Risk management is the process of identifying potential hazards, assessing the associated risk, then implementing controls to mitigate those risks. With Salmonella and Aspergillus being two of the leading causes of cannabis contamination that can occur throughout the supply chain, applying upstream risk management strategies can keep supplier contamination issues from impacting your products.
In recent months cannabis products have been recalled for Salmonella and/or Aspergillus contamination in several states, including California, Arizona, Michigan, Florida, as well as Canada. While the recalls impacted retail products, in most cases, the contamination occurred farther back in the supply chain, as evidenced by recalls that impacted several dispensaries or other sales locations.
For example, the November 2021 Arizona recall caused multiple establishments and dispensaries to recall product due to possible contamination with Salmonella or Aspergillus; the Michigan recall of an estimated $229 million in cannabis products due to “inaccurate and/or unreliable results of products tested.” While a lab lawsuit against the recall released some of the product to market, the companies faced significant impact – in both removing and returning the product.
While microbial contamination can occur throughout the supply chain, Aspergillus is ubiquitous in soil and the flower, leaves, roots of the cannabis plant are all susceptible to such contamination. The mold also can colonize the bud both during growing and harvesting. Salmonella can be introduced during growing through, untreated manures, direct contact with animal feces, or contamination of surface water used for irrigation. However, the plant matter also can be compromised during drying, storage and processing from environmental contamination.
Supply chain risk management. To prevent a supplier’s contamination issues from becoming your problem to deal with, each facility at each step of the chain should develop a supply chain risk management program to assess and approve each of its upstream providers. Following are 5 key steps to assessing and managing risk in your supply chain:
Conduct a hazard analysis. A complete supply chain assessment should begin with a hazard assessment of all the ingredients, products or primary packaging you receive. There are two essential steps involved in conducting a hazard analysis: that is the identification of potential hazards – considering those related to the item itself, as well as the supplier environment and process as well as item – and an evaluation to determine if each hazard requires control based on its severity and likely occurrence.
Evaluate the risks. Based on the hazard analysis, the next step is to determine the associated risk. As defined by the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), “a hazard is something that has the potential to cause harm while risk is the likelihood of harm taking place, based on exposure to that hazard.” For example, the higher the exposure, the higher the risk.
Ensure risk control. Once risk is determined, it is critical to ensure that it is being controlled, who is controlling it and how it is being done. Depending on the risk, that control may need to be conducted by the supplier, by you or even by a downstream customer.
Require documentation. No matter which step in the chain is controlling the risk, it is essential that all be documented with records easily accessible – including the controls, any out-of-compliance events and corrective actions. The adage, “If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen,” is very applicable here, particularly should a problem arise and an inspector appear at your door.
Use only approved suppliers. Implementation of the above steps enable the development of a supplier approval program focused on quality, safety and regulatory compliance. Use of only suppliers who have been assessed and found to meet all your standards will help to protect your product and your brand.
Salmonella and Aspergillus contamination can occur throughout the supply chain, but implementing a supply chain risk assessment and management program will enable you to determine where the greatest risks lie among your ingredients and suppliers, allowing you to allocate resources based on that risk.
Since early 2020, the pandemic has shined a spotlight on the global supply chain and its shortcomings. Supply and demand have changed so much and so quickly that it has fostered shortages and delays for many of the world’s goods.
Much of this crisis is due to manufacturing plants in countries like China working at half-capacity or being forced to shut down to curtail the pandemic. A lot of those shortages can also be blamed on companies with a lack of foresight, choosing to lower costs with thin inventories rather than keeping warehouses full.
The global supply chain crisis has impacted nearly every market on earth that relies on international shipping. Everything from clothing and turkeys to cars and computer chips is in short supply, causing prices and wait times to increase.
The cannabis industry is no exception; the supply chain crisis very much so impacts cannabis products getting to consumers. According to John Hartsell, CEO & co-founder of DIZPOT, a cannabis packaging distributor, the worst, when it comes to the supply chain affecting the cannabis market, may still be on its way. “Supply chain issues will continue to be challenging and may even become more challenging for cannabis companies over the next several months due to the holiday season coming up with many packages coming for Christmas, Hanukkah and other holidays,” says Hartsell. Many of those gifts arriving during the holidays are coming from overseas, which further exacerbates any current supply chain backlogs.
John Hartsell will be speaking on this topic and more at the Cannabis Packaging Virtual Conference on December 1. Click here to learn more.Adding to those issues even more is the Chinese New Year coming on February 1, 2022. “The Chinese New Year can often be a three-week downtime for manufacturing in China, causing even more significant delays,” says Hartsell. “Ultimately, these issues are only a problem for organizations that are incapable of planning a logistical timeline that meets demand.”
So how can cannabis companies get ahead of supply chain planning? Hartsell says they are working with customers to establish timelines up to eighteen months out to prevent any disruptions. “We need to stay hyper-focused on logistics, moving freight all over the world, to prevent issues that result from shortsightedness.”
With new markets coming online and legacy cannabis markets expanding, the cannabis supply chain is certainly maturing and this crisis may be kicking things into high gear. In states on the West Coast, distribution channels have expanded, rules have allowed for curbside pickup and delivery and a lot more ancillary businesses are supporting a thriving market.
Still though, the cannabis supply chain falls short in other areas, namely interstate commerce, with the federal government to blame for that. Hartsell expects to see some more interstate commerce in the coming years, and with that comes a much more sophisticated supply chain. He says using logistics software to manage supplies will be the key to continued success.
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Aaron Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Audacious (OCTQB: AUSA) is an Aurora (TSX: ACB) spinoff formerly known as Australis Capital, Inc. They have focused on an asset-light expansion strategy whereby they leverage their expertise in designing cannabis facilities in exchange for favorable cost plus arrangements for a percentage of the facilities’ production.
We interviewed Marc Lakmaaker, SVP of Capital Markets at Audacious. Prior to joining Audacious, Marc worked with Terry Booth at Aurora. His background is in investor relations.
Aaron Green: Marc, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Marc Lakmaaker: I was working for an investor relations agency. and one of my colleagues left and she had a cannabis client that I took over, which was Bedrocan, Canada. I started working with them. They were then acquired by Tweed, which became Canopy. The guy I was working with at the time at Bedrocan was Cam Battley, who then went to Aurora. As soon as he joined Aurora, he said, “I need some help.” So, I came in house and worked there until July 2019. When I left, I set up my own agency, but by that time, I’d been working with Terry Booth for a few years. Then, this past December, Terry got in touch with me and said he needed my help. It was after the concerned shareholders had won the shareholder battle around Australis and the rest is history. So, I’ve now been working with Audacious, which was Australis, since December of last year, roughly.
Green: Just quickly on Australis: So, Audacious is basically a spin off of Aurora, correct?
Lakmaaker: Correct. So, at the time, Aurora had a couple of US assets on its balance sheet, a piece of land an annuity through a company Michigan. We were listed on the TSX. We were going to list or had just listed on the NYSE and were arranging for loan facility with a syndicate of banks. They said, “even though these assets are dormant, you can’t have any US assets on your balance sheet.” So, we spun Australis off – a little bit how Canopy had spun off Canopy Rivers. But it was really the idea that Australis is going to become the foothold for Aurora in the US cannabis market because Aurora has back-in rights.
The management team was put in place and started making some investments in the cannabis space, but kind of drifted away, sort of more into FinTech. First, it was FinTech related to cannabis and then FinTech, full stop. That’s when the shareholders were like, “we don’t agree with this.” Then the proxy battle started in which the dissident shareholders, or the concerned shareholders, won overwhelmingly. The Board left. The management team left. A new management team was put in place, a new Board in place, and it was kind of a restart.
So, we feel like we’re a bit of a startup. But a very rapidly moving startup. We’ve done an incredible amount of work in just the last seven to ten months. There was a lot of housekeeping to do. A lot of stuff related to restructuring the company, dealing with the departing management teams, dealing with bringing new management, etc. There were some deals that had to be unwound… Housekeeping if you will.
Green: Australis went down the FinTech route. What are the plans for Audacious now?
Lakmaaker: We’ve already started. We pivoted right away. In early January, we announced two acquisitions. One of ALPS, and the other one of Green Therapeutics. ALPS is really what is enabling us to execute on our strategy. It’s a very different strategy. It’s an asset light model, because we figured out that in order to grow quickly in this market without spending huge amounts of shareholder money, you need to be able to get into markets in a capital-light fashion. ALPS is the world’s preeminent greenhouse design company. Not just greenhouses, but also indoor facilities. They’ve got a 35-year track record in fruits and vegetables. They’ve got an eight-year-plus track record in cannabis – and built some of the best facilities in the world. They’ve got a lot of IP.
The proof point of that is our relationship with Belle Fleur. It’s a social equity license holder in Massachusetts. We helped them build their facility. We’re not contractors, but we do the design and engineering. We help them with partner selection. We do the construction management. We bring in a general contractor. Then we do the commissioning, and optionally, post-commissioning services, making sure that the facilities are dialed in. In return for all that IP, because what people know that what they get at the end of it is high quality, consistent cannabis and very low operating costs, we ask our clients to dedicate a certain percentage of their canopies to grow with our cultivars. Those we will buy back on a cost plus arrangement and we use that to launch our brands into whatever jurisdiction.
So, in Massachusetts, we’re working with Belle Fleur. We’re getting 10% of their canopy. We’re buying it back at cost plus 5%. So, we don’t have to sink money into building the facility. We’re not carrying the cost of capital there. We’re also not paying wholesale prices. And these relationships are locked in for a long time. I can’t remember if it was five or 10 years. So, it’s a very, it’s a different strategy, but it’s not contrarian – it’s very de-risked, that allows us to launch into new countries.
Then for Green Therapeutics, we’ve got a number of award-winning brands like Provisions and Tsunami. We’re kind of phasing out GT Flowers and there will be something else in its place. We also acquired Loose, which caters to a younger demographic, with a high potency shot beverage line that is now for sale in California.
We also have a partnership with PBR, the Professional Bull Riders Association. There’s some statistics around that that just absolutely blew me away – 83 million permanent fans! That’s 25% of the US population. I think the average income is $70,000. That’s well above the national average and the general split is fairly even too; it’s 53/47, male/female. Proper American sport! They have hundreds of hours of exposure on CBS. They’ve got 2 billion imprints on social media. So, with PBR, we launched Wreck Relief, which has several recognized and approved pain products in the lineup.
Green: What markets are you in right now?
Lakmaaker: Right now we’re in Nevada with cannabis products. This is our home market where our head offices are in Las Vegas. We’re in California. We just bought a dispensary in San Jose that comes with a partnership with Eaze. On top of that, we’re operationalizing in Missouri and Oklahoma, and officially building in Massachusetts.
Then through ALPS because they does both cannabis and non-cannabis, we’re in a number of states. We’re looking to get more of the supply deals. We’re also doing a lot of vegetable facilities throughout the entire world. We’re in Europe, we’re in Asia, in the Middle and in North America, we build these facilities from the desert up to the Arctic.
There’s a big movement right now to produce food that is safe and has a smaller carbon footprint. So, our facilities are kind of inherently more sustainable. They use up to 95% less water, less labor, less energy, they are less prone to disease, crop failure, everything. And because you are local producing for local communities, you reduce the transport carbon footprint.
Green: What in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?
Lakmaaker: I really like the sciences. I’m a chemical engineer by training. I think what is going to take an incredible flight in the years to come is the application of medical scientific research that’s being done right now. To me, that’s fascinating because the cannabis plant is something special. It’s got such a broad utility that we know, anecdotally. I think we’re moving towards a world where we’re going to see a lot of breakthroughs on the medical side.
I’m very excited about the other end too – cultivation. I think tissue culture is going to play an incredible and important role.
Many experts agree that of all pests threatening the cannabis industry, rodents are the most dangerous. Not only do they chew on cannabis plants and ruin crops at an incredible rate, they also contaminate product with their urine and feces. Rodents post a serious threat to cannabis facilities at every level of the supply chain.
Rodents’ incisor teeth never stop growing; left untouched, a rat’s incisor teeth would grow 4 inches in a year*. For this reason, they must constantly gnaw on things around them to wear them down. Unfortunately for cannabis growers, the woody stalks of cannabis plants present a perfect target. The destructive power of rodents cannot be overstated – creatures that can gnaw through plastic, wood, aluminum, brick, cement and even lead will make very short work of cannabis crops.
The notion that growing cannabis indoors will protect it from rodents is a misconception. Their destructive gnawing power makes rodents highly adept at getting inside buildings. Rodents can enter a building through an opening as small as 1/4 inch, and they will use any means necessary to reach the food and shelter that a heated building provides. In addition to squeezing through minuscule openings, rats and mice can climb wires and rough surfaces, jump considerable distances and tread water for several days.
And once they are inside, it is already too late. Pest control experts worldwide agree that exclusion – the technical term for using physical barriers to prevent rodents from entering a building vs. trying to remove them once inside – is the safest, most effective approach to rodent control. This is because once rodents have gained entry, they will contaminate – and multiply – at an alarming rate.
In one year, two mice could potentially multiply into more than 5,000 mice and two rats could become 1,250. In that same year, a single rat can shed more than half a million body hairs, and a mouse can produce up to 18,000 fecal droppings. Rodents eat or contaminate at least twenty percent of the world’s food supply each year (according to the Indiana Department of Health) and carry diseases including rat bite fever, hantavirus, leptospirosis, salmonellosis, murine typhus, and even the bubonic plague. According to experts from Total Food Service, “Mice are known to frequently carry salmonella bacteria in their digestive tract, so salmonella can be easily spread through contact with rodent waste. This is true with marijuana [sic]edibles just as it is with other food products.”
Keeping rodents out of cannabis facilities is fundamental to protecting crops and products. The most common rodent entryways include exterior doors, open garage and loading dock doors, windows, air vents, fireplaces and at points where electrical, water, gas, sewer and HVAC lines enter the building. Rats and mice can also gain entry through tiny cracks in the foundation, by gnawing through the standard rubber and vinyl seals on most garage and loading dock doors, and beneath roofing tiles.
Consider the following exclusion best practices highlighted in The Mallis Handbook of Pest Control:
Safeguard your doors. Wooden doors are continuously vulnerable to the gnawing of rats. Sheet iron flashing should be installed surrounding the door, and any clearance below the door must be smaller than 3/8 inch. All doors should remain closed when not in use and be fitted with proven, specialized rodent-proof door sweeps.
Ventilator grills and windows should be protected with proper and proven exclusion materials, ensuring any voids or cracks are filled.
Defective drain pipes provide a transportation pipeline for rodents. A perforated metal cover should be cemented over the drain pipe, and any small openings surrounding the drain where it enters the building should be patched or filled with proven exclusion material.
Large sidewalk cracks should be sealed as these crevices allow rodents to access a building’s foundation, enabling them to more easily search for entry points. Foundation walls can be protected with barriers of metal, concrete, or brick around and below the foundation.
Circular rat guards should be placed around all vertical wires and pipes.
Ensure that cracked or broken roofing tiles are identified and replaced in a timely manner, and utilize proven exclusion material to fill any voids.
It’s also critical that only proven, rodent-proof exclusion materials be utilized to seal entry points. Caulk, mortar and spray foam offer almost zero protection against the gnawing power of rodents. Steel wool is often used for filling cracks and crevices, but will eventually rust and break down, rendering it useless against rodents. All exclusion materials should be made of stainless steel or other permanent elements.
Standard rubber door sweeps used for weatherization are not designed to withstand rodent gnawing, making the small gap beneath and around exterior doors a primary rodent entry point. Specialized rodent-proof door sweeps are fundamental to effective rodent exclusion. Xcluder’s Rodent-Proof Door Sweeps feature a core of Xcluder Fill Fabric – a blend of stainless steel and poly-fiber with sharp, coarse fibers that rodents cannot gnaw through – reinforced gaskets for a superior weatherseal and an extended rubber flap to create a flush ground seal against insects and other outdoor contaminants. Installing rodent-proof door sweeps is arguably the single most important step in protecting cannabis facilities from rodent infestation.
Sanitation is also important. Food products of any kind must be stored in sealed containers. Garbage should be collected frequently and stored as far away from the building as possible. Clutter should be avoided in storage areas as crowded shelves and boxes create opportunities for rodent nesting. Roofs and gutters should be free of debris as standing water attracts rodents as well. All trees and landscaping should be trimmed back away from the building to prevent not only rodent burrowing but also access to the roof.
Rodents are not easily deterred, but a well-supported, thorough exclusion plan is the strongest weapon in the fight against rodents. Investing the time and resources to properly safeguard buildings against rodents before a problem is identified is the best way to protect the plants, products and personnel inside cannabis facilities.
Earlier this year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) announced a plan to introduce new testing rules for the state’s growing hemp industry. Under the new regulations, hemp products must be tested for residual solvents, heavy metals and pesticides, in addition to making sure they contain less than 0.3% THC.
The CDPHE are planning on a gradual rollout to prevent any supply chain issues or a lab testing bottleneck, similar to what we’ve seen in other states launching new testing requirements in years past, such as Arizona or California. Well, the Colorado rollout appears to be hitting similar snags and because of supply chain issues related to instruments and consumables in laboratories, the implementation of those testing rules is somewhat delayed. What was originally supposed to be implemented over the summer was pushed back to an October 1 deadline, and that deadline has now been pushed back to 2022.
As a result of supply chain shortages and the learning curve to test for such a wide range of pesticides, Colorado is opening hemp testing to out-of-state labs in an effort to stay on schedule with the rollout. Dillon Burns, lab manager at InfiniteCAL, a cannabis testing company with locations in California and Michigan, just completed an audit with the CDPHE in their work to get certified and start conducting hemp testing for businesses in Colorado.
Burns says they’re well-acquainted with the list of pesticides because of how similar the list is to California’s requirements. “For the pesticide testing rules that were supposed to go into effect on August 1st, it’s basically the same list as California just with slightly different action levels,” says Burns. “I would say these action limits are generally stricter – they have much lower LOQs [limits of quantification].”
Come January 1, 2022, they are expecting an additional 40 pesticides to be required under the new rules. “But currently, it’s still unclear when these regulations will actually go into effect,” says Burns. The full pesticide testing list is currently slated to be implemented on April 1, 2022.
The supply chain issues referenced above have a lot to do with what the state is asking labs to test for. Previously, most of the pesticides tested for under Colorado’s adult use and medical cannabis programs could be analyzed with an LC/MS. A handful of pesticides on the new list do require GC/MS, says Burns. It’s entirely possible that a lot of labs in Colorado just don’t have a GC/MS or are in the process of training staff and developing methods for using the new instrument. “Cleanliness of these instruments is such a priority that it takes time to acquire the right skill set for it,” says Burns.
The new testing rollout isn’t just another compliance hurdle for the cannabis industry; these rules are about protecting public health. Dillon Burns said he’s seen hiccups in California with the amount of new hemp farmers getting into the space. “The hemp products we’ve tested in California often fail for pesticides,” says Burns. It’s a lot easier in most states to get a license for growing hemp than it would be for growing adult use cannabis. “You’ll see a lot more novice growers getting into hemp farming without a background in it. They’ll fail for things they just haven’t considered, like environmental drift. We see a lot of fails in CA. Hemp is bioaccumulating so it presents a lot of problems. If they’re not required to look for it, they weren’t monitoring it.”
When asked how the market might react to the new rules, Burns was confident that Colorado knows what they’re doing. “I don’t anticipate that [a testing bottleneck] happening here. The regulators are reasonable, supportive of the industry and opening it up to out-of-state labs should help in preventing that.”
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
4Front Ventures Corp. (CSE: FFNT) ( OTCQX: FFNTF) is a multi-state operator active in Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan and California. Since its founding in 2011, 4Front has built a reputation for its high standards and low-cost cultivation and production methodologies earned through a track record of success in facility design, cultivation, genetics, growing processes, manufacturing, purchasing, distribution and retail. To date, 4Front has successfully brought to market more than 20 different cannabis brands and nearly 2,000 unique product lines, which are strategically distributed through its fully owned and operated Mission dispensaries and retail outlets in its core markets.
We interviewed Andrew Thut, chief investment officer of 4Front Ventures. Andrew joined 4Front in 2014 after investing in the company in 2011. Prior to 4Front, Andrew worked in investment banking and later moved on to public equity where he was a portfolio manager at BlackRock.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Andrew Thut: I came at it from the investment side of things. I started my career as a junior investment banker right out of school and then I was a public equity analyst and Portfolio Manager. I ran small-cap growth portfolios for BlackRock where I was on the team for a better part of 11 years.
One of my friends, Josh Rosen, who came from the finance industry, got interested in the cannabis industry really in 2008. He founded 4Front as a consulting company officially in 2011 and I came in as an investor. After that original investment, I left BlackRock and I was looking for something different to do. I was tired of chasing basis points and running public market portfolios. Josh said to me “This industry needs more talent,” and I became more and more involved at 4Front as the years went on. In 2014, I came into the business full time. Originally, I was someone that was kind of the gray hair in the room when we were applying for licenses. We had to go to different municipalities and convince them that we were going to be responsible license holders. I also spent a lot of time on the capital raising side for our business leveraging my career in corporate and more traditional public finance. These are incredibly complex businesses that require a fair amount of capital in some places. So, that’s how I originally got into the business.
These are complicated businesses in a lot of cases. The “sausage making” in cannabis is incredibly complicated. There’s friction at every step along the way. As an example, when you’re buying a building where you want to cultivate your product, you can’t get a mortgage from a typical bank.
While those of us that have been in the industry like to gripe and complain about it, this friction is also the opportunity. Because more traditional investors can’t invest in this industry yet, it allows us more time to build our businesses and have some protective moats around it from a competition standpoint until those folks do come in. So, all this friction is a pain and it’s brutal, but it’s also the opportunity here in cannabis.
Green: Can you speak to the transformation of 4Front from consulting to MSO?
Thut: The original business was consulting. Our original investor was sensitive about touching the plant – it’s one thing to offer services to a federally illegal business, it’s another thing to directly run a federally illegal business. For example, 4Front would have consulting clients that were interested in acquiring a license in Massachusetts. Because of our expertise and our standard operating procedures, we could apply for licenses in limited license states on behalf of our clients and help them show regulators competence and give the regulator’s confidence that these operators knew what they were doing. So, we would help our clients win the licenses and then once those licenses were won, our operations folks would come in and help them get up running.
When I came into the business we said, “well, geez, we have quite a track record helping clients win licenses and get open. If we’re good at winning these licenses and getting them open, why aren’t we just doing this on our own behalf?” So, in 2015, we shifted the business from consulting to being a multi-state operator. We leveraged our capabilities in regulatory compliance and winning licenses to go and get those on our own behalf. We also leveraged our financial expertise in M&A to add to our portfolio, so what we ended up with was a seven-state portfolio at the time.
Green: Chief Investment Officer is an uncommon title, even in the MSO space. What does your day-to-day look like?
Thut: I spend an awful lot of time helping management plot our strategy, and then figuring out how we are going to pay for our growth. Not only structuring finances for the company, but also having contact with our existing and new investors.
I spend a lot of my day to day thinking about where we want to be as a business and what geographies we want to be in. If you look at cannabis longer term, we have less interest in being cultivators or farmers. We think that’s going to be the most quickly commoditized piece of the value chain. We like retail as a business, but I think that we have less interest in managing hundreds of retail locations scattered across the country. We ultimately want to be a finished goods manufacturer. What we think is going to matter longer term is establishing low-cost production.
There is a lot of price elasticity in the end markets for cannabis meaning if you get customers a quality product at a much better price than the competitor, you’re going to take outsize market share. To offer that lower price, you have to be efficient. Over the years, we have figured out how to bring the labor cost out of our production. We have 25 different brands with 1000s of different SKUs of products that have dominant market share in states like Washington. And we’re now putting them into Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, and hopefully New Jersey.
Green: Do you have a preference towards acquisition, or do you seek growth through internal investments?
Thut: We are always weighing build versus buy. We want our products to have dominant market share, or very strong market share in every state we are in, and we have a lens towards what gets us there faster and most efficiently. For instance, we have two cultivation facilities and one production facility here in Massachusetts – about 15,000 square feet of canopy in the state. That will just about serve our three retail locations in Massachusetts.
Back to our bigger investment thesis, we believe that we should be a finished goods wholesaler in every state that we’re in. We know our products are incredibly well received and we know that consumers love our price point. In Massachusetts, for instance, we’re currently evaluating if we need more capacity from a cultivation standpoint and a production standpoint. And if we do where do the lines cross in terms of whether we should build versus buy that additional capacity?
We are currently in five states, including our facility in Washington has dominant market share in one of the toughest markets in the world for cannabis – somewhere close to 9% market share in Washington. Our brands are in the top 10 of every single category from flower to vapes, to edibles everything across the board. And what we’re doing our strategy is simple. It’s taking those tried-and-true products and operating procedures that have been so effective in Washington, and we’re replicating them in other states where we have licenses: Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan, California and hopefully New Jersey. We’re looking for more state, but we want to be deep in the states we’re in.
We also have a lot of confidence that you know, having been having translated some of these, having been able to effectively take our Washington success story and port it to other states. We’re looking for other states to sort of bring into the portfolio because we feel like we’re in a position now to stamp it out.
At our facility in Washington, which is the number one edibles manufacturer in that state, we produce the edible Marmas which is our the number one selling gummy in Washington. We produce 3,500 boxes of those in one shift using 25 people in Washington. Our facility is one of the lowest cost producers in the country.
We are opening what we think is going to be a very disruptive facility in Southern California right now. The facility is 170,000 square feet of purely automated finished goods production. So, rather than making 3,500 boxes of our gummy squares in one shift using 25 people, with the automation that we have in California, we can make 30,000 boxes. So, 10x one shift for the same number of people. We look more like the Mars Candy Company than most investors would think of when they see a typical cannabis company. We’re bringing that kind of scale and automation.
Green: What are some of the industry trends that you’re watching closely?
Thut: We keep a close eye on limited license states. States like Massachusetts and Illinois. For various reasons Massachusetts is very tough to get zoned. So, there’s going to be a limited number of players in a state like Massachusetts, which means you can have pretty good moats around your business and pricing will hold up over several years. We love limited license states like that, where price is going to hold up. On the other hand, we’re not afraid to enter a state like California where we think our low-cost production expertise uniquely qualifies us to go into a huge market like that and be disruptive and take a lot of the pie.
“You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry.”What we’re seeing in terms of industry trends, particularly on the THC side of this business, has just been phenomenally strong. You’ve had robust medical markets where, by and large, we’re seeing those dominoes start to fall quickly and going recreational. When that happens, the size of the market increases – call it from 2% of the population to as much as 10% of the population. So, from a state regulatory standpoint, having states go form medical to adult use is a huge deal in terms of the market opportunity.
We’re also seeing states get a lot more comfortable with the idea of selling cannabis. I’ve been around for close to seven years in this industry. When I started and I went into a municipality, and I said we wanted to open a cannabis store you’d have people following me to my car with pitchforks. As these municipalities open and public acceptance comes around, people are realizing that these stores are providing jobs and providing a good tax base for communities. So, the acceptance of cannabis has a snowballing effect that just continues to roll.
It’s not just the ultra-frequent users of cannabis who are totally driving the bus in terms of the demand growth for your business. You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry. So, the fundamentals of this industry are phenomenal. I think that we’re probably in the second inning of what is a mega-trend of legalization of cannabis and the investment opportunity here.
Green: I think one of the interesting things about the fundamentals is you’ve got this hardship of 280E, that all the companies are facing, and yet you still have groups that are surviving, profitable and growing. What are your thoughts on 280E’s effect on cannabis businesses? Do you foresee anything happening there?
Thut: There was a huge liquidity crunch in cannabis in 2019, meaning it was hard for people to come up with capital to grow their businesses. You had a bunch of companies that had licenses who didn’t really know how to operate and weren’t really focused on profitability. That liquidity crunch of 2019 made people get religious about being profitable and being efficient with capital allocation. Fast forward to 2021 and if you look at the top 10 cannabis MSOs in the US, I think we’re all profitable.
So, here you have an industry with accelerating top line growth and they’re already profitable. That profitability should only improve as you’re able to leverage your operating expenses and that’s a unique thing. When the internet craze was started in 1999 you had companies that a weren’t profitable, didn’t have business models, and no one really knew what they wanted to be. You have companies here in cannabis that are growing the top line 50% a year, and they’re profitable, and they’re trading at under 10 times EBITDA, which is totally disjointed.
So, that leads me to your question on to 280E. 280E has been a problem. Banking has been a problem. Having to list our companies over the counter instead of on exchanges like the NASDAQ and NYSE – that’s been a problem in terms of attracting capital. But the good news is Senator Schumer, Senator Booker and others have put out some bold initiatives on what they want to achieve from a legalization standpoint. From an investment standpoint, the biggest thing that investors should be focused on is access to banking, which is included in the senators’ proposed legislation.
Once we get access to banking services, the federal government is basically acknowledging cannabis as an industry will be able to not only have more traditional financing for our growth, but it will also lead to uplift into exchanges and real institutions like the Fidelity’s and the BlackRock’s of the world being able to come and invest in these companies. It also acknowledges 280E is an antiquated law. Getting rid of 280E will give us a much lower tax rate and will allow us to have a bigger proportion of our pretax cash flow into growing our businesses rather than having to go outside for that funding. My crystal ball is probably no better or worse than others in the industry, but if you fast forward 18 months to two years, I have a tough time seeing 280E still in place.
Green: Last question here. What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about in the cannabis industry?
Thut: I’m just fascinated to see how these various business models will play out. People are placing bets on picks and shovels. People are placing bets on whether being a finished goods manufacturer works. People are placing bets on whether a retailer business model is going to win the day.
If you look at the leadership in the cannabis industry today, it’s totally different than it was four years ago. People that were foregone winners four years ago like MedMen had to do significant recaps. I put Acreage in that sort of bucket too. The leadership had shifted and so I’m really curious to see just from an intellectual standpoint, how this business evolves.
I sometimes scratch my head, you know, do you really want to be a cannabis company with 200 retail locations? You’re going to have a tough time growing same store sales in three to five years in 200 retail locations. So, I’m just most curious in proving out our thesis of being finished goods producers and low cost finished goods producers in the value chain. I’m most curious in seeing how that plays out. I think we are seeing our strategy play out in the most competitive markets in the world. We have a high degree of conviction that we’re on the right track here, but our eyes are always open and we’re always making little pivots here and there trying to make sure to stay on top of the sweet spot in the value curve.
If you describe the cannabis industry generically and you didn’t say cannabis, you said “widget” I think it’s the most fascinating Business School case ever presented. If you’re taking this market that already exists, it’s just illegal. So, all it needs to do is switch from the black market to the legal market and then you’re always trying to plot a course and steer the ship towards where the highest value creation can be. So, I’m fascinated to see how it’s going play out here.
Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks Andrew!
As an experiential marketer that works with a lot of vice-oriented brands, I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the rise of spirits in the US – a history marked by ingenuity in the face of heavy restrictions, clashing social norms, crime and political ideals. Since then, those same qualities have emerged in the story of cannabis and how, against all odds, it has recently begun to push its way into the mainstream. But on the path to legalization, cannabis can also learn a lot from the spirits industry about what not to do.
For example, when laws governing the spirits industry were written in the post-Prohibition 1930s, the federal government wanted to create an equitable landscape. So, they created a 3-tier system – manufacturers or importers must sell to wholesalers, wholesalers must then sell to retailers and retailers sell to us. They figured that keeping manufacturing interests separate from wholesale and retail interests would keep any large company from owning an entire supply chain, muscling out smaller competitors.
In theory, it’s not a bad idea. Imagine the consequences of massive companies like Diageo or AB InBev using their money to pay bars and liquor stores to only stock their brands and not competitors. Add on the Tied House Laws, which basically says an entity in one of the three categories cannot have an ownership stake in any of the others, and you get a seemingly even-handed marketplace.
In truth, it makes it almost impossible to be disruptive or for new brands to break through. Other industries have innovated by cutting out the middleman and selling direct-to-consumer – something that simply cannot happen in alcohol (minus the wineries and distilleries that can sell direct out of their tasting rooms). Also, now distributors are so consolidated that there are only one or two big distribution companies in each state. So, as a company trying to bring a new product to market, you have to get into one of these highly selective and competitive distributors if you are going to be successful – a challenging ask for a small, independent brand.
Now, imagine that same challenge coming to the cannabis space. With legalization around the corner, the adult use (as opposed to medical use) cannabis industry could easily look like alcohol in the rules that will be set up.
Right now, adult use manufacturers can sell their products to dispensaries directly. Some use a distributor, but there is no nationwide mandate to – which is probably for the best. If a distributor isn’t a requirement, it forces brands to offer something new to differentiate themselves. It will spark innovation, rather than add an extra profit margin that will get rolled into the final price – a price that is already higher than it should be due to the murky federal legal status. Adding complexity and cost will only make it harder to compete with the illicit market. For the industry to grow, costs for illicit cannabis can’t be lower than its legal counterpart.
Of course, we are in the nascent stages of legalization here and we’ve come a long way culturally and technologically since the 30s. But remember, the rules governing alcohol were written nearly 100 years ago along with the passage of the 21st amendment repealing prohibition. Startlingly, those laws haven’t changed that much since they were written, so any mistakes made now in dealing with the cannabis industry could last for a long time.
A new way forward
What the cannabis industry needs is a new model for the adult use/recreational space, keeping some of what exists in the alcohol industry but without ever mandating use of a distributor – the middle tier. This would mean keeping Tied House Laws in place and applying them to cannabis so that a manufacturer could never hold an interest in a retailer, while still allowing them to sell directly to dispensaries and to consumers. Currently, some states allow for vertical integration, which would change under Tied House Laws.
This should be pretty simple, since most states are already separating licenses by type of activity (manufacturer, retailer, etc.) and it would promote competition while bringing the widest array of products possible to each consumer. Also, it would prevent any behemoths from squeezing out the up and comers.
Of course, some retail license allowances could be considered on a case-by-case basis. For example, I would carve out an exception that growers/manufacturers could sell direct to consumers through a single “tasting room” at their brand home. This is similar to the operations of microbreweries, distilleries and wineries. It would encourage education for consumers, and provide great opportunities for brands to show why their products are better or unique.
Given the technology and logistics solutions available to businesses in a 21st century economy, mandated distributors create a sometimes-unnecessary barrier to an already efficient supply chain. If mandated, prices will inflate to cover added margin, thus making it harder to bring consumers over from the legacy market to the legal one. I’m not against the idea of a distributor – they can add tremendous value, but the mandate would seriously curtail industry growth.
Direct-to-retail and direct-to-consumer sales are necessary for the economic health and growth of the industry. Without this, using alcohol as a cautionary tale, at some point the middle tier cannabis brands will inevitably begin to wield an outsized amount of power. We are living at a time where innovation is going to be the key to explosive growth in the cannabis industry, so it’s important to do everything possible to let the market find its way without falling into a century-old trap.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
The Michigan cannabis market is making pace with big time cannabis players like California (#1) and Colorado (#2). For the first quarter of 2021, combined cannabis sales in Michigan were nearly $360 million. At that pace, Michigan could see combined sales of $1.4 billion — well outpacing 2020 sales of $984 million.
Gage is the exclusive cultivator and retailer of world-leading cannabis brands including Cookies, Lemonnade, Runtz, Grandiflora, SLANG Worldwide, OG Raskal, and its own proprietary Gage brand portfolio in Michigan. The company recently secured a $50M investment in an oversubscribed round which included a $20M investment from JW Asset Management.
We spoke with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis. Fabian started Gage in 2017 after meeting his operating partners in Michigan. Prior to Gage, Fabian worked as an investment banker racking up a number of firsts in cannabis industry financing and M&A transactions.
Aaron Green: Tell me how you got involved in the cannabis industry.
Fabian Monaco: My background is in investment banking – specifically 10 years of capital market experience. I was fortunate enough to be part of the initial team that brought Tweed, now Canopy Growth public. In fact, I worked on a lot of firsts in the industry: the first acquisition, the first $100 million financing, the first IPO in the space. Shortly after that, I went to XIB Financial, which co-founded Canopy Rivers with Canopy Growth. I was working on that when I encountered these two phenomenal operators. At the time, I had visited over 100 of these cultivation facilities and these were some of the best operators in the business. So that led me to start Gage in 2017.
Green: Where is Gage currently operating?
Monaco: In the U.S., we are purely operating in Michigan. We do have a licensing agreement with a small producer in Canada, so you will see the brand there.
Green: Tell me about your choice to settle the company in Michigan initially?
Monaco: If you look at Michigan as a historical cannabis market, it was the second largest cannabis market from a medical card holder standpoint for nearly a decade, only behind California. This was probably the case until 2019, where they went to adult use. So, for us, we knew this medical base was going to be a great platform to an outsized adult-use market. And already we see that April was $154 million in sales, adding up to over a $1.8 billion dollar run rate. That’s the third highest run rate in the country, only behind California and Colorado.
Green: What is it that makes Michigan different? You talked about medical cannabis already. Is there anything else about the demographics in Michigan or the consumer base that makes Michigan special in that sense?
Monaco: In Michigan, over 70% of the population is old enough to consume. So, when you take a look at how much of the population is 21-years-old plus, relative to other markets, the total addressable market in Michigan is just huge. Then when you take a look at their consumption habits, especially when it comes to flower, Michigan is consuming some of the highest amounts on a per capita basis. Those two stats set up a scenario where we foresaw the potential of the market. To be honest, the market has exceeded our expectations. We didn’t think it would be this strong this quickly. Right now, the state is looking to be a $3 billion market by 2024 – and it could easily surpass that.
Green: Any plans for expansion beyond Michigan?
Monaco: We’ve been to eight or so different states in the past 60 or 75 days really trying to educate ourselves on the licensing structure, the markets there and the key players in those respective markets. What are some of the costs, in terms of acquisitions? We really want to branch out the Gage brand into other states across the US. The thing is, we believe in the model that Trulieve deployed. They really focus on being the number one player in a very, very big market. For instance, Trulieve is obviously one of the top players in Florida. We’re trying to mimic that strategy.
Once we have that deep market penetration, that market share, then we’ll start to get into other states. But for now, why would you want to go and rush out to another state when you’re already in the third largest market in the country?
Green: Are there any criteria you look for in a potential expansion state?
Monaco: We look at consumption habits. We want states with similar demographics to Michigan. Close proximity states also allows us to quickly go from one state to the other without having to take a multi-hour flight to get there. States we’re considering are Northeast and Midwest states, like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland.
Green: What kind of consumer trends are you seeing in Michigan as it relates to products?
Monaco: Flower continues to dominate. In a market like Michigan, we have some of the top flower consumers in the country on a per capita basis. We specialize in flower and flower only, so this created a perfect scenario where we are able to ramp up our brand quite quickly, from a flower standpoint.
Now that we have that brand equity, that brand power, we are going to potentially delve into other categories, including extract-based products, such as vape carts and concentrates. You hear talk about these new beverages, but we’re not seeing that take off in this market as much as people think it would. Flower still remains at the top and that’s something we highly anticipate going after for quite some time.
Green: Can you tell me about your vertical integration strategy?
Monaco: We’re one of the larger retail portfolios in Michigan right now. We have 13 locations. Nine are operational. So, we’re really in a great spot overall in terms of how big of a platform we do have – one of the larger ones – and, frankly, in one of the larger markets in the country.
We actually have a little bit of a unique scenario on the cultivation side of things. We have our own three cultivation assets that are going to be producing, on average, about 1,000 pounds of product over the next couple of months as they fully ramp up. We’ve actually contracted out a lot of our cultivation. Cultivation is time consuming, and it’s also very, very costly to build out. Luckily for us, we’re a really well-established and strong brand. We had the opportunity to contract out our growing. So, we have 10 different contract growth partners. These are phenomenal cultivators, again, some of the best in the state. They grow Gage and Cookies branded product for us. We have a great breakdown from a financial standpoint. We share the retail revenue with them on a 50/50 basis. They pay a little bit too, for packaging and testing. So, basically for $0 we’re getting product on the shelf where we’re achieving 50% plus gross margins. It’s a phenomenal setup for us on the cultivation side where we went from two cultivation assets in the latter half of last year to now eight different cultivation assets, moving to 13 by the end of the year.
On the processing side, we’re just actually finishing our processing lab. We should have extract-based products launched in Q3. We’re really excited to have our own line of extract-based products. We plan to focus on vape carts to start – a very popular category in Michigan on the retail side of things.
Green: Are those cultivations all indoor?
Monaco: Yes, we’re big proponents of indoor flower. It allows us to control the quality of our flavors and consistency in our strains when we grow indoors. From our consumers, there is a very strong demand for indoor grown high-premium, high-quality products.
Green: What sets Gage apart from other competitors in Michigan?
Monaco: I think focus. We just focused on our flower. We focus on our post-production process. We hang dry everything, we hand trim everything, and we hand package everything. That’s a little bit more time consuming. It’s a little more costly. But all that effort shows in the end product which is key.
A lot of people think you can grow great quality product, you cut it down, you dry it and put it in the pack and it’s going to be great. You really need a strong attention to detail, especially in a big consuming market like Michigan, because again, they are a refined consumer. They’re looking for the best. They’ve already been consuming some of the best quality products in the country for many years now. So for us, we put a painstaking process in place for flower production, not only from the growing standpoint, but also through the end of that post production process.
Ancillary to our cultivation process is also consistently providing new varieties of flavors on the flower side of things to the consumers. When you look at the successful brands in California, what makes them special is that they’re consistently pheno hunting, coming out with new flavors. This is similar to the wine industry where the best wineries come out with a new kind of grape or mix and consumers get excited, they rush out and buy half a dozen bottles or a dozen bottles.
It’s a very similar scenario in the cannabis industry. I hate when people say that cannabis is a commoditized industry. It’s so far from the truth. You look at brands like us or Cookies, Jungle Boyz and you can see their constant innovation, their constant drive. They are always bringing something new for the consumers to try. That’s what really sets apart the best brands.
Green: What’s got your attention in the cannabis industry? What are you interested in learning more about?
Monaco: I’m always intrigued with new ways of consuming. Across the U.S. and well-developed markets like California and Colorado, you see all these interesting new ways to consume the product. You’ve got patches, sublingual strips, etc. There are so many unique ways. I am currently seeing how they play out. Are they fads? Do people get excited about them initially, and then go back to their vape carts, pens and typically dried flower pre-rolls? I’m always trying to educate myself to see what’s on the market. What’s new? Who has a new drink? How does it hit? Are people excited about it?
Also, I am constantly learning about new brands that come out. There are so many new small brands that don’t necessarily have the scale or the capital to really expand, but are producing some of the best products in the country in a cool, unique form of packaging, etc..
Green: Alright, great. That concludes the interview!
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
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. As an MSO and an early mover in the space, a significant part of MariMed’s current strategy is to complete the acquisition and consolidation of the licensed state cannabis businesses it has developed. It takes seasoned leadership to make that happen, and MariMed’s is led by one of the most experienced and successful MSO management teams in the industry. Over the last eight years, Bob Fireman and his colleagues have won 17 licenses in 6 states, and designed and developed over 300,000 square feet of cannabis cultivation, production and dispensing facilities.
MariMed has also developed a portfolio of award-winning cannabis brands and infused products which are licensed, manufactured and distributed in Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico. A recently announced $46 million financing for a facility with Hadron Healthcare Fund will help repay all MariMed debt other than mortgage-backed bank loans and one convertible note, as well as help upgrade and expand the company’s owned and managed cannabis facilities.
We spoke with Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed. Bob started the foundations of MariMed in 2008 after getting into large-scale hydroponics for urban sustainable agriculture. Prior to MariMed, Bob served as a startup lawyer focused on tech and emerging industries.
Aaron Green: Bob, tell me about how you got started in the cannabis industry.
Bob Fireman: I practiced law for decades. Part of my practice was to help startups in all sorts of industries, particularly technology and new emerging markets. At one point, I was introduced to a fascinating sustainable food business opportunity – to build hydroponic farms on rooftops in cities across the country.
When one of our projects in San Francisco hit some roadblocks, our team there pivoted to what was becoming the Wild West of California cannabis. My friend and current MariMed CFO, Jon Levine, and I began investing and managing a cultivation site there. That’s where we built our early foundation of industry knowledge.
Fast forward a few years, and I was afforded the opportunity to be involved in the drafting of the proposed Massachusetts medical cannabis legislation.
Through that work, we met a team that had won one of three cannabis licenses in Rhode Island. We formed a real estate LLC and raised the capital to develop a seed to sale cannabis facility in Providence, which was later leased to the Slater Center, a not-for-profit medical cannabis licensed business. Today, the Slater Center is a nationally acclaimed operation that services over 10,000 medical patients.
From there, we took our know-how and formed a new entity that was the formal beginning of the company we now know as MariMed. Initially, we helped win licenses for clients in Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland, Illinois and Nevada. We also provided management services, working capital and other necessities. Under our management, we organically built these businesses from the ground up, advancing best practices and somewhat quietly creating a network of best-in-class operations throughout the industry.
That led to the consolidation of those businesses that we’re focused on today as a core strategic pillar.
I’m incredibly proud of our team, the core of which has been at this for 10 years. We’ve watched other MSOs try different models of success, with varying degrees of success. For us, focusing on growth markets, building at a reasonable and scalable clip, attracting incredible talent at all levels of the company, and developing fantastic brands that customers love, are the ingredients that have translated to where we are now – strong performance and an exceptionally bright future. “Slow and steady wins the race” has become a mantra.
Green: What trends are you looking at right now? What’s on your radar?
Fireman: My radar has a singular focus, and that’s to create shareholder value. That’s why completing the consolidation of the cannabis licensed businesses we’ve developed and manage into our public company is so critical. Back in the day, the initial available licenses were in medical-only state programs where applicants were required to be not-for-profit state companies. Accordingly, we raised the capital in the real estate entity which leased facilities to the licensees. Our revenue was from rents, management services and licensing fees.
In 2019, we implemented a new strategic plan to consolidate these businesses. While that translates to our being structured similarly to other MSOs in that we are a vertically integrated seed to sale company, we are distinct in our operational excellence, quality product portfolio, and strong balance sheet. Other MSOs have raised large amounts of capital to pay large sums to acquire licensed state cannabis businesses and have found themselves over-leveraged and challenged to assimilate other companies’ methodologies and cultures. By consolidating the businesses and talented people we developed and managed from day one and utilizing our best practices and processes system-wide, we realize enormous capital efficiencies.
Our strategy is paying off. Our core cannabis revenue in 2020 increased 207% to $50.9 million, and our 10k reported EBITDA of $16.3 million. And now we’re on track to double our revenue in 2021.
The last piece of the puzzle is to let the world know what we’ve been doing. Slow and steady has worked for us but gone are the days of doing so quietly. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and exceedingly bullish on what’s to come.
Green: What do you look for in an M&A target?
Fireman: When M&A makes sense for us, we first look for single operators and entrepreneurs in states where we are not active and look to partner with business leaders that had the vision and the courage to get into this industry and build solid cannabis businesses from the ground up. I’m looking for businesses that could benefit from being part of a larger, more experienced and well-capitalized company like MariMed. Obviously, as an MSO with a solid platform, MariMed is approached regularly by other MSOs and banks suggesting candidates for M&A opportunities. Lining up with a company that has complementary cannabis licenses in other states and who shares our vision and ethics could be a win-win situation. They must embrace our commitment to diversity, the environment and proper corporate governance. We have been somewhat reticent to do this until we see some increase in our share price and market capitalization.
Green: Are there any new products, or product trends that you’re looking at?
Fireman: Marimed looks to be the most trusted source of high-quality cannabis products that consistently delivers innovative health and wellness solutions to our patients and customers. Our lab scientists are constantly creating and testing new and innovative formulations of cannabinoid compounds including CBD, THCa, CBG, CBN and others that will improve the health and wellness of our customers.
Our brand portfolio is ever-expanding with new and better product offerings. Our award-winning Betty’s Eddies Fruit Chews brand is adding new SKUs of varieties and flavors for both medical and adult use programs. Our Nature’s Heritage flower and concentrates brand is adding a line of solventless concentrates, live rosin, as well as new formulations for RSO, an oil popular with medical patients. Kalm Fusion is expanding its successful line of powdered drink mixes as we see more movement in the cannabis beverage category.
Microdosing is hugely popular right now, and we’re rolling out products in the 2-5mg dosage range. Health and dietary concerns are top of mind as well, and we offer products that are vegan, sugar-free and gluten-free. Ultimately, we want to be sure that we have something on the shelves for every single consumer. The financial hardship created by the pandemic has made consumers more attracted to value added products such as popcorn buds.
Green: You recently announced an equity financing from Hadron. I’m curious to learn more about it from a nuts-and-bolts perspective if you can share any of that information.
Fireman: Over the last year, access to the capital markets for equity raises in cannabis public companies was difficult. The cost of debt was and is still high, and we were looking for a long-term financial partner that understood the industry and could assist us. Hadron Capital has been successful for several years investing in some of the most successful MSOs and they saw the value and potential in MariMed’s experienced management and great assets.
Hadron invested $46 million in equity in MariMed this March. Approximately $16 million was utilized to retire all our short- and long-term debt but for bank secured debt and one convertible note. $7 million is committed to funding our capex and expanding the capabilities of our facilities, enabling us to grow more flower and automate production. The balance of funding will support our consolidation strategy to fund two more roll ups of state licensed cannabis businesses into the public company.
Going forward, it is comforting to have a capital partner to assist us in future acquisitions and M&A opportunities.
Green: I’d love to learn more about your Nature’s Heritage brand, particularly as it relates to the cultivation and the flower products.
Fireman: Our COO Tim Shaw has assembled a cultivation and production team with expertise in all aspects of genetics, growing methodologies, extraction techniques, and packaging innovation. That’s provided us a rich collection of quality genetics that make up Nature’s Heritage, our top-selling flower, oil and concentrate brand in Massachusetts and Maryland. We’ve recently expanded the line to include Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) and solventless concentrates (including live rosin) and have been receiving stellar feedback.
Green: What are you interested in learning more about?
Fireman: Over the last decade, the MariMed core team has seen the emergence and amazing growth of the cannabis industry. The initial medical programs in California and Colorado have now led to some form of legal medical or adult use cannabis programs in over 33 states and districts.
We are most interested in learning and following the federal, state, and international laws and regulations. It is vital to know how these laws will affect our company and the industry as a whole. When might full federal legalization become a reality? What might different versions of the law be? Will state legal programs be protected as well as the companies that took the risk in investing in the industry at its nascent state and how? What will FDA requirements and regulations look like? What medical claims will companies be allowed to make, and what kind of research or trials will be required to put a product on the shelf? What are the ramifications of the MORE Act or the SAFE Banking Act?
Responsible MSOs need to be prepared to rise to or above the standards of care of other industries. A lot of this was impossible in the past because of federal prohibition laws. Soon, if not already, labs and manufacturing processes will need to be GMP certified and more. Consumer data will need to be HIPAA compliant. Cannabis companies have to be good corporate citizens: diversity and equal opportunity should be embedded in business decisions, and commitment to ESG and sound environmental and social policies with good corporate governance need to be in planning and implemented.
Following the laws and holding ourselves to the highest possible safety and business standards will allow the cannabis industry to finally become “mainstream.”
Green: Alright, great. Thank you, Bob. That concludes the interview!
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Canndescent is a vertically integrated flower brand based out of Santa Barbara, CA with grow operations in Desert Hot Springs. Having opened the first municipally-permitted cultivation in California, Canndescent has pioneered luxury branding in the cannabis space with a focus on user friendliness. They were the first cultivator to market cannabis using effects like Calm, Cruise Create, Connect, and Charge rather than the strain name. Canndescent also recently launched a social equity brand, Justice Joints, with 100% of all profits going to cannabis-related expungement and re-entry programs.
We spoke with Adrian Sedlin, CEO and founder of Canndescent to learn more about his transition from tech to cannabis, how he thinks about product positioning and the company’s motivation for getting into Justice Joints. Adrian founded Canndescent in 2015 after being approached by his brother-in-law who ran a legacy cultivation operation. Prior to Canndescent, Adrian was an entrepreneur and worked in startup turnarounds.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Adrian Sedlin: I started looking at the industry from a professional perspective in 2015, and once I came to understand how cannabis affects the endocannabinoid system, I became absolutely fascinated by the opportunity to build a world class cannabis company that prioritized consumers. Particularly, I became interested in the adult-use market because I see cannabis as an automobile compared to the horse and buggy of alcohol. Cannabis is a superior adult use solution from a health and society perspective, yet, the entire positioning of the industry at the time was sub-prime, non-aspirational and inaccessible. With Canndescent, the core idea was to counterprogram the existing paradigm and deliver cannabis in a way that was beautiful. To bring the power of the plant to more people, we had to reposition the category and simplify the shopping experience. Moreover, there were too many unsolved consumer problems. For example, in 2015 people said cannabis was a commodity but any stoner knows there are as many dimensions to consider as there are with wine. The opportunity to deliver consumer solutions in a nascent industry that desperately needed advocates while helping to improve the world was enough to get me out of retirement.
Green: Just curious, what was your background prior to cannabis?
Sedlin: I’m a lifelong entrepreneur. I started my first company when I was still in college. After graduation, I ran that business for another four and a half years, sold it, and went back to business school and got my MBA. After Harvard, most of my career was spent in early-stage growth companies, turnarounds and pivots. When someone had $10 million invested in an enterprise or their company wasn’t growing at the rate they wanted, that’s when my phone would ring.
I was lucky enough to shepherd a number of companies to a successful exit several times. During my professional journey, I’d taken a year and a half off between 2004 and 2006, and then pre-cannabis in 2015 I had taken three years off and was getting a little itchy. I didn’t think I was permanently retired; I was just sort of waiting for the next thing to get excited about. And cannabis definitely was the first time I can say in my life that I finally understood what I was put on planet earth to do.
Green: I understand that Canndescent was the first municipally permitted cultivator to open in California?
Sedlin: Desert Hot Springs was the first city to legalize cultivation, and we were the first ones to operate in the city.
Green: How did that come about?
Sedlin: The city had conditional use permits, but a lot of people were trying to do ground up builds. We decided to do a retrofit of an existing facility. So, we were the first ones to get the regulatory permit and cultivate in a way that was truly compliant with MCRSRA which eventually became MAUCRSA.
It took lots of tolerance for ambiguity and incredible patience. There’s an off-putting expression that goes, “pioneers take the arrows.” Well, we took a lot of arrows along the way. A perfect example is within our first year of operation, the fire department sent us five cease-and-desist orders to turn off our CO2. Not because we were doing anything wrong, but because they changed their regulations and then they wanted us to immediately comply as opposed to giving us a transition period. You just got to learn to roll with it. I’d say anyone who got into the regulated cannabis market early – and there’s a bunch of us who are still standing – you just learn to roll with it, be patient and yet, apply boundless energy and passion to the process.
Green: Did you know you wanted to be in Desert Hot Springs? Or did it just turn out to be the permit that was the easiest to get?
Sedlin: That was a binary choice for us. The simple choice for Desert Hot Springs was that it was the only choice. We were doing a professional execution. We were taking investment dollars, and I couldn’t have any ambiguity of being in the gray market. This was before adult use legislation passed in California, so we were functioning under California’s Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA). The only way to be compliant with MCRSA at the time and be a medical cannabis cultivator was to get city-based permission or county-based permission, and the first region to authorize that was Desert Hot Springs. From our team’s perspective, wanting to build a truly compliant company from day one, that was the only choice available.
Green: I understand your facilities are powered by solar?
Sedlin: We have several facilities. One of them is a greenhouse that has light supplementation. We have an indoor facility that is powered by solar. When we opened the facility, it didn’t have a solar project on it. After we opened it, about a year and a half later, we did this full solar retrofit. We found the solar panels offset 38% of our energy consumption.
Green: Your product marketing is effect-forward. How did you come to that positioning for the brand and for the products?
Sedlin: The idea is to simplify life for consumers and unburden them from having to understand the 6,000 different strain names that are out there which have no consistency from cultivator to cultivator. Before Apple popularized the graphical user interface for computers, the standing orthodoxy among engineers at the time was that everyone should have to learn how to code. Everyone who wanted to use a computer needed to go through the mind-numbing MS-DOS process. But computers didn’t scale that way. Apple’s genius is that it built technology to serve humans with a GUI and didn’t put humans in service of the technology. Similarly, you shouldn’t have to learn 6,000 strains, 100+ terpenes and 100+ cannabinoids to make your first purchase. Our goal has always been to put cannabis in service of consumers as opposed to having the consumer in service of cannabis.
To be clear, Apple doesn’t dumb things down. Apple makes things easier, so that more people adopt them, so those things can then get better. And, that’s really how we’ve always viewed it. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if a consumer needs to know that he or she loves AK-47 when one can understand loosely, “How do I want to feel? Am I trying to relax? What am I trying to achieve?” It’s about prioritizing the consumer over the engineer, or in this case the cultivator or breeder, who covets naming rights. We operate with a consumer-centric philosophy and our company is in service of the consumer.
Green: You have a social equity brand called Justice Joints. What was your motivation for that line?
Sedlin: We have the luxury and privilege of participating in a legal cannabis industry, but there are many people who were never afforded that choice and suffered a steep cost. With this in mind, we need to put our dollars and sweat into helping communities most impacted and marginalized by the war or drugs and doing our part to address some of the damage. Justice Joints (JJ), our brand where 100% of the profits go to cannabis-related social equity and expungement programs invites the cannabis community, dispensaries and consumers to vote with their dollars for a better world. “Here’s a vehicle where 100% of the profit goes to cannabis related social justice causes. Are you in? Or are you out?” It gives consumers a platform where they can participate in positive change with their dollars. It’s what the plant is about.
JJ was the right answer for Canndescent because we wanted to build a self-sustaining economic engine for social justice. We launch world class cannabis brands so building one for social justice was the right choice for us and provided a way for all 250 of our employees to give back and feel proud each and every day. Justice Joints isn’t a side project; it’s hardwired into the daily activities of Canndescent and will hopefully evolve into an industry-wide, give back platform.
Green: What’s one thing in the world that you want to change or inspires you the most?
Sedlin: The thing I’m most interested in professionally is popularizing the practice of gratitude into the broader business and social fabric. Canndescent is the first company that I know of to incorporate gratitude as a core value. We do so because we believe that happiness is a mindset and a choice, not an outcome. It’s not how many likes you get on your social media, or how much money you make. It’s how you frame your experience to yourself that makes you happy.
On any given day, there’s 100 things I can bitch about, but that just becomes poison ivy that itches and that would make me angry, frustrated and depleted. Living and acting in gratitude, we can move our minds to a peaceful and productive place where we have control and can be our best self for those around us. For example, I just lost my dad on Thursday but I’m focused on gratitude not sorrow. My dad was awesome, died peacefully at age 89, had a 60-year marriage, and loved and gave love. Naturally, there is sadness, but instead of sinking into that, I focus on the blessing of him and meditate on the good. Operating from a happy place, I’m freed up mentally to be there for my mom, sister, wife, children, employees and investors.
So that’s what I’m passionate about. It’s not so much something I want to learn about as much as it is something that I want to cultivate in the world. There would just be more happiness in the world if humanity exercised the muscle of perspective–gratitude. It’s the greatest time in human history to be alive. To listen to the world around us, it’s natural to forget that. But, I’ll take Covid-19 over the Black Plague and Spanish Influenza anyday. “Yes, shit happens, but are you a shit talker and complainer, or are you the type to say, let’s clean this up.” It’s a choice. Canndescent wants to project light and build a world of gratitude.
Green: That concludes the interview, thanks Adrian!
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