Cresco Labs, with roots in Chicago, Illinois, operate 29 licenses in 6 states across the United States. With this new acquisition, Cresco Labs solidifies their ubiquitous brand presence in the most populous markets and cements their position in Florida, a new market for them.
According to the press release, the two companies entered an agreement where Cresco will buy all of Bluma’s issued and outstanding shares for an equity value of $213 million. They expect the transaction to be completed by the second quarter of this year.
Charles Bachtell, CEO of Cresco Labs, says their expansion strategy is based largely on population. “Our strategy at Cresco Labs is to build the most strategic geographic footprint possible and achieve material market positions in each of our states,” says Bachtell. “With Florida, we will have a meaningful presence in all 7 of the 10 most populated states in the country with cannabis programs – an incredibly strategic and valuable footprint by any definition. We recognize the importance of the Florida market and the importance of entering Florida in a thoughtful way – we identified Bluma as having the right tools and key advantages for growth.”
Bluma Wellness operates through its subsidiary, One Plant Florida, which has 7 dispensaries across the state and ranks second in sales in the state. They also have an impressive delivery arm of their retail business, deriving 15% of their revenue from it.
Multi-state operators (MSOs) are on the rise in the United States, navigating complex regulatory frameworks to drive profitability through economies of scale and scope. C21 Investments is a vertically integrated cannabis company with operations in Nevada and Oregon; traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CXXI) and on the OTCQX (CXXIF). The company recently from Wasatch Global Investors, JW Asset Management (Jason Wild/TerrAscend) and CB1 Capital Management (Todd Harrison) who, in addition to C21’s CEO, provided an equity commitment for repayment of all convertible debt.
We spoke with Bruce Macdonald, Chairman of C21 Investments. Bruce joined C21 in 2018 after reviewing the company as a personal investment and getting to know the senior management team. Prior to C21, Bruce had a long and successful career in finance and capital markets at one of Canada’s largest banks.
Aaron Green: Can you give a brief overview of C21?
Bruce MacDonald: C21 is a cannabis company that has operations in both Nevada, and in Oregon. Oregon is fundamentally a wholesale business, and we recently announced a divestment of some non-core assets in the state. Our cash cow and where we currently see our best opportunity for future growth is our Nevada operations. We run a seed-to-sale business in the state with two dispensaries doing about $35M a year in revenue, with a 40% EBITDA Margin, and servicing 600,000 customers.
Aaron: Can you tell me about a little bit about your background and how you got involved in a cannabis company?
Bruce: I spent 37 years working for RBC in the capital markets business. I started as a floor trader, back when there was such a thing as a floor, and over the years held a number of positions, ultimately working my way up to Chief Operating Officer of the bank’s global capital markets division. Throughout my time, I built a lot of businesses, which was why C21 and this opportunity was so interesting to me.
My involvement in the cannabis sector was a bit of an accident, but it’s turned into a passion. It actually found me. I was an investor in the C21 IPO. I sat down with management to understand the investment and given my experience, they asked if I would consider becoming a member the Board. Since joining the Board, my involvement has been primarily focused on strategy and the financing side of the business. While I certainly didn’t anticipate it, it’s turned into a 24/7 gig and a challenge I am thoroughly enjoying.
Aaron: Can you tell me about the history of C21 becoming a MSO? Did you start in one state?
Bruce: While this history predates my time at the company, my understanding is that as a Canadian company, we had first mover advantage to be able to access public funding and get established in the US cannabis space. As part of that, the team at that time reviewed approximately 100 different properties. Because we were based out of Vancouver, the focus was primarily the Western states like Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. Arizona wasn’t in the game yet. The first transaction C21 did was in Oregon, with a company called Eco Firma. In all, there were four acquisitions in Oregon, and one in Nevada. In fact, it was the investment in Silver State (Nevada) that was by far the most meaningful. As far as our Oregon assets are concerned, we have worked hard to integrate and streamline them into an efficient operation.
So, when I joined the Board, we were just completing the paperwork on the acquisitions, and finalizing our strategy and business plan to go forward.
Aaron: Today there are a number of MSOs. How does this more crowded market impact your value proposition; how do you think about gaining and maintaining strategic advantage?
Bruce: It’s important first to start with strategy. From a strategic perspective, we had the advantage of being the first operator in Nevada with Silver State. Sonny Newman, our CEO, started the business back in 2013. We run a seed-to-sale business so we have a deep knowledge of all aspects of the operation and really know the Nevada market. In fact, 70% on a dollar volume basis of the 700 SKUs that we sell are products that we manufacture. It’s a critical piece of our strategic advantage.
What I would say is our most important strategic advantage is the fact that C21 is a stable, self-sustaining operator. What I mean by that is we’re one of the few businesses that actually makes money. This is what really allows us to be strategic and disciplined in our approach to growth. For example, it’s been more than 18 months since we did our last capital raise and that’s by choice. Every decision we make is through the shareholder lens and focusing on delivering value to customers and shareholders.
Looking at our value proposition, simply put, it comes down to four things – the right products, at the right price, in the right location, with the right environment. Some people might call this motherhood, but there’s a lot of work that goes behind each of them.
Great quality products, that’s table stakes. You have to be a top-notch grower and generate quality products that people demand if you want to build a loyal customer base. Right price – to some it sounds like just putting the right sticker on the package – it’s not. It’s all about making sure you are efficient in your operations because to be profitable, you have to be a low-cost producer to deliver on a lower price promise. Tons of work has gone into our operation around being a “right price” business.
Right location is another important element of our value proposition. We wanted to build a loyal customer base which for us meant focusing more on locals than on tourists. This is why Sonny positioned the dispensaries on commuter paths.
The last key factor is having the right environment to sell our products. In Nevada, the company ended up building fit-for-purpose dispensaries rather than fitting ourselves in a strip mall. We cater to over 600,000 clients a year. Now we’re doing 10,000 curbside pickups a month. With that type of volume, logistically speaking you need ample parking, a well-lit exterior so people feel safe, and of course, great curb appeal. These factors are essential in maintaining a loyal customer base.
Aaron: Tell me more about Silver State Relief and why it has been so successful?
Bruce: I think what you’re really asking for is: what is Sonny’s secret sauce? There are a few ingredients that go into it. As I highlighted, it was a purposeful decision to build a business with a loyal customer base focused primarily on locals. That needs product, price, and convenience. Sonny lives in the Reno area, which is one of the main reasons Silver State is located up North.
Critical to success has been the culture of the organization. Let’s start with the company being nimble and I’ll give you an example. The early days of the pandemic included the complete shutdown of dispensaries. We went from serving over 1500 customers a day in our stores to the next day being told that we could offer delivery only. Within a week, we were able to pivot and had lockboxes, regulatory approvals and a delivery capability. When you look at our Nevada operation, we ended up with just a 10% dip in our revenues for the quarter, even though we had to live through six weeks of delivery-only and then a phase of curbside-only.
Another key element of the culture is our laser focus on cost management. We’ve talked a little about cost management, but it’s absolutely critical, especially in the context of the high cost of capital that we see in this sector. Add to that the punitive tax impact of 280e where federal tax is applied to gross margins which means SG&A and interest are non-deductible expenses for tax purposes. So, to enhance our profitability, we are intent on having the lowest SG&A of the public cannabis companies. We’re also among the lowest in interest expense. That whole drive for efficiency has given us a formula and a mantra that has allowed us to have a stable business with significant cash flow. We get to make strategic decisions — not hasty or desperate ones — and focus on what’s good for the shareholder.
Aaron: How was C21 capitalized?
Bruce: We did a $33M raise on the RTO of a listed shell company. That was how C21 was established, and then signed contracts with the Oregon and Nevada properties.
Aaron: I recently saw a press release about expanding the Nevada cultivation. Can you give me some more details?
Bruce: We announced that we are tripling our capacity within our existing 100,000 square foot warehouse facilities. We’re going to build out another 40,000 square feet, and we currently use 20,000. That’s the tripling. Expanding our cultivation was clearly the next logical step in our growth story. This should yield us an additional 7,500 pounds of high-quality flower. We can do this very cost effectively with about $6M in capex, and we anticipate funding the project internally. We will still leave another 40,000 square feet of expansion capacity as market needs justify.
This announcement was significant, but I don’t think it was fully understood by the market. Just to play with some numbers, 7,500 pounds of flower has a wholesale market value today of about $17M. It will cost us approximately $2M in incremental operating expense to add these additional grow rooms. We already pay the rent, so we just need to pay for the people, power, fertilizer and product testing. When you do the simple math, we see this as a big win for shareholders and extremely accretive on an after-tax basis.
Historically, we always used to grow more than we needed, but with the increase in demand that’s going on in the market, we now run at a flower deficit. In the near term, this build-out will allow is to meet our current retail needs, with the balance that we will sell on the wholesale market. Ultimately, this positions us well on a seed-to-sale basis to support our plans to extend our retail footprint in Nevada.
Aaron: It sounds like the decision was made based on both revenue growth and supply chain consolidation?
Bruce: Yes, and just the pure profitability of it! You can’t get a bigger, better bang for your buck from spending $6M to generate $17M with ongoing operating costs of $2M.
Aaron: The next question here is about the recent note restructuring and, and how the debentures was restructured. How’d that come about and what is the advantage now of having gone through that process?
Bruce: This all fits into our medium-term growth strategy. For C21, the first thing we focused on was getting our house in order to ensure that we were efficient and profitable. We knew we needed to have a scalable machine to grow. The second step, which the debt restructuring relates to, was around fortifying our balance sheet. To support our growth plans, we needed to have a solid foundation.
Our balance sheet had two things that needed fixing. One was that we had an $18M obligation coming due to our CEO. The effect of the restructuring extended this obligation over the next 30 months at favorable terms. Additionally, $6.5M of convertible debentures were reaching maturity in January of 2021. And while the debentures were in the money and theoretically would convert to shares, we didn’t want to take the risk that our stock price could drift a bit and all of a sudden there could be significant cash required for redemptions. We’ve seen a lot of companies suffer significant unwanted dilution when their debentures get out of control. So, we approached Wasatch, Jason Wild’s JWAM and CB1 Capital, three seasoned investors, who provided a backstop whereby they would purchase any shares not taken up by people though the conversion of their debentures, so that we would be able to pay any debenture holders back cash with the money we would receive as the investors took shares. In exchange for providing this backstop, C21 gave them an upside participation in the form of warrants. I think it was absolutely critical to get this in place. And it’s phenomenal to have these three names in our corner. We couldn’t imagine better partners.
Aaron: So, what’s next for C21?
Bruce: I hope you are getting the feeling that here at C21 our objective is to play the long game. That means we make measured decisions with the interest of shareholders top of mind. We’ve worked hard in 2020 to get our house in order, fortify our balance sheet, and generate significant cash flow. I think we’re clocking in at around $12M in trailing annual cash flow, which interestingly, is about the same number that Planet 13 is doing. That’s obviously a fantastic result for a company with $150M of market cap.
“We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics.”When we think about our medium-term growth strategy, we will continue to make our decisions through a cash flow and earnings lens rather than hype and flash. While we will remain opportunistic with respect to strategic alternatives, the core of our expansion is going to focus on where we already have a proven track record: Nevada. We’re big believers that to achieve long term success, you have to own your home market. And what I mean by that is today we’re about 5% of the Nevada market. Owning your home market looks more like a 15% share. That is our focus. I think we’ve shown that our disciplined approach delivers results – results such as having top five metrics in Net Income, Cash Flow and EBITDA Margin, across the range of public companies that we can see.
I think it’s key we’re getting noticed. We talked about the strategic investors, but we’re also one of the 17 plant-touching companies that’s in the MSOS ETF. So, we’re going to follow our clear growth trajectory, focused on the bottom line and delivering for shareholders. If you look under the hood right now, you see a 10% cash flowing company, which is a pretty rare bird in our industry. We’re excited about where we are.
One thing I haven’t touched on in great detail is our plans for expanding our retail footprint. How do you grow in the dispensary space? Aaron, I think what’s key here is looking at the expected return relative to the cost of capital. For example, if you targeted buying a dispensary with $20M in revenues, and are able as we are, to generate 25% in after-tax cash based on those revenues, then once optimized, it would generate $5M in earnings. An asset like this is going to trade at roughly one and a half times revenues. So, you’re going to have to pay $30M. For the people that have been going out and borrowing money at 15%, their annual cost would be $4.5M. We’re not going to give four and a half to the moneylenders, it just doesn’t make sense for shareholders. We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics. It is something we believe will be afforded to companies with stable earnings and profitability such as ours. Of course, no deal’s a deal until it’s on the tape, but we are very hopeful that we have cracked the code ahead of SAFE Banking to get capital costs down. This is just a little bit of an inside look into our thought processes.
Aaron: Okay, awesome. All right. That concludes the interview.
Editor’s Note: This piece is an excerpt from Marguerite Arnold’s Green II: Spreading Like Kudzu. Click here to buy the book.
THC as of February of 2019, certainly in the recreational sense, was not much seen in either Switzerland or much of Europe. Even in Holland, the coffee shops were getting more regulated along with the supply chain for them. In Spain, the cannabis clubs thrived in a grey area. But outside of these two very narrow exceptions, the biggest, most valuable part of the cannabis market (medical and THC) was just as fraught with similar kinds of issues. And those were occurring not in Spain, Holland or even Switzerland, but just across the border, in Germany.
In fact, the real news on the industry side in Europe, as it had been for the past few years, was not the consumer CBD market, however intriguing and potentially valuable it was in the foreseeable future, but the medical, and “other” cannabinoid universe that included THC. And the real triggering event for the beginning of the European march towards reform was certainly influenced by what happened both in the United States and Canada as much as Israel. Where it landed first and most definitively was not Holland, circa 2014, or even Switzerland or Spain soon thereafter, but rather Deutschland.
The Canadian market without a doubt, also created an impetus for European reform to begin to roll right as German legislators changed the laws about medical cannabis in 2017. But even this was a cannabis industry looking to foreign markets that they presumably knew were developing (if not had a direct hand in doing so, including in Berlin, come tender-writing time).
Divorced from inside knowledge about moving international affairs, why did Germany – certainly as opposed to its certainly more “liberal” DACH trading partner Switzerland- suddenly turn up in the summer of 2016 as the “next” hot thing for Canadian cannabis companies?
The answer is in part political, certainly economic, and absolutely strategic.
Germany is in the EU, unlike Switzerland, and is a G7 country.6 It also was, by 2016, certainly much closer to legalizing federally authorized and insurer-reimbursed medical use cannabis. This was because sick patients had by this time successfully sued the government for access (including home grow). And the government, citing concerns about the black market and unregulated cannabis production (see Canada) wanted another option.
Not to mention was a market, certainly in 2016, helped with a little CETA inspired “juice.”
The international trade treaty between Canada and the EU (if not the other big treaty, the pharmaceutically focused Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) with the U.S.) has been in the back of the room throughout the entire cannabis discussion during the expansion of the Canadian industry across Europe. It is still unclear at this writing if the juxtaposition of CETA and the start of the Canadian cannabis trade had anything to do with lengthening the process of the German cultivation bid – but given how political the plant had also become, this was at this point more than a reasonable assumption to make.
As a result so far at least, since the beginning of the real German cannabis market in 2016 (namely the beginning of an import market from not just Holland but Canada) and Europe beyond that, Canadian companies have played an outsize role (starting with bankrolling operations in the first place). The growth of the Canadian market as well as developments within it absolutely spawned if not sparked the change if not beginning of the changeover within Europe by starting, of all places, with Germany.
But again, why Germany? And why the coalescence of the industry as well as other Euro hot spots outside its borders since then?
There are several explanations for this.
One is absolutely timing and strategic positioning.
Germany had, since 2015, begun the slow process of dealing with the medical cannabis issue on a federal basis, informed if not greatly influenced not only by what was happening in events abroad in Canada and the U.S. but also Israel. At home, there was also pressure to begin to address the issue. Albeit highly uncomfortably and at least in the eyes of the majority of centrist legislators, as far at a distance as possible.
Namely, patient lawsuits against insurers began to turn in favor of patients. Technically, between the turn of the century and 2016, patients could buy cannabis in pharmacies with a doctor’s prescription in Germany. But it was hugely expensive and beyond that a cumbersome process. Only 800 patients in fact, by 2017 had both managed to find doctors willing to prescribe the drug and could afford the €1,500 (about $1,700) a month to pay for it.
Everyone else, despite nobody’s willingness to admit it, found their supplies in the grey (non-profit patient collective) or black (street and largely criminally connected) market.
Günther Weiglein, a patient from Wurzburg, a small town in Bavaria, changed all of that.
In 2015, he won his court case against his insurer, claiming that even though he qualified as a patient, he could not afford the cannabis for sale in pharmacies. With that, he and a few patients temporarily won the right to grow their own (with permission).
Weiglein is the epitome of the German “everyman.” Blond, stocky and in his fifties, he has suffered chronic pain since a devastating motorcycle crash more than two decades ago. He has also taken to the cannabis cause with a dedication and singularity of purpose that sets him apart even from most other patient activists (in Germany or elsewhere). He is fiercely independent. And not afraid of expressing his desire for a “freedom” that has not yet come.
However, in 2015, there seemed to be several intriguing possibilities.
Indeed, at the time, it seemed possible, in fact, that Germany seemed poised to tilt in the direction of Canada – namely that patient home grow would be enshrined as a kind of constitutional right.
However, it did not turn out that way. Desperate to stem the pan European black market, which is far more directly connected to terrorism of the religious extremist and Mafia kind in these waters and to avoid a situation where Berlin became the next Amsterdam, the German parliament decided on a strange compromise.
On one level, it seems so predictably orderly and German. If cannabis is a medicine, then Germans should be able to access the same through national health insurance.
In fact, however, the process has been one that is tortured and has been ever since, not to mention compounded the difficulties of just about everyone connected to the market. From patients to producers.
“In practice it has so far not evolved quite so smoothly.”Here is why. The government decided that, as of passage of a new law which took effect in March 2017, the German government would regulate the industry via BfArM, the German equivalent of the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and issue formal federal cultivation licenses.
This makes sense from a regulatory perspective too. Cannabis can be used as a medical drug. Even if its definition as a “narcotic” – even on the medical side – leaves a lot to be desired.
This is especially true on the CBD part of the equation. It is even more particularly relevant for those who use THC regularly for not only chronic pain, but as an anti-convulsive or anti-inflammatory agent.
However unlike Canada, the German federal government also chose to revoke patient grow rights while mandating that insurers cover the cost of the drug if prescribed by a doctor. In practice also spawning a specialty distributor market that is still forming.
All very nice in theory. In this abstract world, these rules make sense for a pharmacized plant if not drug beyond that. This is the route all other medicines in Germany take to get into the market if not prescribed in the first place.
In practice it has so far not evolved quite so smoothly. Indeed, while understandable for many reasons from stemming the black market to setting standards, this rapid switch from patient or collective grown cannabis to requiring patients to interact with both a doctor and a pharmacy (beyond the insurer) with no other alternative also creates its own serious problems. For everyone along the supply chain. But most seriously and problematically for both patients and doctors.
After a slow start following a disappointing 2019, M&A in the cannabis space closed 2020 with a bang, with more than $600 million in deals announced immediately following the November elections. Prospects for the New Year are expected to continue the explosive year-end trend with a backlog of nearly $2 billion in deals heading into 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic boosted sales of cannabis products, and election results opening up five new states to legal cannabis use and possible federal regulatory reform are further boosting prospects. Analysts now predict the U.S. cannabis market is poised to double by 2025.
Growth is expected to be led by multi-state operators who have achieved scale, cleaned up their balance sheets and stockpiled dry powder for roll-up acquisitions. Cannabis companies raised nearly $134 million in the two weeks before Election Day, a 185% increase over the same period last year. Most of the money flowed to multistate operators. In addition, the biggest stocks by market capitalization saw a roughly 20% bump ahead of the election and now are trading at record volumes, providing plenty of stock currency for further acquisitions.
Among the headline acquisitions last year:
- Curaleaf continued its multi-state expansion with two of its largest acquisitions – the all-stock purchases of its affiliated cannabis oil company Select and of Grassroot, another MSO player. Curaleaf is now the largest cannabis company in the world based on annualized revenues, with annualized sales of $1 billion and operations in 23 states and 96 open dispensaries. Curaleaf also raised $215 million privately last year end for further expansion.
- Close behind, Aphria and Tilray announced in December that they will merge, creating what they say will be the largest cannabis company in the world with an equity value of roughly $3.8 billion. The combined entity will have facilities and offices in the U.S., Canada, Portugal and Germany. The deal is expected to close during the second quarter of this year.
- Also in December, Illinois-based Verano Holdings LLC unveiled plans to go public at a $2.8 billion valuation through a reverse takeover of a Canadian shell company. That deal followed the announcement that Verano will merge with Florida-based AltMed.
- In addition, publicly traded New York cannabis firm Columbia Care signed a definitive agreement last month to acquire Green Leaf Medical, a privately held Maryland-based cannabis manufacturer and retailer, for $45 million in cash and $195 million in stock. The acquisition is expected to close this summer. Including Green Leaf’s inventory, the Columbia Care will operate 107 facilities, including 80 dispensaries and 27 cultivation and manufacturing facilities. Columbia Care also took advantage of cannabis fever last year by raising $100 million privately.
- Also in December, Ayr Strategies announced it would acquire Liberty Health Sciences, one of the largest cannabis companies in Florida, for $290 million in stock, as well Garden State Dispensary, a New Jersey marijuana company for $41 million in cash, $30 million in stock and $30 million in the form of a note. This follows Ayr’s $81 million acquisition of an Arizona medical marijuana operator in November. Voters approved marijuana use in Arizona and New Jersey in November. Ayr has completed a string of acquisitions in Nevada, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio and, upon the closing of December’s deals, New Jersey and Florida.
Not all cannabis companies will rely on acquisitions, however. Trulieve, as an example, has focused its efforts on Florida and organic growth. It remains to be seen whether a multi-state approach fueled by acquisitions or a single-state organic growth model will prove the more lasting. Growth and profitability in the short term likely will continue to be hampered by limits on economies of scale due to federal restrictions and differing state laws.
In light of the maturing industry and the 2019 bust, the valuation model for acquisitions in the cannabis space is evolving from one based on sales, typically associated with emerging growth industries, to a more mature industry model based on profits or Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA). Most cannabis MSOs have stabilized and generate positive EBITDA, which justifies the evolution away from a sales-driven model.
From a legal standpoint, the same limitations that have vexed the cannabis industry for years will continue to challenge deal makers until there is greater clarity on the federal front. Institutional investor reluctance, financial industry constraints, haphazard state regulation and the unavailability of federal forums such as national copyright and trademark registration will continue to be issues for acquirers and their lawyers in the space.
Acquisition agreements will continue to have to address the federal Damocles’ sword should expected relaxation of federal enforcement under the Biden administration and further legislative relief does not materialize as expected. Although the U.S. House in December passed the “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act” (MORE) to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, the Senate did not take up the bill in 2020 and it will have to be re-introduced in 2021. Notably, the MORE Act does not affect existing federal regulation of cannabis, such as the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, under which the FDA has limited the use of CBD in certain products despite hemp being removed from the Controlled Substances Act in 2018.
The cannabis M&A market is moving into a more mature phase, as MSOs will be choosier in their approach rather than continuing the land-grab mentality of years past. Due to improved financial strength, 2021 should see these MSOs continuing to expand their footprints either within existing states or new ones. Although uncertainties abound, further consolidation and expansion through add-on acquisitions is likely to continue apace in 2021, providing plenty of opportunities for deal makers and their lawyers.
According to a press release published today, a number of businesses in the cannabis cultivation market have announced they are launching the Sustainable Cannabis Coalition (SCC). The group’s purpose is to “measure, document and improve sustainable cannabis cultivation and manufacturing through education and proliferation of best practices.”
The SCC founding members include: Cohn Reznick, Anderson Porter Design, Valiant, Wholly H2O, Cloud Farming, Argus Controls, Conviron, Gro iQ, Trulieve, Byers Scientific, 365 Cannabis, GMP Collective, Omega Equipment and Supply, Simplifya, PathogenDx, Grow Generation and Outlaw Technology.
The press release says that the SCC will work with industry stakeholders to promote environmental sustainability best practices that can be implemented at scale. “The SCC will be a trusted resource providing foundational best practices to further promote economic benefits of sustainability as the industry continues to grow.”
The SCC will begin its campaign by publishing informative blog posts and podcast interviews on a biweekly basis, with plans to address each vertical in the cultivation and manufacturing supply chain, highlighting environmental sustainability best practices.
According to Peter Dougherty, CEO of Gro IQ and co-founder of the SCC, their mission is to get leaders in the industry to collaborate on promoting the best ways for businesses to become more sustainable. “We will accomplish this by having our founding members companies, which
represent every major link in the cannabis cultivation, manufacturing and distribution supply chain, provide data driven business cases for sustainability based on their area of expertise and then amplifying that content through each other’s websites and social media channels,” says Dougherty.
“With investors across the industry incorporating Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors into the investment process, the creation of a coalition to address sustainability in this space is critical,” Dougherty says. “The SCC is uniquely poised to impact the industry as it continues to rapidly evolve. As leaders in this space, it is our responsibility to provide data driven sustainability guidance to the industry while protecting both consumers and the environment.”
Their content will be available for free to anyone on their website. Dougherty says they have already received a tremendous amount of interest prior to the launch, so he expects their sphere of influence to expand rapidly.
As of now, the SCC serves as an informal coalition among businesses with no plans to expand too much beyond their current size. The primary goal is dissemination of educational content to start. However, they do encourage folks to check out their website and sign up.
According to the Press Herald, the city of Portland, Maine shut down ProVerde Laboratories, prohibiting them from conducting business in their Maine location and forcing them to remove cannabis products from the premises. However, the lab was shut down for a seemingly innocuous reason: city permits.
The city issued citations for operating without a permit or a business license back in December, hence why the city shut down the laboratory this month, pending a reinspection in February. ProVerde has already applied for a change-of-use permit, but that process was still in review when the lab was shut down.
The Press Herald says that because of the still pending review process, ProVerde does not have approval from Portland to operate. Citing a violation notice, they say that ProVerde had not applied for a cannabis testing facility license.
However, things get a little murky because Chris Hudalla, founder and CSO of ProVerde, told the Press Herald that he thought Maine only requires testing licenses for adult-use labs, not medical testing labs. He is asking for clarification from regulators.
The Maine regulatory agency in charge of the state’s cannabis industry does not, in fact, require testing for medical cannabis products, thus explaining why ProVerde wouldn’t need a testing facility license.
Until the reinspection next month, Proverde’s expansion strategy in Maine looks like it is currently on hold.
Natural cannabinoid distillates and isolates are hydrophobic oils and solids, meaning that they do not mix well with water. By formulating these ingredients using various technologies, companies like Caliper and Ripple have learned how to change the solubility properties of the cannabinoids. In addition, formulations can improve bioavailability and onset time of the cannabinoids.
Stillwater Brands is a cannabis formulation company based out of Denver, Colorado, leveraging proprietary technologies for solubilizing cannabinoids in water. Stillwater has a partnership with the Canadian company Green Organic Dutchman and will soon expand their THC line of products, Ripple, into Michigan. Their CBD product line, Caliper, is already sold nationally.
We spoke with Drew Hathaway, senior food scientist at Stillwater, about the Stillwater technology and aspirations for growth. Hathaway joined Stillwater in 2018 after engaging with them as a technical sales representative in his previous role at a food ingredients supplier.
Aaron Green: What trends are you following in the industry?
Drew Hathaway: I can mainly speak to the science side of the business since that’s where I operate, but I do have some insight into the marketing approach and some of the things we look at. We’re looking at traditional food and beverage trends, whether it’s beverage formats, with its unique ingredients that are going to be general flavor trends, which can definitely be very region-specific. One of the things we definitely look at, especially on the THC side, is dosage differences. What are people putting their dosages at? Are they doing a combination of cannabinoids or terpenes? Are they really using individual ingredients? I think that’s something that’s been fairly well established in the THC market, especially since you have the regulatory mandate of 10 milligrams THC being your max single dose.
When Stillwater first launched in 2016, our company started with lower dose products to provide microdose options. We focus all of our products on functional foods for consumers. It’s why we have three different options for every single one of our products. We have what we call the Pure 10 which is 10 milligrams of THC per serving. We have what we call the Balanced 5. That’s 5 milligrams THC, 5 milligrams of CBD. Then as well as our Ripple Relief, which is a 40 to one ratio of CBD to THC at 20 milligrams CBD and 0.5 milligrams THC. We provide a variety of options for people looking for different dosage levels. We have to look at all of those trends. Packaging trends are also high on our radar.
Aaron: How about flavors?
Drew: We recently launched additional SKUs for our Ripple gummies here in Colorado. We have four different options. We have a sour variety pack that contains sour watermelon, sour apple and sour peach. We also just launched peach cherry, kiwi apple and sour watermelon by itself — and all of those are at the five milligram THC per gummy dose. That aligns with the Pure 10 line as well. We also have been working on some new flavors for the 10 milligram THC quicksticks, which we’re looking to launch early next year. Then, like I mentioned earlier, we’re expanding into Michigan with the THC business, which has been a big goal for us and something that’s gotten a lot of effort behind the scenes.
Aaron: So Drew, how did you get involved at Stillwater?
Drew: I like to describe myself as a traditionally educated food scientist. I went to college and got my bachelor’s and master’s in food science and technology at Ohio State. And then I ended up at a really cool company that was a very large food ingredient supplier. I was technical support to sales for their team. Through that position, I covered the Colorado territory as well as California and I got to cover Stillwater as one of my customers providing technical advice on different products and ingredients that they were looking at. I got involved with Stillwater through that position, back in the early days when they were still trying to develop and figure things out. That would have probably been about four years ago. I was able to see from the sidelines and I was dealing with some other cannabis companies in the space here in Colorado at the time too.
I recognized very early on what they were trying to do by making cannabinoids water soluble and water compatible. It was not only extremely challenging, but also had a ton of potential if they were able to pull it off. At that point, they were still trying to figure out how this is going to work. How do we produce it? How do we sell it? How do we make sure that things are stable? Things of that nature. I got an inside look at Stillwater from the very start, back when there were really only a few people at the company. I would check in with them regularly as they needed help.
I always joked that they were my least important, most interesting customer and I mean that only because they were buying extremely small amounts of ingredients from us. From a sales perspective, naturally, my manager didn’t necessarily want me spending a ton of time working with them. From a personal interest perspective, I was like, “these guys are doing something really intriguing and if they can pull this off this has a ton of potential, so I want to help them however I can.”
I dealt with them in that sales capacity for about two years before they talked about expanding into the CBD space with the Farm Bill passing at the end of 2018. I recognized at that point that I think they had two scientists including Keith, our head of R&D, and I said “alright, that’s really ambitious. You probably need some help! I think it’s time for me to take the leap and see if you guys are interested in having me come on board.” Fortunately, they were and so I’ve been with the company a little over two years now.
Aaron: Can you explain at a high level what the Stillwater products do?
Drew: The base technology behind all of our products for Ripple and Caliper is essentially converting your fat-soluble cannabinoids, whether it’s CBD or THC, into a water compatible product in a process referred to as emulsification. What you’re essentially doing is taking CBD and THC containing oils, whether it’s a distillate or isolate, and you’re essentially breaking those fat droplets into extremely small droplets and then stabilizing them at that size. We make our own emulsion — the fat droplets are extremely small — then when you draw that down into a powder format and redissolve it into water, you are dispersing billions upon millions of fat droplets into your glass. Those droplets are evenly dispersed through the beverage so that you get the same amount of THC or CBD in your first sip that you get in the last sip. That’s really the core technology behind everything that we do.
Taking cannabinoids and making them water soluble is the base technology necessary in order to make something like a shelf-stable infused beverage. There’s no way that you’re going to take traditional distillates or cannabinoids and be able to make a beverage that is shelf-stable otherwise. It’s been really cool since joining Stillwater to learn and understand how that process changes the way that those cannabinoids are absorbed by your body. Emulsification changes things like the onset time, as well as the total amount of cannabinoids your body’s absorbing and using. That’s been something that’s super interesting to see through the clinical research that we’ve done with human participants through Colorado State University.
Aaron: Let’s say if you just take THC oil and put it into an infused product. What’s the difference between that and Ripple?
Drew: Some products formats, such as beverages, just aren’t possible with THC oil without an emulsification technology. As the old saying goes in science, water and oil just don’t mix. So, if you were to take a traditional THC distillate and try to add it to a beverage, that would just float on top as a big oil slick. When you took your first sip, you would essentially get all of the cannabinoids in your first gulp which not only makes precise or partial dosing impossible, but also would taste absolutely terrible. Emulsification makes those infused beverage products possible and stable over a normal one-year shelf life or potentially longer.
Emulsification also changes the way that your body absorbs those cannabinoids, which is something that we’ve definitely put a heavy emphasis on and have really been able to validate with clinical research. I think that’s one of our biggest differentiators versus our competitors. We’re definitely not the only ones in the water-soluble cannabinoid space, but from my understanding, I think we’re one of the few companies that have actually executed human-based clinical trials (vs rodents) through a third-party university and been able to prove that these cannabinoids are detected in your bloodstream as fast as 10 minutes after consumption. We measured those results directly against an oil-based control, where you’re not going to get a peak absorption until maybe 60 to 90 minutes after consumption. What this research found was that not only was our product absorbed much faster, but it also enabled a significantly higher amount of the cannabinoids to actually make it into the participants’ blood stream where it can be used by their bodies. We also found the type of food emulsifier makes a significant difference in absorption – not just emulsion size, counter to common belief.
We use the analogy, “It’s getting a better bang for your buck.” The main purchasing consideration for a lot of edibles consumers when you go to a dispensary is “what is my cost per 10 milligram dose of THC?” That’s one of their key purchasing parameters, especially for your lower budget customer. What’s great with Ripple is one milligram of THC consumed through our Ripple technology is not really equivalent to one milligram of an oil-based product and that your body is actually going to absorb a higher percentage of it. And therefore, you’re going to get more of an effect, whether you’re looking for a medical effect or whether you’re looking for more of a recreational therapeutic effect. It also improves the consistency of that experience. So, with oil-based products, you could have the same products multiple different times and based on what you recently ate, you might get a higher or lower absorption rate or a faster or slower absorption rate. It’s also in the consistency of the experience and I know that from our market research of our consumers of Ripple products here in Colorado since that’s been in the market for a few years now. That’s the number one reason why people really trust our brand is because they can count on getting a consistent experience every time for the same dose.
As we all know, with the THC market and edibles market being newer in general, that’s most people’s biggest fear, especially if you’re a new consumer of THC — you obviously don’t want to consume more than what you can handle as far as getting higher than you want to be or anything like that — So consistency is a really, really key aspect for us and something that I’m definitely proud that we can provide that for our consumers.
Aaron: What does your product look like when you dissolve it into a liquid – let’s say something clear? Is the resulting mixture clear or cloudy?
Drew: We do have liquid concentrates, especially in the Caliper side of things, but with our powders, it kind of billows in as a cloud when you add it to a clear liquid. You can almost think of it like when we pour creamer into coffee: you see the cloud expand and then slowly fill out the cup and then be fully mixed in. Whereas with our products if you pour it into clear water, and you’ll see this white cloud form and then disperse. The final solution is generally a little bit cloudy depending on how much water you add it to.“I’ve been fortunate to be the lead developer for those products for Caliper and for Ripple, and flavor work is definitely something that never gets old.”
Aaron: How are customers using your products?
Drew: For a long time, we’ve had a variety of products in the market, some of which are still in the market, and some of which we’ve pulled since then. The key product for us has always been the Ripple dissolvable powder. It’s an unflavored, unsweetened powder that comes in a little sachet packet that you can tear open just like you would any other product and add to really anything. With its water compatibility, there’s really not a single product that you can’t add it to. It’s been really cool to see through social media, and in general, consumer engagement is electric and is kind of viewed as a novelty. The initial reaction is “Oh, I can take this little powder, put it in my eggs and now I have infused eggs!” It’s been great to see the creativity that our consumers have. We’ve seen it put in such a wide variety of products that literally you can make anything into an edible. I think that’s one of the coolest aspects of that product and why it’s been so successful.
One of the things we did realize pretty fast is that for a lot of people, the convenience and the consistency of the experience was a main driver for why they were purchasing our products. A lot of our real consumers just take that packet apart, ripping it open and pouring it straight in their mouth. It’s the fastest and most convenient way to consume the products, pretty much anywhere. We dug into that with our more recent launch of Ripple Quicksticks. And then we added some flavor, we added a little bit of sugar and sweeteners to make it a consumer-friendly experience where you get a really enjoyable flavor. It’s still just as convenient to consume by just ripping the packet straight open and pouring it in your mouth.
Aaron: It sounds like there must have been some interesting internal product development testing!
Drew: Yeah, definitely. That’s a fun one. I’ve been fortunate to be the lead developer for those products for Caliper and for Ripple, and flavor work is definitely something that never gets old. It can be frustrating at times, it’s definitely not the easiest thing to do. We’ve looked at traditional berry flavors, citrus flavors, as well as weird, kind of out-there flavors, to see what we like and what we think will work with our consumers.
Aaron: What states do you operate in?
Drew: Currently, our Stillwater THC business only operates in Colorado. That’s essentially the genesis of all the companies (Ripple, Caliper) is Stillwater being here in Colorado. We’re excited to announce that we’re expanding to Michigan next year. That’s something that we’ve all been working pretty heavily on developing and getting ready to go. That will be our first expansion of the THC brand to a different state.
We do have a licensing and distribution agreement with The Green Organic Dutchman (TGOD) in Canada. They produce our products using the same technology up there and license also under the Ripple brand name. So, it’s great to see the presence that we’ve been able to expand up there.
Then with Caliper on the CBD side of things with Caliper Ingredients and Caliper Consumer. We operate nationwide for that based on the more recent rules with the 2018 Farm Bill. For me, especially working across all of those business units, it’s really interesting to see the different business approach between your target CBD consumers and your target THC consumers because they’re really different markets. There’s definitely some overlap, but you’re targeting a different demographic to a certain degree. We keep those decisions in mind when we’re choosing how to market and what flavors to use and what products to make. So that’s been really interesting for me to see the behind-the-scenes discussions.
Aaron: I saw on your website, you’ve got consumer options via the dispensaries. Do you work with any infused product manufacturers on a licensing basis or partnership basis?“I’m super excited to continue to see how the medical research will continue to evolve.”
Drew: I’d say the majority of them are definitely on the CBD side for Caliper, partly because the regulatory environment of CBD just is a little bit easier to kind of engage other customers and to sell products across state lines and things of that nature. We do have some partnerships with some of the companies here in Colorado. I’d say the main one that we’ve promoted externally is with Oh Hi infused Seltzers based out of Durango, Colorado. It’s been a great agreement where we provide our base technology via liquid Ripple formulation that they can then infuse into their seltzers. They’ve done a great job with those products and it’s definitely a partnership that’s been mutually beneficial.
Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?
Drew: For me, the whole appeal of joining the industry was research. With prohibition and decades of those restrictions preventing true research there are so many unknown questions that still need to be investigated. I’m super excited to continue to see how the medical research will continue to evolve. I think we’ll get better clarity on the efficacy of individual cannabinoids versus different combinations and ratios of cannabinoids. The entourage effect is something that’s pretty heavily talked about in the industry. I do think there’s some research to support that. I also think there’s still way more unknowns than things that we actually know. So, I’m super interested in seeing how our understanding of everything will continue to improve over time.
I’d love to see the medical research eventually expand into what synergistic benefits exist between cannabinoids and other bioactive ingredients such as turmeric, catechins, antioxidants and other plant-based ingredients that have gotten a lot more interest through the medical research in the last decade.
Then one of the things I’m always excited about being on the science side of things is we’re still investigating the general compatibility of cannabinoids with various types of food and beverage products. That goes not only for ingredient interactions, but also factors like pH, water activity and moisture content. Even packaging definitely plays a role in cannabinoid stability for a variety of products. There’s also a variety of production processing technologies that still need additional investigation, whether you’re talking pasteurization, for beverages, or retort for canned products or newer technologies like high pressure processing (HPP). So, I think the most exciting thing for me, and the reason I was really willing and interested in joining the industry, is there’s so much to learn. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of things to explore. I think as an industry the better we conduct this research, the better off we’ll all be.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview! Thanks Drew.
Due to quick progressions in legalization, today’s cannabis industry bears little resemblance to the industry of five years ago. As the cannabis space gains mainstream acceptance, it resembles more “traditional” industries closely. In turn, how we consume cannabis has changed dramatically within this novel legal framework.
A brief visit to a cannabis dispensary quickly illuminates just how much the industry has changed in the past few years.
Within the dynamic of modern cannabis, perhaps no vertical has seen the same advancements as cannabis extracts. It’s precisely the growth of the concentrate category that has given rise to the many branded products that define the legal market.
To give a clear picture of how advancements in extraction have stimulated the concentrate category’s growth, we put together this brief exploration.
Standards & Technology
Before legalization, the production of cannabis extracts was a shady affair done in clandestine and often dangerous ways. Especially concerning BHO (Butane Hash Oil), home-based laboratories have long since been notorious fire hazards. Even more, with a total lack of regulation, black-market extracts are infamous for containing harmful impurities.
In the few short years that cannabis has been legal in Nevada, Washington and other states, extract producers have adopted standards and technology from more professional arenas. By borrowing from the food and pharmaceutical industries, concentrate companies have achieved excellence undreamed of a decade ago.
Good Manufacturing Practices
One of the essential elements in the extracts vertical advancements is the adoption of good manufacturing practices. According to the World Health Organization website, “Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) is that part of quality assurance which ensures that products are consistently produced and controlled to the quality standards appropriate to their intended use.”
When adult-use cannabis was legalized in markets such as Colorado, cannabis companies were able to come out of the shadows and discuss GMPs with legit businesses. In doing so, they implemented professional controls on extract manufacturing in accordance with “quality standards” of state regulatory agencies.
Supercritical CO2 Extraction
As cannabis businesses adopted GMP from other industries, extract producers also embraced more sophisticated technology. Of these, supercritical CO2 has pushed the cannabis concentrates vertical into the future.
According to the equipment manufacturer Apeks Supercritical, “CO2 is considered to be a safer method of extraction because the solvent is non-volatile. The extract is purer because no trace of the solvent is left behind. It is also versatile and helps protect sensitive terpenes, by allowing cold separation.” By deriving methods from food production, supercritical equipment manufacturers have given cannabis companies a viable option for the commercial production of extracts.
Supercritical technology has helped push the concentrates vertical forward by providing a clean and efficient way to produce cannabis extracts. Nonetheless, supercritical CO2 equipment is highly sophisticated and carries a hefty price tag. Producers can expect to pay well over $100,000 for commercial supercritical CO2 extraction setup.
Just as standards and technology have evolved in the cannabis extracts vertical, we have also seen products rapidly mature. Notably, the legal environment has allowed manufacturers to exchange ideas and methods for the first time. In turn, this dialogue has led to the development of new products, like isolates and live resin.
Just as the name implies, isolates are concentrates made from a singular, pure cannabinoid. In today’s market, CBD isolates have grown increasingly popular because people can consume pure CBD without ingesting other cannabinoids or plant materials, including the legal 0.3% THC found in hemp.
Isolates are made by further purifying cannabis extracts in the process of purification, filtration and crystallization. As seen with other concentrates, isolates are used as the base for many cannabis products, such as gummies.
There is also growing interest in CBG isolate, which is another non-psychoactive cannabinoid when consumed orally.
The cannabis concentrate live resin has taken the industry by storm over the past few years. Live resin is a form of extract that is originally sourced from freshly harvested and frozen cannabis plants. The primary selling point behind this extract is the fact that fresh flowers produce much more vibrant aromas and flavors than dried cannabis. Interestingly, this pungency is tied to the preservation of terpenes in live resin.
To make live resin, producers “flash freeze” fresh cannabis plants immediately after harvest. Valuable cannabinoids and terpenes are then extracted from the fresh, frozen plant material using hydrocarbon solvents. This whole process is done at extremely cold temperatures, ensuring no thermal degradation to the precious and volatile terpenes.
In lieu of these intricate steps to preserve the flower and extracts, live resin has continuously gained popularity. Namely because vaping with live resin is the best way to sample fresh cannabis terpene profiles in its most authentic fashion
It is amazing to see how much cannabis extracts have grown and progressed with legalization. Due to such amazing advancements in standards, technology, and products, the concentrates category has exploded on the dispensary scene. In today’s market, flowers have been largely sidelined in favor of concentrate-based products like gummies. These products now adorn dispensary shelves in beautiful packaging replete with purity and testing specifications.
It’s an often-overlooked fact that the purity standards of the legal extracts have made reliable cannabis brands possible in the first place. You cannot develop a cannabis brand without consistent products that customers can rely on; all things considered, it can be said that advancements in extraction have not only stimulated the concentrate category but the entire industry as we know it today.
Back in July of 2020, ASI Global Standards announced the launch of their newest audit standard: The Cannabis Safety & Quality Scheme (CSQ). The scheme is built around ISO requirements and the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) requirements.
In a press release published in December of 2020, CSQ announced they have added a new licensed certification body to the program: QIMA/WQS, which is a provider of independent third-party certification, inspection, and training services for the food industry.
The CSQ program is marketed as the world’s first cannabis certification to meet GFSI criteria, which is expected to get benchmarked in 2022.
- Growing and Cultivation of Cannabis Plants
- Manufacturing and Extraction of Cannabis
- Manufacturing and Infusion of Cannabis into Food & Beverage Products
- Manufacturing of Cannabis Dietary Supplements
The first CSQ certifications are expected to be awarded this month. Being a licensed certification body for the CSQ program means QIMA/WQS will conduct document evaluations as well as on-site inspections to ensure companies are meeting the CSQ standards prior to certification.
“At QIMA WQS, we see an enormous potential to support and provide quality certification to the entire cannabis supply chain. Joining CSQ and its innovative approach is an exciting step into the diversification of our services and growth,” says Mario Berard, CEO of QIMA/WQS.