Cannabis has always had it tough when it comes to marketing. Part of it is simple logistics. A DTC playbook, heavily contingent on growing a brand’s audience and pushing folks to purchase products through digital marketing, isn’t a possibility for them. Despite its mainstream acceptance, most large ad platforms like Facebook and Instagram won’t touch it because of its tenuous legality. Banner ads don’t convert and only end up on specific platforms like Pornhub or Weedmaps anyway.
And because the legal status changes on a state-by-state basis, it’s extremely difficult for a brand to span across multiple markets. Just think: why would someone living in Florida care about a cool cannabis brand in Detroit if they weren’t in that industry or have ties to that state? This also makes influencer marketing tough because people aren’t finding the coolest people in their respective states to follow. They’re just finding people they think are interesting.
That leaves budtenders – point of sale experts – that hold a huge position of educating and steering folks towards products. Most folks are newer to cannabis – or cannabis has grown up a ton since their past casual experience with it. Budtenders offer an informative, hyper-local solution with extremely limited reach to a narrow market.
But the future shows promise. A new wave of platform marketing has emerged with new formats and lots of room to cultivate and grow for cannabis brands. With a little understanding of what’s driving the success of social media newcomers and evolving mainstays, cannabis companies can potentially find new avenues for marketing and brand-building success.
There’s currently a lot of opportunity through the larger cannabis retail and native ordering apps – ones like Weedmaps, Leafly and others that have widespread brand recognition within the cannabis community and a growing array of social media-like features. These are places that already segment according to markets, with a built-in, educated audience open to creative approaches to branding and marketing.
These types of apps are also becoming the norm more and more. Especially since the pandemic, dispensaries are doing most of their volume through online orders and pickup. As a result, making sure you show up, look great and convey your unique position on these platforms is incredibly important.
Listening and Learning
Whether it’s Clubhouse or other upcoming rivals on the horizon, audio platforms are great because they can serve as a means to have an honest, direct and enlightening conversation about cannabis. This is great news for budtenders who can help a brand expand their reach by facilitating these sorts of conversational consumer relationships. As the cannabis market matures rapidly, people will need a safe place to normalize consumption, talk about dosage or about how normal consumers (not just stereotypical potheads, but every day, “constructive members of society”), are able to use cannabis effectively in their day-to-day lives.
A lot of other visually-based platforms are about curation or presentation of an ideal life and less about learning or sharing – a place where audio platforms can shine.
Old is New
In some cases, it’s not about just using new platforms but finding better ways to utilize old ones. For example, legal or not, a lot of folks are about discretion when it comes to their cannabis. They want to get questions answered and learn about brands and products via peers and experts, but they don’t want their bosses or grandparents knowing that they’re hitting a pen between meetings or before brunch.
That’s why time-based content platforms – Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and others – that offer individuals and brands some measure of safety, as well as controlled messaging, will help continue to normalize cannabis.
Another non-cannabis example worth emulating is Psilodelic, a psilocybin gummy brand that’s super low-dose and decently branded, using Instagram in a creative way. Purposefully making their accounts private and going without a public hub, the only way to buy the product is to follow and DM them. “Hacking” the platform in this way means they have to shut down and open up new accounts all the time, but they’ve done an amazing job offering a product that, similarly to cannabis, is sometimes inaccessible, and have done it in a way that’s simple and feels more elite. That’s creative entrepreneurship.
In the end, using these changing platforms means approaching them as tools to foster a better relationship with people. The brands that succeed will have dead-simple instructions and information that really helps to empower folks to look at cannabis in a different way. Then, as we finally reach legalization, these brands will find themselves better equipped to step into the mainstream, confident in the meaningful relationships they’ve already cultivated.
Part One of this series took a look at how the regulated cannabis market can only be understood in relation to the previous medical market as well as the ongoing “traditional” market. Part Two of the series describes how regulation defines vertical integration in California cannabis, and conversely, how vertical integration can address some of the problems that the regulations create. But first:
A Grain of Salt
Take the conventional wisdom about vertical integration with a grain of salt. Expected benefits may not materialize under the current circumstances:
Overall, the business environment is highly challenging due to extensive regulation, over taxation, insufficient retail capacity and competition from the “traditional” market. As a result, integrating businesses upstream or downstream may mean capturing losses, not profits.
The three major types of cannabis activity span three major industrial sectors: raw materials (i.e., cultivation), manufacturing and service (distribution, testing and retail). As a result, a vertically integrated company needs to carry out very different types of activity, which require very different types of core competencies, equipment and facilities.
Developing core competencies is especially challenging because each of the major cannabis sectors is still evolving.
Realizing the benefits of vertical integration requires an additional core competency in cross-sector operations.
Regulations Define the Supply Chain
California’s regulations define the cannabis supply chain by defining both the individual links (licensees) and the relationships between those links. Therefore, an understanding of vertical integration must be grounded in an understanding of the underlying regulatory definitions.
The regulatory definition of each link is extensive. For example, each licensee is tied to a specific facility, and must have its own procedures for production, inventory control, security, etc. When the links are strung together, this definition tends to preserve operational redundancies, and impede operational integration.
Overall, the relationships between the links are primarily defined in terms of preserving the chain of cannabis custody. On top of that, regulations define very specific (and very consequential) links between certain licenses, as discussed below.
A Taxonomy of Links
There are currently 26 types of cannabis license in California, 25 of which can be vertically integrated:
Cultivation – 14 licenses, including 4 sizes each for Indoor (up to 22,0000 sf), Mixed Light (up to 22,000 sf) and Outdoor (up to 1 acre), as well as Nursery and Processor (drying, trimming and packaging/labeling). Note that cultivation licenses are the only licenses that restrict the scale of activities.
Manufacturing – 5 licenses, including volatile extraction, non-volatile extraction, everything but extraction (i.e., infusion) and packaging/labeling.
Testing (Type 8), for testing cannabis according to state standards prior to sale. The owner of a testing license cannot own any other type of license.
Distribution (Type 11), acts as the gateway between cultivation and manufacturing on the one hand, and retail on the other. The distributor’s gateway status is entirely an artifact of regulation – cannabis must be officially tested before it is sold to a consumer, and only a distributor can order the official test. All products must stay in a “quarantine” area at the distributor until they pass testing. Products that fail testing must be destroyed if they cannot be remediated.
Transport (Type 13), which can move cannabis between licensees (with a narrow exception). This license does not allow for official testing.
Delivery Retail (Type 10), for delivery services that are subject to the vagaries of software platforms and the intransigence of local authorities.
Microbusiness (Type 12), which allows the licensee to carry out cultivation (up to 10,000 square feet), non-volatile manufacturing, distribution and retail.
Self-Distribution – A Case of Useful Integration
You may gather from the previous section that shoving a gratuitous and mandatory distributor into the middle of the supply chain creates problems for cultivators and manufacturers. Savvy operators solve this problem by getting a distribution license. This allows the cultivator or manufacturer to:
Pick the time and place for the testing of its cannabis products.
Avoid paying someone else for the storage of cannabis products as they await test results or purchase.
Reduce transport costs (particularly if the distributor is near the other operations).
Sell directly to retailers.
The bottom line is that vertical integration in California cannabis is useful as a means to an end, as opposed to an end in itself. Therefore, cannabis operators should carefully consider how vertical integration will benefit their core business before incurring the risks and expenses associated with an additional license.
This article is an opinion only and is not intended to be legal advice.
The cannabis industry is growing so quickly that even COVID-19 can’t slow it down. Before the pandemic, the industry amassed $13.6 billion in U.S. legal cannabis sales in 2019 – a figure that is expected to more than double to $30 billion in the next five years, according to New Frontier Data. In states where cannabis is legal for medical or recreational use, dispensaries have been deemed necessary, essential businesses – especially when it comes to calming stress and anxiety in our ever-changing times.
Cannabis legalization and newly budding dispensaries have expanded across the U.S., which may come with an unfortunate counterpart – a higher incidence of crime. Despite lower prices in states that have legalized cannabis, as compared to states where it is still illegal, theft has run rampant across grow operations, warehouses and, most often, dispensaries.
Dispensaries can be targeted more frequently. Robbers may perceive them as an easy target, because they are businesses that have larger amounts of cash on hand. Many dispensaries only accept cash because payment processors and financial institutions aren’t willing to work with them. This is primarily because cannabis is still deemed an illegal substance under federal law, and the actions of financial institutions are governed by federal, not state, laws. Once the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is approved, cannabis businesses will be able to work more easily with banks, in turn reducing the amount of cash on site and erasing the dollar signs in opportunistic thieves’ eyes.
However, cash isn’t the only high thieves seek when they break into dispensaries. There’s also the product itself. Protecting it – and providing peace of mind to the facilities’ owners and occupants – is a concern for dispensaries, grow operations and warehouses. Robbers are motivated by the opportunity to make even more fast cash through reselling the product found onsite.
To eliminate such easy targets, security requirements for the cannabis industry are a necessity. They are also involved, complicated, and vary from state to state. A number of security specifications apply between state laws and local ordinances. Inventory must be properly surveilled and managed at all stages of transportation and storage. Any discrepancies in inventory can result in large fines and other penalties. To aid in understanding security compliances, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), a national trade association, recommends that start-ups obtain attorneys to guide businesses through their state’s laws and regulations.
This is why, especially for new business owners, it is critical to consider the best, most advanced security solutions – especially when it comes to doors and points of egress – that are easily integrated into buildings during the design phase. These solutions protect the products, properties, and people throughout the cannabis supply chain.
Understanding State Security Regulations While there are no federally recognized security requirements for the cannabis industry, there are similar requirements across all states that have legalized cannabis, including:
Maintaining strict access control throughout the facility – this is especially important for grow operations and warehouses
Functional alarm systems
Documented standard operating procedures
Video surveillance systems – many states mandate very precise requirements, such as length of storage time and even video resolution specifications
Notifying appropriate regulatory agencies immediately or within a strict timeframe after a security incident or theft
Securing all records and record storage
While these are common, state-mandated security requirements, it is critically important to know and understand all rules, regulations, and laws concerning the industry within the business’s specific state. Making sure the business is compliant with all aspects of state laws for security and preventing violations, including the hefty financial penalties that can accompany them, is key.
States require cannabis facilities to implement sophisticated security features for several reasons. One of the most obvious is the fact that the industry supplies a high-value product and is a cash-intensive business. Integrating security features into the building can be a challenging task for architects and designers. To help tackle these challenges, manufacturers have introduced products to the cannabis industry, creating easier, more effective and aesthetically pleasing security solutions.
Integrated Designs For High Level Security Security shouldn’t be a constraint when considering design aesthetics. Certain elements can be discretely tucked away, including cameras and security doors by way of specifying a concealed rolling door, conveniently disguised in the ceiling during operating hours. These doors can even close under alarm eliminating the need for manual intervention. Other security measures, such as bullet resistant glass, are hidden in plain sight.
Untrustworthy employees, smash-and-grab thefts or meticulously planned heists mean secure building design is of the utmost importance. In order to have the most effective security, there needs to be design vision – a clear intent for incorporating advanced security into the facility, whether visible or not.
Suggested security measures include video surveillance around the outdoor perimeter of the property as well as inside the facility. Physical barriers, such as specialized entrance locking systems – including fingerprint-scanning biometric technology – and security doors that may also include intrusion detection and automatic closure systems are recommended. All systems may be paired with 24/7 visual monitoring by security personnel.
Many state regulations also require restricted access to specific areas within dispensaries, grow operations and warehouses, with employee names and activities logged for reference. These necessary measures aid in inventory monitoring and control, further reducing the likelihood of internal theft.
When specifying building security, it’s important for architects to consider what type of building they are designing. There are differences in providing security for dispensaries versus warehouses and grow operations. Dispensaries and storefronts are frequently out in the open and in locations that are well-known to consumers. Warehouses and grow operations are usually tucked out of the way, rarely publicized, and less noticeable.
Rolling Grilles And Doors Deter Dispensary Theft With a high-value product and cash on hand, dispensaries in particular have unique security challenges. And because they are retail businesses, egress and fire codes must be strictly adhered to, in addition to special security regulations.
In light of this, security doors require special consideration. They are necessary to provide secure protection against theft but shouldn’t distract from the architectural vision of the building or interior design.
Rolling security grilles are the ideal solution to protect the counter inside the dispensary and may also be ideal for the front of the store. They fit in small headspaces where there is limited ceiling room and can be easily concealed when not in use.
Even heavy-duty rolling doors used to protect the glass storefront of the dispensary and prevent intruders from entering the building’s dock area can be hidden when not in use. If building code allows, architects may specify a rolling door that coils up into the door’s header, residing behind an exterior soffit. These robust security doors’ lift-resistant bottom bars also can be obscured from sight.
Heavy-duty security doors at the front of the dispensary block sight access and provide a visual deterrent. They give the building a secured look when in use, but heavy-duty rolling doors don’t need to be imposing to customers during the dispensary’s operating hours.
Robust Visible Protection For Grow Operations And Warehouses
Grow operations and warehouses usually opt for more visible security doors to deter criminal activity. They also have different design considerations because of building layout and production needs. For instance, larger grow operations house plants and supplies which require heavy equipment to move throughout the facilities.
Heavy duty rolling security doors can be made with up to 12-gauge steel with interlocking slats and tamper resistant fasteners – making them stronger than standard garage doors. They provide high-end security at loading docks and limit access to restricted areas inside.
Rolling doors can also be used to block employee access to off-limits areas common in grow operations and warehouses. Because they are heavily reliant on utilities and infrastructure, such as water mains and humidity and temperature controls, warehouses and grow operations are ideal applications for rolling doors. If unauthorized personnel with ill intentions access these utility areas, it could spell disaster with ruined crops and damaged or unsafe products – turning into substantial financial losses. From a design standpoint, these doors do not need to be concealed. In fact, their visibility signals restricted access areas and hints at the security measures taken to protect these facilities.
Enhanced Security Features
Whether designing a dispensary, a grow operation facility, or a warehouse, rolling doors may be paired with automatic protection features to enhance the building’s security and help workers feel safe. These automatic closing systems allow the security doors to be immediately activated by a building alarm or the push of a panic button in emergency situations. The doors also feature advanced locking systems – some of which are hidden in non-traditional locations – providing further tamper resistance.
Some rolling door manufacturers offer in-house architectural design groups to guide architects and designers in choosing the ideal security doors. These groups can address and solve any design dilemmas that arise during the project. Every rolling door is built to a specific opening, making each product unique to that area of the project. Because of this customization, manufacturers can meet virtually any specification.
Meeting Insurance Requirements
Selecting the correct rolling door along with other advanced security features aids in meeting insurance requirements. Each insurance company has individual minimum-security conditions in its policy. Many insurance companies will not provide theft insurance if cannabis businesses do not have adequate security or cannot demonstrate they have it.
Planning Leads To Integrated Protection The technical and legal aspects of securing dispensaries, grow operations, and warehouses can be overwhelming and, at times, confusing. Legal counsel, state agencies, industry associations, and manufacturers encourage new cannabis businesses to use them as resources as they unravel the nuances of the industry’s security regulations.
By combining robust security features such as video surveillance, proper access controls, rolling doors or grilles and automatic closure systems, cannabis facilities can meet state and insurance requirements and deter theft. With thoughtful design consideration and planning, these security features also have the capabilities to seamlessly blend with interior and exterior design aesthetics.
While it is still early to say what the impact of COVID-19 will be on dispensary sales into April, it is clear that the cannabis industry’s position as an ‘essential business’ is likely to help. States like Massachusetts are just allowing medical use businesses to remain open while states like California and Washington are allowing cultivators, producers and dispensaries to remain open. Meanwhile, according to Locate.AI’s analysis of retail traffic, the rest of the retail sector is down between 44% and 99% recently, depending on the category.
On March 24, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board declared cannabis an essential industry including producers, processors and retailers. For dispensaries, they are now allowing curbside pick-ups for all adult customers. Colorado has gone further to restrict adult sales to curbside pick-ups only for recreational cannabis. Medical customers are still allowed to enter stores, but must practice social distancing. Across the states, dispensaries are offering curbside and in-store pick-up. In addition, at some dispensaries, delivery fees are being waived for larger purchases.
The International Chamber of Commerce recently published “Coronavirus Guidelines for Business,” summarizing actions businesses can take to reduce risks for operations and employees. Going further, The New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) recently published practical business safety guidelines detailing how these essential businesses can stay open and ensure safety. The guidelines, which are typically one to two pages and easily readable, are applicable to dispensaries. Certain suggestions, such as avoiding crowded spaces and maintaining 6ft distance will be familiar. Other suggestions go beyond common advice offering sensible recommendations to reduce risk of transmission as much as possible, such as the following:
“Consider setting up one or more ‘necessities only’ sections that enable a short shopping trip for most of the customers. Setting up such short shopping areas outside when weather permits, or at remote locations, can dramatically reduce the shopping density inside the store.” or
“Use floor markings or other visual system to indicate a one-way loop (with short cuts, but no back way) inside the store to promote a dominant walking direction and avoid customers crossing paths or crowding.”
While many cannabis businesses have already gone beyond recommendations from the local health authorities, there are some that would still benefit from adopting the NECSI Guidelines to further protect their customers and employees. The guidelines are written for laypeople and are easy to print and share.
NECSI’s coronavirus guidelines can be found on the group’s volunteer website endcoronavirus.org.
endCoronavirus.org is a volunteer organization with over 6,000 members built and maintained by the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) and its collaborators. The group specializes in networks, agent-based modeling, multi-scale analysis and complex systems and provides expert information on how to stop COVID-19.
The New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) is an independent academic research and educational institution with students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty. In addition to the in-house research team, NECSI has co-faculty, students and affiliates from MIT, Harvard, Brandeis and other universities nationally and internationally.
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