Just over a month ago, a handful of dispensaries in New Jersey began selling cannabis to adults over the age of 21. The state issued licenses for adult use sales to seven alternative treatment centers (ATCs), otherwise known as medical cannabis businesses already established in the state. In total, thirteen dispensaries in the state started selling cannabis to adults over 21.
The seven companies awarded adult use licenses were Ascend, Curaleaf, GTI, Acreage, Verano, Columbia Care and TerrAscend. The state’s roll out created a lot of controversy over allowing already established, larger medical cannabis businesses and multi state operators to begin adult use sales before smaller businesses and social equity applicants get licensed.
Earlier this week, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) held a public meeting where regulators discussed progress, sales totals so far, conditional license applications and more. According to the meeting notes, between April 21 and May 21, retailers in New Jersey did $24,201,875 in cannabis sales with 212,433 transactions. During the meeting, regulators considered 46 conditional license applications and four testing lab license applications.
According to NJ.com, six new dispensaries were awarded licenses to begin adult use sales. Of the six new retail locations, Curaleaf opened their Edgewater location to adult use customers and Ayr Wellness received approval to begin adult use sales at all three of their medical locations in Eatontown, Union and Woodbridge. Ascend and TerrAscend also received approval to begin adult use sales act their locations in Montclair and Lodi, respectively.
About two weeks ago, the CRC testified before the state’s Senate Judiciary Meeting to share progress on the legal cannabis market, just over a year after the CRC was established. Jeff Brown, executive director of the CRC, discussed the agency’s goals and some challenges ahead of them. Brown says the CRC will be focusing on additional rules for adult use, modernizing the medical rules, enforcing regulatory compliance and information sharing in the near future. He also mentioned a couple challenges the industry is currently facing that they wish to address, including: expanding access to capital for entrepreneurs , removing impediments to finding real estate, educating municipalities to open up opportunities for applicants and ensuring medicinal cannabis access is unimpeded by recreational sales.
“We have made great strides in all of these efforts, and when we look at how New Jersey compares against other states, we fair pretty well,” Brown told lawmakers. “Beginning recreational sales on 4/21/22 was an important milestone. But it doesn’t mark the end of the process, it marks an important step in a multi-year effort to establish New Jersey as the premier cannabis market on the East Coast.”
The adult beverage industry, like any other category of consumer branded products, is driven by trends. If you’re old enough to remember Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, you probably also remember Zima and Smirnoff Ice, and more recently “healthy” options like Skinny Girl and Michelob Ultra. The sensation that was craft beer saw many brands being acquired by Big Alcohol so that while the brands remain, ownership and production have changed significantly. Gin, tequila and vodka have had their moments in the sun and the current market is undeniably saturated with what is probably the largest current trend – hard seltzers. However, with the seltzer craze waning, many are wondering what’s next. And with the growing sober/California sober trends, some are betting it is cannabis-infused beverages.
Cannabis-infused beverages offer both an alternative method of consumption of cannabis and are also an attractive alternative to alcohol. Infused beverages are more appealing to the new demographic of casually curious cannabis consumers. i.e., consumers that may not be interested in smoking a joint or vaping, but are comfortable micro-dosing from a can or bottle, as they would a seltzer or beer. The same type of consumer may be moving away from alcohol consumption to eliminate hangovers or other negative health effects.
The emerging market and curious consumer group present an enormous opportunity right now for cannabis-infused beverage brands. Of course, with opportunity and growth come challenges. And while cannabis-infused beverages face a host of legal and regulatory challenges relative to sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, shipping, marketing, distribution and sale, one of the most critically important business assets to address at inception is the brand.
Lines are Blurring, Gaps are Being Bridged
The U.S. cannabis market is currently a geographic hamburger. Hear me out: Geographically, you have a relatively mature market out west and a relatively new and growing market along the east coast. These are the buns. You have a mixed bag in between, with some states coming online and allowing medical or adult use cannabis use and others that have not yet embraced any form of legalization. The landscape has lent itself to the development of regional brands, such that brands that are so similar they might otherwise confuse consumers, have been able to co-exist in different regions without issue, or because there is little to no trade channel or market overlap. Similarly, adult beverages and cannabis have historically been separate verticals, with an arguably low likelihood that a consumer would assume a particular cannabis product and adult beverage product emanate from the same source.
However, lines are blurring and gaps are being bridged. Walls are breaking down. The increasing number of states coming online with legalized cannabis, and the proliferation of multi-state operators (MSOs), means that cannabis brands can grow to be more than siloed regional brands. This will inevitably lead to brands that previously co-existed bumping into one another and there’s bound to be some pushing and shoving. The advent of infused beverages likewise bridges the gap between cannabis products and alcoholic beverages. While the respective industries were not historically per se related, competing, or overlapping, now you’ve got infused beverages that bridge the gap between the two, and traditional alcohol brands (e.g., Boston Beer Company, Molson Coors, Lagunitas, Pabst.) entering the market (albeit under different brands). This makes a strong argument that cannabis and alcohol (or, more generally, adult beverages) are within each other’s logical zones of expansion, for purposes of a likelihood of confusion analysis.
The growing pains infused beverage brands will experience are analogous to those craft beers saw in the 2000 – 2010s. Many craft brewers had catchy, cheeky names and brands that contributed to their ability to engage consumers and develop a following, but failure to clear and protect the brands prior to launch detracted from the brands’ market values. Localized use prior to expansion also led to many brands bumping into one another and stepping on each other’s trademark toes. This was significant as the brands sought investment dollars or an exit strategy, making clear that the brand itself contributed heavily to valuation.
Mitigating Risks and Overcoming Challenges: Search and Protect
The risks and challenges can be significantly mitigated and/or overcome with proper preliminary clearance searching and assessments, and by seeking and obtaining state or federal protection for the brand or brands, to the extent possible.
Of course, clearance searches and assessments come with their own challenges, as does federal protection. With respect to clearance searches, these typically look at U.S. federal and state trademark databases. These resources are not sufficient for purposes of clearing a proposed cannabis brand. Many brands are not recorded at the federal or state level and indeed may not even show up in a basic search engine. An appropriate search looks at social media resources like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and known cannabis resources like Leafly and Weedmaps. Additionally, the scope of the search should exceed cannabis products and services and at least look at alcohol and merchandise. Adoption and use of a brand for a cannabis-infused beverage is high risk if that brand is similar to a prior existing alcohol brand. A current example is Cointreau’s taking aim at Canopy’s adoption and use of QUATREAU for an infused beverage.
A U.S. federal trademark registration presents its own unique challenges, but is incredibly valuable and beneficial to a brand since it provides the owner with a nationwide presumption of ownership and validity in a trademark, and can also secure priority for the owner with a constructive first use in commerce date that is years before actual use of a mark begins. The U.S. Trademark Office categorically denies protection of brands that violate its “lawful use” rule, and will treat as per se unlawful any applied for mark that covers marijuana, or that covers foods, beverages or pharmaceuticals that contain CBD. With respect to brands that cover products containing THC, since it is federally scheduled, use of the brand would violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). With respect to brands that cover CBD or products containing CBD, these may be lawful pursuant to the Farm Bill and the U.S. Trademark Office’s subsequent allowance of marks that claim CBD “solely derived from hemp with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis,” however under the Food Drug Cosmetics Act (FDCA) it is currently federally unlawful to introduce CBD – even if it fits the definition above – into foods or beverages.
Even if cannabis is not specifically claimed in a trademark application, cannabis brands have a natural gravitation toward names and logos that can do some of their marketing for them, and announce to the world they cover cannabis. This increases the chances that a trademark application for the brand will get push-back from the U.S. Trademark Office, and if not at the initial review stage, then at the point in time when the brand must submit to the U.S. Trademark Office a sample of (lawful) use of the applied-for mark. While this all sounds like bad news for cannabis-infused beverages, all is not lost.
There are typically ancillary and federally lawful products and services cannabis companies offer under their brands that can be covered in a U.S. federal trademark application, and arguments to be made that registered protection of a brand for the ancillary items should be sufficient to enforce against third parties using the same or confusingly similar brands in their space. Some cannabis brands’ lawful ancillary products are actually product lines (e.g., beverages) offered under the same brand that contain no cannabis. Others may be more causally related, like online forums and blogs. The former is closer to the actual product, and the latter would be more beneficial to a brand that is inherently stronger and more distinctive. One note of caution: A trademark application and eventual registration that expressly disclaim cannabis (THC or CBD) may be difficult to enforce against a third party using the same or a similar mark on and in connection with cannabis. So, while there is a natural inclination to follow a U.S. Trademark Office request to disclaim coverage of cannabis, there may be enforcement consequences down the road.
The cannabis-infused beverage market is poised for explosive growth. The brands that survive – and succeed – will be those that position themselves for growth by clearing and buttoning up their brands as early as possible. The market leaders will be those that select strong and distinctive brands, with geographic and market space around them for growth and expansion; and those that protect and enforce their brands, to the extent possible, at the federal and/or state levels.
People today are more eco-conscious than ever. The last several years have seen a growing awareness of the impact of human behavior on the environment, and COVID-19 brought real-life context to the catastrophic effects of a global crisis. Lifestyle changes during the pandemic empowered people to make choices with a positive impact for the collective good. In a June 2021 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey , half of global consumers said they’ve become more eco-friendly since the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers are changing their behaviors, educating themselves about the businesses they support, and evaluating the products they buy through a “green” lens. Terms like circular economy, zero-waste, ESG and carbon footprint are now part of the common vernacular, and sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have but a business imperative.
Cannabis consumers, in particular, value sustainability. They are conscientious of what they’re putting into their bodies and the planet. There is increased interest in brands and businesses that use responsible growing practices, eco-efficient manufacturing, and sustainable packaging. In a nationwide survey conducted by Canivate Growing Systems, 79% of U.S. cannabis consumers said they support establishing environmental standards. And in 2021, the Sustainable Cannabis Coalition (SCC) was formed to promote sustainability best practices.
Sustainable packaging is an important way that brands can show a commitment to the environment. Packaging is a highly visible and tangible representation of your brand and one that matters to consumers. A July 2021 Adweek/Morning Consult poll found that 77% of consumers believe it is the brand owners’ responsibility to make sure their packaging is recyclable. According to Nielsen, of the top five sustainability attributes consumers are willing to pay more for, three are packaging-focused: Recycled packaging, reduced packaging and reusable packaging. While cannabis packaging has unique regulatory requirements and safety guidelines, it can still be eco-friendly. Sustainable cannabis packaging has the necessary properties to protect against moisture and maintain freshness and smell. It can also be child-resistant and include other unique cannabis functionalities.
When it comes to sustainable cannabis packaging, that which you may believe to be the “greenest” option may not be sustainable at all. Many factors go into this determination, including packaging material, weight, distance traveled from supplier to manufacturer, water and energy usage and more. At Berlin Packaging , we take a comprehensive and integrated approach to sustainability to ensure our solutions meet customer objectives and consumer expectations. We use life-cycle analysis to quantify a product’s environmental impact throughout its entire life cycle, including sourcing/raw materials extraction, manufacturing, distribution and end-of-life. This analysis ensures that the solutions we provide are effective, impactful, and don’t contribute to greenwashing.
One key pillar of sustainable cannabis packaging is material circulation – using recycled and recyclable plastics and alternative materials. It’s important to understand that not all plastics are created equal. HDPE and PET are fully recyclable and have a ~30% recyclability rate. Polypropylene, on the other hand, while recyclable, only has roughly a 3% recyclability rate. Color can also play a role. PET is valued for its transparency, so colored and opaque plastics are not considered recyclable.
Continuous innovation and technological improvements have contributed to several eco-friendlier plastic packaging solutions. One popular choice for many of today’s brands is post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials. Using recycled plastic reduces single-use plastic waste that fills our landfills and threatens our waterways. Bio-plastics, made using renewable plant-based materials, are another sustainable option. Berlin Packaging has partnered with numerous premium packaging manufacturers to provide sustainable solutions for our customers. Many of our offerings – suitable for flower, pre-rolls, edibles, concentrates and more – can be produced using PCR or bio-plastics.
We’re also seeing brands embrace new compostable, biodegradable and paper packaging options. Berlin Packaging offers pre-roll tubes that are 100% compostable in industrial or municipal facilities and are better for the environment while also protecting the product inside. With zero migration, zero odor, and zero visibility, these air-tight tubes maintain freshness and meet regulatory requirements. We also offer a variety of paper tubes for pre-rolls, vape carts, and flower that are reusable, recyclable, and biodegradable.
Other sustainable packaging strategies include refill & reuse systems, which have gained popularity over the past several years, especially among personal care categories. Other tactics to consider when evaluating your package’s sustainability scorecard are eliminating unneeded packaging components like outer wraps and neck seals, ensuring labels are recyclable, and lightweighting (reducing the weight of your package). Berlin Packaging evaluates all of these avenues when developing sustainable packaging solutions.
Beyond the packaging itself, we encourage our customers to consider aligning their branding design and on-pack messaging to tell their sustainability story. We’re seeing many brands elevate their packaging sustainability benefits on their packaging’s primary display panel. The How2Recycle labeling program is another tool that helps educate consumers about how to dispose of packaging to ensure it gets recycled properly. Berlin Packaging’s sustainability specialists assist companies with comprehensive messaging strategies. Given the rise of greenwashing and consumer confusion and skepticism, effective and impactful messaging is a critical part of a sustainable packaging strategy.
Working with packaging suppliers and design partners who understand the cannabis market and have sustainability expertise is key to a brand’s success. A holistic approach that considers consumer insights, design functionality, aesthetics, manufacturability, regulatory requirements and sustainability results in packaging solutions that grow sales and build brand loyalty.
Now entering its sixth year of medical cannabis legalization, the Empire State is well on its way to expanding the market considerably. When New York first legalized medical cannabis, it had some of the strictest rules in the country. Dispensaries needed to have pharmacists and doctors with special training on staff, they couldn’t sell flower and there was a very small list of qualifying conditions for getting a cannabis prescription.
While New York legalized adult use cannabis back in March of 2021, the actual market is still probably about a year away from launching. The bill immediately decriminalized possession up to certain amounts and set up the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), New York’s regulatory body now overseeing the medical, adult use and hemp markets.
Over the past six years since the state legalized medical cannabis, the rules have eased incrementally, with more licenses awarded, more doctors participating, more qualifying conditions approved and a larger variety of products on dispensary shelves. Back in 2017, they added chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions, which was seen as a big effort at the time for expanding patient access.
Just a few weeks ago on January 24, 2022, the Office of Cannabis Management, dropped all qualifying conditions. That means patients with more common ailments and really any type of condition, like anxiety or sleep disorders, can get a prescription for cannabis.
“Launching the new patient certification and registration system and expanding eligibility for the Medical Cannabis Program are significant steps forward for our program,” says Chris Alexander, executive director of the OCM. “We will continue to implement the MRTA and ensure that all New Yorkers who can benefit from medical cannabis have the access they need to do so. It’s important for New Yorkers to know that even as we shift the medical program to the OCM, your access will not be disrupted and the program will continue to expand.”
In addition to dropping qualifying conditions, the state took a number of other measures to increase access and allow the market to expand further. For example, dispensaries can now sell flower, more physicians like dentists, podiatrists and midwives can participate, the OCM removed the patient registration fee and they increased the amount of cannabis patients can purchase at a time.
Beyond the medical market, New York is making strides in launching their hemp program as well as preparing for the eventual launch of the adult use market. Back in November, the state’s Cannabis Control Board approved new regulations for the hemp program, establishing standards for manufacturing, lab testing, packaging and labeling.
On the adult use front, delays are the name of the game. According to a publication called The City, delays to launch the new market have been made worse by former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation following sexual harassment allegations. They say the state might not see the launch of the adult use market until early 2023 at best. Decisions on licensing, standards and rules are to be made by the Cannabis Control Board, a five-member commission tasked with overseeing the OCM. So far, the Board has not addressed a timeframe for when they will begin adult use sales.
By Abraham Finberg, Simon Menkes, Rachel Wright 1 Comment
When Montana became a territory in 1864, its legislators chose as its motto the Spanish words “Oro Y Plata” which means “Gold and Silver.” Gold and silver discoveries brought people to the new territory in droves, and everyone expected to get rich.
Nowadays, the newest gold rush to open up in Montana is the state’s adult use cannabis market, which began operation this past January 1, 2022. The Cannabis Control Division (CCD) of the Montana Department of Revenue expects total adult sales in 2022 to top $130M. With a population just over a million residents, that works out to about $120 per person, which would be more than California’s benchmark $111 per person. Montana’s cannabis industry is expecting exciting and enriching times ahead!
We advise our Montana clients to be cautious, however, and to keep an eye on the “cannabis tax ball.” Why? You can be killing it in sales but still get dragged under by a heavy tax burden, especially in adult use sales, or worse, not keep up with your tax obligations and run afoul of the Department of Revenue or Big Brother IRS.
Montana’s initial foray into cannabis began in 2004, when the state passed Initiative I-148, allowing patient cultivation and use of marijuana but left the legality of commercial sales ambiguous.1 The government reactionaries jumped in and used legislative action to tighten and limit that law.2 Then, in 2016, Montana voters legalized the medicinal sale of cannabis with I-182,3 and in 2021, adult use was legalized with I-190, allowing existing dispensaries to sell recreationally beginning January 1, 2022 in counties which voted yes on the initiative.4,5
From a federal taxation standpoint, of course, Montana’s cannabis operators are only allowed to deduct Cost of Goods Sold under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) 280E, and in general, the state of Montana’s tax code conforms with the Internal Revenue Code.6,7 However, the Montana Department of Revenue departed from the IRC in 2017 and allowed normal business deductions for licensed (legal) cannabis corporations.8 The Montana Department of Revenue also interpreted the law for pass-through entities and individuals with licensed cannabis operations to allow deductions of ordinary and necessary business expenses.9 This is what makes it possible to do business in cannabis in the state of Montana.
But what about Montana’s cannabis taxes? How big are they, and how do they compare with other states?
Montana charges a regular sales tax as well as either a 4% cannabis tax on medical sales or a 20% cannabis tax on adult use (recreational) sales.10 Some good news: wholesale sales are exempt from this tax.11 More good news: Both the retail tax and the regular sales tax are exempt from the taxable price i.e., the state does not charge “tax on tax.”12,13 However, be warned: be careful of offering discounts as it is assessed on the regular retail price rather than the actual discounted price.
Montana assesses the Cannabis Tax on the retail price and excludes discounts or even product given away.14 As of this writing, Park, Yellowstone and Missoula (medical only for Missoula) Counties have an additional 3% Local Option Tax based on the same state retail price definition with an exclusion for discounts or gifted products.15
So, with all these different taxes, is Montana actually a low tax state for cannabis? To begin with, the state is at least “in the ball game” by allowing the deduction of regular operating expenses on state income taxes. In addition, Montana has a relatively low tax which only applies at the retail level for medical sales and a relatively high tax on adult use. Adult use tends to be the vast majority of sales for dispensaries, so this does not bode well for retail cannabis operators.16
But before you throw in the towel and start looking to move to California (or Oklahoma, another cannabis-friendly state), a look at the whole Montana cannabis picture provides a rosier outlook. Montana income tax is relatively low, and since cultivators and manufacturers do not have to pay any cannabis excise taxes (especially as compared to California, with its cultivation tax and a functional 27% excise tax charged to retailers – a tax theoretically assessed to the consumer but in reality charged by a distributor to a retailer) or cultivation taxes on weight that enters the commercial market. All-in-all, Montana is actually a low-tax state for cannabis operators!
Disclaimer: This article has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice.
Author’s experience with clients from California Oregon, Washington State and Nevada; states with both adult use and medical sales as of this writing. Montana does not have a commercial adult use program as of this writing.
Social consumption lounges are becoming increasingly popular in legal cannabis markets. Just what are social consumption lounges? They’re a safe, enclosed space where cannabis consumers of legal age can come together and enjoy cannabis products, much like a bar environment for consuming alcoholic beverages.
Social consumption lounges are particularly attractive for their potential to bring in cannabis tourists. Although adult use cannabis can help promote tourism, tourists typically can’t smoke in most places indoors (including their hotel accommodations) nor consume on the street or in public, due to strict public consumption rules set by state regulations. This leaves the perfect set-up for consumption lounges, which provide the appropriate and legal environment for tourists to consume cannabis.
What do social consumption lounges look like in practice? What are the rules and regulations that social consumption lounges must adhere to? How and where are social consumption lounges currently legal in the United States? Here’s what you need to know.
What are social consumption lounges?
Social consumption lounges—also known as consumption lounges, cannabis lounges, cannabis consumption area and cannabis consumption lounges—are retail lounges that permit on-site cannabis consumption, such as smoking and vaping cannabis flower as well as ingesting cannabis infused products like edibles and tinctures. Similar to a bar that serves alcoholic beverages, all consumers in a cannabis lounge must be at least 21 years of age. While smoking typically isn’t permitted in retail businesses, smoking is permitted in lounges.
While state-specific regulatory bodies are responsible for developing, implementing and enforcing the rules surrounding U.S. social consumption lounges, Dutch “coffee shops” may have served as the inspiration and model for U.S. industry. Contrary to the name “coffee shops”, patrons don’t go to Dutch coffee shops for coffee. Rather, they go because the sale and consumption (including smoking) of cannabis is permitted and socially accepted. According to travel resource Amsterdam.info, Dutch coffee shop culture emerged in the 1970s when the federal government made a clear legal distinction between “hard” and “soft” drugs. Soon after in 1972, the first coffee shop named Mellow Yellow opened. Although cannabis wasn’t clearly legal or illegal, Dutch law enforcement tolerated the growing number of cannabis coffee shops, focusing instead on prosecuting heroin and lethal illicit substances. Today, the Amsterdam City Council permits coffee shops to operate after they obtain a non-transferable license, which must be displayed in shop windows, thanks to an agreement with the coffee shop union Bond van Cannabis Detaillisten (BCD).
Unlike Dutch coffee shops, U.S. social consumption lounges must adhere to numerous rules and regulations specific to their state and municipality. One major difference is who is permitted to own and operate a lounge. In some U.S. states, consumption lounges are operated by existing cannabis businesses, such as adult use and medical dispensaries. In these cases, the lounge may be required to be on the cannabis business’s existing premises. In New Jersey, this must be an “indoor structurally enclosed area of the cannabis retailer or medical cannabis dispensary that is separate from the retail sales or medical dispensary area” or “an exterior structure on the same premises as the cannabis retailer or medical dispensary, either separate from or connected to the cannabis retailer or medical dispensary,” according to the National Law Review. In many places within the U.S., “stand alone” lounges that aren’t attached to an existing cannabis business aren’t permitted.
In the Netherlands, coffee shops operate in a legal grey area with their products being supplied by an entirely underground cultivation market. Cannabis being consumed in coffee shops isn’t regulated or checked. Per regulations in the U.S. states that allow them, however, only legal cannabis may be consumed in these lounges. While consumers might be able to bring their own cannabis or cannabis products, consuming any cannabis or cannabis products obtained through the underground market is strictly prohibited.
Where are social consumption lounges legal?
Not all U.S. states with legal recreational, adult-, or personal-use cannabis programs permit social consumption lounges. Although it’s been a decade since Colorado and Washington voted in favor of legalization, consumption lounges are a fairly recent trend, likely because states without legal consumption spaces found out the hard way that they couldn’t accommodate tourists or anyone who wished to consume cannabis outside of their home. Here’s where social consumption lounges are legal in the U.S.:
Nevada: After the Governor signed a bill in June 2021, a new cannabis law permitting social consumption lounges went into effect in October 2021 and lounges are anticipated to open in early 2022, according to Nevada public radio station KNPR. Additionally, efforts are being made to prioritize minority-owned business owners of consumption lounges, reports local news station Fox5 KVVU-TV.
New Jersey: Although consumption lounges weren’t initially permitted in the recent regulatory framework, individual municipalities now decide whether or not to permit lounges within their communities. Atlantic City and Jersey City have approved social consumption lounges, reports Hudson County View.
New York: The state’s recently passed adult use cannabis law allows social consumption lounges, but the recreational market isn’t expected to take off until mid-2023, according to Business Insider. Lawmakers still need to adopt a regulatory framework to how lounges (along with other cannabis businesses) will operate.
Illinois: Currently, two social consumption lounges have opened, and two others are planned to open across the state,” says the Chicago Tribune.
Colorado: Similar to New Jersey, individual municipalities decide whether to permit lounges in their communities. Denver and Aurora have approved consumption lounges.
California: Given the state’s rich history of an underground market, informal social consumption lounges aren’t particularly new. However, a recently approved law officially allows social consumption lounges, reports Marijuana Moment.
The number of states considering and/or permitting social consumption lounges is growing. Which states will likely legalize them next? As noted below, it looks like Michigan, Massachusetts and Maine will be next.
Michigan: The state doesn’t allow for them now, but they could come in the future, reports WZZM13.
Massachusetts: The state is considering them, reports Boston.com.
Maine: The state delayed them until 2023, according to MJ Biz Daily.
Why are social consumption lounges becoming increasingly popular?
Consumption lounges are becoming increasingly popular for many reasons. First and foremost, they’re a win for the cannabis industry because they provide consumers with a physical place to consume safely and legally.
Second, the tourism sector benefits from social consumption lounges. “The problem is people can buy marijuana products in states that have legalized adult-use cannabis, but they have limited options when they want to consume the cannabis that they purchase legally,” explains Cannabiz Media. For instance, Las Vegas has promoted itself as a cannabis travel destination since 2017, despite lack of adequate space for visitors to consume. Meanwhile, those who don’t consume cannabis have criticized the city for its growing public consumption, complaining especially about the odor of smoked cannabis. Social consumption lounges can potentially help fix these growing pains in the state’s cannabis market.
Additionally, lounges are a win for harm reduction. Lounges provide beginner cannabis consumers the opportunity to consume alongside experts, to be shown the ropes with professionals present. Being in a community with experienced consumers provides opportunities for novices to understand how to smoke, dose and overall consume properly and safely.
Lastly, MG Magazine emphasizes other benefits including de-stigmatization, social connection, industry partnerships and product innovation.
Regulation and compliance differences between states
Without federal cannabis legalization, states are tasked with regulating their own cannabis markets. Likewise, state regulatory agencies are responsible for drafting regulations for social consumption lounges.
California and Colorado have fewer limitations, likely because both states have more experience and overall comfort with the plant. In states with more lenient regulations, 420-friendly cafes, hotels, bus tours, paint nights and other businesses are tolerated.
New Jersey has notably strict regulations for social consumption lounges. For example, the current state law doesn’t permit any stand-alone consumption spaces independent of existing permitted cannabis businesses. Therefore, a cannabis cafe or bud and breakfast isn’t permitted.
There is, however, one legal loophole in New Jersey for stand-alone consumption space. The microbusiness license model allows for temporary licenses, permitting a temporary social consumption lounge, such as for an event at a private venue. New Jersey permits them in Newark, Hoboken, Highland Park, Jersey City,Elizabeth, Long Branch Atlantic City and Trenton.
In closing, it is likely that social consumption lounges will become increasingly common especially in major U.S. cities with legal adult-use cannabis programs. While Dutch coffee shops may have inspired the emerging U.S. social consumption lounge model, their U.S. counterparts must comply with much stricter rules and regulations. Since regulations vary from state to state, it’s important to be on top of your state’s policies in order to stay compliant.
In a very interesting chain of events, the Northeast is legalizing adult use cannabis at a rapid pace in 2021. The incremental progress is similar to the history of legalization in the western United States and the events leading up to 2016.
In Rhode Island, senators approved Senate Bill 568 and now heads to the House where a legislative session ends in less than a week. While it is doubtful that representatives will be able to get it done before the end of the month, it is entirely possible that they could pass the bill and legalize cannabis before the end of this year.
It’s no secret that the rollout of cannabis legalization has underperformed in countries like Canada. Since legalization in October of 2018, industry experts have warned that the projections of the big cannabis firms and venture capitalists far exceeded the expected demand from the legal market.
Today, major production facilities are closing down, some before they even opened, dried flower inventory is sitting on shelves in shocking quantities (and degrading in quality), and an extremely robust illicit market accounts for an estimated 80% of the estimated $8 billion Canadian cannabis industry. None of those things sound like reasons for optimism, but while some models for cannabis business are withering away, others are beginning to put down stronger roots. Crucially, we are beginning to see new business models emerge that will be able to compete against the robust black market in Canada.
The Legal Cannabis Industry Can’t Compete
Legal rollout in Canada could easily be described as chaotic, privileging larger firms with access to capital who were able to fulfil the rigid – and expensive – regulatory requirements for operating legally. But bigger in this case certainly did not mean better. The product these larger firms offered immediately following legalization was of a lower qualityand higher price than consumers would tolerate. In Ontario, cannabis being shipped to legal distributors lacks expiration dates, leaving retailers with no indication of what to sell first, and consumers stuck with a dry, poor quality product.
The majority of existing cannabis consumers across the country prefer the fresher, higher quality and generally lower priced product they can easily find on the illicit market. That preference couldn’t be clearer when you look at the growth of inventory, which is far outpacing sales, in the graph below:
Which brings us to the crux of the matter: when it comes to building up the Canadian cannabis industry, what will succeed against the black market that has decades of expertise and inventiveness behind it?
Rising From the Ashes: Craft Growers and Other Small-Scale Producers
The massive facilities like Canopy’s may be shutting down, but our friends over at Althing Consulting tell us that those millions of square feet facilities are being replaced by smaller, more boutique-style cultivation facilities in the 20,000 ft tier, which are looking to be the future of the industry.
Consumers have consistently shown a strong preference for craft cultivators and other small-scale producers who produce higher quality, more varied products that are more responsive to consumer needs. It also hasn’t hurt that prices are also coming down: Pure Sun Farms in Delta, BC is consistently selling out of their $100/ounce special, which is highly competitive even with the illicit market.
This vision of the industry matches up better with the picture we’ve been getting from other legalization projects around the world. It also squares with other indicators of success. Despite the small market capture of the legal market, industry employment numbers are still relatively high, especially when compared with more established legal consumer products markets such as beer. In fact, craft cannabis growers now employ nearly as many people as the popular craft brewing sector here in British Columbia.
But in order to make the craft cannabis market actually competitive in both the regulated and unregulated spaces, the government will have to address four major challenges.
Challenge #1: License Distribution is Uneven and Chaotic
A December 2020 report by Ontario’s auditor general contains admissions by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), Ontario’s cannabis industry regulator, that they lack the capacity and resources to manage the number of applications for private cannabis retailing. Problems relating to the issuing of licenses, including long delays and difficult requirements, are widespread across provinces. One way this becomes clear is by looking at the very uneven distribution of stores across the country in the graph below.
Challenge #2: Basic Regulatory Compliance is Complex and Time-Consuming
Smaller-scale micro cultivators, whose good quality craft product remains in high demand, still face prohibitive barriers to entry into the legal market. Licensing from Health Canada is one onerous challenge that everyone must tackle. Monthly reporting requirements have in excess of 477 compliance fields. Without additional support to navigate these requirements – including automation technology to ease the administrative burden – these smaller producers struggle to meet the minimum regulatory standards to compete in the legal market.
Challenge #3: A Long-Distance Road to Compliance and Safety Means Higher Costs
Even with all regulatory requirements satisfied, cannabis cultivators can’t sell their product from “farm to fork” (to borrow a phrase from the food industry). Many growers ship their product to be irradiated in order to ensure they are below the acceptable microbial threshold set by Health Canada. While irradiation positively impacts the safety of the product, new evidence shows that it may degrade quality by affecting the terpene profile of the plant. Furthermore, only a few facilities in Canada will irradiate cannabis products in the first place, meaning that companies have to ship the finished product sometimes thousands of kilometers to get their product to market.
Next year, Health Canada looks set to lower the limit on microbials, making it virtually impossible to avoid cannabis irradiation. If Health Canada follows through, the change will be a challenge for small-scale cultivators who strive to prioritize quality, cater to consumers who are increasingly becoming more educated about terpene profiles, and seek to minimize the environmental impact of production.
Challenge #4: It is Virtually Impossible to Market Improved Products
Finally, there is a marketing problem. Even though the regulated market has made dramatic improvements in terms of product quality from legalization two years ago, Health Canada’s stringent marketing restrictions means that cannabis producers are virtually unable to communicate these improvements to consumers. Cannabis producers have little to no opportunity to reach consumers directly, even at the point of sale – most legal sales are funneled through government-run physical and online stores.
What Can a Thriving, Legal Cannabis Market Look Like in Canada?
The good news is that change is being driven by cannabis growers. Groups like BC Craft Farmers Co-Op are pooling resources, helping each other navigate financial institutions still hostile to the cannabis trade, obtain licenses and organizing craft growers to advocate to the government for sensible regulatory changes. As a result of their advocacy, in October, the federal government initiated an accelerated review of the Cannabis Act’s restrictive regulations related to micro-class and nursery licenses.
Now, more co-op models are popping up. Businesses like BC Craft Supply are working to provide resources for licensing, quality assurance and distribution to craft growers as well. Indigenous growers are also showing us how cannabis regulation could work differently. Though Indigenous cultivators currently account for only 4% of Canadian federal cannabis licensees (19/459), that number looks to be growing, with 72 new site applications in process self-identified as Indigenous, including 27 micro cultivators. In September, Williams Lake First Nation entered into a government-to-government agreement with the province of British Columbia to grow and sell their own cannabis. The press release announcing the agreement includes the following statement:
“The agreement supports WLFN’s interests in operating retail cannabis stores that offer a diverse selection of cannabis products from licensed producers across Canada, as well as a cannabis production operation that offers farm-gate sales of its own craft cannabis products.”
More widespread adoption of the farm-gate model, which allows cultivators to sell their products at production sights like a winery or brewery, has a two-fold benefit: it better supports local, small-scale producers, and it offers opportunities in the canna-tourism sector. As the economy begins its recovery alongside vaccine rollouts and restrictions on travel ease, provincial governments will have the chance to leverage the reputation of unique regional cannabis offerings (i.e. BC bud) through these farm-gate operations.
While the cannabis legalization story in Canada has had its bumps, the clear path forward for greater legal market success lies in increased support for micro-cultivators. By increasing support for these small-scale producers to navigate regulatory requirements, more will be able to enter the legal market and actually compete against their illicit counterparts. The result will be higher quality and more diverse products for consumers across the country.
As a cannabis lawyer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that regulations affect a cannabis company’s bottom line. Since I’m in California, the ways are many.
In late 2017 I became the chief compliance officer for an Oakland startup that carried out delivery, distribution, cultivation and six manufacturing operations. A big part of my job was preparing my company, along with several equity cannabis companies, for California’s First Wave of cannabis licenses.
For the most part, First Wave licensees came from California’s essentially unregulated medical cannabis market, and/or from California’s by-definition unregulated “traditional” market. When California began issuing licenses in January 2018, many First Wavers were unprepared because their businesses practices had evolved in an unregulated market. A big part of my job was to help them adapt to the new requirements. As a result, I saw the regulations, and the effects of regulations, in sharp relief.
Regulation touches virtually every aspect of the legal cannabis industry in California. So anyone who wants to understand the industry should have at least a basic understanding of how the regs work. I’m writing this series to lay that out, in broad strokes.
Some key points:
The regulated market must be understood in relation to the previous unregulated (medical) market as well as the ongoing traditional market.
Regs define the supply chain.
Regs are designed to ensure product safety and maximize tax revenue.
Many regulations mandate good business practices.
Local enforcement of building, health and safety codes tends to be zealous and costly.
A Tale of Three Markets
California’s regulated cannabis market can only be understood in relation to the medical market that preceded it, and in relation to the traditional market (illegal market) that continues to compete with it.
The Before Times
California’s legal medical cannabis market goes back to 1996, when the Compassionate Use Act passed by ballot measure. One fact that shaped the medical market was that it was never just medical – while it served bona fide patients, it also served as a Trojan horse for adult-use (recreational) purchasers.
Another fact that shaped the medical market was a near complete lack of regulation. On the seller’s side, you had to be organized as a collective. On the buyer’s side, you had to have a medical card. That was it.
Meanwhile, the cannabis supply chain was entirely unregulated. This tended to minimize production costs. It also meant that a patient visiting a dispensary had no way of verifying where the products had been made, or how.
The Regulated Times
Licensing under the Medical and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (the “Act”) began on January 1, 2018. It was the beginning of legal adult-use cannabis in California. It was also the beginning of the Regulated Times, as the Act and accompanying 300-plus pages of regulations transformed the legal cannabis market.
Note that the distributors must collect the excise tax from the retailer, so the 15% markup is not necessarily visible to the consumer. Similarly, consumers are generally unaware that there is a cultivation tax of $9.65 per ounce (or about $1.21 per eighth) of dried flower that the distributor has to collect from the cultivator.
Theoretically, all of this might be unproblematic if licensed retailers were only competing with each other. Which brings us to:
The Traditional Market
The traditional market is the illegal market, which is to say, the untaxed and unregulated market.
Legalization of adult-use cannabis was supposed to destroy the traditional market, but it hasn’t. As of early 2020, the traditional market was estimated to be 80% of the total cannabis market in California. This is not surprising, since the traditional market has the advantages of being untaxed and unregulated.
The traditional market has a pervasive negative effect on the legal market. For example, the traditional market tends to depress prices in the legal market and tends to attract talent away from the legal market. Some of these effects will be discussed in the following articles.
This article is an opinion only and is not intended to be legal advice.
To say 2020 was a historic year is an understatement.
Arizona landed in a solid eighth place among the top ten most successful cannabis states thanks to its expansive medical cannabis program. To close out the year, voters approved Proposition 207, also known as the Smart and Safe Arizona Act (SSAA), making Arizona one of 15 states, plus Washington D.C., to legalize the adult use of cannabis, which is expected to rocket the state’s overall cannabis sales to new heights.
It’s essential to this conversation that we clarify the two sides of this rapidly growing industry. Medical cannabis is a form of treatment, the adult use and consumption of cannabis is a choice. During the pandemic, in many medical cannabis states, the medical cannabis industry was deemed an essential service and allowed to continue providing valuable medicine to patients and caregivers. As medical cannabis programs continue to provide safer therapeutic options which are complementary to or serve as an alternative to many traditional treatments and narcotics, especially opioids, patients can be confident the need for medical programs will continue. Arizona’s adult use cannabis program imposes greater limitations on quantity and potency, while also requiring higher standards for packaging. We saw a trend during the pandemic as again, many states prioritized and allowed their medical programs to continue, while limiting adult use facilities, in the same manner as other non-essential businesses.
It’s also worth noting that we have seen many inevitable changes in patient behaviors during the pandemic, including an increased need for medical cannabis. There was a patient demand for convenience, safety and no-contact services, increased online ordering, scheduling and curbside pick-up or delivery. Many of these services were already on the rise in popularity throughout the various legal states. While Arizona’s recreational program prohibits delivery until at least 2023, retail adult use consumers will expect some of these services to extend to the new market. As life after the COVID-19 pandemic continues on and the need for some of these safer more convenient options also continues, we hope to see them more permanently implemented from a legal and regulatory perspective. For now, here are the highlights we’ll see come into play in the first few months of 2021 as Arizona adopts its new adult use cannabis program.
Smart and Safe Arizona Act (Prop 207):
Legalizes the sale, possession (one ounce) and consumption of adult use cannabis for adults at least 21 years old.
Adds a 16 percent excise tax on adult use cannabis sales, in addition to the state’s 5.6 percent, totaling a 21.6 percent tax.
Allocates an estimated $300 million in Arizona revenue to be divided between community college districts, municipal police, sheriff and fire departments, fire districts, highway funds, public health programs, infrastructure, and a new Justice Reinvestment Fund.
Allocates more than $30 million annually for addiction prevention, substance treatment, teen suicide prevention, mental health programs, and justice reinvestment projects.
Provides opportunities for expungement of certain lesser cannabis-related crimes such as possession, consumption, cultivation or transportation.
But of course, state law is just one part of the equation. Adult use cannabis facilities must be licensed separately from state to local levels, including counties to cities to local municipalities, all of which may also adopt rules and requirements through zoning and land use ordinances. Swift and certain timelines established by the Smart & Safe Act dictate the speedy launch of this new program, first utilizing the existing medical cannabis infrastructure.
Many Arizona consumers are under the impression that they’ll be able to walk into a dispensary on January 1, 2021 and buy cannabis. But that is not the case. They’ll have to wait until the Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS) completes the early applicant licensing process, which begins in January 2021. Currently, local and multistate operators are waiting for AZDHS to complete the rules and regulations for the adult use cannabis program. Here are two of the most significant steps to be navigated in the upcoming weeks:
Smart and Safe Arizona Act (Prop 207) – Step 1: The Rulemaking Process
AZDHS has been tasked with developing the rulemaking process for the Smart & Safe Act. The first draft of the adult use cannabis program rules has already been released, primarily consisting of the application requirements for the early applicant process. AZDHS collected its first round of public comments for consideration on Thursday, December 17, 2020. The exact details and parameters of the adult use cannabis program will not be finalized or known for certain until AZDHS completes the rulemaking process. We anticipate the next draft of adult use cannabis rules to be released sometime in early January.
Smart and Safe Arizona Act (Prop 207) – Step 2: The Application Process
AZDHS will begin accepting early applicants under the Smart & Safe Act on January 19, 2021, closing the process on March 9, 2021. Current medical cannabis license holders who apply for and acquire an adult use license in the early applicant process will be authorized to a dual-licensed dispensary (both medical and adult use license), as well as one offsite manufacturing facility (which may later be amended to include both medical and adult use manufacturing license), and offsite cultivation.
Early adult use license applicants are reserved for those that currently hold in good standing at least one Medical Marijuana Registration Certificate (“Medical Marijuana License”) and applicants applying to counties with no current operating dispensaries. Any county with a single operating dispensary (a medical cannabis dispensary) will be allocated an adult use license (dual license) as long as the medical license holder is in good standing for the application. All adult use licenses allocated to those counties without a current operating dispensary must keep that dispensary within that county.
AZDHS will have 60 days to process each application. Adult use licenses for counties without a current operating dispensary will be allocated through a random selection process, if more than two applications are received for that county. Additionally, upon the conclusion of the early applicant process, any adult use license that has not yet been awarded through that process, will be available to the general public and allocated through a random selection process.
This brings us to later phases of implementation of the Smart & Safe Act: within approximately six months of the adoption of the initial recreational program rules, AZDHS must develop and adopt the rules and regulations for the Social Equity Ownership Program (SEOP). The primary goal of the SEOP is to allocate 26 adult use licenses to “communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of previous cannabis laws.” In other words, communities disproportionately and negatively impacted by cannabis criminalization. Smart & Safe is light on the exact manner and process at this point, so Arizona voters and cannabis companies will look to AZDHS for the development and implementation of this important part of the adult use program. Stay tuned.
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