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Financing the Cannabis Industry Part 1: A Q&A with AFC Gamma CEO & Partner Len Tannenbaum

By Aaron Green
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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?

Len Tannenbaum, CEO & Partner of Advanced Flower Capital Gamma

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.

One Month In: New Jersey Market Starts Growing

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Just over a month ago, a handful of dispensaries in New Jersey began selling cannabis to adults over the age of 21. The state issued licenses for adult use sales to seven alternative treatment centers (ATCs), otherwise known as medical cannabis businesses already established in the state. In total, thirteen dispensaries in the state started selling cannabis to adults over 21.

The seven companies awarded adult use licenses were Ascend, Curaleaf, GTI, Acreage, Verano, Columbia Care and TerrAscend. The state’s roll out created a lot of controversy over allowing already established, larger medical cannabis businesses and multi state operators to begin adult use sales before smaller businesses and social equity applicants get licensed.

Sales totals in the first month of New Jersey’s adult use market

Earlier this week, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) held a public meeting where regulators discussed progress, sales totals so far, conditional license applications and more. According to the meeting notes, between April 21 and May 21, retailers in New Jersey did $24,201,875 in cannabis sales with 212,433 transactions. During the meeting, regulators considered 46 conditional license applications and four testing lab license applications.

According to NJ.com, six new dispensaries were awarded licenses to begin adult use sales. Of the six new retail locations, Curaleaf opened their Edgewater location to adult use customers and Ayr Wellness received approval to begin adult use sales at all three of their medical locations in Eatontown, Union and Woodbridge. Ascend and TerrAscend also received approval to begin adult use sales act their locations in Montclair and Lodi, respectively.

About two weeks ago, the CRC testified before the state’s Senate Judiciary Meeting to share progress on the legal cannabis market, just over a year after the CRC was established. Jeff Brown, executive director of the CRC, discussed the agency’s goals and some challenges ahead of them. Brown says the CRC will be focusing on additional rules for adult use, modernizing the medical rules, enforcing regulatory compliance and information sharing in the near future. He also mentioned a couple challenges the industry is currently facing that they wish to address, including: expanding access to capital for entrepreneurs , removing impediments to finding real estate, educating municipalities to open up opportunities for applicants and ensuring medicinal cannabis access is unimpeded by recreational sales.

“We have made great strides in all of these efforts, and when we look at how New Jersey compares against other states, we fair pretty well,” Brown told lawmakers. “Beginning recreational sales on 4/21/22 was an important milestone. But it doesn’t mark the end of the process, it marks an important step in a multi-year effort to establish New Jersey as the premier cannabis market on the East Coast.”

Nonprofits Focus Lens on Delta-8-THC

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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On December 2, ASTM International, released a whitepaper called “Delta-8-Tetrahydrocannabinol and the Need to Develop Standards to Protect Safety of Consumers.” On the same day, the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) launched an expert panel, drafting commentary and providing recommendations to protect public health. The two organizations are working in tandem to better educate the public as well as regulators on the science behind the risks that delta-8-THC products pose to the public.

The chemical structure of Delta 8 THC.

ASTM has been working in the cannabis industry through their D37 committee since March of 2017. Soon after the D37 committee launched, they began crafting cannabis standards and have grown their membership and subcommittees considerably over the past few years. USP has also been involved in the cannabis space for quite some time, developing reference standards and offering guidance for the cannabis testing market.

The ASTM whitepaper details the current landscape for hemp-based products that contain delta-8-thc derived from CBD. It includes information on what the cannabinoid is, how it’s produced, the emergence of delta-8-thc in hemp markets and the need for better safety and performance standards.

David Vaillencourt, frequent CIJ contributor and ASTM International member, says they want to identify how we can maintain public safety when it comes to delta-8-THC. “Products containing delta-8-THC are widely available to consumers despite the known and unknown risks to consumer health and safety,” says Vaillencourt. “The topic is much deeper than simply the presence of delta-8-THC. Rather it is about defining how to label products containing potentially intoxicating cannabinoids and identifying what safeguards need to be in place to minimize the risk of impurities that can further impact consumer health.”

In addition to the technical information provided, ASTM’s whitepaper also discusses the risks of synthetic cannabinoids to public health and the regulatory landscape surrounding delta-8-THC. USP’s whitepaper discusses the chemical process that creates delta-8-THC, the unregulated market and offers guidance on how to regulate the cannabinoid with labeling and testing rules.

Dr. Ikhlas Khan, chairman of USP’s expert panel on cannabis, says we need a lot more research.  “The fact of the matter is that little is known about the products labeled as containing delta-8, so much so that the FDA and CDC have both released advisories about the products,” says Khan. “Depending on how the products are produced, unknown impurities may be introduced, including minor and synthetic cannabinoid compounds that are not naturally occurring in cannabis.”

Delta-8-THC is not inherently unsafe, says Dr. Nandakumara Sarma, Director of Dietary Supplements and Herbal Medicines for USP. But as we’ve covered this before, the methods that manufacturers use to produce delta-8-THC could have harmful byproducts present in final products. “Synthetically derived cannabinoids are not necessarily inherently unsafe if they are quality controlled and shown to be safe,” says Dr. Sarma. “By using public quality standards, we can help in controlling the quality of the products and set appropriate limits for impurities.”

The folks at USP and ASTM will host a presentation on the two papers during ASTM’s 2nd Global Workshop on Advancing the Field of Cannabis through Standardization, to be held virtually Dec. 14, 2021. Click here to register.

ASTM International Launches New Subcommittee

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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ASTM International, the renowned global standards body, has established a new subcommittee, D37.92, aimed at facilitating the exchange of ideas and information between policymakers, regulatory bodies, scientists, stakeholders and the public.

According to a press release, the new subcommittee, at the request of the U.S. Senate, has provided comments on the proposed Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). The comments including the sharing of ASTM’s work in the cannabis industry, their organization, membership information, defining cannabis terms and their published standards related to facilities, consumer safety and other areas.

David Vaillencourt, frequent contributor to CIJ and chair of the new subcommittee

The subcommittee is headed up by David Vaillencourt, founder & CEO of The GMP Collective and frequent contributor to Cannabis Industry Journal. “With a patchwork of regulations across state, federal, and international levels, this subcommittee will be valuable to industry and government stakeholders as a means to collaborate,” says Vaillencourt, current chair of the new government liaison subcommittee. “It’s really going to facilitate dialogue that will be key as we look ahead to a global marketplace in the coming years.”

ASTM has been working with the cannabis industry through their D37 committee since March of 2017. Soon after the D37 committee launched, they began crafting cannabis standards and have grown their membership and subcommittees considerably over the past few years. In August of this year, they announced the development a new voluntary, consensus-based standard, the Change Control Process Management standard. The new committee, D37.92, is currently seeking public participation in their work to develop the new standard. To learn more about cannabis committee participation and membership, click here.

Organizations Submit Comments on CAOA

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Earlier this summer in July, Senators Chuck Schumer, Ron Wyden and Cory Booker held a press conference where they introduced the first draft of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). During the press conference, the Senators laid out the foundation for their comprehensive cannabis legalization measure, emphasizing the need to address social equity and social justice matters, while also asking for support in revising the draft bill.

Sen. Schumer unveiling the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act

In response to that call for input on the draft legislation, a number of nonprofits and trade organizations last week submitted comments. Among the organizations to submit comments on the new legislative proposal to end federal cannabis prohibition were a lot of cannabis advocacy organizations: The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) and the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR). To refresh your memory, CPEAR is a controversial trade organization founded in March of this year by corporate interests in big alcohol and tobacco.

Regardless of the interests behind the organizations, all of them seemed to have comments that aligned with one another. All of the comments submitted by those organizations had a common theme: social equity. Even CPEAR submitted comments highlighting the importance of “providing substantial opportunities for small and minority-owned businesses.”

The NCIA’s comments are perhaps the most comprehensive of the group, outlining an equitable, state-centric and small business-focused plan for federal cannabis reform. The MCBA’s comments reflect its mission and focus on things like restorative justice, minority participation, equitable access and inclusion.

The MPP’s comments are noteworthy because of their concerns regarding a number of regulations. Karen O’Keefe, state policies director at the MPP, says certain aspects of the regulatory scheme need clarification. “Our two major areas of concern are: the possible upending of state licensing and regulatory systems — driving sales underground — and the impact on medical cannabis access, including for those under the age of 21,” says O’Keefe.

NORML’s feedback is also particularly poignant. They ask to leave medical cannabis markets exempted from the federal excise tax proposed and for the federal government to balance roles shared between the FDA, TTB and ATF to ensure that individual state markets won’t be adversely affected by federal regulation.

To learn more, take a look at the draft legislation in its entirety here.

First in the South – Virginia’s Legalization Focuses on Public Safety, Health and Social Justice

By Gregory S. Kaufman, Jessica R. Rodgers
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With the signing of the Cannabis Control Act (the Act) on April 21, 2021, Virginia became the first southern state to legalize adult use cannabis and just the fourth state to do so through the legislature. Legalizing adult use cannabis through the legislature, as opposed to through the ballot box, is not the typical route states have followed up to now. Eleven of the sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use cannabis through the use of ballot measures. Virginia joins Vermont, Illinois, New York and New Mexico (which legalized after Virginia) as one of the few states that have gone the legislative route. Under Governor Northam’s administration, the path to legalization was swift, taking less than four months from introduction to passage.

Governor Northam added amendments to the already passed Senate Bill 1406 and the General Assembly voted to approve those amendments, with the Lieutenant Governor breaking the tie in the Senate’s vote. Upon signing, Governor Northam called the law a step towards “building a more equitable and just Virginia and reforming our criminal justice system to make it more fair.” This message and the opportunities to promote social equity through a legal cannabis industry have been consistent points of advocacy made by supporters as the bill advanced to becoming law.

Prior to the Governor’s amendments, the Act under consideration set July 1, 2024 as the date on which both legal possession and adult use sales would begin. The Governor decided to accelerate the date for legal possession to July 1 of this year, a decision believed to have been influenced by data showing that Black Virginians were more than three times as likely to be cited for possession, even after simple possession was decriminalized in the state a year prior. The regulated adult use market is still set to begin making sales on July 1, 2024; however, it remains possible that this date could be advanced through the legislature in the meantime. Nevertheless, Virginia is on track to becoming the first southern state with an operating regulated commercial cannabis market.

Creating an Administrative Structure for the Adult Use Program

Virginia became the first state in the South to legalize adult use cannabis

This sweeping fifty-page law creates the Cannabis Control Authority to regulate the cultivation, manufacture, wholesale and retail sale of cannabis and cannabis product. The Act further lays the groundwork for licensing market participants and regulating appropriate use of cannabis; defining local control; testing, labeling, packaging and advertising of cannabis and cannabis products; and taxation. The Act also contains changes to the criminal laws of the Commonwealth. Companion to the Act are new laws addressing the testing, labeling and packaging of smokable hemp products and manufacturing of edible cannabis products. Additionally, the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board was created to address the impact of economic divestment, violence and criminal justice responses to community and individual needs through scholarships and grants.

While persons 21 years or older may possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use per household beginning on July 1, 2021, there are a host of regulations to be written in order to regulate the adult use market. These regulations will be the devil in the details of how the regulated market will work. Regardless, the Cannabis Control Act does establish the framework for adult use cannabis that is unique to Virginia and designed to promote and encourage participation from people and communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition and enforcement.

The Cannabis Control Authority (CCA) will consist of a Board of Directors, the Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council, the Chief Executive Officer and employees. The Board will have five members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the legislature, each with the possibility of serving two consecutive five-year terms. The Board is tasked with creating and enforcing regulations under which retail cannabis and cannabis products are possessed, sold, transported, distributed, and delivered. It is expected that the Board will begin discussing regulations next year and that applications for licenses for cannabis cultivation facilities, manufacturing facilities, cannabis testing facilities, wholesalers, and retail stores will begin to be accepted in 2023. Importantly, a Business Equity and Diversity Support Team, led by a Social Equity Liaison, and the Equity Reinvestment Board, led by the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, are to contribute to a plan to promote and encourage participation in the industry by people from disproportionately impacted communities.

Regulating Participation in the Market

The Act empowers the Board to establish a robust and diverse marketplace with many entry opportunities for market participants. Up to 450 cultivation licenses, 60 manufacturing licenses for the production of retail cannabis products, 25 wholesaler licenses and 400 licenses for retail stores can be granted. These numbers do not include the four permits granted to pharmaceutical processors (entities that cultivate and dispense medical cannabis) under the Commonwealth’s medical program.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam
Image: Craig, Flickr

In addition to the sheer number of licenses that can be granted, the Act devises a unique approach to addressing concerns of a concentration of licenses in too few hands and a market dominated by large multi-state operators. At the same time, it sets up a mechanism to capitalize two cannabis equity funds intended to benefit persons, families and communities historically and disproportionately targeted and affected by drug enforcement through grants, scholarships and loans. Over-concentration and market dominance concerns are addressed by limiting a person to holding an equity interest in no more than one cultivation, manufacturing, wholesaler, retail or testing facility license. This eliminates the ability of companies to be vertically integrated from cultivation through retail sales operations. However, there are two exceptions to the impediment to vertical integration. First, the Board is authorized to develop regulations that permit small businesses to be vertically integrated and ensure that all licensees have an equal and meaningful opportunity to participate in the market. These regulations will be closely scrutinized by those looking to enter Virginia’s regulated market once they are proposed. Qualifying small businesses could benefit substantially from the economic advantages commensurate with being vertically integrated, assuming they have the access to the capital needed to achieve integration and operate successfully. The second exception allows permitted pharmaceutical processors and registered industrial hemp processors to hold multiple licenses if they pay $1 million to the Board (to be allocated to job training, the equity loan fund or equity reinvestment fund) and submit a diversity, equity and inclusion plan for approval and implementation. Consequently, Virginia is attempting to fund, in part, its ambitious social equity programs by monetizing the opportunity for these processors to participate vertically in the adult use market.

Those devilish details of how this market will function, and how onerous compliance obligations will be, will emanate from those yet to be proposed regulations covering many areas and subject matters including:

  • Outdoor cultivation by cultivation facilities;
  • Security requirements;
  • Sanitary standards;
  • A testing program;
  • An application process;
  • Packaging and labeling requirements;
  • Maximum THC level for retail products (not to exceed 5 mg per serving or 50 mg per package for edible products);
  • Record retention requirements;
  • Criteria for evaluating social equity license applications based on certain ownership standards;
  • Licensing preferences for qualified social equity applicants;
  • Low interest loan program standards;
  • Personal cultivation guidelines; and
  • Outdoor advertising restrictions.

Needless to say, the CCA Board has a lot work ahead in order to issue reasonable regulations that will carry out the dictates in the Act and encourage the development of a well-functioning marketplace delivering meaningful social equity opportunities.

Much work needs to be done before July 1, 2024 to prepare for its debutThe application process for the five categories of licenses will be developed by the Board, along with application fee and annual license fee amounts. It is not clear how substantial these fees will be and what effect they will have on the ability of less-well-capitalized companies and individuals to compete in the market. The Act dictates that licenses are deemed nontransferable from person to person or location to location. However, it is not entirely clear that changes in ownership will be prohibited. The Act contemplates that changes in ownership will be permitted, at least as to retail store licensees, through a reapplication process. Perhaps the forthcoming regulations will add clarity to the transferability of licenses and address the use of management services agreements as a potential workaround to the limitations in license ownership.

Certain requirements particular to certain license-types are worthy of highlighting. For example, there are two classes of cultivation licenses. Class A cultivation licenses authorize cultivation of a certain number of plants within a certain number of square feet to be determined by the Board. Interestingly, Class B licenses are for cultivation of low total THC (no more than 1%) cannabis. Several requirements specific to retail stores are noteworthy. Stores cannot exceed 1,500 square feet, or make sales through drive-through windows, internet-based sales platforms or delivery services. Prohibitive local ordinances are not allowed; however, localities can petition for a referendum on the question of whether retail stores should be prohibited in their locality. Retail stores are allowed to sell immature plants and seek to support the home growers, an allowance that is fairly unique among the existing legal adult-use states.

Taxing Cannabis Sales

Given the perception that regulated cannabis markets add to state coffers, it is little surprise that Virginia’s retail market will be subject to significant taxes. The taxing system is straightforward and not complicated by a taxing regime related to product weight or THC content, for example. There is a 21% tax on retail sales by stores, in addition to the current sales tax rates. In addition, localities may, by ordinance, impose a 3% tax on retail sales. These taxes could result in a retail tax of approximately 30%.

Changes to Criminal Laws

Changes to the criminality of cannabis will have long lasting effects for many Virginians. These changes include:

  • Fines of no more than $25 and participation in substance abuse or education programs for illegal purchases by juveniles or persons 18 years or older;
  • Prohibition of warrantless searches based solely on the odor of cannabis;
  • Automatic expungement of records for certain former cannabis offenses;
  • Prohibition of “gifting” cannabis in exchange for nominal purchases of some other product;
  • Prohibition of consuming cannabis or cannabis products in public; and
  • Prohibition of consumption by drivers or passengers in a motor vehicle being driven, with consumption being presumed if cannabis in the passenger compartment is not in the original sealed manufacturer’s container.

These changes, and others, represent a balancing of public safety with lessons learned from the effects of the war on drugs.

Potpourri

The Act contains myriad other noteworthy provisions. For example, the Board must develop, implement and maintain a seed-to-sale tracking system for the industry. Plants being grown at home must be tagged with the grower’s name and driver’s license or state ID number. Licenses may be stripped from businesses that do not remain neutral while workers attempt to unionize. However, this provision will not become effective unless approved again by the legislature next year. Banks and credit unions are protected under state law for providing financial services to licensed businesses or for investing any income derived from the providing of such services. This provision is intended to address the lack of access to banking for cannabis businesses due to the federal illegality of cannabis by removing any perceived state law barriers for banks and credit unions to do business with licensed cannabis companies.

The adult use cannabis industry is coming to Virginia. Much work needs to be done before July 1, 2024 to prepare for its debut. However, the criminal justice reforms and commitment to repairing harms related to past prohibition of cannabis are soon to be a present-day reality. Virginia is the first Southern state to take the path towards legal adult use cannabis. It is unlikely to be the last.

GW logo-2

Jazz Pharmaceuticals to Acquire GW Pharma

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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GW logo-2

Last week, GW Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: GWPH) announced they have entered into an agreement with Jazz Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: JAZZ) for Jazz to acquire GW Pharma. Both boards of directors for the two companies have approved the deal and they expect the acquisition to close in the second quarter of 2021.

GW Pharma is well-known in the cannabis industry as producing the first and only FDA-approved drug containing CBD, Epidiolex. Epidiolex is approved for the treatment of seizures in rare diseases like severe forms of epilepsy. GW is also currently in phase 3 trials seeking FDA approval for a similar drug, Nabiximols, that treats spasms from conditions like multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries.

Jazz Pharmaceuticals is a biopharmaceutical company based in Ireland that is known for its drug Xyrem, which is approved by the FDA to treat narcolepsy.

Bruce Cozadd, chairman and CEO of Jazz, says the acquisition will bring together two companies that have a track record of developing “differentiated therapies,” adding to their portfolio of sleep medicine and their growing oncology business. “We are excited to add GW’s industry-leading cannabinoid platform, innovative pipeline and products, which will strengthen and broaden our neuroscience portfolio, further diversify our revenue and drive sustainable, long-term value creation opportunities,” says Cozadd.

Justin Gover, CEO of GW Pharma, says the two companies share a vision for developing and commercializing innovative medicines, with a focus on neuroscience. “Over the last two decades, GW has built an unparalleled global leadership position in cannabinoid science, including the successful launch of Epidiolex, a breakthrough product within the field of epilepsy, and a diverse and robust neuroscience pipeline,” says Gover. “We believe that Jazz is an ideal growth partner that is committed to supporting our commercial efforts, as well as ongoing clinical and research programs.”

Surprise! A Major Cannabis Stakeholder Pushes for Ethical Marketing Standards

By Jeff Baerwalde
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As more nations across the globe embrace the benefits of legal cannabis, to say the business is booming is an understatement. But with cannabis going corporate in a big way and marketing standards still hit or miss, the reality of unethical marketing practices that manipulate consumers and run roughshod over small businesses threatens to do harm if not brought under control.

Enter Cresco Labs, a major player in the international cannabis industry. Contrary to what you might expect, and bringing in a breath of fresh air, this giant is pushing to install marketing standards that protect the ethical interests of all cannabis businesses.

In this article, we will take a look at some key elements of ethical advertising in the cannabis industry and explore the Cresco Labs proposal.

This dispensary ad appeared on Variety.com

The Power of Advertising

Advertising is a powerful medium for rebranding and influencing public perception. The messages conveyed by ads reflect the changing moral, ethical, and consumer opinions of society – and often create them in the first place. For cannabis, an industry rife with stereotypes, ads present a strong opportunity to change the popular face and perception of cannabis as nothing more than a vehicle to get high.

Today’s numbers tell a different story with a full 19% using it for pain relief and another 37% to relax. Even one successful ad campaign can change the mind of a skeptical consumer. So how to ethically harness this power?

Cannabis rebranding generally works best when it draws on four main elements:

  • Emphasize health and wellness benefits. Most new customers who are interested in cannabis these days are attracted by the inspiring health and wellness possibilities that cannabis products present. By redefining cannabis as a medical product suitable for families, the elderly and patients suffering from various ailments, and not simply as a way to get high, cannabis companies can target the audiences that will most benefit from their products.
  • Replace typical “juvenile” imagery with sophisticated graphic design approaches. With so many options for how to use and consume cannabis these days, it is no wonder that brands are embracing trendy, sophisticated, contemporary design techniques. Logos featuring minimalist and elegant fonts more accurately express the narrative behind products such as cannabis teas, cannabis-infused oils and edibles.
  • Highlight the science behind the products. For those naysayers still determined to limit cannabis to its recreational usages only, to the exclusion of its many health benefits, exploring the science is vital. By citing legitimate research studies and findings, and explaining the scientific processes at play when using cannabis, ads can debunk false myths while educating the public.
  • Tell a compelling, relatable story. Like all good advertising, the narrative is key to engaging audiences. Framing cannabis within the powerful context of a compelling story is a strong approach to making a memorable impact on consumers.

Wild West Advertising

Because cannabis is such a new industry, only recently becoming legal in many states (and countries), advertising agencies have been reticent to sign on with these companies. The lack of regular advertising standards means that cannabis advertising has been compared to the “wild west,” where anything goes. While some companies struggle to promote a more wholesome, consumer-friendly image of cannabis, marketing to broad audiences, other companies embrace stoner stereotypes and industry myths, often resulting in ads that depict unethical content.

An example of a warning letter the FDA sent to a CBD company making health claims

Unofficial social media ads may target underage customers, with slogans featuring symbols like Santa Clause, or presenting underage people in their ads next to cannabis products, as in a recent Instagram ad from one brand, Dogwalkers. The ad shows a person holding a pre-rolled joint on the beach with a caption that reads “let the good times (pre) roll.” The image also features young-looking surfers in the background, an implied invitation to underage consumers to sample these products.

Without regulation, businesses are also free to create advertisements rife with false claims. Vulnerable people, patients with chronic illnesses, senior citizens and others may be susceptible to the claims presented in these ads. The FDA has recently begun to crack down on this spread of misinformation, but putting in place industry-wide advertising standards would also have a strong effect.

Cresco Standards

Operating in nine states in the U.S., Cresco Labs is a vertically integrated, publicly traded company that has recently released a proposal for establishing marketing rules for the cannabis industry. The proposal, entitled “Responsible Advertising and Marketing Standards for the U.S. Cannabis Industry” outlines a vision to hold the U.S. cannabis industry to a higher professional and ethical standard than is the current norm, thus legitimizing the industry.

Some specific rules in the proposal stipulate that ads depicting over-consumption as a fun or desirable outcome should violate industry standards. Additionally, the widespread adoption of this proposal would ban any marketing approaches that target underage consumers, ensuring that companies are better able to enforce legal age restrictions.

The company, alongside other large cannabis organizations, has released this proposal as part of an attempt to normalize the industry, allowing it to bring in top ad companies to help promote their brands. While cannabis retains the pop culture imagery of stoner culture and its associations with reckless behavior and teenage cannabis usage, regular advertising sources will remain skeptical about getting involved.

Changing Tides

As the industry continues to evolve and expand, more regulation will be useful in terms of establishing dominant narratives to help redefine how cannabis appears in the popular imagination and what kind of clientele is attracted to cannabis products. But by redefining the acceptable standards of advertising, there is also a risk that cannabis will lose some of the intrigue and novelty that currently makes it a popular, trending topic.

Still, if rebranding campaigns can shift the story so that cannabis appeals to the masses, then everyone in the cannabis industry ultimately benefits.

The UK Cannabis Industry Needs New PR Strategies

By Kajal Shah
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The cannabis marketplace is an ever changing one. The opportunities being generated in the UK space are immense. Yet despite the countless benefits cannabis can bring to the economy, patient care and supporting health and wellness for consumers, an image problem continues to persist.

Despite its expansive growth, there is still a lot of uncertainty and misinformation. Having worked with several cannabis businesses in recent years, I firmly believe there are a myriad of ways in which the industry can benefit from PR support. A strong PR strategy can not only drive media coverage, but help to reach customers, shorten sale cycles, bolster brand reputation and drive change within political and regulatory circles.

Whether you are a flourishing cannabis brand, a start-up or ancillary cannabis business, PR can help you stand out from the competition and become a credible voice in this competitive market.

Here are some key ways in which cannabis businesses can profit from PR:

Campaigning for progress

Each category of the cannabis sector faces its own reputational challenges. Medical cannabis is perhaps the most significant of these, yet it still goes largely misunderstood by the general public. This, along with regulatory restrictions and a lack of education in the clinical community means cannabis stigma continues to exist.

For the thousands of patients suffering with the likes of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, still struggling to access this fully legal drug, this is a tragic, pressing issue. There are several families and individuals across the UK who campaign for medical cannabis access to be improved, by leveraging their story via the press and lobbying Parliament. Some of these high-profile families have been supported through strategic communications at The PHA Group, most notably Hannah Deacon, the mother who successfully campaigned for the first NHS cannabis license for her son, as well as the parents of toddler Charlie Hughes, who are currently seeking Judicial Review against NICE.

Both cases offer strong proof of the powerful role PR can play in supporting those in need of medical cannabis. Through speaking to media and generating coverage of the stories of both families, the complex issue of medical cannabis access has been thrust into the public eye, this in turn putting fresh pressure on the Government to address this through much-needed change. For cannabis leaders and professionals looking to invest in PR, it is critical that your PR partner understands the key issues, culture and complexities of the industry to create credible stories and campaigns to gain cut through in the media.

Reputation enhancement

CBD is the most established sector of the UK cannabis industry, having become firmly attached to the lifestyle scene in recent years with its broad spectrum of health and wellness products. With approximately 7.3 million people in the UK using CBD products each year through a market already worth an estimated £300 million, the industry is predicted to grow at a rapid rate, with experts claiming this figure will more than triple in the next five years.

Just some of the many hemp-derived CBD products on the market today.

Despite its impressive growth, the industry has faced its own stumbling blocks. Until this year, CBD had been in a period of regulatory uncertainty and the industry faced understandable criticism when high profile cannabis probes found over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD promised on the label. This did nothing to help the already precarious public perception of CBD in the UK, meaning firms have had to work extremely hard to heal their reputations and ensure their brands are deemed trustworthy by consumers going forward.

With hundreds of brands claiming to be the best option, establishing credibility and becoming a trusted voice is key. Educating your audience by positioning company experts will help to keep your audience up to speed on the most current information and allow your brand to achieve an authoritative voice within the cannabis space.

Amplifying awareness 

Driving awareness drives revenue. It doesn’t matter if your story and products are revolutionary if nobody knows they exist! PR can help build a narrative which conveys the purpose of your business, along with its vision and products, whilst promoting key insights to keep your company relevant. The power of public relations in this regard is very similar to that of positive word-of-mouth.

Strategic brand building

UKflagCannabis companies can’t advertise like mainstream companies, so they must tread carefully in the marketing of their products. However, there are great possibilities within PR. Through case studies and careful product placement, PRs can work carefully with CBD companies to raise awareness of the benefits of their products and solidify their brand image, without risking trouble with the ASA. With CBD brands and manufacturers springing up left and right, there are opportunities aplenty for PR firms to lend support, whether that’s from a consumer perspective, across food and drink, beauty or general wellness, or from a strategic business view.

Stories sell. It’s vital for a brand that wants to develop a sustainable, long-term plan to build a story which resonates with its audience. Strategic PR can therefore increase brand value and coupled with a digital marketing and social media strategy, boost engagement and elevate the profile of the business.

A wealth of opportunities

The legal cannabis industry is gaining traction and is one to watch. In relation to medical cannabis, the industry has called for change to improve patient access and pressure has been exerted on the government and regulatory bodies to normalise cannabis as an effective treatment for a myriad of health conditions In parallel, the CBD sector is only set to grow and in recent years, there has been increasing interest and investment into hemp, a versatile variety of the cannabis plant hailed as the next big thing in sustainability.

Cannabis is a commonplace yet spectacularly complex plant. It therefore needs a PR strategy which can uncover key angles and opportunities across a multitude of avenues to position brands within the space for success and growth.

Whilst there is still much to learn and navigate in cannabis, PR has an important role to play in changing attitudes as the industry continues to expand and evolve. I am excited to see where it goes next.