Tag Archives: MSO

Department Stores for Cannabis: The CEOs of Remedy on Cannabis Retail

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Remedy currently has two locations, one in Baltimore and one in Columbia, Maryland. The first thing you notice at these dispensaries are the large parking areas. When you step inside, you’re greeted by an entrance that is less like a waiting room and more like a lounge.

Their massive open floor plans offer space for brands to have their own area, akin to branded counters in traditional department stores. Remedy has partnerships with big cannabis brands like Cookies, Curio Wellness, Holistic, Rhythm, Trulieve, Green Thumb Industries and others for this reason: to create the “store within a store” feel.

We met Mitch Trellis and Brandon Barksdale, co-CEOs of Remedy, in Las Vegas last year. After hearing about their ideas and vision for the future of cannabis retail, we followed up with them for an interview.

Cannabis Industry Journal: Give us some brief background on your company. How did Remedy get to where it is today?

Mitch Trellis, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Remedy

Mitch Trellis: I have been a patient and consumer since 1994. I have always loved and respected the plant. I spent much of my career on Wall Street, but really I’ve been an entrepreneur most of my life. I started looking at the cannabis space for my next venture. 2014 was a very exciting time for cannabis with a lot of other states were coming online around that time. Colorado had legalized adult use and California had been going for a while. I was looking for an opportunity to jump into the space. Maryland wrote a very progressive law legalizing the plant for medical use, marking the first time on the East Coast where cannabis could be prescribed for pain.

I saw some real business opportunities there so I reach out to my business partner, Blaize Connelly-Duggan, whose family has a long history working with alternative medicine. We were both born and raised in Columbia, Maryland. About a year after coming up with the idea, we submitted an application for a fully vertical license. We did not win the growing or processing license, but we found out we had won a dispensary license.

We decided to move forward in late 2016. We opened in December of 2017 and we just had our five-year anniversary of operating a dispensary in the state of Maryland. We have seen over 30,000 individual patients and we’ve done around 45 million retail sales over that time. We are on a good pace right now with our two stores, each of which we call “superstores” with around 10,000 square feet of space. We have built some pretty interesting retail experiences, what we call our in-store ad network. We are a little different than other dispensaries; we’re not going for the Starbucks or corner store model.

Brandon Barksdale: I came from professional services. I was in a management consulting practice and a leader within our cannabis industry advisory group. We were working with clients on performance management, business improvement and organizational maturity that would help drive operational excellence within complex compliance and legislative landscapes.

Brandon Barksdale, Co-CEO of Remedy

The clients that I had spanned over a lot of different states, so I think a lot of my initial experience comes from California in 2015 and 2016. Outside of consultancy, I stepped into operations within a vertically-integrated cannabis operation in Colorado. From there I gained the full breadth of experience in understanding the business from cultivation to manufacturing to retail. We were also operating on both sides of the market, medical and adult use. This put me at a little bit of an advantage for new markets coming online, understanding the economics and how things would play out, you know, history repeats itself, just faster and faster.

I met Mitch and Blaze through a mutual acquaintance and we shared a lot of the same vision and thoughts for where the industry was heading locally in Maryland and nationally. Ultimately, I came on board in an advisory capacity and then joined the team full time.

CIJ: Tell us more about this Nordstrom business model. What brand partnerships are you developing and how is your idea different from the traditional dispensary?

Mitch: We have basically built a platform for the brand and vendors to interact with the patients and the customers. There is a big gap between the two and we operate as a conduit between the two. In that plan, we need to have spaces for each individual brand to interact with the consumer, which is why we have such large floor plans. Brands set up semi-permanent stores within our store, almost like pop ups. Right now, on our floor we have Trulieve, Holisitic, GTI, Curio, Cookies, Sunmed and 2 or 3 more coming. That’s the equivalent of the Sephora and Nike in Nordstrom.

A Curio Wellness pop-up within a Remedy dispensary

We have a handful of our own brands we are working on bringing to the state of Maryland, which is kind of like those generic brands you see, like Nordstrom Rack or a 365 brand in Whole Foods. So, it is a more traditional retail model than what you might think of in the cannabis market.

People ask us, ‘well, what do you do differently?’ And really, we try not to do things differently. We try to do things like regular retail. At the end of the day, it’s about the experience, the price, the convenience, customer service, simple retail stuff.

The Curio product offering

Brandon: The differentiator that separates us from other dispensaries is that retail experience. On our floor, we have a massive amount of brand power coming from the strongest Maryland supplies and household brands entering Maryland from other thriving markets. From there, it’s really just about driving the patient and adult consumer experience, helping them come in and learn about brands, what makes them different, what drives their quality, price, etc. Ultimately it allows brands to present themselves the way they intended. That in itself is enough of a unique experience. Then it’s about execution. What we hope as we come into a new adult use market while we continue to support the medical market is that there will be a way for patients and consumers alike to learn about more products, wider brand selection and learn what best aligns with their values, their experience and the overall value proposition.

CIJ: With Maryland legalizing adult-use and the Virginia market expected to open soon, how do you expect your retail business will fare in the new, larger market?

Mitch: We have very large stores in incredible locations that are very well known with tons of parking and the ability to do tremendous volume. I think we are well prepared and our business is built for a larger volume scenario.

Adult use sales in Maryland are set to launch this year

Brandon: I am personally very optimistic. Maryland is leading the way in the mid-Atlantic market. We will continue to steamroll forward. Different states and neighboring states will be coming online at some point in the future. That potentially advanced runway will really pull us apart. Our strategy around retail is about growth and operational excellence. We’ll continue to find opportunities to support that broader market vision as it comes into view. We’re constantly seeking how we can expand our market footprint. When I think about Maryland in general, it is a pretty unique market. I don’t think we have seen a newer market come online that was as unique as this region, wrapped around this gray market and other states operating in this limbo.

I think we’ll see an increase in cannabis comfortability with the adult population in Maryland. I also believe that and other unique factors will drive a huge jump in the number of consumers and patients in Maryland as we mature into adult-use. There are a significant number of government employees in Maryland. There are other unique sensitivities to cannabis that will also become normalized. As Maryland moves forward with the rollout of the adult use program, that’ll be something that starts to pull uncomfortable stigmas away which will be increasingly favorable to the market.

CIJ: What are you excited about for 2023? Any new or exciting plans you can share with our readers? 

Mitch: We’re definitely watching all of our neighboring states and we’re keeping a close eye on our own state to see how everything shakes out. We will start our adult use sales in the state of Maryland very soon and we are moving forward in that direction. What do we look forward to? The beginning of adult use sales in Maryland. This is the start of our next big chapter and a culmination of a lot of work. 8 years later here we are.

Brandon: Maryland is next up. To Mitch’s point, that is where our main focus remains. We are constantly looking at opportunities within the state and nationally as well. I’d like to think of us as a market leader from a retail perspective. Our primary focus right now is how to capture a lot of the excitement in the Maryland market adult-use program, however, our eyes and ears are always open.

Catching up with Jushi Creativity: A Q&A with Dre Neumann

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Jushi Holdings is a large multi-state operator with a massive national footprint and a presence in key markets, including Pennsylvania, Illinois, Virginia, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio and California. 

About a year and a half ago, Aaron Green interviewed Andreas “Dre” Neumann, Chief Creative Director of Jushi Holdings to learn about his journey to the cannabis industry, Jushi’s market presence, brand development and key trends in the marketplace. 

This time around, we’re checking in with Neumann to hear about his progress since the last time we spoke. In this interview, we delve deep into the world of creative influence, brand building, technology, what Neumann is working on now and what he is excited about in the future. 

Cannabis Industry Journal: It’s been a while since our readers have heard from you. What’s new at Jushi? What Are you currently working on? 

Dre Neumann: When I joined Jushi, we were building the foundation and laying the groundwork for a lot of the things we’re doing right now. One of them of course is our online pre-order platform. We have been focused on connecting all the dots in our vertically integrated markets to make sure our retail experience is really fine-tuned and represents what a diverse range of cannabis consumers find helpful and truly enjoy. In my time at Jushi, I have gained a much better understanding of the average cannabis consumer through constantly analyzing data from our retail spaces, and I very much look forward to analyzing more robust data that’s coming in through our new smartphone app. 

Andreas Neumann, Chief Creative Director of Jushi Holdings

The data we have now is allowing us to look at what product developments are most important for us to move forward with and what product categories we should be focusing most on. Because we may be on the cusp of a recession, the consumer value of our product is that much more crucial. With the introduction of new categories of fast-acting edibles and unique and exciting genetics and types of flower, we are paying close attention to how we can innovate in ways that will both excite our current customers and attract new customers to our brands. 

Jushi is interesting because the company really came together from two key pieces: the first being our strong financial and management backbone, and the second, the powerful creative team that I am a part of. We have such a special focus on the quality of products, with the goal of creating high-quality and consistency across our house of brands.

We have had a lot of acquisitions, which have played out very successfully over time, but early on, through these acquisitions, we found there were products and procedures that weren’t up to our standards. It takes time to fix those things from a quality, genetics and consistency perspective, and I’m thrilled to say we’re really getting there. Notably, we felt the need to improve our edible fruit chew brand, and we poured a ton of time into reinventing and relaunching simple, but high-quality, organic, 100% real-fruit chews. 

Now, we are really seeing the value in our three retail brands and the unique attributes of our branded flower, pre rolls, vapes and edibles. Also, we have been really focusing on improving sustainability as we move towards using much more sustainable, standardized mylar packaging across our product suite. This packaging not only reduces our carbon footprint, as mylar is a much more sustainable, recyclable and lightweight material, but also offers us more real estate to express Jushi’s personality through artwork on packaging and allows us to display our products with a larger presence in stores. 

CIJ: You mentioned Jushi’s new app and you sound so excited about it. Tell us more: how are you using the data to analyze what your customers want? 

The Jushi app, The Hello Club (THC)

Neumann: When we were building our online platform, we knew we needed to better understand our customers. What we found was that the most important marketing tools in cannabis are promos – specifically promos through text messaging. Our loyalty program has become our biggest channel to reach consumers, as we have over 200,000 people we can reach with a simple text message. The big problem with texting campaigns, however, is that mobile phone carriers can limit your deliverability if you don’t have the right verbiage and messaging. So working with and figuring out how to deliver the right message to our customers can be very challenging. 

Our smartphone app, The Hello Club (THC), came about as a natural progression of our customer loyalty program. Our team has a lot of experience working in UX and UI, so we were able to dive right in and build the app through Apple. We really took our time to build something that would add value to our customer, and it’s paid off. For instance, starting out we launched an exclusive weekly deal only available in the app. So, guess what happens? Just yesterday, on the 15th of November alone, 11,000 people downloaded the app. 

Their retail location in Alexandria, Virginia

The app will be something that we play around and experiment with as more and more customers download it. It provides us with a platform to be creative and have fun with our customers, where we can launch exclusive events and strain drops and grant exclusive access to our products before they’re available to the general public. 

The Hello Club was completely designed from scratch. It allows customers to choose their local, preferred store, with the ultimate goal of it becoming the central hub of their cannabis needs. The data we get from the app is so vast and there are so many opportunities on the horizon – we have only just scratched the surface. In the future, as we look to enter new markets, we’re excited to utilize the customer data from our app to guide us in deciding what to sell and where and create unique retail experiences tailored to each market. As we’re just in version 1.0, there’s tons of untapped potential ready to be unearthed and applied. 

CIJ: Around this time last year you said that PA was the most important market for y’all. Tell me about the states that Jushi does business in. Are you paying particular attention to any market more now given the midterm elections?

Neumann: Yes, so Pennsylvania is still our most important market today, mainly because we have so many retail locations in the state (18). Pennsylvania is interesting because it’s also the site of Jushi’s first acquisition ever. I think the inevitable move from medical to recreational in the state will be extremely significant; it will be one of the greatest transitions in cannabis history. Because of our footprint and brand presence in Pennsylvania, we are in an excellent position for when adult use comes online.

The Palm Springs retail location

We call Virginia the sleeping giant because it’s a market we have really cornered. We will have six stores in northern Virginia, close to Washington D.C., in areas with large populations, very diverse demographics and a lot of young people. Our retail locations in the state are freestanding buildings with ample parking – key attributes that benefit customers and lift sales, as we found from the data we collected in Pennsylvania. Virginia has incredible potential because we have made such a formidable early presence with our vertically integrated, IKEA-sized grow operation there. We have applied our findings from other states to Virginia, and we’re thrilled about the opportunity for us to showcase high-quality products in this market. 

California is such a tough market to be in, as it’s the most competitive cannabis market in the world, with some of the most discerning customers, so operators often fear entering the market. But it’s proven to be great for R&D for us, and we continue to learn how to navigate and work in this competitive market through our Palm Springs, Grover Beach and Santa Barbara retail locations. By necessity, we’ve been particularly creative with our marketing and operational strategies to carve a place in the market; we have to show people we have better products and a better experience, which is very difficult with stringent regulations in places like Palm Springs. So California, for us, continues to be a proving ground where we are learning how to be as competitive as possible, and this benefits Jushi as a whole.

Financing the Cannabis Industry Part 2: A Q&A with Pelorus Equity Group Managing Partner, Travis Goad

By Aaron Green
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Businesses often require outside capital to finance operating activities and to enable scaling and growth. Financing in the cannabis industry is notoriously challenging with regulatory obstacles at the local, state and federal levels. Recent market dynamics pose additional challenges for both financiers and cannabis operators.

We sat down with Travis Goad, Managing Partner of Pelorus Equity Group to learn more about Pelorus and to get his perspective on recent market trends.

Aaron Green: In a nutshell, what is your investment/lending philosophy?

Travis Goad: Our investment and lending philosophy is focused on being honest, upfront and doing what we say we’re going to do for both our borrowers and our investors. At Pelorus, we lend against cannabis-use real estate assets.

Every lender in this space is a hybrid between real estate and corporate lending. However, if you think about it as a political spectrum, with one side being pure real estate lending and the other pure corporate lending, Pelorus is as close as you can be to pure real estate lending in this sector while also being properly collateralized. What sets us apart from our recently launched lending peers is that we lend against the real estate asset value only, even though we’re collateralized by the real estate and license.

We lend between 60% to 75% of the value of the real estate, which means sponsors need to raise equity for the 25% to 40% remainder of the project cost. This allows us to be covenant-lite for our borrowers while giving them the flexibility to grow their business as they see fit.

Travis Goad, Managing Partner at Pelorus Equity Group

The other lending options in the space are much different. While our lending peers may call themselves mortgage REITs, they really are based on a business development company (BDC) lending model. While they may lend borrowers as much as 150% to 180% of the real estate value, they will require significant financial covenants, require control of major decisions and most often want a board seat. We’ve seen this model severely hamstring growth of companies.

The third option available to sponsors is a sale-leaseback. In this structure, lenders will buy your real estate for 100% of the value, but require you to enter into a 15-to-20-year lease that increases 3% each year. There is a temporary benefit to this model from a federal tax perspective, but that will go away when 280E is addressed, either by descheduling cannabis or amending the tax code.

While this structure means you don’t have to raise equity, it gives up the most valuable asset cannabis companies have in the early stages of the industry. Once you sell this asset, it hampers optionality for sponsors – and in a fast-growing industry like cannabis – optionality is the most critical thing a company has. Pelorus’ structure allows maximum optionality, as well as the ability to lower your cost of capital as the industry matures.

From an investor standpoint, they should know that the BDC and sale-leaseback models are a lot riskier than our model. While we’ve seen those models work well in mature industries, we think the cannabis industry is too early-stage and too volatile to go that far out on the risk spectrum. We have the longest history in the space of deploying capital successfully and seeing it returned. Prior to making any loans, we spend a lot of time underwriting the company we’re working with, the real estate and the projections. We look for strong sponsors, great projects and attractive markets.

Before we entered the cannabis lending space, our team at Pelorus had more than 5,000 transactions under our belt, worth $5B, and we leveraged our decades of underwriting experience when starting the Pelorus Fund. As the first dedicated lender in the cannabis space, we have more data and experience than anyone in terms of transactional volume – we’ve looked at more than 2,000 deals and have made 71 deals, worth $468M. We know the intricacies of every market, the particular ordinances, what the costs should be, and utilize the data to help our borrowers succeed. Through our deals and sustained success, we’ve made a name for ourselves as the most trusted and efficient lender in the cannabis space.

Green: What types of companies are you primarily financing? 

Goad: We finance construction and stabilized loans for a range of clients including MSOs, SSOs and ancillary companies. We don’t lend on outdoor cultivation, but are open to working with any cannabis-related business that has commercial real estate, strong financials and experience in the cannabis space. Today, our sweet spot is closing loans in the $10M to $30M per transaction range, but we can fund loans $100M+ and as low as $5M. Since 2016, we’ve financed 4.2M feet of cannabis-use properties for a total of $468M in loans – roughly 15% to 20% of the entire US market.

Green: What qualities do you look for in a cannabis industry operator or operating group?

Goad: We are meticulous in our underwriting process and underwrite the company, the real estate and the market. We’re one of the few lenders today that has capital to deploy, which has given us the opportunity to continue to take market share while also increasing the quality of our borrowers. Whether you’re an MSO, smaller state operator or ancillary business, we recognize quality across the sector. Brand affinity and shelf space are critical in this market, and we like working with companies that have a competitive edge in getting their branded product to customers. We try to target companies that offer a unique product, or have a unique position within the state they are located.

To qualify for our lending program, borrowers need to own their real estate. If the sponsors own the real estate or intend to own the real estate, we offer two main lending products: we provide construction loans that range between 60% to 75% of the project that are typically 18-month terms; and more recently implemented, we also lend on fully stabilized assets that are cash flowing and operational up to 75% of the value and up to a 5-year term.

By the time a borrower comes to us, they should already have a license (or be acquiring a license at closing), have their required equity raised to completely fund the project and have all local approvals to begin construction.

Green: Capital market dynamics have led to significant public cannabis company revaluations in 2022. How has this affected your business? 

Goad: As far as how market dynamics have impacted our fund, we’ve been pretty insulated because we are a privately held company. From our inception, we’ve worked hard to create an innovative model, and have had many firsts. We were: the first dedicated lender in the cannabis sector; the first lender to become a private mortgage REIT; the first to be issued an FDIC warehouse line of credit; the first to get an investment grade rating; the first to issue an unsecured bond with institutional investors; the first to update our fund to a billion dollars. Amid all these firsts, we made a conscious decision not to go public. This has been one of the best decisions we’ve made and has shielded us from much of the market volatility we are seeing.

As for the broader market, we’ve seen our sponsors that are publicly traded impacted pretty significantly by the recent market dynamics. We’ve also seen flow-on effects for non-publicly traded firms. Our loan book is performing excellently, but we’re in a very challenging market for marijuana-related businesses to raise equity, making debt even more attractive. For most of our competitors, who chose to go public, they’ve been unable to raise much capital to deploy, whereas our market share is increasing and we continue to grow in this tough environment. We remain bullish on the sector in the medium/long term and are finding excellent opportunities to lend in this challenging environment.

Green: Debt on cannabis companies balance sheets have increased significantly in recent years. What is your perspective on that?

Goad: Increased access to debt capital markets is a sign of a maturing market. The U.S. cannabis sector has a great tailwind with growth of new markets, but it’s facing some significant headwinds tied to tax inefficiencies and inadequate state-level enforcement. All of these issues can be solved with political action, but so far that hasn’t happened and it’s causing pain in the industry. These industry dynamics are set against a broader macro backdrop of risk-asset repricing and increased volatility, which leads to outsized volatility in cannabis due to limited liquidity. That increased volatility has made it very challenging to raise equity in this market.

For companies that have strong assets on their balance sheet, they’re still able to access capital via the debt markets. This is creating clear winners and losers, as companies that choose to sell their real estate have significantly fewer capital raising options than those that choose to keep real estate assets on their balance sheets. Overall, this increased debt trend has been great for our business – our pipeline has increased rapidly and we’re able to lend to strong operators with solid assets at attractive rates for investors. Our fund continues to have inflows, and since we’re one of the few lenders with capital to deploy, we’re still open for business and deploying capital in this challenging environment.

Green: How does the lack of institutional investor participation in the cannabis industry affect your business? 

Goad: The current regulatory environment impacts the type of investor that comes into this space. Rather than being dominated by institutions, this sector has largely been funded by retail investors and family offices. This has created challenges in aggregating large amounts of capital, both on the operator and the debt-fund side of the business. It can lead to delays in loan closings, as it takes borrowers a longer amount of time to raise the required equity to close their transaction. As we’re seeing with our publicly traded peer group, it can also lead to lenders having trouble raising capital to deploy. As for Pelorus, we’ve been very fortunate that our length of time in the industry and track record of successfully making loans and having them repaid has set us apart in fundraising. Our decision to stay private has been a critical factor in our fundraising success as well. Overall, the lack of institutional investor participation is a double-edged sword: the lack of liquidity has caused challenges broadly, but since we’ve had significant capital to deploy, it’s created great opportunities for us to make loans with attractive risk/returns in this challenging market.

Green: What would you like to see in either state or federal legalization?

Goad: Given the stalemate in the Senate and the sharp bipartisan divide, I don’t think federal legalization will happen during this administration. That said, there are incremental actions that the government should take to strengthen the cannabis sector. First of all, the Cole Memo needs to be reinstated to add additional protections for cannabis and cannabis-related businesses. As 280E has clearly been detrimental to the overall health of the cannabis industry, we also believe the tax code should be amended, or better yet, we should address the conflict between state and federal policy. We also need to get SAFE Banking approved in order to open up the cannabis sector to credit cards and potentially open up banking to the sector in a more material way. Unfortunately, there’s a choke point in the Senate to get SAFE Banking approved, since there needs to be 60 votes to be filibuster proof. And while there is some talk of SAFE Banking passing during the lame duck session, we are not holding our breath.

Green: What trends are you following closely as we head towards the end of 2022?

Goad: The biggest trends we’re following are on the legislative front (both federally and at state level), which heavily impact revenue and net cash flow growth for the industry. We’re following emerging state markets, such as Alabama and Mississippi, as well as current medical markets poised to transition to adult use in the near term, such as Missouri. The more addressable the population, the faster the industry can grow.

We’d also like to see current legal states address the often-heavy tax burdens that have led to additional challenges for legal businesses and kept illicit markets thriving. No state got everything right at the beginning, but we’re starting to see states address some of the inequities and harmful policies now. California has made some progress in this area, however there are many issues that still need to be addressed.

Federally, 280E is the other major headwind that needs to be addressed as extremely high tax rates are one of the biggest problems for the industry. We’d really like to see that addressed, as cannabis is the only new industry, I’m aware of in the U.S. that has had such disadvantages out of the gate.

Financing the Cannabis Industry Part 1: A Q&A with AFC Gamma CEO & Partner Len Tannenbaum

By Aaron Green
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Business often require outside capital to finance operating activities and to enable scaling and growth. Financing in the cannabis industry is notoriously challenging with regulatory obstacles at the local, state and federal levels. Recent market dynamics pose additional challenges for both financiers and cannabis operators.

We sat down with Len Tannenbaum, CEO & Partner of Advanced Flower Capital Gamma (AFC Gamma, NASDAQ: AFCG) to learn more about AFC Gamma and to get his perspective on recent market trends.

Aaron Green: In a nutshell, what is your investment/lending philosophy?

Len Tannenbaum: AFC Gamma is one of the largest providers of institutional loans to cannabis companies nationwide in all aspects of production: cultivation, processing, and distribution. Cannabis companies, no matter the size, traditionally lack the lending opportunities that other enterprises have available, and that’s where AFC Gamma comes in. As an institutional lender, we provide financial solutions to the cannabis industry.

AFC Gamma is a commercial mortgage REIT that provides loans to companies secured by three pillars: cash flows, licenses, and real estate. We provide term loans, draw facilities, and construction loans. Each loan is unique and tailored specifically to meet the needs of our borrowers. This unique partnership approach with our clients allows us to find solutions to help them expand and grow alongside them.

Since starting AFC Gamma, we have completed almost $500 million of transactions. We provide capital to an industry that others do not and, in turn, allow these operators to build cultivation facilities, production facilities, and dispensaries.

Green: What types of companies are you primarily financing?

Len Tannenbaum, CEO & Partner of Advanced Flower Capital Gamma

Tannenbaum: AFC Gamma seeks to work with operators, ideally in limited license states. We make loans to companies secured by three pillars: cash flows, licenses, and real estate. We tend to lend to operators in regulatory-friendly states, such as: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Arizona, New Mexico, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, and Nevada. Traditionally, we shy away from states like California, Washington and Oregon given our approach to lending. We have 16 borrowers in 17 states, and what we look for are companies that we can grow with over the long term.

Green: What qualities do you look for in a cannabis industry operator or operating group?

Tannenbaum: We tend to work with three different buckets of operators. You have the large publicly traded multi-state operators (MSOs) we have lent to, such as Verano. Then you have the tier right below the top tier MSOs, where you have some public enterprises like Acreage, who is one of our borrowers, and then some private companies such as Nature’s Medicine and Justice Grown. The third tier are smaller operators. They’re single or two-state operators, and we’re typically coming in to help them build out licenses that they want or help them expand within that state. That’s why state-by-state dynamics are so important to us and why we typically only lend to limited license states.

We look at portfolio diversity on a step-by-step basis rather than a borrower-by-borrower basis. We tend to focus on deals in limited license states and also deals that have real estate as collateral. We have found that REIT loans give our clients the most flexibility, and we are able to finance more companies this way.

Green: Capital market dynamics have led to significant public cannabis company revaluations in 2022. How has this affected your business?

Tannenbaum: Although capital market dynamics have made an impact on a significant number of public cannabis companies’ revaluations this year, our overall business hasn’t been affected too much and that’s because the other lending options available right now are not ideal choices for most borrowers. One of the ways a lender can achieve credit enhancements or securities is by raising capital in the public markets. When the markets are more challenging, those companies have a harder time accessing capital when they may need it most. In turn, this could cause slow growth overall, more cash conservation and it removes one of the benefits to lenders. We’d like everyone to have more robust equity from that standpoint, but the flip side is, if equity gets too high in price, those borrowers won’t come to us lenders and they’ll raise capital in the equity markets since the equity is cheap. We’re definitely conducting a lot of business because the equity market is not available to cannabis companies. If that were to change, while our loans would be theoretically safer, they would choose equity instead of debt.

Green: Debt on cannabis companies balance sheets have increased significantly in recent years. What is your perspective on that?

Tannenbaum: When equity markets were free and the valuations were high, cannabis companies raised money in the equity markets rather than take on debt. Now that the equity markets have been somewhat closed and valuations are much lower, we see their debt has increased over the past two years.

Green: How does the lack of institutional investor participation in the cannabis industry affect your business?

Tannenbaum: Right now, we are one of the biggest lenders in cannabis. Looking to the future, though, if the SAFE Banking Act passes, we could see an influx of institutional capital that would increase competition amongst cannabis-specific and mainstream lenders. From the outset, most of the competition will come from hedge funds, not big banks. This competition will drive down interest rates and attract borrowers like MSOs.

Green: What would you like to see in either state or federal legalization?

Tannenbaum: The Senate passing the SAFE Banking Act. Should this happen, lenders, including AFC Gamma, will be able to borrow cheaper, which will, in turn, allow lenders to lend cheaper. It will be a net positive for all operators. It could also be positive for lenders assuming they have the infrastructure and capabilities to scale and decrease the cost of capital once the money starts flowing and more deals are being made.

Green: What trends are you following closely as we head towards the end of 2022?

Tannenbaum: The most important trend we’re following is state by state trends. We’re excited to see new states getting their act together like New York. We’re excited about Georgia. We’re also looking forward to Missouri going rec. On the flip side, we’re also watching Virginia issue more than 400 licenses, diluting down the limited license states into basically an unlimited license state, which personally doesn’t make sense.

The other trend we’re watching across the country is cannabis prices. There is definitely a gray and legacy market that goes across border that should be enforced. That flow of cannabis product is depressing prices, especially in the unlimited license states. I believe there is a chance that trend starts reversing as many grows are now inefficient. The low end of inefficient grows are going to start closing, which may increase prices going into next year.

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Twelve Tips for Scaling Your Cannabis Business

By Eric Schlissel
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MedicineManTechGrow

We know a thing or two about scaling a cannabis business. While we don’t own a plant-touching business ourselves, we have helped companies like Tokyo Smoke, Superette and Northern Helm to open dozens of dispensaries in less than 3 years as their IT company. Here are some of the things we’ve learned along the way.

Find reliable partners

You can’t do it all alone. Especially when you’re trying to grow fast in a new industry like cannabis. Find reliable external partners you can depend on in areas like construction, design, staffing, financing, legal, real estate, accounting, HR, IT and security. If you’re just starting, consider dividing the work between competing firms, then committing to the one that performs the best.

Maintain consistency

You don’t want to reinvent the wheel with every new location. Develop standardized processes, procedures and equipment as early as possible. This is critical for aspects of your business like efficiency, profit margins and brand awareness.

We work with our clients to develop a standard IT stack (all the same hardware, software and configurations). This makes setups quicker and cross-location management easier and can make you eligible for bulk purchasing discounts.

At the same time, if any of them don’t work out, switch them out as soon as possible. Don’t compound the error by sticking with what isn’t working.

Develop standardized processes, procedures and equipment as early as possible.

Also don’t be afraid to try new things here and there or make each location unique in more subtle ways. Our clients at Superette are a great example of keeping their brand consistent enough across their locations that you know it’s a Superette store just by looking at it; at the same time each store is just a little bit different so that each location is a unique experience.

Leverage multi-site tech

Most cannabis software is web-based and lets you manage multiple different locations in a single platform. Make sure to make good use of this and not use different software for different locations.

This goes for a lot of non-cannabis-specific software too, like Sage, Office 365, Google Workspaces and Solink (a platform that lets you manage all your surveillance systems in one dashboard, and integrates with your POS or ERP).

Use compliance and licensing software

Cannabis regulations can vary widely not only state by state but city by city. Keeping up with all these regulations can be difficult even if you already have a legal expert to rely on.

Compliance software like Simplifya, ProCanna and BuildMySOP let you quickly figure out what the regulations are in a given area, which can make it easier to find a good location, get set up and stay compliant. These applications, along with licensing trackers like Cannabiz Media, can also help you find where cannabis license opportunities are available and send you alerts whenever a state or city is accepting new applications.

Buy materials ahead

This is especially important now with the supply chain crisis still going on, but in general it’s a good idea to start gathering all the materials you need as soon as you’re certain about expanding. In IT in particular, pretty much everything including cash drawers, receipt printers, tablets, POS terminals, firewall appliances and laptops has been in pretty short supply. We’ve heard that it’s the same for just about all materials that go into setting up a new cannabis location whether it’s a dispensary, cultivation, distribution or manufacturing facility.

Lab technicians use the Hunter device during a test process. InstantLabs manufactures the Hunter system as well as test kits for food pathogens and species identification such as the catfish testing commercialization agreement outlined with the FDA.
In IT in particular, pretty much everything has been in short supply.

We’ve stayed on top of it and avoided delays by buying months ahead, purchasing a surplus of product and maintaining close communication with our vendors and distributors; we suggest you do the same for any products you’re purchasing internally.

If you’re buying online and the store says “in-stock,” you may want to contact the store/vendor to double-check that it’s accurate. Sometimes you buy it and you find out that “in-stock” means its parts are “in-stock” in a factory in Asia somewhere and your product is still months away from being manufactured, shipped and delivered to you.

Promote from within

When you’re growing is a good time to promote the all-stars already on your team, giving them a chance to expand their skills and take on greater responsibilities. We’ve seen this with some of our clients where they promote their star budtenders to shift leads or managers at their new stores, and store managers to district managers in new territories. It works out for everyone – the employee gets a raise and a step up the ladder, and you ensure you maintain your company’s culture and fill important positions with people you already know and trust (not to mention it’s often more cost-efficient to hire from within like this than to bring in someone new).

Hire from without when necessary

Sometimes promoting from within isn’t an option, like when you need someone with a particular skillset or level of experience.

Maybe your current COO has done a great job opening and operating 5 stores, but what about 50? If you want a sure thing, you’ll want to hire someone that’s already shown they can handle 50 or more stores, and most likely you’ll have to look outside the cannabis industry to find it.

You’re seeing this more and more in the cannabis industry – some are promoting from within, but many are also hiring experts from other companies and from outside the industry, including lots of people with strong retail, food manufacturing, merchandising, packaged goods and highly regulated goods (especially alcohol) backgrounds.

This can be more expensive than promoting from within and can potentially have a negative influence on company culture and morale, but on the other hand you’re getting valuable expertise that can help you take your cannabis business to the next level; and plus, you may even be able to hire these people at a relative bargain since there are many out there that are eager to work in such an exciting, new and high-growth industry.

Be ready for things to break down

Even if you’re fully prepared, you should still expect some kind of hiccup or hurdle with any new location rollout. It’s just the way it is on projects with an ambitious timeline and a lot of moving parts. The usual culprits are routine construction delays, cable companies and other utilities screwing up, storms, and having to adjust your schedule according to government inspectors on short notice. On some of our jobs in Canada, for example, we’ve run into a few blizzards and cameras and wires getting knocked out/frozen over; and on one occasion we were moderately inconvenienced setting up a store just up the street from the 2022 Ottawa trucker protests.

Don’t panic, don’t get frustrated. Your careful planning will at least ensure that most things go right, giving you the flexibility to react to the things that don’t.

Consider avoiding unlimited license markets

MedicineManTechGrow
Even if you’re fully prepared, you should still expect some kind of hiccup or hurdle with any new location rollout.

There’s a reason many MSOs avoid unlimited license markets like Oklahoma and Oregon. Limited license markets provide protection against competition. Unlimited license states are often free-for-alls and a race-to-the-bottom on pricing. They’re much tougher markets.

Have a vision

Rather than just wanting to grow and make a lot money, it can be helpful to have a unique, compelling and somewhat clear vision for your company, like Superette’s “making buying cannabis as fun as using it.” This helps you motivate your team, maintain your focus and cohesiveness as you add lots of new people, and differentiate yourself in a crowded market.

Consider franchising where it’s legal and makes sense

Our client Tokyo Smoke has opened over 80 locations in just over 3 years of operations. If that seems like too much growth for one company, you’re sort of right – some of Tokyo Smoke’s stores aren’t company-owned, they’re actually separately owned and managed franchises.

Now franchising a cannabis business isn’t legal everywhere at the moment, but where it is legal it’s a time-tested method of growing your brand and company footprint fast, and establishing dominant mindshare and market share that can’t easily be challenged or reversed.

Consider M&A

Sometimes M&A is the only option for breaking into a new market, like if the market is already oversaturated or not accepting new applications. Established cannabis businesses can start at $1-$10 million per location depending on the situation. Don’t quote us on it, but with some markets becoming saturated and sales declining in areas like Oregon and Canada, you may be able to get a good deal from someone that wants out of the business before things gets worse – assuming you’re bullish on a market rebound or think you can perform better in the market than the current owner.

The Rise of a New Market… And a New Consumer

By Christiane Campbell
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The adult beverage industry, like any other category of consumer branded products, is driven by trends. If you’re old enough to remember Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, you probably also remember Zima and Smirnoff Ice, and more recently “healthy” options like Skinny Girl and Michelob Ultra. The sensation that was craft beer saw many brands being acquired by Big Alcohol so that while the brands remain, ownership and production have changed significantly. Gin, tequila and vodka have had their moments in the sun and the current market is undeniably saturated with what is probably the largest current trend – hard seltzers. However, with the seltzer craze waning, many are wondering what’s next. And with the growing sober/California sober trends, some are betting it is cannabis-infused beverages.

Cannabis-infused beverages offer both an alternative method of consumption of cannabis and are also an attractive alternative to alcohol. Infused beverages are more appealing to the new demographic of casually curious cannabis consumers. i.e., consumers that may not be interested in smoking a joint or vaping, but are comfortable micro-dosing from a can or bottle, as they would a seltzer or beer. The same type of consumer may be moving away from alcohol consumption to eliminate hangovers or other negative health effects.

The emerging market and curious consumer group present an enormous opportunity right now for cannabis-infused beverage brands. Of course, with opportunity and growth come challenges. And while cannabis-infused beverages face a host of legal and regulatory challenges relative to sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, shipping, marketing, distribution and sale, one of the most critically important business assets to address at inception is the brand.

Lines are Blurring, Gaps are Being Bridged

The U.S. cannabis market is currently a geographic hamburger. Hear me out: Geographically, you have a relatively mature market out west and a relatively new and growing market along the east coast. These are the buns. You have a mixed bag in between, with some states coming online and allowing medical or adult use cannabis use and others that have not yet embraced any form of legalization. The landscape has lent itself to the development of regional brands, such that brands that are so similar they might otherwise confuse consumers, have been able to co-exist in different regions without issue, or because there is little to no trade channel or market overlap. Similarly, adult beverages and cannabis have historically been separate verticals, with an arguably low likelihood that a consumer would assume a particular cannabis product and adult beverage product emanate from the same source.

A drink additive, made by Splash Nano, that uses nano emulsion technology

However, lines are blurring and gaps are being bridged. Walls are breaking down. The increasing number of states coming online with legalized cannabis, and the proliferation of multi-state operators (MSOs), means that cannabis brands can grow to be more than siloed regional brands. This will inevitably lead to brands that previously co-existed bumping into one another and there’s bound to be some pushing and shoving. The advent of infused beverages likewise bridges the gap between cannabis products and alcoholic beverages. While the respective industries were not historically per se related, competing, or overlapping, now you’ve got infused beverages that bridge the gap between the two, and traditional alcohol brands (e.g., Boston Beer Company, Molson Coors, Lagunitas, Pabst.) entering the market (albeit under different brands). This makes a strong argument that cannabis and alcohol (or, more generally, adult beverages) are within each other’s logical zones of expansion, for purposes of a likelihood of confusion analysis.

The growing pains infused beverage brands will experience are analogous to those craft beers saw in the 2000 – 2010s. Many craft brewers had catchy, cheeky names and brands that contributed to their ability to engage consumers and develop a following, but failure to clear and protect the brands prior to launch detracted from the brands’ market values. Localized use prior to expansion also led to many brands bumping into one another and stepping on each other’s trademark toes. This was significant as the brands sought investment dollars or an exit strategy, making clear that the brand itself contributed heavily to valuation.

Mitigating Risks and Overcoming Challenges: Search and Protect 

The risks and challenges can be significantly mitigated and/or overcome with proper preliminary clearance searching and assessments, and by seeking and obtaining state or federal protection for the brand or brands, to the extent possible.

Quatreau CBD infused sparkling water

Of course, clearance searches and assessments come with their own challenges, as does federal protection. With respect to clearance searches, these typically look at U.S. federal and state trademark databases. These resources are not sufficient for purposes of clearing a proposed cannabis brand. Many brands are not recorded at the federal or state level and indeed may not even show up in a basic search engine. An appropriate search looks at social media resources like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and known cannabis resources like Leafly and Weedmaps. Additionally, the scope of the search should exceed cannabis products and services and at least look at alcohol and merchandise. Adoption and use of a brand for a cannabis-infused beverage is high risk if that brand is similar to a prior existing alcohol brand. A current example is Cointreau’s taking aim at Canopy’s adoption and use of QUATREAU for an infused beverage.

A U.S. federal trademark registration presents its own unique challenges, but is incredibly valuable and beneficial to a brand since it provides the owner with a nationwide presumption of ownership and validity in a trademark, and can also secure priority for the owner with a constructive first use in commerce date that is years before actual use of a mark begins. The U.S. Trademark Office categorically denies protection of brands that violate its “lawful use” rule, and will treat as per se unlawful any applied for mark that covers marijuana, or that covers foods, beverages or pharmaceuticals that contain CBD. With respect to brands that cover products containing THC, since it is federally scheduled, use of the brand would violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). With respect to brands that cover CBD or products containing CBD, these may be lawful pursuant to the Farm Bill and the U.S. Trademark Office’s subsequent allowance of marks that claim CBD “solely derived from hemp with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis,” however under the Food Drug Cosmetics Act (FDCA) it is currently federally unlawful to introduce CBD – even if it fits the definition above – into foods or beverages.

Even if cannabis is not specifically claimed in a trademark application, cannabis brands have a natural gravitation toward names and logos that can do some of their marketing for them, and announce to the world they cover cannabis. This increases the chances that a trademark application for the brand will get push-back from the U.S. Trademark Office, and if not at the initial review stage, then at the point in time when the brand must submit to the U.S. Trademark Office a sample of (lawful) use of the applied-for mark. While this all sounds like bad news for cannabis-infused beverages, all is not lost.

There are typically ancillary and federally lawful products and services cannabis companies offer under their brands that can be covered in a U.S. federal trademark application, and arguments to be made that registered protection of a brand for the ancillary items should be sufficient to enforce against third parties using the same or confusingly similar brands in their space. Some cannabis brands’ lawful ancillary products are actually product lines (e.g., beverages) offered under the same brand that contain no cannabis. Others may be more causally related, like online forums and blogs. The former is closer to the actual product, and the latter would be more beneficial to a brand that is inherently stronger and more distinctive. One note of caution: A trademark application and eventual registration that expressly disclaim cannabis (THC or CBD) may be difficult to enforce against a third party using the same or a similar mark on and in connection with cannabis. So, while there is a natural inclination to follow a U.S. Trademark Office request to disclaim coverage of cannabis, there may be enforcement consequences down the road.

The cannabis-infused beverage market is poised for explosive growth. The brands that survive – and succeed – will be those that position themselves for growth by clearing and buttoning up their brands as early as possible. The market leaders will be those that select strong and distinctive brands, with geographic and market space around them for growth and expansion; and those that protect and enforce their brands, to the extent possible, at the federal and/or state levels.

steep-hill-labs-logo

Steep Hill Expands to Illinois with New Lab

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Last week, Steep Hill announced their expansion into Illinois with a new cannabis testing lab partner licensed in Ottawa, IL. Illinois became the eleventh state to legalize adult use cannabis back in 2019. It’s also the eleventh market that Steep Hill has opened a laboratory in.

Co-founders Nick Etten, John Tinsley and Matt Grabowski will lead the new Steep Hill venture. Etten will lead the team as SVP of external affairs, who comes from Acreage holdings and the Veterans Cannabis Project. Tinsley comes from a consulting background at EY-Parthenon and Grabowski comes from a background in finance.

According to the press release, the new Steep Hill location in Ottawa is “within a 90-minute drive of the largest MSOs in Illinois.” The lab will provide full regulatory compliance testing panels in addition to R&D testing, according to Tinsley. “We are currently building out the lab,” says Tinsley. “We will also provide research and development testing services for cultivators and processors; supporting our partners in the development of new products and supporting their growth.”

Steep Hill is often touted as the first cannabis testing lab in the United States, with its headquarters in Berkeley, California. The company has been testing cannabis for thirteen years now.

The Importance of Smart Cannabis Packaging

By John Shearman
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Regardless of their size, all consumer package brands spend a significant amount of money and resources on packaging to attract consumers’ attention. We are all very visually oriented and gravitate to items that pique our interests. Cannabis brands are no exception when it comes to branding their products. Packaging plays a big part in carrying their brand forward and standing out on the dispensary shelves. When I was in Las Vegas at a CBD tradeshow in early 2020, I visited a dispensary, and it was beautiful. I remember commenting to a colleague that was with me how spectacular the product packaging was in the glass cases. One had unique artwork on each different product they offered, and it was indeed art. Yes, I did purchase this one that pulled me in.

The cannabis industry in the United States presents a challenge to brands because there is no overall federal guidance for packaging. Each state is controlling the cannabis legislation and, with it, the packaging guidelines. So multi-state operators (MSOs) have to manage each state as a separate entity and abide by the packaging regulations, which is not very efficient and adds a cost burden. As the industry matures and becomes federally legal across the country, packaging regulations will be easier to implement.

Louis Vuitton bags are one of the many goods that are commonly counterfeited
Image: UK Home Office, Flickr

Let’s take a look at counterfeit products across all product categories. There is a significant global problem with counterfeits, as articulated by the below statistics.

The total global trade in fakes is estimated at around $4.5 trillion. 

Fake luxury merchandise accounts for 60% to 70% of that amount, ahead of pharmaceuticals, entertainment products and representing perhaps a quarter of the estimated $1.2 trillion total trade in luxury goods.

Digital plays a big role in this and perhaps 40% of the sales in luxury fakes take place online.

Customs and Border Patrol confiscated $1.3 billion worth of counterfeit goods in the U.S. for Fiscal Year 2020. (The value of 2020’s seizures are actually down compared to the $1.5 billion worth of counterfeit goods seized by CBP in 2019).

Unfortunately, the figures above are concerning, and the cannabis industry will face the same counterfeit issues that will add to these stats in the future. What can be done to help fight the problem and alleviate the pain for cannabis brands? Smart technology.

The trend towards “smart technology” varies by sector, but the underlying concept involves building levels of technology systems designed to impede or limit the highly sophisticated counterfeiter from replicating or replacing products. These levels typically include a forensic level control on the product, digital systems to track the material and customer facing systems to articulate the underlying value to the consumer.

Building these levels of smart technology into cannabis-products and packaging allows consumers to authenticate real versus fake, and in the case often in cannabis, legal versus illegal. Molecular technology is one forensic level of control option that can be used as a unique identifier for product authentication. Each brand would get its unique identifier to apply to the raw materials that make up its product, such as oil or an isolate. Then a sample can be tested at the origin point and subsequent nodes in the supply chain using a remote testing device. All the digital data is captured in a secure cloud database for traceability and transparency to the end consumer, to show them the authenticity of the product they are consuming. The same molecular technology can be applied to the ink or varnish for packaging and labels. A great application to help combat counterfeits and product diversion across the globe.

Counterfeiters can create near duplicate versions of the original

Another engaging platform is called StrainSecure by TruTrace Technologies. Their SAAS platform allows cannabis manufacturers to track all their product batches and SKUs tied to a blockchain. It also facilitates the interaction between the manufacturer and third-party testing facilities to conduct product testing and reporting. The data is captured within the platform, and with easy access dashboard views, it provides the insights to authenticate products at any time.

A company out of Australia called Laava is producing a product called Smart Fingerprints. It’s the next evolution of QR codes. The Smart Fingerprints can be applied to each package, providing a unique identifier that consumers can read with a mobile phone application. The consumer is provided with information concerning the product’s authenticity and any additional information the brand wants to share with the user. Smart Fingerprints are a great example of customer engagement at the point of activity that is secure.

The above three solutions show the availability of advanced technologies the cannabis industry can implement on its packaging and products to ensure authentic and safe products are sold to consumers. It provides consumers with vital information and insights about products so they can make informed buying decisions. There is no one silver bullet solution that provides all the answers. As with every high value product, counterfeiters will work to create near duplicate versions of the original until it becomes unsustainable to do so. It will take a technology ecosystem to seamlessly connect and provide actuate and timely information between supply chain partners and ultimately the end consumer. As the US works to separate the legal from illegal production for both the adult use and medical supply of cannabis, the looming challenge will be on protecting and communicating authenticity, packaging will be the first step in this.

Flower-Side Chats Part 5: A Q&A with Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed, Inc.

By Aaron Green
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In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

Multi-state operators (MSOs) are on the rise in the United States, navigating complex regulatory frameworks to drive profitability through economies of scale and scope. As an MSO and an early mover in the space, a significant part of MariMed’s current strategy is to complete the acquisition and consolidation of the licensed state cannabis businesses it has developed. It takes seasoned leadership to make that happen, and MariMed’s is led by one of the most experienced and successful MSO management teams in the industry. Over the last eight years, Bob Fireman and his colleagues have won 17 licenses in 6 states, and designed and developed over 300,000 square feet of cannabis cultivation, production and dispensing facilities.

MariMed has also developed a portfolio of award-winning cannabis brands and infused products which are licensed, manufactured and distributed in Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico. A recently announced $46 million financing for a facility with Hadron Healthcare Fund will help repay all MariMed debt other than mortgage-backed bank loans and one convertible note, as well as help upgrade and expand the company’s owned and managed cannabis facilities.

We spoke with Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed. Bob started the foundations of MariMed in 2008 after getting into large-scale hydroponics for urban sustainable agriculture. Prior to MariMed, Bob served as a startup lawyer focused on tech and emerging industries.

Aaron Green: Bob, tell me about how you got started in the cannabis industry.

Bob Fireman: I practiced law for decades. Part of my practice was to help startups in all sorts of industries, particularly technology and new emerging markets. At one point, I was introduced to a fascinating sustainable food business opportunity – to build hydroponic farms on rooftops in cities across the country.

Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed, Inc.

When one of our projects in San Francisco hit some roadblocks, our team there pivoted to what was becoming the Wild West of California cannabis. My friend and current MariMed CFO, Jon Levine, and I began investing and managing a cultivation site there. That’s where we built our early foundation of industry knowledge.

Fast forward a few years, and I was afforded the opportunity to be involved in the drafting of the proposed Massachusetts medical cannabis legislation.

Through that work, we met a team that had won one of three cannabis licenses in Rhode Island. We formed a real estate LLC and raised the capital to develop a seed to sale cannabis facility in Providence, which was later leased to the Slater Center, a not-for-profit medical cannabis licensed business. Today, the Slater Center is a nationally acclaimed operation that services over 10,000 medical patients.

From there, we took our know-how and formed a new entity that was the formal beginning of the company we now know as MariMed. Initially, we helped win licenses for clients in Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland, Illinois and Nevada. We also provided management services, working capital and other necessities. Under our management, we organically built these businesses from the ground up, advancing best practices and somewhat quietly creating a network of best-in-class operations throughout the industry.

That led to the consolidation of those businesses that we’re focused on today as a core strategic pillar.

I’m incredibly proud of our team, the core of which has been at this for 10 years. We’ve watched other MSOs try different models of success, with varying degrees of success. For us, focusing on growth markets, building at a reasonable and scalable clip, attracting incredible talent at all levels of the company, and developing fantastic brands that customers love, are the ingredients that have translated to where we are now – strong performance and an exceptionally bright future. “Slow and steady wins the race” has become a mantra.

Green: What trends are you looking at right now? What’s on your radar?

Fireman: My radar has a singular focus, and that’s to create shareholder value. That’s why completing the consolidation of the cannabis licensed businesses we’ve developed and manage into our public company is so critical. Back in the day, the initial available licenses were in medical-only state programs where applicants were required to be not-for-profit state companies. Accordingly, we raised the capital in the real estate entity which leased facilities to the licensees. Our revenue was from rents, management services and licensing fees.

Panacea Wellness in Middleborough, MA is one of MariMed’s adult use cannabis dispensaries

In 2019, we implemented a new strategic plan to consolidate these businesses. While that translates to our being structured similarly to other MSOs in that we are a vertically integrated seed to sale company, we are distinct in our operational excellence, quality product portfolio, and strong balance sheet. Other MSOs have raised large amounts of capital to pay large sums to acquire licensed state cannabis businesses and have found themselves over-leveraged and challenged to assimilate other companies’ methodologies and cultures. By consolidating the businesses and talented people we developed and managed from day one and utilizing our best practices and processes system-wide, we realize enormous capital efficiencies.

Our strategy is paying off. Our core cannabis revenue in 2020 increased 207% to $50.9 million, and our 10k reported EBITDA of $16.3 million. And now we’re on track to double our revenue in 2021.

The last piece of the puzzle is to let the world know what we’ve been doing. Slow and steady has worked for us but gone are the days of doing so quietly. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and exceedingly bullish on what’s to come.

Green: What do you look for in an M&A target?

Fireman: When M&A makes sense for us, we first look for single operators and entrepreneurs in states where we are not active and look to partner with business leaders that had the vision and the courage to get into this industry and build solid cannabis businesses from the ground up. I’m looking for businesses that could benefit from being part of a larger, more experienced and well-capitalized company like MariMed. Obviously, as an MSO with a solid platform, MariMed is approached regularly by other MSOs and banks suggesting candidates for M&A opportunities. Lining up with a company that has complementary cannabis licenses in other states and who shares our vision and ethics could be a win-win situation. They must embrace our commitment to diversity, the environment and proper corporate governance. We have been somewhat reticent to do this until we see some increase in our share price and market capitalization.

Green: Are there any new products, or product trends that you’re looking at?

Fireman: Marimed looks to be the most trusted source of high-quality cannabis products that consistently delivers innovative health and wellness solutions to our patients and customers. Our lab scientists are constantly creating and testing new and innovative formulations of cannabinoid compounds including CBD, THCa, CBG, CBN and others that will improve the health and wellness of our customers.

Our brand portfolio is ever-expanding with new and better product offerings. Our award-winning Betty’s Eddies Fruit Chews brand is adding new SKUs of varieties and flavors for both medical and adult use programs. Our Nature’s Heritage flower and concentrates brand is adding a line of solventless concentrates, live rosin, as well as new formulations for RSO, an oil popular with medical patients. Kalm Fusion is expanding its successful line of powdered drink mixes as we see more movement in the cannabis beverage category.

Microdosing is hugely popular right now, and we’re rolling out products in the 2-5mg dosage range. Health and dietary concerns are top of mind as well, and we offer products that are vegan, sugar-free and gluten-free. Ultimately, we want to be sure that we have something on the shelves for every single consumer. The financial hardship created by the pandemic has made consumers more attracted to value added products such as popcorn buds.

Green: You recently announced an equity financing from Hadron. I’m curious to learn more about it from a nuts-and-bolts perspective if you can share any of that information.

Fireman: Over the last year, access to the capital markets for equity raises in cannabis public companies was difficult. The cost of debt was and is still high, and we were looking for a long-term financial partner that understood the industry and could assist us. Hadron Capital has been successful for several years investing in some of the most successful MSOs and they saw the value and potential in MariMed’s experienced management and great assets.

Hadron invested $46 million in equity in MariMed this March. Approximately $16 million was utilized to retire all our short- and long-term debt but for bank secured debt and one convertible note. $7 million is committed to funding our capex and expanding the capabilities of our facilities, enabling us to grow more flower and automate production. The balance of funding will support our consolidation strategy to fund two more roll ups of state licensed cannabis businesses into the public company.

Going forward, it is comforting to have a capital partner to assist us in future acquisitions and M&A opportunities.

Green: I’d love to learn more about your Nature’s Heritage brand, particularly as it relates to the cultivation and the flower products.

Fireman: Our COO Tim Shaw has assembled a cultivation and production team with expertise in all aspects of genetics, growing methodologies, extraction techniques, and packaging innovation. That’s provided us a rich collection of quality genetics that make up Nature’s Heritage, our top-selling flower, oil and concentrate brand in Massachusetts and Maryland. We’ve recently expanded the line to include Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) and solventless concentrates (including live rosin) and have been receiving stellar feedback.

Green: What are you interested in learning more about?

Fireman: Over the last decade, the MariMed core team has seen the emergence and amazing growth of the cannabis industry. The initial medical programs in California and Colorado have now led to some form of legal medical or adult use cannabis programs in over 33 states and districts.

We are most interested in learning and following the federal, state, and international laws and regulations. It is vital to know how these laws will affect our company and the industry as a whole. When might full federal legalization become a reality? What might different versions of the law be? Will state legal programs be protected as well as the companies that took the risk in investing in the industry at its nascent state and how? What will FDA requirements and regulations look like? What medical claims will companies be allowed to make, and what kind of research or trials will be required to put a product on the shelf? What are the ramifications of the MORE Act or the SAFE Banking Act?

Responsible MSOs need to be prepared to rise to or above the standards of care of other industries. A lot of this was impossible in the past because of federal prohibition laws. Soon, if not already, labs and manufacturing processes will need to be GMP certified and more. Consumer data will need to be HIPAA compliant. Cannabis companies have to be good corporate citizens: diversity and equal opportunity should be embedded in business decisions, and commitment to ESG and sound environmental and social policies with good corporate governance need to be in planning and implemented.

Following the laws and holding ourselves to the highest possible safety and business standards will allow the cannabis industry to finally become “mainstream.”

Green: Alright, great. Thank you, Bob. That concludes the interview!

Hardware Platforms in Cannabis: A Q&A with Mike McDonald, President and CEO of Ammonite

By Aaron Green
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More and more we are seeing the development of proprietary hardware platforms in cannabis. With proprietary technology in hand, manufacturers often lean on MSOs, LPs and other brand partners to grow their business through existing sales channels.

We spoke with Mike McDonald, President and CEO at Ammonite, to learn more about the history of the Dablicator™ platform and Ammonite’s North American brand partner strategy. Mike formed Ammonite as a spin-off company from Jetty Extracts after getting to know the founders in a real estate transaction. Prior to Ammonite, Mike was an operator in the manufacturing and product development space, having helped to launch the Giant bicycle brand as well as growing and eventually selling the Atlas Snowshoe Company to K2 Sports.

Aaron: How did you get involved in cannabis?

Mike: Well, like a lot of folks in the industry, my background is pretty eclectic. I come primarily from an operator’s perspective – I’ve been in manufacturing, product development and company growth for my whole career. I lived in Taiwan for several years and helped to launch the Giant bicycle brand worldwide. I was also involved with a ski business that was started at Stanford as a thesis project called Atlas Snowshoe Company. Fast-forward, we built it into the largest snowshoe brand and activity in the US and later sold it to K2 Sports. So, I’ve always been involved in the growth of product-related businesses.

Mike McDonald, President and CEO at Ammonite

I’ve also done some real estate development as well; I actually sold our building to the Jetty guys, which is how we met. In that process, I got involved with their company, helped Jetty reorganize its business model, raise some money, and then just got addicted to the whole industry and really found it fascinating. I liked the team at Jetty and couldn’t resist jumping in, and now I’ve been full-time in the business for over three years.

Aaron: How did you get involved in Ammonite?

Mike: Ammonite is actually a spin out company from Jetty Extracts, which is one of the largest brands in California. Our main Ammonite product is called the Dablicator™ Oil Applicator, which was originally invented at Jetty as a medical device for cancer patients. We saw a big demand for it as a private label partnership product, so we decided to spin out a separate hardware company and really focus on developing unique IP and CBD and cannabis related hardware.

Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?

Mike: Certainly the MSOs of the world are really expanding and the top three to five are making a mark with growth and more sophistication in the market. I think the social equity movement is really a big component that we’re all excited about in the industry. You’re seeing the larger players really put their money where their mouth is around that. We’ve always been a big part of that in California.

Specifically, regarding trends in the cannabis space, Colorado and California are probably the two most mature markets. We generally say what’s happening in California and Colorado eventually make their way out to the rest of the world. Vaping was invented in California and Colorado, and now it’s a huge part of the business where before, four or five years ago, the market was mostly flower-centric.

There’s a trend away from inhalables, with more awareness around lung-related illnesses and of course COVID, so we’re seeing a big growth in edibles, drinks and so forth. Interestingly enough, although it’s an inhalable, infused pre-rolls are a big growth sector as well. Jetty is actually launching an infused pre-roll program in February.

Folks are looking for ways to get their medicine without smoking – and this has definitely led to a growth in the oil application business. Oil application has traditionally been delivered via a syringe. Dablicator™ oil applicator is essentially an improved, more convenient syringe. On the medical side, patients have been taking oil sublingually, putting it in food and drink and so forth for years because a lot of them can’t smoke. As that trend transfers over to the adult use market, oil application is becoming really big. You can take it sublingually; you can put it in your food or beverage. On the recreational side, you can add it to your loose flower or joints, or of course, dab it directly onto your rig via the heat resistant tip.

Further, you’re probably familiar with a lot of these portable dab rigs that are taking off, like the G Pen Roam and the Puffco Peak and a variety of others. So now you can dab on the go with your standard wax and shatter in a jar. It’s just not the most convenient way if you’re up on a hike or on a mountain bike ride. So now, with a portable dab rig and something like the Dablicator™ oil applicator, you can have a really convenient mess-free way to enjoy cannabis. The big growth in concentrates and areas that aren’t necessarily inhalables is where our product hardware really fits in.

Aaron: How did you come up with the idea for the Dablicator?

Mike: The Jetty team had a friend that had brain cancer. He was doing a lot of chemotherapy and was having trouble eating and keeping weight on and he couldn’t smoke. So, the guys at Jetty began to bring him cannabis oil, which he was able to use ingesting it from a spoon initially and it really helped him with his pain, his anxiety and his appetite. In that process, we realized that there wasn’t really a great way to deliver oil. Syringes were there, but they were kind of sketchy and they weren’t convenient.

So, the Jetty team developed a better mousetrap. Several iterations later, this Dablicator™ product was ready for patients. In fact, it became a big part of the Jetty Shelter Project, a non-profit where the team delivers cannabis to cancer patients, and it was a very much sought-after product delivery device in that world. So, it was developed inside of a need on the medical side and it’s really sort of grown inside the expansion on the adult-use side.

Aaron: Can you explain how the Dablicator™ oil applicator works from a perspective of form and function?

Mike: Pre-Dablicator™ you would use a syringe type product – for direct oil application, sublingual application, or as an add on to your flower. The difference between Dablicator™ oil applicator and a traditional syringe is that Dablicator™ is a twist and plunge product. Imagine a pen filled with oil, but instead of inhaling it, you’re able to dispense it through a tip that is heat resistant, which means you can apply directly to your dab rig nail. You’re able to put it in your pocket without fear of cannabis oil leakage. It’s discreet, precise, compact and portable.

Aaron: How does the user dose using Dablicator™ oil applicator?

Mike: Basically, there’s measurements on the plunger of 55 milligrams apiece – one click is 55 milligrams, and you can dispense as many clicks as you like. What’s cool about the product itself is if you’ve clicked too many times accidentally, you can back it off and the excess oil won’t dispense. You can go to dablicator.com and see demo videos as well.

Aaron: Dablicator™ oil applicator started as a Jetty Extracts spin-off. I see you are now white labeling for other oil brands. How do you go about selecting your partners?

Mike: We call it our brand partner program. It’s not too dissimilar to what other hardware manufacturers, like PAX and GPen, are doing. We’ve got a patented and innovative device where our brand partners, MSOs and leading brands throughout the US and Canada, can take their existing vape and tincture oils and offer them in Dablicator™ oil applicator hardware.

Our focus is signing up major, well respected brands and MSOs on to the “platform,” meaning they are able to immediately offer between six and ten new SKUs to their consumers. They take their existing oils, put them into a custom branded Dablicator™ hardware unit and add their custom branded packaging. It’s a full turnkey solution. For example, one of our partners, 710 Labs, is developing their RSO and were shopping for a delivery method specifically geared towards medical patients. Within eight weeks, we had a custom program for them and delivered hardware, and we assisted on the packaging front as well.

Our partners have to be reputable folks that are interested in developing or delivering oil in a unique and innovative way. Frankly, our early partners are those that see where the growth is. 710 Labs is on the platform, as well as Surterra in Florida, Ancient Roots in Ohio, and we’ve got multiple conversations going to some of the other MOSs and the LPs in Canada.

Aaron: Are the brand partners loading the oil applicator themselves?

Mike: We customize the product for them and then ship them unassembled and empty. In their lab, they use the same machinery and equipment they use to fill their vape cartridges. They then fill their Dablicator™, assemble it, package it and ship it out just like any other product that they’re processing and manufacturing.

Aaron: What kind of oils are suitable for Dablicator™?

Mike: Pretty much any oil that’s going into a vape cart is suitable and then some. Some of our customers, including Jetty, started out with a THC distillate. Live resin is becoming a big product category in California as well as solventless oils. Dablicator™ oil applicator can accommodate everything from distillate to live resin to solventless to RSO and even full spectrum CBD. If it can flow, if it doesn’t crystallize up like shatter and sugars and diamonds, you can put it into Dablicator™, even the thickest of oils. It’s designed to contain any kind of liquids that are flammable.

Aaron: What geographies are you currently in?

Mike: We’re in multiple states throughout the US and actually just signed up with an LP in Canada. We only launched the program in August of 2020, and today we’ve got partners California, Colorado, Ohio, Arizona, Missouri, Florida, soon to be Michigan, Illinois, and throughout Canada.

Aaron: Any plans for international expansion beyond North America?

Mike: We’re getting inquiries on a regular basis from all over the place, including internationally. We’re in conversations with some folks down in Brazil. Spain is actually a big cannabis market and we’re having some conversations with some folks there. The inquiries are coming in faster than we can process the relationships, but right now our major focus is on North America.

Aaron: What are your goals with Ammonite?

Mike: We are developing a category, right? So today, oil dispensing isn’t top of mind. Today, if you want oil, you go into a dispensary and say, “Hey, give me those syringes.” My goal is that a year from now, you can walk into Harborside in Oakland and you see a wall of different branded Dablicator™ oil applicators. The goal is to really turn the oil dispensing business into a category, and then position Dablicator™ oil applicator as the best and leading product in that category.

Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?

Mike: Well, I’ve got two teenagers – two daughters, as a matter of fact, a freshman and a senior – and they’re being homeschooled right now. So that’s been quite an interesting development!

I think on the cannabis side, it’s just fascinating what it is as a business model. It’s the most recent multi-billion-dollar opportunity in consumer products. You only get a chance to participate in something like that maybe once in a lifetime. I’m really looking forward to seeing it become more adopted into the mainstream and it’s already becoming that way from a consumer perspective. I am watching the cannabis market become legal from a federal perspective, hoping that the social equity component of the industry really stays with it.

I’ve been in a lot of businesses over the years; I feel like one of the gray hairs in this business that is actually an operator versus someone who came over from the financial side. I am continuing to learn, grow and work with great people and this has been a really amazing experience for me.

Aaron: Okay, great. Mike, that’s the end of the interview. Thank you for your time today!