According to a press release published earlier in October, Metrc has won the seed-to-sale traceability software contract for West Virginia. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Bureau for Public Health, Office of Medical Cannabis (OMC) made the announcement on October 21.
According to that press release, the main focus for the state’s traceability program is “helping OMC regulators ensure no illicit cannabis products are sold in the medical cannabis market, and also that no legal medical cannabis products are sold unlawfully.”
Regulators in West Virginia are still on schedule to open the medical cannabis market as soon as next year, according to Jason Frame, OMC director. “This is an important step to make certain medical cannabis is available only to West Virginians with serious medical conditions and to prevent diversion of products in West Virginia,” says Frame. “While the COVID-19 pandemic has put many industries across the country on hold, we’re proud to say that it has not stopped West Virginia from meeting its deadlines and laying the groundwork for a safe, regulated medical cannabis market.”
Regulators at the OMC are still working on scoring processing and retail license applications. The OMC says they will begin the process of issuing patient cards in the spring of 2021.
Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.
This is the first article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this first piece, we talk with Keith Cich, co-founder of Sunderstorm, Inc. and the brand Kanha Gummies. Keith and his business partner, Cameron Clarke, started Kanha Gummies in 2015 after long careers outside of the cannabis industry. In 2015, they went all in and started the brand, which grew to be a major player and driving force in the California market.
Next week, we’ll sit down with Mike Hennesy, director of innovation at Wana Brands. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Keith, nice to meet you. Thank you for taking the time today. Tell me about how you got Sunderstorm off the ground and how you got involved in the company?
Keith Cich: Absolutely. So, my business partner, Cameron Clarke, is a lifelong friend. We met as undergraduates at Stanford University. I went on to work on Wall Street and did commercial real estate. Cameron has been a serial entrepreneur, from a much more technical side working in software. He was actually one of the first people to bring the Açai Berry to market and put it on the shelves of Whole Foods. So, he’s kind of the science and operations guy and I’m the finance and business guy. It’s been very synergistic.
By 2015 we had both traveled extensively and were big advocates of plant medicine and cannabis as another form of plant medicine. We also have a 15-year track record of going to Burning Man together. Really, explorations in consciousness and plant medicine were what tied us together. When cannabis came up as a business opportunity, we just kind of looked at each other and said, you know, we have a lot of business experience to bring to the table. We have a love of the plant and an appreciation for how it will impact society. So, we kind of went all in in 2015 under proposition D, and set up operations in Los Angeles at that time.
Aaron: How did you decide to get into infused products from the list of choices?
Keith: Yeah, we initially set up extraction, but we felt that cultivation and extraction would ultimately be commodities. However, if you could develop popular brands you could carve out valuable shelf space and have longevity.
We acquired a small gummy company in February 2016. In the beginning of it all – I call it “Cannabis 1.0.” At that time, a lot of the packaging was really oriented around men in their 20s focused on “high consumption.” The packaging was a lot of black and skull and crossbones, and it didn’t really represent who Cameron and I were as people. You know, we were a little bit older and well-traveled. And we just felt like when adult use would come in that brands would take a different pathway. So, we hired a branding person to come in and help with packaging.
We really focused on a product that would appeal to females because it was clear they were going to be 50% of the market – and packaging that would really appeal to older people, which we thought would come on board once the stigma of cannabis was reduced. And so, we really set up Kanha gummies, at that time in early 2016, to be this adult use product that would appeal to a wide spectrum, both medical users as well as adult users in the time that would come in the not too distant future.
Aaron: Yeah, that’s interesting. You talked about how you thought about differentiating in the early days getting off the ground. How do you think about differentiating today?
Keith: The two things that really set Sunderstorm apart from the crowd is automation and innovation. We were the first gummy company to invest hundreds of thousands in European confectionery equipment, which allowed us to scale our business, but more importantly, produce an identical product every time. The reason we hear people come back to Kanha gummies is that they have the same replicable experience every time, which is really the key to CPG companies. So, it’s really stringent automation that allowed us to develop precise dosing. In fact, in 2019, we won the award from CannaSafe, which is the largest lab in California, for the most accurately formulated edible. We dialed in manufacturing and that’s what set us apart in the early years.
My partner is really geared towards science and implementing new delivery systems for cannabinoid products. We were the first company to come out with a nano edible about a year ago in 2019 and we are still the leader in offering consumers nano-molecular delivery systems. What does that mean? One of the common problems with edibles is that it takes 45 minutes to an hour for it to kick in. We all know friends who take a cookie and double up on the cookie and end up having too big of an experience. Rapid onset curbs that risk. Our nano gummy kicks in about 15 to 20 minutes, and it’s got just this really nice journey to it. We’ve separated the audience between the people that have our classic gummies, which takes longer to kick in, maybe a little bit stronger and the nano technology, which has a really fast onset, and really kind of a discrete journey. We stay ahead of the competition today, because of the nanotechnology that we’ve implemented in gummies.
As I always say, it’s not about how much vitamin C you take – it’s more about how much vitamin C gets in your blood stream. And it’s the same with cannabis, right? It’s how much THC and CBD or other molecules get in your system. So it’s about really having the highest bioavailability and the best performing products. And that’s what our customers have come to believe about Sunderstorm.
Aaron: You’ve talked about a couple new products from Kanha. At a high level, can you talk about your process for ideating and creating a new product?
Keith: Sure. I could use an example of a product that we’ve just kind of relaunched. It’s called the Tranquility gummy and it’s targeted for sleep. What we’ve discovered is there’s a whole host of medical reasons why people take cannabis – as well as the adults who take cannabis for entertainment – but sleep is a major issue for Americans of all ages. It’s surprising. It impacts 20 year olds and it impacts 60 year olds.
Part of the process of coming up with a product is trying to figure out what’s the need in the marketplace. So in this case, we really looked and said, hey, let’s target sleep and see if we can experiment and come up with a product. Our first round of Tranquility had a mix of CBD and THC in it because both of those are valuable for sleep. CBD is a chill-pill that kind of makes you calm so you can go to sleep. THC is often something that helps people stay asleep.
“We go through many iterations of a product before it actually hits the marketplace.”In that product, we also added 5-HTP, which is a serotonin booster, which once again, people take when they have anxiety or stress. So it’s kind of a stress reliever, and it helps you be calm, which again, I think a lot of the problems for people who have an issue with going to sleep, it’s having so much on their mind that they can’t stop the monkey mind to actually enter into sleep to begin with.
We also added just a small amount, one milligram, of melatonin. We know that Melatonin is a sleep aid, but you don’t want to take so much melatonin that your body stops producing melatonin because you’re taking the supplements. So at the end of the day, you want to just encourage and coax your body into healing and not overkill it with a pharmaceutical. Right?
So that was our first generation and we worked with that but my partner looks through a lot of research that’s occurring on different cannabinoid particles, and it became clear that CBN, which is kind of a new cannabinoid that’s hitting the press, actually had really strong properties for sedation and keeping people asleep. So, we added the largest dose of CBN in any gummy, and then re-launched that product a month or two ago. And we’re getting incredible feedback from shops that they’re selling out. It’s awesome, because people are actually taking the gummy and having the effect of falling asleep and staying asleep.
It’s the combination of the different factors. No one factor is so overwhelming like a pharmaceutical drug. But it’s the combination of the different factors together that make for a great product. And we fortunately have dozens of people in our company who are happy to do R&D for our new products. We also have some people outside the company that are consultants and experts as well. We go through many iterations of a product before it actually hits the marketplace. And that’s the second thing: it’s a lot of rigorous R&D testing of products before we launch it for the end consumer.
Aaron: Yeah, so if we can touch on that, can you tell me about your experience with your most recent product launch? Whether it’s the NANO5 or the Tranquility gummies? How did you think about preparing the market for the launch? Preparing your team for the launch? And then how did it go?
Keith: I’ll talk about our sublingual line called NANO5. Again, it’s a nano product where every molecule of CBD or THC is wrapped in a molecule of fatty lipids, so that when you spray it on your tongue, it tricks your body into absorbing it directly into the bloodstream and doesn’t actually go through the digestive tract and the liver. The bioavailability of these sublinguals is high and 70 to 80% of the cannabinoids actually get into your bloodstream.
We’ve done blood sampling tests versus your standard tincture. Your standard tincture is just MCT oil and cannabis, it’s pretty crude, kind of caveman-ish, quite frankly, when compared to the delivery of pharmaceuticals are today. NANO5 is a much more advanced delivery system.“We’re here to really try to educate people the best that we can.”
Now we have the product… right? This is a sophisticated product that’s challenging for bud tenders to explain when consumers come in with their medical needs. We had to create a lot of written brochures about how the product works, what the dosages are and that sort of stuff. Then our sales people go in and actually train the shops. They’ll pull bud tenders out and do training sessions and talk about NANO5, what makes it different from other tinctures, what medical conditions is it good for, etc. It’s kind of old fashioned, in-store training.
Then we finally have implemented a new piece, which is digital bud tender and consumer training. We are leveraging a platform for bud tender training, we talk with the shop, talk about the product and if the shop manager agrees we send a link out to all the bud tenders who take a quiz. The bud tenders get educated on an online platform, take a quiz, and then when they pass the quiz, they get a licensed sample of the product to try themselves so they have firsthand experience.
What we find in many shops is that the consumer is still not that educated about cannabis, particularly for medical uses, and particularly what I call the “new consumer” that hadn’t used cannabis in their lives, because it had such a high stigma to it and now with the reduction of the stigma it means a 40 or 50 year old woman might go into a store to find something to help with pain, or help with anxiety. Now, the bud tender can use the training that they’ve learned on NANO5, and understand that this could be a good product for them, and then talk about it intelligently and give some materials to the consumer before they walk away.
It can be intimidating for consumers to go into a shop, you know, it’s a new experience. It’s like going to the doctor’s office, you don’t always hear what they say, because you’re kind of nervous. So giving them the written materials, and even a test to follow up on online really allows for a form of education that is in tune with the user needing to learn at their own speed and really to just take away what’s important for them.
Aaron: Did I hear you correctly? The user – the end consumer – can also do a quiz?
Keith: Yes. Sunderstorm is about science and education. There’s a lot of assumptions in the marketplace that may not be correct. So, we’re here to really try to educate people the best that we can. And we really believe the rest of the world acts in a digital manner for education. In some ways, cannabis is a little bit behind the times because it’s difficult to advertise on Facebook and traditional venues. So we have one hand tied behind our back when we’re dealing with the digital world. But we at Sunderstorm are big believers that digital will be the way that cannabis consumers learn about brands, learn about products and learn about cannabinoids, and we want to be at the forefront of that education process.
Aaron: OK, we talked about some challenges. One of the challenges I hear a lot is about sourcing ingredients for infused products. How do you go about sourcing ingredients in your infused product lines?
Keith: Our primary ingredient that we source is distillate. And starting back in prop 215 days, we have a zero parts per billion policy on pesticides. What we discovered is before lab testing and licensure came in place is that 80 to 90% of the oil out there actually had pesticide levels that were way beyond safe. It really took licensing and the implementation of lab testing to change that regime. We now buy distillate from third party extractors and we have a handful of really big, really solid players onboard who provide that oil to us. The key is that if there’s any detectable trace of pesticides, we send it back and they replace it with a not-detect batch. So for us, that’s really the key to the whole supply chain: starting with oil that’s clean and really good quality.“Delivering the product in a compliant manner has been one of our logistical challenges, but one that I think we’ve done quite well at day in and day out.”
Fortunately, we’re one of the bigger brands in the industry so we have a little clout to make sure that the people that give us our oil are giving us their top shelf, and not their bottom shelf. We then have also made it a point to use only natural flavoring and natural coloring in our gummies. Believe it or not some of the red coloring actually is derived from beets and beet juice. We use spirulina as a source for our blue green colors. All of the gummies that we produce, not only have no pesticides, but they have no artificial flavors and no artificial coloring, which is of course standard in mainstream gummies that you buy at CVS or the local drugstore. So we really feel like we want to put out a healthy product and Cameron and I always look at each other, like, ‘we wouldn’t sell a product that we wouldn’t put into our own bodies.” And we’re very health conscious, you know, buying organic produce and not wanting pesticides to be inside us.
Aaron: Can you give me an example of a challenge you run into frequently, and this could be a business challenge, a marketing challenge, financials… something that you run into frequently?
Keith: Yeah, so we not only manufacture our products in California, but we also do self-distribution to over 500 retailers, meaning in store dispensaries and delivery services throughout California. With these 500 customers, we have two distribution points, one in LA and one in the Bay Area where I’m located. It’s an amazing challenge logistically. Not only are we running a manufacturing operation that requires precision – and it’s highly regulated – but we run a distribution company that’s highly regulated. For us the challenge is how do we efficiently deliver product to the Oregon border when we’re manufacturing in LA? We’ve had to spend a lot of time developing protocols for logistics and distribution to be able to basically meet demand throughout the state. And we’ve been growing like crazy. We add 10 new shops probably every week.
Delivering the product in a compliant manner has been one of our logistical challenges, but one that I think we’ve done quite well at day in and day out.
Aaron: What kind of trends are you looking at in the industry? And what keeps you excited?
Keith: I think COVID-19 has touched every aspect of our lives and it is impacting how we consume cannabis. Because it’s a respiratory disease, I think people have been wanting to shy away from smoking flower or vaping to keep their lungs healthy as a precaution in case they get it. So edibles have been kind of a natural choice for that. As well as the simple act of sharing something; sharing a joint raises a lot of safety risks, especially during the pandemic. It’s a lot easier to share a single gummy out of a bag safely.
Secondly, what I’ve noticed is that parents have their kids at home and yet they still want to consume cannabis as they did before. Edibles have been big because of discretion. So mom or dad can pop a gummy and have a spritzer before dinner and enjoy the night and my theory is happy parents make happy kids. So discretion has been critical.
Then I think there’s a whole round of new entrants that I mentioned before. These are people that maybe smoked weed in college or high school and haven’t touched it for 20 years and now that the stigma has been reduced, they’re coming back to the marketplace and wanting to explore. They may try a vape product, but very few of them want to smoke, as the country is generally pretty anti-smoking.
I think edibles and gummies have been a way for new cannabis consumers, particularly those who are older, to come and enjoy the positive effects, the medical effects and the social lubricant that cannabis offers, while being safe and discreet at the same time. I think COVID has definitely changed the way that that people think about consuming cannabis.
Aaron: Okay, awesome! Lastly, what would you like to learn more about? What are you interested in?
Keith: I have a degree in philosophy and religion. I’m a big fan of the evolution of consciousness. I think that is the container of the story through which we view human civilization and I honestly think we’re at a turning point for how humans in Western society view plant medicine.
I think cannabis is just the first to come along and be legalized. They’ve been doing phase II and III clinical trials on psilocybin and end of life anxiety. People, particularly war veterans, are using ecstasy or MDMA for depression.
What we’re discovering is that what we think we know about the mind is only the tip of the iceberg on how the mind works. I’m interested in exploring how these plant medicines impact individually with our psyche. Secondly, what happens to society when we reach a tipping point and a majority or at least some significant portion are taking these plants and medicines on a regular basis? It opens us up to a whole new perspective on ourselves, on society and on the universe that we live in. So I read a lot in those fields. And that’s what really excites me.
Aaron: Great. So that’s the end of the interview. Thank you for that.
Cannabis laws are changing at a rapid pace across all 50 states and around the world. Currently, Cannabis is legal in 11 states for adults over the age of 21, and legal for medical use in 33 states.
Across the nation, many states have been struggling to enact a viable medical and potential adult use cannabis system since Initiative 59 and the “Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 1998.”
Unfortunately, the program has been continuously impacted by the federal government’s presence, first with the passage of the Barr Amendment by Congress overturning the early legalization progress and continuing to delay the onset of the first medical sale at a dispensary until 2013. The federal government continues to exert influence and control over the program expansion including adding Congressional riders on every proposed update including the latest “Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2019.”
In Washington DC for example, 18 organizations including the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the ACLU and Law Enforcement Action Partnership petitioned the US House and Senate Financial Services Subcommittees to remove the rider given that “[the] Current law has interfered with the District’s efforts to regulate marijuana, which has impacted public safety. Without the ability to regulate marijuana sales, the grey market for marijuana flourishes despite the need and want of the District leadership and residents alike to establish a regulatory model.”
States with limited availability of medical cannabis, possession laws or with the ability to legally gift up to one ounce and the constant pressure by the federal government, the grey market has expanded with public safety and the safety of these pop-up businesses put at risk. The current state health and safety laws require a seed-to-sale tracking system and testing at independent labs for all medical cannabis, however the grey market consumers are afforded no such protection. The District of Columbia is unique in the US cannabis landscape as it grapples with the local government trying to provide clarity, safety and equity to a medical and adult use community, but it is hampered by what it can and cannot control through federal influence.
As the United States continues to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, control and use of tax revenue will move to center stage in all these communities and the cannabis tax revenue will return to focus.
Cannabis tax revenue has shown a massive disparity between projection and reality. In 2018, California projected upwards of one billion dollars in cannabis tax revenue, but in reality was only able to recover a third of that amount. California in response continues to increase the excise tax and even proposed changes to taxes dependent on the amount of THC, creating new pressure on producers, in-part pushing some back into the grey market.
During the pandemic, Colorado enacted emergency rules to extend cannabis sales online. Allowing customers to pay for cannabis via the web and then pick up their purchases at the store. In a testament to what is considered a “critical businesses” the cannabis industry is given opportunity to expand during the pandemic, but still hampered by severely limited access to standard e-commerce options as credit card merchants still remain concerned that cannabis sales are illegal under US federal law. Alaska, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois and Oregon also allowed online sales and curbside pick-up, but remain limited in sales as federal banking and access to credit is limited as the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act remains in limbo.
Overarching technologies such as DNA tracking that provide a clear indicator that the cannabis is produced and tested from legal sources, can be proven safe and protects local legal businesses’ products against out of market cannabis would provide such clarity.
As the country moves forward from the COVID-19 health crisis, all legal and safe ways to rapidly restart the economy will be needed, the cannabis economy will be no exception. We should be looking to this emerging market right now to help safely drive revenue and taxes into our states.
In a press release published last week, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) announced they have awarded their seed-to-sale traceability contract to Metrc, a national company with contracts for the same service in 14 other states.
According to OMMA Interim Director Dr. Kelly Williams, working with Metrc will help them protect public health, by expediting recalls. “The seed-to-sale system will greatly expand our compliance capabilities and improve the effectiveness and speed of any future recall efforts,” says Dr. Williams. “It will also allow us to detect unusual patterns that may indicate product diversion.”
Metrc has begun work towards their rollout of the system, which they expect to have ready by February 2021. “We know that businesses will have many questions in the coming weeks, and we will answer them as quickly as possible,” says Dr. Williams.
Oklahoma legalized medical cannabis in 2018 and the market has expanded considerably. There are more than 300,000 patients and almost 10,000 licensees. It has the highest number of dispensaries per resident in the country.
Jeff Wells, CEO of Metrc, says Oklahoma has done a good job so far in developing one of the fastest growing markets in the country. “We’re honored Oklahoma selected Metrc to implement the state’s first cannabis tracking system,” says Wells. “With one of the fastest growing medical cannabis markets in the United States, the OMMA has done a tremendous job developing this new industry, and we’re excited to support its ongoing success. We look forward to working with state regulators and licensees to launch our system and ensure cannabis products are safe and secure for patients.”
Augmented Reality (AR) used to be something us mere humans only dreamt about. Now, AR is the norm and is seen in thousands of apps that people use every day. In fact, the forecast for the AR market is projected to reach up to $75 billion in revenue by 2023.
This is largely in part due to the fact that many smartphone apps now use AR as their default engagement method. And, with more people than ever using their smartphones to shop, the opportunity to engage through AR is easier than ever.
To give you a better idea of just how regularly we engage with AR, think about the popular apps Snapchat and Waze. Both apps utilize AR in some way – Snapchat uses AR to create the app’s infamous filters, and Waze uses AR to offer pop-up coupons and other promos based on the user’s location.
Another popular type of AR is marker-based AR. This form of AR is when a mobile app lets users scan the “marker” or image for a rendered interaction. Marker-based AR can be especially useful to cannabis businesses and offers a relatively low price point and easy execution.
Here are just a few ways marker-based AR can revamp your cannabis business and take you to the next level.
The canna-curious are becoming one of the largest audiences in relation to the sustained growth of the cannabis industry, and it’s more important than ever to provide valuable information to this demographic to encourage their purchasing decision. Considering the fact that 65% of the world is comprised of visual learners, showing a video will have a far greater impact compared to talking them through a product.
By utilizing marker-based AR, a budtender can quickly activate video content from packaging or marketing material to demonstrate how a product works and its most important features. This provides an easy and effective way to quickly educate customers and entice them to make a purchase.
Connecting with customers is more important than ever thanks to the fragmented distribution system in the cannabis industry. Capturing customer information and building relationships is crucial to a brand’s longevity.
AR can support two aspects of the customer journey: in-store and post purchase. Fifty-five percent of shoppers use online videos while they’re in the store making a purchase, and eight out of ten people are more likely to purchase after viewing a brand video.
An AR app that provides customers with support during and after their purchases not only encourages sales but also provides brands with the opportunity to engage with push-notifications and direct marketing, which ultimately encourages additional product purchases. With more people than ever using their smartphones to shop, the opportunity to engage through AR is easier than ever.
The experience a consumer has with your brand can make or break their brand loyalty. As the Chief Marketing Officer for Philter Labs, Inc., I’m constantly looking for authentic ways to connect with our customers.
We recently partnered with Daily High Club, a monthly subscription box that offers custom glass pieces and must-have smoking accessories inspired by cannabis influencers. For June, Daily High Club featured two fan-favorite influencers: MacDizzle420 and Koala Puffs.
Using marker-based AR, we activated a video montage featuring the influencers that could be viewed directly from their custom piece of glassware. Subscribers were able to engage with the influencers while enjoying the glassware which added a new element to the experience that was both engaging and immersive in a way that was never possible before.
At PHILTER, we’re committed to continue using AR to supplement our marketing strategies. As a proponent of the technology, I truly believe that as brands work to differentiate themselves in the space, leaving a lasting impression will be the catalyst for brands to thrive and grow in an increasingly competitive market while also directly impacting a customer’s lifetime value.
Before jumping into what cannabis businesses can do amid this pandemic, it is crucial to explore the specifics behind how the virus impacted the industry as a whole. From a surface level, it seems obvious what happened: dispensaries had to implement social distancing protocols, require both customers and employees to wear masks and limited the number of customers that can be present on the point-of-sale floor room. But COVID-19 did not merely make shopping experiences a tab bit inconvenient.
Cannabis producers, and especially those involved in manufacturing cannabis goods, experienced an apparent disruption in their production schedules. If the metals and plastics were sourced from Wuhan, Shenzhen or any other dense industrial area in China, supplies suddenly stopped coming, and producers were left with limited production options. Businesses did not consider the value of having various vendors and instead put all their stock in one source. A disruption in production inherently impacts dispensaries.
COVID-19 impacted more than just supply chains, however. For instance, investors are now less likely than before the pandemic to invest in early-stage cannabis companies. Competition for capital now far outweighs the supply for cannabis companies, and we have seen (and will continue to see) a drop in company valuations. Indeed, COVID-19 is affecting more than just currently existing operators but those yet struggling to create cannabis businesses of their own.
Vendors & Supplies
A broad survey conducted by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) between February 22, 2020 and March 5, 2020 found that 75% of U.S. companies had experienced supply chain disruption as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. An estimated 90-95% of all components utilized in cannabis vaporizer pens were sourced from manufacturers in Shenzhen, China. In contrast, very few companies used domestic manufacturers. While this is just one example, it is equally important to note that cannabis-specific equipment and supply shortages were not the only factors that disrupted cannabis businesses. Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) presented challenges for cannabis dispensaries, producers and manufacturers that continued to operate during the “shelter in place” orders.
Operators must establish a resilient supply chain. Do not simply limit your options to one specific region, as this can be a costly mistake. Operators must cultivate an in-depth understanding of their supply chain beyond critical suppliers and their stress points; they need to develop and follow a systematic supply process that takes potential disruptions and stress points into account. When vetting potential vendors, always ask detailed questions that elicit evidence-backed responses. Ask vendors where they source their materials from, whether they have any history of experiencing disruptions in their supply chain and what kind of setbacks they have suffered as a result of COVID-19.
Investing in Your Core Business
In light of COVID-19, operators must invest in solutions that increase efficiency and improve the customer’s experience. This entails ensuring your customer safely enters and leaves your dispensary with a product they are satisfied with—the essence of any retail operation. Your operation should focus on enhancing customer flow as opposed to encouraging aimless roaming. Having an open-space, Apple store style dispensaries might have been a popular option before, but times have changed, and dispensaries must adapt.
Guided purchases offer not just more efficient transactions, but also serve to ensure that your waiting room isn’t backed up with an endless stream of unmanageable customers. Depending on your locally-mandated COVID-19 protocols, your dispensary will likely not be permitted to hold a high number of customers in the store, nor should it during this pandemic. Each customer service representative must be active as opposed to passive, directly asking customers what they are interested in, offering product or strain choices when customers seem unsure and answering questions as thoroughly as possible to avoid confusion and inherently delays. Be sure to emphasize the value of guided purchases to your employees and how they can promote the safety of both themselves and their customers.
The uncertainty of COVID-19 and its impact on the general economy has left many individuals “clocked out.” Simply put, many people feel that they should wait until things go back to normal before making any critical decisions. As essential businesses, cannabis operators cannot afford to make this same mistake. Now is not the time to sit back, reflect and wait for the vaccine. Instead, operators must work to precisely assess how COVID-19 impacted their business and execute a clear plan of action to address foreseeable problems.
Execution is far more important than perfection; you’ll need to make changes on a dime and avoid spending excessive hours obsessing over debating specific actions rather than taking them. It is far more essential to get tasks done versus ensuring they are perfect. If something is not working in your business, it must be readdressed or removed entirely from the protocol. It is far better to make necessary changes now amid the pandemic as opposed to reactively waiting and seeing what may come next following it.
Stay nimble by cutting out any factors that may be slowing down your company’s efficiency. Is your point-of-sale system causing issues? Can you use a better payment processing tool? Are any employees underperforming? Are there any internal policies that may be hindering your employees’ ability to work as optimally as possible? These are some of the many factors that must be considered to ensure your business stays agile and adaptable. Determine what is working against you and execute a plan of action to address. Do not wait and do not take shortcuts around regulations.
Understanding the Shift in Purchasing Behavior
Regardless of whether or not a vaccine for COVID-19 is completed anytime soon, operators must know that there is no “returning to normal.” People’s habits and behaviors have changed due to this virus, whereas slow browsing of items might have been preferable for some individuals before COVID-19; this is likely not the case today. Furthermore, research groups like Accenture have found that most customers expect their shopping habits to change permanently.
In the study mentioned above, shopping more consciously is one of the two top priorities for customers during this pandemic. According to Accenture, “[c]onsumers are more mindful of what they’re buying. They are striving to limit food waste, shop more cost consciously and buy more sustainable options. Brands will need to make this a key part of their offer (e.g., by exploring new business models).” Furthermore, customers are now more likely to shop locally; this is why community engagement would be especially important to ensure you develop transparency and trust between your brand and your customers. Understanding this shift in purchasing behavior will remain one of the more crucial tasks of any cannabis operator.
Expanding Sales Avenues
More and more customers are now relying on online and curbside purchases than ever before. Dispensaries must look to their current sales avenues and determine where key focuses should be made. Use your sales data to determine where customers are making their purchases the most, be it through third-party delivery services such as Eaze, standard home delivery, online ordering or curbside pickup. Focus on identifying friction and streamlining the user experience on all customer-facing platforms and services. Equally, consider which platform your customers are using the most to make purchases; are they making more online purchases, or do most still prefer direct shopping at the store? Remember that having more products doesn’t necessarily mean more revenue. You must also identify which products are performing well and which have low margins.
These considerations can help strengthen your highest performing platform while working to fix any more inferior performing platforms. As stated before, stay nimble; if something is not working out, cut it out from your business model, and move forward. Do not be afraid to cut poor-performing platforms to hone your focus on the successful ones. Since post-COVID-19 shopping behavior is likely to stay permanent, these changes may still be applicable following a slowdown or cessation of the virus.
Delighting Your Customers
Virus or not, customer satisfaction remains one of the most crucially defining points for the future of your business. Your customers must be safe and must be happy with their purchase. To ensure this outcome, you need to maintain adequate safety policies while equally promoting streamlined purchases. Although a limited number of individuals may be annoyed with over-the-top safety precautions, most customers will enjoy the heightened security that comes alongside these types of measures.
Contactless service, such as having customers scan their identification upon entry or encouraging more credit card versus cash transactions, can increase customer satisfaction, as they will feel a stronger sense of security when shopping at your dispensary. Focus on streamlining curbside pickup. Things such as requiring vehicle descriptions (e.g., license plate numbers, color, make) for curbside pickup purchases can go a long way in helping employees quickly identify customers.
Equally, be sure there is hand sanitizer available near the entrance of your dispensary. This adds a further sense of security for your shoppers. Delivery should be consistent; delays and setbacks must be minimal to win the confidence of your customers. Take the extra steps to ensure your dispensary is clean and products hygienic. All these factors work to increase customer satisfaction while maintaining their safety, and more importantly, impact the level of trust your customers have in association with your brand.
Scaling Operations Taking Advantage of Limited Competition in Emerging Markets
As stated before, several individuals—including existing and emerging cannabis businesses—are clocked out following COVID-19. This mindset is not only detrimental for operations but can also impact how you scale your business. New markets are coming online and will continue to do so as regulators are increasingly incentivized to replenish government coffers. Riverside County in California, for instance, is now allowing for capless licenses for all cannabis business types. However, what remains the key focus for regulators is expanding the number of delivery and distribution operators. In Massachusetts, delivery endorsements for dispensaries are available without a set deadline to social equity applicants and do not have a defined cap. In Illinois, the cap for transporters was equally removed, and each applicant who scores above 75% will receive a license.
These types of licenses are now more valuable than ever before for two reasons. The first reason is that regulators are keener to award delivery and transporter licenses than other types. Secondly, customers now prefer home delivery over shopping in stores due to COVID-19. With more people clocked out during these times, you have far more opportunities and far fewer competitors during application processes. Use this time to truly develop a strategy for expansion, as the chance might not come so quickly again.
As a final point, be sure to expand your online presence during this time. Although you may not have the capacity to reflect your company’s personality and value through quick in-store transactions, you can use social media to encourage product reviews, social interactions, and recommendations. Invest in marketing through social media platforms. Platforms such as TikTok have helped form communities of like-minded individuals. Use platforms such as that to highlight your company’s personality and values, avoid being “salesy” and focus more on being funny, entertaining and just alive. Character adds value to your business.
People want to laugh, to feel safe and they want to live. Create social interactions and immersion and always prioritize being honest and transparent with your customers. This final point stands as equally as important as the rest of the considerations highlighted throughout this article. Stay nimble, stay active and stay alert! Do not view the chaos behind this pandemic as a pit, and instead see it as a ladder. Track down opportunities, do not be afraid of change, and, more importantly, do not wait for an answer to COVID-19, be the answer.
It is almost impossible to turn on the tv and not find a show or news conference or even live footage of an ongoing protest over “Black Lives Matter” or “Economic Equality.” The same situation exists with social media platforms, radio broadcast, etc. All sharing the common theme of social equity. While we all seek a solution, the state of Illinois is doing their part by awarding the coveted adult use cannabis business licenses for craft growing, infusion, transportation and dispensaries to social equity applicants by using a scoring system that favors the social equity applicant. We believe in this vision at TGC Group and our dream is to pay it forward.
We see the world, especially for minorities living in poverty, quite differently because of where we come from. “Black Lives Matter” is a movement to save the lives of all people and have human life viewed equally no matter the race of an individual. Economic equality is a totally different fight. Our communities that are impoverished need cash infusions. There needs to be financial infrastructure that recirculates the dollars from the poor communities and that comes from having business owners in the affected community to put their profits back into their community. There needs to be a system of lending that is not based on credit scores and criminal background checks because most people at the bottom will never qualify. An example would be my husband, Christopher Lacy: he went to prison for 3.5 years for growing cannabis back in 2009. He is not a violent man; he never even had a fight in prison. He spent much of his time in prison teaching inmates how to read, write and most importantly, he tried to teach them economics. He is educated about cannabis because he has been intimately involved with this plant and has been growing it for just about 20 years. Yet when he tried to apply for jobs in Illinois for growing cannabis, his invisible barrier starts with the resume. Just think about it, my husband, knows more about cannabis than most people in the industry today and could manage a facility with ease. No one could see his worth because of his background and work experience? This is the same situation with so many others in our poor communities. We know for a fact that there is hidden talent in the impoverished communities and prison system, and we intend to find it and empower these individuals to rebuild what was destroyed by the war on drugs. I speak for all the ghettos when I say this: give us access to the capital and we will get the rest done on our own. Conventional banks have their hands tied with this approach because they are regulated, but private funds have more flexibility. The excess capital needed to rebuild will not come from jobs, it only comes from ownership. Luckily, J.B. Pritzker and Toi Hutchinson are aware of this and hence created the social equity fund to help the social equity applicants fund their projects if and when they are awarded a license. We must find a way to give to the bottom so that the dollars can trickle up. Trickledown economics is kind of like that movie “Platform” on Netflix. There are never enough resources to get to the bottom because the people sending the resources down have no idea how to get them to the bottom floors of society. Trickle up economics can start at the very bottom rungs of society and still will reach to this highest level of the economic system because its built in such a way that it will inevitably get there.
These new licenses, literally pathways to financial freedom if operated correctly and efficiently, are revenue machines capable of changing our community. This change does not come from providing jobs (although jobs do help and will be available), but by providing capital to rebuild. These funds can provide scholarships, business loans, even small infrastructure projects can get accomplished via the tax revenue generated by the local governments. We have already made a written commitment to give a portion of net margins to the village. Capital in the right hands can make dreams come true. In theory, poverty can be solved. Poverty is not a prerequisite to the American way of life. That is why we were so proud to get zoning approval by our village. They see what we see. We can change neighborhoods like Beacon Hill. The dollars must recirculate in the community. Wherever you see high poverty rates you see high crime rates. This is not a coincidence. If you can lower the poverty rate you can lower the crime rates. This raises the quality of life for everyone. We see the state is on board, the county is on board, the Village of Park Forest is on board and the citizens of the community are on board. Now all we need is the license and capital to get the resurrection started.
Unlike other applicants, we were only capable of applying for one license for a craft grow facility. Some may see this as a disadvantage because only 40 licenses will be issued for this purpose. I wish we could have applied for more to increase our odds, but resources were scarce and applying was not cheap. We decided to stick with the efficient market theory and put all our eggs in the one basket that we know we can carry and be successful with. Without the help of Justice Grown, we would’ve never completed the application so shout out to them and anyone else that helped “true” social equity applicants apply.
The wheels are in motion so all we can do is wait to see who wins. I would hate to be on the team who must decide who wins these licenses. Everyone knows large corporations found ways to apply as social equity applicants because they only needed a certain number of “social equity” employees to qualify. But if you go ask the employees, not the owners, if they have been cured of their financial burdens and see if $15 has raised their quality of life to a middle-class level. The answer is emphatically NO. You cannot give out band-aids for heart attacks. If these large corporations are awarded the licenses, it will perpetuate the cycle of poverty. We do not personally have anything against the big companies. Like Toi Hutchinson said regarding the first round of dispensary and cultivation licenses: we needed the big company dollars to fund the next round of licenses. Well, the next round is here. Let’s do right by the communities that were truly affected by the war on drugs and on a more personal level and my reason for applying: let’s do right by my husband because he lost 3.5 years of his life and was excluded from participating with his family for doing what is now legal.
These days, there are countless choices for cannabis operators when it comes to software. There are general tools like Trello, Airtable, Hubspot and Mailchimp. And then there is industry-specific software built just for cannabis operators.
The cannabis industry is fast-paced and highly regulated. So, there are certainly additional factors to consider in the search for software.
Because no two systems are exactly alike, it’s important to set up a decision-making framework in order to do a clean side by side comparison. Consider the following factors when evaluating software. Specifically, think about each one’s importance to the team and its ultimate goals.
Functionality is the most important factor in the evaluation process. But, before the demos begin, take the time to identify the problems this new software should solve for the company.
Will it help you automate or optimize your processes or just offer basic features that won’t make a meaningful impact on the bottom line? (The whole point!)
2. Customer Support
For some, the level of customer support is an afterthought. The team that will use the software needs prompt, attentive support both during onboarding and after.
How does one evaluate the level of customer service a software company offers?
Questions like these will gather the info needed to make a decision:
How many support specialists are there vs how many total customers?
What’s the turnaround time for a support ticket?
Can I schedule one-on-one calls after the onboarding period?
Describe your onboarding process – how many sessions or hours do we get with your team?
Ideally, the software company takes support very seriously. Because if they don’t, here’s what happens: the team won’t use it or worse, costly mistakes will be made.
Another aspect seldom considered is the company’s industry expertise. Software vendors that stay up to date on changing regulations can provide much more value than those who don’t. Test their knowledge and see whether they would make a solid resource for you.
Software built for the cannabis industry is likely to provide this kind of support. Some industry-specific vendors, that provide cannabis cultivation software for instance, are able to answer their customers’ ongoing Metrc questions. They can become your right hand in solving compliance and, oftentimes, operational challenges.
3. Ease of Use
Always keep in mind who the end user will be. Is it someone who’s tech-driven or not at all?
The trick is to balance complexity with ease of use. If complexity is feared, there’s a risk for selecting software too simple. In this case, the value of automation and cost savings isn’t gained.
At the same time, it’s important to stay mindful of how complicated or difficult it will be for the team to adopt and use.
What does a typical day look like for employees and will the software be an approachable, useful tool for them?
In a new, growing industry, there are many software vendors. How long have they been in business? Some have been around for years while others only months.
The last thing you want is for the software company to disappear off the face of the earth just when your team is on-boarded and trained. Also, beware of huge corporations that have turned their attention to the Green Rush and created a separate business unit just for cannabis. A lack of industry knowledge can be felt in the software application. If it’s being repurposed for our industry, chances are it won’t seamlessly work for our workflows.
Finally, ask what companies are currently using the software. Bonus points for recognizing any of them! It shows that established companies trust this vendor. In making the decision for which software to go with, this validation holds weight for many. Before signing a contract and implementing the new software, make sure to read the fine print!
5. Cost vs Value
At the top of everyone’s mind is price. In these tumultuous times, we’re all worried about the bottom line.
That said, review a software company for the value it can bring to your cannabis business. How much labor time will the software save due to its automation and streamlining? Is it quantifiable?
Budgeting for a more expensive software might actually make sense if the value is there. Crunch the ROI, to the best of your abilities, to see the impact its set of features can make.
How quickly and how often does the software provider innovate its product? Ask the company for examples of how they’ve listened and addressed requests for changes or additions to their software.
Also ask what their road map looks like for the year. What new features and changes will they be making?
Without updates, software can quickly become outdated and irrelevant. A perfect solution today is not a perfect solution two years from now. Select a vendor who’s committed to regular improvements.
7. Exit Strategy
Before signing a contract and implementing the new software, make sure to read the fine print!
Some companies will try to lock in a multi-year contract. Beware of contracts that will charge for early termination if you change your mind down the road.
Get the fine print and ask for clear terms of the commitment. In a fast-paced industry like ours, priorities and needs change often. Contract lock-up is not optimal.
As if the cannabis industry doesn’t regularly go through enough rapid change, with COVID-19, cultivators, processors and dispensers of all sizes are trying to do more with less. Lower operational headcount and unpredictable production volume, along with a rapidly-changing supply chain – make eliminating manual steps a necessity. Labels include barcodes or various barcode symbologies to help companies manage inventory, identify products and ultimately ensure that the right products get to the right customers at the right time. By eliminating manual steps in your labeling environment, you can address these issues through automation, scalability, efficiency and accuracy: benefits that will last through the pandemic and position you well for the recovery period.
Automation of many kinds is being implemented from seed to sale including barcode label printing automation. Integration of labeling software and seed to sale traceability systems including METRC, BioTrack, Leaf Data and others enables streamlined barcode label data population and high-volume label printing to counteract the decreasing operational headcount and eliminate manual touchpoints.
Print automation can be defined as “a centralized technology that replaces the manual process of triggering a print job within a labeling environment.” Look for a labeling software solution that allows you to:
Completely automate your label printing process
Print to a greater number of printers
Initiate printing directly from any business system
By integrating your label printing system with your seed to sale traceability system, you can expect to minimize errors, increase print speeds and maximize your ROI. Your business system already holds the variable data such as product names, license number, batch or lot codes, allergens, net quantity, cannabis facts, warning statements and more. By systematically sending this data to the right label template at the right time, labeling becomes an efficient and cost-effective process.
One of the most important considerations for cannabis cultivators, processors and dispensers is to invest in solutions that can grow and pivot quickly as the business changes. Whether you are responding to temporary requirements or changes, or your business needs to scale up quickly to respond to a spike in demands as a result of COVID-19 or to prepare for coming out of this pandemic. Whatever your needs are, think about short-term and long-term goals for sustainable business solutions. Scalability includes:
Printing to a greater number of printers
As needs and automation requirements change, and your printer inventory has the possibility of increasing, make sure your labeling design software can be licensed per simultaneous user, with cost-effective, multi-user networking licenses. That way, you don’t run the risk of paying for more printers as you grow or going over budget with each additional printer.
Print documents and labels from the same application
If you use the same data for your documents (like order receipts, bills of materials or packing lists) and labels, moving document printing into your label design software makes sense logistically. An advanced label creation and integration software enables label and document printing standardization by allowing multiple database records to be on one file. That means when new documents or labels come into your database, your software can seamlessly integrate.
Efficiency and accuracy
In a time where responding to the changing market needs to happen very quickly, where costs are being scrutinized and when errors cannot happen – you need to set up your labeling environment to have high levels of accuracy and control. With increased accuracy you will reduce waste, eliminate returns due to mislabeled product, efficiently track product and gain more efficiencies that will save you money and time.
Cutting manual steps out of the process
Removing manual steps in your printing process is a sure-fire way to gain efficiency and accuracy in your labeling environment. Look for labeling software features that allow you to add variable data from a device to your labels automatically, which limits the human interaction with your labels and in turn helps minimize human errors. Other efficiencies include:
Increased print speed within your labeling environment
Reduced label waste
Collection of data from several devices such as:
On-demand color labeling
On-demand labeling is specifically helpful in the cannabis labeling world because of all the regulations you must comply with. Each state has its own regulations, which means each label throughout the cannabis supply chain must be compliant with whichever state they are located. With on-demand labeling, cannabis companies print labels as needed and make changes as they go without the risk of wasting obsolete pre-printed label stock. This is beneficial as pre-printed labels often have large minimum order quantities. On-demand labeling also helps companies maintain better control of their own branding and graphics.
With on-demand labeling, label information can be populated by using pre-approved label templates in order to save you time with the variations of cannabis labels. This gives you the ability to print the specific label you need without having to waste your pre-printed label stock, or spend time switching out your pre-printed label stock in your printer.
Cannabis cultivators, processors and dispensers are faced with many obstacles during these challenging times due to COVID-19 – ensuring workers are safe, keeping operations at 100% capacity with potentially fewer people, creating contingency plans that may be changing daily. In an environment that is changing very quickly, consider how labeling solutions can evolve. You may also need to lean more on your partners than you ever have in the past.
On Wednesday, March 25, the United States Senate approved an estimated $2-trillion stimulus package in response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. The legislation, formally known as the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (or the CARES Act), was approved by the Senate 96-0 following days of negotiations. One of the most highly anticipated provisions of the CARES Act, the “recovery rebates” for individuals, will provide a one-time cash payment up to $1,200 per qualifying individual ($2,400 in the case of eligible individuals filing a joint return) plus an additional $500 for qualifying children (§6428.2020(a)). The CARES Act, which remains subject to House approval, also prescribes an additional $500 billon in corporate aid, $100 billion to health-care providers, $150 billion to state and local governments and $349 billion in small business loans in an effort to provide continued employment and stabilize the economy. The legislation further provides billions of dollars in debt relief on existing loans.
CARES Act – Paycheck Protection Program
Under the CARES Act, small businesses who participate in the “Paycheck Protection Program” can receive loans to cover payroll expenses, group health care benefits, employee salaries, interest on mortgage obligations, rent, and utilities (§1102(F)(i)). To qualify for these small business loans, businesses must employ 500 employees or less, including all full-time and part-time employees (§1102(D)). Eligible recipients must also submit the following as part of their loan application: (i) documentation verifying the number of full-time equivalent employees on payroll and applicable pay rates; (ii) documentation verifying payments on covered mortgage obligations, payments on covered lease obligations, and covered utility payments; and (iii) a certification that the documentation presented is true and the amounts requested will be used to retain employees and make necessary payments (§1106(e)). The CARES Act delegates authority to depository institutions, insured credit unions, institutions of the Farm Credit System and other lenders to provide loans under this program (§1109(b)). The Treasury Department will be tasked with establishing all interest rates, loan maturity dates, and all other necessary terms and conditions. Prior to issuing these loans, lenders will consider whether the business (i) was in operation as of February 15, 2020, (ii) had employees for whom the business paid salaries and payroll, or (iii) aid independent contractors as reported on a Form 1099-MISC (§1102(F)(ii)(II)).
What Does This Mean for Cannabis Businesses?
Due to the continued Schedule I status of cannabis (excluding hemp) under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), cannabis businesses are not eligible to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program intended to keep “small businesses” afloat during the current economic crisis. Because federal law still prohibits banks from supporting marijuana businesses, financial institutions remain hesitant to service the industry, as anti-money laundering concerns and Bank Secrecy Act requirements (31 U.S.C. 5311 et seq.) are ever-present. As a result, even if cannabis businesses technically qualify to receive federal assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program, they will face an uphill battle in actually obtaining such loans.
Cannabis Businesses Are Also Precluded from “Disaster” Assistance
Moreover, the conflict between state and federal law continues to prevent cannabis business from receiving assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act (H.R. 6201). In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the SBA revised its “Disaster Loan” process to provide low-interest “Disaster Loans” to eligible small businesses. To qualify for these loans, a state must submit documented business losses for at least five businesses per county. The problem, however, is that the SBA still refuses to assist state-legal cannabis businesses in equal need of small business loans. Specifically, in a 2018 Policy Notice, the SBA reaffirmed that cannabis businesses – and even some non “plant-touching” firms who service the cannabis industry – cannot receive aid in the form of federally backed loans, as “financial transactions involving a marijuana-related business would generally involve funds derived from illegal activity.” The 2018 Policy Notice clarified that the following business are ineligible to receive SBA loans:
(a) “Direct Marijuana Business” — a business that grows, produces, processes, distributes, or sells marijuana or marijuana products, edibles, or derivatives, regardless of the amount of such activity. This applies to personal use and medical use even if the business is legal under local or state law where the applicant business is or will be located.
(b) “Indirect Marijuana Business” — a business that derived any of its gross revenue for the previous year (or, if a start-up, projects to derive any of its gross revenue for the next year) from sales to Direct Marijuana Businesses of products or services that could reasonably be determined to support the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Examples include businesses that provide testing services, or sell grow lights or hydroponic equipment, to one or more Direct Marijuana Businesses. In addition, businesses that sell smoking devices, pipes, bongs, inhalants, or other products that may be used in connection with marijuana are ineligible if the products are primarily intended or designed for such use or if the business markets the products for such use.
More recently, the SBA provided further clarification that cannabis businesses are not entitled to receive a cut of the federal dollars being appropriated for disaster relief because of the CSA’s continued prohibition of the sale and distribution of cannabis. Last week, the SBA reiterated that:
“With the exception of businesses that produce or sell hemp and hemp-derived products [federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill], marijuana related businesses are not eligible for SBA-funded services.” (@SBAPacificNW)
Consequently, because of the continued Schedule I status of cannabis under federal law, cannabis businesses will not be entitled to receive Disaster Loans from the SBA, regardless of whether they qualify as a struggling small business.
Resolving the Issue
While the federal government has been considering legislation, such as SAFE Banking and the STATES Act, to create a more rational federal cannabis policy, neither of these bills are likely to pass any time soon given the current COVID-19 pandemic.
At the end of the day, until Congress passes some form of federal cannabis legalization, these small businesses will remain plagued by the inability to receive financial assistance, as evinced by the Paycheck Protection Program.
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