The culture of the cannabis industry is filled with passion that many envy, and for valid reasons. The roots of the cannabis plant go back thousands of years. As of this writing, there are no documented human deaths that were caused by a phytocannabinoid overdose. However, it is not all rainbows and unicorns.
Before breaking ground, fundraising, proper facility design, competitive application and permitting requirements are just the start. Once operating, businesses struggle to stay current with regulations that continue to evolve. Cannabis cultivators struggle to scale while mitigating pest infestations, which is a part of life in the conventional agricultural industry. A lack of consistent products frustrates consumers, while regulators and policy makers continue to struggle on the best way to regulate a commodity that has seemingly endless demand. The reality is dizzying!
However, amidst all of the challenges and opportunities, a continually overlooked tool stands out: a Quality Management System (QMS). Merriam-Webster defines a system as “an organized set of doctrines, ideas, or principles usually intended to explain the arrangement or working of a systematic whole.”
A QMS documents processes, procedures and responsibilities that ultimately direct an organization’s activities to meet customer and regulatory requirements as well as continually improve its effectiveness and efficiency. In other words – it steers innovation through the collection of data while ensuring products are safe for the consumer. For further reading, the American Society for Quality (ASQ), now over 70 years old, is an excellent resource and provider of resources and formal training programs that are recognized and revered around the world.
Step 1: Define your stakeholder requirements
This all starts with knowing your stakeholder (e.g., customer, regulatory body) requirements. For simplicity’s sake, let’s start with your customer; at a fundamental level, they expect safe, consistent and reliable products that impart a certain experience.
How does that translate into specifications? Let’s look at them one at a time.
What does “safe” mean? For an edible, safe means the product is free of physical, chemical and microbial hazards. Knowing what potential impurities could be in your product requires understanding your raw materials (inputs) and the manufacturing process. To take a deeper dive, some of the aspects of safety and quality, product specifications and testing considerations are discussed in this recent Cannabis Industry Journal article by Dr. Roggen and Mr. Skrinskas here.
What does “consistent” mean? This builds off and complements the safety profile. It could mean a consistent fill level, an acceptable range of cannabinoid concentration, and so on. For example, in the US Pharmacopeia’s peer-reviewed article about quality attributes of cannabis inflorescence (commonly known as flower or bud), they recommend 20% as the acceptable variance in cannabinoid content. For a product labeled as having 25% THC, the product will actually test to between 20% and 30%. This may be surprising, and discomforting for some, but the reality is that products on the market consistently fail to meet label claims.
What does “reliable” mean? That could mean that you always have inventory of certain products on the shelves at your dispensary. Defining “always” as a SMART goal – perhaps it means that you will have your top 3 products in stock at least 90% of the time. Customers need to feel like they can rely on your business to provide them with the products they want. Take the time to capture the data on what your customers want and work to satisfy their needs and you’ll watch your business really accelerate.
Step 2: Build your processes to meet these expectations
This is where your written standard operating procedures (SOPs), forms and records come into play. Your SOPs serve to memorialize your operations for consistency. Most SOPs in the cannabis industry are not written by the actual operators of a process. Rather, they are written by the legal and compliance team without review by the operators to confirm that what they are stating reflects operational reality. The audience needs to be the operators. Without effective SOPs that are utilized by your employees, your business will struggle to meet the established specifications. Cannabis businesses in Colorado, the oldest regulated adult-use cannabis market in the United States, continue to see 1 in 8 of their products fail final product testing! Cannabis businesses that understand their processes, document them in SOPs and have records to prove they follow their SOPs (see Step 3) are able to reduce errors that ultimately lead to costly rework and product failures.
Step 3: Monitor and improve
You have your requirements, you have your process, but how do you know that they are being adhered to? By the time you have results from a third-party lab, it’s too late. Look internally. Records and logs that show preventive maintenance was performed, room and canopy temperature and humidity checks, inventory reports, production records, extraction equipment report and employee training records shouldn’t be filled out only to be filed away. These records are data, which is your most valuable tool. Unfortunately, records are one of the most overlooked assets in today’s cannabis business. A team independent from operations (typically a Quality Unit) should be regularly reviewing these for inconsistencies and trends that can alert you to catastrophic failures before they occur.
Initially, the additional expenditure and learning curve may make this seem like an added burden, but keep in mind that succeeding in today’s cannabis industry requires long-term customer retention. By biting off one piece at a time, you can slowly implement a QMS that will improve your business, increase customer satisfaction, and ensure your brand is a staple for years to come. Remember, quality and compliance is a journey, not a “set it and forget it” situation.
The definition of a Quality Management System includes ‘continuous improvement’. Look forward to a future article which will discuss the importance of tools like a CAPA Program – Corrective Action Preventive Action (which all cannabis license holders in Colorado are required to have in place as of January 1, 2021) and how they complete your QMS, keeping you compliant and mitigating your business risks!
Cresco Labs, one of the largest multistate operators (MSOs) in the country, announced the acquisition of Bluma Wellness Inc., a vertically integrated cannabis company based in Florida.
Cresco Labs, with roots in Chicago, Illinois, operate 29 licenses in 6 states across the United States. With this new acquisition, Cresco Labs solidifies their ubiquitous brand presence in the most populous markets and cements their position in Florida, a new market for them.
According to the press release, the two companies entered an agreement where Cresco will buy all of Bluma’s issued and outstanding shares for an equity value of $213 million. They expect the transaction to be completed by the second quarter of this year.
Charles Bachtell, CEO of Cresco Labs, says their expansion strategy is based largely on population. “Our strategy at Cresco Labs is to build the most strategic geographic footprint possible and achieve material market positions in each of our states,” says Bachtell. “With Florida, we will have a meaningful presence in all 7 of the 10 most populated states in the country with cannabis programs – an incredibly strategic and valuable footprint by any definition. We recognize the importance of the Florida market and the importance of entering Florida in a thoughtful way – we identified Bluma as having the right tools and key advantages for growth.”
Bluma Wellness operates through its subsidiary, One Plant Florida, which has 7 dispensaries across the state and ranks second in sales in the state. They also have an impressive delivery arm of their retail business, deriving 15% of their revenue from it.
Multi-state operators (MSOs) are on the rise in the United States, navigating complex regulatory frameworks to drive profitability through economies of scale and scope. C21 Investments is a vertically integrated cannabis company with operations in Nevada and Oregon; traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CXXI) and on the OTCQX (CXXIF). The company recently secured a commitment from Wasatch Global Investors, JW Asset Management (Jason Wild/TerrAscend) and CB1 Capital Management (Todd Harrison) who, in addition to C21’s CEO, provided an equity commitment for repayment of all convertible debt.
We spoke with Bruce Macdonald, Chairman of C21 Investments. Bruce joined C21 in 2018 after reviewing the company as a personal investment and getting to know the senior management team. Prior to C21, Bruce had a long and successful career in finance and capital markets at one of Canada’s largest banks.
Aaron Green: Can you give a brief overview of C21?
Bruce MacDonald: C21 is a cannabis company that has operations in both Nevada, and in Oregon. Oregon is fundamentally a wholesale business, and we recently announced a divestment of some non-core assets in the state. Our cash cow and where we currently see our best opportunity for future growth is our Nevada operations. We run a seed-to-sale business in the state with two dispensaries doing about $35M a year in revenue, with a 40% EBITDA Margin, and servicing 600,000 customers.
Aaron: Can you tell me about a little bit about your background and how you got involved in a cannabis company?
Bruce: I spent 37 years working for RBC in the capital markets business. I started as a floor trader, back when there was such a thing as a floor, and over the years held a number of positions, ultimately working my way up to Chief Operating Officer of the bank’s global capital markets division. Throughout my time, I built a lot of businesses, which was why C21 and this opportunity was so interesting to me.
My involvement in the cannabis sector was a bit of an accident, but it’s turned into a passion. It actually found me. I was an investor in the C21 IPO. I sat down with management to understand the investment and given my experience, they asked if I would consider becoming a member the Board. Since joining the Board, my involvement has been primarily focused on strategy and the financing side of the business. While I certainly didn’t anticipate it, it’s turned into a 24/7 gig and a challenge I am thoroughly enjoying.
Aaron: Can you tell me about the history of C21 becoming a MSO? Did you start in one state?
Bruce: While this history predates my time at the company, my understanding is that as a Canadian company, we had first mover advantage to be able to access public funding and get established in the US cannabis space. As part of that, the team at that time reviewed approximately 100 different properties. Because we were based out of Vancouver, the focus was primarily the Western states like Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. Arizona wasn’t in the game yet. The first transaction C21 did was in Oregon, with a company called Eco Firma. In all, there were four acquisitions in Oregon, and one in Nevada. In fact, it was the investment in Silver State (Nevada) that was by far the most meaningful. As far as our Oregon assets are concerned, we have worked hard to integrate and streamline them into an efficient operation.
So, when I joined the Board, we were just completing the paperwork on the acquisitions, and finalizing our strategy and business plan to go forward.
Aaron: Today there are a number of MSOs. How does this more crowded market impact your value proposition; how do you think about gaining and maintaining strategic advantage?
Bruce: It’s important first to start with strategy. From a strategic perspective, we had the advantage of being the first operator in Nevada with Silver State. Sonny Newman, our CEO, started the business back in 2013. We run a seed-to-sale business so we have a deep knowledge of all aspects of the operation and really know the Nevada market. In fact, 70% on a dollar volume basis of the 700 SKUs that we sell are products that we manufacture. It’s a critical piece of our strategic advantage.
What I would say is our most important strategic advantage is the fact that C21 is a stable, self-sustaining operator. What I mean by that is we’re one of the few businesses that actually makes money. This is what really allows us to be strategic and disciplined in our approach to growth. For example, it’s been more than 18 months since we did our last capital raise and that’s by choice. Every decision we make is through the shareholder lens and focusing on delivering value to customers and shareholders.
Looking at our value proposition, simply put, it comes down to four things – the right products, at the right price, in the right location, with the right environment. Some people might call this motherhood, but there’s a lot of work that goes behind each of them.
Great quality products, that’s table stakes. You have to be a top-notch grower and generate quality products that people demand if you want to build a loyal customer base. Right price – to some it sounds like just putting the right sticker on the package – it’s not. It’s all about making sure you are efficient in your operations because to be profitable, you have to be a low-cost producer to deliver on a lower price promise. Tons of work has gone into our operation around being a “right price” business.
Right location is another important element of our value proposition. We wanted to build a loyal customer base which for us meant focusing more on locals than on tourists. This is why Sonny positioned the dispensaries on commuter paths.
The last key factor is having the right environment to sell our products. In Nevada, the company ended up building fit-for-purpose dispensaries rather than fitting ourselves in a strip mall. We cater to over 600,000 clients a year. Now we’re doing 10,000 curbside pickups a month. With that type of volume, logistically speaking you need ample parking, a well-lit exterior so people feel safe, and of course, great curb appeal. These factors are essential in maintaining a loyal customer base.
Aaron: Tell me more about Silver State Relief and why it has been so successful?
Bruce: I think what you’re really asking for is: what is Sonny’s secret sauce? There are a few ingredients that go into it. As I highlighted, it was a purposeful decision to build a business with a loyal customer base focused primarily on locals. That needs product, price, and convenience. Sonny lives in the Reno area, which is one of the main reasons Silver State is located up North.
Critical to success has been the culture of the organization. Let’s start with the company being nimble and I’ll give you an example. The early days of the pandemic included the complete shutdown of dispensaries. We went from serving over 1500 customers a day in our stores to the next day being told that we could offer delivery only. Within a week, we were able to pivot and had lockboxes, regulatory approvals and a delivery capability. When you look at our Nevada operation, we ended up with just a 10% dip in our revenues for the quarter, even though we had to live through six weeks of delivery-only and then a phase of curbside-only.
Another key element of the culture is our laser focus on cost management. We’ve talked a little about cost management, but it’s absolutely critical, especially in the context of the high cost of capital that we see in this sector. Add to that the punitive tax impact of 280e where federal tax is applied to gross margins which means SG&A and interest are non-deductible expenses for tax purposes. So, to enhance our profitability, we are intent on having the lowest SG&A of the public cannabis companies. We’re also among the lowest in interest expense. That whole drive for efficiency has given us a formula and a mantra that has allowed us to have a stable business with significant cash flow. We get to make strategic decisions — not hasty or desperate ones — and focus on what’s good for the shareholder.
Aaron: How was C21 capitalized?
Bruce: We did a $33M raise on the RTO of a listed shell company. That was how C21 was established, and then signed contracts with the Oregon and Nevada properties.
Aaron: I recently saw a press release about expanding the Nevada cultivation. Can you give me some more details?
Bruce: We announced that we are tripling our capacity within our existing 100,000 square foot warehouse facilities. We’re going to build out another 40,000 square feet, and we currently use 20,000. That’s the tripling. Expanding our cultivation was clearly the next logical step in our growth story. This should yield us an additional 7,500 pounds of high-quality flower. We can do this very cost effectively with about $6M in capex, and we anticipate funding the project internally. We will still leave another 40,000 square feet of expansion capacity as market needs justify.
This announcement was significant, but I don’t think it was fully understood by the market. Just to play with some numbers, 7,500 pounds of flower has a wholesale market value today of about $17M. It will cost us approximately $2M in incremental operating expense to add these additional grow rooms. We already pay the rent, so we just need to pay for the people, power, fertilizer and product testing. When you do the simple math, we see this as a big win for shareholders and extremely accretive on an after-tax basis.
Historically, we always used to grow more than we needed, but with the increase in demand that’s going on in the market, we now run at a flower deficit. In the near term, this build-out will allow is to meet our current retail needs, with the balance that we will sell on the wholesale market. Ultimately, this positions us well on a seed-to-sale basis to support our plans to extend our retail footprint in Nevada.
Aaron: It sounds like the decision was made based on both revenue growth and supply chain consolidation?
Bruce: Yes, and just the pure profitability of it! You can’t get a bigger, better bang for your buck from spending $6M to generate $17M with ongoing operating costs of $2M.
Aaron: The next question here is about the recent note restructuring and, and how the debentures was restructured. How’d that come about and what is the advantage now of having gone through that process?
Bruce: This all fits into our medium-term growth strategy. For C21, the first thing we focused on was getting our house in order to ensure that we were efficient and profitable. We knew we needed to have a scalable machine to grow. The second step, which the debt restructuring relates to, was around fortifying our balance sheet. To support our growth plans, we needed to have a solid foundation.
Our balance sheet had two things that needed fixing. One was that we had an $18M obligation coming due to our CEO. The effect of the restructuring extended this obligation over the next 30 months at favorable terms. Additionally, $6.5M of convertible debentures were reaching maturity in January of 2021. And while the debentures were in the money and theoretically would convert to shares, we didn’t want to take the risk that our stock price could drift a bit and all of a sudden there could be significant cash required for redemptions. We’ve seen a lot of companies suffer significant unwanted dilution when their debentures get out of control. So, we approached Wasatch, Jason Wild’s JWAM and CB1 Capital, three seasoned investors, who provided a backstop whereby they would purchase any shares not taken up by people though the conversion of their debentures, so that we would be able to pay any debenture holders back cash with the money we would receive as the investors took shares. In exchange for providing this backstop, C21 gave them an upside participation in the form of warrants. I think it was absolutely critical to get this in place. And it’s phenomenal to have these three names in our corner. We couldn’t imagine better partners.
Aaron: So, what’s next for C21?
Bruce: I hope you are getting the feeling that here at C21 our objective is to play the long game. That means we make measured decisions with the interest of shareholders top of mind. We’ve worked hard in 2020 to get our house in order, fortify our balance sheet, and generate significant cash flow. I think we’re clocking in at around $12M in trailing annual cash flow, which interestingly, is about the same number that Planet 13 is doing. That’s obviously a fantastic result for a company with $150M of market cap.
“We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics.”When we think about our medium-term growth strategy, we will continue to make our decisions through a cash flow and earnings lens rather than hype and flash. While we will remain opportunistic with respect to strategic alternatives, the core of our expansion is going to focus on where we already have a proven track record: Nevada. We’re big believers that to achieve long term success, you have to own your home market. And what I mean by that is today we’re about 5% of the Nevada market. Owning your home market looks more like a 15% share. That is our focus. I think we’ve shown that our disciplined approach delivers results – results such as having top five metrics in Net Income, Cash Flow and EBITDA Margin, across the range of public companies that we can see.
I think it’s key we’re getting noticed. We talked about the strategic investors, but we’re also one of the 17 plant-touching companies that’s in the MSOS ETF. So, we’re going to follow our clear growth trajectory, focused on the bottom line and delivering for shareholders. If you look under the hood right now, you see a 10% cash flowing company, which is a pretty rare bird in our industry. We’re excited about where we are.
One thing I haven’t touched on in great detail is our plans for expanding our retail footprint. How do you grow in the dispensary space? Aaron, I think what’s key here is looking at the expected return relative to the cost of capital. For example, if you targeted buying a dispensary with $20M in revenues, and are able as we are, to generate 25% in after-tax cash based on those revenues, then once optimized, it would generate $5M in earnings. An asset like this is going to trade at roughly one and a half times revenues. So, you’re going to have to pay $30M. For the people that have been going out and borrowing money at 15%, their annual cost would be $4.5M. We’re not going to give four and a half to the moneylenders, it just doesn’t make sense for shareholders. We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics. It is something we believe will be afforded to companies with stable earnings and profitability such as ours. Of course, no deal’s a deal until it’s on the tape, but we are very hopeful that we have cracked the code ahead of SAFE Banking to get capital costs down. This is just a little bit of an inside look into our thought processes.
Aaron: Okay, awesome. All right. That concludes the interview.
After a slow start following a disappointing 2019, M&A in the cannabis space closed 2020 with a bang, with more than $600 million in deals announced immediately following the November elections. Prospects for the New Year are expected to continue the explosive year-end trend with a backlog of nearly $2 billion in deals heading into 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic boosted sales of cannabis products, and election results opening up five new states to legal cannabis use and possible federal regulatory reform are further boosting prospects. Analysts now predict the U.S. cannabis market is poised to double by 2025.
Growth is expected to be led by multi-state operators who have achieved scale, cleaned up their balance sheets and stockpiled dry powder for roll-up acquisitions. Cannabis companies raised nearly $134 million in the two weeks before Election Day, a 185% increase over the same period last year. Most of the money flowed to multistate operators. In addition, the biggest stocks by market capitalization saw a roughly 20% bump ahead of the election and now are trading at record volumes, providing plenty of stock currency for further acquisitions.
Among the headline acquisitions last year:
Curaleaf continued its multi-state expansion with two of its largest acquisitions – the all-stock purchases of its affiliated cannabis oil company Select and of Grassroot, another MSO player. Curaleaf is now the largest cannabis company in the world based on annualized revenues, with annualized sales of $1 billion and operations in 23 states and 96 open dispensaries. Curaleaf also raised $215 million privately last year end for further expansion.
Close behind, Aphria and Tilray announced in December that they will merge, creating what they say will be the largest cannabis company in the world with an equity value of roughly $3.8 billion. The combined entity will have facilities and offices in the U.S., Canada, Portugal and Germany. The deal is expected to close during the second quarter of this year.
Also in December, Illinois-based Verano Holdings LLC unveiled plans to go public at a $2.8 billion valuation through a reverse takeover of a Canadian shell company. That deal followed the announcement that Verano will merge with Florida-based AltMed.
In addition, publicly traded New York cannabis firm Columbia Care signed a definitive agreement last month to acquire Green Leaf Medical, a privately held Maryland-based cannabis manufacturer and retailer, for $45 million in cash and $195 million in stock. The acquisition is expected to close this summer. Including Green Leaf’s inventory, the Columbia Care will operate 107 facilities, including 80 dispensaries and 27 cultivation and manufacturing facilities. Columbia Care also took advantage of cannabis fever last year by raising $100 million privately.
Also in December, Ayr Strategies announced it would acquire Liberty Health Sciences, one of the largest cannabis companies in Florida, for $290 million in stock, as well Garden State Dispensary, a New Jersey marijuana company for $41 million in cash, $30 million in stock and $30 million in the form of a note. This follows Ayr’s $81 million acquisition of an Arizona medical marijuana operator in November. Voters approved marijuana use in Arizona and New Jersey in November. Ayr has completed a string of acquisitions in Nevada, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio and, upon the closing of December’s deals, New Jersey and Florida.
Not all cannabis companies will rely on acquisitions, however. Trulieve, as an example, has focused its efforts on Florida and organic growth. It remains to be seen whether a multi-state approach fueled by acquisitions or a single-state organic growth model will prove the more lasting. Growth and profitability in the short term likely will continue to be hampered by limits on economies of scale due to federal restrictions and differing state laws.
In light of the maturing industry and the 2019 bust, the valuation model for acquisitions in the cannabis space is evolving from one based on sales, typically associated with emerging growth industries, to a more mature industry model based on profits or Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA). Most cannabis MSOs have stabilized and generate positive EBITDA, which justifies the evolution away from a sales-driven model.
From a legal standpoint, the same limitations that have vexed the cannabis industry for years will continue to challenge deal makers until there is greater clarity on the federal front. Institutional investor reluctance, financial industry constraints, haphazard state regulation and the unavailability of federal forums such as national copyright and trademark registration will continue to be issues for acquirers and their lawyers in the space.
Acquisition agreements will continue to have to address the federal Damocles’ sword should expected relaxation of federal enforcement under the Biden administration and further legislative relief does not materialize as expected. Although the U.S. House in December passed the “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act” (MORE) to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, the Senate did not take up the bill in 2020 and it will have to be re-introduced in 2021. Notably, the MORE Act does not affect existing federal regulation of cannabis, such as the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, under which the FDA has limited the use of CBD in certain products despite hemp being removed from the Controlled Substances Act in 2018.
The cannabis M&A market is moving into a more mature phase, as MSOs will be choosier in their approach rather than continuing the land-grab mentality of years past. Due to improved financial strength, 2021 should see these MSOs continuing to expand their footprints either within existing states or new ones. Although uncertainties abound, further consolidation and expansion through add-on acquisitions is likely to continue apace in 2021, providing plenty of opportunities for deal makers and their lawyers.
Anyone owning and operating a cannabis business should know the value of proactive compliance management to operate successfully. For consumers, the view into the world “behind the budtending counter” is limited to the cool looking packaging, test results and the overall “vibe” of products they may want to try.
In our experience, as the oldest cannabis compliance firm, we’ve audited and visited hundreds of facilities and have seen the proverbial “Wizard behind the curtain”. We know “how the sausage is made.” And, as one can expect, it’s not always as glamorous in the back of the house as it appears on the shelf.
As markets expand and people buy into existing or new cannabis businesses, amid a world of thousands of competing companies and products, consumers need to ask themselves: “What do I know about the companies and products I consume?”
More and more, the question of consistent quality keeps coming up in the cannabis industry. Recalls are still ongoing in the news as products continually fail testing for potency and contamination.
Colorado, for example, is considered the shining jewel of the US industry in terms of experience, quality and integrity. However, consumers may be shocked to learn that a majority of dispensaries in the state do not operate by stringent SOPs, nor do they verify packaging and labeling for compliance, or review test results of products coming in and going out of their shops.
Starting January 1, 2021, these retailers finally have to develop and implement recall procedures in the event of contaminated products or cannabis that is causing adverse side effects. Later this year, vape pens will finally have their vapor tested instead of just the concentrate therein.
These liabilities or lack of compliance infrastructure may very well be a ticking time bomb no consumer in their right mind would want to deal with.
Bad Product/Brand Experience
Non-compliance and inconsistency on the part of operators translates directly into negative experiences for consumers. Whether its consuming a product that tastes like chlorophyll or enjoying a product the first time only to find a completely different experience the next time around, consumers experience the cost of non-compliance the most.
Beyond products, most consumers recognize their brand experience when shopping for products. Since the invention of Weedmaps, customers have always expressed their like or dislike for particular dispensaries and delivery services. Operators know these reviews from a customer’s experience can make or break their business and brand.
We always tell cannabis operators that a brand is a double-edged sword. As easily as it can strike through competitors, it can just as easily damage one’s own business.
Examples include SweetLeaf and Kushy Punch whose brands, once well-known and popular, are now synonymous with the worst of the worst given their histories of non-compliance and shut downs.
For consumers, finding consistent, quality products at a fair price is often the most important consideration to avoid the cost of a bad experience with cannabis. For visitors or first-time consumers, this could mean the difference between trying cannabis again or deciding it’s simply not for them.
Contamination & Illness
The worst-case scenario for consumers, especially patients, is the cost of consuming contaminated products or otherwise having adverse effects from the use of cannabis. While cannabis itself is one of the least harmful substances known to man, contaminated cannabis can be dangerous or deadly.
In the early days of the industry and in many emerging markets with poor to no oversight, these lessons are learned most severely. From the use of non-commercial washing machines being used for water-based extracts that tested positive for E. coli to recalled products ladened with Eagle 20 (which contains the harmful pesticide known as Myclobutanil), the industry has been reactive to safety measures and complying with best practices.
Still, some states persist with limited to no testing and simply label products with a warning to consumers that they are using cannabis at their own risk without testing for safety or efficacy.
Most consumers may be shocked to know that most cannabis companies do not adhere to good agricultural practices or good manufacturing practices (GAP/GMP) to ensure consistent quality and safety standards in similar industries such as nutraceuticals and food manufacturing.
Patients already weakened by disease states – including auto-immune disorders – are most at risk and understand all too well the costs of hospitalization, medical bills and loss of quality of life. For the average adult user, these risks are the same and there is often little to no recourse with the dispensary or product manufacturers if the product slips through contamination testing because of the non-compliance of product validation on flower or infused products.
For companies, outdated and inaccurate SOPs as well as production batches are the only line of defense to protect the company from product liability lawsuits filed by consumers in the event of contamination and illness. Most cannabis companies do not manage this aspect of their business effectively and simply assume they are sufficiently compliant without proactively measuring such compliance and adjusting operations as necessary.
Consumers would do well to remember that the modern industry is infantile in its development compared to other heavily regulated industries. Cannabis companies are babies learning to crawl while major food and beverage, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical, and alcohol and tobacco industries are far ahead of the game. The US industry, is arguably, already behind the compliance curve comparative to other nations already placing stricter regulations and standards on licensees.
For customers, this can be a confusing experience given that no two batches of flowers will taste the same let alone give a consumer exactly the same effect.
Already, customers are learning Sativa and Indica are imaginary cultural terms to describe generalized characteristics of major and minor cannabinoids and terpenes in each strain which produces a variety of effects – despite state limitations on labeling these active ingredients.
Vape pens are under increasing scrutiny as regulators discover long-term effects of vape use from the tobacco industry causing EVALI in consumers and being deemed as dangerous. As with anything new, the data and science simply aren’t there to truly tell customers what the effects may be over the long run. It has taken decades for tobacco, as an example, to go from doctor-recommended to carcinogenic.
Similarly, Big Cannabis of the future may be facing similar concerns that aren’t being warned about currently on their products and consumers could face unknown long-term consequences. In no way is this a condemnation of cannabis and early research shows cannabis is much safer than either alcohol or tobacco.
The point is to emphasize that over the long run, compliance is key to tracking the consistency and safety of products to avoid long-term liability and costs on consumers. Consumers would be wise to gravitate towards compliant brands and companies that focus on consistent quality and safety to minimize potential long-term negative impacts and costs.
Accountability & Transparency
Customers must first understand where the buck stops and who is responsible for what as it applies to cannabis and the cannabis products they consume. This can vary between states from vertically integrated models to horizontal models which allow for independent businesses to buy and sell cannabis between each other.
In the case of cannabis, the restrictions on METRC and other state “seed to sale” tracking systems make it nearly impossible for customers to return products and unclear on how to file complaints.
METRC and other seed to sale systems dictate that dispensaries must be able to track originating sources of cannabis back to another licensed facility. As such, once the consumer buys a faulty vape pen, for example, it’s gone from the dispensary inventory. Bringing it back in physically creates non-compliance issues for the dispensary as they cannot virtually account for the physical addition back into inventory.
No one ever said making sausage was a pretty or easy process. That’s why most consumers don’t want to think about how it’s done.
This example is a simple one to showcase the importance of compliance in the cannabis business and the complexities businesses must go through to operate. What is more applicable and important for consumers to understand is how non-compliance and inconsistency can affect them negatively – beyond messy fingers from leaky vape carts.
These types of unexpected issues represent significant costs for cannabis operators in recalls, fines, lawsuits and fees which is what most people think the “costs of non-compliance” mean.
However, and in addition to the literal cost mandated by regulation, there are the costs owners don’t think about: in the time and fees charged by the professionals to solve these issues, the time and stress spent on production, the increase or decrease in supply, mitigating product liability, and brand recognition and damage due to poor quality or recalls.
All of these factors simply drive up the costs of products for consumers and decrease the reliability of finding consistent, quality products and brands that customers can count on.
As we always say at iComply:
“It is always more cost-effective to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to operational cannabis compliance management.”
Consumers would be wise to recognize which companies are proactive in managing their compliance. And companies would be wise to get ahead of these customer costs by being the proactively compliant companies that consumers want and need.
In June 2020, John W. Elias, a prosecutor in the United States Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, testified to the U.S. House Committee Judiciary that investigations of cannabis mergers were pursued based on Attorney General William Barr’s personal dislike for the cannabis industry rather than legitimate antitrust issues. Specifically, Elias testified, among other things, that since March 2019, the Antitrust Division has conducted ten investigations of mergers in the cannabis industry. Further, Elias testified that, “While these were nominally antitrust investigations, and used antitrust investigative authorities, they were not bona fide antitrust investigations.” Elias went on to state that, with respect to a proposed $682 million merger between two cannabis companies, MedMen and PharmaCann, career staff in the Antitrust Division initially examined the transaction to determine whether there should be no investigation, a brief investigation or a full investigation. Upon conclusion of its review, career staff determined that “the cannabis industry appeared to be fragmented with many market participants in the states that had legalized the product.” Accordingly, staff concluded that the proposed combination between MedMen and PharmaCann was “unlikely to raise any significant competitive concerns.”
Notwithstanding the career staff’s determination, Attorney General Barr ordered the Antitrust Division to issue “Second Request” subpoenas. According to Elias’s testimony, a “Second Request” subpoena is a full investigation of a proposed merger. Moreover, Elias stated, “Across the entire American economy, the Antitrust Division performs the full Second Request investigation on around 1-2% of the thousands of mergers filed each year – ordinarily, only the most concerning deals.” Based on the foregoing, Elias testified that Attorney General Barr’s decision to pursue the MedMen/PharmaCann combination was based on his dislike for the cannabis industry rather than any legitimate antitrust concerns.
There are some immediate impacts to Attorney General Barr’s decision – not limited to the MedMen/PharmaCann merger but potentially reaching any cannabis companies considering a merger or similar transaction. For example, a politically motivated probe would more than likely result in a drop of stock prices for publicly trade cannabis companies. Moreover, non-bona fide antitrust investigations of cannabis businesses could result in proposed merger transactions eventually not coming to fruition.
However, Attorney General Barr’s decision could arguably have longer term and more widespread effects on the cannabis space, and could affect situations not involving mergers or other proposed business combinations. In particular, the fact that legitimate cannabis businesses that comply with all applicable laws are still subject to unwanted and unnecessary scrutiny conceivably could lead to something that regulators had hoped would be curbed through the legalization of cannabis for adult use: cannabis operators gravitating towards the omnipresent black market. Despite cannabis being legal in 33 jurisdictions for medicinal use and 11 jurisdictions for adult use, the black market continues to thrive for several reasons, one of them being that the cost of regulatory compliance is so significant. Attorney General Barr’s decision may have created another reason for cannabis operators to abandon their plans to continue operating as or become legitimate businesses and instead revert back to operating in the black market.
Indeed, Attorney General Barr’s decision is a concern for cannabis operators because it shows that, notwithstanding that any particular operator may be compliant with state and/or local regulations, it does not mean that such cannabis operator is going to be permitted to conduct “normal” business that a non-cannabis business would be able to conduct, simply because of the underlying nature of the business. Stated differently, following the rules does not mean that a cannabis business will be left alone by people in charge who simply do not like the cannabis space.
Cannabis operators are very mindful of being targeted because of the nature of their business, and having regulations in place with which they could and would comply provided them with some level of certainty that they would not be targeted, or so they thought. Particularly in states like California where the regulations are complex, current and aspiring cannabis operators tend to be very concerned about being compliant with cannabis regulations from the inception of their business operations, believing that being compliant will assist them in flying under the proverbial radar and not become targeted unnecessarily simply because they are in the cannabis space. Attorney General Barr’s decision may have taken away or, at the very least, significantly decreased, that level of certainty. His decision to investigate a proposed merger of two legitimate cannabis businesses sends the message that it does not matter if a cannabis business is being compliant, and that there are other, completely subjective reasons why its operations could be investigated. This makes it extremely difficult for current and aspiring cannabis operators to determine what actions they can take to avoid unwelcome investigations or other scrutiny. If a cannabis operator is unable to mitigate scrutiny by complying with rules, this raises the concern that cannabis businesses will go back to black market activity, not only because the cost of compliance is high, but because being compliant does not necessarily protect them.
Attorney General Barr’s decision is likely not the only instance of a decision regarding cannabis businesses that was made notwithstanding existing statutes or regulations that do not support such a decision. In fact, since adult use became legal in certain jurisdictions it is not uncommon to see news discussing applicants for cannabis licenses who were denied licenses, notwithstanding that those applicants complied with all applicable laws and regulations. When applicants were denied even after complying with all rules and regulations, and when no other legitimate reason was cited for the denial, there is an indication that the denial was based on political or other personal feelings concerning the cannabis space. This not only potentially calls into question the integrity of the cannabis space, but again could lead cannabis operators back to the black market.
There are many costs of regulatory compliance for a cannabis operator, including, without limitation, high application and license fees, development and mitigation fees and exorbitant taxes. Other than the fees and taxes assessed on cannabis businesses, there are other expenses, such as the cost to construct a facility, security costs and the general operational costs that all businesses must pay, such as rent or payroll. What incentive does a cannabis operator have to expend significant resources – time, money and otherwise – to become a legitimate, licensed cannabis business if doing so does not provide any type of protection against investigations that are politically motivated or otherwise based on negative personal feelings toward the cannabis space? It may be that Attorney General Barr’s decision has given cannabis operators one more reason to reconsider going back to black market activity.
By Joanne Molinaro, Geoffrey S. Goodman, Ronald Eppen No Comments
The legalized cannabis industry remains a budding market in the United States. As the legislative dominoes started to cascade from state-to-state across the country, entrants of all categories—operators, investors, lenders, and retailers—were willing to stand in line for their tickets. However, signs of fatigue, caused largely by the continuing murkiness of regulatory guidance and investors’ waning appetite for reading the legislative crystal ball, were already surfacing towards the end of 2018 and continued its slide downward into 2019. From March 2019, market capitalization for the 33 biggest cannabis stocks was down 45% by the end of 2019, falling from $54 billion to $30 billion and projected revenues dropped a whopping 17% as well.
Has COVID Made Things Worse?
Against this backdrop, COVID-19 arrived on the scene. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), cannabis seemed to be somewhat insulated from unprecedented disruptions to supply chains and artificial nose dives in demand. Many operators noted a sharp uptick in sales as states implemented shelter-in-place orders. Ironically, the supply chain hurdles created by the lack of federal legalization rendered operators—even multistate operators (MSOs)—uniquely equipped to handle the supply chain woes that others were struggling to contain. Meanwhile, as more and more states slapped the essential label onto both medical and adult use cannabis, operators were permitted to run business as usual (under the circumstances) and legalized cannabis started to look a little more “normal” in the most abnormal of times.
Thus, for a moment, cannabis looked like it might be a counter indicator (or recession-resilient)—while others were going down, cannabis was going up. But, after this brief surge, sales settled down and states began reporting decreases from this time last year and the outlook for the cannabis industry remains unclear.
Is This An Opportunity?
Declining demand, coupled with the issues described above, spells cash-flow problems for cannabis companies – many of which are still relative “infants” compared to their consumer goods counterparts and thus may have yet to create a “rainy day fund.” However, liquidity issues can create opportunities for those who still have cash to inject. In the last year, 13 special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) have listed on exchanges with an eye towards “cheap cannabis assets.”Cheap cannabis assets (or distressed cannabis assets) can offer a lowered barrier to entry into what many still believe to be a bull market. However, investors should proceed with caution. While the assets themselves may bear bargain basement price tags as the world grapples with the current recession, the cost of entry is more onerous than many realize. It is thus critical for potential investors to do their pre-due diligence on the who, what, when, where and how of acquiring distressed cannabis assets.
Where Do Distressed Cannabis Companies Go?
Ordinarily, distressed companies requiring capital restructuring look towards the US Bankruptcy Code. Deploying the broad injunctive relief afforded by the automatic stay as both a sword and shield, ailing companies can focus on lining up debtor-in-possession financing while they prospect feasible long-term exit strategies (through a reorganization, asset sale, or some combination of the two). The other major advantage of a chapter 11 is, of course, the “free and clear” order—the veritable clean slate provided by a federal court to good faith purchasers of the distressed assets that allow buyers to proceed with very few strings attached.
These federal benefits are not available to adult use and medical cannabis companies (hemp companies can file for chapter 11). Indeed, some bankruptcy courts have shut the door on not just the operators themselves, but companies that have even tangential dealings with cannabis companies. With federal legalization, that will likely change; however in the meantime, distressed cannabis companies must look to pseudo-bankruptcy proceedings that offer some of the benefits that a federal bankruptcy can.
Is A State Receivership A Good Restructuring Vehicle For Distressed Cannabis Companies?
The number one option for many distressed cannabis companies will be state receivership. Much like a chapter 11 bankruptcy, the receivership provides for a stay against actions against the company’s assets, i.e., the breathing space it needs to hatch a plan for rehabilitation or exit the game as painlessly as possible. The receiver will be empowered to run the business while ironing out its operational/cash issues or conduct an orderly sale of the assets, usually through an auction process, during which the secured lender will be afforded the right to credit bid. The costs associated with that sale may be charged to the sale proceeds. Thus, in many ways, the state receivership acts like a federal bankruptcy.
How Is A State Receivership Different From A Federal Bankruptcy?
There are two main differences that investors should be aware of between a federal bankruptcy and a state receivership.
As with anything else that’s up for sale, where there’s a will, there’s a way.First, the court appointed receiver (often handpicked by the company’s primary secured lender) will be calling most of the shots from an operational, transactional, and financial perspective. That receiver may not have the kind of operational know-how of running a cannabis company that a typical debtor-in-possession might, making any major transaction more challenging. Even if the receiver has some background in the cannabis industry, he or she will still have a steep learning curve when it comes to the company’s specific business.
Second, the laws vary from state to state on whether a receiver can sell assets free and clear of any and all liens, claims, and encumbrances without the consent or satisfaction of those claims. Accordingly, buyers of distressed cannabis assets will want to take a close look at potential successor liability risks on a state-by-state basis.
Can Anyone Buy Or Invest In Distressed Cannabis Assets?
I had dinner last night with a friend who is a senior executive at one of the largest automobile companies in the world. When I explained the industry-accepted rate of 25-30% shrinkage in horticulture he said, “Are you kidding me? Can you imagine the story in the Wall Street Journal if I gave a press conference and said that we were quite content to throw away three out of every ten cars we manufactured?”
Yet, for all growers, operators and investors who complain about shrinkage, it’s an accepted part of the business. What if it wasn’t; what if you could shrink your shrinkage by 60% and get it down to 10% or less? How much more profitable would your business be and how much easier would your life be?
Let’s take the floriculture industry as our first example. You propagate chrysanthemums in February, they get repotted at the end of April and by the end of June, you might start to see some buds. In a very short time span your job changes from being a grower who manages 10,000 square feet of chrysanthemums to being an order taker. Over a period of eight weeks, you have to unload as many of those mums as possible. The sales team at Macy’s has more time to move their holiday merchandise than you do.
If you’re like most operations, your inventory tracking system consists of Excel spreadsheets and notebooks that tell you what happened in previous years so you can accurately predict what will happen this year. The notebooks give you a pretty accurate idea of where in the greenhouses your six cultivars are, how many you planted and which of the five stages they are in. You already have 30 different sets of data to manage before you add on how many you sell of each cultivar and what stage they were in.
The future of the industry is making data-driven decisions that free up a grower to focus on solving problems, not looking for problems.Then your first order comes in and out the window goes any firm control of where the mums are, what stage they’re in and how many of each cultivar you have left. A couple of hours after your first order, a second comes in and by the time you get back in touch, check your inventory, call back the buyer and she’s able to connect with you, those 2837 stage 3 orange mums are moving into stage 4. Only she doesn’t want stage 4 mums she only wants stage 3 so now you frantically call around to see who wants stage 4 orange mums very soon to be stage 5 mums.
And, the answer is often no one. What if you didn’t have your inventory count exact and now you have 242 yellow mums that you just found in a different location in your greenhouse and had you known they were there, you could have sold them along with 2463 other mums that you just located in various parts of your greenhouse.
It doesn’t have to be like that. We had a client in a similar situation, and they are on track to reduce their shrinkage to just a shade over 10%. The future of the industry is making data-driven decisions that free up a grower to focus on solving problems, not looking for problems.
And don’t think that shrinkage is an issue only in the purview of floriculture. It’s an even bigger problem for cannabis because of the high value of each crop. The numbers don’t sound as bad because unlike floriculture, you don’t have to throw out cannabis that’s not Grade A. You can always sell it for extract. But extract prices are significantly less per pound than flower in the bag.
Here’s how one grower explained it. “Because of the high value of the crop, and the only other crop I’ve worked with that high is truffles, you’re playing a much higher stakes game with shrinkage. Even if you try and salvage a bad crop by using all of the parts of the cannabis plant. Listen, the difference between Grade A and Grade C could be $1,000 for A while a pound of B/C is less than $400. If you produce a standard 180 to 200 pounds in your grow rooms, you’ve really screwed up. No operator is going to keep you if you just cost them $120,000.”
Compliance should be top of mind for California’s cannabis operators. As the state works to implement regulations in the rapidly-growing cannabis industry, business owners need to be aware of what’s required to stay in good standing. As of January 1, 2019, that means reporting data to the state’s new track-and-trace system, Metrc.
What Is Track-and-Trace?
Track-and-Trace programs enable government oversight of commercial cannabis throughout its lifecycle—from “seed-to-sale.” Regulators can track a product’s journey from grower to processor to distributor to consumer, through data points captured at each step of the supply chain. Track-and-trace systems are practical for a number of reasons:
Taxation: ensure businesses pay their share of owed taxes
Quality assurance & safety: ensure cannabis products are safe to consume, coordinate product recalls
Account for cannabis grown vs. cannabis sold: curb inventory disappearing to the black market
Helps government get a macro view of the cannabis industry
The California Cannabis Track-and-Trace system (CCTT) gives state officials the ability to supervise and regulate the burgeoning cannabis industry in the golden state.
What Is Metrc?
Metrc is the platform California cannabis operators must use to record, track and maintain detailed information about their product for reporting. Metrc compiles this data and pushes it to the state.
Who Is Required To Use Metrc?
Starting January 1, 2019, all California state cannabis licensees are required to use Metrc. This includes licenses for cannabis: Proper tagging ensures that regulators can quickly trace inventory back to a particular plant or place of origin.
How Does Metrc Work?
Metrc uses a system of tagging and unique ID numbers to categorize and track cannabis from seed to sale. Tagged inventory in Metrc is sorted into 2 categories: plants and packages. Plants are further categorized as either immature or flowering. All plants are required to enter Metrc through immature plant lots of up to 100/plants per lot. Each lot is assigned a lot unique ID (UID), and each plant in the lot gets a unique Identifier plant tag. Immature plants are labeled with the lot UID, while flowering plants get a plant tag. Metrc generates these ID numbers and they cannot be reused. In addition to the UID, tags include a facility name, facility license number, application identifier (medical or recreational), and order dates for the tag. Proper tagging ensures that regulators can quickly trace inventory back to a particular plant or place of origin.
Packages are formed from immature plants, harvest batches, or other packages. Package tags are important for tracking inventory through processing, as the product changes form and changes hands. Each package receives a UID package tag, and as packages are refined and/or combined, they receive a new ID number, which holds all the other ID numbers in it and tells that package’s unique story.
Do I Have To Enter Data Into Metrc Manually?
You certainly can enter data into Metrc manually, but you probably won’t want to, and thankfully, you don’t have to. Metrc’s API allows for seamless communication between the system and many of your company’s existing tracking and reporting tools used for inventory, production, POS, invoices, orders, etc. These integrations automate the data entry process in many areas.As California operators work to get their ducks in a row, some ambiguity and confusion around Metrc’s roll out remains.
Adopting and implementing cannabis ERP software is another way operators can automate compliance. These platforms combine software for point of sale, cultivation, distribution, processing and ecommerce into one unified system, which tracks everything and pushes it automatically to Metrc via the API. Since they’ve been developed specifically for the cannabis industry, they’re designed with cannabis supply chain and regulatory demands in mind.
As California operators work to get their ducks in a row, some ambiguity and confusion around Metrc’s roll out remains. Only businesses with full annual licenses are required to comply, leaving some temporary licensees unsure of how to proceed. Others are simply reluctant to transition from an off-the-grid, off-the-cuff model to digitally tracking and reporting everything down to the gram. But the stakes of non-compliance are high— the prospect of fines or loss of business is causing fear and concern for many. Integrated cannabis ERP software can simplify operations and offer continual, automated compliance, which should give operators peace of mind.
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