In a press release published last week, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) announced they have awarded their seed-to-sale traceability contract to Metrc, a national company with contracts for the same service in 14 other states.
According to OMMA Interim Director Dr. Kelly Williams, working with Metrc will help them protect public health, by expediting recalls. “The seed-to-sale system will greatly expand our compliance capabilities and improve the effectiveness and speed of any future recall efforts,” says Dr. Williams. “It will also allow us to detect unusual patterns that may indicate product diversion.”
Metrc has begun work towards their rollout of the system, which they expect to have ready by February 2021. “We know that businesses will have many questions in the coming weeks, and we will answer them as quickly as possible,” says Dr. Williams.
Oklahoma legalized medical cannabis in 2018 and the market has expanded considerably. There are more than 300,000 patients and almost 10,000 licensees. It has the highest number of dispensaries per resident in the country.
Jeff Wells, CEO of Metrc, says Oklahoma has done a good job so far in developing one of the fastest growing markets in the country. “We’re honored Oklahoma selected Metrc to implement the state’s first cannabis tracking system,” says Wells. “With one of the fastest growing medical cannabis markets in the United States, the OMMA has done a tremendous job developing this new industry, and we’re excited to support its ongoing success. We look forward to working with state regulators and licensees to launch our system and ensure cannabis products are safe and secure for patients.”
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the first article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article we talk with George Sadler, President and Co-founder of House of Platinum. George and his son Cody started their cannabis journey in 2010 when they sold their dirt bikes and set up a 10×10 garage. They have since built the business into a $70 million dollar cannabis empire across California, Michigan and now Oklahoma. The interview with George was conducted on July 31, 2020.
Next week, we’ll interview Matthew Elmes, Director of Product Development at Cannacraft. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: First off, George, congratulations on your recent announcement on the LOI from Red White & Bloom!
George Sadler: Thanks! The deal isn’t done yet but we’re looking at a sixty-five-million-dollar deal. Cody and I will be staying on as officers to oversee growth as we expand into new markets.
Aaron: That’s great news! I hope it all works out well for you and best of luck closing the deal. Now on to the interview questions we had planned. So first off, how did you get involved at House of Platinum?
George: My son Cody and I wanted to do extraction and have a vape company. Five or six years ago we climbed on a plane to China to speak with manufacturers. We started off with extraction equipment in a small room with a table top machine. After a time, we took year and a half off to get our licensing and do our buildout. We opened up again two years ago in June. At the time, China was the main resource for packaging, and everything really. We got hardware from another company and had our Chinese partners rework the hardware to address some of the issues we had. Cody and I spent a week in Shenzhen where we met with our Chinese partners. They first did cartridges, packaging and batteries.
Aaron: Thanks for that, George. The next questions will focus on product development and manufacturing. What is your decision process for starting a new product?
George: In the beginning, Cody and I would both be a part of new product development from beginning to end. Cody has taken lead now on the beginning phases so our new product development really starts with him. We collectively come up with the concept. Cody does the market research. The concept then goes to our design team for visuals and to do the artwork- this usually takes some time. After we are satisfied with the branding, we start the manufacturing process. We do everything start to finish and can go from design to package in less than two weeks. The only thing we still manufacture in China is hardware these days, so cartridges and batteries.
Aaron: Are you personally involved in manufacturing? Tell me about your process
George: Cody and I are both involved in manufacturing. In California, we have about a hundred employees at our facility. In Michigan we have another hundred, and Oklahoma has about thirty. In Michigan, we do carts only right now and are getting ready to launch chocolates and gummies. Oklahoma is also getting ready to do edibles and gummies.
Aaron: What is your process for developing new products? George: In manufacturing, when we start a new line of edibles, we’ll first do a full test batch of products before committing to full-scale manufacturing. We start small at first then scale into larger batches. If everything looks good, we’ll decide whether or not to invest in larger equipment.
Aaron: Are you developing new products internally?
George: Our California and Michigan production is done 100% in-house. In Oklahoma we have a licensing deal with a manufacturing partner.
Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants?
George: No. We do all of our product development internally.
Aaron: In product development or manufacturing, what does being stuck look like for you?
George: That depends on what phase of the process we’re talking about. One challenge is getting the recipe dialed and then figuring out how to move into large scale. Take chocolate for example: going from a one spout pour on chocolate to a three-spout pour. That process can take a while to figure out. Any time you are trying to move forward in your manufacturing process, if there isn’t existing equipment available you may need to purchase it. There isn’t a lot of information out there to gauge on the cannabis side what is relevant.
Aaron: How about source materials for your products?
George: We pride ourselves on doing a deep dive on all of our suppliers. That includes packaging, chocolate, sugar, and flower. The advantage of longevity in this industry, we have keen radar on those doing premium work.
Aaron: What’s the most frustrating thing you are going through with the business?
George: I think a majority of people would agree that there’s lack of understanding of what’s happening with licensing. Legacy market products and unlicensed stores are frustrating. Inconsistency on testing is also frustrating. The states aren’t really doing anything to correct inconsistent testing. But banking is the number one industry pain point. We have a handle on the rest. Banking we don’t have any help.
Aaron: Feel free to answer the next question however you like. Imagine you could have someone come in and wave a magic wand to solve your problems. What does your magic helper look like?
George: Hah! Not sure what a magic helper would look like. Distribution is our biggest headache. Distribution is a different animal that is outside cannabis product development. We do all of our distribution in-house and it can be a pain.
Aaron: Now for my final question: What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?
George: We’re semi-new in the CBD space. Anything up and coming is something we are looking at. We’re focused on going big and multi-state. Arizona is the next state we are looking at. Nevada is after that. The partnership with Red White and Bloom is going to grow the brand into other states with them. Growth continues in that direction. Recently we’ve been going back to cultivation and doing cultivation deals. We started as cultivators and a lot has changed in the past several years. We are trying to pick up new knowledge.
Aaron: Well, thanks for that George, this is all awesome feedback for the industry. That concludes the interview! Thanks so much for your time and congrats again on your recent announcement with Red White & Bloom.
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.
According to a press release published back in September, Steep Hill announced their expansion to the state of Oklahoma. Steep Hill, a cannabis science company that started with cannabis testing labs in California, has been on an impressive expansion trajectory over the past few years.
Kandice Faulkenberry, co-owner and CEO of Steep Hill Oklahoma, says they hope to raise the bar for cannabis lab testing in Oklahoma. “With Oklahoma being one of the fastest-growing medical markets in the nation, we are excited and honored to be a part of our state’s growth,” says Faulkenberry. “We hope to be a valuable resource in our community and Oklahoma’s cannabis industry. Through our partnership with Steep Hill, the world’s leading cannabis science company, we aim to raise the bar in laboratory services, education, and product safety for the medical cannabis industry in the Sooner State.”
Dr. Chris Orendorff, the other co-owner of Steep Hill Oklahoma, is a family physician based in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. “As a physician, I understand that safety and regulations are critical to patient outcomes and I look forward to providing the same assurance for my patients and fellow Oklahoma residents in the cannabis industry,” says Dr. Orendorff. “I am excited to partner with Steep Hill to provide the highest quality testing in the State of Oklahoma.”
According to a press release published earlier this week, A2LA announced the accreditation of two separate cannabis laboratories in two separate states; both are the first cannabis testing labs accredited in their states. Demeter Laboratory, based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Galbraith Laboratories, based in Knoxville, Tennessee, achieved the ISO 17025:2017 accreditation.
According to Cassy VanTassel, M.S., quality manager at Demeter Laboratory, Oklahoma is still developing and defining their regulatory framework for cannabis testing requirements. “Even though the State of Oklahoma is still establishing regulations and legislation, Demeter will always strive to meet the highest quality standards, so our customers know they are getting the best quality testing,” says VanTassel. “Demeter chose A2LA as its Accreditation Body due to their reputation in the industry, their diverse clientele, and the quality of their assessors.”
In Tennessee, Galbraith Labs is looking to aid the hemp industry in product safety testing. Christy Myers, customer service manager at Galbraith Laboratories, says they want to help farmers produce safe hemp products. “We are proud of our commitment to stay current within our industry and achieve the high standards set by A2LA,” says Myers. “Adding cannabis testing to our line of services was a great opportunity for Galbraith Laboratories to serve the community by helping farmers produce safe and legal hemp.”
Galbraith Labs was founded in 1950 as a contract lab in Knoxville serving many industries. With their newly established accreditation, they hope to aid the cannabis industry in Tennessee with hemp testing. Demeter Laboratory is the first medical cannabis lab in Oklahoma. Their goals include “advancing quality controls in medical cannabis, supporting safe consumption of cannabis and ensuring the transparency of the cannabis community.”
Two bags are sitting on the table in front of you. The first bag contains legal hemp. The second one contains illegal marijuana. Can you tell which is which? Neither can state troopers at a traffic stop.
On January 24, 2019, Dennis Palamarchu, an interstate truck driver, had 6,700 pounds of hemp in his rig. Mr. Palamarchu had picked up the load at Boones Ferry Berry Farms in Hubbard, Oregon. Before he reached his destination at Big Sky Scientific, LLC (“Big Sky”) in Aurora, Colorado, the Idaho State Police stopped him on I-84, outside of Boise. Mr. Palamarchu indicated that he was hauling hemp. He did not try to run or escape, and he never tried to dispose of the load. The bill of lading showed that the shipment consisted of approximately 7,000 pounds of hemp. The Idaho State Police arrested Mr. Palamarchu for felony trafficking in marijuana.
Around the same time, Pawhuska police in Oklahoma seized over 17,000 pounds of hemp on its way from Kentucky to Colorado. The cargo was valued at about $850,000. A spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control said, “We don’t know if it is marijuana. We don’t know if it is hemp.”
The recent events in Idaho and Oklahoma are inevitable consequences of the passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, Pub. L. 115-334 (“2018 Farm Bill”). The 2018 Farm Bill provides that no state shall be allowed to prohibit the transportation of hemp through the state. However, a product that contains more than 0.3% THC – in the eyes of federal law – is marijuana, not hemp. Unlike hemp, marijuana still is subject to state statutes and the federal Controlled Substances Act. The legal distinction between hemp and marijuana is too subtle for the human eye, or a trained K-9’s impressive nose, and it has created a quandary for interstate hemp shippers like Mr. Palamarchu and Big Sky.
When Idaho State Police seized Big Sky’s hemp, Big Sky went to federal court1. On February 19, 2019, the United States District Court for the District of Idaho recognized that in the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress legalized the interstate transportation of hemp grown in the United States so long as the hemp was “produced in accordance with subtitle G” of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946. However, the federal plan is undeveloped and Oregon does not have a federally-approved plan, so no one knows what it means to be “produced in accordance with subtitle G.” The federal court therefore concluded that Big Sky’s hemp could not possibly have been “produced in accordance with subtitle G.”
The court recognized, “[a]t some future date, industrial hemp that has been ‘produced in accordance with subtitle G’ will undoubtedly be transported in interstate commerce across states like Idaho that have not legalized industrial hemp.” In the meantime, however, the court found that Idaho could keep Big Sky’s cash crop, which sits deteriorating in the possession of law enforcement. Big Sky has appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The hemp market is projected to approach $2 billion by 2020. By then, hopefully, federal law will clarify what it means for hemp to be “produced in accordance with subtitle G.” In the meantime, Idaho’s House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would allow hemp producers from the 41 states that have legalized hemp to transport their crops and products through Idaho, so long as they get a permit from the state and do not unload any of their cargo there. Idaho Senators then added a section to that bill, announcing their intent for Idaho to legalize hemp in time for the 2020 growing season. The House, however, never signed off on the Senate amendments, effectively killing the bill. Until such a bill becomes law, transporters of interstate hemp should consider taking the long way home.
Big Sky Scientific, LLC v. Idaho State Police, et al., No. 19-cv-00040-REB, Dkt No. 32 (D. Id. Feb. 19, 2019)
With the Trump Administration sending mixed signals on legal cannabis, and with Congress beginning to ramp up efforts for reform, in order for industry stakeholders to best understand where we are headed, it will be helpful to remember how we got here. As readers may be aware, the current status of federal cannabis law can be traced back to the legislative prong of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs. His Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) made it a federal crime for anyone to use or possess any amount of marijuana anywhere in the U.S. Current federal cannabis policy, on the other hand, complicates the matter, and can be traced back to a memorandum issued in 2013 by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. The Cole Memo instructed U.S. attorneys general in states that have legalized marijuana to use their limited resources in prosecuting CSA offenses only if they violated specific federal enforcement priorities. The highest of these priorities include diverting legal marijuana business revenues to illegal drug operations, transporting marijuana over state lines, making marijuana accessible to minors, and growing marijuana on federal lands. The problem is that the Cole Memo is only a policy, it is not law; and so not only can the current administration unilaterally change it whenever it wants, but state-legal cannabis businesses, their employees and customers are breaking federal law every single day!
This is a very unusual situation to be in for both the states and the feds, and it raises two basic constitutional questions: What gives the feds the right to make cannabis illegal everywhere in the U.S.? And how can states simply defy the prohibition?
The first question was in fact answered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 when two California women (Diane Monson and Angel Raich), both with very serious illnesses, sued the federal government for confiscating their state-legal medical cannabis. The feds defended their actions by claiming that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause gave them the authority to march into California, march into the homes of these women, and enforce the CSA. Diane and Angel argued that the Commerce Clause only gives the feds the authority over interstate commerce; and since their cannabis was grown by themselves, used by themselves, never bought or sold, or transported out of the state, it was therefore wholly intrastate cannabis and had nothing at all to do with interstate commerce. The Court sided with the feds, ruling that even though the cannabis was intrastate, when you take all intrastate cannabis activity like that and add it together, it will have a substantial impact on the interstate cannabis market. Because of that connection it was ‘necessary and proper’ for the feds to enact the CSA and enforce it anywhere in the country they wanted. Although there is still much debate over this ruling, it remains the law of the land to this day.
Fast forward to 2014. The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado claiming that by legalizing marijuana, Colorado was violating federal law under the CSA. Because federal law overrides state law when they conflict, then Colorado’s cannabis laws must be struck down, or so they argued. In response Colorado took a very interesting position that built on the hard realities of the cannabis market. It is best to explain it in four parts. First, they cited the fact that the federal government lacked the resources to enforce the CSA, a claim which the feds have admitted to themselves. Second, Colorado pointed to a constitutional doctrine called ‘anti-commandeering’, which says that they have no obligation to criminalize cannabis at all. If the feds want to make it a federal crime, that is one thing; but that does not mean CO must make it a state crime as well. Third, Colorado said that by regulating cannabis as extensively and strictly as they have done, they are reducing the amount of cannabis activity compared to not regulating it at all. Taken together, this means that because Colorado does not have to criminalize cannabis, and because the federal government cannot enforce their own criminalization, then Colorado is actually helping out the feds by regulating the drug instead of allowing for a free-for-all under state law.
In March of 2016 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in full or issue an opinion, which had the effect of giving a default victory to Colorado. Among political and legal commentators the speculation is that enough justices on the Court either agreed with the logic of Colorado’s position or wanted to wait for this federal-state controversy to be worked out by Congress. Because it was only a default victory, the constitutional status of the legal cannabis industry remains on unprecedented and unstable ground. The Controlled Substances Act has not yet been found to preempt state law, so cannabis businesses are still able to operate legally in their state. But because the CSA still applies to everyone, they do so at the whim of the Trump Administration’s policy preferences. The confusion that this presents has put cannabis businesses in many difficult situations, and it serves as the legal backdrop for such familiar problems as access to banking and contract enforcement.
Currently, legislative and judicial fixes are in motion. Related cannabis litigation is pending in federal court at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. And a Cannabis Caucus has formed in the U.S. Congress to address the shortcomings of the CSA. In the coming articles we will explore both of these routes to reform, the likelihoods of various possible outcomes, and the impact they will have on the legal cannabis industry.
Editor’s Note: For readers interested in learning more about this topic click here for Brian’s research article published by the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law
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