In the wake of the 2018 Farm Bill, the horizons of hemp-derived cannabis products expanded, offering nearly limitless opportunities for businesses and brands in the CBD industry to expand what they could offer to their customers. However, threading the path to prosperity within this new regime has not been easy, given the fluctuating legal status of cannabinoids and the regulations surrounding them. Within this labyrinth of legal intricacies, one significant hurdle stands out: payment processing. For online CBD suppliers, finding a payment processor amenable to cannabis commerce has been an uphill battle. The winds, though, are shifting and some payment processors are paving the way toward a more harmonious future for cannabis and e-commerce.
What Merchant Account Will Process CBD Website Payments?
Finding a merchant account or payment processor that simplifies the transaction process can be frustrating, especially if you’re not well-versed in the world of e-commerce. The good news is that more and more payment processors are hopping onto the trend, but why?
The 2018 Farm Bill changed everything for the cannabis industry. Now, hemp-derived CBD products are considered federally legal. Since then, some states have passed their own restrictive legislation aimed at specific cannabinoids and others may choose to do the same. But for the rest of the country, the Farm Bill states that as long as cannabis products are hemp-derived and contain less than 0.3% THC in dry weight, they can be legally produced and sold.
While this doesn’t mean that cannabis is entirely legal, the Farm Bill has brought about just enough change to ease the concerns of some in the financial industry. Where legal uncertainties have kept financial institutions away from the cannabis industry, there some companies that have become reliable partners for CBD brands. This registered merchant account provider, works with major credit card networks, making it possible for CBD companies and their customers to process payments online and offline.
Payment processors like GETTRX, Inovio, Square and Bankful are well-versed in the CBD landscaped and equipped to handle the legal intricacies of processing high-risk industries like hemp, making them excellent options if you’re on the hunt for a way to simplify the transaction process.
But, how does a CBD company choose the payment processor they want to work with?
What to Look for in a CBD Payment Processor
Choosing the right merchant account and payment processor is essential to making your business run smoothly and providing a seamless and intuitive experience for customers. Here’s a condensed guide on some key factors to consider:
High-risk expertise should be a priority, as you want someone who is on your side. Being well-versed in high-risk industries can give you peace of mind when navigating the ups and downs of the complex CBD industry.
You’re only as good as your worst customer, so making sure to find payment processors with a good industry reputation and an excellent track record will be a plus when handling CBD.
Being transparent about your needs with potential payment processors can help set expectations, and using the term “high-risk” will always be a way to break the ice. This helps set the scene and gives reputable processors context and peace of mind about your intentions and products.
Instead of rushing to the most well-known payment processors, take your time and really balance out the possibilities. Some processors may be popular, but lacking stringent underwriting standards can lead to unforeseen shutdowns.
Why Don’t All Payment Processors Work for Cannabis?
If you’re deep into the world of cannabis, you’ve probably already noticed that navigating the CBD landscape isn’t an easy task for processors. This is a case of two highly complex and regulated industries having to find common ground, but since CBD products often have THC, they’re considered high-risk for many mainstream payment processors.
Due to compliance intricacies, federal-state law conflicts, product safety concerns, credibility of labs, and ambiguous federal regulation, not all payment processors are up for the challenge. Despite these obstacles, companies like GETTRX have managed to handle these intricacies and become a reliable partner for CBD brands.
These intricacies aren’t easy to navigate, and Roberto Sato, president and CIO of GETTRX, understands why some payment processors might not want to get involved: “Typically, processors categorize CBD merchants as high risk, particularly Card Not Present merchants,” says Sato. “This classification predominantly arises from legal and regulatory compliance concerns, the rigorous due diligence executed during onboarding and risk monitoring by ISOs, processors, and sponsor banks, as well as the interplay between federal and state laws and regulations. Aspects such as product quality, safety, and overall reputational risk further compound this assessment.”
So, what can CBD companies do to ensure that their products stand the test of payment processors? Basically, it’s about making it easier for the payment processor to see you as a partner rather than a risk. Things like registering with Visa and MasterCard as a high-risk entity, and allotting $500 for each association, show payment processors that your CBD company is going to be easier to work with. “Ensure your products have valid and updated lab reports, with a certificate of analysis for each listed item,” says Sato. “Include comprehensive ingredient labels and ensure your billing descriptor matches the business name on your URL. Exclude products like flower, loose items, seeds, and pre-rolled goods, including delta 8 – 10 with THC levels surpassing 0.3%.”
Late last month, Mastercard decided to halt their debit card transactions with cannabis dispensaries, notifying financial institutions and payment processors to stop processing purchases. This isn’t the first digital payment solution to swiftly exit the industry – late last year, vendors turned off services to their cashless ATMs. These abrupt decisions have made major headlines, shocking cannabis dispensary owners, operators and consumers as they scramble to shift focus back to the remaining legal payment tools.
For the cannabis industry veterans like myself, these exits aren’t a surprise at all. Why? Cannabis is federally illegal and federal regulations restrict banks and other financial services companies from working with cannabis businesses – even if it is legal at a state level. Due to this massive legal hurdle, cannabis dispensaries often lack access to typical banking services and have limited payment options for consumers, making it challenging to manage and facilitate payments.
Some believe that this decision by Mastercard, the second largest payments provider in the world, and by other payment vendors, coupled with the political pressure to legalize cannabis could help push legalization or the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to help mitigate the lack of access to banking services in the longer term. Even though cannabis represents an economic opportunity – MJBizDailyestimates that combined medical and adult use cannabis sales could reach $33.6 billion by the end of 2023, and $53.5 billion by 2027 – hurdles to legalization mean that, for now, cash will be the most prevalent payments option.
Let’s Talk About Cash
Cash remains the longstanding and most prevalent payment option in cannabis. However, it presents difficulties for businesses. Physical cash is difficult to manage for dispensaries for several reasons, primarily due to the costs to count, track and manage cash volumes and the labor required to count the cash. In fact, in most dispensaries, associates count cash an average of six times a day. Each time cash is manually counted, dispensaries risk miscounts, shrinkage, security and safety concerns due to robberies.
This manual labor required to oversee a business’s balance sheet and keep dispensaries operating is inefficient and unsustainable, and many have attempted to incorporate debit payments or cashless ATM transactions to help mitigate the costs associated with cash. However, while cash presents logistical and operational challenges for dispensary owners, it remains one of the more dependable payment options consumers and dispensaries have for cannabis transactions. Dispensaries can integrate simple strategies to improve their cash handling and operate more efficiently.
Best practices with cash management for dispensaries
The biggest and most impactful strategy is incorporating cash automation tools to help secure, count and manage their payments. The largest and oldest dispensary in Washington D.C. incorporated sophisticated automation tools into their cash handling practices, which have alleviated massive headaches and burdens from store associates, managers and its accounting team, who previously relied on manual cash processes to count, sort and manage their cash.
This cash-handling technology has improved count accuracy, saved time for staff, improved visibility and enabled real-time reporting. These tools have transformed the day-to-day duties of staff. The dispensary’s accounting team and associates no longer get overwhelmed when anticipating increased cash flow on 4/20 or other holidays because they have tools that eliminate the extreme costs of handling cash. Additionally, they now confidently support audits as they have complete reports of each transaction by user, date and time. Before automation, audits were next to impossible to execute confidently.
The greatest benefit of cash automation tools is the near elimination of shrinkage, a term referring to the cash lost due to employee theft or miscounts. With cash automation, cash is as affordable as digital payment options, with the added confidence that cash won’t disappear as a payment option for consumers.
Have a Cash Strategy
While Mastercard’s decision to leave the cannabis industry leaves dispensaries in the lurch, the cannabis payments ecosystem continues to evolve and transition quickly. Dispensaries must be agile and incorporate strategies for the payment options, both inbound from consumers and outbound to their vendors, that they can rely on.
As the cannabis industry continues to evolve, embracing cash automation will be crucial for sustainable growth and success. Cash automation is a transformative solution for cannabis reducing the cost of managing cash while addressing the unique challenges associated with high cash volume operations. Embracing cash automation allows dispensaries to thrive in an evolving industry while maintaining control over their cash ecosystem, no matter who enters or exits the payments space.
As the cannabis industry experiences a significant shift toward general acceptance and mainstream adoption, new modes of operation are popping up everywhere. The evolution and expansion of the industry beg for constant innovation, and the integration of NFTs and cryptocurrencies as payment options is at the crossroads between tech and cannabis.
Crypto and NFTs have grown in popularity in recent years. Non-fungible tokens are an interesting asset in the art and collectibles world, while cryptocurrency has made a name for itself by providing a unique kind of financial independence. More and more payment processors are embracing these new payment methods, and the cannabis industry is also slowly welcoming them.
In order to fully understand the cannabis-crypto connection, Swaroop Suri, founder of Melee Dose, a cannabis brand that’s been embracing NFTs and crypto as payment options, shared some insights. Their innovative approach to creating unique cannabis experiences with technology and creative branding makes them a pioneer of this movement.
What’s Happening with Cannabis and NFTs?
NFTs and cryptocurrency are exciting developments in an industry that carries the reputation for having a rocky relationship with the banking industry. The legal gray area surrounding the connection between cannabis businesses and the banking industry has given way to an onslaught of challenges, with many banks shunning cannabis because of its federally illegal status. While traditional banking can limit cannabis companies’ access to basic financial services, the decentralization that’s characteristic of blockchain opens up many doors.
In recent years, different brands have tested the waters by using cryptocurrencies and NFTs to enhance marketing and offer alternate payment options. While it’s still early in the game, trends are starting to appear.
One of these trends is using NFTs in marketing and branding, creating unique digital assets that can be collected. This gives an air of exclusivity, creates more immersive experiences, and helps forge a brand identity. NFTs are often a great tool to engage with customers and create a sense of community.
Melee Dose recently started integrating NFTs from Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) into product packaging and branding. This has allowed the brand to offer unique experiences, foster community engagement, enhance storytelling and demonstrate adaptability to an ever-changing world.
“This collaboration merges the worlds of fashion, art and technology, providing our customers with exclusive “IRL” products incorporating digital assets and driving brand affinity”, says Swaroop Suri. “By embracing the digital revolution and connecting with the influential BAYC community, we aim to redefine consumer experiences and build lasting relationships with our audience.”
Crypto Payments Aren’t Futuristic Anymore
Payment is another trend to look out for. Cryptocurrencies are becoming more accepted in many big industries, including cannabis. With traditional banks limiting access to banking services, crypto allows cannabis companies to offer decentralized and secure payment options.
Cryptocurrency offers more enhanced privacy than traditional payment methods, which is great for those who want to stay under the radar. Lower transaction fees are another plus, as a decentralized system is more flexible. The speed of crypto payments is also an enticing feature, as payments are usually processed more quickly than traditional payment methods.
So, how are brands accepting crypto as payment? Is it safe? Melee Dose started accepting cryptocurrency payments on their e-commerce store by partnering with Coinbase Payments, a leader in the crypto industry with a strong reputation and ease of integration.
Cryptocurrency may seem perilous to those who don’t know much about it, but siding with the right company can help ease those fears. Addressing concerns about crypto volatility, Suri “opted for a feature provided by Coinbase Payments that allows for immediate conversion of cryptocurrency payments into our local currency, ensuring stable revenue despite market fluctuations.”
By working closely with reliable payment partners like Coinbase Payments and implementing necessary features, companies like his are able to successfully overcome crypto roadblocks, providing customers with increased flexibility and convenience.
The Future of Crypto, NFTs & Cannabis
The future of integration between cannabis, crypto and NFTs is exciting and always on the move, meaning there are opportunities constantly arising and challenges ahead we have yet to tackle. As cannabis legalization continues to evolve, we might expect changes in regulatory frameworks that impact how cryptocurrency is used in the industry. While we can’t say what those changes might be, the fact that NFTs and crypto have become mainstream indicates a clear adoption, as the industry finds ways to integrate them. From blockchain integration and creative marketing to payment options and immersive experiences, they are here to stay.
Swaroop Suri and his team might’ve gotten in on the game early, but they know the future is expansive: “It’s possible that NFTs could become a significant part of cannabis marketing strategies in the future,” He says. “The cannabis industry can use NFTs in various ways, such as tracking crops and using intellectual property to promote products through packaging artwork, which is what our team at Melee Dose has accomplished.”
NFTs won’t stop there. “There is a possibility to use NFTs for establishing VIP programs that offer exclusive discounts and access”, Suri says. “The ownership of an NFT could grant special privileges and perks to customers when shopping with an e-commerce company, fostering a deeper connection with the brand and community and leading to customer loyalty in the long run.” NFTs offer diverse possibilities for cannabis brands to improve their marketing techniques and get creative.
When it comes to crypto payments, brands will surely continue to add crypto as an option in addition to merchant processors. Highly-regulated industries like cannabis can find many benefits in crypto, as experienced by Suri: “Accepting cryptocurrency can mitigate some of these issues by providing an alternative payment option that is not subject to the same restrictions as traditional payment methods.”
The excitement surrounding crypto and NFTs is understandable, and as the cannabis industry introduces new opportunities for those who are at the intersection of these two global forces, companies everywhere are changing their relationship with technology.
There are other brands hopping onto the this train as well. Household cannabis brands and popular companies like Plain Jain, Highland Pharms, American Green and Pharma Hemp are just some of the many that have begun accepting crypto as payment.
As the industry continues to evolve and grow, staying ahead of the curve and embracing technology with critical thinking and environmental consciousness is key. As a new, dynamic and exciting space with as many opportunities as it is filled with challenges to tackle down the road surrounds us, the one thing we know for sure is that this is just the beginning.
According to a press release emailed this week, ASTM International’s subcommittee focused on cannabis, D37, is in the midst of developing two new standards surrounding cannabis safety and education.
One standard, WK84667, is designed to “help document engineering controls for air filtration and person protective equipment (PPE) in cannabis processing facilities,” says ASTM member Trevor Morones. The premise of this standard appears to be employee safety; with proper, standardized air filtration and PPE, the standard will help companies keep their workers safe and prevent inhalation of potentially harmful particles, like cannabis dust, stalk fiber, florescence and crystalized dust. “We are working to develop a robust community of cannabis professionals who can share their experiences in workplace and personnel safety,” says Morones.
The other proposed standard, WK84589, seeks to develop a uniform metric for “determining the intoxication level of a cannabinoid.” Initially focusing on delta9-THC, the standard will help raise awareness and promote public health and safety by informing consumers how intoxicating a cannabis product is for the average adult.
ASTM Pamela Epstein says this standard will hopefully develop a form of measurement akin to ABV in alcoholic drinks, allowing consumers to see how potent a certain cannabis product is. “Beyond providing consumers with a complete assessment of a product’s total intoxicating/impairing effects, the proposed standard may provide regulators with a methodology to meaningfully account for public health and safety,” says Epstein. “The specification can unify consumer awareness and can be used across all product types and jurisdictions.”
Business often require outside capital to finance operating activities and to enable scaling and growth. Financing in the cannabis industry is notoriously challenging with regulatory obstacles at the local, state and federal levels. Recent market dynamics pose additional challenges for both financiers and cannabis operators.
We sat down with Len Tannenbaum, CEO & Partner of Advanced Flower Capital Gamma (AFC Gamma, NASDAQ: AFCG) to learn more about AFC Gamma and to get his perspective on recent market trends.
Aaron Green: In a nutshell, what is your investment/lending philosophy?
Len Tannenbaum: AFC Gamma is one of the largest providers of institutional loans to cannabis companies nationwide in all aspects of production: cultivation, processing, and distribution. Cannabis companies, no matter the size, traditionally lack the lending opportunities that other enterprises have available, and that’s where AFC Gamma comes in. As an institutional lender, we provide financial solutions to the cannabis industry.
AFC Gamma is a commercial mortgage REIT that provides loans to companies secured by three pillars: cash flows, licenses, and real estate. We provide term loans, draw facilities, and construction loans. Each loan is unique and tailored specifically to meet the needs of our borrowers. This unique partnership approach with our clients allows us to find solutions to help them expand and grow alongside them.
Since starting AFC Gamma, we have completed almost $500 million of transactions. We provide capital to an industry that others do not and, in turn, allow these operators to build cultivation facilities, production facilities, and dispensaries.
Green: What types of companies are you primarily financing?
Tannenbaum: AFC Gamma seeks to work with operators, ideally in limited license states. We make loans to companies secured by three pillars: cash flows, licenses, and real estate. We tend to lend to operators in regulatory-friendly states, such as: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Arizona, New Mexico, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, and Nevada. Traditionally, we shy away from states like California, Washington and Oregon given our approach to lending. We have 16 borrowers in 17 states, and what we look for are companies that we can grow with over the long term.
Green: What qualities do you look for in a cannabis industry operator or operating group?
Tannenbaum: We tend to work with three different buckets of operators. You have the large publicly traded multi-state operators (MSOs) we have lent to, such as Verano. Then you have the tier right below the top tier MSOs, where you have some public enterprises like Acreage, who is one of our borrowers, and then some private companies such as Nature’s Medicine and Justice Grown. The third tier are smaller operators. They’re single or two-state operators, and we’re typically coming in to help them build out licenses that they want or help them expand within that state. That’s why state-by-state dynamics are so important to us and why we typically only lend to limited license states.
We look at portfolio diversity on a step-by-step basis rather than a borrower-by-borrower basis. We tend to focus on deals in limited license states and also deals that have real estate as collateral. We have found that REIT loans give our clients the most flexibility, and we are able to finance more companies this way.
Green: Capital market dynamics have led to significant public cannabis company revaluations in 2022. How has this affected your business?
Tannenbaum: Although capital market dynamics have made an impact on a significant number of public cannabis companies’ revaluations this year, our overall business hasn’t been affected too much and that’s because the other lending options available right now are not ideal choices for most borrowers. One of the ways a lender can achieve credit enhancements or securities is by raising capital in the public markets. When the markets are more challenging, those companies have a harder time accessing capital when they may need it most. In turn, this could cause slow growth overall, more cash conservation and it removes one of the benefits to lenders. We’d like everyone to have more robust equity from that standpoint, but the flip side is, if equity gets too high in price, those borrowers won’t come to us lenders and they’ll raise capital in the equity markets since the equity is cheap. We’re definitely conducting a lot of business because the equity market is not available to cannabis companies. If that were to change, while our loans would be theoretically safer, they would choose equity instead of debt.
Green: Debt on cannabis companies balance sheets have increased significantly in recent years. What is your perspective on that?
Tannenbaum: When equity markets were free and the valuations were high, cannabis companies raised money in the equity markets rather than take on debt. Now that the equity markets have been somewhat closed and valuations are much lower, we see their debt has increased over the past two years.
Green: How does the lack of institutional investor participation in the cannabis industry affect your business?
Tannenbaum: Right now, we are one of the biggest lenders in cannabis. Looking to the future, though, if the SAFE Banking Act passes, we could see an influx of institutional capital that would increase competition amongst cannabis-specific and mainstream lenders. From the outset, most of the competition will come from hedge funds, not big banks. This competition will drive down interest rates and attract borrowers like MSOs.
Green: What would you like to see in either state or federal legalization?
Tannenbaum: The Senate passing the SAFE Banking Act. Should this happen, lenders, including AFC Gamma, will be able to borrow cheaper, which will, in turn, allow lenders to lend cheaper. It will be a net positive for all operators. It could also be positive for lenders assuming they have the infrastructure and capabilities to scale and decrease the cost of capital once the money starts flowing and more deals are being made.
Green: What trends are you following closely as we head towards the end of 2022?
Tannenbaum: The most important trend we’re following is state by state trends. We’re excited to see new states getting their act together like New York. We’re excited about Georgia. We’re also looking forward to Missouri going rec. On the flip side, we’re also watching Virginia issue more than 400 licenses, diluting down the limited license states into basically an unlimited license state, which personally doesn’t make sense.
The other trend we’re watching across the country is cannabis prices. There is definitely a gray and legacy market that goes across border that should be enforced. That flow of cannabis product is depressing prices, especially in the unlimited license states. I believe there is a chance that trend starts reversing as many grows are now inefficient. The low end of inefficient grows are going to start closing, which may increase prices going into next year.
It takes a lot to hack it in the wild world of cannabis.
To dip your toes in this game and open your own business, it could cost you between a quarter to three-quarters of a million dollars after licensure and other start-up expenses – and the battle doesn’t end there. Recent data supports that the turnover rate for the cannabis industry at large is extremely high when compared to other industries, coming in at a whopping 40-60% within the first 2 months.
Oh, and let’s not forget: we’re not living in the easiest of times in general. The Bureau of Labor Statistics now reports that inflation has hit 9.1 percent, the highest ever recorded level of inflation since records began. We know that people are struggling all over the place – and those struggles are even more amplified for cannabis operators and business owners. It’s no secret that amid these struggles, many legacy operators, MSOs and mom-and-pop brands alike are making the tough decision to take on costly loans, seek funding or even ultimately close their doors.
But, in times like these, you have to remember what brought you to the table to begin with. The cannabis industry is still projected to hit a valuation of over $33B by the end of 2022 and despite the blood in the water that we’ve seen lately, operators of all sizes are still getting wins and making a profit. So, do you throw the towel in and give up on your dreams? Should you just accept that all hope is lost?
If you’re a cannabis operator who is struggling, you aren’t alone – and more importantly, you aren’t out of options yet. Not ready to go down with the ship just yet? We didn’t think so.
Here are five, expert-approved tips to create an influx of cash for your cannabis business without significantly increasing spending:
‘Trim the Fat’ of Your Business by Cutting Lean Costs
While it may seem obvious, many cannabis operators forget that “nice to have” is not the same thing as a “must have” when it comes to keeping your doors open and your bottom line healthy. Take an eagle-eyed second look at your budget and cut back as much as possible on areas that aren’t boosting revenue. Reconsider the “extras” – like software solutions, hiring non-essential staff and slow-moving inventory – and focus your attention on the products that contribute the most to your bottom line.
Make Your Customers a Priority
One of the biggest mistakes that cannabis brands make is throwing so much of their marketing budget into getting new customers through the door while neglecting to show existing customers the attention they deserve for their loyalty. In today’s market, cannabis consumers have more options than ever. Why should they keep choosing you? Happy customers are customers that will weather the storm with you. Honing in on targeted ads and marketing efforts geared toward existing customers, in combination with loyalty perks, VIP deals and more is a great way to ensure your business is truly unforgettable in the eyes of the customers that keep your doors open. Looking for an extra leg up? Here’s an insider pro tip: refer-a-friend programs are a great way to get the best of both worlds and help those marketing dollars stretch a little further.
SOS: Save Our Shopping Carts
Shopping cart abandonment is a serious problem for cannabis retailers – and it happens all the time. For mobile users, it can creep as high as 85%. Shopping cart abandonment happens when a potential customer visits your site, builds an order in the cart and then either forgets to check out or chose not to execute the purchase. Every time a customer abandons their cart, your business is leaving money on the table. Fight back against shopping cart abandonment by providing clear calls to action through the shopping and checkout process and targeting customers with emails or SMS messages that include discount offers or reminders to check out.
Pump Up Your Payment Solutions
It’s like Canadian rapper and singer-songwriter, Drake, said in his hit song, “Omerta”, “I don’t carry cash ‘cause the money is digital.”
Let’s be honest, it’s 2022 – not a lot of people love carrying around cash. If your cannabis business is cash-only, you could be missing out on extra revenue from card and mobile payment-loving customers. On average, mobile payment users, on average, spend approximately twice as much through all digital channels as those not using mobile payments. Cash-only retailers also miss out on upsell opportunities by limiting themselves – let’s say a customer comes in with $40 in cash, they won’t be able to pick up that extra pack of cones or the grinder they were eyeing up at the checkout if they’re limited to cash-only transactions.
In addition, retailers who patronize payment solutions via debit card providers or online ACH can benefit from payment kickbacks as an additional stream of income, as these payment providers often give back a portion of transaction fees to business owners.
Don’t Forget About Employee Retention Credit (ERC)
If you haven’t heard of ERC – you could be leaving as much as $26,000 per employee on the table. Many cannabis business owners would be surprised to learn that they can still take advantage of the employee retention credit program that started during the pandemic.
The program was launched in March 2020 as a way to help offset the financial struggles of business owners during COVID-19. But, even this year, cannabis business owners can seek cash relief through ERC – employers can retroactively claim the ERC based on financial struggles they experienced during 2020 and the first three quarters of 2021.
Started your cannabis business after February 2020? You still may qualify under specific ERC provisions that can provide up to $100,000 in refundable credits.
At MJstack, we understand the trials and tribulations that cannabis professionals go through every day because we’re right here working alongside you.
Our team of professionals is familiar with cannabis and what it takes to make the cut in this world. Ready to boost your business and safeguard your investments against whatever comes next? Contact us today to learn more and book your FREE consultation.
Federal regulations have made compliant credit processing in the cannabis industry difficult to achieve. As a result, most cannabis retailers operate a cash-only model, limiting their ability to upsell customers and placing a burden on customers who might rather use credit. While some dispensaries offer debit, credit or cashless ATM transactions, regulators and traditional payment processors have been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.
Two companies, KindTap Technologies and Aeropay, are addressing the cannabis industry’s payment processing challenges with innovative digital solutions geared towards retailers and consumers.
We interviewed both Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, president at KindTap Technologies and Daniel Muller, CEO at Aeropay. Cathy co-founded KindTap in 2019 after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products. Daniel founded AeroPay in 2017 after a career in digital product innovation, most recently at GPShopper (acquired by Financial), where he oversaw the design and development of over 300 web and mobile applications for large scale Fortune 500 companies.
Green: What is the biggest challenge your customers are facing?
Iannuzzelli: Our customers include both cannabis retailers and their end consumers. As long as cannabis is illegal at the federal level, normal payment solutions such as debit and credit cards cannot be accepted for cannabis purchases. This has resulted in heavy cash-based sales and unstable, transient work-around ATM payment solutions that can be ripped out with little notice, disrupting the entire business. The lack of a mature payment network to support retail payments for cannabis purchases is a huge challenge for all stakeholders. Cannabis retailers bear the high cost and safety issues of operating a heavily cash-based retail business. Consumers encounter several friction points that require them to change their behavior when purchasing cannabis relative to how they purchase everything else.
Muller: Our cannabis business customers have faced a constantly changing and, frankly, exhausting financial services environment. From the need to move and manage large amounts of cash, to card workarounds, added to the disappointment from legislation around the SAFE Banking Act, these inconsistencies have acted as a roadblock to their potential growth and profitability. Aeropay is in the position to be a stable, long-term, reliable payments partner ready to help them scale their businesses. We believe these opportunities are limitless.
Green: What geographies have got your attention and why?
Iannuzzelli: KindTap’s focus is on the U.S. market where federal policy has created the need for alternatives to traditional payment networks. KindTap is available in every U.S. state where cannabis is legally sold. In terms of our distribution channels, KindTap’s digital payment solution was brought to market during the COVID-19 pandemic when curbside pick-up and delivery became critically important. These channels are where the exchange of cash at pick-up posed the greatest security risk to employees and customers. Our early integrations were with e-commerce platforms focused on delivery and pick-up orders, and our integration partners have strong customer bases in California and the northeast. So, while KindTap can provide its “Pay Later” lines of credit and “Pay Now” bank account solutions anywhere, we have heavier penetration in those regions.
Muller: California, for its established tech culture and how it plays into the cannabis industry – your product simply has to live up to their tech standards to be heard. Also, Chicago, our headquarters, with its newly emerged commitment to financing the cannabis industry and bringing with it a more traditional business approach. In Chicago, you have to have elevated standards of professional practices in any industry you enter. And of course, we love to watch emerging markets like New York and Florida as they head towards adult-use and what shape cannabis and payments will take.
Green: What are the broader industry trends you are following?
Iannuzzelli: We continue to see a strong transition from cash and ATM transactions over to digital payments. Since KindTap has a fully-integrated payment “button” on e-commerce checkout screens, the adoption rate of end consumers to that one-click experience is quite strong. We are also seeing trends of more “express lines” in the retail environment – for those KindTap users who paid online/ahead – and faster/safer delivery experiences to people’s homes since there is no longer the need to collect any payment upon delivery. We are firm believers in the delivery/digital payments combination and a strong increase of that trend as more states allow for delivery.
Muller: The cannabis industry is starting to normalize payments and mirror traditional online and brick-and-mortar. With bank-to-bank (ACH) payments, cannabis businesses can now offer modern customer shopping experiences including pre-payment for delivery orders without the need for a cash exchange at the door, offering the option to buy online pickup in-store and contactless in-store QR scan-to-pay customer experiences. With these familiar and customer-driven options now available, we are seeing widespread adoption, as well as meaningful increases in spend and returning customers.
Green: Thank you both. That concludes the interview!
About KindTap: KindTap Technologies, LLC operates a financial technology platform that offers credit and loyalty-enabled payment solutions for highly-regulated industries typically driven by cash and ATM-based transactions. KindTap offers payment processing and related consumer applications for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers. Founded in 2019, the company is backed by KreditForce LLC plus several strategic investors, with debt capital provided by U.S.-based institutions. Learn more at kindtaptech.com.
About AeroPay: AeroPay is a financial technology company reimagining the way money is moved in exchange for goods and services. Frustrated with the current, antiquated payments landscape, we believe there is a better way to pay and a better way to get paid. AeroPay set out to build a payments platform that works for all- businesses, consumers, and their communities. Learn more at aeropay.com.
Federal regulations have made compliant credit processing in the cannabis industry difficult to achieve. As a result, most cannabis retailers operate a cash-only model, limiting their ability to upsell customers and placing a burden on customers who might rather use credit. While some dispensaries offer debit, credit or cashless ATM transactions, regulators and payment processors have recently been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.
KindTap Technologies, LLC operates a financial technology platform that offers credit and loyalty-enabled payment solutions for highly regulated industries typically driven by cash and ATM-based transactions. KindTap offers payment processing and related consumer applications for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers. Founded in 2019, the company is backed by KreditForce LLC plus several strategic investors, with debt capital provided by U.S.-based institutions.
We interviewed Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, co-founder and chief payments officer at KindTap Technologies. Cathy co-founded KindTap after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products.
Aaron Green: Cathy, thanks for taking the time today. How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli: I’ve been in the payments industry for a long time. I was doing some consulting a few years ago for a client in Colorado and that gave me exposure to the issues in cannabis like the fact that you couldn’t have real payments in cannabis. Then, a close family member with health issues turned to medical cannabis when nothing else seemed to work. I was amazed by the difference it made in her life. At that point, I put those two things together and I said, I need to focus on helping this industry get a real cannabis payments solution because I thought it was ridiculous that you had an industry of this size and importance that had been abandoned by the payments industry.
Aaron Green: Can you highlight some of your background prior to entering cannabis?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Throughout my career, I’ve been a banker, I’ve been a payment processing executive and I’ve been a consultant. So, I’ve kind of done it all in the payments and financial services space.
Aaron Green: Why is it that most dispensaries only take cash?
Corby Iannuzzelli: In the US, even though cannabis is legal in many states, it’s still illegal federally. There are big banks and card networks like Visa, MasterCard, etc., who are national, even global companies and frankly, the executives of those companies don’t want to end up in jail for violating national laws. So, they have put cannabis dispensaries on what’s called a “prohibited merchants” list. This means you cannot accept Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, or similar payments as a cannabis business and so it’s forcing the industry to a cash-based solution.
About the only thing you’re seeing that’s not cash in dispensaries are ATMs. But if you think about it, ATMs are machines where the consumer goes and pulls cash out and pays upwards of $5 or more in fees for doing that. They then hand that cash back to the dispensary who then has the costs of having to deal with that cash. The industry is just stuck in a cash-based business until federal legislation changes.
Aaron Green: I’ve been to some dispensaries where they accept credit cards or debit cards. What is going on there?
Corby Iannuzzelli: I’ve heard reports of consumers who’ve been able to use a credit card or a debit card in a dispensary. Sometimes the processor who sold that solution to the dispensary says, “Oh, it’s compliant, I guarantee you it’s compliant.” But if you dig in, that’s not the case. And eventually, Visa or MasterCard figures it out and shuts it down. In some cases, it’s outright fraud where the processor who sold the payment terminal to the dispensary is misrepresenting it as say a doctor’s office rather than a dispensary. There’s no merchant category code in the payment networks that says this is for processing dispensary payments, so they pretend it’s something else until they get shut down.
When they do get shut down, I’ve heard of cases in Las Vegas where it was basically 100% Visa or MasterCard one day and 100% cash the next day. It completely disrupted the whole business. It’s not just the retail store, but the inventories and everything else throughout the business.
There have also been some cases where you’ll see something called a cashless ATM. In a store, they call it a debit card transaction. It’s really a cashless ATM where the consumer is making what looks to the ATM network like a cash withdrawal in $10 or $20 increments, but the consumer is getting a receipt instead of cash, and they’re turning around and handing that receipt back to the dispensary who then makes a change because the cashless ATM only dispensed in $10 or $20 increments.
Now ATM networks are looking at these cashless ATM transactions to see if they are compliant. Do consumers know the fees that they’re paying? Are these transactions coming in and looking to the network like real cash when it’s not? Cashless ATM transactions are probably the most common thing you see, but that’s being called into question after the Eaze incident where a large company was misrepresenting its terminals. The federal government stepped in and called it bank fraud and the individuals behind it, the executives, are in jail. Since then, the networks are looking at this and saying, what about these cashless ATMs? Are those transactions within our rules, or is there something funny going on here?
Aaron Green: So, to summarize here: you’ve got federal regulations at the national level that says that cannabis banking is not allowed so major institutions are not offering it. Yet you found a way through the regulations and compliance issues. I’m curious can you pull back the curtains a little bit and tell us how you came up with a solutionhere?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Well, we came up with the solution by stubbornly refusing to believe that cannabis payment processing could not be done in a compliant manner. We just said, “there is a compliant way to do this, let’s figure it out.” We took the same components that are out there for the financial services and payments industry and reassembled them in such a way that we do not violate any rules. We do not use any of the Visa, MasterCard, Discover or Amex rails, we built our own network. We have direct contracts with the merchants and direct contracts with the consumers. We control everything and all the funds flow through regulated financial institutions. So, we designed something that looks and acts to consumers and retailers the way Visa and MasterCard look and act when a consumer goes to make a purchase, but they run on a separate set of payment rails and in compliance with banking regulations and state regulations. When you’re looking at the problem from a different perspective, sometimes you can come up with a better answer.
Green: On the consumer side, what does that user experience look like?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Our product is completely digital. The consumer experience starts with integration at the online checkout. When it’s an e-commerce shopping cart and somebody is placing an order, they will see a button called “Pay with KindTap.” The first time they click that button they’re automatically brought to our integrated web app where they do a quick and easy application for our digital revolving line of credit product. If approved, they instantly go back to the checkout screen and their first purchase will just happen immediately, with flexible payment options over time. If the consumer decides they don’t want our KindTap credit and would rather have a pay now-product where we pull the funds from their bank account, then the consumer can do so. So, there is no physical card per se, it’s integrated like PayPal or Affirm at the point of checkout online. For the consumers who use KindTap credit, there is a mobile app where they can see their transactions, view statements, pay their bills, etc.
Additionally, there is a loyalty program for all purchases – KindTap credit or through the consumer’s bank, because we feel very strongly that a lot of the reasons consumers choose to pay with one card over another is the points and the rewards that they get. So, we’re providing loyalty rewards with KindTap so that consumers can get rewarded for that spending with KindTap and it’s better for the retailers.
Green: On the retailer side, what does that experience look like and what is your business model?
Corby Iannuzzelli: We are not going store by store doing integrations, rather, we’re integrating with various software, delivery and e-commerce providers. That gives us broad reach and ability to expand rapidly in various state markets where cannabis is legal. Once a merchant says “yes, I want to be a member of the KindTap Merchant Network,” then we work to get them set up on our platform in a matter of days. The merchants receive continuous support from our success team, marketing co-investment and a depth of analytics reporting. We made the entire process and ongoing operations streamlined and frictionless for both merchants and consumers.
Aaron Green: What are the benefits of moving from cash to credit type of payments?
Corby Iannuzzelli: On the retail side, there are the obvious benefits of not having all the security, safety and theft issues associated with operating a physical cash business. Consumers very often don’t carry cash anymore, except when they’re making a cannabis purchase. There are a lot of hidden costs to retailers because payments are not just about moving money from the consumer to the business.
“I really am optimistic that with so many scientific breakthroughs we’ve had that we’re going to be able to figure this out.”Payment options – or lack thereof – can shape where people shop, how much they spend and what they buy. It’s a proven science how consumers make impulse purchases. If you’re a cash-based business in cannabis, and you’re trying to get somebody to make an impulse purchase, and they walked in with $100, then you can’t get them to spend more than $100, no matter how creative your marketing is! The consumer is limited by how much cash they have in their bank account or in their pocket at that point in time. So, it’s really about the upsell that comes with the bigger basket sizes that retailers experience when you move from a cash-based business to credit and suddenly, the merchant doesn’t have to deal with long lines of consumers on payday when the store was beyond slow two days before. Now the consumer can spread purchases with the thinking, “I’d rather not be the one standing in that line on payday. I’m going to go Wednesday [instead of Friday] because I have KindTap credit so I can budget and manage my cash flow throughout the month rather than around my paydays.”
So, we think that the lack of an efficient and effective payment system for cannabis is holding back sales. We all focus on how much the industry is growing. KindTap thinks about how much faster it could be growing if it was supported by a decent payment system.
Aaron Green: What are some other cash-only markets you are looking at?
Corby Iannuzzelli: We are laser-focused on the cannabis ecosystem and bringing a compliant credit and loyalty-based digital payments solution to cannabis merchants and customers and rewarding those stakeholders for accepting/using KindTap. Additionally, we are planning to extend the KindTap Merchant Network so that consumers can use/earn our loyalty points with other goods and services they’re purchasing that are adjacent to cannabis or that are important to the cannabis consumer. That’s the direction we’re going.
Aaron Green: Today people can receive gas points for spending with their credit card. Now with KindTap, you can spend to get cannabis points?
Corby Iannuzzelli: That’s exactly right.
Aaron Green: What in either cannabis or your personal life are you most interested in learning about?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Personally, I am most interested in seeing breakthrough technologies in climate change. We’re going to need to correct this situation and I’m reading about collecting carbon dioxide from the air and burying it in the earth and things like that. I really am optimistic that with so many scientific breakthroughs we’ve had that we’re going to be able to figure this out. Certainly, it’s going to take a lot of smart people and a lot of investment, but I really look forward to watching them do their stuff and hopefully taking us out of this nightmare situation that we’re heading into if we don’t make some changes.
Aaron Green: Thanks Cathy, that concludes the interview.
Botanical extraction is not specific to cannabis and hemp, and it is anything but new. Rudimentary forms of plant extraction have existed throughout history and evolved with high-tech equipment and scientific procedures for use in pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements and botanicals.
In food production, examples of hydrocarbon extraction processes are commonplace. Nut, olive and vegetable oil production use solvents to extract the oils. Decaffeinated coffee uses hydrocarbon extraction to remediate the caffeine, and making sugar from beets, or beer from hops, also requires solvents.
As such, the FDA has set guidelines for the amount of residual solvents considered safe for consumers to ingest. Yet, without FDA guidance in cannabis and hemp, many products aren’t being tested against these standards, and consumers will ultimately pay the price.
Understanding solvent remediation technology and processes
If we use ethanol extraction as an example, the extraction process is relatively simple. First, we soak the biomass in denatured or food-grade ethanol, ending up with a final solution that is 90-95% solvent. Then, we perform a bulk removal of the solvents, which takes out most, but not all, of the solvent. The next and final step should be to strip the remaining solvents from the extract entirely.
But, in order to do so effectively, you need the right equipment, and unfortunately, this is where many producers fall short. Many producers use a vacuum oven to apply heat while reducing the headspace pressure to lower the solvent’s boiling point and evaporate it off.
However, it’s a static environment in a vacuum oven, which means the material is stagnant. So, the process may effectively remove the solvents close to the surface, but solvents deep inside the material tend to get trapped without some type of agitation or mixing.
The appropriate final step to complete solvent remediation is wipe-film distillation, which feeds small volumes into a column, which is then wiped into a very thin film and heated under vacuum pressure. Although the equipment necessary is costly, this last step removes any residual solvents from the product to create a safe, effective and consumable product.
Residual solvents present huge risks
As stated, many of the same solvents used in cannabis and hemp extraction have been considered safe in food production for decades. Reviewing chemical data sheets, many of the acceptable limits on solvents were determined for ingestion, which is fine for edibles and tinctures, but many cannabis and hemp products are intended for inhalation or vaporization.
Unfortunately, some solvents can have negative health impacts, especially for those using cannabis or hemp for medical purposes or with compromised immune systems. Plus, as a therapeutic and recreational substance, consumers may be consuming more than the recommended amount, as well as using the products several times a day. Unfortunately, long-term exposure or repeated inhalation of these residual solvents hasn’t been thoroughly researched.
For example, inhaling ethyl alcohol (ethanol) can irritate the nose, throat and lungs. Extended exposure can cause headaches, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and unconsciousness. Repeated exposure can affect the liver and nervous system.
In the food industry, hexane is approved for extracting spices or hops, and this solvent is widely used in cannabis and hemp extraction. However, if used in an inhalable product, chronic exposure to hexane could be detrimental, with symptoms including numbness in the extremities, weakness, vision problems and fatigue.
Consumers deserve transparency
In the industry’s earliest days, companies were tight-lipped about their processes, the chemicals they used and how they removed them. Everyone thought they had the “secret sauce” and didn’t want to share their approach. Today, companies are more open about what they use, how they process it and providing that necessary transparency.
Lack of quality and consistent regulations in these industries creates confusion for the consumers and loopholes for producers. Some producers test for everything under the sun, and some producers know exactly which labs will pass their products, regardless of test results.
While the regulatory bodies are distracted by the amount of THC that might linger in products, getting sick is overshadowed by the risk of getting high. In the meantime, consumers are left to their own devices to determine which products are safe and which are not.
Although testing mandates and regulations will help clean up the industry, until then, consumers need to demand full-panel COAs that not only show cannabinoid potency but also accurately display the test results for residual solvents, pesticides and heavy metals.
Automated extraction equipment and technologies are rapidly becoming the standard in the extraction sector of the cannabis industry. Like most evolving industries, manual and operator driven processes are what starts an industry, but with explosive growth, demand for increased safety, efficiency and repeatability grows. Specifically within the cannabis industry, we’re noticing a rising demand for higher quality extracts and a safer, more repeatable environment for cannabinoid extraction. These are all reasons for the industry making a shift towards automated extraction equipment and technologies.
What Automation Looks Like in Cannabis Extraction
Automation in the cannabis industry doesn’t necessarily mean implementing robotics and creating operator-less facilities; It typically refers to automated process control. Traditional, older technologies are manual and operator-driven. This means the equipment operator is in control of all parameters of the process, which leads to inconsistencies throughout the process caused by human error. As the extraction process has many steps: ethanol holding, chilling, extraction agitation, extraction discharge, extraction solvent removal, particle filtration, semi saturated solution storage, and so much more that involves valves, pumps and controls between each piece of the process, it becomes difficult to control such a tedious process manually. When all of these processes are controlled and monitored using proper automation technology, facilities can safely ensure that each batch is run following the same process and parameters accordingly. This is critical for product consistency, a concern for manufacturers and many end-consumers. As the cannabis industry grows, matures and makes its way closer to federal legalization, product safety and consistency become a top-priority for everyone involved.
Greater Quality Control of End-Products
Consistency and repeatability are just as important for cannabis processors as they are for standard food or pharmaceutical processors. Deploying a manual process of equipment operating and monitoring leaves far too much room for human error, and doesn’t provide the level of control needed for the industry as it continues to progress toward stricter product regulations and requirements. On the other hand, an automated extraction process ensures that the same solvent ratios are used batch-to-batch, the same extraction temperatures and recipe parameters are implemented, the same pump and process flow rates are deployed, and all processes are repeatable, predictable and scalable while producing a safe, consistent product.
The benefits of automated extraction are directly tied to establishing greater efficiency in processes. Efficiency can be experienced via less scrap product from unmanaged batches and/or less labor to operate and control the process. Automation means allowing a recipe-driven control system monitor and control the process, eliminating process bottlenecks that have been notorious for destroying productivity in manual extraction operations.
As Cannabis Extraction Processes Become Automated, They Become Safer.
A team is what drives any business forward. The safety of that team needs to be a top priority for any business leader. As cannabis extraction processes become automated, they become safer. With less equipment interaction, the likelihood for human error that could lead to safety hazards significantly decreases. Properly programmed automation can establish advanced system interlocks that check multiple points throughout the process for irregularities, and can halt a machine based on these irregularities it detects. That level of process monitoring and control is only available when automation and PLC logic controls equipment.
Data Collection and Validation
When we tie all the benefits of extraction automation together, it makes for a far more attractive system than traditional,manual processes that we’re used to seeing in the cannabis industry. In addition to the major benefits listed above, automation gives a superior level of data collection for process improvements and process validation which is key in cGMP or EU-GPM facilities. This is the future for every processing facility in the arena of cannabis. As the industry matures, it will continue to become more competitive. Facilities with automation will have the capacity to maximize their process efficiencies, produce a far superior and more consistent end–product and will have a competitive advantage in the extraction sector.
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