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Flower-Side Chats Part 1: A Q&A with Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected

By Aaron Green
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Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

Connected is a vertically-integrated cannabis company based out of Sacramento, CA and one of the most sought-after brands in California and Arizona. Having formed as a legacy operation in 2009, Connected has created a cult-like following over more than a decade in business. According to BDS Analytics, Connected Cannabis and their acquired brand Alien Labs now boasts the highest wholesale flower price in any major legal market – their average indoor flower wholesale price is 2x the CA average – yet also has the highest flower retail revenue.

We spoke with Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected to learn more about his transition from tech to cannabis, how Connected thinks about product and his vision for future growth. Sam joined Connected in 2018 after getting to know the founders. Prior to Connected, Sam was a co-founder at Box where he stayed on for 3 years after their successful IPO.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Sam Ghods: I originally came from the tech industry. I co-founded Box, a cloud sharing and storage company, in the mid 2000s with three other friends. We grew that from the four of us to eventually a multi-billion-dollar public offering in 2015. I stayed on a few more years after that until I took some time off trying to decide what I wanted to do next. I looked at a number of different industries and companies, but personally I always had a real passion for artisan and craft consumer goods. It’s a really big hobby of mine. Whether it’s going to Napa or learning about different kinds of premium consumer goods, I really had a deep love and never knew cannabis could be like that.

When I first met Caleb, the co-founder of Connected, he instantly got my attention by telling me that they had been selling out of their product in the volume of millions of dollars a year at more than two times what everybody else was selling for. That really piqued my interest because creating a product that has that level of consumer passion and demand is maybe the single hardest thing about building a consumer goods business. For them to have been so successful in what was a very difficult and gray market to operate in at the time – this was mid 2018 that I was speaking with him and he had been building this company since 2009 – is a really big challenge, and really impressive.

Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected

So, I started spending time with Caleb and the Connected team and learned a lot about the business. Everything I learned got me more interested and more excited. The way that they thought about the product, the way they treated it was with a reverence and level of sophistication I had no idea was possible.

I was so excited to just learn about the space. I mean, honestly, it feels like the internet in the 90’s- The sheer possibility and excitement. The only difference here is that the market already has existed for 100 years plus: the gray and underground markets for this product are actually phenomenally mature. And now we’re lifting up billions of dollars in commerce that’s already occurring and attempting to legalize all of it in one fell swoop, which creates such an interesting set of challenges.

I first got involved as an advisor on fundraising and strategy. And then a few months later, they were looking for a CEO and I joined full time as CEO in September 2018.

Aaron: What trends in the industry are you focused on?

Sam: It may seem basic, but I think product quality in the broader cannabis markets nationally and internationally is really underrated. Because of the extreme weight of the regulatory frameworks in so many different markets, it’s resulting in a lot of product being grown and sold just because it can be by the operators that are doing it. In many markets, they count the number of producers by the handful, instead of being measured in hundreds or thousands like in California or Oregon. And in that kind of environment, you’re not really having competition, and you’re not really able to see the quality that has existed in this category for years and years and years.

That’s one of the things that really sets us apart – the quality is first above all else, as well as the innovation and time that has gone into it, and not many existing brands in the legal market can say that. With some of the “premium” brands on the market, it would be comparable to just jumping into the wine industry one day and thinking that you can become a premium brand, without having any knowledge of the history of the product or the industry itself. At Connected, we have a team that’s been doing this for over a decade. We did a back of the envelope calculation: there’s over one thousand lifetime harvests between our team. We’ve also brought in specialists from Big Ag and other industries to complement that experience.

Cannabis is a very, very difficult plant to grow at a very high level. It’s much more like high-end wine or spirits than other fruit or produce. I think in the cannabis community, that’s extremely acknowledged, and appreciation for that is the reason we get by with the highest prices in the legal market. I think in the broader investor and financial community, this point hasn’t really hit home, because the limited license markets aren’t mature enough, and there isn’t enough competition in many of them.

Our focus is continuing to make the best product we can, which has fed and developed our brands [Connected and Alien Labs] into what they are today. That is our number one focus, and we think it’s pretty unique to the space of not just cultivating a great quality product, but also as far as breeding, pushing the bar higher and higher on what can be done with the genetics of the plant. 

Aaron: How do you think about choosing testing labs?

Sam: So, the number one criterion is responsibility and compliance. We must be completely confident that they’re testing accurately, safely and exactly to the specifications of the state. Then from there, it is really cultivating about a partnership. There’s a lot of nuance in the relationship with a testing lab. We note things like: Are they responsive? Are they sensitive to our needs in terms of either timelines or requirements we have? It does come down to timelines and costs to a certain extent, like who’s able to deliver the best service for the best cost, but it really is a partnership where you’re working together to deliver a great product. Reliability and consistency are big pieces as well.

Aaron: Industry estimates for illicit market activities are something like 60% of the California market. From your perspective, how do we fix that?

Sam: I think it probably comes down to funding for the efforts to discontinue those activities and opening up the barrier to entry, incentivizing “illegal” operators to make the investment in the cross-over. I think the most successful attempts to tamp it down was when there were initiatives that were well-orchestrated and well-funded, allowing for legacy growers to actually cross over to the “legal” industry. You can’t launch an industry with such an extreme amount of regulation, set a miles-high barrier to entry, and then penalize legacy growers for continuing their business as-is. If the illicit market continues to be fueled by rejection, you’re not going to achieve the tax revenue that you’re expecting to see, that we all want to see. There needs to be an attitude that every dollar put into transitioning illicit markets into regulated markets is returned many times over in tax revenue to the state’s citizens.

Aaron: So, I understand you sell wholesale. Do you sell direct to consumer?“Once they hit the shelves, we blow people away again, beyond their expectations of what they had before.”

Sam: We own and operate three retail stores, so we do sell direct to our consumers, but at this point the majority of our product is sold through third party dispensaries.

Aaron: Do you make fresh frozen?

Sam: We do. On the cultivation side we have indoor, mixed light and outdoor. We fresh freeze a portion of our outdoor harvest every year, and then we use that fresh frozen for our live resin products, for example, our recent live resin cartridge. It creates a vape experience really unlike any other because we are using our regular market-ready flower, but instead we’re taking that flower and actually extracting, not just using the distillate and mixing a batch of terpenes with it. We extract the entire plant’s content across the board, from cannabinoids to terpenoids and everything in between, and then you have our live resin cartridges.

Aaron: How do you think about brand identity and leveraging the brand to command higher prices?

Sam: The cycle we’ve effectively created is that every time we do a release of a new strain or a new batch or harvest, the quality is generally going up. That quality is released under our brands, and then the customer is able to associate that increase in quality and reputation with those brands. Then for our next launch, we have an even bigger platform to talk about the products and to ship and distribute and sell the products. Once they hit the shelves, we blow people away again, beyond their expectations of what they had before. That continuous cycle keeps fortifying the brand and fortifying the product. From our perspective the brand is built 100% on the quality of the product. The product will always be our highest priority and the brand will come downstream from that. 

Aaron: Tell me about Alien Labs.

Sam: Alien Labs was an acquisition. It was a company that had built their brand really successfully in the gray market through 2017 and Prop 215 in California and had an incredible level of quality, a really loyal and dedicated fan base, not to mention a tremendous Instagram presence and following, which is where 98% of cannabis marketing happens today. We really loved the spirit of what the founders were bringing to the table. In 2018, we decided basically to join forces with them and bring them on board, creating a partnership where they leverage our infrastructure and the systems and processes we’ve built, but still keep their way of cultivation and their product vision. To this day, Ted Lidie, one of the founders, continues as the lead brand director for Alien Labs.

Aaron: In what geographies do you currently operate?

Sam: Our primary offices and facilities are based out of Sacramento, California, but we have facilities throughout the state. Last year, for the first time we launched operations in a new state, Arizona. As you may know, you’re not allowed to take cannabis products across state lines at all, so if you want consistent product in multiple markets you really have no choice but to rebuild your entire infrastructure in each state you want to open up.

There are many brands that are expanding and launching in more markets more quickly, but they’re doing so by taking product that’s already existing and putting their brand name on it. That is something we’ve decided strategically that we will not do. We’ve spent years building a high level of trust with our customers, so we’re only going to put our brand name on products that are our genetics, our cultivation, our style, our quality of product. When we launched in Arizona, we did it with a facility that we leased and took over and now operate with our staff. We’re replicating the same exact product that you can get in California in Arizona, which is really exciting.

We launched just this past November, which has been incredibly successful. Our dispensary partner Harvest saw lines of dozens of people out the door.“We consider ourselves a flower company first and foremost, so for us, that was a very calculated strategic move.”

Aaron: Any new geographies on the horizon that you can talk about?

Sam: We’re constantly evaluating new opportunities. I don’t have anything particularly specific to announce right now, but I will say we look for states where we believe there’s a competitive environment where the product quality is going to really stand out and be appreciated.

Aaron: Do you notice any differences in consumer trends between California and Arizona that stand out?

Sam: Not too many yet. We don’t have a retail location in Arizona, so we don’t have as much direct contact. However, we have heard consistently that the Connected customer demographics – as you would imagine most interested in our product – are those looking for something special, unique, different and have a really superior quality to everything else out there. We ended up launching in Arizona with the highest price point for flower in the state, and we say that’s just the beginning. The market is still so young and immature, both nationally and internationally, that this category is going to develop into one that’s really taste-driven.

Aaron: What’s next in California?

Sam: Continued growth and product development. We want to keep blowing away our customers with more and more incredible products, different product types and categories. For example, the cartridges were a really big launch for us because we don’t really consider ourselves a vape company. We consider ourselves a flower company first and foremost, so for us, that was a very calculated strategic move. We were only going to launch the product if we could fully replicate what the consumer gets from the flower experience. We are very unlikely to ever release a distillate pen, for example.

Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?

Sam: We, as a society, really don’t know very much about the cannabis plant. Pretty much all meaningful research around cannabis stopped in the early 1900’s with prohibition. In the meantime, we’ve performed millions of dollars of studies and research on almost every other plant that we grow commercially. We understand these plants extraordinarily well. Cannabis science is stuck back in agriculture of early 1900s. The most interesting conversations I have are around how the plant works, how it doesn’t work and the ways in which it is so different from all other plants with which we are familiar. Our head of cultivation comes from Driscolls, the largest berry company in the world, and even he is frequently surprised by the way the cannabis plant reacts to things that are commonly understood in other plants. So, the way the actual plant responds to different environments is truly fascinating and something I think we’ll be learning about for decades and decades to come.

Aaron: Okay, great. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Sam!

Social Responsibility and Supporting BIPOC in Cannabis: A Q&A with Ernest Toney, Founder of BIPOCANN

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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The drug war has harmed communities of color since its inception. For decades and decades, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) have been nearly six times more likely to be arrested for drug use than White Americans, despite similar rates of use.

Over the years that legalized cannabis has proliferated across the country, the same trends of market consolidation have emerged in every state that has legalized the plant. BIPOC communities already impacted by the drug war have less access to capital and therefore less access to the cannabis industry. Cannabis market consolidation has always led to white people taking a greater market share while BIPOC communities are left behind.

The legal cannabis industry currently lacks representation of BIPOC executives, business owners, and professionals. Ernest Toney, former global marketing and partnerships manager at Marijuana Business Daily, wants to change that. He founded the BIPOC Cannabis Business Network – a membership community that is working to make the cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for BIPOC professionals and business owners.

BIPOCANN is a place to meet cannabis industry leaders, a place to exchange goods, services and ideas that promote BIPOC economic growth in cannabis, an innovation hub for unique voices and perspectives, and it’s all BIPOC-owned and managed.

In this interview, we sit down with Ernest Toney to hear about BIPOCANN and ask him some questions about what the future of the cannabis industry could look like.

Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell me about your background- how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Ernest Toney: I grew up in Virginia and went to James Madison University where I studied kinesiology, and sports management in graduate school. That led me to pursue a career in sports administration, beginning as a sales and marketing director for a large YMCA in the southwest, followed by a stint as a sales consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks in Major League Baseball. Immediately prior to joining the cannabis industry, I worked at USA Ultimate – the national governing body for the niche sport of ultimate (frisbee) in the United States. During that time, I managed and scaled adult programs and events across the country. A big part of my job required collaborating with national stakeholders and creating and enforcing policies to grow the sport by making it more accessible to diverse demographics. We also worked hard to increase the commercial visibility of the sport through mainstream media, including ESPN, with gender equity being a major focus area. It was cool because looking back, I learned a lot of things during that five-year period that is directly applicable to the work I’m doing to support the cannabis industry.

Ernest Toney, founder of BIPOCANN

But my interest in the cannabis industry became strong when I moved to Denver in 2011, a year before Amendment 64 passed. When Colorado became the first adult use cannabis market in the USA, it was an exciting time. I have always been curious about economics and how policies can impact people’s lives. I was interested in what was going to happen when the new market opened.

Early on, I followed the industry trends very closely. Living in downtown Denver, I saw firsthand the effects the cannabis industry was having on day-to-day life, like increased tourism, a housing market boom, a lot of new start-ups, dispensaries opening everywhere. It was just something I knew I wanted to learn more about.

Around 2016, I started making industry connections, but didn’t pursue opportunities until a few years later. Eventually, I was hired in 2018 by MJBizDaily to focus on new business initiatives. Some of my past successes with scaling programs, national and international event management, and community-building aligned with what they were looking for.

I started as the company’s first international marketing manager. In that role, I was responsible for driving marketing campaigns to increase the company’s global readership, event registrations, and business conference presence in foreign markets. After the first year, I transitioned to identify and manage marketing partnerships for the company – which included international and domestic media, event, and affiliate partnerships within and outside of cannabis.

I felt compelled to make a change amidst the social unrest this summer. I was doing my own protesting and volunteer advocacy in Denver, but started to see more broadly, in the cannabis industry, that cannabis executives and companies were bringing attention to the fact that the War On Drugs has been problematic for minorities and communities of color. There was greater talk about social equity programs and how they are not as effective as they should be. There was greater attention to the fact that over 40,000 people are still incarcerated for the plant that others are profiting from – and that the people behind bars are predominantly coming from communities of color. I was in a position that afforded me the opportunity to see what the composition of the global cannabis industry looked like, and I  could see minority representation was lacking in business ownership, leadership positions, and more.

I thought – what is the best way for me to use my talents, insights, and knowledge to affect and change this narrative? Ultimately, I decided to start my own business. Not only was this an opportunity for me to “walk the walk,” being a black man starting a business in this industry where there is a lack of black ownership, but more importantly I was uniquely positioned to be able to educate and let people know about the opportunities to be a part of the booming industry. So, I did some brainstorming and came up with a company, which is called BIPOCANN and it stands for connecting BIPOC communities to the cannabis industry.

The work I have been doing for the last quarter includes directly recruiting people into the industry. If you are curious and want to learn more about the industry, then BIPOCANN can be the entry point. We figure out what your goals are and use the network and our resources to get you connected and figure out where you want to go. Likewise, if you are a service provider, like a graphic designer, accountant, marketer or business owner for example, that sees opportunities for your business to play a role and support it from an ancillary standpoint, BIPOCANN can be an entry point for you too.

The other component to it is working with existing businesses who are trying to make the industry more accessible. I work with existing companies and brands to create platforms that amplify voices and make BIPOC folks more visible, seen and heard within the cannabis industry. We are also helping businesses increase their profitability through diversification tactics and marketing tactics that contribute to their bottom line.

CIJ: Tell me about BIPOCANN- what is it, what are your goals with this project and how has it been received so far?

Ernest: The prohibition of cannabis has disproportionately impacted communities of color in the Americas. I alluded to this earlier, but there are more than 40,000 people behind bars in the U.S. for cannabis possession and use. There’s evidence suggesting that Black Americans are up to six times more likely to get arrested for cannabis use than White Americans despite use rates being the same. And when you look at the makeup of the professional industry, there is poor representation of business ownership by people of color. The Cannabis Impact Fund references that only 4.3% of dispensaries are Black or Latinx-owned. These problems intersect in a lot of ways.

BIPOCANN is a small business working to make the cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for BIPOC professionals and business owners. Now, I know that one company cannot change 100 years of cannabis prohibition and how policy works. But if you want to make this industry more accessible, inclusive, and profitable for those who do not have the access then there are a lot of levers to pull. Policy is one. But BIPOCANN is using more direct strategies. We actively recruit people to come in and be a part of this industry, through employment, entrepreneurship, consulting, and collaborations.

We have also created the BIPOC Cannabis Business Network, a community where members can exchange services, network, and collaborate. It’s all about creating more opportunities for BIPOC professionals and business owners, and it’s a safe space to share your experiences and to ideate. Similar to your Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference, where there was a dedicated space for BIPOC folks to be seen and heard and tell their story through your virtual panels, we use our resources and network to help advocates for equity and access be seen, heard, and find opportunities to thrive as a business owner or professional.

CIJ: How do you hope BIPOCANN will be embraced by the cannabis community?

Ernest: I think it has been received well in its first quarter of business. We have had opportunities to share our story across a lot of platforms, including multiple cannabis industry conferences, podcasts, and interviews with varied media outlets. We are in startup mode, so currently we are about building a brand, being seen, and helping people understand what we are trying to achieve. We are working towards that right now. We have had some success and folks are supporting our vision and goals.

I am hoping the cannabis industry will look at BIPOCANN as another important resource within the social equity, business development, and networking landscape. I don’t want to be seen as a competitor to the organizations and individuals who have been doing similar work in this space, for much longer, but as an ally. Some of our approaches to bring new people into the industry will include strategically aligning communities and markets where we have strong ties – such as state governments, national nonprofits, and global cannabis networks.

CIJ: Where do you see the cannabis industry making progress with respect to diversity and including people of color?

Ernest: When I look at the types of conversations  and coverage the industry is having, even compared to last year, it seems like more conferences, media entities, brands, and individual leaders are tuned in and trying to figure out how they can contribute to making this industry better, more equitable and more accessible. I am seeing a lot of more attention, attempts to understand where the gaps are and what to do about it.

When I take a step back to think of all the virtual conferences that have made dedicated conference tracks or even entire programs – like the National Association of Cannabis Business’ Social Equity Conference, the Emerge Canna Conference, the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, and the Cannabis Industry Journal’s post-election social justice panel – or weekly segments from Black leaders like Dasheeda Dawson (She Blaze) and Tahir Johnson (The Cannabis Diversity Report) — those are good signs. They are creating opportunities for voices representing underserved communities in cannabis to share their perspectives and be advocates for change.

But there is still much to do and that includes greater education about the realities, histories, and challenges BIPOC and other minority communities are facing. Going back to the NACB, they recently drafted a social equity standard for state legislatures to use as a baseline for crafting policies and provisions for social equity programs. That and resources from organizations like the Minority Cannabis Business Association, Supernova Women, Cannaclusive, Minorities for Medical Marijuana, and the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, for example are some useful resources for the industry.

Wana Brands is also continuing to do good work, and it was exciting to see them become the first sponsor of the inaugural Black CannaConference by the Black CannaBusiness Magazine. That was a great example of an industry leader using their dollars, marketing resources, and company values to support an event specifically dedicated to creating, developing, and enhancing Black entrepreneurs and businesses in the cannabis industry.

“It is hard to know what even a year from now will look like.”On the policy front, we just saw on election day cannabis having a ton of success at the polls, passing in every single state where there was a ballot measure.

Arizona did a good job with having social equity provisions directly included in the language on their ballot measure. I think for the states that have yet to draft a social equity program, they can look at what has worked well in some other states and also look at what has not worked well, like loopholes that invite predatory behaviors.

I’m excited to see that Governor Ralph Northam and the Virginia Marijuana Legalization Working Group are already identifying the best ways to make a recreational market a beneficial and sustainable one, and tackling how to incorporate social equity, racial equity, and economic equity into a future legalization bill. I am looking forward to learning more after an upcoming meeting with a Working Group member. Eventually, I hope to contribute towards any social equity efforts that will benefit my home state and hometown (a high poverty community that has been at the crossroads of America’s major civil rights movements, with a correctional facility that houses an inmate population equivalent to nearly 10% of the town population).

CIJ: Where do you see the industry moving in the next five years?

Ernest: Ha-ha! It is hard to know what even a year from now will look like.

Just this week the United Nations rescheduled cannabis, which is a big deal! We also saw the U.S. House of Representatives pass the MORE Act. We are inching closer towards federal legalization in the US and I think it will happen within that five-year timeframe, and it will be contentious. There will be compromises on things some folks don’t want compromises on, there will be more big money influencing the outcomes of the industry, and there will be unforeseen or unintended consequences to whatever the federal legislation looks like. I recently moderated a panel of social equity license holders, who felt that federal legalization would harm the disproportionately impacted areas (by the War on Drugs) even more! Their preference was to see cannabis de-scheduled and remain under state control.

I think federal legalization will bring another wave of major mergers and acquisitions, similar to what the Canadian market experienced in 2019, benefiting big business over small business. “We need folks who are educated and informed about these matters to be at the policymaking level to have a fighting chance.”

CIJ: Do you think we can change that?

Ernest: There are so many things at play. The legislators need to have diverse perspectives and representation from the folks in the industry, especially people of color who can speak to the impact that a century of prohibition policies have had on their communities. Those voices and stories need to be heard, but that type of representation is grossly lacking on Capitol Hill…which is all the more reason we need leaders from the aforementioned communities to have a seat at the table when decisions are made.

I say that because a lot of time there are unforeseen consequences when policies are created, so decision makers at the federal level can learn from those of us already doing the work on the local level. I recently had a conversation with a former journalist and colleague who is currently in a cannabis regulatory role. We were talking about how policy and operations intersect with social equity. He made the points that “many markets implement license caps, which are intended to prevent oversaturation of cannabis business (the idea being that density of outlets impacts use rates, and particularly youth use rates); in theory, that’s a good policy – but it comes with very real consequences for social equity applicants (because those licenses often go to the wealthiest applicants).  License caps also artificially inflate the cost of those licenses (for a transfer of ownership), which also harms social equity applicants. Lotteries are also generally the result of policy and usually have disastrous results for the social equity applicant.”

So yeah – the rare opportunity to define a new industry that doesn’t just do business as usual, that can right its historical wrongs, and that will reward the communities that have been most harmed by cannabis enforcement, is now. And we need folks who are educated and informed about these matters to be at the policymaking level to have a fighting chance. The optimist in me says “we can do it!” The pessimist in me reminds me that it is 2020 and people still believe the Earth is flat. I’ll keep pushing for change, but I also won’t be surprised if this perfect opportunity to get it right goes wrong.

CIJ: How can people get involved in BIPOCANN?

Ernest: The best way to get involved is to visit www.bipocann.com and support our efforts by becoming an individual member or business member. Not only does that give you the opportunity to connect directly with other members in our business network, but it gives you the chance to be the first to be notified about the latest projects, events, and opportunities we’re working on to change the industry, how we can. By joining, you also directly support BIPOCANN’s goals, contribute to the operating budget of a black-owned business in cannabis, and support the nonprofit partners who we allocate a percentage of monthly sales towards.

You can also get involved by subscribing to our monthly newsletter through the website or by following our social media accounts @bipocann. We are also available for speaking, media, or consulting projects that support social equity, diversity, and inclusion in cannabis. For those types of inquiries, please contact ernest@bipocann.com.

California Employment Laws, COVID-19 & Cannabis: How New Regulations Impact Cannabis Businesses

By Conor Dale
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As employers in the cannabis industry adapt to making their businesses run and thrive in the age of COVID-19, federal, state and local jurisdictions have issued new laws and regulations providing rules and guidance on returning employees to work. Employers in the industry should be aware of, and prepare for, these rules moving forward.

Federal guidance regarding COVID testing and employees’ return to the workplace:

Since March, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance and frequently asked questions (FAQ) concerning employment-related COVID-19 topics. In its September update, the EEOC answered practical questions relating to COVID testing, questions to employees regarding COVID, and employee medical information.

Employee testing

The EEOC has already stated that employers may administer COVID-19 tests before initially permitting employees to enter the workplace. In its September FAQs, the EEOC confirms that employers may conduct periodic tests to ensure that employees are COVID free and do not pose a threat to coworkers and customers. The EEOC also clarified that employers administering regular COVID-19 tests is consistent with current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance and that following recommendations by the CDC or other public health authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding employee testing and screening is appropriate. The EEOC acknowledges that the CDC and FDA may revise their recommendations based on new information, and reminds employers to keep apprised of these updates.

COVID questions for employees

The EEOC also confirmed that employers may ask employees returning to the workplace if they have been tested for COVID-19, which, presumably, permits employers to ask if the employee’s test was positive or negative. Please note that an employer’s right to ask employees about COVID testing is based on the potential threat that infected employees could pose to others if they physically return to work. As a result, the EEOC clarified that asking employees who exclusively work remotely and/or do not physically interact with other employees or customers about potential COVID-19 status would not be appropriate. The EEOC also stated that an employer may not directly ask whether an employee’s family members have COVID-19 or symptoms associated with COVID-19. This is because the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) generally prohibits employers from asking employees medical questions about family members. However, the EEOC clarified employers may ask employees if they have had contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 or who may have symptoms associated with the disease.

Sharing information about employees with COVID

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to confidentially maintain information regarding employees’ medical condition. The EEOC’s updated FAQS clarify that managers who learn that an employee has COVID may report this information to appropriate individuals within their organization in order to comply with public health guidance, such as relaying this information to government contact tracing programs. Employers should consider directing managers on how, and to whom, to make such reports, and specifically instruct employees who have a need to know about the COVID status of their coworkers to maintain the confidentiality of that information. The EEOC also clarified that workers may report to managers about the COVID status of a coworker in the same workplace.

California state guidance on employees returning to work

The state of California also recently released a “COVID-19 Employer Playbook” which provides guidance on employees to return to work. That playbook states that employees with COVID related symptoms may return to work 24 hours after their last fever, without the use of fever-reducing medications, if there had been an improvement in symptoms and at least 10 days had passed since symptoms first appeared. This was also indicated in the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Order, issued in June, about responding to COVID-19 in the Workplace.

More recently, on August 24th, the CDPH released similar guidance which reiterates when employees who have tested positive for COVID could return to the workplace when: (1) at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared; (2) at least 24 hours have passed with no fever (without the use of fever-reducing medications), and (3) their other symptoms have improved. Conversely, individuals who test positive for COVID and who never develop symptoms may return to work or school 10 days after the date of their first positive test.

Employers should also check local public health orders for their county when determining how and when to return an employee who has recovered from COVID-19. It is important to also confer with your employment counsel when implementing new policies and procedures related to COVID-19, particularly given that the guidance issued by government authorities continues to evolve at a rapid pace.

Return to work laws on the horizon

Finally, a number of local governments in California such as the City of San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles have enacted return-to-work ordinances generally requiring employers to offer available positions to former employees who have been separated from employment due to coronavirus related business slowdowns or government-issued shutdown orders. The California legislature is also in the process of enacting a potential law that would similarly require employers in the state to offer vacant job positions to former employees whose employment ended due to COVID.

While the San Francisco ordinance only addresses positions in San Francisco and the Oakland and Los Angeles ordinances primarily address large employers in the hospitality and restaurant industries, cannabis industry employers should strongly consider offering vacant job positions to former employees whose employment ended due to COVID in order to comply with these ordinances and other potentially applicable future laws and in an effort to avoid potential legal claims from former employees.

Employers are strongly advised to consult with counsel to make sure they are following the requirements of these new laws and regulations.

Leaders in Extraction & Manufacturing: Part 1

By Aaron Green
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Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the first article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.

In this week’s article we talk with George Sadler, President and Co-founder of House of Platinum. George and his son Cody started their cannabis journey in 2010 when they sold their dirt bikes and set up a 10×10 garage. They have since built the business into a $70 million dollar cannabis empire across California, Michigan and now Oklahoma. The interview with George was conducted on July 31, 2020.

George Sadler, President and Co-founder of House of Platinum

Next week, we’ll interview Matthew Elmes, Director of Product Development at Cannacraft. Stay tuned for more!

Aaron Green: First off, George, congratulations on your recent announcement on the LOI from Red White & Bloom!

George Sadler: Thanks! The deal isn’t done yet but we’re looking at a sixty-five-million-dollar deal. Cody and I will be staying on as officers to oversee growth as we expand into new markets.

Aaron: That’s great news! I hope it all works out well for you and best of luck closing the deal. Now on to the interview questions we had planned. So first off, how did you get involved at House of Platinum?

George: My son Cody and I wanted to do extraction and have a vape company. Five or six years ago we climbed on a plane to China to speak with manufacturers. We started off with extraction equipment in a small room with a table top machine. After a time, we took year and a half off to get our licensing and do our buildout. We opened up again two years ago in June. At the time, China was the main resource for packaging, and everything really. We got hardware from another company and had our Chinese partners rework the hardware to address some of the issues we had. Cody and I spent a week in Shenzhen where we met with our Chinese partners. They first did cartridges, packaging and batteries.

Aaron: Thanks for that, George. The next questions will focus on product development and manufacturing. What is your decision process for starting a new product?

George: In the beginning, Cody and I would both be a part of new product development from beginning to end. Cody has taken lead now on the beginning phases so our new product development really starts with him. We collectively come up with the concept. Cody does the market research. The concept then goes to our design team for visuals and to do the artwork- this usually takes some time. After we are satisfied with the branding, we start the manufacturing process. We do everything start to finish and can go from design to package in less than two weeks. The only thing we still manufacture in China is hardware these days, so cartridges and batteries.

Aaron: Are you personally involved in manufacturing? Tell me about your process

George: Cody and I are both involved in manufacturing. In California, we have about a hundred employees at our facility. In Michigan we have another hundred, and Oklahoma has about thirty. In Michigan, we do carts only right now and are getting ready to launch chocolates and gummies. Oklahoma is also getting ready to do edibles and gummies.

Aaron: What is your process for developing new products?

George: In manufacturing, when we start a new line of edibles, we’ll first do a full test batch of products before committing to full-scale manufacturing. We start small at first then scale into larger batches. If everything looks good, we’ll decide whether or not to invest in larger equipment.

Aaron: Are you developing new products internally?

George: Our California and Michigan production is done 100% in-house. In Oklahoma we have a licensing deal with a manufacturing partner.

Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants?

George: No. We do all of our product development internally.

Aaron: In product development or manufacturing, what does being stuck look like for you?

George: That depends on what phase of the process we’re talking about. One challenge is getting the recipe dialed and then figuring out how to move into large scale. Take chocolate for example: going from a one spout pour on chocolate to a three-spout pour. That process can take a while to figure out. Any time you are trying to move forward in your manufacturing process, if there isn’t existing equipment available you may need to purchase it. There isn’t a lot of information out there to gauge on the cannabis side what is relevant.

Aaron: How about source materials for your products?

George: We pride ourselves on doing a deep dive on all of our suppliers.  That includes packaging, chocolate, sugar, and flower.  The advantage of longevity in this industry, we have keen radar on those doing premium work.

Aaron: What’s the most frustrating thing you are going through with the business?

George: I think a majority of people would agree that there’s lack of understanding of what’s happening with licensing. Legacy market products and unlicensed stores are frustrating. Inconsistency on testing is also frustrating. The states aren’t really doing anything to correct inconsistent testing. But banking is the number one industry pain point. We have a handle on the rest. Banking we don’t have any help.

Aaron: Feel free to answer the next question however you like. Imagine you could have someone come in and wave a magic wand to solve your problems. What does your magic helper look like?

George: Hah! Not sure what a magic helper would look like. Distribution is our biggest headache. Distribution is a different animal that is outside cannabis product development. We do all of our distribution in-house and it can be a pain.

Aaron: Now for my final question: What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?

George: We’re semi-new in the CBD space. Anything up and coming is something we are looking at. We’re focused on going big and multi-state. Arizona is the next state we are looking at. Nevada is after that. The partnership with Red White and Bloom is going to grow the brand into other states with them. Growth continues in that direction. Recently we’ve been going back to cultivation and doing cultivation deals. We started as cultivators and a lot has changed in the past several years. We are trying to pick up new knowledge.

Aaron: Well, thanks for that George, this is all awesome feedback for the industry. That concludes the interview! Thanks so much for your time and congrats again on your recent announcement with Red White & Bloom.

George: Thanks.

The Women in Cannabis Study: A Q&A with Jennifer Whetzel

By Aaron G. Biros
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Ladyjane Branding and Wolfe Research & Consulting are leading an ambitious study to explore and document the experiences of women working in the cannabis market. Women in Cannabis: A Living History officially kicks off on December 10th at the National Women of Cannabis Conference.

Jennifer Whetzel, founder of LadyJane Branding and founder of the Women in Cannabis Study

Jennifer Whetzel, founder of Ladyjane Branding, says this is an opportunity for women to tell their stories about their experience working in the cannabis industry. Women can participate in the study by going to womenincannabis.study and sign up to take the survey. You can also sign up to be a sponsor or partner of the study at that website. Sponsors will get access to content like press releases and the opportunity to incorporate the study’s findings in their messaging. We invite our readers to participate, sponsor, partner, share and encourage friends to take the survey.

With beta testing starting the week of November 18th, we caught up with Jennifer Whetzel to talk about why she decided to start this project, what they expect to learn from it and what the future may hold for professional women in the cannabis industry.

Cannabis Industry Journal: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came into the cannabis industry? 

Jennifer Whetzel: My entrance into the cannabis industry was certainly a culmination of my personal experience and professional journey.

After moving to Maine, I became a medical user to ease symptoms of an immune and an auto-immune disorder. When I sought out treatment for PTSD, I found that a combination of cannabis, therapy, meditation and brain retraining was the most helpful and healthy solution.

This course of treatment for PTSD was life-changing as it allowed me to resolve symptoms from all of my medical issues, and I wanted to find a way to give back to the community that supported me. I had been working in marketing for over 25 years and realized I had quite the diverse professional background. My experience included retail merchandising and operations, public relations on a military base, research design and strategy for ad agencies, new product development and launch for animal health companies, and experiential marketing strategy and design. I’ve been lucky enough to work with small companies and Fortune 500’s which has led to finding solutions in unexpected places.

When pairing my knowledge and skills with the cannabis community, I realized I could make an impact by advising new entrepreneurs who needed help making their brands stand out. That’s how Ladyjane Branding was born.

CIJ: Can you give us an overview of the Women in Cannabis Study?

Jennifer: The Women in Cannabis study aims to understand how women are faring in the cannabis industry and whether we are doing enough to support women, their careers and their professional goals. It’s well documented that women in corporate America do not have the same opportunities for career advancement as men, holding fewer executive or board positions, having fewer opportunities for mentorship, sponsorship and career progression.

The study is comprehensive, with more than 80 quantitative questions along with qualitative telephone and video interviews of female-identifying professionals working in the cannabis industry – whether they are involved with cannabis, CBD or hemp. Through monthly infographics, video summaries, quarterly in-depth themed reports and a comprehensive year-end report, we will be telling the stories of women’s professional experiences in cannabis with the goal of transforming the industry into one where women can succeed and thrive.

Painting a picture of the women in cannabis, and understanding them as a group, we look at demographics to explore their diversity and reveal whether personality differences may affect their experiences, as well as experience with stigmas regarding cannabis use and working in the industry.

To understand professional trajectories and roadblocks on a path to success, we dive into work history, reasons for entering the cannabis space and the barriers they have faced on their journey. We explore opportunities for mentorship, support and leadership, the types of harassment, discrimination and disrespect they’ve experienced and how that may have impeded their careers.

We’d like to understand how (or whether) women find balance in their personal and professional lives, what sacrifices they’ve had to make for a career in cannabis, as well as best practices for women to foster success.

CIJ: Why did you decide to take on this endeavor and lead the work on this study? 

Jennifer: While there are numerous studies looking at how women fare in corporate America, we found that there’s a lack of a recent and comprehensive deep dive into this topic specifically for cannabis. As an emerging industry, we have a unique opportunity to make valuable recommendations to potentially increase inclusivity for women in this early stage of industry culture before it becomes too entrenched. Our goal is to ensure we have the hard numbers to document a baseline now, then follow-up over time to understand how the industry changes.

By surveying and speaking to women in the industry, and understanding where strengths and weaknesses in the industry lie, we can make recommendations to improve the lived experience for women working in this industry.

The only way to make improvements to a system is to understand it.

CIJ: How do you think we can create a more inclusive industry?

Jennifer: I think it begins with an understanding of where we are starting – we don’t know what we don’t know. Being in the cannabis industry, we often hear the argument that anecdotes are not data. Just like we need the scientific data to prove efficacy for medicine, we need the data that shows the hard numbers about diversity and inclusion, the stigma and shame of cannabis use or working in this industry, about sexual harassment, disrespect and bullying.

This study is about generating information and creating knowledge on this issue so we can determine the education, policies, procedures and actionable recommendations that can help make the industry a welcoming space for everyone.

One of the best ways to create a more inclusive industry is through education.

CIJ: What hurdles do women face in the cannabis industry? How is that different from other, more established industries?

Jennifer: As we review research results from more established industries, it seems clear that women face similar hurdles in cannabis. Various studies have shown that working women are faced with unequal pay, fewer opportunities for mentorship or sponsorship, as well as discrimination and disrespect. The issues for female entrepreneurs are even greater as women are significantly less likely to receive venture capital funding, which certainly speaks to experience in the cannabis industry.

Because there’s little data specifically focused on the cannabis industry, we are just guessing. This study will provide us those answers.

CIJ: Looking ahead, how do you think women will fare in the evolution of the cannabis market?

Jennifer: I’d like to think that if we are all purposeful and intentional about creating an equitable, inclusive, and representational industry, that women will fare significantly better than they have in other industries typically dominated by men. If that can happen, everyone will feel welcome and respected, and it will no longer be surprising news when a woman is promoted to CEO or becomes a successful founder.