The Brand Marketing Byte showcases highlights from Pioneer Intelligence’s Cannabis Brand Marketing Snapshots, featuring data-led case studies covering marketing and business development activities of U.S. licensed cannabis companies.
Here is a data-led, shallow dive on Chalice Farms:
Chalice Farms – Business Development Impact
Based in Oregon, this company is a retail and edibles brand in the Golden Leaf Holdings portfolio. Chalice Farms has a number of locations in the Portland area, capitalizing on an effective regional strategy.
However, 2019 was a tough year for Oregon cannabis companies. Increased competition and heavy market saturation led to plummeting prices, forcing Chalice Farms to implement layoffs last Spring. 2020 appears to show Chalice Farms doing much better than the previous year.
In addition to tightening operations, the company engaged in several new business development initiatives recently. They’ve expanded distribution of their signature fruit chews into California and Nevada. They also implemented a sales initiative called “an extended 420 celebration,” covering the month of April. All six of the company’s branded retail locations have pivoted to curbside pickup and home delivery during the coronavirus pandemic.
All of those initiatives led to a boom in earned media for Chalice Farms. They were mentioned on CNN and in Forbes, among other national news outlets. The company also improved their web activities considerably, adding keywords, backlinks and a notable increase in web traffic.
Chalice Farms ended the month of April on a high note, moving to the 11th hottest web property, according to data from Pioneer Intelligence. This continued into May; Chalice Farms claimed the #26 position on the Pioneer Index, the highest it has been to date.
The American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) published a press release yesterday announcing the accreditation of Green Leaf Laboratory, a cannabis testing lab based in Portland, Oregon. According to that press release, they are the first cannabis testing lab in the state of Oregon to achieve the ISO 17025:2017 accreditation.
Rowshan Reordan, founder of Green Leaf Laboratory, says they have been a leader in the cannabis market since for more than nine years, since their launch in 2011. “Receiving our ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, in addition to required state accreditation, affirms our commitment to quality science and leadership in this industry,” says Reordan. “Working with A2LA and being recognized as the first A2LA accredited laboratory in Oregon has been a great experience. We appreciated the thoroughness in their accreditation process and their commitment to excellence. We look forward to a successful future with A2LA and continuing our commitment to leadership and excellence in the industry.”
“We congratulate Green Leaf Laboratories on becoming the first cannabis testing laboratory accredited to ISO/IEC 17025:2017 in the state of Oregon”, says Anna Williams, Accreditation Supervisor at A2LA. “A2LA is excited to see testing laboratories think outside of the box and elect to use our services in states not mandating them.”
According to a press release published today, Steep Hill has signed a licensing agreement with Green Analytics East to open a new laboratory, Steep Hill New Jersey. “We are pleased to announce a licensee partnership with Green Analytics East to bring Steep Hill to New Jersey,” says Jeffrey Monat, chairman of the Steep Hill board of directors. “Since 2008, Steep Hill has developed and now employs cutting edge cannabis testing practices, providing analysis to ensure safe medicine and products. With Green Analytics East as our trusted partner, New Jersey patients and consumers can be confident that all Steep Hill-tested products will fully comply with public safety and regulatory standards.”
They haven’t obtained the local permits yet, but the press release states they expect to be open for business in the third quarter of 2019. Steep Hill began their cannabis laboratory testing business in California. Since their start in 2008, the company has grown rapidly, developing programs for regulatory compliance testing in medical and recreational cannabis markets. They have also ventured into research and development testing, licensing, genetics and remote testing.
The news of Steep Hill moving into the New Jersey market comes at a time when Governor Phil Murphy and lawmakers in the state are in the midst of planning adult use legalization. According to Shannon Hoffman, director of operations of Steep Hill New Jersey, they are hoping lawmakers reach a decision soon. “We are excited to bring our focus of service, accuracy, and scientific knowledge and expertise to the New Jersey market,” says Hoffman. “We look forward to serving the licensed producers, the patient community, and hopefully soon, the adult use consumer.”
Anyone with a search engine can piece together how much THC certain strains produce and what their characteristics are. Oh wait- there’s an app for that… or dozens, I lose count these days.
Nefarious lab results are rampant in our communityLet’s take one of my favorites, Dutch Treat; relaxing, piney and sweet with a standard production of 18-25% THC, according to three different reviews online. So, did I raise an eyebrow when I saw Dutch Treat on Oregon shelves labeled at 30% THC? Did I take it in to an independent, accredited lab and have it tested for accuracy? You bet your inflated potency results I did! The results? Disappointing.
Nefarious lab results are rampant in our community; it is hurting every participant in our industry affected by the trade, commerce and consumption of recreational cannabis.
“I have had labs ask me what I want my potency numbers to look like and make an offer,” says David Todd, owner and operations manager of Glasco Farms, a craft cannabis producer in central Oregon. “It’s insane- I want to stand behind my product and show through scientific fact that I produce a superior flower.”
But without enforcement of lab practice standards, producers are being pressured to play dirty. In her third year cultivating at a two-tier recreational cannabis farm, a producer who wished to remain anonymous sent me an email about the pressures she is up against to produce high THC strains:
“The only sure way to get my product on the shelf at a profitable price is with THC 25% or above. Not a lot of strains have that potential, but the market has plenty with 28% to 32% floating around so I have to go with the same labs as the rest of the independent farmers to get the best numbers I can. The lab I use … return(s) good numbers.”
Those “good numbers,” aka high THC %, are the driving force of sales. A strain tests at 20% THC and it sells for $1,000/lb. Then it tests at 25% THC, and sells for $1300/lb. You produce cannabis for sale- this is your business. And labs are telling you that they can manipulate samples and reports to make you more money. Everyone else is doing it. If you don’t, your product isn’t “good enough” to sell. What do you do?Labs should operate ethically.
It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by lies, lack of enforcement resources, coercion and undereducation. We are all responsible. Yet, ask who the source of the problem is and everyone points fingers across the circle.
The consumers are uneducated about cannabis and only focus on THC. The dispensaries and budtenders should be educating them. Producers should take a stand and use an honest lab. Labs should operate ethically.
I repeat: Oregon, we have a problem.
It’s time to stop living in a land where Dutch Treat is hitting 30% THC. It’s time for everyone to demand auditing and ethics.
Laws have been set forth on how to sample, prep, test and report analyses for cannabis to ensure fair commerce, consumer health and public safety. But there’s a clear need to blind test the different labs, and for unbiased, third-party research and development.
As federal eyes turn to the Oregon to investigate black market activity, regulatory bodies are tightening their grip on licensees to maintain legal validity and avoid shut down.
The time to demand change and integrity is now.The crack-down began on August 23, 2018, when the OLCC investigated several prominent producers’ practices. Black market distribution incurred the harshest penalty; the OLCC revoked their wholesale license due to multiple violations.
“We want good compliant, law-abiding partners as OLCC marijuana licensees,” says Paul Rosenbaum, OLCC Commission Chair. “We know the cannabis industry is watching what we’re doing, and believe me, we’ve taken notice. We’re going to find a way to strengthen our action against rule breakers, using what we already have on the books, and if need be working with the legislature to tighten things up further.”
Trends in METRC data lay the foundation for truth, and it’s time to put it to use. “The Cannabis Tracking System worked as it should enabling us to uncover this suspicious activity,” says Steven Marks, OLCC Executive Director. “When we detect possible illegal activity, we need to take immediate steps …”
Potency fraud might not be at the top of the list for investigation, but labs and producers are breaking the law, and there will be consequences. ORELAP and OLCC have the right to investigate and revoke licenses of labs that are falsifying data and consumers can file claims with the Department of Justice.
Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Department of Health sent a cease-and-desist letter to Good Chemistry, a Colorado-based brand operating in Massachusetts with a dispensary in Worcester and a cultivation facility in Bellingham. The letter claimed Good Chemistry used unapproved pesticides and must close their operations in the state.
According to a Boston Globe article, the company used three pesticides (approved for use on organic food products by the federal government) that cannabis regulators in Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Colorado have all approved for use in cannabis cultivation. Previously, Massachusetts has allowed a number of pesticides to be used on cannabis, but since last year when the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources took over regulating pesticide use on cannabis, they decided to ban all pesticides.
Representatives from Good Chemistry insist the compounds used were safe and that the state is singling them out when the practice is widespread in the industry. “These organic compounds are safe all over the country, and they’re safe in Massachusetts,” Jim Smith, a lawyer for Good Chemistry, tells the Boston Globe. “For the state to single out Good Chemistry for using an industry-standard practice is absolutely wrong. It’s not acceptable — and we’re not going to destroy the crop, because it poses no risk to public safety whatsoever.”
Good Chemistry even disclosed to the state that they would use those pesticides when they applied for a cannabis business license. According to Telegram.com, a local Worcester publication, Matthew Huron, chief executive officer of Good Chemistry, is asking the state to reverse their decision. “The Department of Public Health has the discretion to amend or rescind their order to allow us to make the cannabis we’ve cultivated available to patients in the Worcester community,” says Huron. “Patients have let us know that they really benefited from Good Chemistry’s wide selection of high quality cannabis strains, and they would like access to it again as soon as possible. We’ve asked the state to incorporate the research, analysis and experience that led other states like Colorado, Nevada, Washington and Oregon to determine that the use of these cultivation methods are best practices and helps create healthier, contaminant-free cannabis for patients and the industry as a whole.”
On September 5, the Department of Public Health allowed Good Chemistry to amend the cease-and-desist so they could sell products from other producers in the state. “Many of our patients rely on our medicine we grow specifically and we now are only allowed to sell third party product,” Huron told Telegram.com.
Cannabis pricing, globally, is a topic that is going to remain heated if not highly fluid for some time to come. Why? Government regulation (or lack thereof), compliance and even transport along with different models for commerce and consumption are creating an odd and absolutely uneven map of commodity pricing. We live in a world where accurate information is hard to come by. Even from ostensibly “official” sources that track operational markets. Black or legit.
It may sound complex today but it used to be a lot harder. As of just 2014, the UN’s Office of Drug Control listed the price of a gram of (black market) cannabis in Lichtenstein at $1,020 (as reported by a bemused Business Insider). While this could have been a simple matter of misunderstanding that Europeans frequently use commas rather than periods as decimal points in numbers, the fact that this was later corrected to $10.13 suggests human error in transcription rather than reporting. And the world has certainly changed since then.
Yet with no international legal marketplace or even platform yet in existence to track the global price of legal cannabis in different jurisdictions, this is the kind of issue that faces not only those in the industry but those trying to analyze it.
That said, there are beginning to be data points for those who are interested and those who must have this information for professional reasons. Here is a break-down of regional (legal) prices, per gram from a selection of sources generally considered fairly accurate. This is also made a bit more difficult by the difference in measurement systems and currency fluctuations. For ease of reference, these figures are in grams and U.S. dollars. An ounce is about 28 grams.
Medical grade cannabis also means different things in different markets. Outside the U.S., in Canada and the EU in particular, medical grade cannabis must meet a certification process that adds to the cost of production considerably. Certainly in comparison with outdoor grows. It is still, for the most part, imported, from either Canada or Holland, although look for that to start changing this year as domestic cultivation in multiple countries finally gets seriously underway.
Pricing really depends on where you are. It is also dropping fairly dramatically in established markets. The most recent example of this is Oregon – which has seen its higher-than-normal state retail market begin to normalize with California, Washington and Colorado. This is the price of establishing regulatory schemes on a non-federal level. That said, the competition is so extreme at the moment that Oregon, in particular, is a buyer’s market, with recently reported prices as low as $1 and change for a gram.
Retail pricing, in particular, will remain all over the place on a national level, especially given the amount of local competition between dispensaries underway. On average, however, medical grade-ish cannabis runs between $6-30 a gram, retail.
According to the website Cannabis Benchmarks, which tracks U.S. wholesale prices, the domestic spot index of wholesale cannabis was at $1,292 per pound at the end of January. Or about $5 per gram.The theory that the legit market has to price the black market out of existence is unpopular with those who want to collect more taxes from rec sales.
Nationally, at the moment, uncertainty over how the new post-Cole Memo world will play out, plus oversupply in certain markets, is creating strange pricing. Note to consumers, particularly in recreational markets: There are deals to be had.
This market is interesting for several reasons. The first is that several of the regional governments are considering establishing a Canadian $10 per gram price for the recreational market. Medical grade runs about $8 at the moment in local currency. That means, with a 20% differential in current f/x rates, a recreational gram will be set at USD $8 and a medical gram at about $6. That said, the theory that the legit market has to price the black market out of existence is unpopular with those who want to collect more taxes from rec sales.
Theories abound about the future of recreational pricing, but for the moment, a great deal of supply and new producers will keep prices low at least through 2019. After that? It is impossible to even guess. At that point, Canadian producers will still be supplying at least German medical patients with some of their imported bud. Regardless, the country will continue to play an important role in global pricing – even if it is to set a recreational and medical standard that plays out in markets already from the EU to Australia.
Like Canada’s market, although for different reasons, the Israeli official price on legal cannabis is absolutely constant. It is set by government policy. Those who have the drug legally, in other words with a doctor’s prescription, pay about $100 for a month’s supply. That amount on average is about 28 grams. That means that a medical gram in Israel will set you back about $3.50 per. U.S. not Canadian.
Price deltas here are the most impacted by changing national laws, standards and medical legalization. There are only two semi-legitimate recreational markets at the moment that include THC. Those are Holland and Spain. In Holland, via the coffee shops, the low-end of passable bud starts at between $12-15 per gram and goes up to about $30 for the really exotic breeds. This being Holland, they exist and are obtainable. In Spain, add the cost of joining a social club (about $50), but in general, the cost of a gram is about $10.Price deltas here are the most impacted by changing national laws, standards and medical legalization.
Medical markets in places like Germany are still skewed by integration of the drug into the country’s healthcare system and the fact that it is still all imported. The horror stories are real here. Patients must pay out-of-pocket right now for cannabis flower that is also being pre-ground by local apothekes for an additional price per gram that is eye-wincingly high. However, once the price and supply normalize, look for a medical standard here of about $10 for a month’s supply. That will be about 28 grams too.
Germany, in other words, will eventually be one of the cheapest markets for patients after reimbursement by insurance. That shapes up to be about $0.50 per gram at point of sale. It could be far less for those who are able to obtain authorization for higher amounts up to five ounces per month. The flat fee stays the same. Do the math. That works out to some pretty cheap (high grade) medical relief.
Black market cannabis and hash, which is also far more common in Europe than the U.S. at least, is fairly widely available for between $12 and $20 a gram.
The rise of cannabis production in Eastern Europe and the Baltics (which is also still largely pending and based on ongoing government talks and emerging distribution and cultivation agreements) will also dramatically drive down the cost of legal cannabis in the EU within the next several years. Production in this part of the world, along with Greece, may well also source rec markets all over the continent once that happens.
Africa & Central and South America
While the African cannabis trade has yet to break out – even in the media much of yet, there is definitely something green growing in several African countries including South Africa and Ethiopia. That trade unlike most of what is going on in South America with the possible exception of Uruguay is already looking for export opportunities globally. With African cannabis going for less than a buck a gram in most places (as in about a fifth of even that), look for certified African medical cannabis in select Western markets where price is going to be a major issue. Think medical standards. On the South American front, prices are equally low. However, remember that these are not regulated markets yet. And domestic government standards, starting with GMP and both indoor and outdoor grow requirements are basically non-existent. Growers who want to export to higher regulated markets are planning accordingly.
It goes without saying that in places where cannabis is both illegal and carries the death penalty or other harsh penal retaliation, that the price is not only much higher, but the source is black market. In the UAE for example, a gram will set you back well over $100.
By Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, Dr. Kevin A. Schug No Comments
Much has been made about the plummeting market value of cannabis grown outdoors in Oregon. This certainly isn’t a reflection of the product quality within the marketplace, but more closely attributable to the oversaturation of producers in this space. This phenomenon has similarities to that of ‘Tulip Mania’ within the Dutch Golden Age, whereby tulip bulbs were highly coveted assets one day, and almost worthless the next. During times like these, it is very easy for industry professionals to become disheartened; however, from a scientific perspective, this current era in Oregon represents a tremendous opportunity for discovery and fundamental research.
As we have mentioned in previous presentations and commentaries, our research group is interested in exploring the breadth of chemical constituents expressed in cannabis to discover novel molecules, to ultimately develop targeted therapies for a wide range of illnesses. Intrinsically, this research has significant societal implications, in addition to the potential financial benefits that can result from scientific discovery and the development of intellectual property. While conducting our experiments out of Arlington, Texas, where the study of cannabis is highly restricted, we have resorted to the closet genetic relative of cannabis, hops (Humulus lupulus), as a surrogate model of many of our experiments (Leghissa et al., 2018a). In doing so, we have developed a number of unique methods for the characterization of various cannabinoids and their metabolites (Leghissa et al., 2018b; Leghissa et al., 2018c). These experiments have been interesting and insightful; however, they pale in comparison to the research that could be done if we had unimpeded access to diverse strains of cannabis, as are present in Oregon. For example, gas chromatography-vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy (GC-VUV) is a relatively new tool that has recently been proven to be an analytical powerhouse for the differentiation of various classes of terpene molecules (Qiu et al., 2017). In Arlington, TX, we have three such GC-VUV instruments at our disposal, more than any other research institution in the world, but we do not have access to appropriate samples for application of this technology. Similarly, on-line supercritical fluid extraction – supercritical fluid chromatography – mass spectrometry (SFE-SFC-MS) is another capability currently almost unique to our research group. Such an instrument exhibits extreme sensitivity, supports in situ extraction and analysis, and has a wide application range for potential determination of terpenes, cannabinoids, pesticides and other chemical compounds of interest on a single analytical platform. Efforts are needed to explore the power and use of this technology, but they are impeded based on current regulations.
Circling back, let’s consider the opportunities that lie within the abundance of available outdoor-grown cannabis in Oregon. Cannabis is extremely responsive to environmental conditions (i.e., lighting, water quality, nutrients, exposure to pest, etc.) with respect to cannabinoid and terpene expression. As such, outdoor-grown cannabis, despite the reduced market value, is incredibly unique from indoor-grown cannabis in terms of the spectrum of light to which it is exposed. Indoor lighting technologies have come a long way; full-spectrum LED systems can closely emulate the spectral distribution of photon usage in plants, also known as the McCree curve. Nonetheless, this is emulation and nothing is ever quite like the real thing (i.e., the Sun). This is to say that indoor lighting can certainly produce highly potent cannabis, which exhibits an incredibly robust cannabinoid/terpene profile; however, one also has to imagine that such lighting technologies are still missing numerous spectral wavelengths that, in a nascent field of study, could be triggering the expression of unknown molecules with unknown physiological functions in the human body. Herein lies the opportunity. If we can tap into the inherently collaborative nature of the cannabis industry, we can start analyzing unique plants, having been grown in unique environments, using unique instruments in a facilitative setting, to ultimately discover the medicine of the future. Who is with us?
Leghissa A, Hildenbrand ZL, Foss FW, Schug KA. Determination of cannabinoids from a surrogate hops matrix using multiple reaction monitoring gas chromatography with triple quadrupole mass spectrometry. J Sep Sci 2018a; 41: 459-468.
Leghissa A, Hildenbrand ZL, Schug KA. Determination of the metabolites of Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol using multiple reaction monitoring gas chromatography – triple quadrapole – mass spectrometry. Separation Science Plus 2018b; 1: 43-47.
Leghissa A, Smuts J, Changling Q, Hildenbrand ZL, Schug KA. Detection of cannabinoids and cannabinoid metabolites using gas chromatography-vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy. Separation Science Plus 2018c; 1: 37-42.
Qiu C, Smuts J, Schug KA. Analysis of terpenes and turpentines using gas chromatography with vacuum ultraviolet detection. J Sep Sci 2017; 40: 869-877.
Last week, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson published his office’s audit of The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC). The audit uncovered a number of inadequacies with the regulatory agency, most notably the problems with their tracking system, designed to prevent cannabis form being sold on the black market.
The report highlights the need for Oregon to implement a more robust tracking system, citing reliance on self-reporting, overall poor data quality and allowing untracked inventory for newly licensed businesses. The audit also found an insufficient number of inspectors and unresolved security issues. According to The Oregonian, the OLCC only has 18 inspectors, roughly one for every 83 licensed businesses.
Auditors also found inadequacies in the application system, saying the OLCC doesn’t monitor third-party service providers and doesn’t have a process in place for reconciling data between the licensing and tracking systems. The audit found there is a risk that decisions made for the program could be based on unreliable data. It also found a risk of unauthorized access to the systems, due to a lack of managing user accounts.
This audit’s publication is very timely. Most notably because U.S. Attorney Billy Williams, who called Oregon’s black market problem “formidable,” convened a summit this week to examine how Oregon can prevent cannabis being exported to other states. According to the Oregonian, Williams said Oregon has an “identifiable and formidable overproduction and diversion problem.” The audit’s findings highlighting security issues are also very timely, given that in the same week, Oregon’s neighbor to the North, Washington, experienced a security breach in its own tracking system.
The problems with the Oregon tracking system’s security features are numerous, the audit says. They found that the OLCC lacks a good security plan, IT assets aren’t tracked well, there are no processes to determine vulnerabilities, servers and workstations not using supported operating systems and a lack of appropriately managing antivirus solutions. “Long-standing information security issues remain unresolved, including insufficient and outdated policies and procedures necessary to safeguard information assets,” reads the report’s summary.
The audit proposes 17 recommendations for the state to bolster its regulatory oversight. Those recommendations intend to address undetected compliance violations, weaknesses in application management, IT security weaknesses and weaknesses in disaster recovery and media backup testing. You can read the full audit here.
Last week, Steep Hill announced they are expanding into Oregon with a laboratory in Portland. According to the press release, the company has licensed its testing technology to Dr. Carl Balog, a renowned pain and addiction physician.
Steep Hill has expanded significantly over the past year, including new laboratories in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington D.C. and Hawaii, among other states. The Berkeley-based company works in lab testing, research and development, licensing, genetics and remote testing. In 2008, Steep Hill opened the first-ever commercial cannabis-testing laboratory in the country.
Jmîchaeĺe Keller, president and chief executive officer of Steep Hill, says this is a development that will help them better understand cannabis chemistry and its medical applications. “We are pleased to announce our expansion into Oregon and especially pleased to partner with Dr. Balog, a physician who brings years of pain and addiction experience to the Steep Hill body of expertise,” says Keller. “In addition, Dr. Balog plans to use his specialized knowledge to aid Steep Hill’s research and development efforts to broaden our understanding of cannabis chemistry and to explore its wider medical applications. In partnering with Dr. Balog, we hope that Steep Hill will be able to help physicians around the United States to curb the opioid epidemic by offering Steep Hill Verified™ medicinal cannabis as an alternative to a crisis that plagues this country.”
Dr. Balog, now owner and medical director of Steep Hill Oregon, says medical cannabis could be an excellent harm reduction tool, and hints at it being a possible tool in the opioid crisis. “I deal with the consequences of the opioid epidemic on a daily basis as a pain and addiction specialist,” says Dr. Balog. “The growing trend of using cannabis products as an alternative to opioids highlights the need for regulated testing. Because of the variability of marijuana preparations, testing ensures that scientific rigor is applied in a standardized way. I am dedicated to ensuring that patients have access to safe, tested cannabis, free from contaminants and to verified labels that can be trusted for their content.”
They expect Steep Hill Oregon to be open for business in the second quarter of 2018.
The Craft Cannabis Alliance is a values-driven industry association whose mission is to define, promote, and celebrate authentic Oregon craft cannabis. Though it has only recently launched, it already counts many of Oregon’s most important local brands among its members, and looks poised to help lead a craft cannabis movement both within the industry and among consumers.
When recreational cannabis was originally legalized in Oregon,according to the Portland Mercury, there were residency requirements for obtaining a license, but in 2016 those rules were removed. In the wake of that decision, Adam J. Smith, founder and executive director of theCraft Cannabis Alliance, saw the prospect, and, increasingly, the reality of out-of-state businesses with deep pockets buying up local cannabis businesses, expanding out of state brands into the market, or financing new brands here. It was quickly apparent to Smith that the big money threatened to overwhelm the market, push Oregon-owned companies off of shelves and eventually dominate Oregon’s much-anticipated export market. In May, drawing on his experience as an organizer and drug policy reform advocate, as well as several years working in with Oregon craft industries, he launched the Craft Cannabis Alliance.
Smith has a long history of taking aim boldly at seemingly implacable interests. In 1998, Smith launched the Higher Education Act Reform Campaign (HEA Campaign), which successfully won back the right to federal financial aid for students with drug convictions. That campaign led to the founding ofStudents for Sensible Drug Policy, now the world’s largest student-led drug policy reform organization, active in more than 40 states and 26 countries. Since then, he has participated in a number of public policy and civic engagement campaigns and organizations, serving on the founding boards of the League of Young Voters and the Oregon Bus Project. He’s also written for dozens of publications on drug policy.
The Craft Cannabis Alliance is a membership-based industry association of cannabis businesses with like-minded values, who believe that cannabis is, in fact, Oregon’s next great craft industry. And they want to make sure that means something. We sat down with Smith to learn more about his organization and why he wants to fight big cannabis.
CannabisIndustryJournal: How exactly do you define craft cannabis?
Adam Smith: In the beer industry, the Brewers Association defines a craft producer as one who produces fewer than 6 million barrels per year, and is not more than 25% owned by a larger brewer. And that’s fine for beer, but with cannabis just emerging from its own prohibition, there are broader concerns that we believe a craft industry needs to be responsive to. So we’re less concerned with the size of a company’s production than how it’s producing that product, and how it’s contributing to communities and a healthy industry.
Here in Oregon, there’s a core of the cannabis industry that cares deeply about people, place, planet, and plant. As someone who has spent considerable time writing about and organizing around ending the drug war, it is important to me that cannabis’ first foray into the post-prohibitionist world is not only successful, but that it reflects a shared set of values. When I started talking with people in the industry who take their values seriously, I asked a lot of questions. I wanted to go from “we know it when we see it” to something that could be defined and therefore legitimately promoted. Pretty soon, it became clear that there were six major areas of agreement.
Ethical employment practices
Substantial local ownership
Meaningful participation in the movement to end the disastrous drug war.
The first three requirements, clean, sustainable, and ethical employment practices, are pretty obvious core values for craft producers, and we believe for many Oregon consumers as well.
Substantial local ownership, particularly in a place like Oregon, is an essential component of what the Alliance is trying to organize and represent. We grow some of the finest cannabis in the world in Oregon, and while we’re a small market, we know that eventually, probably sooner than most people realize, the federal walls will come down and we’ll be able to export our products to other states and internationally. At that point, Oregon will be home to a multi-billion dollar industry. The question then, is who will own that?
We are already seeing big out of state and international companies and investment groups buying up brands or starting their own brands here. With tens of millions of dollars behind them, they have the marketing and distribution muscle to push locally owned companies, even those producing superior product, off of shelves. And if foreign-owned companies are dominating shelf space here when those federal walls crumble, those are the companies that will own the export market, and who will ultimately own the Oregon Cannabis brand globally. And if that happens, we will never buy it back.
Southern Oregon, in particular, is a region that has seen little economic growth since the waning of the timber industry. The communities there have a huge stake in how this plays out. Will the cannabis industry build wealth, and economies, and institutions here? Or will Oregon become a low-wage factory for out of state and international corporations.
Beyond local ownership, community engagement is another important component of craft cannabis. The industry, which still faces PR challenges, many of them well earned, needs ambassadors who can demonstrate what a healthy cannabis industry looks like, and who will build the relationships and the credibility necessary to gain the loyal support of their neighbors, local media, and public officials.
Finally, participation in the anti-drug war movement, beyond the self interest of simply opening up the next market, is a must. This industry stands atop a mountain of eighty years of ruined lives and destroyed communities. If you are in the industry, and you are not looking for ways to support drug policy reform, you are profiteering, plain and simple. The drug war is teetering on the brink of the dustbin of history, but it is not over yet. The very existence of a legalized industry is the product of decades of work by many, many individuals, most of whom will never earn a dime from the end of prohibition, and never intended to. We view a healthy legal cannabis market as an important platform for social progress on this front, and we are going to use it.
CIJ: Doesn’t capitalism guarantee that the big money will win out? That striving to maintain one’s values in the face of competition that is laser-focused on profits above all else is inefficient and doomed to failure?
Adam: Believe me, when your name is Adam Smith, you spend a lot of time thinking about capitalism. Let’s be clear, our members are committed to profits. We just don’t believe that nihilism is going to be a profitable strategy in Oregon cannabis, nor should it be. Our goal is to monetize our values by offering a win-win proposition to consumers, opinion makers, political leaders, and everyone else who will benefit from a visionary, responsible, and successful Oregon industry feeding into the local economy.
The choice is not between capitalism and something else. It is between an extractive model of capitalism and a value-adding model of capitalism. Between an industry that seeks to bleed value from the earth, and communities, and employees, and consumers, and one that adds value to everything it touches at every level while producing the best cannabis in the world.
In the end, consumers are the key. If we can be the coolest thing happening in Oregon cannabis, if we can bring consumers into this movement, we will succeed. There’s simply no reason for Oregonians to be buying cannabis grown by a Canadian bank account, even if it’s physically produced here. That is SO not cool. And what’s cool in Oregon will be what’s cool and in demand nationally and internationally as we are able to expand the reach of the legal Oregon industry.
We believe that offering the world’s best cannabis, grown responsibly, by Oregonians who are actually committed to the environment, to their communities, and to social justice is a going to be a powerful marketing proposition here. More powerful than having a famous person on your label or weak attempts at greenwashing.
Within the authentic Oregon craft universe will be super high-end products, as well as more value-oriented offerings, and everything in between. We’re going to make it easy for Oregonians to recognize and support the kind of industry that we’d all like to see here.
CIJ: Why do you think this could be successful in Oregon? Is the industry receptive to this idea?
Adam: Not only the industry, but the media, elected officials, and most importantly, we believe, consumers.
Oregon sees itself, not unjustifiably, as the birthplace of the craft movement in America. Our craft beer, artisan wine, and craft distilling industries are world-class by any standard, and are very well supported locally. Include in that list our local food scene and the myriad artisans of all stripes who ply their trades in the region, and it’s pretty obvious that there will be strong support for a values-driven, locally owned cannabis industry.
Craft is about people making something they love, as well as they possibly can, for themselves and their friends, and to share with others who will love it too. It’s not a coincidence that those products tend also to be of the highest quality.
The key, as I’ve mentioned, is for craft cannabis is to build a partnership with consumers. Let them know who we are, and what we are trying to build, which is an authentic, and authentically Oregon craft cannabis movement.
There are quite a lot of people in the Oregon industry who share this vision, including many of the best and most important brands in the state. The are people who got into cannabis for the right reasons, with a craftsperson’s dedication to quality and mindfulness on all fronts. To truly be a craftsperson is not only to make an exceptional product, but also to be cognizant of the historical and social context of your craft, with a respect for what has come before, and a commitment to setting an example for those who will follow.
Those are our people, and they are well represented in the industry here. Our goal is to organize them and help insure a path to their success.
CIJ: Tell us about how you are educating the industry, consumers and political leaders.
Adam: Well, we launched at the end of May, from the stage at the Cultivation Classic, which highlights and honors the best cannabis in Oregon, grown sustainably and regeneratively. That was a great opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to the part of the industry that we’re targeting, and we were very grateful to Jeremy Plumb of Farma, who is also an Alliance member, and who puts on that incredible event, for that stage.
Right now, we are still a manageable group, size-wise, and we are doing a lot of personal networking in the industry, seeking out the right people to join us. It’s been a lot of “who do we like and trust, who is making great product?” As a long-time organizer, I believe in starting out by putting together the strongest possible group of leaders who are also good people and fun to work with. I’d say that that’s going very well, since we have just an incredible group, who I am honored to stand beside. Over the past several weeks, as we have started to be a bit outward facing, we have had more and more folks in the industry reaching out to us, rather than the other way around. So we’re in a great spot to grow.
On the political side, we really launched the project at the very end of the most recent state legislative session, and so we purposely did not engage that process this year. But over the past several months, we have been seeking out and introducing ourselves to key public officials. Their response has been extremely positive. Here we are, a group of companies who are substantially locally owned, and committed to being transparent and accountable to the health of our employees, our communities, and our state. In an industry that is still very chaotic, and not well organized, with plenty of shady players, I think that they see us as a compelling partner going forward.
CIJ: Some of these standards seem pretty difficult to quantify. How do you expect to judge new member businesses?
Adam: Well, in the areas of clean product, sustainable methods, and ethical employment practices, we will adopt standards being developed and promulgated by third-party certification efforts such as Resource Innovation Institute (energy, water, carbon footprint) and the Cannabis Certification Council (“organic” and fair labor standards). There are others as well, some that exist, things like Clean Green, and some that are still in development. We are beginning to meet with these folks to gauge where they are, and to give input on their standard-setting processes. In the end, hopefully within the next year as more third-party standards come online, we will choose which of those standards to adopt or accept.
Community engagement and anti-drug war participation will be things that we undertake as an alliance, as well as providing support for our members to do these things individually behind their brands
As for “substantial local ownership” we are already discussing the parameters of what that means. Certainly, here in Oregon, there is a need for outside capital. We are not going to fund a robust industry, especially one that is prepared to take advantage of the coming interstate and international markets, with all local funding.
That said, there is a huge difference between having an out of state partner who owns a piece of a local business, and having an out of state or international corporate overlord with a 90-100% ownership stake. And the distinction is important for the future of the industry and for Oregon’s economy.
The temptation is to set the bar at 50% in-state ownership. But what if you are a large cannabis brand, selling in four or five or six states, that is 35% or 40% Oregon-owned? That would likely meet the definition of “substantial.” It is a difficult line to draw, in some sense, but not impossible. As we move forward, we will develop guidelines on this, and we will have a membership committee that can look at an individual company and say “yes, you are substantially Oregon-owned” or “not you are not” as well as a process in place to insure fairness in that decision. Right now, every cannabis company in the Alliance is majority Oregon-owned, and I would expect that to continue except in very rare cases.
CIJ: One of your standards for membership requires participation in the movement to end the drug war. Some might see this as a given, but could you shed some light on this?
Adam: As I mentioned earlier, we see reform movement participation as a moral imperative, and since a lot of my background is in drug policy reform, it’s important to me personally. As an alliance, we hope to partner with organizations like Students for Sensible Drug Policy and NORML, and within the industry with groups like the Minority Cannabis Business Association to both advocate for broad drug policy reform, and hopefully to provide opportunities and support for communities that have been most negatively affected by Prohibition. We believe that those of us participating in the legal, regulated cannabis market have both a responsibility and an opportunity to use our voices to point out the difference between the chaos, corruption, and violence of prohibition, and the the sanity, humanity, and opportunity of a post-prohibitionist world.
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