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.
There is an ineffable logic to the pace of reform these days. Nowhere is that clearer in both the success of voter reform measures in the United States (along with timelines for implementation baked into the language of the same) and developments internationally. No matter that New Zealand decided to take a recent punt on the issue, there are other forces moving elsewhere that have the potential to be far more consequential – and in the short term.
Israel Announced Its Intent To Create A Recreational Market in 2021
There is little news anywhere as consequential as that of the oldest medical market finally succumbing to the inevitable. Namely, Israel has announced that it will allow an adult use market to begin operations probably by the third quarter of 2021. That said, don’t hold anyone to a deadline in the days of COVID-19, which will just as surely have not passed by then.
However, this development means that the entire conversation has moved up a notch – because the Israelis have so much research on the plant at this point.
For this reason, the tiny country is likely to have an outsized impact on the entire discussion – along with conveniently timed medical exports to the world.
Luxembourg Will Initiate Its Recreational Market Shortly Thereafter
It is likely not insignificant that the Israelis announced their intent to begin an adult use market just ahead of the long-announced Luxembourg flip – now on the agenda of the Green Party domestically for several years.
The strategic location of Luxembourg in both the European market as well as the much larger financial one now interested in the vertical cannot be understated. Indeed, the country has already played an outsized role in the development of the medical market here due to the contretemps over the clearing of stock trades in the German market as of 2018.
The double whammy of good news from both markets will also create a buzz internationally that is sure to drive other conversations forward – even if it is to study how both countries approach the issue. And, more to a point, how they differ from Canada, including regulation of their equity markets.
Combined with a more regulated market in Holland and presumably continued “experimentation” in Denmark, and by the end of next year, adult use reform will have hit the continent and in no small way.
Does This Mean The Sudden Potential of Adult Use Everywhere?
As 2020 has shown, in spades, just about anything can and frequently does happen. However, do not expect many more countries to move into the recreational column for the next several years.
Whatever the UN does or does not do about cannabis at the next meeting of the WHO, cannabis the plant remains a Schedule I drug internationally. This means that, for example, import and export of the same across borders, even in Europe, is likely to be problematic and for some time to come – let alone its international travel across say, the Atlantic.
Further from the law enforcement and financial security (namely money laundering) perspective, there are big issues that have to be dealt with finally, internationally, that so far have not – and under the guise of “medical reform.”
For that reason, in other words, do not expect Germany, much less France or even the UK to suddenly switch gears. And remember that both Luxembourg and Israel are small countries.
Bottom line? Adult use reform is here to stay, and will increasingly show up on the map. But the more “blanket” reform, still driving the entire discussion, is broadly, and globally, medical.
It was 1996. I was four years old. California Proposition 215 passed and for the first time, legal medical cannabis became available. I don’t remember it honestly, but that moment triggered a reckoning of outdated and ineffective efforts to control cannabis, which continues on November 3rd.
The moment in 1996 created for me and my generation of millennials a new, decriminalized lens for which to view cannabis and its potential. In my lifetime, from first experimenting with cannabis after high school and then earning my PhD in plant biochemistry, advancing cannabis research, to starting an agtech company dedicated to the genetic improvement of cannabis, we continue this march toward legalization. But another march hasn’t started yet.
The cannabis we consume today is still largely the same (albeit more potent today) as the cannabis that was legalized in 1996. There’s been little advancement in our scientific understanding of the plant. This can and should change. I believe the future and legitimacy of the cannabis crop in the medical field and in farmers’ fields is on the ballot this November.
In 33 states, medical cannabis is currently legal and in eleven of those, including my home states of Nevada and Washington, legalized adult-use recreational cannabis is generating millions in tax revenue every month. But compared to every other commercial crop, cannabis is still decades behind.
We are seeing a glacial cadence with cannabis research. As voters in five more states consider this November whether to legalize cannabis, that same tipping point we reached in 1996 comes closer to being triggered for cannabis research.
Here’s what cannabis scientists, like me, face as we work to apply real scientific methods to the long-neglected crop: I published one of the most cited papers on cannabis research last year, titled, Gene Networks Underlying Cannabinoid and Terpenoid Accumulation in Cannabis. But, as per university policy, we were unable to touch the plant during any of our research. We could not study the physical cannabis plant, extracts or any other substantive physical properties from the plant on campus or as a representative of the university. Instead we studied cannabis DNA processed through a third-party. Funding for the research came from private donors who were required to be unassociated with the cannabis industry.
While we were conducting our heavily restricted, bootstrapped cannabis research, the university lab in the next building over was experimenting with less restrictions on mice using other drugs: cocaine, opioids and amphetamines. (Quick note, marijuana is listed as more dangerous than cocaine, which is a Schedule II drug.)
I get it. Due to the federal prohibition on cannabis as a heavily regulated Schedule I drug, universities cannot fund research without the risk of losing all of their federal funding. While the USDA does not support research and SBIR grants are all but impossible, one government agency does allow research, from cannabis grown only in Mississippi. It’s the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and any research conducted using its crop is as ineffective as you’re imagining. Relevant research is likely impossible using the crop which dates back to a 1970’s strain with a potency that’s about 30 percent of today’s commercial cannabis offerings.
To change this anti-research climate, do what those in California did with Prop 215 in 1996. Vote.
Vote for legalization of cannabis if you’re in those five states where legalization is on the ballot; that’s Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, South Dakota and Mississippi. The more states that align with cannabis legalization, the stronger the case becomes for the federal government to reschedule the drug from a Schedule I controlled substance. Currently cannabis is listed as a Schedule I alongside heroin. The DEA claims cannabis has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Both are not true, just listen to the scientists.
Those outside of the five states putting cannabis on the ballot can still play a role in creating a Congress that is more receptive to cannabis reform. This Congress is the oldest, one of the most conservative and least effective in our country’s history. Younger, more progressive representation will increase our odds of advancing cannabis research.
Cannabis holds far too much possibility for us to allow it to be an unstudied “ditch weed.” THC and CBD are just two of nearly 500 compounds found in cannabis which, when scientifically scrutinized will harvest – I believe – vast medicinal and commercial benefits and the tax windfalls that accompany both. But first you have to vote.
If cannabis and your representatives are not on the ballot, do something millennials have built somewhat of a reputation for failing to do; pick up a phone and call your current representative. Tell them cannabis deserves scientific attention and investment. There’s too much potential in the cannabis plant to wait any longer.
Editor’s Note: Part 3 will be an interview with Liz Conway, Regional President of Florida at Parallel. In part 4 we’ll sit down with Stephanie Gorecki, vice president of product development at Cresco Labs.
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 second article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. You can find the first piece here. In this second piece, we talk with Mike Hennesy, vice president of innovation at Wana Brands. Mike started with Wana in 2014 after moving to Colorado and leveraged his science background to transition into product development and innovation where he has helped develop one of the best-known brands in Colorado.
Next week, we’ll sit down with Liz Conway, Regional President of Florida at Parallel. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Thank you for taking the time today. Just to start off, can you walk me through how you got involved at Wana Brands?
Mike Hennesy: Thanks Aaron. I got involved in the cannabis industry pretty intentionally. After graduating college in 2012, I was determined to get involved. I moved to Colorado from the east coast. I’m originally from Virginia. I moved out here in 2013 and started with Wana in 2014.
I got involved in the sales side of the business originally – as the company was just starting to emerge into the legal recreational market – and oversaw growth here at Wana during significant changes in the industry. Over time, my role transitioned into innovation and R&D where I am leaning on my background in science.
I now lead new product development and education as Vice President of Innovation, and I’m also completing a master’s degree in cannabis science and therapeutics.
Aaron: So, what does innovation mean to you?
Mike: Innovation for the cannabis industry is pretty unique and interesting. We are just beginning to unpack the pharmacopeia of the cannabis plant as well as starting to understand our own bodies endocannabinoid system.
Innovation spans from genetics of plants and how they are grown to how you deliver cannabinoids to the body and what different ratios and blends of cannabinoids and terpenes you are actually putting in there. So, innovation is not a one size fits all category for cannabis.
Aaron: Sounds like an interesting role! At Wana Brands, and in your role in innovation, how do you think about differentiating in the market with your products?
Mike: I would describe the way we perceive differentiation as going beyond simple developments, such as product forms or new flavors. We see the future of product development trending towards what active ingredients and in what ratios we are putting into products. For example, what kinds of cannabinoids and terpenes are we using? What kinds of drug delivery systems might we be harnessing? How do we put all of these ingredients and technologies into a product to make it more effective?
A simple way to think about all of this is: how is our product going to work better for the consumer? Because that is really the key here. Tasting great is important, but we are delivering a product that provides an experience. We want to continue to make a better experience and a better way for customers to enhance their life.
Aaron: I think that leads nicely into our next question, which is, when you’re thinking about creating a new product for the consumer, what’s your process for creating a new product?
Mike: We have a very full pipeline of new products, and many of these ideas come from networking and speaking with innovators and following the research and science for inspiration and direction. We take this information and start brainstorming as a team. We have a decade of experience in the cannabis space that provides us with a unique lens on how we apply new research to our product development.
From there, we build a product development pipeline of potential ideas and start to prioritize, looking at the feasibility of each of these ideas and their market readiness. Sometimes we have a great idea for a product, but a lack of consumer knowledge may mean we don’t move forward with launching.
Aaron: Can you expand a bit on what you mean by education and how you guys think about education to the end consumer?
Mike: Since product innovation must move with consumer knowledge and cannabis is so new, education is critical. We have a very robust education platform with topics that range from cannabis 101 to the endocannabinoid system, to lessons on terpenes and CBD, as well as trainings on our products themselves. We have both bud tender-facing and consumer-facing trainings. The consumer trainings are on our website, and bud tender trainings are hosted through dispensaries.
Aaron: Is that training electronic training or written material?
Mike: Both, but the primary platform is online in the form of interactive training courses. We also have printed flip book training material in dispensaries and offer in-person presentations, but with the pandemic, we’ve been heavily leaning on the online training content.
Aaron: Alright. So, we’re going to take a different direction here on questions. From your perspective, at the innovation level, can you walk me through your experience with your most recent product launch?
Mike: Most recently, we launched the line of Wana Quick Fast-Acting Gummies. I am extremely excited and proud of this line. They have absolutely exploded in popularity!
The idea for these products started a few years ago as we were learning cannabinoids are not very bioavailable. This means most of the cannabinoids that you consume from an edible do not end up in the bloodstream. Edibles also have a delayed onset and undergo a conversion of THC in the liver, called first pass metabolism, that gives a heavier sedating high. This slow onset and difference in effects with edibles can be a turn off for some consumers, leading us to the idea of developing a fast acting gummie that works differently.
It was about two years of research looking at technologies developed by pharma and nutraceutical companies to improve bioavailability and bypass first pass metabolism. We started looking into nano-emulsions and encapsulation of cannabinoids that help with bioavailability and reduce the onset time. These technologies envelop the cannabinoids like a disguise that tricks the body into absorbing the oily compounds more easily. The encapsulation bypasses the liver and is absorbed into the bloodstream quickly, so their effect starts within five to fifteen minutes. Since they are not processed in the liver, they deliver delta-9 THC instead of 11-hydroxy-THC, giving an effect I describe as a “smoker’s high.”
We trialed and tweaked many technologies before we landed on one that is truly effective and worked with our line of gummies. With this revolutionary technology inside, we then crafted delicious flavors and a new triangular shape to differentiate them from our classic gummies. Because they take effect so quickly and only last about three hours, we thought the Quick Fast-Acting Gummies were the perfect product to use during happy hour. So, we have Happy Hour inspired flavors like Pina Colada, Strawberry Margarita and Peach Bellini.
We launched in March, and already right now, these SKUs in Colorado are #4, #7 and #11 out of all edibles sold in Colorado. And overall, Wana produces eight out of the ten top SKUs in Colorado. That’s according to BDSA, so a pretty impressive achievement!
Aaron: Okay, great, I’d say so! The next question here goes deeper in the supply chain. How do you go about sourcing for the ingredients?
Mike: I am going to start with the cannabis side of things. As I mentioned earlier, cannabis is unique. It is not just one ingredient. It’s many different compounds like the cannabinoids THC, CBD and others, but also terpenes and other beneficial compounds. To make the most effective edibles we partner with growers that care about their genetics, how they are growing, and how they are extracting to create high quality cannabis extracts.
We also understand terpenes are so important in the entourage effect, and that different terpene blends synergize with cannabinoids to produce different effects. Some can be energizing while others are more relaxing. Wana has innovated the terpenes we use by formulating proprietary blends of thirty terpenes or more that replicate indica, sativa and hybrid strains.
We did this by strain hunting the best cannabis in each class and analyzing the strains to understand their profiles. Then using organic, botanically derived terpenes, we build blends in the ratios they are found in the plant and reintroduce them into our edibles. This means Wana edibles match the terpenes that you will find in cannabis, unlike other products that just use distillates where the terpenes are degraded and lost in extraction. This also means we can replicate these blends with our partners in other states, so when you consume a Wana indica or sativa product you’re going to have the same terpene blends and the same experience and feeling every time.
Beyond cannabis and terpenes, we are extremely selective in all of our ingredients. And in the near future we’re implementing an optimized recipe that is all-natural, with no high-fructose corn syrup, as well as moving towards organic ingredient sourcing.
Aaron: Can you give me an example in your role of a challenge that you run into frequently?
Mike: I think that is the exciting thing about working in R&D and new products: there is always a new challenge. I guess I would say if you are not making mistakes, you are not really trying to push the envelope in product development.
We are working with plant matter, terpenes and encapsulation technologies, things that don’t always taste good, and putting them all into edibles. That means we frequently run into the challenge of figuring out how to put the right ingredients for effect in a product, but still make it taste delicious. We are very selective in what ingredients we use and how we’re introducing them to make sure the product still tastes good. We oftentimes come across a great technology—such as a terpene blend or a quick onset delivery system—that does the job, but is not optimal for a gummie recipe, such as the resulting consistency or taste.“These developments are all heading in the direction of delivering consistent repeatable experiences for consumers, which is what I see as the future of cannabis.”
Aaron: Would it be correct to say that formulation is a common thing you run up against in terms of challenges?
Mike: Yes, especially because a lot of the ingredients and technologies we are working with are new. There isn’t a guidebook for how to incorporate encapsulated cannabinoids into a gummy, for example.
That’s the novel aspect of a lot of this: how do you take a terpene blend that’s designed to mimic the cannabis plant and put it in your gummies? What’s the right way to introduce it so they’re not degraded by heat? Formulating with cannabis is about problem solving, and is the backbone to what we do in R&D
Aaron: We’re getting towards the end of the conversation here. And these questions are more geared towards you individually. So, what trends are you following in the industry right now?
Mike: I’ve got to have my eyes on a lot of things. That’s how you innovate in this industry!
I would say No. 1 is still terpenes. We are already innovating there, but I think we’re just scratching the surface of where we’re going to go. I think terpenes are going to unlock a lot of potential in cannabis products in the future, and Wana is going to be innovating there, leading the pack.
Next is minor cannabinoids. Through decades of an illicit black-market, the genetics have skewed towards high THC strains, but the cannabis genome actually allows for many other cannabinoids to be formed. Through the right cultivation and breeding programs, we are going to see a lot more CBG, CBN, CBC, and even more rare cannabinoids like THCV and others. These currently rare cannabinoids are going to be important for new product development as we learn more about their therapeutic effects.
Then there is continued innovation on delivery systems and bioavailability, functional ingredient blends and more natural products. These developments are all heading in the direction of delivering consistent repeatable experiences for consumers, which is what I see as the future of cannabis.
Aaron: Awesome. What are you interested in learning more about? This could be cannabis related or business related.
Mike: Well, fortunately, I am working on a master’s degree right now and so I get to learn a lot every day. I am most curious to see where science takes us with the endocannabinoid system. It was pretty much unheard of until a few decades ago, and now we understand that it interacts with almost every other system in the body. It is like missing the elephant in the room when you are talking about human biology. The amount of information that we’re going to unlock about how the ECS interacts and regulates our body is going to continue to revolutionize the industry There’s a lot more to be understood around how different compounds interact with the ECS and affect us, and I think we are going to learn how we can use it to tailor other products for outcomes such as sleep, pain, anxiety, energy and focus.
Aaron: Just a clarification there. What are you working on for your master’s?
Mike: I’m getting a Master’s in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics from the School of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland. It is the very first master’s level program of its kind, and is taught by doctors and pharmacists, so we discuss cannabis as a drug and how it effects the brain and the body. It has been really exciting and I’m looking forward to continuing learning more about this amazing plant!
On Tuesday, September 22, the Vermont Senate voted (23-6) to pass a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate adult use cannabis sales. The bill, S. 54, was approved by 92-56 in the Vermont House of Representatives earlier in the month.
Governor Phil Scott did not sign the bill, but let it become law anyway without his signature late Wednesday night on October 7. He did however sign separate legislation that will expunge previous cannabis-related convictions.
As a medical cannabis professional, I, like most industry leaders, have been left out of the conversation around the Governor’s call to legalize recreational cannabis. Much like flying a plane without the advice of the pilot, those of us who are rooted in this space should be given a seat in the cockpit if we’re headed in this direction.
While Governor Wolf has called for legalization, which is absolutely necessary, those who understand where legislation has gone wrong and what works well – including business owners and most importantly, patients – have been largely left out of the conversation.
I meet regularly with legislators and unlike many, I speak and listen to both sides. I applaud the call for legalization by Governor Wolf, however, I question his true intentions. Is this political posturing to make Republicans look out of touch? Any political strategist would say that if you actually want something done, you must work with the opposition. Like many issues today, change can only be created once we come together. This is no different.
Few people understand that cannabis was used as medicine for thousands of years and legal in the U.S. until 1969. In 1971, Nixon told us that cannabis was “bad” and drug abuse was public enemy number one, so Americans listened. Nixon then goes on to break American law, be impeached, resigns, and yet, Americans continue to follow his lead, vilifying cannabis users, 46 years later. As a society, we are taught to conform to what we are told by elected officials and community leaders as truth.
Act 16 legalized cannabis – a term illegal to use by someone like me, who has been mandated by The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to use ONLY the racist term “marijuana” – but in a way that shames users. The system fails our patients at every turn leaving business owners hostage to an unmanageable “seed to sale” platform, leaving many patients without access to their medicine. Low income patients have been left out of our program by high prices and have not received any of the subsidies they were promised, even though the program has produced hundreds of millions of dollars.
Pennsylvania law strictly prohibits anyone charged with the use of cannabis to work in the industry. You cannot own a cannabis business or work for a cannabis company if you have been arrested for possessing a $10 joint. Yet, my customers skip to their cars with hundreds of dollars of weed in their bags and go about their day. Meanwhile, a 19-year-old black kid’s life just ended after he was pulled over, driving while black and the officer finds a joint. He can never receive financial aid for college or get a job because he has “a record.” The reality is, the black teen’s life will most definitely come to an end because of a joint while others can smoke walking down Broad Street and no one blinks.
Pennsylvanians want legal cannabis. It has a consistent history of reducing opioid deaths, state by state, by 25%. How many lives would be saved if we allowed those who cannot afford legal cannabis but fear prosecution for illegal use, to grow their own?
I have no judgement against those who have been conditioned to believe cannabis is an “illicit drug” because this is how we’ve been programmed. Cannabis has healed but has killed no one. We must educate our legislators before we vilify them. There are more Republicans quietly for legalization than against, but they need information, not shaming.
Legalization of cannabis is necessary to preserve our health and welfare, because we’ve become a society addicted to chemically derived pharmaceutical drugs designed to cause dependence. Cannabis is not physically addicting. It can prevent and eliminate seizures, shrink and even kill cancer tumors, settle the nervous system from diseases like Parkinson’s and MS and help those with anxiety, depression and PTSD. Legalize cannabis and clean up our homelessness, allow people of color to profit from an industry which has capitalized on them, allow low income people and all people to grow their own medicine, and reduce the violence in our streets caused by prohibition.
Pennsylvania needs a legalization law that includes real, hard-working Americans. I am one of the few, born and bred small business cannabis owners in Pennsylvania and I want opportunity for my neighbors and fellow Pennsylvanians in this space. We need legalization to save our communities, but we need two separate application processes – one that is directed toward those disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs which should be crafted to protect applicants who cannot afford thousands of dollars of application fees and the uncertainty of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars via legislative delays. The system is broken. There must be two points of entry.
Pennsylvania Republicans will legalize cannabis. Pennsylvania Democrats will not. Democrats hold no power or authority in our Republican controlled state, and they have shown no attempt to educate. Cannabis legalization is necessary to save the state, but money should not be the reason. Pennsylvanians deserve the education to understand what they do not understand.
Instead, lets legalize and allow 50% of the licenses to be awarded to social equity applicants (those disproportionately affected by the war on drugs) with a bill that is written in the best interest of the social equity applicant and the consumer. The other 50% of the applications should be open to current license holders (who should be grandfathered in with a high price license acceptance fee) and small business owners from Pennsylvania. (It is federally illegal to require residency requirements).
We must not eliminate the Multi State Operators (MSOs) because a free market depends on expertise and stability – and whether anyone wants to hear it or not, being disadvantaged is not enough to be a successful businessperson. We need a balance, but more importantly, as with our nation in crisis, we need to come together.
Provide affordable, non-addictive medicine to patients.
Allow people to grow their own cannabis.
Create BILLIONS in tax revenue nationally by taxing adult use cannabis.
Demand social equity reform where anyone can profit from the plant.
Free Americans from prisons and parole and expunge records.
All of this is a cry for peace. As a wise person once said, “Drunk men in a bar start a fight, high men start a band.” Spread peace not hate. Thousands die from excessive alcohol consumption every year, but legalization of cannabis does not increase usage. No one has ever died from cannabis. Tell me again why we shouldn’t legalize? Those who believe we should not might as well push for alcohol prohibition again – it has no medicinal properties and kills.
Hopes and dreams will not help our humanitarian crisis – but action and education just might…
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.
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