As a fast-growing cannabis company, ensuring your business stays compliant with regulatory agencies of all kinds—planning departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and so on—is critical for survival. But is your business also compliant with temporary and part-time employment regulations? Violating these often-overlooked regulations can land your company in hot water at best and force you to shut your doors at worst. Here’s what you need to know about risks, regulations, compliance issues and more.
The 30,000-Foot View: Part-Time and Temporary Employees
Cannabis has proven itself to be a high-turnover industry. But in the ever-shifting, post-COVID landscape, many cannabis employers are seeing the financial and logistical benefits of hiring part-time and temporary workers.
Though the terms “part-time” and “temporary” are sometimes used interchangeably, the fact is, there are legal differences in the definitions of part-time versus temporary work. For starters, temporary employees must work for less than a year at a specific organization, and their work must have a defined end date. Temporary employees, or “temps,” often fill vacant roles in a temporary capacity, such as roles previously occupied by someone on parental leave.
Part-time employees, on the other hand, can work indefinitely for a company—but they must work less than 40 hours per week. And, side note, if a part-time employee works more than 1,000 hours in a calendar year, they could be eligible for retirement benefits—so hiring managers, bear that in mind.
For employers, there are some tangible benefits in hiring part-time or temporary workers. For starters, there are often fewer upfront costs associated with hiring part-time workers (like workers’ compensation and healthcare). Establishing a strong part-time and temp employment strategy also allows for employers to quickly scale up or down based on market tendencies or shifts.
Understanding the Risks of Hiring Part-Time or Temporary Workers
While hiring part-time and temporary workers can help businesses stay agile and responsive to market demands or fill vacancies created by recent resignations, many businesses hire these types of employees without a full understanding of associated regulations. And it can get even trickier: many full-time cannabis industry workers in the cultivation space aren’t considered “employees” at all—they’re defined by the federal government as “agricultural workers.”
It’s essential that businesses classify part-time workers and independent contractors correctly. Attempting to claim a worker is part-time when they’re really a full-time employee (a practice known as “misclassification”) can save a business tax dollars in the short-term but lead to sanctions and hefty penalties down the line. For example, if a worker is misclassified and the Department of Industrial Relations finds out, they can sue the former employer for unpaid wages.
Potential fallout from noncompliance with classification or wage and hour issues includes massive fines, potential litigation and more. Federal agencies are extremely sensitive to cannabis business regulatory violations, it’s vital to adhere to proper staffing regulations and compliance. The wrong kind of attention can tank your business’s reputation and halt your operations altogether. I’ve personally worked with numerous cannabis businesses in their hiring and payroll initiatives, and I’ll say this: It may seem like a headache to cross all the “Ts” and dot all the “Is” in the beginning, but it will make a massive difference down the line.
Understanding the Regulations for Hiring Part-Time or Temporary Workers
All employers must adhere to the regulations set forth by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates that part-time employees must be treated the same as full-time employees. That means they must be paid minimum wage, be paid overtime should they exceed their determined hours, have the opportunity to take job-protected unpaid leave, and so on. I really want to stress how essential it is that employers classify their workers appropriately.
It’s also worth noting that many states have specific regulatory structures for employment, both full- and part-time.
In the heavily regulated cannabis industry, employers must exercise strict due diligence to meet all OSHA standards. Additionally, they must identify all occupational hazards and account for employees’ overtime and double time. Grow operations must also adhere to the Field Sanitation Provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which includes providing toilets, drinking water, hand sanitation facilities and hygiene information.
Avoiding Compliance Problems with Planning and Diligence
There’s a lot more to hiring workers than businesses realize, especially in cannabis. Most companies don’t intend to be noncompliant with regulations—they simply don’t know the regulations, or they’re overwhelmed by hiring and growing so quickly. To make sure you’re compliant, you might consider building out your HR team, educating yourself as the business leader and reaching out to staffing and HR professionals in the space who can answer your questions. In this rapidly growing industry, which seems to shift and change every day, planting your feet firmly on solid regulatory ground will serve to benefit you in the event of federal legalization, massive business growth or initiatives you may want to undertake in the future.
Facility layout and design are important components of overall operations, both in terms of maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of the process(es) executed in a facility, and in meeting the needs of personnel. Prior to the purchase of an existing building or investing in new construction, the activities and processes that will be conducted in a facility must be mapped out and evaluated to determine the appropriate infrastructure and flow of processes and materials. In cannabis markets where vertical integration is the required business model, multiple product and process flows must be incorporated into the design and construction. Materials of construction and critical utilities are essential considerations if there is the desire to meet Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) compliance or to process in an ISO certified cleanroom. Regardless of what type of facility is needed or desired, applicable local, federal and international regulations and standards must be reviewed to ensure proper design, construction and operation, as well as to guarantee safety of employees.
Materials of Construction
The materials of construction for interior work surfaces, walls, floors and ceilings should be fabricated of non-porous, smooth and corrosive resistant surfaces that are easily cleanable to prevent harboring of microorganisms and damage from chemical residues. Flooring should also provide wear resistance, stain and chemical resistance for high traffic applications. ISO 22196:2011, Measurement Of Antibacterial Activity On Plastics And Other Non-Porous Surfaces22 provides a method for evaluating the antibacterial activity of antibacterial-treated plastics, and other non-porous, surfaces of products (including intermediate products). Interior and exterior (including the roof) materials of construction should meet the requirements of ASTM E108 -11, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Covering7, UL 790, Standard for Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings 8, the International Building Code (IBC) 9, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 11, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other applicable building and safety standards, particularly when the use, storage, filling, and handling of hazardous materials occurs in the facility.
Critical and non-critical utilities need to be considered in the initial planning phase of a facility build out. Critical utilities are the utilities that when used have the potential to impact product quality. These utilities include water systems, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), compressed air and pure steam. Non-critical utilities may not present a direct risk to product quality, but are necessary to support the successful, compliant and safe operations of a facility. These utilities include electrical infrastructure, lighting, fire detection and suppression systems, gas detection and sewage.
Water quality, both chemical and microbial, is a fundamental and often overlooked critical parameter in the design phase of cannabis operations. Water is used to irrigate plants, for personnel handwashing, potentially as a component in compounding/formulation of finished goods and for cleaning activities. The United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter 1231, Water for Pharmaceutical Purposes 2, provides extensive guidance on the design, operation, and monitoring of water systems. Water quality should be tested and monitored to ensure compliance to microbiological and chemical specifications based on the chosen water type, the intended use of the water, and the environment in which the water is used. Microbial monitoring methods are described in USP Chapter 61, Testing: Microbial Enumeration Tests3and Chapter 62, Testing: Tests for Specified Microorganisms 4, and chemical monitoring methods are described in USP Chapter 643, Total Organic Carbon 5, and Chapter 645, Water Conductivity6.Overall water usage must be considered during the facility design phase. In addition to utilizing water for irrigation, cleaning, product processing, and personal hygiene, water is used for heating and cooling of the HVAC system, fogging in pest control procedures and in wastewater treatment procedures A facility’s water system must be capable of managing the amount of water required for the entire operation. Water usage and drainage must meet environmental protection standards. State and local municipalities may have water usage limits, capture and reuse requirements and regulations regarding runoff and erosion control that must also be considered as part of the water system design.
Lighting considerations for a cultivation facility are a balance between energy efficiency and what is optimal for plant growth. The preferred lighting choice has typically been High Intensity Discharge (HID) lighting, which includes metal halide (MH) and high-pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs. However, as of late, light-emitting diodes (LED) systems are gaining popularity due to increased energy saving possibilities and innovative technologies. Adequate lighting is critical for ensuring employees can effectively and safely perform their job functions. Many tasks performed on the production floor or in the laboratory require great attention to detail. Therefore, proper lighting is a significant consideration when designing a facility.
Environmental factors, such as temperature, relative humidity (RH), airflow and air quality play a significant role in maintaining and controlling cannabis operations. A facility’s HVAC system has a direct impact on cultivation and manufacturing environments, and HVAC performance may make or break the success of an operation. Sensible heat ratios (SHRs) may be impacted by lighting usage and RH levels may be impacted by the water usage/irrigation schedule in a cultivation facility. Dehumidification considerations as described in the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Committee Blog: An Introduction to HVACD for Indoor Plant Environments – Why We Should Include a “D” for Dehumidification 26 are critical to support plant growth and vitality, minimize microbial proliferation in the work environment and to sustain product shelf-life/stability. All of these factors must be evaluated when commissioning an HVAC system. HVAC systems with monitoring sensors (temperature, RH and pressure) should be considered. Proper placement of sensors allows for real-time monitoring and a proactive approach to addressing excursions that could negatively impact the work environment.
Compressed air is another, often overlooked, critical component in cannabis operations. Compressed air may be used for a number of applications, including blowing off and drying work surfaces and bottles/containers prior to filling operations, and providing air for pneumatically controlled valves and cylinders. Common contaminants in compressed air are nonviable particles, water, oil, and viable microorganisms. Contaminants should be controlled with the use appropriate in-line filtration. Compressed air application that could impact final product quality and safety requires routine monitoring and testing. ISO 8573:2010, Compressed Air Specifications 21, separates air quality levels into classes to help differentiate air requirements based on facility type.
Facilities should be designed to meet the electrical demands of equipment operation, lighting, and accurate functionality of HVAC systems. Processes and procedures should be designed according to the requirements outlined in the National Electrical Code (NEC) 12, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 13, National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) 14, International Building Code (IBC) 9, International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 15 and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).
Fire Detection and Suppression
“Facilities should be designed so that they can be easily expanded or adjusted to meet changing production and market needs.”Proper fire detection and suppression systems should be installed and maintained per the guidelines of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 11, International Building Code (IBC) 9, International Fire Code (IFC) 10, and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). Facilities should provide standard symbols to communicate fire safety, emergency and associated hazards information as defined in NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols27.
Processes that utilize flammable gasses and solvents should have a continuous gas detection system as required per the IBC, Chapter 39, Section 3905 9. The gas detection should not be greater than 25 percent of the lower explosive limit/lower flammability limit (LEL/LFL) of the materials. Gas detection systems should be listed and labeled in accordance with UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems16 and/or UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems 17 and UL 2075, Standard for Gas and Vapor Detectors and Sensors18.
Product and Process Flow
Product and process flow considerations include flow of materials as well as personnel. The classic product and process flow of a facility is unidirectional where raw materials enter on one end and finished goods exit at the other. This design minimizes the risk of commingling unapproved and approved raw materials, components and finished goods. Facility space utilization is optimized by providing a more streamlined, efficient and effective process from batch production to final product release with minimal risk of errors. Additionally, efficient flow reduces safety risks to employees and an overall financial risk to the organization as a result of costly injuries. A continuous flow of raw materials and components ensures that supplies are available when needed and they are assessable with no obstructions that could present a potential safety hazard to employees. Proper training and education of personnel on general safety principles, defined work practices, equipment and controls can help reduce workplace accidents involving the moving, handling, and storing of materials.
Facilities management includes the processes and procedures required for the overall maintenance and security of a cannabis operation. Facilities management considerations during the design phase include pest control, preventative maintenance of critical utilities, and security.
A Pest Control Program (PCP) ensures that pest and vermin control is carried out to eliminate health risks from pests and vermin, and to maintain the standards of hygiene necessary for the operation. Shipping and receiving areas are common entryways for pests. The type of dock and dock lever used could be a welcome mat or a blockade for rodents, birds, insects, and other vermin. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should define the procedure and responsibility for PCP planning, implementation and monitoring.
Routine preventative maintenance (PM) on critical utilities should be conducted to maintain optimal performance and prevent microbial and/or particulate ingress into the work environment. Scheduled PMs may include filter replacement, leak and velocity testing, cleaning and sanitization, adjustment of airflow, the inspection of the air intake, fans, bearings and belts and the calibration of monitoring sensors.
In most medical cannabis markets, an established Security Program is a requirement as part of the licensing process. ASTM International standards: D8205 Guide for Video Surveillance System 23, D8217 Guide for Access Control System, and D8218 Guide for Intrusion Detection System (IDS) 25 provide guidance on how to set up a suitable facility security system and program. Facilities should be equipped with security cameras. The number and location of the security cameras should be based on the size, design and layout of the facility. Additional cameras may be required for larger facilities to ensure all “blind spots” are addressed. The facility security system should be monitored by an alarm system with 24/7 tracking. Retention of surveillance data should be defined in an SOP per the AHJ. Motion detectors, if utilized, should be linked to the alarm system, automatic lighting, and automatic notification reporting. The roof area should be monitored by motion sensors to prevent cut-and-drop intrusion. Daily and annual checks should be conducted on the alarm system to ensure proper operation. Physical barriers such as fencing, locked gates, secure doors, window protection, automatic access systems should be used to prevent unauthorized access to the facility. Security barriers must comply with local security, fire safety and zoning regulations. High security locks should be installed on all doors and gates. Facility access should be controlled via Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) access cards, biometric entry systems, keys, locks or codes. All areas where cannabis raw material or cannabis-derived products are processed or stored should be controlled, locked and access restricted to authorized personnel. These areas should be properly designated “Restricted Area – Authorized Personnel Only”.
The thought of expansion in the beginning stages of facility design is probably the last thing on the mind of the business owner(s) as they are trying to get the operation up and running, but it is likely the first thing on the mind of investors, if they happen to be involved in the business venture. Facilities should be designed so that they can be easily expanded or adjusted to meet changing production and market needs. Thought must be given to how critical systems and product and process flows may be impacted if future expansion is anticipated. The goal should be to minimize down time while maximizing space and production output. Therefore, proper up-front planning regarding future growth is imperative for the operation to be successful and maintain productivity while navigating through those changes.
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <1231>, Water for Pharmaceutical Purposes.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <61>, Testing: Microbial Enumeration Tests.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <62>, Testing: Tests for Specified Microorganisms.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <643>, Total Organic Carbon.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <645>, Water Conductivity.
ASTM E108 -11, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings.
UL 790, Standard for Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings.
International Building Code (IBC).
International Fire Code (IFC).
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
National Electrical Code (NEC).
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
National Electrical Safety Code (NESC).
International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).
UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems.
UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems.
UL 2075, Standard for Gas and Vapor Detectors and Sensors.
International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE) Good Practice Guide.
International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE) Guide Water and Steam Systems.
ISO 8573:2010, Compressed Air Specifications.
ISO 22196:2011, Measurement Of Antibacterial Activity On Plastics And Other Non-Porous Surfaces.
D8205 Guide for Video Surveillance System.
D8217 Guide for Access Control Syst
D8218 Guide for Intrusion Detection System (IDS).
National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA): Committee Blog: An Introduction to HVACD for Indoor Plant Environments – Why We Should Include a “D” for Dehumidification.
NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols.
The industry’s most influential trade show is coming back to San Francisco! We’re thrilled to be gathering in person December 15-17, 2021 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center for the 7th Annual Cannabis Business Summit & Expo.
At the premier cannabis business event, industry entrepreneurs, experts, and thought leaders will come together to learn, network, and discover new products & services to help their businesses grow. With unique content presented by the best and brightest minds in the industry, unmatched networking opportunities, and 400+ exhibitors, this is an experience you won’t want to miss.
Stay tuned for important announcements. Registration coming soon! This complimentary virtual conference consists of 4 back-to-back webinars, all on the same day.
In a number of states across the country, edibles, topicals, beverages and other infused products are taking up a larger percentage of the market share. They come in all shapes and sizes- from granola bars to lotions, lubricant and scented candles; manufacturers are infusing a wide variety of products with cannabis, creating a market that meets a larger consumer demographic.
Different states have different rules when it comes to product safety. Some states require ServSafe training and local health inspections, while others have more stringent lab testing rules, require documented GMPs and even a form of certification demonstrating proper food safety protocols.
State regulations shouldn’t be the reason why infused products manufacturers have robust safety and quality standards, consumer safety is. Getting ahead of regulations with proactive safety and quality planning can improve a business’s bottom line tremendously. There are a number of tools and tricks cannabis companies can learn from the food industry to streamline their businesses and gain a bigger chunk of the market share.
Russell is the CEO of NES Technology Holdings, a technology development and marketing company that operates Vapor Distilled and LifeTonic Brands. NES Technology Holdings has invented a technology portfolio of more than 160 granted and pending patents that cover inventions across several high-value industries, including cannabis, beverage, fragrance and nutraceuticals. The company is currently in license acquisition diligence processes with 7 of world’s 10 largest fragrance companies and has received a joint venture offer from a $3 billion fragrance company to produce perfumes with its extraction technology. It is also launching ionized cannabis beverage products that provide effects as quickly as alcohol in Nevada and Colorado this fall.
Vapor Distilled invented and commercialized an evaporative extraction process with 40 international patents granted and pending that, along with CO2 extraction, is one of only two fundamentally new extraction processes invented in the last 50 years. Instead of using solvents or hydrocarbons to extract oils from plants, evaporative extraction directly evaporates essential oils from plants and condenses the evaporated compounds into an extract. The process takes less than two seconds to complete and extracts higher levels of volatile terpenes than existing extraction methods. Vapor Distilled has built a fleet of commercial-scale extraction machines and has supplied some of the cannabis industry’s largest brands. The company is currently licensing its evaporative extraction technology within the perfume industry and is marketing an aroma hop extract to replace the dry hopping step when making beer.
LifeTonic invented a drug delivery technology with 56 patents pending and granted, that turns oil-based plant compounds like CBD and THC into electrically charged cannabinoid ions that dissolve completely in water without emulsifiers or additives. When cannabinoids are ionized, absorption is significantly enhanced and their effects can be felt in minutes. The effects of a LifeTonic ionized CBD beverage can be felt by most people in less than 5 minutes, whereas the effects of a LifeTonic ionized THC beverage can be felt by most people in less than 8 minutes. For reference, typical onset times for cannabis beverages are 30 minutes or longer. LifeTonic beverage technology will allow cannabis beverages to work as quickly as alcohol, enabling cannabis to become a social drink.
We spoke with Russell Thomas, CEO of Vapor Distilled and LifeTonic about his cannabinoid evaporation process and rapid onset beverage technologies. Thomas is a career entrepreneur and inventor with 21 years of experience inventing and protecting intellectual property. Russell’s team has generated more than 160 granted and pending patents. Prior to entering the cannabis industry, Thomas worked in the cleantech industry.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Russell Thomas: I came to the cannabis industry from the cleantech industry where I worked on technologies that improved the fuel economy of vehicles. I saw opportunities in the cannabis industry to improve cannabis extraction, which was one of the most important supply chain verticals in cannabis. Every product, from edibles to beverages and vape products, requires a cannabis extract. Any product that needs to be accurately dosed requires an extract. The old way of making edible products with cannabis butter was simply not viable as the industry matured, and most people were rapidly moving away from smoking cannabis and embracing vape products. Even with the entire industry almost completely dependent on extraction, no fundamental innovation was occurring. The primary ways that cannabis was being extracted were chemically intensive. The cleaner methods, such as CO2 extraction, were slow and expensive for terpene recovery. I saw this as a great opportunity to provide a better solution within a primary funnel of the cannabis supply chain.
We commercialized an extraction technology that evaporates cannabinoids directly from plant material in the form of vapor, and then recondenses that vapor back into an essential oil. The entire process takes less than two seconds to complete and preserves fragile terpenes. That technology, called Evaporative Extraction, is the foundation of Vapor Distilled.
Green: What timeframe was that roughly?
Thomas: We capitalized our company in 2015 and began selling wholesale extracts in 2017.
Green: Can you talk more about the evaporative extraction process?
Thomas: Our process works in a similar way to a cannabis vaporizer, but on a massive scale. Our extract is literally recondensed cannabis vapor. In one step, we extract, refine, and activate cannabinoids. On one end, plant material goes in the machine, and on the other end, extract and depleted plant material comes out. Our total extraction time is less than two seconds if you measure the time from when the plant material goes into the extractor and when the extract is condensed.
A continuous feed of dry plant material is introduced into a heated air stream. The air stream pneumatically conveys the plant material through a series of turbulent, heated evaporation chambers. Upon entering the evaporation chambers, volatile plant compounds are instantaneously distilled from the plant material. A centrifugal separator removes the depleted plant material from the air stream. The air stream is rapidly cooled, causing the volatile plant compounds to condense into an essential oil.
We achieve nearly total activation of THCA to THC simultaneously during extraction and, on average, we extract approximately two to four times more terpenes than a conventional extraction process. The cannabis industry is rampant with exaggeration about terpenes, but we are the only cannabis company negotiating a joint venture with a $3 billion fragrance company to produce perfumes, and I think that says a lot about our process.
Green: Is the extract coming out then as an oil?
Thomas: Our extract comes out of our machines as a fully-activated, high-terpene content, full spectrum oil. Unlike the THC crude that emerges from other processes, our extract requires no further distillation, activation or refinement. You can put it straight into a product.
Green: How about terpene recovery?
Thomas: This is by far what we do best. We excel with the recovery terpenes and volatile compounds from plant material. From day one, we noticed that our evaporative extraction process yields about two to four times more terpenes by mass compared to traditional extraction methods.
While we started as a cannabis company, we recently received a compelling joint venture offer from a $3 billion fragrance company to produce perfume products with our technology. We are also under NDA with 7 of the world’s 10 largest fragrance companies to complete diligence processes to license our extraction technology.
As part of our licensing diligence process, we are performing paid fragrance extraction research for three multi-billion-dollar fragrance companies. Our evaporative extracted fragrance extracts are presenting a broader and more complete range of volatile compounds compared reference samples. We are also seeing substantially improved yield of volatile fragrance compounds. Combined, this gives us the advantage of being able to produce more extract at a lower cost, while also producing a superior product. This combination is how licensees can take market share away from any fragrance company that does not have access to our technology, and it is why we are seeing so much rapid traction in this area.
We have also extracted hops with our technology. If you’ve ever smelled a traditional hops resin, it smells good, but the smell doesn’t fill the room. If you put just a drop of our hops extract on any surface, the entire room will smell strongly of a premium IPA beer. It’s so potent you don’t want to get it on your hands or clothes because you will smell like beer for hours. It’s powerful and wonderful stuff!
Green: What is your business model?
Thomas: At our core, we are a technology development and licensing company. We first identify what we believe to be critical verticals and bottlenecks in high-value industries, then we develop and patent highly differentiated and disruptive technology solutions that we believe exist nowhere else. We then demonstrate both market fit and viability at scale through proof-of-concept sales of branded and high-profile, white-labeled products produced with our unique technologies. Finally, we systematically license and exit the various portions our IP portfolio though the orchestration of highly competitive bidding processes that promote both defensive and strategic acquisitions of our technologies. We are currently at the final phase of our model with licensing our extraction technology, and we are receiving offers as part of a competitive bidding process.
Green: Okay, let’s change gears here and start talking more about LifeTonic and your cannabinoid ionization technology. Can you talk high level about the onset times of cannabinoids in different matrices and media?
Thomas: Through LifeTonic, we invented 56 international patents granted and pending cannabinoid ionization technology that compresses the normal onset time of cannabis beverages from 30 minutes down to just a few minutes. Our cannabinoid ionization technology can also be used as a rapid onset vape alternative when sold in a breath spray format. We are currently selling hemp-based versions of these products through LifeTonic.com, and we are bringing THC versions of these products to market in Nevada and Colorado this fall and winter under the brand name LifeTonic.
All conventional and even nano-emulsified cannabis edibles and beverages take a long time to work. A cannabis chocolate can take 45 minutes to two hours before the effects kick in. Cannabis gummies are faster, but it still takes half an hour to 45 minutes to feel the effects. The very best nano-emulsified cannabis beverages take about a half an hour to work on average, if you are lucky. That long of a time delay effectively eliminates the social aspect of consuming cannabis, so most people instead choose to vaporize or smoke cannabis.
If you look at the largest investments that have been made across cannabis, some of the most prominent have been made by alcohol companies. Constellation Brands invested nearly $4 billion into Canopy Growth, with a mission to find an alternative to alcohol in cannabis. Molson Coors has partnered with Hexo and AB InBev has partnered with Tilray, both with that same mission. Even after all this effort and investment, cannabis beverages represent just a sliver of the market because current cannabis-based beverages take too long to work. The fastest ones on the market, on average, take around a half hour to kick in.
Imagine going to a bar and knowing that every time you got a shot of tequila or a shot of whiskey it’s going to take thirty minutes or more for the effects to even begin to kick in. That would be terrible. That would be the end of social drinking. Unfortunately, that is how a conventional cannabis beverage works.
You can’t really get a social drinking experience with cannabis yet, so most people vape it because it’s fast. But a lot of people don’t want to smoke something; in fact, they don’t want to inhale at all. So, we saw beverages as a huge opportunity. How do we make cannabis beverages work as fast as alcohol? That’s what our ionization technology delivers. From all the people we’ve surveyed – hundreds of people – they say that they reliably feel an onset within about seven to eight minutes with our technology. That is just about as fast as a shot of tequila or whiskey.
“With our partners, we will be featuring LifeTonic beverage products on tap in a cannabis cocktail lounge right off the Las Vegas strip, where social consumption rules are welcoming.”What we’ve done is very different from available nanoemulsion technologies. All those technologies try to mix oil and water, and oil and water don’t mix. In a nanoemulsion, you mix cannabis, a carrier oil, an edible detergent and water, and then you run it all through an ultrasonic homogenizer that breaks the cannabinoids and oil into microscopic droplets suspended in water. There are a lot of styles of nanoemulsions, from spray-dried nanoemulsions to liquid liposomal encapsulations, and they all confer certain absorption benefits when compared to straight-up oil absorption. But still, even the microscopic oil droplets suspended in water are quite large compared to what we have done, and still take quite a long time to digest.
We looked at the cannabis molecule and we said, “You know what? If we can put a strong negative charge on it, if we can ionize it, then we can make it behave more like a dissolvable salt instead of an oil.” When we treat it this way, the cannabis molecule dissolves completely in the water without emulsifiers or additives. When something is dissolved, there is no nano-emulsion droplet size. It is single molecules dissolved water. A single ionized cannabinoid molecule is about 1,000 times smaller than an average nano-emulsion droplet – and this greatly enhances absorption. The onset speed of ionized cannabinoids compared to nanoemulsions is measurable as just a few minutes instead of a half hour or more.
We have 56 granted and pending patents on LifeTonic’s ionization technology. We can ionize THC, CBD, CBG and CBD – most cannabinoids are compatible. There are also several herbal products that are compatible with our ionization technology, like the curcuminoids in turmeric, which are normally very hard to get into water. We can also ionize the eugenol that is in cloves. Ionized eugenol is an intoxicant, so we have big plans for alcohol alternatives outside of cannabis.
We’re using this technology to enter the Nevada cannabis market with one of the largest dispensary chains and cannabis product manufacturers in Nevada. With our partners, we will be featuring LifeTonic beverage products on tap in a cannabis cocktail lounge right off the Las Vegas strip, where social consumption rules are welcoming. We’ll craft every kind of cocktail you can imagine, only without alcohol. All these beverages will work in a matter of minutes to provide the first true social drinking experience with cannabis. After you enjoy a beverage, you may purchase a package of ionized THC beverage powder sachets in the cannabis cocktail lounge or at any of the dispensaries within our distribution network. You can pour the powder into any beverage, and it becomes a friendly, fast-acting THC beverage that will get you high, but not leave you with a hangover. We will also be selling a breath-spray format that works almost as quickly as vaping.
Green: What kind of validation studies have you done?
Thomas: We have conducted several broad market studies for our ionized products and almost all people report a profound onset within a few minutes. We have not completed a formalized clinical trial, but we are closing a major funding round that will allow us to do so. We plan to begin controlled pre-clinical trials focused mainly on ionized CBD because it’s far easier to get FDA approval for clinical trials on CBD than for THC. Our studies will monitor a couple dozen volunteers with a functional MRI and watch the change in the brain using our oral spray and beverage products compared against a standard CBD tincture control. We know that we’re going to see fast action because everybody who uses it says that a feeling develops in minutes.
Green: What geographies are you active in and exploring?
Thomas: CBD and hemp products from our extraction technology have been sold in every US state and parts of Europe. Additionally, hemp-based CBD and CBG versions of our ionized products and ionized turmeric products have been sold in several states through our LifeTonic.com, our ecommerce site. We have also sold white labeled versions of our ionized products through partner brands. We will be launching THC versions of our ionized products with our partners Nevada this fall. We expect THC versions to also be available in Colorado this winter.
Green: So, you are creating the powders on site?
Thomas: Yes. We manufacture ionized CBD, CBG, eugenol and turmeric beverage powders on site. We also manufacture and fast acting ionized sprays. These products are sold through our own retail site and we white label for other brands. Per our long-term licensing strategy, these sales establish market viability through sales. Selling products and establishing market viability prior to licensing significantly increases the value of our licenses and exits. It’s very important to answer the question: Do people buy it and do people love it? So far, we like the feedback!
On the THC side, we manufacture ionized products through partners in each cannabis state that we enter. We manufacture the ionizing base here in Colorado, then we ship it to other states where our partners add the THC and package it in LifeTonic-branded packaging. The analogy is that we sell a proprietary Coca-Cola formula without the caffeine, then our partners add the caffeine and bottle it in Coca-Cola branded bottles. In this way, we ensure that the hardest part of our process is controlled house to ensure consistency and quality across all states. It also allows us to be a non-plant touching business, since we only sold upstream base products that did not contain THC. We pick the best manufacturing and distribution partner in each cannabis state and grow from there.
Green: What’s the one thing you’re most interested in learning about?
Thomas: Increasing the bioavailability of cannabis. I have been most passionate about making cannabis work as quickly as alcohol and giving people an alternative to inhaling it through smoking or vaping. That’s definitely what we’ve been most excited about as a company.
For the uninitiated, delta-8 THC is a cannabinoid that can be synthesized from cannabidiol (CBD) derived from hemp. It is an isomer of delta-9 THC, the more commonly known psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis. Delta-8 THC does produce psychoactive effects, though not quite as much as its better-known cousin, delta-9 THC.
Due to loopholes in federal and state laws, namely the 2018 Farm Bill specifying that hemp must contain less than 0.3% Delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC is technically legal across the country. It grew in popularity across the United States very quickly over the past year, largely due to online sales.
Following the surge in sales, a number of states including Colorado, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington have implemented some form of regulation or outright ban on products containing delta-8 THC. Christopher Hudalla, president and chief scientific officer of ProVerde Laboratories, told Chemical & Engineering News that he has a lot of safety concerns about the whole delta-8 THC craze. Hudalla says he’s more concerned about the processing involved to produce it in large quantities. “These are pretty aggressive synthetic conditions that use strong acids,” Hudalla says. “They might be using strong bases to neutralize. They can use metal catalysts. I hear different people doing it different ways.”
The FDA shares similar concerns. Their fourth point in the consumer update mentions that delta-8 THC products “often involve use of potentially harmful chemicals” in its production. They even claim that some manufacturers might be using unsafe household chemicals to synthesize delta-8 THC. “The final delta-8 THC product may have potentially harmful by-products (contaminants) due to the chemicals used in the process, and there is uncertainty with respect to other potential contaminants that may be present or produced depending on the composition of the starting raw material,” reads the FDA report.
In their consumer update, they note that between December 2020 and July 2021, they received 22 adverse event reports. Of the 22 reports, 14 were hospitalized following ingesting a delta-8 THC product. Notably, those reports included reactions consistent with symptoms from overconsumption of delta-9 THC, such as vomiting, hallucinations, trouble standing, and loss of consciousness.
The FDA says that national poison control centers received 661 cases of delta-8 THC products, with 41% being unintentional exposure, 39% involved pediatric patients and 18% required hospitalization.
In the consumer update, they tell the public that delta-8 THC products have not been evaluated by the FDA and that they “may be marketed in ways that put the public health at risk.” This includes marketing it as a hemp product, which it is. Still though, many consumers associate hemp products with somewhat innocuous things, like CBD oil, which is mostly harmless.
The FDA also mentions in the update that delta-8 THC does have psychoactive and intoxicating effects. The FDA says they are notifying the public about the delta-8 THC due to an uptick in adverse event reports, marketing that is appealing to children and concerns regarding manufacturing with unsafe chemicals and contaminants.
The WeedMaps parent company, WM Technology, Inc., announced this week that they have acquired Sprout, a cloud-based CRM and marketing platform in the cannabis industry. Sprout’s CRM software is used by dispensaries, distributors and cultivators in 28 different states and offers a variety of marketing services like text marketing, email marketing, coupons, surveys and more.
The Sprout Messenger software was launched back in April of this year and at the time was touted as a gamechanger in marketing technology, allowing companies to interact with their customers via email, text and their in-house chat in two-way chats.
WM Technology, Inc. was originally founded in 2008. Based in Irvine, California, the company’s business-to-consumer platform, WeedMaps, is known as a go-to resource for consumers seeking cannabis retailers. The app and website now offer online ordering, brand listings, product information and consumer education.
On the business-to-business side, WM Technology, Inc. has grown to include WM Business, a cloud-based SaaS solutions platform with offerings like point of sale, logistics, wholesale and ordering solutions software.
The acquisition of Sprout will help the WM Technology team grow their WM Business portfolio to offer more software solutions, according to Chris Beals, CEO and chairman of WM Technology, Inc. “Our strategy focuses on establishing WM Business as the software solution of choice for cannabis businesses,” says Beals. “With the addition of Sprout, we are one step closer to realizing this vision of providing an all-in-one seamless and integrated solution to run, manage, and grow one’s cannabis business. This acquisition will allow our clients to better target, reach, acquire and retain customers at scale.”
WM Technology, Inc. did not disclose the financial details of the acquisition yet.
Few people will disagree that financial compliance isn’t the most exciting topic within the cannabis industry. But compliance is, and always will be, the engine grease to the legal cannabis market. Cannabis operators have the arduous task of dealing with multiple layers of compliance, both operational (maintaining and adhering to regulations enforced by the state licensing board) and financial. These compliance measures include managing everything from seed-to-sale systems for all plant-related activity to on-site requirements like facility access points and alarms systems to name a few.
With complex compliance requirements for the business, the last thing cannabis operators want to think about is financial compliance. We created Confia on this notion. Just as cannabis regulators impose the tracking of plants through the supply chain via a seed-to-sale system, we have developed a storyboard similarly designed to follow the money, which is the equivalent of a transaction-to-deposit system.
Having experience in regulatory technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the world’s largest banks across multiple countries. This experience has afforded us the luxury of working alongside regulators, chief compliance officers and chief risk officers, understanding how risk is perceived by financial institutions and how it ought to be mitigated. It was this access and knowledge that allowed us to effectively reform, enhance and improve the antiquated BSA programs with a technology-enabled process. Leveraging technology is a necessity, almost a requirement, for the cannabis industry as legalization nears and banking access begins to broaden.
Jamming cannabis requirements into an existing BSA program doesn’t scale well. BSA programs are very manual, descriptive and process oriented. So, we’ve taken our prior experience and success in banking to form Confia, distilling the complexities and simplifying the deliverables surrounding cannabis banking compliance. To best articulate cannabis banking requirements, I break it down into three pillars.
Pillar One: KYC-Enhanced Due Diligence
The first pillar is the client-onboarding bucket or KYC – Know Your Customer. In the complex world of cannabis banking, banks must know and understand their clients to great depths. It’s not enough to simply know that the client exists; you also have to understand whether or not that client could be a potential risk to the bank, and one step further, the financial system. Cannabis is a high-risk industry, so the KYC requirement is escalated to a deeper diligence and review, called Enhanced Due Diligence (EDD).
Banks need to know and understand their customers’ story, and all the key parties (officers, directors, and those with key decision-making powers or access to the bank accounts) within that organization. This includes reviewing personal, business, and legal history – not to mention watchlists and negative news presence. An initial onboarding review must then be followed with daily screening and monitoring of all watchlists and adverse media. Typically, banks do KYC refreshes every three years. In cannabis, a full refresh should be done annually with the daily monitoring systems in place.
The high-risk nature of the industry also requires a level of diligence on all parties to a transaction, even if one of the parties, whether a payer or recipient, is not a client of your bank. Unlike traditional banking sectors, reliance on other banks’ KYC programs is far less defensible in the cannabis industry.
Pillar Two: Transactional Monitoring & Detection
Tracking and monitoring the actual financial transactions comprises the second pillar required for cannabis banking. At Confia, we have focused on streamlining processes, so the cannabis operator can seamlessly support the compliance obligation for every transaction. A bank must demonstrate supporting documentation for every cannabis transaction, and gathering such information is a large undertaking in and of itself and can pose future issues if not done properly, see the pitfalls for lack of compliance. Banks are obligated to understand the nature and reason for each transaction, the source of funds, ensure cannabis licenses are in good standing for all parties, and collect evidence such as accounting records and seed-to-sale data.
Core to transaction monitoring in the traditional sense, is the overarching support through anomaly detection. Relying on information is important, but testing those inputs keeps everyone honest. It is important to evaluate transactions from a holistic point of view relative to peers and relative to the general contents of a transaction. This anomaly detection layer is your last line of defense, and as new information is collected, it continues to refine itself.
Pillar Three: Filing and Reporting Requirements
The third component to compliant cannabis banking is regulatory filing and reporting. Once a client is onboarded, the account requires an initial suspicious activity report or SAR-Initial within 30 days of that client being approved by the bank. Then, a report must be filed every 90 days after that for all the transactions of that cannabis operator. Banks must file the SAR-Initial and the Continuing-SAR reports for each cannabis client they have.
Solutions like Confia automate the filing process and support the filing with transactional data evidenced on our distributed ledger of record. This provides immutable audibility and simplifies the process for all parties involved.
Compliance Requirements After US Legalization
The anticipation of federal legalization and banking reform bills has many operators hoping for easier banking. Yet, in my opinion, regulatory oversight and audits will likely increase after such reform or legalization. As other financial institutions start to support cannabis, it will inadvertently create greater opportunity and expose the financial system to nefarious or illegitimate transaction activity. This is why cannabis banking will be carefully monitored by regulators, and more so, why banks will be slow and pragmatic in standing up their internal cannabis banking programs. Some banks may forever avoid the cannabis industry due to the known pitfalls of an industry specific program, while others may simply mitigate the possible exposure to reputational risk.
Choose Wisely: Pitfalls for Lack of Compliance
Financial compliance is the responsibility and duty of the banks, but the real losers and result of non-compliance always fall on the cannabis operators. Regulatory action against an institution may result in the bank shutting down its cannabis program or may require them to complete a remediation of all their cannabis transactions for a certain period from its clients. At the end of the day, regardless of action, the cannabis operator is the one being punished. Operators either lose their bank account and have business massively disrupted, or they are asked to provide all the compliance docs for a historic period, which is a huge undertaking and operational distraction, ultimately impacting business and productivity. So, choose your banking partner wisely.
Summarizing Key Banking Requirements
In summary, banking in the cannabis industry will undoubtedly remain a high-risk industry, with or without legalization. Although banking opportunities may expand as US policies change, there will be continued compliance and regulatory requirements for the foreseeable future.
Onboarding and ongoing screening are critical
Evidence for every transaction is a significant portion of compliance and must not be dismissed
Evaluating activity with broader strokes is essential in mitigating against money laundering
Managing the staggered filing timelines and due dates for each client
Compliance is the most crucial factor in cannabis banking at this point. It cannot be overlooked or taken for granted. Cannabis operators must take an active role in evaluating the compliance programs of their financial providers. To open a bank account is one thing, but the consideration and effort that goes into keeping a bank account is the difference that will protect your business in the long run.
Earlier this summer in July, Senators Chuck Schumer, Ron Wyden and Cory Booker held a press conference where they introduced the first draft of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). During the press conference, the Senators laid out the foundation for their comprehensive cannabis legalization measure, emphasizing the need to address social equity and social justice matters, while also asking for support in revising the draft bill.
In response to that call for input on the draft legislation, a number of nonprofits and trade organizations last week submitted comments. Among the organizations to submit comments on the new legislative proposal to end federal cannabis prohibition were a lot of cannabis advocacy organizations: The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) and the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR). To refresh your memory, CPEAR is a controversial trade organization founded in March of this year by corporate interests in big alcohol and tobacco.
Regardless of the interests behind the organizations, all of them seemed to have comments that aligned with one another. All of the comments submitted by those organizations had a common theme: social equity. Even CPEAR submitted comments highlighting the importance of “providing substantial opportunities for small and minority-owned businesses.”
The NCIA’s comments are perhaps the most comprehensive of the group, outlining an equitable, state-centric and small business-focused plan for federal cannabis reform. The MCBA’s comments reflect its mission and focus on things like restorative justice, minority participation, equitable access and inclusion.
The MPP’s comments are noteworthy because of their concerns regarding a number of regulations. Karen O’Keefe, state policies director at the MPP, says certain aspects of the regulatory scheme need clarification. “Our two major areas of concern are: the possible upending of state licensing and regulatory systems — driving sales underground — and the impact on medical cannabis access, including for those under the age of 21,” says O’Keefe.
NORML’s feedback is also particularly poignant. They ask to leave medical cannabis markets exempted from the federal excise tax proposed and for the federal government to balance roles shared between the FDA, TTB and ATF to ensure that individual state markets won’t be adversely affected by federal regulation.
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 integrate innovative practices to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
4Front Ventures Corp. (CSE: FFNT) ( OTCQX: FFNTF) is a multi-state operator active in Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan and California. Since its founding in 2011, 4Front has built a reputation for its high standards and low-cost cultivation and production methodologies earned through a track record of success in facility design, cultivation, genetics, growing processes, manufacturing, purchasing, distribution and retail. To date, 4Front has successfully brought to market more than 20 different cannabis brands and nearly 2,000 unique product lines, which are strategically distributed through its fully owned and operated Mission dispensaries and retail outlets in its core markets.
We interviewed Andrew Thut, chief investment officer of 4Front Ventures. Andrew joined 4Front in 2014 after investing in the company in 2011. Prior to 4Front, Andrew worked in investment banking and later moved on to public equity where he was a portfolio manager at BlackRock.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Andrew Thut: I came at it from the investment side of things. I started my career as a junior investment banker right out of school and then I was a public equity analyst and Portfolio Manager. I ran small-cap growth portfolios for BlackRock where I was on the team for a better part of 11 years.
One of my friends, Josh Rosen, who came from the finance industry, got interested in the cannabis industry really in 2008. He founded 4Front as a consulting company officially in 2011 and I came in as an investor. After that original investment, I left BlackRock and I was looking for something different to do. I was tired of chasing basis points and running public market portfolios. Josh said to me “This industry needs more talent,” and I became more and more involved at 4Front as the years went on. In 2014, I came into the business full time. Originally, I was someone that was kind of the gray hair in the room when we were applying for licenses. We had to go to different municipalities and convince them that we were going to be responsible license holders. I also spent a lot of time on the capital raising side for our business leveraging my career in corporate and more traditional public finance. These are incredibly complex businesses that require a fair amount of capital in some places. So, that’s how I originally got into the business.
These are complicated businesses in a lot of cases. The “sausage making” in cannabis is incredibly complicated. There’s friction at every step along the way. As an example, when you’re buying a building where you want to cultivate your product, you can’t get a mortgage from a typical bank.
While those of us that have been in the industry like to gripe and complain about it, this friction is also the opportunity. Because more traditional investors can’t invest in this industry yet, it allows us more time to build our businesses and have some protective moats around it from a competition standpoint until those folks do come in. So, all this friction is a pain and it’s brutal, but it’s also the opportunity here in cannabis.
Green: Can you speak to the transformation of 4Front from consulting to MSO?
Thut: The original business was consulting. Our original investor was sensitive about touching the plant – it’s one thing to offer services to a federally illegal business, it’s another thing to directly run a federally illegal business. For example, 4Front would have consulting clients that were interested in acquiring a license in Massachusetts. Because of our expertise and our standard operating procedures, we could apply for licenses in limited license states on behalf of our clients and help them show regulators competence and give the regulator’s confidence that these operators knew what they were doing. So, we would help our clients win the licenses and then once those licenses were won, our operations folks would come in and help them get up running.
When I came into the business we said, “well, geez, we have quite a track record helping clients win licenses and get open. If we’re good at winning these licenses and getting them open, why aren’t we just doing this on our own behalf?” So, in 2015, we shifted the business from consulting to being a multi-state operator. We leveraged our capabilities in regulatory compliance and winning licenses to go and get those on our own behalf. We also leveraged our financial expertise in M&A to add to our portfolio, so what we ended up with was a seven-state portfolio at the time.
Green: Chief Investment Officer is an uncommon title, even in the MSO space. What does your day-to-day look like?
Thut: I spend an awful lot of time helping management plot our strategy, and then figuring out how we are going to pay for our growth. Not only structuring finances for the company, but also having contact with our existing and new investors.
I spend a lot of my day to day thinking about where we want to be as a business and what geographies we want to be in. If you look at cannabis longer term, we have less interest in being cultivators or farmers. We think that’s going to be the most quickly commoditized piece of the value chain. We like retail as a business, but I think that we have less interest in managing hundreds of retail locations scattered across the country. We ultimately want to be a finished goods manufacturer. What we think is going to matter longer term is establishing low-cost production.
There is a lot of price elasticity in the end markets for cannabis meaning if you get customers a quality product at a much better price than the competitor, you’re going to take outsize market share. To offer that lower price, you have to be efficient. Over the years, we have figured out how to bring the labor cost out of our production. We have 25 different brands with 1000s of different SKUs of products that have dominant market share in states like Washington. And we’re now putting them into Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, and hopefully New Jersey.
Green: Do you have a preference towards acquisition, or do you seek growth through internal investments?
Thut: We are always weighing build versus buy. We want our products to have dominant market share, or very strong market share in every state we are in, and we have a lens towards what gets us there faster and most efficiently. For instance, we have two cultivation facilities and one production facility here in Massachusetts – about 15,000 square feet of canopy in the state. That will just about serve our three retail locations in Massachusetts.
Back to our bigger investment thesis, we believe that we should be a finished goods wholesaler in every state that we’re in. We know our products are incredibly well received and we know that consumers love our price point. In Massachusetts, for instance, we’re currently evaluating if we need more capacity from a cultivation standpoint and a production standpoint. And if we do where do the lines cross in terms of whether we should build versus buy that additional capacity?
We are currently in five states, including our facility in Washington has dominant market share in one of the toughest markets in the world for cannabis – somewhere close to 9% market share in Washington. Our brands are in the top 10 of every single category from flower to vapes, to edibles everything across the board. And what we’re doing our strategy is simple. It’s taking those tried-and-true products and operating procedures that have been so effective in Washington, and we’re replicating them in other states where we have licenses: Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan, California and hopefully New Jersey. We’re looking for more state, but we want to be deep in the states we’re in.
We also have a lot of confidence that you know, having been having translated some of these, having been able to effectively take our Washington success story and port it to other states. We’re looking for other states to sort of bring into the portfolio because we feel like we’re in a position now to stamp it out.
At our facility in Washington, which is the number one edibles manufacturer in that state, we produce the edible Marmas which is our the number one selling gummy in Washington. We produce 3,500 boxes of those in one shift using 25 people in Washington. Our facility is one of the lowest cost producers in the country.
We are opening what we think is going to be a very disruptive facility in Southern California right now. The facility is 170,000 square feet of purely automated finished goods production. So, rather than making 3,500 boxes of our gummy squares in one shift using 25 people, with the automation that we have in California, we can make 30,000 boxes. So, 10x one shift for the same number of people. We look more like the Mars Candy Company than most investors would think of when they see a typical cannabis company. We’re bringing that kind of scale and automation.
Green: What are some of the industry trends that you’re watching closely?
Thut: We keep a close eye on limited license states. States like Massachusetts and Illinois. For various reasons Massachusetts is very tough to get zoned. So, there’s going to be a limited number of players in a state like Massachusetts, which means you can have pretty good moats around your business and pricing will hold up over several years. We love limited license states like that, where price is going to hold up. On the other hand, we’re not afraid to enter a state like California where we think our low-cost production expertise uniquely qualifies us to go into a huge market like that and be disruptive and take a lot of the pie.
“You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry.”What we’re seeing in terms of industry trends, particularly on the THC side of this business, has just been phenomenally strong. You’ve had robust medical markets where, by and large, we’re seeing those dominoes start to fall quickly and going recreational. When that happens, the size of the market increases – call it from 2% of the population to as much as 10% of the population. So, from a state regulatory standpoint, having states go form medical to adult use is a huge deal in terms of the market opportunity.
We’re also seeing states get a lot more comfortable with the idea of selling cannabis. I’ve been around for close to seven years in this industry. When I started and I went into a municipality, and I said we wanted to open a cannabis store you’d have people following me to my car with pitchforks. As these municipalities open and public acceptance comes around, people are realizing that these stores are providing jobs and providing a good tax base for communities. So, the acceptance of cannabis has a snowballing effect that just continues to roll.
It’s not just the ultra-frequent users of cannabis who are totally driving the bus in terms of the demand growth for your business. You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry. So, the fundamentals of this industry are phenomenal. I think that we’re probably in the second inning of what is a mega-trend of legalization of cannabis and the investment opportunity here.
Green: I think one of the interesting things about the fundamentals is you’ve got this hardship of 280E, that all the companies are facing, and yet you still have groups that are surviving, profitable and growing. What are your thoughts on 280E’s effect on cannabis businesses? Do you foresee anything happening there?
Thut: There was a huge liquidity crunch in cannabis in 2019, meaning it was hard for people to come up with capital to grow their businesses. You had a bunch of companies that had licenses who didn’t really know how to operate and weren’t really focused on profitability. That liquidity crunch of 2019 made people get religious about being profitable and being efficient with capital allocation. Fast forward to 2021 and if you look at the top 10 cannabis MSOs in the US, I think we’re all profitable.
So, here you have an industry with accelerating top line growth and they’re already profitable. That profitability should only improve as you’re able to leverage your operating expenses and that’s a unique thing. When the internet craze was started in 1999 you had companies that a weren’t profitable, didn’t have business models, and no one really knew what they wanted to be. You have companies here in cannabis that are growing the top line 50% a year, and they’re profitable, and they’re trading at under 10 times EBITDA, which is totally disjointed.
So, that leads me to your question on to 280E. 280E has been a problem. Banking has been a problem. Having to list our companies over the counter instead of on exchanges like the NASDAQ and NYSE – that’s been a problem in terms of attracting capital. But the good news is Senator Schumer, Senator Booker and others have put out some bold initiatives on what they want to achieve from a legalization standpoint. From an investment standpoint, the biggest thing that investors should be focused on is access to banking, which is included in the senators’ proposed legislation.
Once we get access to banking services, the federal government is basically acknowledging cannabis as an industry will be able to not only have more traditional financing for our growth, but it will also lead to uplift into exchanges and real institutions like the Fidelity’s and the BlackRock’s of the world being able to come and invest in these companies. It also acknowledges 280E is an antiquated law. Getting rid of 280E will give us a much lower tax rate and will allow us to have a bigger proportion of our pretax cash flow into growing our businesses rather than having to go outside for that funding. My crystal ball is probably no better or worse than others in the industry, but if you fast forward 18 months to two years, I have a tough time seeing 280E still in place.
Green: Last question here. What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about in the cannabis industry?
Thut: I’m just fascinated to see how these various business models will play out. People are placing bets on picks and shovels. People are placing bets on whether being a finished goods manufacturer works. People are placing bets on whether a retailer business model is going to win the day.
If you look at the leadership in the cannabis industry today, it’s totally different than it was four years ago. People that were foregone winners four years ago like MedMen had to do significant recaps. I put Acreage in that sort of bucket too. The leadership had shifted and so I’m really curious to see just from an intellectual standpoint, how this business evolves.
I sometimes scratch my head, you know, do you really want to be a cannabis company with 200 retail locations? You’re going to have a tough time growing same store sales in three to five years in 200 retail locations. So, I’m just most curious in proving out our thesis of being finished goods producers and low cost finished goods producers in the value chain. I’m most curious in seeing how that plays out. I think we are seeing our strategy play out in the most competitive markets in the world. We have a high degree of conviction that we’re on the right track here, but our eyes are always open and we’re always making little pivots here and there trying to make sure to stay on top of the sweet spot in the value curve.
If you describe the cannabis industry generically and you didn’t say cannabis, you said “widget” I think it’s the most fascinating Business School case ever presented. If you’re taking this market that already exists, it’s just illegal. So, all it needs to do is switch from the black market to the legal market and then you’re always trying to plot a course and steer the ship towards where the highest value creation can be. So, I’m fascinated to see how it’s going play out here.
Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks Andrew!
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