emerging industry,” says Anna Williams, A2LA Accreditation Supervisor.
As the cannabis industry continues to experience growth in markets across the country, cannabis businesses are becoming an ever-increasing target of plaintiff’s lawyers in Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) lawsuits. Text messaging provides a potent channel of customer engagement, but at the same time is subject to strict regulations under the TCPA, with violators subject to steep statutory penalties of $500-$1,500 per message. While one-off cases won’t typically break the bank, that’s far from the case when many thousands of texts are bundled together in a class action. And this potential for big paydays means plaintiff’s lawyers have a financial incentive to file cases as class actions whenever they can.
Some well-known names in cannabis have been the target of TCPA class action. Cannabis delivery service Eaze has battled some fairly well-publicized TCPA class actions in the past couple of years. There has also been an assortment of dispensaries across several western states that have been the targets of similar lawsuits. Notably, these lawsuits share a common thread: they are based on marketing or promotional text messages sent to consumers.
In this landscape, firing off texts without the proper compliance safeguards is a game of roulette. At some point in time, one or more messages will invariably land in the wrong hands, sparking an expensive, high-stakes class action. In this competitive space, there are far more productive things any cannabis business can be doing than spending the time and resources on this type of lawsuit.
So how can your business avoid being caught in a TCPA trap? The following Q&A will walk you through some of the questions you should be asking if you are currently texting, or planning to text your customer base for marketing purposes. One quick note before starting: the TCPA has different rules for different types of messages (such as informational versus marketing messages). This Q&A will cover the distinction between these types of messages, but focuses on the rules around marketing messages since these are rules cannabis businesses get tripped up in most frequently when sued for TCPA violations.
Question: How do I know if the TCPA applies to me?
Answer: Are you texting your customers? If so, are you using some kind of platform that lets you send multiple texts at once? If you answered yes to both, then the TCPA most likely applies to you.
In short, the TCPA prohibits calling or sending texts to cell phones using an Automatic Telephone Dialing System (ATDS). Without getting into the many nuances of how courts have interpreted the legal definition of that term (and risk boring you to death), you can assume that unless you’re hitting send on each and every single text that goes to your customers, that you’re using an ATDS, and your texts are subject to the TCPA.
Q: So it looks like the TCPA applies to me. What now?
A: If you don’t have a compliance plan in place, now’s the time to implement one. To start, take stock of (a) how you’re sending texts; (b) who you’re texting; (c) where you obtained their phone number; and (d) whether you have their prior express written consent. That last part is key: under the TCPA, if you’re sending any text messages to your customers for “telemarketing” purposes, you’ll need what the TCPA calls “prior express written consent”.
Q: But I’m a cannabis business, not a telemarketer. Why should I worry about the TCPA again?
A: The TCPA’s rules requiring prior express written consent apply when the text is sent for “telemarketing” purposes, defined as “the initiation of a telephone call or message for the purpose of encouraging the purchase or rental of, or investment in, property, goods, or services, which is transmitted to any person.” Put simply, if you are sending texts to market or promote something you sell, then it’s likely the message will be considered “telemarketing” under the law. In contrast, if you’re sending a text for purely information purposes, such as sending a receipt for a transaction, or advising on the status of a delivery, then those message are still regulated by the TCPA, but subject to a more relaxed consent standard (a topic for another article).
Q: What do I need to do to get prior express written consent from my customers?
A: It’s important to know that prior express written consent is a technical, legally defined term that requires the caller be provided a written disclosure containing certain information and disclosures, which they “sign.” There are three key components to prior express written consent:
First, the consent agreement has to be in a signed writing. The law affords some flexibility here, allowing callers to obtain consent digitally through a number of mediums including web-based and electronic forms. If structured properly, consent may even be obtained through a text message flow.
Second, the consent agreement has to say certain things. It must authorize the caller to deliver advertisements or marketing messages using an ATDS, it must specify the phone number to which messages are being authorized, and it must say that the consumer doesn’t have to provide their consent as a condition to receiving goods or services.
Third, the disclosures must be “clear and conspicuous”. There’s no real rocket science here, but this is a very important part of the rule. It’s challenging to enforce an agreement that’s hard for a consumer to find or see, meaning the consent disclosures can’t be hidden away, in imperceptible font, or baked into another legal document (such as terms and conditions).
Q: I have a great customer contact database, but I don’t think I check all the boxes for prior express written consent. Can I still text them with specials and promotions?
A: No. At least not with your usual automated or mass-texting platform. But with some legwork, you can leverage your existing database and obtain consent. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than taking the risk of texting in this situation.
Let’s start with the fact that people like to get deals and specials on cannabis products, so there will likely be interest across your customer base for signing up. And with the flexibility afforded by the E-SIGN Act, businesses can try multiple avenues in obtaining prior express written consent from existing customers. This could include a call-to-action campaign, where consumers can initiate a text message consent flow by texting a keyword to a short code. The TCPA does not regulate e-mails, so businesses can consider an e-mail campaign that encourages their customers to follow a link that takes them to a web-based consent form. For businesses with storefronts, customers can be encouraged to sign up for texts on-site by filling out and submitting a form on a tablet device. Bottom line, there’s room for some creativity in designing campaigns to enrich your existing customer database with the necessary consent to send marketing texts.
Q: What happens when a consumer opts out of receiving texts?
A: You should stop all texts to their phone number unless and until they opt back in to receiving texts. Under the TCPA, a consumer has the right to revoke their consent, and any text message sent after an opt-out will violate the TCPA. This means it’s important to have clear opt-out instructions in every message you send (i.e. text stop to stop), and to ensure you have the proper systems in place to automatically suppress any further texts to the consumer’s phone number following an opt out.
Q: If I don’t follow these rules, what are the odds of getting sued for a violation?
A: Pretty high in my opinion. As mentioned, the TCPA is a very lucrative statute for Plaintiff’s lawyers. There are several thousand TCPA cases filed in federal courts each year, and lately cannabis businesses are becoming an increasing share of the defendants named in those suits. Additionally, the TCPA has a four-year statute of limitations, meaning exposure for non-compliant practices has a really long tail. It’s far easier to develop and execute a compliance plan up front, than to take on the risk that comes without one.
Q: Is there anything else I can be doing to protect my business?
Absolutely. Your TCPA compliance policy should be one layer of a holistic approach to legal compliance. Businesses have other tools at their disposal, such as arbitration provisions and class action waivers, that they can build into their consent-gathering process to further protect themselves in the event of a legal dispute.
Q: Any other tips to help keep my business out of the TCPA fracas?
A: Yes. Lots. More than I could fit into just this one article. But my goal here was to get you to think in the right direction when it comes to the TCPA, if you aren’t already. While I tried to make the basics of this as straightforward as possible, there are plenty of grey areas and nuance when it comes to compliance (especially when you inject the real world into the situation). This is where having lawyer experienced in this arena can come in really handy to vet your disclosures, review your compliance processes, and help you implement other risk mitigation strategies.
TCPA claims have become the cost of doing business when contacting consumers on their cell phones. But by being proactive, businesses have ample opportunity to mitigate their risk, and protect themselves in the event the legality of their text message campaigns is challenged.
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Connected is a vertically-integrated cannabis company based out of Sacramento, CA and one of the most sought-after brands in California and Arizona. Having formed as a legacy operation in 2009, Connected has created a cult-like following over more than a decade in business. According to BDS Analytics, Connected Cannabis and their acquired brand Alien Labs now boasts the highest wholesale flower price in any major legal market – their average indoor flower wholesale price is 2x the CA average – yet also has the highest flower retail revenue.
We spoke with Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected to learn more about his transition from tech to cannabis, how Connected thinks about product and his vision for future growth. Sam joined Connected in 2018 after getting to know the founders. Prior to Connected, Sam was a co-founder at Box where he stayed on for 3 years after their successful IPO.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Sam Ghods: I originally came from the tech industry. I co-founded Box, a cloud sharing and storage company, in the mid 2000s with three other friends. We grew that from the four of us to eventually a multi-billion-dollar public offering in 2015. I stayed on a few more years after that until I took some time off trying to decide what I wanted to do next. I looked at a number of different industries and companies, but personally I always had a real passion for artisan and craft consumer goods. It’s a really big hobby of mine. Whether it’s going to Napa or learning about different kinds of premium consumer goods, I really had a deep love and never knew cannabis could be like that.
When I first met Caleb, the co-founder of Connected, he instantly got my attention by telling me that they had been selling out of their product in the volume of millions of dollars a year at more than two times what everybody else was selling for. That really piqued my interest because creating a product that has that level of consumer passion and demand is maybe the single hardest thing about building a consumer goods business. For them to have been so successful in what was a very difficult and gray market to operate in at the time – this was mid 2018 that I was speaking with him and he had been building this company since 2009 – is a really big challenge, and really impressive.
So, I started spending time with Caleb and the Connected team and learned a lot about the business. Everything I learned got me more interested and more excited. The way that they thought about the product, the way they treated it was with a reverence and level of sophistication I had no idea was possible.
I was so excited to just learn about the space. I mean, honestly, it feels like the internet in the 90’s- The sheer possibility and excitement. The only difference here is that the market already has existed for 100 years plus: the gray and underground markets for this product are actually phenomenally mature. And now we’re lifting up billions of dollars in commerce that’s already occurring and attempting to legalize all of it in one fell swoop, which creates such an interesting set of challenges.
I first got involved as an advisor on fundraising and strategy. And then a few months later, they were looking for a CEO and I joined full time as CEO in September 2018.
Aaron: What trends in the industry are you focused on?
Sam: It may seem basic, but I think product quality in the broader cannabis markets nationally and internationally is really underrated. Because of the extreme weight of the regulatory frameworks in so many different markets, it’s resulting in a lot of product being grown and sold just because it can be by the operators that are doing it. In many markets, they count the number of producers by the handful, instead of being measured in hundreds or thousands like in California or Oregon. And in that kind of environment, you’re not really having competition, and you’re not really able to see the quality that has existed in this category for years and years and years.
That’s one of the things that really sets us apart – the quality is first above all else, as well as the innovation and time that has gone into it, and not many existing brands in the legal market can say that. With some of the “premium” brands on the market, it would be comparable to just jumping into the wine industry one day and thinking that you can become a premium brand, without having any knowledge of the history of the product or the industry itself. At Connected, we have a team that’s been doing this for over a decade. We did a back of the envelope calculation: there’s over one thousand lifetime harvests between our team. We’ve also brought in specialists from Big Ag and other industries to complement that experience.
Cannabis is a very, very difficult plant to grow at a very high level. It’s much more like high-end wine or spirits than other fruit or produce. I think in the cannabis community, that’s extremely acknowledged, and appreciation for that is the reason we get by with the highest prices in the legal market. I think in the broader investor and financial community, this point hasn’t really hit home, because the limited license markets aren’t mature enough, and there isn’t enough competition in many of them.
Our focus is continuing to make the best product we can, which has fed and developed our brands [Connected and Alien Labs] into what they are today. That is our number one focus, and we think it’s pretty unique to the space of not just cultivating a great quality product, but also as far as breeding, pushing the bar higher and higher on what can be done with the genetics of the plant.
Aaron: How do you think about choosing testing labs?
Sam: So, the number one criterion is responsibility and compliance. We must be completely confident that they’re testing accurately, safely and exactly to the specifications of the state. Then from there, it is really cultivating about a partnership. There’s a lot of nuance in the relationship with a testing lab. We note things like: Are they responsive? Are they sensitive to our needs in terms of either timelines or requirements we have? It does come down to timelines and costs to a certain extent, like who’s able to deliver the best service for the best cost, but it really is a partnership where you’re working together to deliver a great product. Reliability and consistency are big pieces as well.
Aaron: Industry estimates for illicit market activities are something like 60% of the California market. From your perspective, how do we fix that?
Sam: I think it probably comes down to funding for the efforts to discontinue those activities and opening up the barrier to entry, incentivizing “illegal” operators to make the investment in the cross-over. I think the most successful attempts to tamp it down was when there were initiatives that were well-orchestrated and well-funded, allowing for legacy growers to actually cross over to the “legal” industry. You can’t launch an industry with such an extreme amount of regulation, set a miles-high barrier to entry, and then penalize legacy growers for continuing their business as-is. If the illicit market continues to be fueled by rejection, you’re not going to achieve the tax revenue that you’re expecting to see, that we all want to see. There needs to be an attitude that every dollar put into transitioning illicit markets into regulated markets is returned many times over in tax revenue to the state’s citizens.
Aaron: So, I understand you sell wholesale. Do you sell direct to consumer?“Once they hit the shelves, we blow people away again, beyond their expectations of what they had before.”
Sam: We own and operate three retail stores, so we do sell direct to our consumers, but at this point the majority of our product is sold through third party dispensaries.
Aaron: Do you make fresh frozen?
Sam: We do. On the cultivation side we have indoor, mixed light and outdoor. We fresh freeze a portion of our outdoor harvest every year, and then we use that fresh frozen for our live resin products, for example, our recent live resin cartridge. It creates a vape experience really unlike any other because we are using our regular market-ready flower, but instead we’re taking that flower and actually extracting, not just using the distillate and mixing a batch of terpenes with it. We extract the entire plant’s content across the board, from cannabinoids to terpenoids and everything in between, and then you have our live resin cartridges.
Aaron: How do you think about brand identity and leveraging the brand to command higher prices?
Sam: The cycle we’ve effectively created is that every time we do a release of a new strain or a new batch or harvest, the quality is generally going up. That quality is released under our brands, and then the customer is able to associate that increase in quality and reputation with those brands. Then for our next launch, we have an even bigger platform to talk about the products and to ship and distribute and sell the products. Once they hit the shelves, we blow people away again, beyond their expectations of what they had before. That continuous cycle keeps fortifying the brand and fortifying the product. From our perspective the brand is built 100% on the quality of the product. The product will always be our highest priority and the brand will come downstream from that.
Aaron: Tell me about Alien Labs.
Sam: Alien Labs was an acquisition. It was a company that had built their brand really successfully in the gray market through 2017 and Prop 215 in California and had an incredible level of quality, a really loyal and dedicated fan base, not to mention a tremendous Instagram presence and following, which is where 98% of cannabis marketing happens today. We really loved the spirit of what the founders were bringing to the table. In 2018, we decided basically to join forces with them and bring them on board, creating a partnership where they leverage our infrastructure and the systems and processes we’ve built, but still keep their way of cultivation and their product vision. To this day, Ted Lidie, one of the founders, continues as the lead brand director for Alien Labs.
Aaron: In what geographies do you currently operate?
Sam: Our primary offices and facilities are based out of Sacramento, California, but we have facilities throughout the state. Last year, for the first time we launched operations in a new state, Arizona. As you may know, you’re not allowed to take cannabis products across state lines at all, so if you want consistent product in multiple markets you really have no choice but to rebuild your entire infrastructure in each state you want to open up.
There are many brands that are expanding and launching in more markets more quickly, but they’re doing so by taking product that’s already existing and putting their brand name on it. That is something we’ve decided strategically that we will not do. We’ve spent years building a high level of trust with our customers, so we’re only going to put our brand name on products that are our genetics, our cultivation, our style, our quality of product. When we launched in Arizona, we did it with a facility that we leased and took over and now operate with our staff. We’re replicating the same exact product that you can get in California in Arizona, which is really exciting.
We launched just this past November, which has been incredibly successful. Our dispensary partner Harvest saw lines of dozens of people out the door.“We consider ourselves a flower company first and foremost, so for us, that was a very calculated strategic move.”
Aaron: Any new geographies on the horizon that you can talk about?
Sam: We’re constantly evaluating new opportunities. I don’t have anything particularly specific to announce right now, but I will say we look for states where we believe there’s a competitive environment where the product quality is going to really stand out and be appreciated.
Aaron: Do you notice any differences in consumer trends between California and Arizona that stand out?
Sam: Not too many yet. We don’t have a retail location in Arizona, so we don’t have as much direct contact. However, we have heard consistently that the Connected customer demographics – as you would imagine most interested in our product – are those looking for something special, unique, different and have a really superior quality to everything else out there. We ended up launching in Arizona with the highest price point for flower in the state, and we say that’s just the beginning. The market is still so young and immature, both nationally and internationally, that this category is going to develop into one that’s really taste-driven.
Aaron: What’s next in California?
Sam: Continued growth and product development. We want to keep blowing away our customers with more and more incredible products, different product types and categories. For example, the cartridges were a really big launch for us because we don’t really consider ourselves a vape company. We consider ourselves a flower company first and foremost, so for us, that was a very calculated strategic move. We were only going to launch the product if we could fully replicate what the consumer gets from the flower experience. We are very unlikely to ever release a distillate pen, for example.
Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?
Sam: We, as a society, really don’t know very much about the cannabis plant. Pretty much all meaningful research around cannabis stopped in the early 1900’s with prohibition. In the meantime, we’ve performed millions of dollars of studies and research on almost every other plant that we grow commercially. We understand these plants extraordinarily well. Cannabis science is stuck back in agriculture of early 1900s. The most interesting conversations I have are around how the plant works, how it doesn’t work and the ways in which it is so different from all other plants with which we are familiar. Our head of cultivation comes from Driscolls, the largest berry company in the world, and even he is frequently surprised by the way the cannabis plant reacts to things that are commonly understood in other plants. So, the way the actual plant responds to different environments is truly fascinating and something I think we’ll be learning about for decades and decades to come.
Aaron: Okay, great. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Sam!
Remediation of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (d9-THC) has become a hot button issue in the United States ever since the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) released their changes to the definitions of marijuana, marijuana extract, and tetrahydrocannabinols exempting extracts and tetrahydrocannabinols of a cannabis plant containing 0.3% or less d9-THC on a dry weight basis from the Controlled Substances Act. That is because, as a direct consequence, all extracts and tetrahydrocannabinols of a cannabis plant containing more than 0.3% d9-THC became explicitly under the purview of the DEA, including work-in-progress “hemp extracts” that because of the extraction process are above the 0.3% d9-THC limit immediately upon creation.
The legal ramifications of these changes to the definitions on the “hemp extracts” marketplace will not be addressed. Instead, this article focuses on the amount of d9-THC that is available in the plant material prior to extraction and tracks a “hemp extract” from the point it falls out of compliance to the point it becomes compliant again and stresses the importance of accurate track-n-trace protocols at the processing facility. The model developed to support this article was intended to be academic and was designed to follow the d9-THC portion of a “hemp extract” through the lifecycle of a typical CO2-based extract from initial extraction to THC remediation. A loss to the equipment of 2% was used for each step.
For this exercise, a common processing scenario of 1000 kg of plant material at 10% cannabidiol (CBD) and 0.3% d9-THC by weight was modeled. This amount, depending on scale of operations, can be a facility’s total capacity for the day or the capacity for a single run. 1000 kg of plant material at 0.3% d9-THC has 3 kg of d9-THC that could be extracted, purified, and diverted into the marketplace. CO2 has a nominal extraction efficiency of 95%, meaning some cannabinoids are left behind in the plant material. The same can be said about the recovery of the extract from the equipment. Traces of extract will remain in the equipment and this little bit of material, if unaccounted for, can potentially open an operator up to legal consequences. Data for the initial extraction is shown in Image 1.
As soon as the initial extract is produced it is out of compliance with the 0.3% d9-THC limit to be classified as a “hemp extract”, and of the 3 kg of d9-THC available, the extract contains approx. 2.8 kg, because some of the d9-THC remains in the plant material and some is lost to the equipment.
Dewaxing via Winterization and Solvent Removal
Dewaxing a typical CO2 extract via winterization is a common process step. For this exercise, a wax content of 30% by weight was used. A process efficiency of 98% was attributed to the wax removal process and it was assumed that 100% of the loss can be accounted for in the residue recovered from the equipment rather than in the removed waxes. Data for the winterization and solvent recovery are shown in Image 2 and 3.
Two things occur during winterization and solvent removal, non-target constituents are removed from the extract and there is compounded loss from multiple pieces of process equipment. These steps increase the concentration of the d9-THC portion of the extract and produce two streams of noncompliant waste.
Decarboxylation & Devolatilization
Most cannabinoids in the plant material are in their acid form. For this exercise, 90% of the cannabinoids were considered to be acid forms. Decarboxylation is known to produce a mass difference of 87.7%, i.e. the neutral forms are 12.3% lighter than the acid forms. Heat was modeled as the primary driver and a process efficiency of 95% was used for the conversion rate during decarboxylation. To simplify the model, the remaining 5% acidic cannabinoids are presumed destroyed rather than degraded into other compounds because the portion of the cannabinoids which get destroyed versus degrade into other compounds varies from process to process.
Devolatilization is the process of removing low-molecular weight constituents from an extract to stabilize it prior to distillation. Since the molecular constituents of cannabis resin extracts vary from variety to variety and process to process, the extracts were assumed to consist of 10% volatile compounds. The model combines the decarboxylation and devolatilization steps to account for complete decarboxylation of the available acidic cannabinoids and ignores their weight contribution to the volatiles collected during devolatilization. Destroyed cannabinoids result in an amount of loss that can only be accounted for through a complete mass balance analysis. Data for decarboxylation and devolatilization are shown in Image 4.
As the extract moves along the process train, the d9-THC concentration continues to increase. Decarboxylation further complicates traceability because there is both a known mass difference associated with the process and an unknown mass difference that must be calculated and justified.
A two-pass distillation was modeled. On each pass a portion of the extract was removed to increase the cannabinoid concentration in the recovered material. Average data for distilled “hemp extracts” was used to ensure the model did not over- or underestimate the concentration of the cannabinoids in the distillate. The variables used to meet these data constraints were derived experimentally to match the model to the scenario described and are not indicative of an actual distillation. Data for distillation is shown in Image 5.
After distillation, the d9-THC concentration is shown to have increased by 874% from the original concentration in the plant material. Roughly 2.2 kg of the available 3 kg of d9-THC remains in the extract, but 0.8 kg of d9-THC has either ended up in a waste stream or walking out the door.
Chromatography – THC Remediation Step 1
Chromatography was modeled to remove the d9-THC from the extract. Because there are several systems with variable efficiency rates at being able to selectively isolate the d9-THC peak from the eluent stream, the model used a 5% cut-off on the front-end and tail-end of the peak, i.e. 5% of the material before the d9-THC peak and 5% of the material after the d9-THC peak is assumed to be collected along with the d9-THC. Data for chromatography is shown in Image 6.
After chromatography, a minimum of three products are produced, compliant “hemp extract”, d9-THC extract, and noncompliant residue remaining in the equipment. The d9-THC extract modeled contains 2.1 kg of the available 3 kg in the plant material, and is 35% d9-THC by weight, an increase of 1335% from the distillation step and 11664% from the plant material.
CBN Creation – THC Remediation Step 2
For this exercise, the d9-THC extract was converted into cannabinol (CBN) using heat rather than cyclized into d8-THC, but a similar model could be used to account for this scenario. The conversion rate of the cannabinoids into CBN through heat degradation alone is low. Therefore, the model assumes half of the available cannabinoids in the d9-THC extract are converted to CBN. The entirety of the remaining portion of the cannabinoids are assumed to convert to some form of degradant rather than a portion getting destroyed. Data for THC destruction is shown in Image 7.
Only after the CBN cyclization step has completed does the product that was the d9-THC extract become compliant and classifiable as a “hemp extract.”
Throughout the process, from initial extraction to the final d9-THC remediation step, loss occurs. Of the 3 kg of d9-THC available in the plant material only 2.1 kg was recovered and converted to CBN. 0.9 kg was either lost to the equipment, destroyed in the process, attributable to the mass difference associated with decarboxylation, or was never extracted from the plant material in the first place. All of these potential areas of product loss should be identified, and their diversion risk fully assessed. Not every waste stream poses a risk of diversion, but some do; having a plan in place to handle waste the DEA considers a controlled substance is essential. Without a track-n-trace program following the d9-THC and identifying the potential risk of diversion would be impossible. The point of this is not to instill fear, instead the intention is to shed light on a very real issue “hemp extract” producers and state regulators need to understand to protect themselves and their marketplace from the DEA.
On January 15, 2021, the USDA published its final rule on US hemp production. The rule, which becomes effective on March 22, 2021, expands and formalizes previous guidance related to waste disposal of noncompliant or “hot” crops (crops with a THC concentration above .3 percent). Importantly for the industry, the new disposal rules remove unduly burdensome DEA oversight and provides for remediation options.
Producers will not be required to use a DEA reverse distributor or law enforcement to dispose of noncompliant plants. Instead, producers will be able to use common on-farm practices for disposal. Some of these disposal options include, but are not limited to, plowing under non-compliant plants, composting into “green manure” for use on the same land, tilling, disking, burial or burning. By eliminating DEA involvement from this process, the USDA rules serve to streamline disposal options for producers of this agricultural commodity.
Alternatively, the final rule permits “remediation” of noncompliant plants. Allowing producers to remove and destroy noncompliant flower material – while retaining stalk, stems, leaf material and seeds – is an important crop and cost-saving measure for producers, especially smaller producers. Remediation can also occur by shredding the entire plant to create “biomass” and then re-testing the biomass for compliance. Biomass that fails the retesting is noncompliant hemp and must be destroyed. The USDA has issued an additional guidance document on remediation. Importantly, this guidance advises that lots should be kept separate during the biomass creation process, remediated biomass must be stored and labeled apart from each other and from other compliant hemp lots and seeds removed from non-compliant hemp should not be used for propagative purposes.
The final rules have strict record keeping requirements, such rules ultimately protect producers and should be embraced. For example, producers must document the disposal of all noncompliant plants by completing the “USDA Hemp Plan Producer Disposal Form.” Producers must also maintain records on all remediated plants, including an original copy of the resample test results. Records must be kept for a minimum of three years. While USDA has not yet conducted any random audits, the department may conduct random audits of licensees.
Although this federal guidance brings some clarity to hemp producers, there still remains litigation risks associated with waste disposal. There are unknown environmental impacts from the industry and there is potential tort liability or compliance issues with federal and state regulations. For example, as mentioned above, although burning and composting disposal options for noncompliant plants, the final rule does not address the potential risk for nuisance complaints from smoke or odor associated with these methods.
At the federal level, there could be compliance issues with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and ancillary regulations like Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In addition to government enforcement under RCRA and CERCLA, these hazardous waste laws also permit private party suits. Although plant material from cultivation is not considered hazardous, process liquids from extraction or distillation (ethanol, acetone, etc.) are hazardous. Under RCRA, an individual can bring an “imminent and substantial endangerment” citizen suit against anyone generating or storing hazardous waste in a way the presents imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment. Under CERCLA, private parties who incur costs for removal or remediation may sue to recover costs from other responsible parties.
At the state level, there could be issues with state agency guidance and state laws. For example, California has multiple state agencies that oversee cannabis and hemp production and disposal. CA Prop 65 mandates warnings for products with certain chemicals, including pesticides, heavy metals and THC. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires the evaluation of the environmental impact of runoff or pesticides prior to issuing a cultivation permit. Both environmental impact laws permit a form of private action.
Given the varied and evolving rules and regulation on hemp cultivation, it remains essential for hemp producers to seek guidance and the help of professionals when entering this highly regulated industry.
According to a press release published on February 8, a number of associations, advocacy organizations and cannabis businesses launched the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC), which they claim is the largest coalition of its kind.
The 501(c)4 nonprofit organization goals are to advance social equity and racial justice, and end federal cannabis prohibition, according to their debut press release. The USCC says it will focus on federal reforms that achieve those goals above as well as promoting a safe and fair cannabis market on a national level.
The USCC’s Interim CEO is Steven Hawkins, who is also the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which is one of the founding members of the USCC. “USCC is a unified voice advocating for the descheduling and legalization of cannabis,” says Hawkins. “Legalization at both the state and federal level must include provisions ensuring social equity and redress for harms caused to communities impacted by cannabis prohibition.”
In the press release, Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) is quoted saying he is looking forward to working with the USCC on Capitol Hill. “As founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, I’ve seen firsthand that our most successful cannabis wins have been secured by a team,” says Rep. Blumenauer. “That’s why I am glad to see this first-of-its-kind alliance. We have a unique opportunity in the 117th Congress to advance cannabis reform, but we must remain united to create the change we know is possible.”
Founding members of the USCC include Acreage Holdings, Akerna Corp, the American Trade Association of Cannabis and Hemp, Canopy Growth, the Cannabis Trade Federation, Cresco Labs, MedMen, Marijuana Policy Project, PharmaCann, Vireo, Wana and much more. For a full list of its founding members, visit their website here.
Part One of this series took a look at how the regulated cannabis market can only be understood in relation to the previous medical market as well as the ongoing “traditional” market. Part Two of the series describes how regulation defines vertical integration in California cannabis, and conversely, how vertical integration can address some of the problems that the regulations create. But first:
A Grain of Salt
Take the conventional wisdom about vertical integration with a grain of salt. Expected benefits may not materialize under the current circumstances:
Overall, the business environment is highly challenging due to extensive regulation, over taxation, insufficient retail capacity and competition from the “traditional” market. As a result, integrating businesses upstream or downstream may mean capturing losses, not profits.
The three major types of cannabis activity span three major industrial sectors: raw materials (i.e., cultivation), manufacturing and service (distribution, testing and retail). As a result, a vertically integrated company needs to carry out very different types of activity, which require very different types of core competencies, equipment and facilities.
Developing core competencies is especially challenging because each of the major cannabis sectors is still evolving.
Realizing the benefits of vertical integration requires an additional core competency in cross-sector operations.
Regulations Define the Supply Chain
California’s regulations define the cannabis supply chain by defining both the individual links (licensees) and the relationships between those links. Therefore, an understanding of vertical integration must be grounded in an understanding of the underlying regulatory definitions.
The regulatory definition of each link is extensive. For example, each licensee is tied to a specific facility, and must have its own procedures for production, inventory control, security, etc. When the links are strung together, this definition tends to preserve operational redundancies, and impede operational integration.
Overall, the relationships between the links are primarily defined in terms of preserving the chain of cannabis custody. On top of that, regulations define very specific (and very consequential) links between certain licenses, as discussed below.
A Taxonomy of Links
There are currently 26 types of cannabis license in California, 25 of which can be vertically integrated:
Cultivation – 14 licenses, including 4 sizes each for Indoor (up to 22,0000 sf), Mixed Light (up to 22,000 sf) and Outdoor (up to 1 acre), as well as Nursery and Processor (drying, trimming and packaging/labeling). Note that cultivation licenses are the only licenses that restrict the scale of activities.
Manufacturing – 5 licenses, including volatile extraction, non-volatile extraction, everything but extraction (i.e., infusion) and packaging/labeling.
Testing (Type 8), for testing cannabis according to state standards prior to sale. The owner of a testing license cannot own any other type of license.
Distribution (Type 11), acts as the gateway between cultivation and manufacturing on the one hand, and retail on the other. The distributor’s gateway status is entirely an artifact of regulation – cannabis must be officially tested before it is sold to a consumer, and only a distributor can order the official test. All products must stay in a “quarantine” area at the distributor until they pass testing. Products that fail testing must be destroyed if they cannot be remediated.
Transport (Type 13), which can move cannabis between licensees (with a narrow exception). This license does not allow for official testing.
Delivery Retail (Type 10), for delivery services that are subject to the vagaries of software platforms and the intransigence of local authorities.
Microbusiness (Type 12), which allows the licensee to carry out cultivation (up to 10,000 square feet), non-volatile manufacturing, distribution and retail.
Self-Distribution – A Case of Useful Integration
You may gather from the previous section that shoving a gratuitous and mandatory distributor into the middle of the supply chain creates problems for cultivators and manufacturers. Savvy operators solve this problem by getting a distribution license. This allows the cultivator or manufacturer to:
Pick the time and place for the testing of its cannabis products.
Avoid paying someone else for the storage of cannabis products as they await test results or purchase.
Reduce transport costs (particularly if the distributor is near the other operations).
Sell directly to retailers.
The bottom line is that vertical integration in California cannabis is useful as a means to an end, as opposed to an end in itself. Therefore, cannabis operators should carefully consider how vertical integration will benefit their core business before incurring the risks and expenses associated with an additional license.
This article is an opinion only and is not intended to be legal advice.
It’s no secret that the rollout of cannabis legalization has underperformed in countries like Canada. Since legalization in October of 2018, industry experts have warned that the projections of the big cannabis firms and venture capitalists far exceeded the expected demand from the legal market.
Today, major production facilities are closing down, some before they even opened, dried flower inventory is sitting on shelves in shocking quantities (and degrading in quality), and an extremely robust illicit market accounts for an estimated 80% of the estimated $8 billion Canadian cannabis industry. None of those things sound like reasons for optimism, but while some models for cannabis business are withering away, others are beginning to put down stronger roots. Crucially, we are beginning to see new business models emerge that will be able to compete against the robust black market in Canada.
The Legal Cannabis Industry Can’t Compete
Legal rollout in Canada could easily be described as chaotic, privileging larger firms with access to capital who were able to fulfil the rigid – and expensive – regulatory requirements for operating legally. But bigger in this case certainly did not mean better. The product these larger firms offered immediately following legalization was of a lower qualityand higher price than consumers would tolerate. In Ontario, cannabis being shipped to legal distributors lacks expiration dates, leaving retailers with no indication of what to sell first, and consumers stuck with a dry, poor quality product.
The majority of existing cannabis consumers across the country prefer the fresher, higher quality and generally lower priced product they can easily find on the illicit market. That preference couldn’t be clearer when you look at the growth of inventory, which is far outpacing sales, in the graph below:
Which brings us to the crux of the matter: when it comes to building up the Canadian cannabis industry, what will succeed against the black market that has decades of expertise and inventiveness behind it?
Rising From the Ashes: Craft Growers and Other Small-Scale Producers
The massive facilities like Canopy’s may be shutting down, but our friends over at Althing Consulting tell us that those millions of square feet facilities are being replaced by smaller, more boutique-style cultivation facilities in the 20,000 ft tier, which are looking to be the future of the industry.
Consumers have consistently shown a strong preference for craft cultivators and other small-scale producers who produce higher quality, more varied products that are more responsive to consumer needs. It also hasn’t hurt that prices are also coming down: Pure Sun Farms in Delta, BC is consistently selling out of their $100/ounce special, which is highly competitive even with the illicit market.
This vision of the industry matches up better with the picture we’ve been getting from other legalization projects around the world. It also squares with other indicators of success. Despite the small market capture of the legal market, industry employment numbers are still relatively high, especially when compared with more established legal consumer products markets such as beer. In fact, craft cannabis growers now employ nearly as many people as the popular craft brewing sector here in British Columbia.
But in order to make the craft cannabis market actually competitive in both the regulated and unregulated spaces, the government will have to address four major challenges.
Challenge #1: License Distribution is Uneven and Chaotic
A December 2020 report by Ontario’s auditor general contains admissions by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), Ontario’s cannabis industry regulator, that they lack the capacity and resources to manage the number of applications for private cannabis retailing. Problems relating to the issuing of licenses, including long delays and difficult requirements, are widespread across provinces. One way this becomes clear is by looking at the very uneven distribution of stores across the country in the graph below.
Challenge #2: Basic Regulatory Compliance is Complex and Time-Consuming
Smaller-scale micro cultivators, whose good quality craft product remains in high demand, still face prohibitive barriers to entry into the legal market. Licensing from Health Canada is one onerous challenge that everyone must tackle. Monthly reporting requirements have in excess of 477 compliance fields. Without additional support to navigate these requirements – including automation technology to ease the administrative burden – these smaller producers struggle to meet the minimum regulatory standards to compete in the legal market.
Challenge #3: A Long-Distance Road to Compliance and Safety Means Higher Costs
Even with all regulatory requirements satisfied, cannabis cultivators can’t sell their product from “farm to fork” (to borrow a phrase from the food industry). Many growers ship their product to be irradiated in order to ensure they are below the acceptable microbial threshold set by Health Canada. While irradiation positively impacts the safety of the product, new evidence shows that it may degrade quality by affecting the terpene profile of the plant. Furthermore, only a few facilities in Canada will irradiate cannabis products in the first place, meaning that companies have to ship the finished product sometimes thousands of kilometers to get their product to market.
Next year, Health Canada looks set to lower the limit on microbials, making it virtually impossible to avoid cannabis irradiation. If Health Canada follows through, the change will be a challenge for small-scale cultivators who strive to prioritize quality, cater to consumers who are increasingly becoming more educated about terpene profiles, and seek to minimize the environmental impact of production.
Challenge #4: It is Virtually Impossible to Market Improved Products
Finally, there is a marketing problem. Even though the regulated market has made dramatic improvements in terms of product quality from legalization two years ago, Health Canada’s stringent marketing restrictions means that cannabis producers are virtually unable to communicate these improvements to consumers. Cannabis producers have little to no opportunity to reach consumers directly, even at the point of sale – most legal sales are funneled through government-run physical and online stores.
What Can a Thriving, Legal Cannabis Market Look Like in Canada?
The good news is that change is being driven by cannabis growers. Groups like BC Craft Farmers Co-Op are pooling resources, helping each other navigate financial institutions still hostile to the cannabis trade, obtain licenses and organizing craft growers to advocate to the government for sensible regulatory changes. As a result of their advocacy, in October, the federal government initiated an accelerated review of the Cannabis Act’s restrictive regulations related to micro-class and nursery licenses.
Now, more co-op models are popping up. Businesses like BC Craft Supply are working to provide resources for licensing, quality assurance and distribution to craft growers as well. Indigenous growers are also showing us how cannabis regulation could work differently. Though Indigenous cultivators currently account for only 4% of Canadian federal cannabis licensees (19/459), that number looks to be growing, with 72 new site applications in process self-identified as Indigenous, including 27 micro cultivators. In September, Williams Lake First Nation entered into a government-to-government agreement with the province of British Columbia to grow and sell their own cannabis. The press release announcing the agreement includes the following statement:
“The agreement supports WLFN’s interests in operating retail cannabis stores that offer a diverse selection of cannabis products from licensed producers across Canada, as well as a cannabis production operation that offers farm-gate sales of its own craft cannabis products.”
More widespread adoption of the farm-gate model, which allows cultivators to sell their products at production sights like a winery or brewery, has a two-fold benefit: it better supports local, small-scale producers, and it offers opportunities in the canna-tourism sector. As the economy begins its recovery alongside vaccine rollouts and restrictions on travel ease, provincial governments will have the chance to leverage the reputation of unique regional cannabis offerings (i.e. BC bud) through these farm-gate operations.
While the cannabis legalization story in Canada has had its bumps, the clear path forward for greater legal market success lies in increased support for micro-cultivators. By increasing support for these small-scale producers to navigate regulatory requirements, more will be able to enter the legal market and actually compete against their illicit counterparts. The result will be higher quality and more diverse products for consumers across the country.
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