In a press release published, last week, Perry Johnson Registrars Food Safety, Inc. (PJRFSI) announced they are now officially the first certification body to be granted accreditation for cannabis certification in the United States by ANAB.
PJRFSI has developed a cannabis certification standard that uses GMP- and GAP-based scheme to help growers, manufacturers and retailers meet a wide range of different state regulations. The goal of the standard, according to the press release, is to provide guidelines for cultivation, manufacturing and retail best practices across the country.
Because each state has very different rules and requirements for cannabis companies, the certification requirements can be confusing and vary widely from state to state. With the release of this new standard, PJRFSI wants to simplify cannabis markets in the United States and hopefully get various states on a same or similar page.
According to Terry Boboige and Lauren Maloney, president and accreditation manager at PJRFSI respectively, they have a lot of hope for what the future holds in terms of unifying cannabis rules and requirements. “The team at Perry Johnson Registrars Food Safety Inc. is incredibly excited to be the first company in the United States to achieve formal accreditation for our Cannabis and Hemp Certification Program,” says Boboige and Maloney. “We believe this nationally-recognized program will help the budding cannabis and hemp industries to strengthen, legitimize, and separate themselves from companies that do not have formal certification. Certification to this standard will forever help enhance companies’ image, credibility, and reliability. Accredited certification exemplifies to the public that certified organizations who supply cannabis and hemp products and services have internal safety systems that can inspire confidence.”
On March 5, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release to the public about their work on devising a regulatory framework for cannabidiol (CBD) products. The FDA also submitted a report to Congress on their rulemaking progress.
The main theme of the report is the same story we’ve been hearing from the FDA for a while now: They are still working on figuring out how to regulate CBD products and wants to do more research before they tackle the rulemaking.
The most intriguing new development from this report is the FDA’s newfound interest in regulating CBD products like dietary supplements:
“FDA is actively considering potential pathways for certain CBD products to be marketed as dietary supplements. Under current law, CBD products cannot lawfully be marketed as dietary supplements, but FDA has the authority to create an exemption through notice-and-comment rulemaking that would allow products containing CBD to be sold legally as dietary supplements.”
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple years, here’s a recap: In June of 2018, the FDA approved GW Pharma’s drug, Epidiolex, for the treatment of rare forms of epilepsy. This allowed a drug containing CBD to go to market, but only through the agency’s drug approval process. When the 2018 Farm Bill (Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018) was signed into law in December later that year, the federal government removed cannabis (hemp) with less than 0.3% THC from the Controlled Substances Act, essentially legalizing it on a federal level. Congress tasked the FDA with figuring out how to regulate the market. Without any FDA guidance in the early days, the subsequent market growth created mass confusion for the industry and consumers alike, with no one really knowing if selling CBD products is legal or not. In May of 2019, the agency held a comment period and public hearing on CBD, which included a lot of discussion around the benefits, the risks and further research on CBD. Throughout 2019, the FDA sent a large number of warning letters to companies marketing CBD products with unsubstantiated health claims. Towards the end of 2019, Congress passed a bill mandating that the FDA update them on their progress to regulate the market within 60 days. That deadline came and went, and then the FDA issued the public update and submitted the report mentioned above to Congress last week.
The FDA says they intend to take a number of steps towards providing some market clarity, while still protecting the public from unknown risks. Firstly, they want to educate the public more about potential risks associated with CBD. “We remain focused on educating the public about the number of questions that remain regarding CBD’s safety,” reads the update. “There may be risks that need to be considered before using CBD products outside of the monitored setting of a prescription from your health care provider.” Those concerns mentioned above include potential liver injury, drug interactions, reproductive toxicity and more benign side effects like drowsiness.
The agency also wants to try and close knowledge gaps in the areas of safety and potential benefits. In this section of the update, the agency asks industry stakeholders for help. “We’re seeking reliable and high-quality data.” The agency is requesting data on sedative effects, impacts of long-term use, pharmacokinetics, safety of various drug delivery mechanisms, safety for animals, different processes for full or broad spectrum or isolate derivation, among other areas of interest. They plan to re-open the public docket from the public hearing back in May 2019, extending the comment period indefinitely as a tool for stakeholders to share information with the FDA.
As far as enforcement actions go, the agency wants to take a risk-based approach to it. While there is still no official enforcement policy, the FDA is working on it. Their biggest concern is with companies marketing CBD products using drug and health claims, which could “deter consumers from seeking proven, safe medical therapies for serious illnesses – potentially endangering their health or life.” The agency is also worried about potential contamination risk and consumer exposure to things like residual solvents and heavy metals. Their last concern in this area involves truth in labeling, like making false label claims, not listing every ingredient or incorrectly stating the amount of cannabinoids in the product.
“Our ongoing efforts related to CBD, including the steps we’re announcing today, are in line with our mission to protect the public, foster innovation and promote consumer confidence. We recognize the significant public interest in CBD and we must work together with stakeholders and industry to develop high-quality data to close the substantial knowledge gaps about the science, safety and quality of many of these products. We are committed to working efficiently to further clarify our regulatory approach to these products – as always, using science as our guide and upholding our rigorous public health standards.”
Overall, the public update and the report don’t disclose anything groundbreaking. They do, however, provide some much-needed guidance for the CBD market on how stakeholders can help the FDA’s efforts. The fact that they are investigating dietary supplements as a path toward a regulatory framework is the by far the biggest take away from all this.
Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy (OMP), the government agency in charge of regulating their cannabis industry, announced today a six-year contract for traceability software with Metrc LLC. According to the press release, the software will be used for the newly formed adult use market, which is just a few months away from going live with legal sales.
Maine’s OMP was previously under contract with BioTrackTHC as their software provider before switching to Metrc with this new contract. The software is cloud-based and uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags on plants and products to track cultivation and distribution of cannabis products throughout the state. The software is commonly used across the country in states that have legal cannabis markets. It essentially prevents diversion to the black market, allows for a transparent supply chain with clear chain of custody tracking and it increases recall readiness.
Erik Gundersen, Director of Maine’s OMP, says Metrc is helping to make a smooth launch of the adult use market. “We are excited to partner with Metrc,” says Gundersen. “Metrc is an industry leader, and their team is committed to delivering a product that will allow us to proceed with the launch of our adult use program later this spring.”
Over the next few months, Metrc and OMP plan on helping the industry familiarize themselves with the new software. The two organizations will go on the road in March, giving licensees training and answering questions. Metrc will then offer online training and evaluations followed by credentialing licensees showing they are proficient with the software.
Jeff Wells, CEO of Metrc, says they are excited to get to work. “We’re excited to partner with the OMP to help launch the state’s adult-use marijuana market,” says Wells. “2020 is another significant year for cannabis industry growth, and we look forward to serving the OMP, local cannabis businesses, and the people of Maine.”
The agreement is a six-year contract with a value of roughly $540,000. License holders pay a $40 monthly fee to access the system, which helps support training and technical support, according to the press release.
The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 legalized the growth, sales and transportation of industrial hemp across state lines. Although it looks identical to other types of cannabis, this cannabis plant contains less than 0.3 percent THC, and can be used to make building insulation, beauty products, car dashboards and more. Most significantly for farmers, it can serve as an ideal rotational crop because of its ability to reduce soil toxicity.
Until this update to the Farm Bill, hemp was considered a controlled substance and few U.S. farmers were granted rights to plant and harvest it. Now, the agricultural commodity is expected to raise the crop’s already growing GDP to that of liquor and beer sales and some estimate it should reach $20 billion in as little as five years.
Agribusinessesand farmers alike will now be looking to secure processors and other commodity buyers ahead of planting industrial hemp and purchasing the necessary equipment for its harvest. Because hemp can be grown in any climate, it may be especially attractive to tobacco growers and dairy farmers who have been less profitable as of late.
Now that it’s been legalized, what’s the risk?
As more agribusinesses and farmers look to confirm viability of industrial hemp growth, potential liabilities will surface. The 2018 Farm Bill left many questions unanswered. Here are a just a few FAQs:
Question: Can I just add hemp to my crop rotation, or is additional insurance required?
Answer: The standard multi-peril crop insurance policy DOES NOT provide coverage for planting hemp, or endorsements for its storage and transportation- yet. Instead, industrial hemp must be insured on separate private policies for: harvest, extreme weather and crop storage and transportation. There’s a strong push to get industrial hemp into the federal crop insurance program as early as crop year 2020. As hemp planting, harvesting, storage and transportation become more understood and predictable, new policy options will likely become available. Inquire about new coverage options at your next annual renewal.
Q: How will the FDA regulate industrialized hemp?
A: The FDA will develop rules and regulations on industrial hemp throughout 2019, and will be ready for rollout during the 2020 crop year. Because it’s impossible to distinguish a cannabis plant with THC from an industrial hemp plant in the field, crop lifecycle testing and documentation will likely be required. The question remains if this testing and documentation will be incumbent on the farm/agribusiness, or FDA agents. Some states are further along in this process and have already hired testing and compliance officers.
Q: How can farmers ensure that the THC content of their plants does not exceed .3%?
A: Farmers must have a contingency plan for monitoring their hemp’s THC content which should include employing a seasoned agronomist who can institute controls, keep plants properly hydrated and create a plan to maintain optimal THC levels. In the heat of the summer, THC levels typically remain low, but rise with cold and rain. Should there be a local cold spell, high rainfall, or if the hemp plant was seeded late in the season and the harvest runs into the fall, THC levels could rise quickly. When this happens, farmers will have to chop down the plant to control the level and harvest the plant’s flower before its next THC test.As with any emerging market, there is still a lot of doubt surrounding the growth and sales of industrial hemp, as many risks are unknown.
Q: Can I transport hemp across state lines to a processor in another state?
A: On paper, industrial hemp is legal across all 50 states, and therefore can be transported across state lines and sold as any other commodity. In reality, though, hemp is undistinguishable from cannabis to the naked eye, and therefore, shipping an entire biomass directly from the field across state lines has a good chance of being confiscated.
When hemp is confiscated on the side of the road – even if it is eventually returned – there could be significant lag in delivery, storage is uncertain and quality control can’t be maintained. Alternatively, farmers are now shipping their hemp in smaller, unmarked loads, which is forcing them to hold onto product for longer than usual.
As with any emerging market, there is still a lot of doubt surrounding the growth and sales of industrial hemp, as many risks are unknown. On the flip side, industrial hemp offers small farmers and agribusinesses alike an unprecedented opportunity to get in at the ground floor of a new crop. If you do, make sure to work with your insurance broker to secure proper coverage immediately.
For all the excitement about the “CBD” or “Cannabis-Lite” possibilities in Europe thanks to Switzerland over the last few years, the reality as of 2019 is proving to be a little different.
As of the end of May, Italy’s top court, the Court of Cessation, ruled that selling derivatives of cannabis sativa (from the buds and leaves to oils and resins) is illegal. Hemp of course, is excluded from this decree. And in fact, this decision was intended to close a loophole that was created in 2016 for so-called “Cannabis-Lite.” In other words low THC, CBD products and extracts that are showing up in the market as is or as an ingredient in something else (from food to makeup).
While this development is certainly a blow to those who were not in the know already, it is hardly surprising– especially given current events next door. German authorities just declared that they could find no use for “CBD”. This of course confuses the issue even further (since CBD is obviously found in both hemp and cannabis sativa.) Austria did the same thing late last year- and further did so on a level unseen anywhere else in Europe (namely putting cosmetics on the list too).Novel food regulation, at its heart, is all about the source of the plant and how it is processed.
In fact, and certainly in comparison, far from being nebulous, Italy appears to have taken, surprisingly, a rather scientific, if not clear-headed, approach to the issue in general. Not to mention a step that is absolutely in line with current EU policy on the same.
Novel food regulation, at its heart, is all about the source of the plant and how it is processed. This entire discussion about CBD falls squarely within that- although of course, hardly limited to just this one cannabinoid or in fact, plant genus.
What Should Investors Be Aware Of?
There is, as always, a hype around CBD. That is true in almost every legalizing market, but Europe, with a much stricter regional regulatory regime and at least a four-year path to recreational, has seen an odd twist in all of this for the last two years.
There is the potential for a CBD play in Europe, but it is niche, and country-by-countryIn the EU, the distinction between hemp and cannabis-derived cannabinoids (including but not limited to THC), is a well-known fact for those with any stripes in either the cannabis, or beyond that, mainstream food and drug industry. The largest confusion, in other words, is strictly at the lower rungs of the biz. Not to mention all foreigners.
Proof of the same? Purvey the contents of even the most wide-ranging Dutch Seed shop catalogue, and you will be hard-pressed to find non-hemp products. And even though such entities know how to get around loopholes themselves (starting with the online sale across Europe of cannabis seeds from all over the world), novel food is not a regulation even these cannabis entrepreneurs want to cross.
In other words, there is the potential for a CBD play in Europe, but it is niche, and country-by-country in an environment where both local and regional rules are shifting. And further are likely to do so for some time to come.
And in the meantime, those who make the grade, are certainly freed from one pressing if not looming question. The market in Italy is, in fact, not only far from “illegal,” but opening up both in terms of import and export to cannabis products from all over the world. Including of course, Canada and the United States.
CBD-infused coffee? CBD-infused chewing gum? Many think cannabis and its derivatives are the next big wellness craze that will make the demand for flax, fish oil and turmeric combined seem meager. The food and drink industries are cautiously exploring the cannabis market, trying to determine the optimal timing to introduce their own product lines.
The cannabis plant produces chemicals known as cannabinoids, one of which is cannabidiol, or CBD.When the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the Farm Bill) passed, the food and drink industries jumped into the hemp-derived CBD world with both feet because the Farm Bill lifted the federal ban on hemp production, which previously classified hemp as a controlled substance akin to heroin. Lifting the ban led to an explosion in the number of CBD products hitting the market around the country. However, repeated and recent actions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provide clear warning signs that the legal pitfalls surrounding CBD in food and drinks are not yet resolved.
CBD is marketed as a featured ingredient for a wide variety of products ranging from pain relievers, to protein bars beverages and supplements. Both CVS and Walgreens have announced plans to carry CBD products in their stores. However, despite the money pouring into CBD products, federal agencies are not relinquishing their controls.
In the Farm Bill, the FDA retained authority to regulate products containing cannabis or derivative products. The FDA has regulatory authority over foods (including dietary supplements and food additives), drugs (prescription and non-prescription), cosmetics, veterinary products and tobacco products, among other categories. Therefore, vendors of virtually all products containing CBD are regulated by the FDA.
It is important to note that the FDA does not view CBD derived from hemp differently than any other CBD despite the fact that it is non-psychoactive. CBD is an active ingredient in at least one FDA-approved prescription drug—Epidiolex. Therefore, under the logic of the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA), CBD is a drug. If a substance has been “approved” by the FDA as an active ingredient in a drug product, it is per se excluded from being defined as a “dietary supplement” under sections 201(ff)(3)(B)(i) and (ii) of the FDCA and it cannot be included as an ingredient in food.
It is highly unusual that CBD has been able to proliferate in the marketplace given the FDA’s technical legal position on it. FDA regulations on drugs are much more stringent than for food or dietary supplements. Generally, the FDA’s position on CBD in food and beverages is that it is unlawful to engage in interstate commerce with products containing CBD. The given reason is that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits the introduction of a food product into interstate commerce that contains an active ingredient in an approved drug. While arguments against this position exist, they have not carried the day, yet.
In March 2019, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced he would be resigning on April 5, 2019, but he sent clear warning signals to the CBD industry prior to his departure. In early April, the FDA cracked down on websites making “unfounded, egregious” claims about their CBD infused products. The FDA sent warning letters to three companies who made claims about their CBD products including that their CBD products stop cancer cell growth, slow Alzheimer’s progression, and treat heroin withdrawal symptoms. Commissioner Gottlieb issued a statement that he believed that these were egregious, over-the-line claims and deceptive marketing that the FDA would not tolerate.
The FDA also announced in early April that it will hold a public hearing on May 31, 2019, to obtain scientific data and information related to safety concerns, marketing and labeling cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds including CBD. The FDA expressed interest in hearing whether drug companies would still be motivated to develop drugs with CBD and other compounds if their use in food and beverages became more widespread. The FDA also announced plans for an internal working group to review potential pathways for legal marketing of CBD foods and dietary supplements. Of particular concern to the FDA is online retail products available nationwide such as oil drops, capsules, teas, topical lotions and creams.
The May 31 FDA hearing is an opportunity for interested parties to give feedback and help focus where the FDA should be creating clear industry standards and guidance. In the meantime, the industry should continue to expect warning letters from the FDA as well as possible state-level scrutiny. Companies would be wise to proactively review their labels and promotional practices in order to mitigate the risk of forthcoming actions and engage in the FDA’s provided avenues for industry input. Companies must also look to the laws of the states and even to the counties where they are selling their products.
Selling in a grey market isn’t for the faint of heart. You have to deal with the stigma surrounding your products and services, the potential for legal troubles, along with bureaucratic hurdles that all businesses face.
Acceptable marketing language surrounding consumable THC and CBD products encapsulates all of these issues, and it’s why everyone in the industry needs to pay close attention to what they’re saying. One innocent turn of phrase could have the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) shut down your business faster than you can say, “Oops.”
Avoiding this fate means making some adjustments to how you think about your marketing language, but this knowledge quickly becomes rote. Take a moment to learn how to protect yourself so that you can run your business rather than run afoul of the law.
Food, Drugs and Dietary Supplements
Scroll through Instagram for a few minutes and you’ll encounter a deluge of companies making claims about cannabis and CBD products. Many, if not most, are going about it incorrectly. Part of the confusion surrounds the fact that under the FDA’s rules, foods, drugs and dietary supplements are treated differently.
How does the FDA decide what’s what? Based on how you advertise the product. If labeling suggests the substance is “intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or is an “article” (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals,” the FDA will regulate it as a drug.
The language and regulations surrounding drugs are extremely strict. On December 20, 2018, the FDA put out a statement reiterating that these rules are in effect for cannabis products. In other words, you can only make a drug claim if you have received approval from the FDA on your New Drug Application (NDA). Since approval requires hundreds of millions of dollars worth of clinical trials, this option is out of reach for most companies.
The rule states that you may not say that your product diagnoses, cures, mitigates, treats or prevents any disease, or any recognizable symptom of a disease. Disease is defined as: damage to an organ, part, structure, or system of the body such that it does not function properly (e.g., cardiovascular disease), or a state of health leading to such dysfunction it (e.g. hypertension). Examples of diseases would include cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, autoimmune diseases, Lyme disease and more. In other words, you couldn’t say your product “prevents memory loss due to Alzheimer’s” or “treats symptoms of fibromyalgia.”
If you’re making any claims about curing anything in your cannabis business name, product name, packaging, web copy, advertising or marketing materials, you are at risk for breaking these rules and getting caught. The FDA’s regulations dovetail with the Federal Trade Commission’s truth-in-advertising laws, which state that your claims must be backed by legitimate research (such as peer-reviewed journal articles or double-blind studies) and must not mislead consumers. These rules are already being enforced within the cannabis industry, so pay close attention to what you’re putting out there.
However, you can’t avoid penalties by using this kind of language and claiming your product is a dietary supplement or food, either. According to the FDA, products that contain THC or CBD cannot be sold as dietary supplements. Their reasoning for this decision is that THC and CBD are active ingredients in FDA-approved drugs, such as Epidiolex and Dronabinol. Active ingredients in approved drugs may not be introduced into the food supply as dietary supplements or otherwise.
The language rules surrounding food can be equally complex. Foods approved by the FDA can make nutritional claims about how a nutrient impacts the structure/function of the body, such as “Calcium builds strong bones.” The problem for cannabis products is that these statements need to be authorized or qualified by the FDA and have significant scientific evidence and consensus. However, this consensus doesn’t exist for THC and CBD, meaning that you’re barred from making these kinds of claims.
Note that these rules don’t just apply to human supplements. They also apply to ones for pets. Many people don’t realize that a supplement for a pet is considered an “illegal drug of low regulatory concern.” But if you add in THC or CBD, a supplement becomes an illegal drug of—you guessed it—higher regulatory concern.
At a Loss for Words?
By now, you may be wondering what you can actually say to market your product; it may feel as though there are more restrictions than guidelines. Fortunately, the FDA hasn’t left us completely out at sea.
Just because we’re in a strange place under federal law operating our businesses every day doesn’t mean that we should disregard fundamental rules and regulations that all businesses must follow. The FDA published a final rule in the Federal Register in 2000 defining strict rules that govern the types of statements that may be used on a label without prior review of the agency. These are called structure/function claims. According to the FDA, “Structure/function claims may describe the role of a nutrient or dietary ingredient intended to affect the normal structure or function of the human body.” In contrast, statements that claim to diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat or prevent disease require prior approval by the FDA and are only for products that are approved drugs. Don’t use any of those words. Ever.
You can use the following words in your cannabis product names, advertising or marketing, as long as you’re not connecting them to a disease state: restore, support, maintain, raise, lower, promote, regulate, stimulate. You must specifically state that the claim relates to a non-disease condition; otherwise, you’ll be in trouble with the FDA. To go back to an earlier example, you cannot say that your product “prevents memory loss due to Alzheimer’s.” However, stating that your product “helps maintain a healthy brain” is fine.
Just because we’re in a strange place under federal law operating our businesses every day doesn’t mean that we should disregard fundamental rules and regulations that all businesses must follow. Following these rules does more than keep our enterprises out of trouble. It reinforces the idea that our industry is responsible, legitimate, and—perhaps most importantly—here to stay.
Across the country, a handful of states are expected to move forward with a number of bills making their way each state’s legislature. Here is a quick recap on some of the more newsworthy bills from this week.
When Arizona legalized medical cannabis use, there was no provision in the legislation that required laboratory testing to insure the safety of cannabis products. To this day, Arizona is one of the few states left that has legalized medical cannabis, but does not require lab testing. A bill, SB 1494, that just passed through the state’s Senate could very well change that. According to azmarijuana.com, the bill passed unanimously through the Arizona Senate and would require the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) to implement regulations for laboratories to test for contaminates like pesticides.
They need at least 75% of the House to vote in favor in order for it to pass. If that happens, testing could be required as soon as June 1, 2020.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 10-9 to recommend HB 481, which would legalize recreational cannabis, including growing up to 12 plants, imposing a tax of $30 per ounce on cannabis sold through retail. It would also set up a regulatory agency in charge of licensing and regulating the industry.
Governor Phil Murphy met with lawmakers earlier this week to discuss the legalization of recreational cannabis. According to CBS New York, the Governor reached a deal with Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Sen. Nicholas Scutari and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano to introduce a bill that he would sign into law.
Back in February, the Vermont Senate passed a bill to regulate and tax recreational cannabis with a veto-proof majority. SB 54 is now in committee review in the House, where it is expected to see more hurdles, according to Burlington Free Press.
Another bill was introduced in the Vermont Senate, SB 117,which would reportedly open up more access to the medical cannabis program, including increasing possession limits, allowing patients to grow more plants at a time and set up a lab testing program as well.
It is not news that Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker favors recreational cannabis legalization. But State Senator Heather Steans (Chicago-D) and State Representative Kelly Cassidy (Chicago-D) introducing a formal bill to legalize recreational cannabis is certainly news. With what they hope will be bipartisan support in the legislature and a Governor on their side, Illinois seems poised to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis for adults.
According to the Herald & Register, State Sen. Steans says that public opinion polls show that roughly two-thirds of voters in Illinois favor recreational legalization. “We have a huge opportunity in Illinois to do this right and carefully,” Steans told an audience at a town hall meeting in Springfield, IL yesterday. From what the lawmakers told the public during that town hall meeting, the legislation sounds like it mirrors programs in other states.
The bill “would allow Illinoisans 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 30 grams, or about 1 ounce, of marijuana,” Steans and Cassidy said. “Nonresidents would be able to buy and possess half that amount. Use of the drug in public wouldn’t be allowed.” The bill would expunge previous criminal records with respect to cannabis, make it harder for minors to access it and raise an estimated $350 million to $750 million, providing funding for “community development of impoverished neighborhoods,” says Cassidy. “If we don’t address the social-justice issues of this, if we don’t address the collateral consequences of the ‘war on drugs,’ we will have failed,” Cassidy added. The bill would also allow people to grow up to five plants at home, would not allow for public or social consumption, and municipalities, employers and landlords would be able to prohibit possession and use, according to the lawmakers.
In 2015, the state legalized medical cannabis and there are roughly 42,000 patients currently in the medical cannabis program, with roughly 40 qualifying conditions approved for use. Some critics have argued, according to the Chicago Tribune, that before the state legalizes recreational use for adults, they should first expand the list of qualifying conditions for patients. This would provide greater access to those in need while the state implements a regulatory framework for recreational use, which could take upwards of a year to establish the program.
Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold has just raised the first funds for her blockchain-based company, MedPayRx in Germany (and via traditional investment funding, not an ICO). She will also be speaking about the impact of blockchain on the cannabis industry in Berlin in April at the International Cannabis Business Conference.
You have probably heard of cryptocurrencies, tokens and smart contracts. You might have also heard, even if you did not understand the significance, that IBM recently suggested that the Canadian government use their form of blockchain, called Hyperledger, to track the recreational cannabusiness. Or that a large LP called Aurora is also looking at this space (as are other licensed producers large and small). Or maybe you have seen an item in the mainstream news about an ICO for a cannabis company that is now also going terribly wrong.
What on earth is going on?
These are all related issues, even if highly confusing and disjointed. Blockchain technology and cryptocurrency are hot right now and getting hotter – both in the mainstream world and in the cannabis industry globally. But for all its fans, the drumbeat for caution is also growing louder the more mainstream this technology (and the legitimate cannabis industry) becomes.
The many problems the entire cannabis vertical has with banking has make this current development almost inevitableOn the technology and finance side, that is why so many big names right now are urging caution. Nouriel Roubini, professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, is just the latest to do so – and for reasons that everything to do with history. Including recent history ten years ago, when the world stood on the brink of a financial disaster thanks to unchained derivatives. The biggest worry in fact, right now, is about the financial implications of widespread adoption of the technology, beyond the tech itself and how it may (and may not) be legitimately used. Which itself is a huge question.
So why all the fuss?
This is revolutionary technology which is also being introduced into the market at a time when decentralized processing for automation is on the horizon. But also because blockchain can be used to create tokens or digital coins that act like financial instruments. And once created, such tokens can be issued much like money or even stock, to raise additional funds – for both start-ups and ongoing enterprises. The best thing though? This technology was invented to create a decentralized form of value exchange and trust-less, anonymized auditing and verification. No traditional financial institutions or even governments needed, wanted or should apply (at least in theory).
The many problems the entire cannabis vertical has with banking has make this current development almost inevitable. Not to mention accessing investment cash (although this is certainly changing outside the United States). Compliance issues in every direction are another wrinkle this tech will help solve. Starting with tracking product but also rapidly expanding to uses including protecting users’ privacy and facilitating access to high-quality, inspected product for qualified users and buyers. Not to mention other areas that are literally space-age but coming fast. Look for cool stuff coming soon involving both AI (artificial intelligence) and IoT (internet of things).
It is a fascinating, complex space. However, one aspect of this world, in particular, Initial Coin Offerings – or ICOs are getting attention right now. Why? They can be an incredibly efficient way to raise money for companies – both ones currently in business and start-ups with little more than a whitepaper or business plan and perhaps a working prototype. More and more of the successful ICOs are, however, for an existing company or are even attached to an asset, including a license, a prototype or a fund of money (or other combinations). They also rely on blockchain and alternative currency or tokens (sometimes also referred to as smart contracts) to work.
From a technology perspective, you can “mint” new coins relatively easily these days, sourced from a variety of different kinds of blockchain. Or even combinations thereof. You also can issue tokens or altcoins without an ICO.
In a world where there is vastly expanding cannabis opportunity, and many of these hopeful entrepreneurs are both digitally astute but without access to traditional capital, what could be better?
From a financial and investor perspective, ICOs are a hybrid form of an IPO meets social media. “Coins,” “tokens” and “smart contracts” –or cyber currency collectively– are digital forms of cash, contracts, membership cards, discounts or even authorizations for identity. There are many ways tokens can be used, in other words. This by way of saying there are also important differences too. Not all tokens are the same. Not all are used as “money.” Some are but have assets assigned to them (like real estate). Others, particularly smart contract tokens, are strictly functional (pay funds when product is delivered and verified). The one caveat here is that the exchange of any token or altcoin will also cost money. Why? It is the electricity cost of computer processing the request for transfer. Plus access and service fees. There is no such thing as a “free” token. How tokens are priced, sold, bought, maintain value and for what purposes, is a debate if not process function that will not be solved anytime soon. Starting with the fact that some blockchains are more energy efficient (and sourced from green energy) than others.
To add to all of this confusion, not all ICOs function the same way. Some do give investors ownership in the company or specific portfolios that even include real-world assets. Others offer to use pooled funds to buy assets (like real estate or an expensive license). Many rely on the “coin” issued as a kind of discount scheme, reward mechanism and in many cases, direct discounted payment for future goods and services, of both the digital and real world kind. Many offer banking services directly, including in the very near future, the ability to exchange cyber cash for the fiat variety at even remote ATMs. Sound futuristic? It is coming and soon.
Most ICOs in the market now, however, rely on the following supposition: Issue a token with a unique name. Put up an ICO website. Encourage investors from anyplace on the planet with an internet connection, to use either crypto or fiat currency to buy tokens in the issuing startup as an investment that will give the new company funds to operate and build out services or the application (whatever that is). Also, plan to use the tokens for an exchange of some kind in the future (either for other coins or a good or service). Watch the value of the coin increase (for whatever reason) while informing investors (or contributors) that this is not really a security but a “utility” token that is expected but not guaranteed to become more valuable. Retire early with the prospect of having brokers of expensive real estate in places like London and Dubai come calling.The public tide of opinion, even if regulations are slow to move, is on the side of reform if not outright advocacy.
That will not be the case for the vast majority of ICOs, however, no matter what returns, goods or services they offer. Even if they also have vibrant communities already using their services (whatever those are). It will not be the case for most of the cryptocurrencies upon which such ICOs are based (most at the moment are based on Ethereum, NEO, Hyperledger or combinations of the three). There will be more of those too. And not every blockchain will make it (cryptocurrencies and tokens are based on an origin protocol or blockchain much like computer operating systems are either PC or Mac or mobile phones are Android or Apple). Some speak to one another well. Most do not “exchange” easily – even between themselves – let alone back into good old cash. And while nobody wants to be the Betamax of blockchain, there will, inevitably, be quite a few of them. When that happens, any economic value of the coins and even contractual relationships created with them disappear as well. Add in extreme price volatility in the current market pricing of these tokens, and you begin to get a sense of the risk profile involved in all of this.
The real hurdle, not to mention expense, comes when transferring back from the world of crypto to the one of fiat (regular money). Being a Bitcoin billionaire (there are about 1,000 individuals who own about 40% of the entire global Bitcoin issuance) is no fun if you have no place to spend it.
A Rapidly Changing Marketplace
In the past 18 months, cryptocurrency and ICOs have gotten increasing attention because of the increasing value of all kinds of cyber currency (far beyond Bitcoin). The total market cap for all forms of cryptocurrency itself zoomed past $700 billion at the turn of the year. That is impossible to ignore. You might have heard of some of these currencies too. There is ETH, Litecoin, Bitcoin Cash, Dash, even Dogecoin (created originally as a joke on an internet dog meme). Right now, in fact, at some of the most expansive exchanges, there are literally hundreds of these coins which are constantly bought and sold if not exchanged and used.
And then there are the sums ICOs are bringing in some cases, flagrantly flaunting regulatory agencies and doing end runs on the global banking system that cannot keep up with them. The top ICO of 2017, a company called Block.one and registered in the Cayman Islands, so far holds the record at $700 million and counting. Filecoin, the second largest ICO last year, raised $262 million in one month from August to September. And then, of course, there is the cannabis industry-specific case of Paragon – now headed for class-action lawsuit litigation over their $70 million pre-and ICO sale intentions.
It would be logical to assume, given the eye-watering sums potentially involved not to mention the large role a smart digital media footprint has to do with an ICO’s success, beyond its service or technology offerings, that this would be a perfect place for cannapreneurs to turn for funding. The global market is opening for cannabis reform at the same time the crypto craze meets Fintech Upheaval is occurring – in fact, these two things are happening almost simultaneously.
Thanks to regulatory realities and an ongoing stigma, there is still no institutional investment in the industry in the United States (that is rapidly changing other places). These are two new industries and dreams are large.
In the legit cannabis space, so are the expenses.
The price of opening a dispensary in most U.S. states tops a million dollars right now. In Europe, the price of entry is even more expensive. A GMP compliant grow facility in Western Europe, plus the money for lawyer’s fees and negotiations for the license itself will set you back anywhere from $20 million and up, depending on the location. Even staying afloat in the industry once the doors are opened is a challenge. And loans, even for outstanding invoices, are still tough to come by in an industry where banking services of the simple business account kind are a challenge. Particularly in the United States.
The public tide of opinion, even if regulations are slow to move, is on the side of reform if not outright advocacy. Why shouldn’t a reform-group-rooted ICO aspire to own or provide ongoing business financing to a community-minded canna farm in California, Canada, Germany, Israel or Australia? Or even Greece?
However, right now, with some noted exceptions, the cannabis business remains at minimum, a dangerous place to consider issuing altcoins that act like financial instruments or raise money with them. Why and how?
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