In a very interesting chain of events, the Northeast is legalizing adult use cannabis at a rapid pace in 2021. The incremental progress is similar to the history of legalization in the western United States and the events leading up to 2016.
In Rhode Island, senators approved Senate Bill 568 and now heads to the House where a legislative session ends in less than a week. While it is doubtful that representatives will be able to get it done before the end of the month, it is entirely possible that they could pass the bill and legalize cannabis before the end of this year.
In doing so, it opened the door to an industry that many experts agree could exceed $7 billion annually, once the market is fully established. That’s potential the cannabis market hasn’t seen since Washington became the first Pacific state to legalize adult use cannabis, almost 10 years ago (followed shortly after by Colorado, then Oregon in 2014 and California in 2016).
Unfortunately, the leaders of this great country have yet to follow suit, and cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. For those in the cannabis market, this means that state-licensed cannabis businesses must cultivate and sell their products within the confines of the state in which they are licensed. Nothing can cross state lines. Even if a business is licensed in both Vermont and New York, it can’t ship product from one state to the other without running afoul of federal legislation. Most in the East Coast cannabis market view this as a negative.
While it certainly makes things more difficult, a small group of forward-thinking investors and entrepreneurs see this for what it really is: an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and establish state-specific grow operations and other supply-chain waypoints, where none or few currently exist. Think of the current state of the East Coast cannabis market as a beachhead. Right now, the industry is defined by state lines. But when the federal government finally legalizes adult use cannabis from coast to coast—and it’s only a matter of time before it does—those state lines will essentially disappear. When they do, the beachheads established now will become the infrastructure for the entire Eastern seaboard.
Take Virginia, for example. It shares its border with five states that have legalized medical cannabis but have yet to cross the bridge into adult use sales (West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina). A Virginia-based grow operation built now has the potential to serve not just those five states but other contiguous markets including Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Carolina, and even Alabama, Georgia and Indiana. A relatively small investment now could pay huge dividends in just a few years, when the market literally blows wide open.
It’s this incredible potential that makes the rise of the East Coast cannabis market one of the most important developments in the last five years. And while the potential scale of grow operations and other cannabis businesses is certainly essential to the conversation, let’s not forget that “niche products” within the East Coast cannabis market are still very much up for grabs.
If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that consumers are willing to pay a premium for high-quality, organically grown cannabis. Both new and long-time cannabis enthusiasts will choose — even demand — high-quality, organically grown cannabis that looks, smells and tastes fresh and doesn’t rely on harmful fertilizers, heavy metals or pesticides. They’re also enthusiastic about supporting brands that have a commitment to sustainable, eco-friendly operations.
It’s very much like the current trends we see in the grocery store aisles. Manufacturers and consumers alike are seeing the value of “whole foods.” After decades of relying on heavily processed fare, both suppliers and end-users are benefiting from higher-quality ingredients. Consumers want to know what’s in the stuff they’re putting into their bodies. When it comes to cannabis, they want to know that what they’re taking to alleviate their anxiety doesn’t include harmful chemicals. This demand has the capacity to push revenue even higher.
And when the dam finally breaks and businesses can ship product from state to state, the idea is for growers to be well-positioned geographically to become suppliers of high-quality, organically grown cannabis, for every state east of the Mississippi.
Cannabis businesses in states such as Colorado have had the past decade to prepare for the coming boom, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to join the party. The rise of the East Coast market parallels what Colorado and the other Pacific states experienced in the early-to-mid teens—the potential to become a very real industry, with huge capacity for growth and profit. Get in on that action now!
The East Coast cannabis market—and, indeed, the entire U.S. market—also sits on the verge of another game-changing trend: following in the footsteps of other markets and realizing sooner rather than later that high-quality, organically grown, eco-friendly cannabis is the next stage of the game. Few investors and entrepreneurs see that right now, but the astute businessperson can capitalize on both trends now and position themselves and their businesses for huge returns in the very near future. The rise of the East Coast cannabis market makes that a very real possibility.
The bill establishes the Office of Cannabis Management, which will launch and manage the regulatory system for the commercial cannabis market in New York.
According to Steve Schain, senior attorney at Hoban Law Group, the Office of Cannabis Management will have a five-member board that will oversee not just the adult use cannabis market, but also medical cannabis as well as the state’s hemp market. For the medical market, the new legislation provides for more patient caregivers, home cultivation and an expanded list of qualifying conditions.
Troy Smit, deputy director of the New York NORML chapter, says the bill might not be perfect, but it’s a massive win for the cannabis community. “It’s taken a great amount of work and perseverance by activists, patients, and consumers, to go from being the cannabis arrest capital of the world, to lead the world with a legalized market dedicated to equity, diversity, and inclusion,” says Smith. “This might not be the perfect piece of legislation, but today, cannabis consumers can hold their heads high and smell the flowers.”
The MRTA sets up a two-tier licensing structure that separates growing and processing licenses from dispensary licenses. The bill includes a social equity aspect that requires 50% of the licenses to be awarded to, “minority or women-owned business enterprise, service-disabled veterans or distressed farmers,” says Schain.
Melissa Moore, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says she’s proud of the social equity plan the bill puts in place. “Let’s be clear — the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act is an outright victory for the communities hit hardest by the failed war on drugs,” says Moore. “By placing community reinvestment, social equity, and justice front and center, this law is the new gold standard for reform efforts nationwide. Today we celebrate, tomorrow we work hard to make sure this law is implemented fairly and justly for all New Yorkers.”
Schain says the new tax structure in the bill shifts to the retail level, with a 9% excise tax and 4%-of-the-retail-price local excise tax (split 25%/75% between the respective counties and municipalities). Revenue from cannabis taxes will enter a fund where 40% will go to education, 40% to community grants reinvestment fund and 20% to drug treatment and public education fund.
It appears that businesses already established in New York’s medical market get a head start on the new adult use market, while other businesses enter the license application process, according to Schain. “Although the existing Medical Marijuana licensees should be able to immediately to sell Adult-Use Cannabis, it will take up to two years for the New York’s Adult Use Program to launch and open sales to the public,” says Schain.
On December 16, 2020, Aphria Inc. (TSX: APHA and Nasdaq: APHA) announced a merger with Tilray, Inc. (Nasdaq: TLRY), creating the world’s largest cannabis company. The two Canadian companies combined have an equity value of $3.9 billion.
Following the news of the merger, Tilray’s stock rose more than 21% the same day. Once the reverse-merger is finalized, Aphria shareholders will own 62% of the outstanding Tilray shares. That is a premium of 23% based on share price at market close on the 15th. Based on the past twelve months of reports, the two companies’ revenue totals more than $685 million.
Both of the companies have had international expansion strategies in place well beyond the Canadian market, with an eye focused on the European and United States markets. In Germany, Aphria already has a well-established footprint for distribution and Tilray owns a production facility in Portugal.
About two weeks ago, Aphria closed on their $300 million acquisition of Sweetwater Brewing Company, one of the largest independent craft brewers in the United States. Sweetwater is well known for their 420 Extra Pale Ale, their cannabis-curious lifestyle brands and their music festivals.
Once the Aphria/Tilray merger is finalized, the company will have offices in New York, Seattle, Toronto, Leamington, Vancouver Island, Portugal and in Germany. The new combined company will do business under the Tilray name with shares trading on NASDAQ under ticker symbol “TLRY”.
Aphria’s current chairman and CEO, Irwin Simon, will be the chairman and CEO of the combined company, Tilray. “We are bringing together two world-class companies that share a culture of innovation, brand development and cultivation to enhance our Canadian, U.S., and international scale as we pursue opportunities for accelerated growth with the strength and flexibility of our balance sheet and access to capital,” says Simon. “Our highly complementary businesses create a combined company with a leading branded product portfolio, including the most comprehensive Cannabis 2.0 product offerings for patients and consumers, along with significant synergies across our operations in Canada, Europe and the United States. Our business combination with Tilray aligns with our strategic focus and emphasis on our highest return priorities as we strive to generate value for all stakeholders.”
While the 2020 Presidential election didn’t exactly end up in a clear landslide victory for the Democrats, there is one group that did well: the cannabis industry.
The results clearly show that the expansion of cannabis is a recognizable part of today’s society across the United States. States like New Jersey, for example, partly thanks to New York and Pennsylvania—which already allow the use of medical cannabis—traffic will start to force the state of New York’s hand and that’s a big chunk of the population of the Northeast.
If the question of legalization was on the ballot, it was an issue that overwhelmingly succeeded in delivering a clear mandate. Adult use of cannabis passed handily in Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and as mentioned above, New Jersey, and was approved for medical use in Mississippi and South Dakota.
With only 15 states remaining in the union that still outlaw the use of cannabis in any form, the new reality for the industry is here. All of these outcomes show promise as the industry’s recognition is growing.
Election outcomes and the position of the average American on cannabis
Americans are definitely understanding, appreciating and using cannabis more and more. It is becoming a part of everyday life and this election’s results could be the tipping point that normalizes the adult use of cannabis. It is becoming more widely understood as an effective and acceptable means to help manage stress and anxiety, aid in sleep and general overall wellbeing.
This image of cannabis is aided by the many different forms of consumption that exist now: edibles, transdermal, nano tech, etc. No longer does a consumer have to smoke—which isn’t accepted in many circles—to get the beneficial effects of cannabis.
Knowledge expansion is going to move these products across state lines and eventually, the federal government will have to take notice.
Do Democrats and Republicans view cannabis through the same lens?
Cannabis is and will always be state specific. Republicans in general tend to be a little bit more cautious and there are a lot of pundits who believe that as long as the Republicans control the senate, there isn’t much of a chance for federal legalization.
There is some hope, however, that the industry will get support from the Biden administration. While President-Elect Biden has been on record as being against legalization of cannabis at a federal level, even he will eventually see that the train has left the station and momentum continues to build. In fact, Biden’s tone has changed considerably while he running for president, adding cannabis decriminalization to the Biden-Harris campaign platform.
Ultimately, how cannabis is viewed from each side of the aisle matters less than how it is viewed at the state level.
Cannabis reform under Biden
Biden had an opportunity to legalize cannabis federally in the U.S. during the Obama administration and it didn’t happen. It’s clear that the mandates of the Biden-Harris administration are going to be overwhelmed by current issues, at least in the beginning: COVID-19, the economy and climate change, to name but three.
What will be interesting is if the Biden-Harris administration goes to greater lengths to decriminalize cannabis. For example, cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug on the books, which puts it in the same class as heroin. Biden couldn’t unilaterally remove cannabis from all scheduling, but his government could reschedule it to reduce the implications of its use.
This could, however, create more problems than it solves:
“It’s generally understood, then, that rescheduling weed would blow up the marijuana industry’s existing model, of state-licensed businesses that are not pharmacies selling cannabis products, that are not Food and Drug Administration-reviewed and approved, to customers who are not medical patients.
Biden rescheduling cannabis “would only continue the state-federal conflict, and force both state regulators and businesses to completely reconfigure themselves, putting many people out of business and costing states significant time and money,” as Morgan Fox, chief spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in an email on Monday.” (Source)
In reality however, there is little chance that Biden will spend any political capital that he has, particularly if the Senate remains in Republican control, dealing with the legalization of adult use cannabis.
What needs to happen for legalization to become a reality
Outside of the law, if Trump suddenly decided to legalize adult use cannabis before leaving the White House, the states would still need to agree on issues such as possession, transportation, shipment and taxation.
It’s clear that further normalization of cannabis use is required—which will likely take a good couple of years—in order for it to become as understood and as simple as wine, liquor or cigarettes.
Beyond that, it’s Congress that dictated that cannabis be illegal at the federal level and it will have to be Congress that makes the decision to change that. Even the Supreme Court has been reluctant to get involved in the question, believing this to be an issue that should be dealt within the House.
What does all of this mean for investment in the cannabis industry?
Cannabis should be part of most long-term investors’ portfolios. Like a group of stocks in a healthy market with the right balance sheets, cannabis is an expanding industry and growth is there.
Whether or not this is specifically the right time to invest, it’s always important to evaluate each stock or each company individually, from the point of view of the merits of the investment and investment objectives, as well as risk tolerance perspectives.
There isn’t any unique or special place to buy into the cannabis industry, unless it is connected to some new real estate or other opportunity that is COVID-19 related. This moment in time isn’t really any different from any other when it comes to the opportunity to own some cannabis stocks. It’s always a good time.
The short term returns of this market shouldn’t be speculated upon. There are just way more factors than the fundamentals of a company that will affect the short-term play. The country is in a transition of power, in addition to much international change taking place that can also contribute to returns in the short term, making speculation unhelpful.
The cannabis market in 2021
The cannabis industry is likely to continue to expand and grow with the select companies acquiring more and more and getting back to their cash flow. Some companies will slowly be going out of business and/or will be acquired by others going into a certain consolidation period of time. Whatever the outcomes in specific tourism dominated markets, the industry as a whole can really go in one direction.
By Brett Schuman, Jennifer Fisher, Brendan Radke, Gina Faldetta 1 Comment
Since the December 20, 2018 enactment of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, better known as the Farm Bill, we have seen a number of new state laws addressing both the legality of hemp and products derived therefrom, most noticeably cannabidiol, better known as CBD. This piece provides a brief overview of some of the more interesting state laws concerning hemp and CBD, as well as recent developments.
Legality of Hemp
Since the passage of the Farm Bill, the vast majority of states have legalized the cultivation and sale of hemp and hemp products. However, certain states maintain laws barring some or even most forms of hemp.
The most stringent of those states is Idaho, where hemp remains illegal. In March 2020, Senate Bill 1345 – legislation that would have allowed for the production and processing of industrial hemp – died in the House State Affairs Committee, due to concerns that legalizing hemp would be the first step toward legalizing “marijuana”; that the bill contained too much regulation and that it was otherwise unworkable. As a result, Idaho is currently the only state without a legal hemp industry. Hemp with any THC, even at or below the 0.3 percent threshold under the Farm Bill, is considered equivalent to “marijuana” in Idaho and is illegal (see below for a discussion of CBD in Idaho).
Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, and Texas have enacted bans on smokable hemp. Indiana law prohibits hemp products “in a form that allows THC to be introduced into the human body by inhalation of smoke.” Iowa has amended its Hemp Act to ban products introduced to the body “by any method of inhalation.” Louisiana prohibits “any part of hemp for inhalation” except hemp rolling papers, and Texas law prohibits “consumable hemp products for smoking.”
Some of these bans have been challenged in court. In Indiana, a group of hemp sellers requested an injunction against the smokable hemp ban in federal court, on the grounds that the federal Farm Bill likely preempted the Indiana law. In September of 2019, the district court issued the requested injunction, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit overturned that decision in July 2020, stating that the order “swept too broadly.” The Seventh Circuit noted that the 2018 Farm Bill “expressly provides that the states retain the authority to regulate the production of hemp” and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Similarly, in Texas, hemp producers have sued in state court over the smokable hemp ban, questioning its constitutionality and arguing that it would result in a loss of jobs and tax revenue for the state. According to those producers, smokable hemp comprises up to 50 percent of revenue from hemp products. On September 17, 2020, Travis County Judge Lora Livingston issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the law until trial, which currently is set to commence on February 1, 2021. Judge Livingston had previously issued a temporary restraining order to that same effect.
State Laws Regulating CBD
State laws and regulation on hemp-derived CBD are varied, and the legality of a CBD product often comes down to its form and marketing.
As an initial matter, it must be noted that notwithstanding the Farm Bill the FDA currently prohibits hemp-derived CBD from being be sold as dietary supplements, and food (including animal food or feed) to which CBD has been added cannot be introduced into interstate commerce. As discussed below, a substantial minority of states, including California, follow the FDA’s current position on the permissibility of putting hemp-derived CBD in food or dietary supplements.
Certain states include strict limitations on CBD, none more so than (once again) Idaho. Lacking any legal hemp industry, Idaho restricts CBD products to those having no THC whatsoever, rejecting the generally accepted threshold of not more than 0.3 percent THC. Idaho law also requires that hemp CBD be derived only from “(a) mature stalks of the plant, (b) fiber produced from the stalks, (c) oil or cake made from the seeds or the achene of such plant, (d) any other compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the mature stalks, or (e) the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination.”
Kansas similarly prohibits CBD with any amount of THC, though the law is murkier than Idaho’s. While Senate Bill 282 allowed possession and retail sale of CBD effective May 24, 2018 by removing CBD oil from the definition of “marijuana,” this was broadly interpreted to apply to THC-free CBD only. Later legislation, Senate Substitute for HC 2167, effective July 2019, allowed the farming of hemp with THC levels aligned with the Farm Bill definition (i.e., 0.3 percent THC or lower), but expressly prohibited the use of industrial hemp in: cigars, cigarettes, chew, dip, or other smokeless forms of consumption; teas; liquids for use in vaporizing devices; or “[a] ny other hemp product intended for human or animal consumption containing any ingredient derived from industrial hemp that is prohibited pursuant to the Kansas Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act or the Kansas Commercial Feeding Stuffs Act,” though this final section provides that “[t] his does not otherwise prohibit the use of any such ingredient, including cannabidiol oil, in hemp products,” the law’s only reference to CBD. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation has reportedly made statements indicating that CBD with any level of THC remains illegal.
Mississippi only recently legalized the cultivation of hemp via Senate Bill 2725, the Mississippi Help Cultivation Act, which was signed into law on June 29, 2020. House Bill 1547, passed on April 16, 2019, imposed content requirements upon CBD products within Mississippi: to be legal in Mississippi, a CBD product must contain “a minimum ratio of twenty-to-one cannabidiol to tetrahydrocannabinol (20:1 cannabidiol:tetrahydrocannabinol), and diluted so as to contain at least fifty (50) milligrams of cannabidiol per milliliter, with not more than two and one-half (2.5) milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol per milliliter.” Moreover, CBD products produced in Mississippi must be tested at the University of Mississippi’s lab. However, subject to these restrictions, Mississippi allows the sale of CBD products, including edibles, contrary to the restrictions of many of states considered friendlier to hemp.
Perhaps more surprising is Hawaii, which restricts the sale and distribution of CBD, aligning with the FDA’s guidance. In Hawaii it is illegal to add CBD to food, beverages, as well as to sell it as a dietary supplement or market it by asserting health claims. It is also illegal to add CBD to cosmetics, an uncommon restriction across the many states with CBD-specific laws and regulations. Unlike Idaho and Mississippi, which have no medical marijuana programs, Hawaii has long legalized marijuana for medical purposes and in January 2020 decriminalized recreational possession. Hawaii very recently enacted legislation allowing the production and sale of cannabis-infused consumable and topical products by medical cannabis licensees effective January 1, 2021, but this legislation did not address CBD. Given the foregoing, Hawaii’s restrictions on CBD stand out.
Beyond broad CBD restrictions, many more states prohibit the use of CBD within food, beverages, or as dietary supplements. For instance, twenty states – including California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Washington – prohibit the sale of CBD in food or beverage. In California, a bill to overhaul California’s hemp laws, Assembly Bill 2028, failed when the legislative session concluded on August 31, 2020 without a vote. AB 2028 would have allowed CBD in food, beverages, and dietary supplements (though, interestingly, it would have banned smokable hemp). As a result, California remains a relatively restrictive state when it comes to hemp-derived CBD, notwithstanding the legality of recreational marijuana.
New York allows the manufacture and sale of CBD, but requires CBD products to be labeled as “dietary supplements.” This mandate conflicts directly with the FDA’s position that CBD products are excluded from the definition of a dietary supplement. Further, despite the state’s categorization of CBD products as dietary supplements, New York prohibits the addition of CBD to food and beverages. These regulations have resulted in a confusing landscape for retailers and manufacturers in the Empire State.
Several states also have labeling requirements specific to CBD products. Batch numbers and ingredients are ubiquitous, but an increasingly common requirement is the inclusion of a scannable code that links to specific information about the product. States imposing this requirement include Florida, Indiana, Texas, and Utah. Indiana is viewed as having one of the more comprehensive labeling requirements for CBD products – or, depending upon your perspective, the most onerous.
At the outset of 2020, the cannabis industry appeared poised for a series of incremental changes: a number of states were considering decriminalization and legalization measures, and support was growing for federal legislation allowing cannabis businesses access to banks and financial services. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which disrupted state legislative sessions (and legislative priorities), obstructed signature gathering for ballot initiatives, and reshuffled federal priorities. However, despite all of these changes, the cannabis industry has seen significant developments across the country. Beyond of course the many challenges and losses brought by the pandemic and its aftermath, in some ways, it may prove a boon for the industry.
Legalization and Decriminalization
Currently around a dozen states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, while just under two dozen states allow use of medicinal cannabis. With support for legalization measures steadily growing in most states, a number of major states seemed poised to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis, including large potential markets in the Northeast such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. And in many other states, advocacy groups were well underway gathering signatures to qualify legalization measures for the November 2020 ballot. When the pandemic hit, however, state legislatures largely suspended their normal operations, and signature gatherers were stymied by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements.
Despite these major obstacles, legalization and decriminalization legislation has continued to move forward in a number of states, and still others will have legalization referenda on the ballot for November’s election. Perhaps more important than these initiatives themselves are the diverse states that are moving toward loosening of restrictions around cannabis: rather than being limited to a handful of especially liberal states, cannabis advocates are seeing tangible progress is every geographic area, among states whose political leanings span the spectrum.
While the Northeast corridor had planned to undertake legalization efforts in a coordinated fashion this year, those results were put on hold given the seriousness of initial COVID-19 outbreaks in the greater New York area. However, the New Jersey General Assembly nevertheless passed decriminalization legislation, though the matter has not yet cleared the New Jersey Senate, and the appetite for full-scale legalization remains strong there, with a ballot initiative going directly to voters in advance of the New Jersey Legislature considering the issue. The Commonwealth of Virginia enacted decriminalization legislation also, and a legislative caucus in Virginia has pledged to introduce recreational legalization legislation this summer when Virginia convenes a special legislative session. Voters in Mississippi and South Dakota will be able to vote on ballot initiatives to legalize recreational cannabis, and similar ballot initiatives are underway or likely in Arizona and Nebraska. Advocates in Arkansas and Oklahoma had also hoped to bring initiatives to the ballot, but have encountered practical and legal obstacles to gathering the required signatures in time for this year’s election.
These myriad initiatives reflect a strong shift toward legalization of recreational cannabis across the country, and the ability to continue gathering signatures and momentum despite stay-at-home orders and social distancing underscores the growing popularity of the movement. Whether through the legislature or directly by the ballot, it seems all but certain that the number of states permitting recreational cannabis will grow significantly this year.
COVID-19 Business Closures
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the early months of 2020, most states instituted various forms of stay-at-home orders that required the closure of nonessential businesses. While these policies had—and continue to have—serious impacts on businesses of every type, cannabis companies have largely seen strong economic growth notwithstanding.
One of the most important developments in this space came in the context of state and local governments designating certain businesses as “essential” for purposes of business closure orders. In nearly every state to consider the issue—Massachusetts being the main outlier—state and local governments recognized cannabis companies as essential, which allowed them to operate during the shutdown.
The “essential” designation largely carried between both recreational and medicinal cannabis jurisdictions. And this matters because of what it means for the industry. State and local governments clearly realize the important medicinal role that cannabis plays for patients dependent on it for treatment, and the overlapping customer bases of mixed dispensaries further contributed to keeping cannabis companies open during the pandemic. Even in states where certain dispensaries operate solely in a recreational capacity, those jurisdictions recognized the importance of allowing access to a safe recreational substance, like alcohol, during prolonged stay-at-home orders.
Similarly, likely as a result of those same stay-at-home orders, cannabis companies largely saw significant increases in sales revenue. More customers visited retail establishments, and those customers often purchased more product per visit. This resulted in better-than-expected sales revenue for cannabis companies, and also produced increased tax revenues for state and local governments.
The cannabis industry saw more than just increased sales, however. In the process of issuing emergency rules for the cannabis industry during quarantine, a number of state and local jurisdictions either began to allow cannabis deliveries or expanded its availability, a shift in policy that may stick around well after the pandemic subsides.
One final impact of the pandemic may also help push legalization initiatives forward in the coming years: decreased tax revenue and major budget gaps. Due both to a decrease in economic activity like shopping and dining, as well as the unexpected health care costs associated with responding to the COVID-19 crisis, state and local budgets are expected to see significant shortcomings for years to come. In response, state and local governments are starting to see cannabis as a significant and viable source of tax revenue. For example, various cities in California that had previously been reluctant to permit recreational cannabis are beginning to welcome cannabis companies in hopes of making up for lost tax revenue. Similarly, in New Mexico, where legalization has remained a heated topic of discussion, Gov. Lujan Grisham has explicitly expressed her regret that the state failed to legalize cannabis, recognizing that tax revenues from the industry could have reached upwards of $100 million. Other state and local governments are coming to similar realizations, which should help propel expanded access to legal cannabis in coming years.
Major changes in the cannabis industry in 2020 have not been limited to the states. In the midst of changes and crises across the country, the federal government has been making meaningful progress in two major respects, COVID-19 notwithstanding.
First, cannabis companies are edging closer to having full access to banks, bank accounts and related financial services. The SAFE Banking Act, championed by Rep. Perlmutter, has made it through the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. However, as Congress continues to toil away at future COVID-19 relief legislation, political signals from Washington, D.C., suggest there is a reasonable likelihood that the protections of the SAFE Banking Act will be included, in some form, in the next round of major COVID-19 legislation out of Congress. The enactment of these banking provisions will provide substantial relief to cannabis companies who have largely been excluded from opening bank accounts and utilizing the services major banks provide. Additionally, allowing access to banks and their services should further facilitate the rapid growth in the cannabis economy we are witnessing elsewhere, and this movement could further legitimize the industry as part of a broader push for federal legalization.
Second, after a four-year delay, the DEA has finally proposed draft rules to expand the DEA’s limited cannabis research program. For decades, all cannabis research to date has relied on limited supplies of cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi. Now the DEA is finally following through on its promise to further develop, refine and expand its research program by allowing additional suppliers and market participants to play a role in cannabis research. While the rules proposed are not without detractors and critiques—and the rules themselves have not been finalized—this marks an important step forward to a better understanding of the effects of THC on consumers, not only because more research is needed to understand a substance consumed by millions annually, but also because the limited supply of cannabis on which researchers currently rely has been shown to differ substantially in appearance, consistency and chemical composition from cannabis that is commercially available in states across the country. With an expanded research regime comes the hope that scientists will be able to develop new and innovative cannabis-derived medications, while also furthering our understanding of how THC affects health and the body.
At every level of government, the year in cannabis so far has proven to be far more eventful than many predicted. And the COVID-19 crisis has not slowed progress. There appears to be continued momentum to further mature how cannabis is treated at every level of government, which signals that significant changes are on the horizon. Industry observers will be closely focused on how the rest of the year proceeds, especially with a presidential election on the horizon.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised to clarify that New Jersey has not yet decriminalized marijuana. A decriminalization bill passed the New Jersey General Assembly, but the New Jersey Senate has not acted as of this writing.
Here’s some news that might sound familiar: recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo insisted that cannabis would soon be legal in New York. Perhaps this seems like déjà vu given that he made the same pronouncement back in 2018, insisting that cannabis would be legal in the Empire State by 2020.
Might this simply be wishful thinking on Governor Cuomo’s part? Perhaps, but if cannabis is, in fact, legalized—whether this year or anytime down the road—it’d be a boon to cannabis entrepreneurs looking to expand into New York and capitalize on the vast resources of its citizenry. Still, by virtue of the inherent challenges and question marks related to legal cannabis in the state, these would-be cannabis titans should keep their excitement in check.
When any jurisdiction considers legalizing cannabis, uncertainty follows. In the case of New York, the questions are many: Will the recreational use of cannabis be legal or just further decriminalized (as was done last year)? And if recreational cannabis is given the green light, what sort of distribution regulations will be in place; where will it be permitted to be sold; will the four-dispensary limit remain in effect; and what’ll the parameters regarding growing in state be? To properly formulate New York business plans with eyes wide open, players in the cannabis biz must be given answers to these and other related queries that are crystal clear.
Does Cannabis Equal Revenue?
No doubt about it, Governor Cuomo was beyond enthusiastic when he publicly promised for a second time that legalization of cannabis is coming later this year, citing the $300M in potential tax revenue the state can glean once that mission is accomplished. Yet this guarantee and income forecast might be best taken with a grain of salt in light of New York’s history when it comes to legal vices. Remember, the state managed to run off track betting into bankruptcy, partially as a result of oppressive taxation and the OTB being staffed with political cronies. No wonder former Mayor Rudy Giuliani called OTB “the only bookie joint to ever go broke.”
Consequently, New Yorkers and cannabis entrepreneurs must adopt a bit of skepticism when it comes to the “pot of gold” at the end of the “legalized cannabis rainbow.” This is especially true given the downturn of the cannabis business in Canada, as reported by the New York Times. According to the news outlet, the cannabis slump up north can be attributed to several factors, including an extremely slow licensing process; limits placed on the number of licenses issued to distributors; marketing restrictions (e.g., how, where, and to whom cannabis companies can market themselves); and infrastructure challenges. Is it realistic to think things would be any different in New York?
MedMen: A Case Study
To avoid the current fate of the legal cannabis business in Canada, adopting a streamlined and open-minded regulatory framework that translates to a robust and healthy cannabis economy within the state will be essential. However, New York’s track record so far—at least as it pertains to medical cannabis—isn’t very promising. The case of MedMen on Long Island is illustrative.
Colorado’s economic success story—both in terms of growth and tax dollars—is a model to emulate.Late in 2018, MedMen, the best-known cannabis retailer in the U.S., attempted to change the location of its Nassau county medical cannabis dispensary from Lake Success to Manhasset, New York. This effort was met with outrage and vocal resistance from civic leaders, who objected to the proposed move, despite the fact that it was within the very same county. The stated reason: MedMen’s sought-after location was in close proximity to an elementary school and within the town’s main commercial district. But certainly, the stigma that attaches to the cannabis world (legal or not) was also squarely on the decision-makers’ collective radar screen, which overshadowed the potential tax revenue that MedMen would’ve brought to Manhasset. No surprise, in light of the perceived obstacles and push back, MedMen scrapped its relocation plans.
The moral of that story is this: players in the cannabis industry must effectively make their cases to New York public officials, and regulators, in turn, must make informed decisions that best serve communities throughout the state and the growth of the cannabis sector, more generally. Colorado’s economic success story—both in terms of growth and tax dollars—is a model to emulate.
Common Sense Regulation Is Key
In his quest to legalize cannabis this year, Governor Cuomo will continue to be confronted with his share of naysayers, like those from the County Health Officials of New York who persist in expressing serious concern about cannabis reform. In the face of such opposition, he must make clear that like cannabis plants, cannabis businesses need room to grow—and the benefit of reasonable, common sense regulation—in order to foster a healthy crop of thriving cannabis-related companies . . . and the tax revenue that comes along with them.
As Europe swooned under record-breaking heat this summer, the cannabis industry also found itself in a rather existential hot seat.
The complete meltdown at CannTrust has yet to reach a conclusion. Yes, a few jobs have been lost. However, a greater question is in the room as criminal investigatory and financial regulatory agencies on both sides of the US-Canada border (plus in Europe) are getting involved.
As events have shown, there is a great, big, green elephant in the room that is now commanding attention. Beyond CannTrust, how widespread were these problematic practices? And who so far has watched, participated, if not profited, and so far, said nothing?
Who, What, Where?
The first name in the room? Canopy Growth.
Why the immediate association? Bruce Linton, according to news reports, was fired as CEO by his board the same day, July 3, 2019, that CannTrust received its first cease and desist notice from Health Canada.
Further, there is a remarkable similarity in not only problematic practices, but timing between the two companies. This may also indicate that Canopy’s board believed that Linton’s behaviour was uncomfortably close to executive misdeeds at CannTrust. Not to mention, this was not the first scandal that Linton had been anywhere close to around acquisition time. See the Mettrum pesticide debacle, that also broke right around the time Canopy purchased the company in late 2016 as well as the purchase of MedCann GmbH in Germany.
Reorg also appears to be underway in Europe as well. As of August, Paul Steckler has been brought in as “Managing Director Europe” and is now based in Frankfurt. Given the company’s history of “co-ceo’ing” Linton out the door, is more change to come?
Video showing dead plants at Canopy’s BC facility surfaced. Worse, according to the chatter online at least, this was the second “crop failure” at the facility in British Columbia. Even more apparently damning? This all occurred during the same time period that the second round of lawsuits against the reconstituted German cultivation bid surfaced.
Canopy in turn issued a statement that this destruction was not caused by company incompetence but rather a delay in licensing procedures from Health Canada. Despite lingering questions of course, about why a company would even start cultivation in an unlicensed space, not once but apparently twice. And further, what was the real impact of the destruction on the company’s bottom line?
Seen within the context of other events, it certainly poses an interesting question, particularly, in hindsight.
Canopy, which made the finals in the first German cultivation bid, was dropped in the second round – and further, apparently right as the news hit about the BC facility. Further, no matter the real reason behind the same, Canopy clearly had an issue with accounting for crops right as Canadian recreational reform was coming online and right as the second German cultivation bid was delayed by further legal action last fall.
Has Nobody Seen This Coming?
In this case, the answer is that many people have seen the writing on the wall for some time. At least in Germany, the response in general has been caution. To put this in true international perspective, these events occurred against a backdrop of the first increase in product over the border with Holland via a first-of-its kind agreement between the German health ministry and Dutch authorities. Followed just before the CannTrust scandal hit, with the announcement that the amount would be raised a second time.
German health authorities, at least, seem doubtful that Canadian companies can provide enough regulated product. Even by import. The Deutsche Börse has put the entire public Canadian and American cannabis sector under special watch since last summer.
By the turn of 2019, Canopy had announced its expansion into the UK (after entering the Danish market itself early last year) and New York state.
Yet less than two weeks later, Canopy announced not new cultivation facilities in Europe, but plans to buy Bionorica, the established German manufacturer of dronabinol – the widely despised (at least by those who have only this option) synthetic that is in fact, prescribed to two thirds of Germany’s roughly 50,000 cannabis patients.
By August 2019, right after the Canopy Acreage deal was approved by shareholders, Canopy announced it had lost just over $1 billion in the last three months.
Or, to put this in perspective, 20% of the total investment from Constellation about one year ago.
What Happened At CannTrust And How Do Events Line Up?
The current scandal is not the first at CannTrust either. In November 2017, CannTrust was warned by Health Canada for changing its process for creating cannabis oil without submitting the required paperwork. By March of last year however, the company was able to successfully list on the Toronto stock exchange.
Peter Aceto arrived at CannTrust as the new CEO on October 1 last year along with new board member John Kaken at the end of the month. Several days later the company also announced that it too, like other major cannabis companies including Canopy, was talking to “beverage companies.” It was around this time that illegal growing at CannTrust apparently commenced. Six weeks later, the company announces its intent to also list on the NYSE. Two days later, both the CEO and chair of the board were notified of the grow and chose not to stop it.
Apparently, their decision was even unchanged after the video and resulting online outrage about the same over the destroyed crops at the Canopy facility in BC surfaced online.
On May 10, just over a week after the Bioronica purchase in Germany, the first inklings of a scandal began to hit CannTrust in Canada. A whisteblower inside the company quit after sending a mass email to all employees about his concerns. Four days later, the company announced the successful completion of their next round of financing, and further that they had raised 25.5 million more than they hoped.
Six weeks later, on June 14, Health Canada received its warning about discrepancies at CannTrust. The question is, why did it take so long?
Where Does This Get Interesting?
The strange thing about the comparisons between CannTrust and Canopy, beyond similarities of specific events and failings, is of course their timing. That also seems to have been apparent at least to board members at Canopy – if not a cause for alarm amongst shareholders themselves. One week after Health Canada received its complaint about CannTrust, shareholders voted to approve the Canopy-Acreage merger, on June 21.
Yet eight days after that, as Health Canada issued an order to cease distribution to CannTrust, the Canopy board fired Bruce Linton.
One week after that, the Danish recipient of CannTrust’s product, also announced that they were halting distribution in Europe. By the end of August, Danish authorities were raising alarms about yet another problem – namely that they do not trust CannTrust’s assurances about delivery of pesticide-free product.
Is this coincidence or something else?
If like Danish authorities did in late August 2019, calling for a systematic overhaul of their own budding cannabis ecosystem (where both Canadian companies operate), the patterns and similarities here may prove more than that. Sit tight for at least a fall of more questions, if not investigations.
Beyond one giant cannabis conspiracy theory, in other words, the problems, behaviour and response of top executives at some of the largest companies in the business appear to be generating widespread calls – from not only regulators, but from whistle blowers and management from within the industry itself – for some serious, regulatory and even internal company overhauls. Internationally.
And further on a fairly existential basis.
EDITOR’S NOTE: CIJ reached out to Canopy Growth’s European HQ for comment by email. None was returned.
Correction: This article has been updated to show that the Danish recipient of Canntrust’s product announced they were halting distribution one week after Bruce Linton’s firing, not one day.
CBD-infused coffee? CBD-infused chewing gum? Many think cannabis and its derivatives are the next big wellness craze that will make the demand for flax, fish oil and turmeric combined seem meager. The food and drink industries are cautiously exploring the cannabis market, trying to determine the optimal timing to introduce their own product lines.
The cannabis plant produces chemicals known as cannabinoids, one of which is cannabidiol, or CBD.When the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the Farm Bill) passed, the food and drink industries jumped into the hemp-derived CBD world with both feet because the Farm Bill lifted the federal ban on hemp production, which previously classified hemp as a controlled substance akin to heroin. Lifting the ban led to an explosion in the number of CBD products hitting the market around the country. However, repeated and recent actions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provide clear warning signs that the legal pitfalls surrounding CBD in food and drinks are not yet resolved.
CBD is marketed as a featured ingredient for a wide variety of products ranging from pain relievers, to protein bars beverages and supplements. Both CVS and Walgreens have announced plans to carry CBD products in their stores. However, despite the money pouring into CBD products, federal agencies are not relinquishing their controls.
In the Farm Bill, the FDA retained authority to regulate products containing cannabis or derivative products. The FDA has regulatory authority over foods (including dietary supplements and food additives), drugs (prescription and non-prescription), cosmetics, veterinary products and tobacco products, among other categories. Therefore, vendors of virtually all products containing CBD are regulated by the FDA.
It is important to note that the FDA does not view CBD derived from hemp differently than any other CBD despite the fact that it is non-psychoactive. CBD is an active ingredient in at least one FDA-approved prescription drug—Epidiolex. Therefore, under the logic of the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA), CBD is a drug. If a substance has been “approved” by the FDA as an active ingredient in a drug product, it is per se excluded from being defined as a “dietary supplement” under sections 201(ff)(3)(B)(i) and (ii) of the FDCA and it cannot be included as an ingredient in food.
It is highly unusual that CBD has been able to proliferate in the marketplace given the FDA’s technical legal position on it. FDA regulations on drugs are much more stringent than for food or dietary supplements. Generally, the FDA’s position on CBD in food and beverages is that it is unlawful to engage in interstate commerce with products containing CBD. The given reason is that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits the introduction of a food product into interstate commerce that contains an active ingredient in an approved drug. While arguments against this position exist, they have not carried the day, yet.
In March 2019, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced he would be resigning on April 5, 2019, but he sent clear warning signals to the CBD industry prior to his departure. In early April, the FDA cracked down on websites making “unfounded, egregious” claims about their CBD infused products. The FDA sent warning letters to three companies who made claims about their CBD products including that their CBD products stop cancer cell growth, slow Alzheimer’s progression, and treat heroin withdrawal symptoms. Commissioner Gottlieb issued a statement that he believed that these were egregious, over-the-line claims and deceptive marketing that the FDA would not tolerate.
The FDA also announced in early April that it will hold a public hearing on May 31, 2019, to obtain scientific data and information related to safety concerns, marketing and labeling cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds including CBD. The FDA expressed interest in hearing whether drug companies would still be motivated to develop drugs with CBD and other compounds if their use in food and beverages became more widespread. The FDA also announced plans for an internal working group to review potential pathways for legal marketing of CBD foods and dietary supplements. Of particular concern to the FDA is online retail products available nationwide such as oil drops, capsules, teas, topical lotions and creams.
The May 31 FDA hearing is an opportunity for interested parties to give feedback and help focus where the FDA should be creating clear industry standards and guidance. In the meantime, the industry should continue to expect warning letters from the FDA as well as possible state-level scrutiny. Companies would be wise to proactively review their labels and promotional practices in order to mitigate the risk of forthcoming actions and engage in the FDA’s provided avenues for industry input. Companies must also look to the laws of the states and even to the counties where they are selling their products.
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