Two reports published by short selling stock firm Quintessential Capital Management and forensic investor research firm Hindenburg Research on December 3, charges that Canadian LP Aphria, has bought overinflated assets in Latin America and in Florida from shell companies owned by company insiders. Added to the lingering controversy is the purchase of the German Nuuvera this spring (a company also partly owned by Aphria brass), and the reports went over like a bombshell. Globally.
However, the story has already spread far beyond one company. And the response in the market has rocked the industry for most of December.
The response by the firm? A promise of an immediate line-by-line rebuttal, due out in the second week of December. So far, however, despite news of an additional Aphria purchase in Paraguay, the rebuttal report has not been issued.
Why Is This So Damaging? Or Is It?
Aphria’s stocks promptly took a dive that halved their value although they began to recover after Aphria management appointed an independent third party firm to review the claims.
Worse, however, the entire industry saw a hit too. This report affected investor confidence across the industry. And although the hit appears to be temporary, the unfolding scenario is a perfect example of why volatility in the market is scaring away not only more conservative female retail investors but larger institutional ones that the industry is now courting assiduously as medical cannabis begins to be integrated into health systems particularly in Europe.
Bottom line? As the big cannabis companies are listing on the larger, foreign exchanges, including the NYSE and Deutsche Börse, the scrutiny is getting more direct and granular.Despite the stratospheric market caps of all the major Canadian LPs in particular, not to mention enormous expenditures for the last several years (on property and other acquisitions), the revenue picture, as other stock analysts and publications such as the normally neutral Motley Fool recently pointed out, at least so far does not justify the same. Bulk sales to a hospital, establishing a cultivation or processing facility or even getting import licenses may set one up to do business however, but it is not an automatic route to ongoing and expanding sales. And that is the key to high valuations that are rock solid and beyond the scope of such allegations.
For the moment, that pressure, particularly in global medical markets, is falling first on patients if not doctors. Not the industry.
That said, this has been a major building year. Recreational cannabis has just become legal in Canada. And in Europe, reform is still in the process of happening.
It is also a charge if not frustration that has been growing, however, against all the public cannabis companies as valuations shoot into the stratosphere. Forensic and investigative firms, particularly in Europe and the United States have been focusing on the industry for close to a year now. As a result even when firms successfully rebut charges of fraud, they are looking at different valuations from analysts at least in the short term.
Bottom line? As the big cannabis companies are listing on the larger, foreign exchanges, including the NYSE and Deutsche Börse, the scrutiny is getting more direct and granular.
Are “Short Seller” Reports Unbiased?
For all of the focus on short seller reports in this industry, however, no matter the accuracy of some of their claims, here is the next issue:
Short sellers make money by betting against not only individual firms but the industry itself. They benefit financially in other words, from volatility in the market and arbitraging even small changes in price. Even if their reports cause the same.
Such reports as a result are also not “unbiased” as industry coverage in the press is supposed to be, no matter how much more time sometimes goes into the reporting and preparation of the same.
And no matter that this industry is now going into its fifth year, there is still lingering scepticism that, in the case of Aphria, has so far not only fallen on the individual firm in question, but then rebounds across the industry, unfairly hurting all firms in this space.
By Alison J. Baldwin, Brittany R. Butler, Ph.D., Nicole E. Grimm 1 Comment
With legalization of cannabis for medicinal and adult use occurring rapidly at the state level, the industry is seeing a sharp increase in innovative technologies, particularly in the area of cannabis extraction. Companies are developing novel extraction methods that are capable of not only separating and recovering high yields of specific cannabinoids, but also removing harmful chemicals (such as pesticides) from the concentrate. While some extraction methods utilize solvents, such as hydrocarbons, the industry is starting to see a shift to completely non-solvent based techniques or environmentally friendly solvents that rely on, for example, CO2, heat and pressure to create a concentrate. The resulting cannabis concentrate can then be consumed directly, or infused in edibles, vape pens, topicals and other non-plant based consumption products. With companies continually seeking to improve existing extraction equipment, methods and products, it is critical for companies working in this area to secure their niche in the industry by protecting their intellectual property (IP).
Comprehensive IP protection for a business can include obtaining patents for innovations, trademarks to establish brand protection of goods and services, copyrights to protect logos and original works, trade dress to protect product packaging, as well as a combination of trade secret and confidentiality agreements to protect proprietary information and company “know-how” from leaking into the hands of competitors. IP protection in the cannabis space presents unique challenges due to conflicting state and federal law, but for the most part is available to cannabis companies like any other company.
Federal trademark protection is currently one of the biggest challenges facing cannabis companies in the United States. A trademark or service mark is a word, phrase, symbol or design that distinguishes the source of goods or services of one company from another company. Registering a mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provides companies with nationwide protection against another company operating in the same space from also using the mark.
As many in the industry have come to discover, the USPTO currently will not grant a trademark or service mark on cannabis goods or services. According to the USPTO, since cannabis is illegal federally, marks on cannabis goods and services cannot satisfy the lawful use in commerce requirement of the Lanham Act, the statute governing federal trademark rights. Extraction companies that only manufacture cannabis-specific equipment or use cannabis-exclusive processes will likely be unable to obtain a federal trademark registration and will need to rely on state trademark registration, which provides protection only at the state-level. However, extractors may be able to obtain a federal trademark on their extraction machines and processes that can legitimately be applied to non-cannabis plants. Likewise, companies that sell cannabis-infused edibles may be able to obtain a federal trademark on a mark for non-cannabis containing edibles if that company has such a product line.
Some extraction companies may benefit from keeping their innovations a trade secretSince the USPTO will not grant marks on cannabis goods and services, a common misconception in the industry is that the USPTO will also not grant patents on cannabis inventions. But, in fact, the USPTO will grant patents on a seemingly endless range of new and nonobvious cannabis inventions, including the plant itself. (For more information on how breeders can patent their strains, see Alison J. Baldwin et al., Protecting Cannabis – Are Plant Patents Cool Now? Snippets, Vol. 15, Issue 4, Fall 2017, at 6). Unlike the Lanham Act, the patent statute does not prohibit illegal activity and states at 35 U.S.C. § 101 that a patent may be obtained for “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.”
For inventions related to extraction equipment, extraction processes, infused products and even methods of treatment with concentrated formulations, utility patents are available to companies. Utility patents offer broad protection because all aspects related to cannabis extraction could potentially be described and claimed in the same patent. Indeed, there are already a number of granted patents and published patent applications related to cannabis extraction. Recently, U.S. Patent No. 9,730,911 (the ‘911 patent), entitled “Cannabis extracts and methods of preparing and using same” that granted to United Cannabis Corp. covers various liquid cannabinoid formulations containing very high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), THCa and cannabidiolic acid, THC and CBD, and CBD, cannabinol (CBN), and THC. For example, claim 1 of the ‘911 patent recites:
A liquid cannabinoid formulation, wherein at least 95% of the total cannabinoids is tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa).Properly crafted non-disclosure agreements can help further ensure that trade secrets remain a secret indefinitely.
Although the ‘911 patent only covers the formulations, United Cannabis Corp. has filed a continuation application that published as US2017/0360745 on methods for relieving symptoms associated with a variety of illnesses by administering one or more of the cannabinoid formulations claimed in the ‘911 patent. This continuation application contains the exact same information as the ‘911 patent and is an example of how the same information can be used to seek complete protection of an invention via multiple patents.
An example of a patent application directed to solvent-based extraction methods and equipment is found in US20130079531, entitled “Process for the Rapid Extraction of Active Ingredients from Herbal Materials.” Claim 1 of the originally filed application recites:
A method for the extraction of active ingredients from herbal material comprising: (i) introducing the herbal material to a non-polar or mildly polar solvent at or below a temperature of 10 degrees centigrade and (ii) rapidly separating the herbal material from the solvent after a latency period not to exceed 15 minutes.
Claim 12, covered any equipment designed to utilize the process defined in claim 1.
Although now abandoned, the claims of this application were not necessarily limited to cannabis, as the claims were directed to extracting active ingredients from “herbal materials.”
Other patents involve non-toxic extraction methods utilizing CO2, such as Bionorica Ethics GMBH’s U.S. Patent No. 8,895,078, entitled “Method for producing an extract from cannabis plant matter, containing a tetrahydrocannabinol and a cannabidiol and cannabis extracts.” This patent covers processes for producing cannabidiol from a primary extract from industrial hemp plant material.
There have also been patents granted to cannabis-infused products, such as U.S. Patent No. 9,888,703, entitled “Method for making coffee products containing cannabis ingredients.” Claim 1 of this patent recites:
A coffee pod consisting essentially of carbon dioxide extracted THC oil from cannabis, coffee beans and maltodextrin.
Despite the USPTO’s willingness to grant cannabis patents, there is an open question currently regarding whether they can be enforced in a federal court (the only courts that have jurisdiction to hear patent cases). However, since utility patents have a 20-year term, extractors are still wise to seek patent protection of the innovations now.
Another consideration in seeking patent protection for novel extraction methods and formulations is that the information becomes public knowledge once the patent application publishes. As this space becomes increasingly crowded, the ability to obtain broader patents will decline. Therefore, some extraction companies may benefit from keeping their innovations a trade secret, which means that the secret is not known to the public, properly maintained and creates economic value by way of being a secret. Properly crafted non-disclosure agreements can help further ensure that trade secrets remain a secret indefinitely.
Regardless of the IP strategy extractors choose, IP protection should be a primary consideration for companies in the cannabis industry to ensure the strongest protection possible both now and in the future.
Facing the same conundrum as police everywhere after the start of a medical market only this time with federal authorization, the head of the German police union has called for recreational use of cannabis to also be decriminalized.
On the first Monday of February, the head of the BDK – the Association of German Criminal Officers told The Bild (sort of like the New York Post but a national “tabloid” here) that his group, the largest organized union of German police officers, favoured a change in German cannabis laws. Andre Schulz argued that the current laws stigmatized those charged with minor amounts and created opportunities for “criminal careers to start.”
“The prohibition of cannabis has historically been seen as arbitrary and has not yet been implemented in an intelligent and effective manner,” says Schulz. “My prediction is that cannabis will not be banned for long in Germany.”
Why this sudden pronouncement? It is actually not all that sudden and has been long in the offing. One of the largest contingents at both the ICBC and the IACM last year (the biggest cannabis-focussed business and medical conferences in Germany) were police officers from California and Deutschland. And all were singing the same tune.
However beyond a realistic assessment of changing political reality, there are actually several other concrete reasons for not only the statement but the timing of it. In a country where patients can now pick up bud cannabis from the local apotheke (which is that easy for some, although it is still hard for most), the police have the unappetizing prospect of potentially arresting patients. On top of that, the idea of someone being arrested for CBD flower (rather than THC) gives the German polizei plenty of pause. Not to mention that they face this possibility at a time when many of them potentially could be patients themselves (or their families). The idea of arresting an activist in this situation is also one the police do not relish. Legalization rallies here get formal police protection when they march. Ask the average beat cop what they think about cannabis legalization and they tend to roll their eyes.
Then there is this: In stark contrast to the wars over prescribing medical cannabis at a state level in California in the late 90’s, here in Germany, there is a cultural commitment to the concept of sick people having a moral and civil right to obtain the medication they require. The idea of the police arresting them in the process of obtaining the same or because they might be recreational users, is as antithetic to core German sensibilities as the concept of Donald Trump as U.S. President. So is the idea of branding someone a “criminal” if not “drug user” for possession of a drug that is now used as medicine in Germany.
As has been rumoured for some time now, one of the few things that all political parties in Berlin can agree on is a change on the current cannabis laws.As a result, the very idea of both arresting the sick or labelling someone for the rest of their life with a police record for a drug “crime” that nobody considers as such anymore, causes a shock to the system. In many ways, German culture is far more conservative than the U.S. On another, there is a deeply humanistic, liberal strain to German life that also allows nudity, alternative healthcare and lifestyles to flourish (and not just all in Berlin). The current situation over cannabis, in other words, is becoming a political and legal embarrassment even to the beat officers who have to implement such laws.
And then of course there is this: One of the country’s top judges, Andreas Müller, a man well-known to the senior level of BDK, has recently written a book about the horrible situation that faces his own brother because of drug laws in Germany called “Kiffen und Kriminalität.”
Cannabis also falls into this crevice of cultural questioning if not the national zeitgeist of the moment, in multiple ways. It is, beyond the stigma, a natural medicine that is now federally recognized as such and one that the statutory health insurers (public healthcare) is required to cover. No matter that only 64% of submitted rezepts have been formally approved 11 months into Germany’s foray into this world. There are doctors writing them. And there are insurers picking up the tab.
It also means that there are at least 10,000 legal medical cannabis patients that der polizei have no wish to bother. And 10,000 German patients, who look the same as anyone else, are already too many legal users for current laws to stay in place.
Decriminalization, Cultivation & Changing Culture
There are some who say that Europe is “backwards” if not slower than the United States. Certainly those who experience German culture as Auslanders are struck by the procedural requirements of everyday life. Things do move slower here.
However when things do move, they are determinative shifts. Right now, it is impossible to live in the country and not be aware that Kiffen – a slang term for pot auf Deutsch – is legalizing in the U.S., Canada, the rest of Europe and of course other places. Further, Germans with their distrust of bureaucracy and authority and certainly currently rebellious mood, are looking to a way forward for the country in a sea of uncertainty both locally and regionally not to mention globally on any issue, no matter how “symbolic.”
As has been rumoured for some time now, one of the few things that all political parties in Berlin can agree on is a change on the current cannabis laws. The idea of decriminalization, now suggested by one of the country’s top cops, is a natural solution to political deadlock, if not a changing society.
The idea that other countries are also moving on this topic, from the now Brexiting UK to France next door, not to mention all the cultivation focused reform in many European countries, seems to indicate that decriminalization and even recreational reform are coming and now officially on the schedule, and not just to Germany but the entire continent.
The writer now helmed to lead this effort is Alex Halperin, a business journalist in the U.S., who landed the gig apparently on the success of Weedweek – a highly cryptic weekly summary blog of mostly U.S.-based industry events and updates.How the Guardian will cover the industry and related issues will be interesting to follow.
This is also not The Guardian’s first foray into the topic. The media outlet, which got its start in the 1800’s in Northern England and expanded dramatically to reach a global digital audience over the past decade, has covered cannabis legalization on a fairly regular basis for the last four years. This new focus also comes at an interesting time. Apart from events in the U.S., Canada is moving forward with recreational this summer. And in Europe, the medical discussion continues apace. That said, it appears the Guardian is going to focus on the U.S. market, at least initially.
It will be interesting to see if that focus shifts (and if they allow other journalists outside of the U.S. to participate in the expanded coverage). While California might well be the largest state economy in general, the Canadian market is already larger and more developed, being regulated nationally across multiple provinces.
Another Mainstream Media Cannabis Column?
This is hardly news. The Guardian is actually treading on ground established already by most of the big news and business publications – including niche publications, blogs and of course, the trade press.
How the Guardian will cover the industry and related issues will be interesting to follow.
The purpose of the column apparently is to spark an “adult conversation” about cannabis – and how it is “changing modern life.” The initial focus on the U.S. market (and California in particular) may have seemed to make sense to a media outlet looking for outrageous stories. But as everyone knows, the U.S. is only one market – and further one still without federal protection.
However, the Guardian is also now competing with other business and mainstream publications that are already in this space. Main Street, the online business ‘zine helmed by Jim Cramer, created one of the first mainstream specialty cannabis sections almost four years ago with the coincidence of the Colorado rec market. Other notable publications and media outlets have significantly increased their coverage of cannabis as well. CNN has been reporting consistently on cannabis topics like legalization and U.S. federal reform efforts for some time now. Business Insider and Forbes have covered ongoing and growing investments and the financial side of things for several years. The Denver Post has its own entirely cannabis-focused subsidiary, The Cannabist.
And as public companies, in both the U.S. and elsewhere have begun to move through the legal thickets of legalization, business-focussed journals and blogs are even beginning to cover cannabis stocks. Starting with Motley Fool and Seeking Alpha (although again, most of this coverage is of companies outside the United States). Specialty publications are also of course, flourishing online, particularly with the beginning of an advertising market that is also beginning to establish itself, albeit around some still thorny regulatory issues.
In general, although the Guardian has a reputation as critical of the British monarchy, with strong left-leaning tendencies, its coverage of the industry has been fairly mainstream – so far at least.
Will that begin to change? And what will really be tackled and covered? And while the ostensible focus is what is going on in the world of cannabis in California (and presumably other foreign markets) could the Guardian’s ostensible new feature also be geared to drive reform at home? The U.K. has yet to even approach the topic of criminalization.
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