Tag Archives: public

Communications in Cannabis: The Playbook for Branding Success

By Trisha Larocchia
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Public relations has a role to play in every industry, providing value for companies looking to promote their services, announce a recent fund raise or want to plant a flag in their domain as a leader or subject matter expert. Some industries, however, are writing a new playbook for the way PR is done. The cannabis space is a prime example of how PR can – and has – evolved in such a short amount of time. This industry has been a part of N6A’s DNA since 2017 when we created a cannabis-specific client service group. Since then we’ve seen the ups and downs, rapid changes and overall growth in an industry that, at the time, very few took seriously. We knew the potential was there, but we couldn’t be prepared for how foreign this would be compared to our other specialties like tech, cybersecurity and professional services.

We had to forget what we knew as media professionals and develop new plays and strategies for an industry in its infancy – all while bearing in mind the plant’s polarizing past and ambiguous future. With so many lessons learned about the way the cannabis and communications industries operate together, here are just a few key takeaways that have shaped our approach and operations in the marketplace.

Build Relationships Across the Board 

It’s often said “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” and in cannabis this couldn’t be more true. While the industry is growing rapidly, it’s still considered a tight-knit community where everyone talks to each other, and leaders lean on one another for expertise and guidance. A competitive nature is inherent in any business environment, but what I’ve noticed about those working in cannabis is that everyone is striving for the same goal: to further legitimize an industry plagued with stigma. Whether it’s developing media contacts or a new business prospect, the foundation lies in building relationships with the key players in the space.

This dispensary ad appeared on Variety.com

From a PR perspective, this includes working closely with the reporters dedicated to the cannabis beat, whether they write for a trade or mainstream publication. Journalists are shifting between jobs faster than ever before, and this beat favors industry veterans. One day your “friendly” at an obscure cannabis outlet will suddenly be spearheading coverage at The New York Times, Rolling Stone or other iconic publications. For the sake of clients and their desired business outcomes, communications professionals should foster ongoing conversations with any reporter interested in covering cannabis; you never know where it could lead.

Understand the Limitations 

Both public relations and advertising have proven to be instrumental in normalizing cannabis businesses within the mainstream media. However, communication in the space can be a compliance minefield due to strict state and federal regulations. While the industry’s growth is nothing short of explosive, opportunities for advertising are extremely limited as the largest digital platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have banned cannabis ads, forcing companies to look for other options.

Paid media has its time and place in every industry, but with so much red tape in cannabis advertising, it provides an opportunity for earned media to take the stage. Aside from a few key trades we all know well, journalists across business, lifestyle, finance and retail verticals are covering the space. Depending on what a business is looking to gain from PR, these initiatives are a great way to get directly in front of the audiences they want to reach without the risk of violating certain advertising guidelines. Companies that are ancillary, and therefore not selling a particular cannabis product, also have a bit more flexibility when it comes to advertising, especially on social media channels. As the industry sophisticates, the demographic of consumers does as well.

Evolve with the Industry 

The cannabis marketplace as it stands today is vastly different than when we began to service clients years ago. For decades, this industry operated in the shadows and outside of the law, but as legalization spreads across the globe, the way that businesses position and talk about their brand has had to change.

Gone are the days of reefer madness as consumers begin to see cannabis as medicine or a wellness supplement. With this comes a significant reduction in the use of words such as “weed,” “stoner,” and even “marijuana,” while words like “cannabis,” “medicinal” and “patients” step into the forefront. Both communications professionals and businesses must be hyper-aware of the verbiage we use if we want to professionalize the industry and fuel worldwide adoption.

As the industry sophisticates, the demographic of consumers does as well. What was once reserved for a younger, male population has now been growing in popularity amongst women, baby boomers, and the elderly. Cannabis businesses are now forced to diversify their messaging to appeal to the masses which often includes taking a minimalistic approach to branding and packaging.

Consumers are no longer looking for the lowest prices, but a brand that they know and trust. Recognition, whether it be locally or nationally, can be gained through a strong communication plan and will become increasingly imperative for long-term success.

How to Grow a New Cannabis Business Amid a Pandemic

By Hannah Deacon
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The COVID-19 crisis is plunging the global economy into recession, changing consumer behavior and the world of business. Cannabis businesses are no stranger to operating in a challenging landscape. The constantly evolving legal status, regulatory hurdles and social stigma has forced founders in this space to be nimble and more financially wise with their capital.

While the market has experienced a seismic shift that has already attracted investors to inject capital into the cannabis industry and seen neighboring industries, including tobacco, alcohol and pharma, come into the fray, COVID-19 will change key industry structures and operations. To succeed and cultivate value, cannabis companies must adapt to the new realities of the marketplace to be well positioned for continued growth after the pandemic subsides.

With social distancing guidelines suddenly forcing brick-and-mortar retailers to move their businesses and customer experiences online and disruptions to the supply chain due to international travel and business directions, some businesses will struggle to stay afloat.

As consumer behaviour and online shopping patterns adjust to a new way of living (affecting B2B sales, online ordering, deliveries and manufacturing), leadership and strategic thinking will be paramount.

By understanding where the challenges and opportunities lie, cannabis businesses can thrive. Here are some focus areas and tactics to consider:

  1. Targeted consumer segmentation through social media

When starting a cannabis business, it is key to understand who your core consumers are and what they want from their products. This has become even more acute because of the pandemic with consumers flocking to all sorts of health-focused products including CBD.

With everybody spending more time online, social media use is on the rise. Executing a social media plan to include influencer outreach can increase brand visibility, build a solid consumer base and create brand advocates.

Instagram is essential to a cannabis business building an online presence but it’s important that it doesn’t become a “hard sell, please buy me” channel. Plan and make Insta-worthy content that educates and entertains followers to increase engagement, click-through rates and leads. Brands may want to pair with an influencer on either a gifting or paid-for basis which will mean the brand appears in a potential customer’s feed as they interact with their favourite accounts.

PlugPlay, a California cannabis brand, stays relevant with creative posts like these.

The art is finding key influencers whose audience is one that you would like to interact with. This type of positioning will allow cannabis businesses to reach a new audience or group of people.

  1. Marketing and PR

In times like these, many companies choose to pull back on communication activities and expenditures for fear of spending too much for what they perceive as little return, however, marketing and PR, when executed well, can be the lifeline of any business.

With so much noise in the market about the “next best thing in cannabis”, effective marketing and PR can distinguish brands that are credible and offer a strong value proposition to those that are all smoke and mirrors.

The current needs of businesses and consumers are much different than they were just a few short months ago, so it’s important to understand these needs and spending habits while combatting negative perceptions of cannabis.

As cannabis companies are not able to advertise like mainstream companies, a strong public relations and marketing strategy will enable firms to communicate their identity, build trust, shift perceptions through media coverage, enhance reputations and reach customers, partners and investors.

  1. Cost cutting

Businesses in every sector are cutting costs to keep their businesses afloat. This needs to be done strategically and requires senior leadership teams to explore cost reduction strategies and streamline non-essential costs.

This may mean further consolidation of cannabis companies and supply chains to manage cash flow and maximise resources. Companies may even look to create strategic partnerships with complementary businesses in the industry or push some firms towards mergers and acquisitions.

Business models will evolve as cannabis companies identify inefficiencies and reconfigure their operations and messaging. This could range from assessing their R&D capabilities, agricultural assets, manufacturing chains or route to market.

  1. E-commerce capabilities
Pivoting to e-commerce is nothing new, but getting creative with product offerings and marketing initiatives will set you apart from the typical CBD retailer

The postponement of countless CBD Expos, trade shows and cannabis conferences are creating new demand and opportunities for businesses. To reach prospective wholesale clients, investors and connect to their customer base, firms are entering the digital marketplace. Digital events, Zoom investor pitch panels and email marketing and sampling is on the rise and expected to grow over the coming months.

CBD brands should work in parallel with their retail partners to influence product samples in digital offers and create a touchless transaction. Buying products online is going to become a permanently entrenched habit, even when restrictions are fully lifted so it’s worth looking at how technology can support and enhance sales while offering a smooth customer experience.

  1. Industry Relationships

Everyone in the cannabis industry will be affected by COVID-19 so maintaining positive relationships is vital in these tough times. Calling investors or partners to tell them what is going on with your business or checking in on others in your ecosystem means information can be shared to iron out any issues and help generate ideas to future proof the business. “A problem shared is a problem halved!”

COVID-19 is creating incredible business challenges. As we navigate the new normal, it’s important to adapt and grow. As more products come to market and brands/services develop distinguished offerings, expectations will change so cannabis businesses need to be ready for greener pastures.

SAFE Banking Act Included in COVID-19 Legislation

By Aaron G. Biros
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UPDATE: Late in the evening on May 15, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES package, voting 208-199 (with 23 abstentions). The bill now now heads to the Senate where its fate is more uncertain. 


Earlier today, Speaker Nancy Pelosi debuted the latest piece of legislation to help Americans impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act) is a large bill containing emergency supplemental appropriations more than 1,800 pages long.

On page 1,066, those in the cannabis industry will find a very exciting addition: the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. For the uninitiated, the SAFE Banking Act would ensure access to financial services for cannabis-related businesses and service providers.

Currently, federally regulated financial institutions face penalties for dealing with cannabis companies due to the Controlled Substances Act. The bill, if passed, would eliminate the possibility of any repercussions for doing business with cannabis companies.

The impact of this bill becoming law would be widespread and immediate for both the cannabis market and banks looking to invest in the cannabis industry. With banks given the green light to conduct business with the cannabis industry, there is no doubt that many financial institutions will rush to the opportunity. Cannabis businesses will benefit greatly, no longer having to deal with massive quantities of cash and gain access to things like loans, bank accounts and credit lines. Furthermore, cannabis companies will benefit from the rush of banks getting in the game, leading to a competitive and affordable banking market.

It is no secret that cannabis businesses have had a cash problem for decades now. Given the coronavirus pandemic, CDC guidelines dictate minimizing the handling of cash and encourage payment options like credit cards. Cannabis businesses dealing with large quantities of cash puts them, their employees, their customers and even regulators at risk.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

According to Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the cash problem is a serious, unnecessary health risk. “On behalf of the legal cannabis industry, we commend the congressional leadership for prioritizing public health and safety by including sensible cannabis banking policy in this legislation,” says Smith. “Our industry employs hundreds of thousands of Americans and has been deemed ‘essential’ in most states. It’s critically important that essential cannabis workers are not exposed to unnecessary health risks due to outdated federal banking regulations.”

In fact, it was the NCIA and a handful of other industry organizations that lobbied Congress last week to include language from the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES Act, citing the known fact that cash can harbor coronavirus and other pathogens, along with the “personal proximity required by cash transactions as reasons for urgency in addition to the other safety and transparency concerns addressed by the legislation.”

The SAFE Banking Act was already approved by the House of Representatives. In September of 2019, the bill made a lot of progress through Congress, but stalled once it made it to the Senate Banking Committee.

The HEROES Act will be debated by the House of Representatives prior to a floor vote. If it passes the House, it moves to the Senate, which is about as far as it made it the last go around. However, because the banking reform is included in coronavirus relief legislation, there is a newborn sense of hope that the bill could be signed into law.

Cannabis Scientists and Labs Can Help with National COVID-19 Research Volunteer Database

By Aaron Green
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Harvard Neuroscientist, Michael Wells, and a team of volunteer scientists from endCoronavirus.org have created and stocked a national database of scientists and researchers ready, willing and able to help with response efforts for COVID-19. At the time of this writing, more than 8,000 scientists have registered from all 50+ states.

It all started with a Tweet on March 18th. 

“I really wanted an outlet for me, like someone like me, to be able to help out in this fight,” Wells said in a Harvard Crimson interview. “I knew I was, by far, not the only one who felt this way. And so what happened was, on the walk home from work that day from the lab, I thought, ‘Hey, I should try to organize something here in Boston so I could potentially be a part of a group that makes themselves available to health department officials or county officials.’”

Volunteers are made up of a mix of laboratory scientists, data scientists, software engineers, medical writers, CEOs and epidemiologists – from academic research institutes, national labs and private industry. Many state and local government agencies and organizations have already accessed the list for reference, including FEMA.

PCR testing is used in a wide variety of applications
Image: Peggy Greb, USDA

Members of the cannabis industry can help to combat COVID-19. “The cannabis industry relies on specialized laboratories that routinely perform qPCR-based microbial tests,” says Wells. “As a result, these labs have basic skill sets and facilities required to participate in community COVID-19 testing.” Quantitative Polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), is a common technique for determining if there are microbial contaminants in flower, concentrates and infused products.

Some cannabis industry leaders have already taken to the call. “With the trend in legalization, the cannabis industry has built an excess testing capacity in anticipation of an increase in volumes,” says David Winternheimer, PhD, CEO of Pacific Star Labs, a Los Angeles-based cannabis research organization with an ISO-accredited testing laboratory. “As an essential industry, cannabis companies are open to helping the wider population in a crisis like this, and testing could easily be adopted in labs with excess microbial testing capacity.”

Michael Wells and his band of volunteers are asking to help get the word out to other scientists who would like to sign-up at https://covid19sci.org and for anyone to help share the database link with any relevant person in government or health services. “Right now, it is all hands on deck. We need every lab, facility, and pair of skilled hands to be deployed in this fight against the most dangerous pathogen our species has experienced at this scale in our lifetimes.”

 

endCoronavirus.org is a volunteer organization with over 6,000 members built and maintained by the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) and its collaborators. The group specializes in networks, agent-based modeling, multi-scale analysis and complex systems and provides expert information on how to stop COVID-19.

The COVID-19 National Scientist Volunteer Database is a database of over 8,000 scientists from all 50 states, DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam who are eager to volunteer our time, expertise, equipment, and consumables to help you respond to the COVID-19 crisis. They have aggregated our contact information, locations, and skills sets into this easy to use centralized database. Their members include experts in scientific testing, bioinformatics, and data management, as well as key contacts willing to donate lab space and testing supplies.

FDAlogo

FDA Issues Update on CBD: Still Working, Still Waiting

By Aaron G. Biros
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FDAlogo

On March 5, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release to the public about their work on devising a regulatory framework for cannabidiol (CBD) products. The FDA also submitted a report to Congress on their rulemaking progress.

The main theme of the report is the same story we’ve been hearing from the FDA for a while now: They are still working on figuring out how to regulate CBD products and wants to do more research before they tackle the rulemaking.

The most intriguing new development from this report is the FDA’s newfound interest in regulating CBD products like dietary supplements:

“FDA is actively considering potential pathways for certain CBD products to be marketed as dietary supplements. Under current law, CBD products cannot lawfully be marketed as dietary supplements, but FDA has the authority to create an exemption through notice-and-comment rulemaking that would allow products containing CBD to be sold legally as dietary supplements.”

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple years, here’s a recap: In June of 2018, the FDA approved GW Pharma’s drug, Epidiolex, for the treatment of rare forms of epilepsy. This allowed a drug containing CBD to go to market, but only through the agency’s drug approval process. When the 2018 Farm Bill (Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018) was signed into law in December later that year, the federal government removed cannabis (hemp) with less than 0.3% THC from the Controlled Substances Act, essentially legalizing it on a federal level. Congress tasked the FDA with figuring out how to regulate the market. Without any FDA guidance in the early days, the subsequent market growth created mass confusion for the industry and consumers alike, with no one really knowing if selling CBD products is legal or not. In May of 2019, the agency held a comment period and public hearing on CBD, which included a lot of discussion around the benefits, the risks and further research on CBD. Throughout 2019, the FDA sent a large number of warning letters to companies marketing CBD products with unsubstantiated health claims. Towards the end of 2019, Congress passed a bill mandating that the FDA update them on their progress to regulate the market within 60 days. That deadline came and went, and then the FDA issued the public update and submitted the report mentioned above to Congress last week. FDAlogo

The FDA says they intend to take a number of steps towards providing some market clarity, while still protecting the public from unknown risks. Firstly, they want to educate the public more about potential risks associated with CBD. “We remain focused on educating the public about the number of questions that remain regarding CBD’s safety,” reads the update. “There may be risks that need to be considered before using CBD products outside of the monitored setting of a prescription from your health care provider.” Those concerns mentioned above include potential liver injury, drug interactions, reproductive toxicity and more benign side effects like drowsiness.

The agency also wants to try and close knowledge gaps in the areas of safety and potential benefits. In this section of the update, the agency asks industry stakeholders for help. “We’re seeking reliable and high-quality data.” The agency is requesting data on sedative effects, impacts of long-term use, pharmacokinetics, safety of various drug delivery mechanisms, safety for animals, different processes for full or broad spectrum or isolate derivation, among other areas of interest. They plan to re-open the public docket from the public hearing back in May 2019, extending the comment period indefinitely as a tool for stakeholders to share information with the FDA.

As far as enforcement actions go, the agency wants to take a risk-based approach to it. While there is still no official enforcement policy, the FDA is working on it. Their biggest concern is with companies marketing CBD products using drug and health claims, which could “deter consumers from seeking proven, safe medical therapies for serious illnesses – potentially endangering their health or life.” The agency is also worried about potential contamination risk and consumer exposure to things like residual solvents and heavy metals. Their last concern in this area involves truth in labeling, like making false label claims, not listing every ingredient or incorrectly stating the amount of cannabinoids in the product.

“Our ongoing efforts related to CBD, including the steps we’re announcing today, are in line with our mission to protect the public, foster innovation and promote consumer confidence. We recognize the significant public interest in CBD and we must work together with stakeholders and industry to develop high-quality data to close the substantial knowledge gaps about the science, safety and quality of many of these products. We are committed to working efficiently to further clarify our regulatory approach to these products – as always, using science as our guide and upholding our rigorous public health standards.”

Overall, the public update and the report don’t disclose anything groundbreaking. They do, however, provide some much-needed guidance for the CBD market on how stakeholders can help the FDA’s efforts. The fact that they are investigating dietary supplements as a path toward a regulatory framework is the by far the biggest take away from all this.

2020 Financial Trends for the Cannabis Industry

By Melissa Diaz
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The past year has been another strong year in cannabis. Investors continued to pour money into the burgeoning industry — surpassing 2018 investment totals in just 40 weeks — and new markets opened up for recreational and medical cannabis. And following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD has proliferated and become one of the hottest health supplements in the country.

But as the year winds down, the industry appears to be poised for a more challenging shift in the new year, as once-heady expectations for some big companies don’t pan out and some states clamp down, rather than loosen up, certain regulatory hurdles.

Here are some financial trends to keep an eye on in cannabis over the next year:

Finding New Capital Investment Will Be Tougher

After an initial investment boom in recent years, cannabis investors are realizing not everything colored green turns to gold. With public cannabis companies not performing as well as hoped and restrictive tax laws still plaguing the industry, investors are growing more cautious when it comes to cannabis. Add in other macroeconomic trends that are pointing to a global economic slowdown, and 2020 is shaping up to be a tough year to find cannabis capital.

Image: Flickr

That’s not to say funding will completely dry up, but operators and business owners must be aware that investment deals that perhaps closed in a matter of days in previous years, likely will take weeks or months while investors dig deeper into books and perform higher levels of due diligence before inking a deal. This means cannabis businesses must carefully plan and watch their cashflow and pursue fresh capital or investment earlier rather than later.

Expect More M&A and Consolidation

With the green rush reaching a crest of sorts, reality is setting in for some smaller cannabis operators. Expect to see more consolidation with smaller dispensaries and cultivators being bought up and absorbed by the big kids. More limited capital and investment options coupled with continued regulatory and legal uncertainties mean unsustainable operating costs for independent and smaller operators, which means the only way to survive may be to sell to a larger player.

New Markets & Regulations

The new year brings new states opening up to recreational or medical cannabis sales, as well as newer or altered regulations in existing markets. Cannabis firms must keep an eye on these new markets and regulations to best determine whether they plan to expand or not.

How stringent or lenient regulations are written and executed will determine the size and viability of the market. One state may severely limit the number of licenses it issues, while others may not put any limit. For example, Oklahoma issues unlimited licenses to grow hemp at $1,500 a piece. While that sounds promising for smaller hemp producers, it also could potentially lead to an oversaturation in the market. On the flip side, a more restrictive (and costly) licensure structure could lead to a far more limited market where only the industry’s largest players will be able to compete.

Image: Cafecredit, Flickr

Cannabis businesses also should keep an eye out for new regulatory hurdles in existing cannabis markets. For instance, California is raising its excise tax on cannabis beginning Jan. 1. That will result in higher costs for both consumers and cannabis companies. High state and local taxes have been a challenge industrywide because they make legal operators less competitive with the illicit market. Also, a proposed rule in Missouri could ban medical cannabis operators from paying taxes in cash. Such a rule would prove problematic for an industry that has had to rely on cash because of federal banking regulations. 

Credit Card Payments

While cannabis businesses may face several new and recurring hurdles in 2020 on the financial front, at least one looming change should make business easier: credit card payment processing. Because of cannabis’ continued banking woes, dispensaries and other plant-touching operations have not been able to accept credit cards. Though federal banking limitations remain in place, in 2020 we will see payment processors introduce new, creative and less expensive ways to navigate current banking limitations that will allow cannabis sellers to take credit cards. Opening up payments in this way will not only make transactions and record keeping easier for customers and businesses alike, it also will attract consumers who don’t use cash.

While some of these trends may prove challenging, in many ways they are signs that the cannabis industry is shifting and maturing as we enter a new decade. Many hurdles remain, but the size and momentum of the industry will only continue to grow in 2020 and beyond.

A Second Chance: CannTrust To Destroy Inventory & Plants

By Marguerite Arnold
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The beleaguered CannTrust has been given a way out of the perilous mess that executive management created for the company – but such a salvation comes at a high cost. That said, the company was already in deep water with regulators and clients. Health Canada, in fact, cancelled the company’s license to produce and sell cannabis in September – essentially mandating mass returns two months after a whistleblower instigated what is probably the legal industry’s most egregious scandal to date.

Efforts to regain regulatory approval also include plans by the company to recover cannabis that was not authorized by its license, and improve inventory tracking – the full details of which will be delivered to Health Canada by October 21.

While the beleaguered pot company’s stock predictably surged again on the public markets, the question lingers: can CannTrust ever be trusted again? These were egregious violations.

A Changing Industry

As with most things in business, the issues plaguing CannTrust were not isolated to one company. This has ranged in the past from pesticide use to creative accounting. Not to mention all sorts of creative endeavors on the financial side that are, depending on which stock market you look at this from, less than legit or just this side of shady.

It was easy to throw the book at a company like this – not only for these specific violations, but also as a warning to others tempted to engage in similar tactics (or fail to clean those up that still exist).

CannTrust in other words, was a clarion bell about the change in the weather, driven not only by international treaties but the legitimization of the drug, on the ground. Globally. When large health insurers get involved (see Europe), the conversation begins to change. And it is, fairly drastically.

On the ground in Germany, there are two more cultivation sites underway with one now certified and functional. BfArM (the German equivalent of the FDA) is now on the front lines of a battle that so far, at least in Canada, has not been addressed at a level Europe requires. That said, this reality too is changing. One of the largest distributors in Germany, CC Pharma, now owned by Aphria, has started a supply chain compliance check that is overdue. And further, while focussed on the cannabis industry, in truth, is a problem that plagues pharma far from cannabinoids.

However, as this is the cannabis industry, the scandals that rip through headlines are that much more visceral.

Seed to sale traceability, and further in a model unseen in the industry so far, will also become a watchword that is still rippling through an international industry chafing at any sort of standards, let alone standardization required for pharmaceutical acceptance. The bar, in other words, has just been set much higher. And there are many who will not make the grade.

CannTrust, certainly, was a victim not only of internal mismanagement, but a shifting environment that is rapidly upgrading on a level not seen so far in the entire North American industry – with a few notable exceptions. 

Pharmaceutical Grade Is The Standard To Beat

Here is the reality now facing an industry coming into its own and on an international basis. The standards are tightening. The rules are not only being written but being enforced. And while there are sure to be a few more scandals along the way, the kinds of basic problems found at CannTrust are probably, finally, going extinct in the part of the industry that now knows it is being held accountable to far higher standards.

The reason? Medical grade and national food standards are in the room for every exporter now eyeing Europe. And that alone is resetting the debate everywhere. No matter how treacherous the path may be.

So no matter how harsh the penalties are now facing one company, even the regulators know that this is shifting territory. CannTrust, after all, is being given a second chance.

Soapbox

Stemming the Cannabis Black Market

By Matthew Zandi
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On July 18, 2019, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in California served search warrants at 56 illegal cannabis cultivation sites. This operation was spearheaded by 390 law enforcement personnel, whose mission was to combat the ongoing problem of illegal cannabis cultivation sites throughout California.

The raids resulted in:

  • 47,939 marijuana plants confiscated
  • 2,132 pounds of processed cannabis
  • 47 tons of cannabis plants disposed
  • 2 Butane Honey Oil Labs located
  • 71 firearms
  • 49 arrests

The target of the operation was illegal cultivation sites. Individuals or licensed businesses with permits to grow cannabis legally were not affected.

Illegal cultivation is far from just a California problem. For example, if Oregon halted cannabis production today, the state would not experience a shortage as it has a six-year surplus.

The fear for investors and legal growers is that, if some growers turn to the black market to unload excess inventory, federal enforcement will come into play, which will set back the legal cannabis industry to the stone age. Oregon is currently making moves to limit licensure for legal production, but some active licenses may also need to be revoked, which would leave those licensees with vast investment losses. In other words, legalized cannabis’s massive economic market is not without financial problems of its own.

Don’t Make a Federal Case Out of It

Several states have legalized recreational cannabis with the intention of reimagining this vast underground market as an above-board business that bolsters the state’s economy via transparent dealings. To date, however, the federal government has refused to budge regarding cannabis’s status as an illegal Schedule 1 substance. This classification puts cannabis on a par with opioids. As such, those states that have legalized recreational cannabis are extremely motivated to keep these businesses on the up and up and not to pique federal interest.

Black Market Vulnerability

One of the tenets of legalizing cannabis is stemming the proliferation of black-market suppliers and minimizing the negative effects that the “war on drugs”has had in minority communities. These positive impetuses have yet to flourish. As a result of the illegal status of cannabis at the federal level, cannabis-legal states are forced to operate as islands.

Generally, taking legally purchased cannabis across state lines – from a legal to an illegal state – is illegal, and this is not only confusing but is also a recipe for complications. This leaves cannabis-legal states vulnerable to black market activity. These pockets of legal recreational cannabis that are popping up around the country loosen the constraints of the cannabis movement while the legality of this movement remains problematic. The results are an environment that’s extremely hospitable to black market activity.

Supply and Demand

The reality is that – due to supply and demand – cannabis costs about half as much in cannabis-legal states as it does in states in which it’s illegal. Black market growers in legal states destabilize the market. Those legit companies which remain above board, pay their taxes and jump through every legal hoop, cannot compete with black market interlopers who eschew such niceties.

The point made by detractors of legal cannabis isn’t lost on the rest of us – the black market is burgeoning.States that have legalized production have inadvertently made it easier for illegal producers to hide in plain sight, and the line between legal and illegal operations can become blurred. This creates new frustrations for law enforcement and naturally cuts into the legal cannabis trade. The situation has left some opponents to legalization demanding new crackdowns – others characterize such suggestions as amounting to a new war on drugs.

No Going Back

Detractors of legalized cannabis claim the somewhat chaotic effects related to the current patchwork approach to legalization are a result of opening the gates to legalization in the first place. However, putting the genie of legalized recreational cannabis back in the bottle simply isn’t feasible for operational, financial and political reasons. With the proliferation of attendant illegal operations, however, it is becoming more and more clear that leveling the playing field – via some form of federal legalization – is inevitable. The current state-by-state solution leaves too much wiggle room for the illegal transport of cannabis from those states with looser restrictions to those states with tighter protocols. If politics is choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable, the billion-dollar cannabis conundrum is a great example. The question may no longer be should we legalize cannabis but, instead, how do we legalize cannabis.In other words, we need to find a path forward, and focusing only on the pitfalls that we’ve experienced so far isn’t going to get us where we need to be.

A Tale of Two Choices

The point made by detractors of legal cannabis isn’t lost on the rest of us – the black market is burgeoning. As such, we have an important decision to make. A blanket prohibition of cannabis may no longer be practicable, so we’re left to choose between legal and overt practices across the board or a hodgepodge of semilegal practices with covert ops in tow. Fostering illegal activity is rarely in our nation’s best interests, which leaves legalizing cannabis at the federal level as possibly the most practicable solution.

Protecting Public Health

As more states embrace the legalization of recreational cannabis, public health concerns remain an issue. Many of these illegal cultivators use chemicals that are banned in the United States and do not properly dispose of chemicals or waste products that destroy the environment, contaminate drinking water and have the potential to harm or even kill residents and domestic animals. Not only is this activity harmful, growers often steal electricity and water from surrounding residents.

Cobbling together a pastiche of laws, however, inevitably bolsters black market activity and does nothing to help protect public health. Even the staunchest proponents of legalizing cannabis don’t want minors involved in the equation. Additionally, few debate that unchecked usage is a healthy option. Quasi-legislation at the state level (and on a state-by-state basis), however, provides neither a check nor a balance.

Onward and Upward

The most likely next step for safeguarding public health, for stemming black-market activity, and for generating maximum revenues is toward thoughtful and comprehensive national legalization that comes sooner rather than later. In the meantime, law enforcement should protect the public, legal operations, investors, and the environment from the black market.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Guidepost Solutions or its clients.

CannTrust Meltdown Indicative Of Summer Of Scandal To Come

By Marguerite Arnold
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While you may not have heard of CannTrust Holdings so far, that is now about to change. A summer spectacle of double dealing and corporate greed has put this Canadian cannabis company on the global map.

Unfortunately, the current meltdown underway is indicative of more to come.

A Summary Of The Story So Far

CannTrust, a company which serves 72,000 Canadian patients and got into the game early, decided to do what it saw other companies doing all around them. That covers a lot of ground (good and bad at this point). Regardless, the most relevant recent twist to the saga came when the company hired a new CEO, Peter Aceto last October.

Aceto however, along with the now also fired co-founder and chair of the board Eric Paul, decided to continue growing and harvesting unlicensed product. Worse, this occurred while boasting in public of their productivity gains on the way to securing a hefty investment of capital this spring. $170 million. The grow rooms finally got their certification in April.

What is even more embarrassing however, is that this was a round led by the much-vaunted investors the industry has been courting assiduously for the past several years. Specifically, in this case? Institutional banks like Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Credit Suisse Securities and RBC Capital Markets.

But that is “just” the North American hemisphere. The rather unfortunately named CannTrust (certainly at this point) also had a European footprint – notably Denmark. Unlicensed cannabis ended up there too, of course. Stenocare A/S, the company at the receiving end of the same, reported receipt of product from the unlicensed rooms on July 4.

As far as such things go, however, you have to give it to CannTrust company executives. In terms of setting standards if not benchmarks and “records”, they certainly seemed to have set a few, although probably not the ones they aspired to. If not, with certainty, their investors.

A Surprise Or Inevitability?

That said, for many who have been sounding warnings for at least a year, the 2019 Summer of Canadian Cannascandal is certainly starting to confirm what many have been saying for quite some time. This is not the first time a securities exchange, for one, has sounded the alarm. Deutsche Börse delisted the entire North American public cannabis industry last summer briefly. Then they revised their policy, reluctantly, after Luxembourg changed its stance on medical use. That said, they are still watching with a standing policy of bouncing any company that runs afoul of their rules.

The problems, issues and more bubbling at the center of this cannameltdown, in other words, are not limited to just one company or country.

And everyone knows it.

Accounting For Past Mistakes

For those who are counting, the value of all of that illegally grown CannTrust product is not insignificant. Estimates are floating in the CA$50-70 million range. The problem is, of course, nobody is sure what numbers to rely on. CannTrust employees knowingly provided inaccurate information to the new CEO if not regulatory body until a whistle-blower provided a few more details.

That said, for all of the hullabaloo, one thing this story also does is point a bright spotlight on the lax enforcement of even this pretty easy-to-understand regulation.

The question, however is, if CannTrust thought it could get away with this kind of blatent flouting of the rules, if not lax oversight, are there any other companies who might have also done similiar things?

After all, even the pesticide scandal of 2016 did not occur at just one company either.

Where Are The Proceedings?

This is a rolling story, which began to break at the beginning of last month when Health Canada issued a non-compliance order to CannTrust and impounded 5,200 kg of dried cannabis that was apparently grown in unlicensed grow rooms on July 3.

There have already been some jaw dropping revelations so far (beyond the executive decision to even go down this road in the first place) no matter how attractive pimping numbers was. Starting with things like fake walls being erected to hide the grow. And then of course pictures that have been all over social media of late, of the now departed CEO Aceto being photographed directly in front of said unlicensed rooms too.

As a result, the drama has continued to unfold in a highly predictable way.

By August 1, CannTrust Holdings, a Canadian cannabis company listed on both the New York and Toronto stock exchanges, was facing a “quasi-criminal investigation” by the Canadian Joint Serious Offenses Team. This is a coalition of law enforcement agencies including the Ontario Securities Commission, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Financial Crimes Unit, and the Ontario Provincial Police Anti-Rackets Branch.

But CannTrust’s issues don’t end there. This is an international story that is just beginning. Government regulators in Europe if not elsewhere are paying attention.So are shareholders, and their lawyers.