Tag Archives: new york

New York Adds More Conditional Cultivation Licenses

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Regulators in New York are continuing their push forward in launching the adult use cannabis market. They have approved 58 conditional licenses for hemp growers to begin cultivating cannabis for the adult use market. In just the past few months, the state has already awarded 146 conditional licenses for cultivation.

The Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) in New York also announced their “Get Ready, Get Set” virtual workshop series, designed to help social equity applicants prepare for license applications and better understand the conditional licensing program.

Earlier this year, following an amendment to state law, the OCM launched the conditional licensing program to ensure that hemp farmers in the state with a desire to grow adult use cannabis could get started in the 2022 season.

Applications can be filed with the OCM for conditional licenses through June 30, 2022, with a $2,000 non-refundable application and licensing fee. The licenses are only for farms that have already grown hemp in New York State.

“New York is building the most inclusive cannabis industry in the country and including small farmers with an expertise is an essential component in accomplishing that goal,” says Chris Alexander, executive director at the OCM. “The growing season isn’t waiting for anyone and I’m grateful for the hard work of the CCB and my colleagues at OCM to ensure these licenses are being reviewed as quickly as possible so New York’s farmers can take full advantage of the growing season and cultivate the products that our equity entrepreneurs will be the first to sell when they open their dispensaries this year.”

New York Launches Conditional Licensing Program

By Kristin Kowalski, CPA
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Progress and history are being made in New York for adult use cannabis. Recently, Governor Hochul signed an amendment to New York State Cannabis Law which permits the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) to award conditional licenses to certain adult use cultivators and processors, allowing hemp farmers in New York to grow cannabis in the 2022 growing season. And now, the application period to obtain a conditional license is officially open and available for qualified candidates. New York is moving full speed ahead in the hopes of creating one of the most inclusive adult-use cannabis industries in the nation.

What Does a Conditional License Mean?

With this legislation, New York State is creating a new conditional adult use cannabis cultivator license, allowing hemp farmers to grow cannabis in the 2022 growing season – helping to fast-track the state’s adult-use cannabis program. Under the law, conditionally licensed cannabis farmers must meet certain requirements, including safe, sustainable and environmentally friendly cultivation practices.

Highlights of the Bill & Legislation

Industrial Hemp First

To qualify for an adult use cannabis conditional cultivator license, only companies and individuals currently licensed with the state for cultivation or processing of industrial hemp can apply for the conditional licenses. Applicants must have been an authorized industrial hemp research partner for the Department of Agriculture and Markets, and industrial hemp cultivators must have grown and harvested the crop during at least two of the past four years.

Growing Locations

Licensed cultivators will be authorized to grow indoors, outdoors, or a combination of both, subject to space and lighting limitations in the law. With a conditional adult use cannabis cultivation license, farmers can grow outdoors or in a greenhouse for up to two years from the issuance of the license. It also allows them to manufacture and distribute cannabis flower products without holding an adult use processor or distributor license, until June 1, 2023.

Expanding Abilities with License

Conditional licensees will have temporary authority to conduct additional activities not included in their license. Cultivators are allowed to both minimally process and distribute flower, and processors can distribute their products.

Requirements of Conditional License

Hemp farmers in New York could be licensed to grow cannabis for the 2022 growing season.

As listed in the bill, conditional licensees must abide by all regulations, including those issued after receipt of the license. Applicants must also participate in a soon to-be-developed mentoring program for individuals interested in joining the industry through the social equity component of the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act, as well as actively participate in an environmental sustainability program. And lastly, applicants must begin operations within six months of receiving their license, and grant OCM employees’ access to the premises for inspections to ensure all rules are being followed.

Future Outlook on Cannabis Industry in New York

With the opening of the application portal for conditional licenses, this advances the Governor’s first-in-the-nation Seeding Opportunity Initiative, which positions individuals with prior cannabis-related criminal offenses to make the first adult use cannabis sales with products grown by New York hemp farmers. While this news is a positive step, there remain many unknowns about how the conditional licensing process will unfold. Applications can be filed with the OCM for Conditional Cultivator Licenses through June 30, 2022, with a $2,000 non-refundable application and licensing fee. For hopeful applicants, gathering a team of professional advisors to plan for the application process and operating an adult-use business is essential. Consulting with an accounting team or financial advisors from a tax standpoint, will be critical to establish systems and controls to maintain separate accounting records for your industrial hemp and adult use activities.

Cresco Labs To Acquire Columbia Care

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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According to a press release published last week, Cresco Labs has come to an agreement with Columbia Care Inc. to acquire the company. The $2 billion deal, expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2022, will create the largest multi-state operator (MSO) in the country by pro-forma revenue.

Cresco Labs is already one of the country’s largest MSOs with roots in Illinois. With a footprint covering a lot of the United States, their brands include Cresco, High Supply, Mindy’s Edibles, Good News, Remedi, Wonder Wellness Co. and FloraCal Farms.

Columbia Care is also one of the largest cannabis companies in the US, with licenses in 18 jurisdictions and the EU. They currently operate 99 dispensaries and 32 cultivation and manufacturing facilities. Their brands include Seed & Strain, Triple Seven, gLeaf, Classix, Press, Amber and Platinum Label CBD.

Under the agreement, shareholders with Columbia Care will receive 0.5579 of subordinate voting share in Cresco for each common share they hold. Columbia Care shareholders will hold approximately 35% of the pro forma Cresco Labs Shares once the deal goes into effect.

Coming out of the deal, Cresco’s total revenue will hit $1.4 billion, making it the largest MSO in the country. Their footprint will reach 130 retail dispensaries across 18 different markets. The companies already have the largest market share in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Virginia and are of the top three market shares in New York, New Jersey and Florida, which gives them unique opportunities to capitalize on emerging adult use markets.

Charles Bachtell, CEO of Cresco Labs, says the deal is very complementary and they are excited about long-term growth and diversification. “This acquisition brings together two of the leading operators in the industry, pairing a leading footprint with proven operational, brand and competitive excellence,” says Bachtell. “The combination of Cresco Labs and Columbia Care accelerates our journey to become the leader in cannabis in a way no other potential transaction could. We look forward to welcoming the incredible Columbia Care team to the Cresco Labs family. I couldn’t be more excited about this enhanced platform and how it furthers the Cresco Labs Vision – to be the most important and impactful company in cannabis.”

The Great Social Experiment: Social Equity in New York

By Abraham Finberg, Simon Menkes, Rachel Wright
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New York is embarking on a great social undertaking. In awarding its adult-use cannabis licenses, under the plan laid out by Gov. Kathy Hochul on March 10, the state is attempting to right generations of wrongs caused by the war on cannabis. The wrongs are numerous and include mass incarceration and complex generational trauma, prevention of access to housing and employment and the forming of an illicit market – all of which have had a disproportionate impact on African-American and Latinx communities.1

In addition to generating significant revenue for the state, New York hopes to make substantial investments in the communities and people most affected by cannabis criminalization and address the collateral consequences of that criminalization, reduce the illicit market for cannabis and illegal drugs, end the racially disparate impact of existing cannabis laws and strengthen New York’s agriculture sector.2

50% of All Licenses Will Be Social Equity

To accomplish these lofty aims, the state’s goal is to award 50% of adult-use cannabis licenses to social and economic equity applicants – and these licenses will be the first issued.3,4 The state’s entire focus is on this social equity licensing program; issues regarding non-social equity licenses are not being addressed at this time.

No one knows yet how many licenses will be issued. There are currently only 38 medical licenses in the state, although everyone expects the number of adult-use licenses to be significantly higher. (These medical licenses serve around 140,000 patients with sales in 2021 of around $300 million.)

The First 100 to 200 Licenses

Chris Alexander, executive director of the state’s Office of Cannabis Management, says he expected between 100 and 200 licenses to go first to people who were convicted of a cannabis-related offense before the drug was legalized, or those who have “a parent, guardian, child, spouse, or dependent” with a cannabis conviction. Alexander also said his office would evaluate applicants on their business plans and experience in retail.5

What’s the Timeline?

In a recent Q&A interview, Tremaine Wright, chair of New York’s newly-formed Cannabis Control Board (CCB), which will be overseeing the licensing process, stated: “We are setting up a system soup-to-nuts … [final] regulations for the state’s marijuana startups will be issued by the Cannabis Control Board this winter [2022] or early spring [2023] … recreational dispensaries should be licensed to operate by summer 2023.”6

Whom Is New York Looking For?

New York has defined social equity applicants as being:

  • Individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition
  • Minority-owned businesses
  • Women-owned businesses
  • Minority and women-owned businesses
  • Distressed farmers
  • Service-disabled veterans.7

Extra priority will be given to an applicant who:

  • Is a member of a community disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition
  • Has an income lower than 80% of the median income of the county in which the applicant resides
  • Was either: (a) convicted of a cannabis-related offense prior to the effective date of the N.Y. Cannabis Law; (b) or had a parent, guardian, child, spouse or dependent; or was a dependent of an individual who was convicted of a cannabis-related offence prior to the effective date of the N.Y. Cannabis Law.8

Social Equity Licenses Come With Strings Attached

Social equity licenses cannot be transferred or sold within the first three years of issue. An exception will be made if the license is transferred or sold to another qualified social and economic equity applicant, but this must first be approved in writing by the CCB.9

Types of Licenses

While most people appear to be interested in a cannabis dispensary or lounge license, there will be nine types of licenses available: cultivator, nursery, processor, distributor, retail-dispensary, delivery, on-site consumption, adult-use cooperative and microbusiness.

“I don’t hear many people [talking about] processing and manufacturing,” says CCB chair Wright. She noted that processor licenses cover the production of edibles like candy and baked goods, which create a good opportunity to establish a brand.10

CCB Priorities

Wright also noted delivery companies would likely be capped at 25 employees in order to prevent behemoths like Uber from entering the market. “We’re trying to focus on not creating a space where monopolies can take over and kill all our small businesses,” Wright says.11

License Application Costs

The cost for an adult-use cannabis license in New York is still unknown, so the experts are looking at the cost for a medical cannabis license as the baseline, with a greater cost likely for adult-use. Each applicant was required to submit two fees with its medicinal application: a non-refundable application fee in the amount of $10,000 and a registration fee in the amount of $200,000. The $200,000 registration fee was refunded to the applicant only if the applicant was not issued a registration.12

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) states, however, that fees may be waived for social equity applicants.13

Funding Assistance for License Applicants

Because of the requirement that each applicant be from one or more of the social equity classes, it is quite likely many of the applicants will lack the necessary funding to open a cannabis business currently.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul

On January 5, 2022, Gov. Hochul pledged to commit $200 million to support social equity applicants in building adult-use cannabis businesses. New York’s Office of Cannabis management expects that around $50 million of the fund will be raised from registered organizations licensed to operate medical cannabis businesses in NY and that $150 million will be raised from private investors.14

Wright commented, however, that those loans aren’t guaranteed to be available for the first round of licensing because the money to fund them will largely come from tax revenue generated by the industry. “[The Office of Cannabis Management] is not going to be able to right all the wrongs of the financial services industry,” she added.15

This lack of capital will offer opportunities to those who might want to invest with a social equity license applicant.

Requirements for Those Who Invest With Social Equity Applicants

Any person or entity investing with a social equity applicant must keep in mind the State’s following requirements:

  1. Any entity applying for a New York cannabis license will need to be owned at least 51% by a social equity class applicant.
  2. That ownership must be “real, substantial, and continuing.”
  3. The social equity applicant must have and exercise the authority to control independently the day-to-day business decisions of the enterprise.
  4. The individual or entity seeking the license must be authorized to do business in the state and be independently owned and operated.
  5. The individual or entity must be a small business.16

Business Experience & Labor Union Representation Needed

The state is also looking for applicants with previous successful business experience and competency, and preference will be given to those who can demonstrate such experience.17

Additionally, the state would like to see that the applicant “has entered into [an] … agreement with a bona-fide labor organization that is actively engaged in representing or attempting to represent the applicant’s employees, and the maintenance of such [an] agreement shall be an ongoing material condition of licensure.18

New York’s Careful Approach

New York has moved slowly and thoughtfully in getting into the recreational cannabis market. Its leaders have studied the experiences of other states, noting complications and pitfalls that have arisen in such states as California, where small cannabis operators have been squeezed out and a large illicit market has grown to dwarf the tax-paying legal sector.

By opening up New York’s initial adult-use licenses to small, social equity applicants and requiring they have solid business experience, New York is hoping to give awardees a foothold in the cannabis market, enabling them to flourish and build strong roots before the onslaught of sophisticated, multi-state cannabis operators enter the fray.

Additional Keys to a Successful Application

New York City
Image: Rodrigo Paredes, Flickr

Beyond fulfilling the ingredients of the social equity applicant “recipe” outlined above, the key to a successful application will come down to the perception it gives the Cannabis Control Board of the applicant’s commitment to the state’s mission. In other words, how committed is the applicant to using his or her license and business to attempt to right some of the social wrongs perpetrated by the state and federal war on cannabis?

In addition to having an owner-applicant from a social equity class, the MRTA gives other clues of steps applicants can take (and discuss in their application) which could put them ahead of the competition in obtaining licensure.

The MRTA suggests the applicant demonstrate that they will “contribute to communities and people disproportionately harmed by enforcement of cannabis laws … and report these contributions to the board.”19

The MRTA asks each applicant to submit documentation of the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of the applicant’s employees and owners. In addition, the MRTA suggests each applicant consult with the CCB’s Chief Equity Officer and Executive Director “to create a social responsibility framework agreement that fosters racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in their workplace.”20

New York is serious about its mission to use the legalization of cannabis to right some of the social wrongs of the past. An applicant’s dedication to this mission, as evidenced by a well-crafted application that emphasizes these values, may be the deciding factor on whether that applicant is rewarded with one of the state’s “Golden Tickets”. With a population of 20.2 million citizens, New York will be the second largest adult use cannabis marketplace behind California. Initial access to such a valuable and important market is worth the commitment of resources to creating not only a well-crafted application, but a well-crafted management team and business as well.


References

  1. New York Consolidated Laws, N.Y. Cannabis Law § 2, added by New York Laws 2021, ch. 92, Sec. 2 (eff. 3/31/2021) [hereinafter, N.Y. Cannabis Law].
  2. Ibid.
  3. N.Y. Cannabis Law § 87(2).
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/09/nyregion/marijuana-sellers-licenses-hochul.html, March 9, 2022
  5. Ibid.
  6. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022.
  7. “Distressed farmer” and “service-disabled veteran” are as defined by N.Y. Cannabis Law §§ 87(5)(e) and (f).
  8. N.Y. Cannabis Law § 87(3).
  9. N.Y. Cannabis Law § 87(7).
  10. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022
  11. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022
  12. https://cannabis.ny.gov/medical-marijuana-program-applications
  13. Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act, § 63-3
  14. See Hodgson Russ LLP, “New York Gov. Pledges $200M to Boost Social Equity Efforts as Part of Adult-Use Cannabis Legislation,” at https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/new-york-gov-pledges-200m-to-boost-9306262 (last accessed Mar. 2, 2022).
  15. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022.
  16. Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act, § 87
  17. Id. at § 97
  18. Id. at § 64
  19. Id. at § 64j
  20. Id. at § 66-2

Cannabis Quality Conference & Expo

The Cannabis Quality Conference & Expo is an educational and networking event for the cannabis industry that has cannabis safety, quality and regulatory compliance as the foundation of the educational content of the program. With a unique focus on science, technology, safety and compliance, the “CQC” enables attendees to engage in conversations that are critical for advancing careers and organizations alike. Delegates visit with exhibitors to learn about cutting-edge solutions, explore three high-level educational tracks for learning valuable industry trends, and network with industry executives to find solutions to improve quality, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the evolving cannabis industry.

Cannabis Quality Conference & Expo logo

Cannabis Quality Conference Dates, Location Announced

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Cannabis Quality Conference & Expo logo

EDGARTOWN, MA, Feb. 21, 2022 – Innovative Publishing Company, Inc., the publisher of Cannabis Industry Journal, has announced the return to in-person events with the Cannabis Quality Conference & Expo (CQC), taking place October 17-19, 2022 at the Hilton in Parsippany, New Jersey. Presented by Cannabis Industry Journal, the CQC is a business-to-business conference and expo where cannabis industry leaders and stakeholders meet to build the future of the cannabis marketplace.

“Cannabis markets in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are all beginning to get off the ground,” says Aaron Biros, editor of Cannabis Industry Journal and director of the Cannabis Quality Conference. “Taking place in a pivotal year for the cannabis industry and in a location surrounded by new market opportunities, the CQC will deliver hands-on education, networking and business discussions. The venue setting, just a short train ride from New York City and Newark International Airport, coupled with highly focused content, creates a unique business meeting environment.”

The 2022 program will have three separate tracks of educational presentations and panel discussions, focused on Regulations & Policy, Safety & Quality and Business & Operations.

Due to safety protocols and venue restrictions, limited space is available for sponsors and attendees. The CQC is a hybrid event, meaning attendees will have the option to either attend in-person in New Jersey, or attend remotely via the virtual platform. Registration is now open. Click here to stay up to date on lodging, early bird pricing, keynote announcements and more.

The CQC is co-located with the Food Safety Consortium, which will take place immediately following the CQC, October 19-21, 2022. For sponsorship and exhibit inquiries, contact RJ Palermo, Director of Sales, and Chelsea Patterson, Account Executive.

About Cannabis Industry Journal

Cannabis Industry Journal is a digital media community for cannabis industry professionals. We inform, educate and connect cannabis growers, extractors, processors, infused products manufacturers, dispensaries, laboratories, suppliers, vendors and regulators with original, in-depth features and reports, curated industry news and user-contributed content, and live and virtual events that offer knowledge, perspectives, strategies and resources to facilitate an informed, legalized and safe cannabis marketplace.

About the Cannabis Quality Conference & Expo

The Cannabis Quality Conference & Expo is an educational and networking event for the cannabis industry that has cannabis safety, quality and regulatory compliance as the foundation of the educational content of the program. With a unique focus on science, technology, safety and compliance, the “CQC” enables attendees to engage in conversations that are critical for advancing careers and organizations alike. Delegates visit with exhibitors to learn about cutting-edge solutions, explore three high-level educational tracks for learning valuable industry trends, and network with industry executives to find solutions to improve quality, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the evolving cannabis industry.

New York Expands Medical Access, Prepares for Adult Use

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Now entering its sixth year of medical cannabis legalization, the Empire State is well on its way to expanding the market considerably. When New York first legalized medical cannabis, it had some of the strictest rules in the country. Dispensaries needed to have pharmacists and doctors with special training on staff, they couldn’t sell flower and there was a very small list of qualifying conditions for getting a cannabis prescription.

While New York legalized adult use cannabis back in March of 2021, the actual market is still probably about a year away from launching. The bill immediately decriminalized possession up to certain amounts and set up the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), New York’s regulatory body now overseeing the medical, adult use and hemp markets.

Over the past six years since the state legalized medical cannabis, the rules have eased incrementally, with more licenses awarded, more doctors participating, more qualifying conditions approved and a larger variety of products on dispensary shelves. Back in 2017, they added chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions, which was seen as a big effort at the time for expanding patient access.

Just a few weeks ago on January 24, 2022, the Office of Cannabis Management, dropped all qualifying conditions. That means patients with more common ailments and really any type of condition, like anxiety or sleep disorders, can get a prescription for cannabis.

“Launching the new patient certification and registration system and expanding eligibility for the Medical Cannabis Program are significant steps forward for our program,” says Chris Alexander, executive director of the OCM. “We will continue to implement the MRTA and ensure that all New Yorkers who can benefit from medical cannabis have the access they need to do so. It’s important for New Yorkers to know that even as we shift the medical program to the OCM, your access will not be disrupted and the program will continue to expand.”

New York City
Image: Rodrigo Paredes, Flickr

In addition to dropping qualifying conditions, the state took a number of other measures to increase access and allow the market to expand further. For example, dispensaries can now sell flower, more physicians like dentists, podiatrists and midwives can participate, the OCM removed the patient registration fee and they increased the amount of cannabis patients can purchase at a time.

Beyond the medical market, New York is making strides in launching their hemp program as well as preparing for the eventual launch of the adult use market. Back in November, the state’s Cannabis Control Board approved new regulations for the hemp program, establishing standards for manufacturing, lab testing, packaging and labeling.

On the adult use front, delays are the name of the game. According to a publication called The City, delays to launch the new market have been made worse by former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation following sexual harassment allegations. They say the state might not see the launch of the adult use market until early 2023 at best. Decisions on licensing, standards and rules are to be made by the Cannabis Control Board, a five-member commission tasked with overseeing the OCM. So far, the Board has not addressed a timeframe for when they will begin adult use sales.

Cannabis in 2022 – Hurry Up and Wait

Here we are entering a new year. Finally, many states in the United States have agreed to legalize adult-use cannabis either through medical or adult-use programs. In 2021, we saw Connecticut, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York and Virginia all legalize adult-use, bringing the total to 18 states that now allow adult-use and 36 for medical use.

State-led initiatives have been the backbone for this emerging industry. Yet, it’s the advocates who are moving the ball forwards through education, research and real-world case studies showing the benefits cannabis can have across many medical ailments. These grassroots efforts must stay vigilant and persist considering the slow progress on the Federal government level.

The Capitol Building, Washington D.C.

It isn’t so much a matter of “if” Washington will legalize cannabis, but a matter of “when.” There has been some progress with the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act to end the federal criminalization of cannabis. Also, the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, allowing cannabis businesses to work with traditional financial institutions was established and introduced. In 2021, the number of cannabis-focused advocacy groups on the Hill multiplied and large public companies like Amazon even turned their attention, and lobbying dollars, towards cannabis issues too.

Unfortunately, these two significant bills mentioned above are moving slowly through the political process and will take a concerted effort to get them across the finish line any time soon. It’s a delicate balancing act that will continue for the foreseeable future as we navigate our way through regulation and compliance issues.

I live in New York, and over the last several months watching counties and municipalities opt-in or opt-out for dispensaries and consumption sites has been fascinating. The Rockefeller Institute of Government has created a Marijuana Opt-Out Tracker. The data shows – 730 out of 1,521 municipalities opt-out of dispensaries and 830 out of 1,521 opt-out for consumption sites. You can see the opt-out number is relatively high. The insights show local municipalities are taking a wait-and-see approach, seeing how the initial rollout goes, and then opt-in later.

New York City
Image: Rodrigo Paredes, Flickr

The data doesn’t correlate for me because if you look at a recent Gallup poll, 68% of adults in the United States approve of cannabis and 18% of Americans admit to using it, up from 10% in 2005.

There is still a disconnect that will require ongoing advocacy and education/research to present fact-based data that cannabis is safe to consume in moderation. Cannabis consumers should have the ability to purchase cannabis products from legal and regulated industry infrastructure in their town and not have to travel over an hour to get products from another location.

I have been in the cannabis industry since late 2017. Over the last four years, the industry has matured across many fronts, including new consumer products, processing technologies, dispensary formats and buying channels. However, I believe ongoing advancements from advocates, new manufacturing processes and technology platforms will lead the cannabis industry into a fully functional marketplace that is regulated and taxed relatively like any other industry.

As the adage goes, all good things are worth waiting for, and a high percentage of global adult individuals want to move forward with cannabis in their lives. Once we start categorizing cannabis as a wellness product and not a gateway drug, we will see both government and industry move quicker together.

Flower-Side Chats Part 11: TILT Holdings

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

TILT Holdings (NEO: TILT) is a publicly traded cannabis company with business divisions including Jupiter Research, distributor of CCELL in the US, as well as cannabis operations Commonwealth Alternative Care in Massachusetts and Standard Farms in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Unlike many publicly traded companies, TILT has focused their business on B2B sales staying away from retail operations. TILT recently announced a partnership for vertical cannabis operations with the Shinnecock Nation on Long Island, New York called Little Beach Harvest.

We interviewed Gary Santo, CEO of TILT Holdings. Prior to joining TILT, Gary worked at Columbia Care where he was the vice president of investor relations. Gary has a background in finance with several startup companies.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Gary Santo: My career started about 26 years ago in finance at a startup. It was a financial services intermediary startup company where we did a lot of B2B work. From there, I branched out and continued to work with what I consider to be startup companies and companies going through a massive transformation. What’s been interesting is no matter whether that industry is finance, or whether it was gaming and leisure – where I was doing casino equipment – or whether it was life sciences, there were all so many common threads to how those businesses work. They were all complex and all had stories that needed to be told.

Gary Santo, CEO of TILT Holdings

I looked at cannabis around 2017 or 2018. A friend of mine said, “you should really look at this space, because this could be a great way to cap off your career. It’s an emerging space. It’s a story space. It’s a space that’s just looking for some level of normal operational competency.” So, I was lucky enough to find Columbia Care. I joined them back in 2019 and helped take them public. They were the first cannabis company I had seen that was focused on being pragmatic and operational, not flashy, like so many of the companies that went public. They showed me that there is a way and a path in cannabis, that can be pragmatic, that can be operational, and where certain business rules do in fact, apply.

In July of last year, in the middle of COVID, I joined TILT, because I saw an opportunity to have that rebirth story, that complete turnaround story. It’s a B2B story that fits almost every part of my career up to this point.

Green: You have business units within TILT that span a diverse array from cultivation to manufacturing and technology. How do you see the business units of TILT working together in synergy?

Santo: That was the first question that was posed when I joined. We had three divisions at the time. We had our technology and accessories division with Jupiter that focused on inhalation. This includes the power packs, the cartridges, all the packaging that goes into that and also packaging for cannabis in general, not just for vapes. We had the software and services division in Blackbird which also does a bit of distribution in California and Nevada. Then we had our plant-touching side with vertical operations on the East Coast.

We quickly figured out that the software and services were not a place where we had good line of sight. That market is very competitive and irrationally priced. So, we leaned into the other two parts of the business which were profitable. TILT went through a rebirth when it went public with the same kind of wide mandate in 2018 that a lot of companies had back then. They had acquired some interesting assets. Jupiter has been profitable since day one. On the plant-touching side, we have assets in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, that are in underserved, limited-license and supply-constrained markets, and those were profitable as well.

The way they work together is if you think about Jupiter’s business model, they are a distributor of the CCELL vaping technology. It’s a ceramics-centered cart. They were instrumental. The founder of Jupiter, who’s the chair of our board, Mark Scatterday, really helped the Chinese factory, Smoore, who owns CCELL and the patents on CCELL, to develop that technology from their use in the tobacco space, which is where it had been for quite some time, and bring it into the cannabis space.

Jupiter has always had a forefront position as a distributor. We have our own R&D shop, but the way we sell there is B2B. We will sell vape cartridges and power packs either as stock items with Jupiter and CCELL logos or on a customized basis. If there’s a bespoke mouthpiece or something we can take one of our existing designs, white label it and put different badging or color combinations.

The CCELL business grew to over 700 customers, including MSOs, LPs, brands, and in about 36 different states and in 15 countries. As we looked at how best to lean into our plant-touching assets coming into 2021, the question was, could you replicate that where you own more of the supply chain? The issue with being a distributor is if you don’t own enough of the supply chains, the margins aren’t quite as eye-popping as they are in the plant-touching side. So, we’ve built a robust wholesale business, selling into about 90% of the retail stores in Pennsylvania from our manufacturing and distribution facility, and selling into about 50 or 60% of the retail stores in Massachusetts from our operations. We thought that created a strong window for us to do the same exact thing: offer up our facilities to create product whether it be on a bespoke basis with one of our brands, or a white-label basis, or straight-up contract manufacturing. We then leverage that distribution network, and that’s where the pieces all started to fit together.

We started this year with probably about 15-20% of our revenue was coming from people who were customers of both plant-touching and non-plant-touching businesses. We’re up to over 30% now and really, we just started leaning into the strategy in the start of 2021.

Green: In Q2 TILT showed continued growth in revenues and EBITDA with the Q3 report recently released. Where are you seeing growth in revenues right now? What’s got you excited?

Santo: With Jupiter, it’s been great to watch the vape industry come back. I think you could not have thrown much more at the vaping industry than what was thrown out there in late 2019, with the vape crisis rolling right into a respiratory pandemic. I think what we saw there was consumer demand remains strong. For every percentage point vaping was down, smokable flower is up. So, inhalation is clearly the absorption method of choice.

Obviously, the utility and the convenience of the vape was less important to people working from home. You can now smoke a pre-roll, whereas you’d never do that in your office setting. You might go outside and take a quick draw on a vape and then go back to work. That’s one of the reasons we saw a little bit of choppiness in 2020. We started to see that that business come back towards the end of the year with a lot more consistent ordering, and this year, it’s gone into full throttle. All-in-ones – the disposables – have returned to ordering so that means more power packs and more cartridges. It’s been a pleasant return to normalcy.

Now, I think Jupiter has been outpacing the broader vaping market in terms of year-over-year growth. That’s exciting granted the margin profile is certainly not as eye-popping as the plant-touching businesses. With Jupiter, we’re talking mid 20%’s on gross margin and low-to-mid teens on EBITDA.

Plant-touching aspects are where we’re super excited. These are facilities that a little over a year ago, prior management was thinking of selling off mostly because they thought there was tremendous value there. And it made sense. When I joined the firm, one of my first jobs was to look at a strategic view of the entire company and break down each of the business units. It became very clear that Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and recently Ohio, we’re going to be the significant growth engines for us, but not necessarily in retail.

A lot of the MSOs go and play in several stores and focus on sales per square foot. We are leveraging that B2B wholesale strategy. That’s exciting to us and the approach that we’re taking. It’s not about selling bulk flower. It’s not about selling just our own brands. It’s about really partnering with brands that are going to be coming from West to East. Whether it’s California, Washington State, or Colorado, brands that have managed to stake out a claim in the most hyper-competitive spaces in a race to the bottom market in terms of pricing, have held their price point and held their ground. We think they play exceptionally well here on the East Coast where we’re just getting started. The East coast is nowhere near the depth of market that you see over in California.

What we offer, what makes it exciting, is that we’re not trying to buy those brands. We think brands are where this industry is going. But we don’t know which brands are going to win any more than anyone else does. We know it’s expensive to own a brand and it’s hard to keep a brand fresh. So, we’re doing partnerships and those partnerships are literally on a SKU-by-SKU basis. In some cases, it’s a straight licensing deal, and in other cases, we share the gross profit. Brands come in, like Old Pal, for example, and we’re able to educate them on how different it is to sell their ready-to-roll pack in Massachusetts compared to what they do in California from the packaging to the formulation, and what can be on the labels, all those kinds of things. It’s been eye-opening.

The feedback has been better than I would have ever expected. I knew we would land a few brands. I wouldn’t have thought we would have already signed four brands on something we just announced strategically in January. We had MJ BizCon, where we were getting hit up all over the place with additional brands. I think between that, and then the work we’re doing in New York State, it shows that we’re differentiated and how we’re approaching this market. We’re in this to last, not to just squeeze every last basis point and ride the wave into the shore. We want to still be out here playing in the ocean in any market, whether it be this market, the legalized market, or whatever the market throws at us.

Green: When you are partnering with brands, what does that look like?

Santo: It depends on the jurisdiction. In Pennsylvania, you can’t really do pre-rolls there. You can’t sell the ready-to-roll pack that comes with a lighter. I can sell the pouch with flower, but I can’t sell you rolling papers. I can’t sell you a lighter because you might “figure out how to put that all together and smoke a joint.”

Part of the issue is being able to marry what makes that brand, “the brand?” And how do we keep that brand fidelity when we know we have certain restrictions, whether it’s medical-only market in Pennsylvania, or THC levels in Ohio. That’s where we spend time working with the brands, helping to develop which SKUs they want to see hit the market first. Everybody says they want to be a number one brand in every market and it’s not realistic. You might carve out a niche if you want to be number one in a certain type of product. We work with brands to figure out where their niche is going to be.

Green: You recently announced a partnership with the Shinnecock Nation. How did you decide on a partnership with them? Why does it make sense? And can you talk to kind of the tribal aspect of it and how that differentiates you in the New York market?

Santo: We had been looking across the Northeast and want to build sort of some type of Northeast corridor for brands to come East because we think having that tri-state region right would be distribution most of these brands would love to have. We had been looking for ways to get into New York. It is incredibly expensive and incredibly difficult. We saw deals earlier this year. One was $75 million for the old MedMen assets and money has to be invested into building out the growth facility further.

My former shop, Columbia Care, spent about $45 million purchasing a bunch of greenhouse space on eastern Long Island. We thought the return on that kind of expense was just not there.

So, looking at how we look at brands and how we look at the market in general, we love partnerships where both sides are incentivized. An investor introduced us to Conor Green. They are a shop out of Chicago, and they had been advising a lot of different Native American tribes, including Shinnecock, on how to enter the cannabis space. We were very impressed when we met with the Shinnecock on how they were viewing cannabis. A lot of people want to just get in and ride that green wave I talked about and don’t fully understand how to translate the passion for the plant into a functional operating company. I was incredibly impressed by the thoughtful, pragmatic way the Shinnecock worked through setting up their cannabis control infrastructure on their sovereign grounds. They had their own standalone Cannabis Control Commission, setting up the regulations to mirror very closely what was going on in New York state where they are ready should that time come where wholesale can occur across sovereign state lines. They were really being thoughtful about what they were looking for in a partner.

A rendering of Little Beach Harvest, a dispensary and “wellness lounge” proposed for Southampton

We like the location out in eastern Long Island. The next closest dispensary is about 30 minutes away. It’s a great neighborhood with good access. We’re creating a vertical operation that has a large dispensary selling on the tribal grounds. The numbers look great. Once wholesale comes, and we do think wholesale will come to the state, the ability to reach all of New York State from that tribal ground is incredible. We have the ability to expand the facility if the demand is great. They’ve already approved adult-use on tribal grounds. Little Beach Harvest, which is the name of the Shinnecock enterprise we’ve partnered on, does have to go through the process of applying to the Shinnecock Cannabis Regulatory Division to get approval. But they’ve already got all the framework in place for both medical and adult-use. So, it gives us a chance to really get going strong in New York.

From a dollars and cents point of view, it only costs $700,000 to get in – about half in cash half in stock. If Conor Green hits their milestones and we get open when we think we can, there could be another two and a half million or so in stock. Every dollar we put in is now going towards building the facility, not towards just the right to build the facility.

We love this deal from a social equity standpoint. It’s unique. This is not a facility we will take over and own. At the end of the day, it is owned by the Shinnecock. They will be receiving 75% of the free cash flow. Our contract runs nine years and it’s got some automatic extensions if we hit certain milestones. If we decide to build bigger, that opens up the contract again. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We provide financing. We provide training. We provide the horsepower to help them scale. They provide the license. They provide the passion and the understanding of the plant, and really a great group of folks who are so interested in investing and seeing a true economic, sustainable engine out on that plot of land. We couldn’t be more excited.

Green: What trends are you following in the cannabis industry right now?

Santo: We are keeping our eyes on where the form factor is going. CPG is where we think the world is heading to at some point. I think in Massachusetts, it moves quicker. When you look at Pennsylvania, and as you watch these markets trying to transition from purely medical to medical and adult-use, we’re seeing some grinding of the gears. Some states did a great job. Pennsylvania is a little bit of a no man’s land where right now the legislature and the Department of Health are fighting with each other, saying one got ahead of the other. So, it’s hard to get new products approved. If you can’t get new products approved that migration towards adult-use becomes that much harder. You would want to broaden out the form factors. So, we are keeping an eye on what’s allowable in those states.

We are also keeping a strong eye on how we can expand further with additional partnerships, maybe in New Jersey, maybe in Connecticut, who knows? We must be responsible. Those deals take a while to find and a while to get done.

In the Northeast, there’s been a slowdown in cannabis sales. I think it’s too soon to know exactly what’s driving that. But it’s also an industry that’s going to normalize at some point from these explosive growth rates that have been reported for all these years. It was inevitable it was going to start to slow down. That’s what happens with mature industries.

Green: What in cannabis, or in your personal life are you most interested in learning about?

Santo: I think every day I find instances of new uses for the plant. I was not one who thought much about cannabis growing up. I was a bartender. I was kind of on a different side of the world. But cannabis is amazing. I first was introduced to use cases by my dad. He’s suffering from arthritis in his knees, and he had gotten a medical card. He was getting CBD and THC balms that he puts on his knees.

As I look deeper into the plant, it amazed me that if this was a plant that was discovered today, and nobody knew anything about it, you’d probably be buying it down the aisles of Whole Foods. It’d be in every drugstore. It’d probably be over-promoted at that point. But it’s got that long legacy of prohibition, and social inequity. So, it’s making it harder to adopt. Obviously, being Schedule 1 doesn’t help either.

I am excited to see more and more people start to incorporate it responsibly in their mainstream lives and really promote a lot of that counterculture. It really is no different than other ways that people use to manage stress and anxiety and manage pain. That’s what keeps me coming to work each day, frankly. No, we’re not saving lives necessarily. But at the end of the day, I think we really are improving them and giving people alternatives to opioids and benzos and things like that. So, I think as long as that keeps happening, I’ll still be here.

Green: Okay, great. That concludes the interview.

Santo: Thanks, Aaron.

Legalization in the Northeast: Where the Dominoes are Falling

2021 has been very fruitful for cannabis legalization in the northeastern United States. First New Jersey legalized adult use cannabis, then came New York, then Connecticut, and now it is looking like Rhode Island should be able to get it done this year. Although technically not in the Northeast, Virginia also legalized adult use cannabis this year.

Quintessential New England: The Rhode Island coastline.

Those states are following in the footsteps of Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont who have all legalized cannabis previously. In addition, legislators in Pennsylvania and Delaware are both trying to advance bills to legalize adult use cannabis. While New Hampshire has a lot of support for legalization, progress in the legislature has stalled for now. And that just about covers the entire Northeast.

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.

Following Connecticut and hopefully Rhode Island, Pennsylvania lawmakers are building bipartisan support for legalization and are expected to introduce a bill soon.