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Flower-Side Chats Part 9: A Q&A with Andrew Thut, Chief Investment Officer of 4Front Ventures

By Aaron Green
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In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

4Front Ventures Corp. (CSE: FFNT) ( OTCQX: FFNTF) is a multi-state operator active in Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan and California. Since its founding in 2011, 4Front has built a reputation for its high standards and low-cost cultivation and production methodologies earned through a track record of success in facility design, cultivation, genetics, growing processes, manufacturing, purchasing, distribution and retail. To date, 4Front has successfully brought to market more than 20 different cannabis brands and nearly 2,000 unique product lines, which are strategically distributed through its fully owned and operated Mission dispensaries and retail outlets in its core markets.

We interviewed Andrew Thut, chief investment officer of 4Front Ventures. Andrew joined 4Front in 2014 after investing in the company in 2011. Prior to 4Front, Andrew worked in investment banking and later moved on to public equity where he was a portfolio manager at BlackRock.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Andrew Thut: I came at it from the investment side of things. I started my career as a junior investment banker right out of school and then I was a public equity analyst and Portfolio Manager. I ran small-cap growth portfolios for BlackRock where I was on the team for a better part of 11 years.

Andrew Thut, Chief Investment Officer of 4Front Ventures

One of my friends, Josh Rosen, who came from the finance industry, got interested in the cannabis industry really in 2008. He founded 4Front as a consulting company officially in 2011 and I came in as an investor. After that original investment, I left BlackRock and I was looking for something different to do. I was tired of chasing basis points and running public market portfolios. Josh said to me “This industry needs more talent,” and I became more and more involved at 4Front as the years went on. In 2014, I came into the business full time. Originally, I was someone that was kind of the gray hair in the room when we were applying for licenses. We had to go to different municipalities and convince them that we were going to be responsible license holders. I also spent a lot of time on the capital raising side for our business leveraging my career in corporate and more traditional public finance. These are incredibly complex businesses that require a fair amount of capital in some places. So, that’s how I originally got into the business.

These are complicated businesses in a lot of cases. The “sausage making” in cannabis is incredibly complicated. There’s friction at every step along the way. As an example, when you’re buying a building where you want to cultivate your product, you can’t get a mortgage from a typical bank.

While those of us that have been in the industry like to gripe and complain about it, this friction is also the opportunity. Because more traditional investors can’t invest in this industry yet, it allows us more time to build our businesses and have some protective moats around it from a competition standpoint until those folks do come in. So, all this friction is a pain and it’s brutal, but it’s also the opportunity here in cannabis.

Green: Can you speak to the transformation of 4Front from consulting to MSO?

Thut: The original business was consulting. Our original investor was sensitive about touching the plant – it’s one thing to offer services to a federally illegal business, it’s another thing to directly run a federally illegal business. For example, 4Front would have consulting clients that were interested in acquiring a license in Massachusetts. Because of our expertise and our standard operating procedures, we could apply for licenses in limited license states on behalf of our clients and help them show regulators competence and give the regulator’s confidence that these operators knew what they were doing. So, we would help our clients win the licenses and then once those licenses were won, our operations folks would come in and help them get up running.

When I came into the business we said, “well, geez, we have quite a track record helping clients win licenses and get open. If we’re good at winning these licenses and getting them open, why aren’t we just doing this on our own behalf?” So, in 2015, we shifted the business from consulting to being a multi-state operator. We leveraged our capabilities in regulatory compliance and winning licenses to go and get those on our own behalf. We also leveraged our financial expertise in M&A to add to our portfolio, so what we ended up with was a seven-state portfolio at the time.

Green: Chief Investment Officer is an uncommon title, even in the MSO space. What does your day-to-day look like?

Thut: I spend an awful lot of time helping management plot our strategy, and then figuring out how we are going to pay for our growth. Not only structuring finances for the company, but also having contact with our existing and new investors.

I spend a lot of my day to day thinking about where we want to be as a business and what geographies we want to be in. If you look at cannabis longer term, we have less interest in being cultivators or farmers. We think that’s going to be the most quickly commoditized piece of the value chain. We like retail as a business, but I think that we have less interest in managing hundreds of retail locations scattered across the country. We ultimately want to be a finished goods manufacturer. What we think is going to matter longer term is establishing low-cost production.

There is a lot of price elasticity in the end markets for cannabis meaning if you get customers a quality product at a much better price than the competitor, you’re going to take outsize market share. To offer that lower price, you have to be efficient. Over the years, we have figured out how to bring the labor cost out of our production. We have 25 different brands with 1000s of different SKUs of products that have dominant market share in states like Washington. And we’re now putting them into Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, and hopefully New Jersey.

Green: Do you have a preference towards acquisition, or do you seek growth through internal investments?

Thut: We are always weighing build versus buy. We want our products to have dominant market share, or very strong market share in every state we are in, and we have a lens towards what gets us there faster and most efficiently. For instance, we have two cultivation facilities and one production facility here in Massachusetts – about 15,000 square feet of canopy in the state. That will just about serve our three retail locations in Massachusetts.

Back to our bigger investment thesis, we believe that we should be a finished goods wholesaler in every state that we’re in. We know our products are incredibly well received and we know that consumers love our price point. In Massachusetts, for instance, we’re currently evaluating if we need more capacity from a cultivation standpoint and a production standpoint. And if we do where do the lines cross in terms of whether we should build versus buy that additional capacity?

We are currently in five states, including our facility in Washington has dominant market share in one of the toughest markets in the world for cannabis – somewhere close to 9% market share in Washington. Our brands are in the top 10 of every single category from flower to vapes, to edibles everything across the board. And what we’re doing our strategy is simple. It’s taking those tried-and-true products and operating procedures that have been so effective in Washington, and we’re replicating them in other states where we have licenses: Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan, California and hopefully New Jersey. We’re looking for more state, but we want to be deep in the states we’re in.

We also have a lot of confidence that you know, having been having translated some of these, having been able to effectively take our Washington success story and port it to other states. We’re looking for other states to sort of bring into the portfolio because we feel like we’re in a position now to stamp it out.

At our facility in Washington, which is the number one edibles manufacturer in that state, we produce the edible Marmas which is our the number one selling gummy in Washington. We produce 3,500 boxes of those in one shift using 25 people in Washington. Our facility is one of the lowest cost producers in the country.

We are opening what we think is going to be a very disruptive facility in Southern California right now. The facility is 170,000 square feet of purely automated finished goods production. So, rather than making 3,500 boxes of our gummy squares in one shift using 25 people, with the automation that we have in California, we can make 30,000 boxes. So, 10x one shift for the same number of people. We look more like the Mars Candy Company than most investors would think of when they see a typical cannabis company. We’re bringing that kind of scale and automation.

Green: What are some of the industry trends that you’re watching closely?

Thut: We keep a close eye on limited license states. States like Massachusetts and Illinois. For various reasons Massachusetts is very tough to get zoned. So, there’s going to be a limited number of players in a state like Massachusetts, which means you can have pretty good moats around your business and pricing will hold up over several years. We love limited license states like that, where price is going to hold up. On the other hand, we’re not afraid to enter a state like California where we think our low-cost production expertise uniquely qualifies us to go into a huge market like that and be disruptive and take a lot of the pie.

“You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry.”What we’re seeing in terms of industry trends, particularly on the THC side of this business, has just been phenomenally strong. You’ve had robust medical markets where, by and large, we’re seeing those dominoes start to fall quickly and going recreational. When that happens, the size of the market increases – call it from 2% of the population to as much as 10% of the population. So, from a state regulatory standpoint, having states go form medical to adult use is a huge deal in terms of the market opportunity.

We’re also seeing states get a lot more comfortable with the idea of selling cannabis. I’ve been around for close to seven years in this industry. When I started and I went into a municipality, and I said we wanted to open a cannabis store you’d have people following me to my car with pitchforks. As these municipalities open and public acceptance comes around, people are realizing that these stores are providing jobs and providing a good tax base for communities. So, the acceptance of cannabis has a snowballing effect that just continues to roll.

It’s not just the ultra-frequent users of cannabis who are totally driving the bus in terms of the demand growth for your business. You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry. So, the fundamentals of this industry are phenomenal. I think that we’re probably in the second inning of what is a mega-trend of legalization of cannabis and the investment opportunity here.

Green: I think one of the interesting things about the fundamentals is you’ve got this hardship of 280E, that all the companies are facing, and yet you still have groups that are surviving, profitable and growing. What are your thoughts on 280E’s effect on cannabis businesses? Do you foresee anything happening there?

Thut: There was a huge liquidity crunch in cannabis in 2019, meaning it was hard for people to come up with capital to grow their businesses. You had a bunch of companies that had licenses who didn’t really know how to operate and weren’t really focused on profitability. That liquidity crunch of 2019 made people get religious about being profitable and being efficient with capital allocation. Fast forward to 2021 and if you look at the top 10 cannabis MSOs in the US, I think we’re all profitable.

So, here you have an industry with accelerating top line growth and they’re already profitable. That profitability should only improve as you’re able to leverage your operating expenses and that’s a unique thing. When the internet craze was started in 1999 you had companies that a weren’t profitable, didn’t have business models, and no one really knew what they wanted to be. You have companies here in cannabis that are growing the top line 50% a year, and they’re profitable, and they’re trading at under 10 times EBITDA, which is totally disjointed.

Sen. Schumer unveiling the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act

So, that leads me to your question on to 280E. 280E has been a problem. Banking has been a problem. Having to list our companies over the counter instead of on exchanges like the NASDAQ and NYSE – that’s been a problem in terms of attracting capital. But the good news is Senator Schumer, Senator Booker and others have put out some bold initiatives on what they want to achieve from a legalization standpoint. From an investment standpoint, the biggest thing that investors should be focused on is access to banking, which is included in the senators’ proposed legislation.

Once we get access to banking services, the federal government is basically acknowledging cannabis as an industry will be able to not only have more traditional financing for our growth, but it will also lead to uplift into exchanges and real institutions like the Fidelity’s and the BlackRock’s of the world being able to come and invest in these companies. It also acknowledges 280E is an antiquated law. Getting rid of 280E will give us a much lower tax rate and will allow us to have a bigger proportion of our pretax cash flow into growing our businesses rather than having to go outside for that funding. My crystal ball is probably no better or worse than others in the industry, but if you fast forward 18 months to two years, I have a tough time seeing 280E still in place.

Green: Last question here. What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about in the cannabis industry?

Thut: I’m just fascinated to see how these various business models will play out. People are placing bets on picks and shovels. People are placing bets on whether being a finished goods manufacturer works. People are placing bets on whether a retailer business model is going to win the day.

If you look at the leadership in the cannabis industry today, it’s totally different than it was four years ago. People that were foregone winners four years ago like MedMen had to do significant recaps. I put Acreage in that sort of bucket too. The leadership had shifted and so I’m really curious to see just from an intellectual standpoint, how this business evolves.

I sometimes scratch my head, you know, do you really want to be a cannabis company with 200 retail locations? You’re going to have a tough time growing same store sales in three to five years in 200 retail locations. So, I’m just most curious in proving out our thesis of being finished goods producers and low cost finished goods producers in the value chain. I’m most curious in seeing how that plays out. I think we are seeing our strategy play out in the most competitive markets in the world. We have a high degree of conviction that we’re on the right track here, but our eyes are always open and we’re always making little pivots here and there trying to make sure to stay on top of the sweet spot in the value curve.

If you describe the cannabis industry generically and you didn’t say cannabis, you said “widget” I think it’s the most fascinating Business School case ever presented. If you’re taking this market that already exists, it’s just illegal. So, all it needs to do is switch from the black market to the legal market and then you’re always trying to plot a course and steer the ship towards where the highest value creation can be. So, I’m fascinated to see how it’s going play out here.

Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks Andrew!

Thut: Thanks Aaron.

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A Look at the Rise Of The East Coast Cannabis Market

By Serge Chistov
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The rise of the East Coast cannabis market gained another foothold in late March 2021 when New York became the most recent state to legalize adult use cannabis, joining ranks with other Atlantic stalwarts, including New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

In doing so, it opened the door to an industry that many experts agree could exceed $7 billion annually, once the market is fully established. That’s potential the cannabis market hasn’t seen since Washington became the first Pacific state to legalize adult use cannabis, almost 10 years ago (followed shortly after by Colorado, then Oregon in 2014 and California in 2016).

Unfortunately, the leaders of this great country have yet to follow suit, and cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. For those in the cannabis market, this means that state-licensed cannabis businesses must cultivate and sell their products within the confines of the state in which they are licensed. Nothing can cross state lines. Even if a business is licensed in both Vermont and New York, it can’t ship product from one state to the other without running afoul of federal legislation. Most in the East Coast cannabis market view this as a negative.

Virginia became the first state in the South to legalize adult use cannabis

While it certainly makes things more difficult, a small group of forward-thinking investors and entrepreneurs see this for what it really is: an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and establish state-specific grow operations and other supply-chain waypoints, where none or few currently exist. Think of the current state of the East Coast cannabis market as a beachhead. Right now, the industry is defined by state lines. But when the federal government finally legalizes adult use cannabis from coast to coast—and it’s only a matter of time before it does—those state lines will essentially disappear. When they do, the beachheads established now will become the infrastructure for the entire Eastern seaboard.

Take Virginia, for example. It shares its border with five states that have legalized medical cannabis but have yet to cross the bridge into adult use sales (West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina). A Virginia-based grow operation built now has the potential to serve not just those five states but other contiguous markets including Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Carolina, and even Alabama, Georgia and Indiana. A relatively small investment now could pay huge dividends in just a few years, when the market literally blows wide open.

It’s this incredible potential that makes the rise of the East Coast cannabis market one of the most important developments in the last five years. And while the potential scale of grow operations and other cannabis businesses is certainly essential to the conversation, let’s not forget that “niche products” within the East Coast cannabis market are still very much up for grabs.

If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that consumers are willing to pay a premium for high-quality, organically grown cannabis. Both new and long-time cannabis enthusiasts will choose — even demand — high-quality, organically grown cannabis that looks, smells and tastes fresh and doesn’t rely on harmful fertilizers, heavy metals or pesticides. They’re also enthusiastic about supporting brands that have a commitment to sustainable, eco-friendly operations.

The demand for high-quality, organically grown cannabis continues to increase

It’s very much like the current trends we see in the grocery store aisles. Manufacturers and consumers alike are seeing the value of “whole foods.” After decades of relying on heavily processed fare, both suppliers and end-users are benefiting from higher-quality ingredients. Consumers want to know what’s in the stuff they’re putting into their bodies. When it comes to cannabis, they want to know that what they’re taking to alleviate their anxiety doesn’t include harmful chemicals. This demand has the capacity to push revenue even higher.

And when the dam finally breaks and businesses can ship product from state to state, the idea is for growers to be well-positioned geographically to become suppliers of high-quality, organically grown cannabis, for every state east of the Mississippi.

Cannabis businesses in states such as Colorado have had the past decade to prepare for the coming boom, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to join the party. The rise of the East Coast market parallels what Colorado and the other Pacific states experienced in the early-to-mid teens—the potential to become a very real industry, with huge capacity for growth and profit. Get in on that action now!

The East Coast cannabis market—and, indeed, the entire U.S. market—also sits on the verge of another game-changing trend: following in the footsteps of other markets and realizing sooner rather than later that high-quality, organically grown, eco-friendly cannabis is the next stage of the game. Few investors and entrepreneurs see that right now, but the astute businessperson can capitalize on both trends now and position themselves and their businesses for huge returns in the very near future. The rise of the East Coast cannabis market makes that a very real possibility.

Cannabis Registry Reality Check: Privacy Must be Paramount

By Shadrach White
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The task of preserving privacy for any records platform, especially a cannabis registry, cannot simply be relegated to ones and zeros lurking in some forgotten codebase. This past year taught us many lessons, especially related to the trauma unleashed by vulnerabilities in government domains. We learned time and again that a registrant’s privacy must be the first order of business for the architects of registries.

But the first order of business isn’t the last order of business. That intention and effort to secure privacy must then be communicated and reinforced through real-world reality checks.

Lapses in data security and rising distrust for government institutions block the efficacy of well-intentioned and vital registries. Those states launching new registries in 2021 are at a precarious crossroads as public trust erodes.

As I write this, we’ve just learned illicit operators hacked a third-party service provider for the Washington State Auditor’s office. The attack compromised the personal data of 1.4 million users seeking unemployment benefits. Security hacks are a cautionary tale, whose impact is felt too often.

But many in the government sector are staring at a once-in-a-generation challenge to launch new registries – those related to cannabis – with privacy top-of-mind from the initial Request For Bid.“The question isn’t when these privacy-first registries will be implemented, it’s a question of whether they’ll be implemented proactively ahead of hacks or after the damage is done.”

Here’s how:

Table Stakes for New Cannabis Registries

These suggestions are just the beginning, and I see them as the minimum buy-in to begin the architecture of a new cannabis registry. They include:

  • End-to-end data encryption while in transit and within the system while the data is at rest.
  • A solution that is a cloud-native web application which is managed as a service for maximum uptime and strong security posture.
  • Registries should also leverage algorithms and machine learning to ensure accurate data entry by analyzing incorrect or duplicate data before it is saved within the system.

Beyond HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires privacy and security measures to protect Personal Health Information (PHI). Debate exists on whether compliance is a requirement for all entities transacting in the medicinal cannabis space. While some state registries are exempt from HIPAA, others choose to provide HIPAA compliance not just for the optics, but the known benefit to users’ privacy and confidence. New cannabis registries should commit to HIPAA-compliance to set a trusted new privacy standard for medical patient credentials and legal authorization for the use of cannabis for medical purposes.

That’s just the start. Registries should also ensure SOC2 Type II certification, which safeguards security, site availability, confidentiality and privacy through independent third-party auditors.

Connect with Confidence

Registries function as a hub of information in an often-confusing cannabis space. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control displays more than 25 links wired into its top navigation bar alone. Each link sends the curious to new resources. Registries must establish themselves as credible resources, especially when directing users to third-party sites.

One example is for cannabis registries to provide secure access to healthcare professionals who are verified by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). These healthcare professionals are licensed to distribute controlled substances including cannabis. Each third-party link should offer the same high-level of scrutiny to enshrine confidence and credibility in the registry.

Next-Generation ID Cards

A cannabis registry card should not just be a document, but a toolset that attests to the identity and the authority of the carrier represented. An illicit counterfeiting market seeks to exploit registry card vulnerabilities. Next generation ID cards present the best defense against counterfeiting and illegal use with robust security measures. That starts with assuring that any credential is mobile ID compatible with iOS Wallet and GooglePay for mobile identification.

ID cards should also include:

The automated modification of the document bearer’s photograph to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) standards. This critical modification makes the photograph easier to use for ID verification; it also facilitates the detection of photograph substitution.

A two-dimensional barcode compiles information contained in a one-dimensional barcode. It also delivers confirmation of other data shown on the card or in the system such as license authorization and limitations. Adding additional material to the physical document such as holograms, UV image, micro-printing or laser perforations offers another level of protection against illicit use or counterfeiting.

While cannabis registries are the beginning, they’re not the end. Driving efficacy for government registries needed for COVID19 track-and-tracing, cannabis plant track-and-tracing and vaccine distribution require the same attention to privacy, security and ultimate useability. A sea change is required – not just for the sake of those who use the registries but also for those who must implement, deploy and maintain those registries. The question isn’t when these privacy-first registries will be implemented, it’s a question of whether they’ll be implemented proactively ahead of hacks or after the damage is done. I believe the government sector leaders exploring new cannabis registries offer the wisdom and foresight to choose the proactive approach.

Updates in Employment Law: CA, WA & CO

By Conor Dale
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A number of laws have gone into effect in 2021 which may have a major impact on cannabis industry employers; clearly understanding the changing legal landscape is essential to avoid and limit potential liability in the new year and beyond. Below is a brief summary of some relevant new employment laws in cannabis friendly states:

California:

  • Expansion of family and medical leave: California has long required employers to provide job protected medical and family leave if an employee worked at a jobsite with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius.
  • Senate Bill 1383 now requires all employers with five or more employees to provide up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for employees to bond with a new child or to care for themselves or a family member suffering from a serious health condition. To be eligible for the leave, an employee must have at least 12 months of service with the employer and have performed at least 1,250 hours of work in the previous 12-month period. While on leave, employees are entitled to continue to participate in an employer’s health insurance plan and to return to their job or a comparable position at the conclusion of their job-protected leave. Previously exempt small employers should be aware of these obligations moving forward.
  • Employer Pay Reporting Requirements: Under Senate Bill 973, employers with 100 or more employees that are required to file an annual Employer Information Report, colloquially known as the EEO-1 report, must submit annual information on its employees’ pay data to the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). The report must include the number of the employer’s employees by race, ethnicity and sex in specific job categories and pay ranges and their associated work hours and earnings.
  • The first report is due on March 31, 2021, and the DFEH has prepared an online portal to assist employers in submitting this information. These reports can be complex and address highly sensitive information, so employers are strongly advised to contact counsel for assistance in preparing and submitting their first report.

Washington

  • Increased pay requirements: Washington’s inflation-based minimum wage system has increased the minimum wage to $13.69 per hour in 2021. Employers with 50 or fewer employees must also pay salaried employees at least $827 per week (or $43,004 per year) and employers with more than 50 employees must pay at least $965 per week (or $50,180 per year) starting January 1st.

Colorado

  • Equal Pay for Equal Work Act: Beginning in 2021, all employers with at least one employee must: (1) provide formal notice to Colorado employees of promotional opportunities; and (2) disclose pay rates or ranges in job postings that could be performed in Colorado (this includes virtual or remote work positions).
  • The Equal Pay for Equal Work Act generally requires employers to take reasonable efforts to promptly announce, post, or otherwise communicate all opportunities to all current employees prior to making a promotion decision. An employer must communicate promotional opportunities when it has or anticipates a vacancy or a new position that could be considered a promotion for current employees in light of pay, benefits, status, duties or further potential promotions.
  • Under the law, job postings must also include: (1) the rate of pay or pay range for the position; (2) a general description of bonuses, commissions or other forms of compensation offered with the job; and (3) a description of the employment benefits associated with the position.

Cannabis industry employers face a range of new laws, even absent the continued legal burden of managing employees during the COVID 19 pandemic. Employers should consider carefully reviewing all applicable laws and seeking guidance from counsel when needed.

Washington Lab Shut Down for Falsifying Test Results

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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WSLCBIn a press release sent out earlier this month, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) announced they have shut down Praxis Laboratory for falsifying test results. The WSLCB, the state regulatory agency overseeing Washington’s cannabis industry, said that Praxis inflated data for potency test results on more than 1200 samples, giving samples higher THC levels than the state actually found.

A google search revealed the laboratory has since shut down their website. A message appears when you go to their website: “This site is currently undergoing maintenance. Please check back later.”

Praxis Laboratory, located in Centralia, Washington, is also accused of interfering with the investigation. “During the investigation the lab owner attempted to destroy evidence of falsified data in an effort to obstruct LCB’s ability to conduct a complete investigation,” reads the press release. “Labeling cannabis with falsely high THC potency levels is a form of consumer deception and is prohibited under Washington law.”

The WSLCB has state authority to take actions like license suspensions when licensees operate illegally. The suspension lasts for six months, during which time the WSLCB will “seek permanent revocation” of the lab’s license to operate, due to fraud and obstruction during the investigation.

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How to Vote for Cannabis Research on November 3rd

By Dr. Jordan Zager
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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.

Five states have cannabis on the ballot for November 3rd

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.

Dr. Jordan Zager, author and CEO of Dewey Scientific

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.

A Survey of State CBD & Hemp Regulation Since The 2018 Farm Bill

By Brett Schuman, Jennifer Fisher, Brendan Radke, Gina Faldetta
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Since the December 20, 2018 enactment of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, better known as the Farm Bill, we have seen a number of new state laws addressing both the legality of hemp and products derived therefrom, most noticeably cannabidiol, better known as CBD. This piece provides a brief overview of some of the more interesting state laws concerning hemp and CBD, as well as recent developments.

Legality of Hemp

Since the passage of the Farm Bill, the vast majority of states have legalized the cultivation and sale of hemp and hemp products. However, certain states maintain laws barring some or even most forms of hemp.

The most stringent of those states is Idaho, where hemp remains illegal. In March 2020, Senate Bill 1345 – legislation that would have allowed for the production and processing of industrial hemp – died in the House State Affairs Committee, due to concerns that legalizing hemp would be the first step toward legalizing “marijuana”; that the bill contained too much regulation and that it was otherwise unworkable. As a result, Idaho is currently the only state without a legal hemp industry. Hemp with any THC, even at or below the 0.3 percent threshold under the Farm Bill, is considered equivalent to “marijuana” in Idaho and is illegal (see below for a discussion of CBD in Idaho).

Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, and Texas have enacted bans on smokable hemp. Indiana law prohibits hemp products “in a form that allows THC to be introduced into the human body by inhalation of smoke.” Iowa has amended its Hemp Act to ban products introduced to the body “by any method of inhalation.” Louisiana prohibits “any part of hemp for inhalation” except hemp rolling papers, and Texas law prohibits “consumable hemp products for smoking.”

Some of these bans have been challenged in court. In Indiana, a group of hemp sellers requested an injunction against the smokable hemp ban in federal court, on the grounds that the federal Farm Bill likely preempted the Indiana law. In September of 2019, the district court issued the requested injunction, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit overturned that decision in July 2020, stating that the order “swept too broadly.” The Seventh Circuit noted that the 2018 Farm Bill “expressly provides that the states retain the authority to regulate the production of hemp” and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Similarly, in Texas, hemp producers have sued in state court over the smokable hemp ban, questioning its constitutionality and arguing that it would result in a loss of jobs and tax revenue for the state. According to those producers, smokable hemp comprises up to 50 percent of revenue from hemp products. On September 17, 2020, Travis County Judge Lora Livingston issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the law until trial, which currently is set to commence on February 1, 2021. Judge Livingston had previously issued a temporary restraining order to that same effect.

State Laws Regulating CBD

State laws and regulation on hemp-derived CBD are varied, and the legality of a CBD product often comes down to its form and marketing.

FDAlogoAs an initial matter, it must be noted that notwithstanding the Farm Bill the FDA currently prohibits hemp-derived CBD from being be sold as dietary supplements, and food (including animal food or feed) to which CBD has been added cannot be introduced into interstate commerce. As discussed below, a substantial minority of states, including California, follow the FDA’s current position on the permissibility of putting hemp-derived CBD in food or dietary supplements.

Certain states include strict limitations on CBD, none more so than (once again) Idaho. Lacking any legal hemp industry, Idaho restricts CBD products to those having no THC whatsoever, rejecting the generally accepted threshold of not more than 0.3 percent THC. Idaho law also requires that hemp CBD be derived only from “(a) mature stalks of the plant, (b) fiber produced from the stalks, (c) oil or cake made from the seeds or the achene of such plant, (d) any other compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the mature stalks, or (e) the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination.”

Kansas similarly prohibits CBD with any amount of THC, though the law is murkier than Idaho’s. While Senate Bill 282 allowed possession and retail sale of CBD effective May 24, 2018 by removing CBD oil from the definition of “marijuana,” this was broadly interpreted to apply to THC-free CBD only. Later legislation, Senate Substitute for HC 2167, effective July 2019, allowed the farming of hemp with THC levels aligned with the Farm Bill definition (i.e., 0.3 percent THC or lower), but expressly prohibited the use of industrial hemp in: cigars, cigarettes, chew, dip, or other smokeless forms of consumption; teas; liquids for use in vaporizing devices; or “[a] ny other hemp product intended for human or animal consumption containing any ingredient derived from industrial hemp that is prohibited pursuant to the Kansas Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act or the Kansas Commercial Feeding Stuffs Act,” though this final section provides that “[t] his does not otherwise prohibit the use of any such ingredient, including cannabidiol oil, in hemp products,” the law’s only reference to CBD. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation has reportedly made statements indicating that CBD with any level of THC remains illegal.

Just some of the many hemp-derived CBD products on the market today.

Mississippi only recently legalized the cultivation of hemp via Senate Bill 2725, the Mississippi Help Cultivation Act, which was signed into law on June 29, 2020. House Bill 1547, passed on April 16, 2019, imposed content requirements upon CBD products within Mississippi: to be legal in Mississippi, a CBD product must contain “a minimum ratio of twenty-to-one cannabidiol to tetrahydrocannabinol (20:1 cannabidiol:tetrahydrocannabinol), and diluted so as to contain at least fifty (50) milligrams of cannabidiol per milliliter, with not more than two and one-half (2.5) milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol per milliliter.” Moreover, CBD products produced in Mississippi must be tested at the University of Mississippi’s lab. However, subject to these restrictions, Mississippi allows the sale of CBD products, including edibles, contrary to the restrictions of many of states considered friendlier to hemp.

Perhaps more surprising is Hawaii, which restricts the sale and distribution of CBD, aligning with the FDA’s guidance. In Hawaii it is illegal to add CBD to food, beverages, as well as to sell it as a dietary supplement or market it by asserting health claims. It is also illegal to add CBD to cosmetics, an uncommon restriction across the many states with CBD-specific laws and regulations. Unlike Idaho and Mississippi, which have no medical marijuana programs, Hawaii has long legalized marijuana for medical purposes and in January 2020 decriminalized recreational possession. Hawaii very recently enacted legislation allowing the production and sale of cannabis-infused consumable and topical products by medical cannabis licensees effective January 1, 2021, but this legislation did not address CBD. Given the foregoing, Hawaii’s restrictions on CBD stand out.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

Beyond broad CBD restrictions, many more states prohibit the use of CBD within food, beverages, or as dietary supplements. For instance, twenty states – including California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Washington – prohibit the sale of CBD in food or beverage. In California, a bill to overhaul California’s hemp laws, Assembly Bill 2028, failed when the legislative session concluded on August 31, 2020 without a vote. AB 2028 would have allowed CBD in food, beverages, and dietary supplements (though, interestingly, it would have banned smokable hemp). As a result, California remains a relatively restrictive state when it comes to hemp-derived CBD, notwithstanding the legality of recreational marijuana.

New York allows the manufacture and sale of CBD, but requires CBD products to be labeled as “dietary supplements.” This mandate conflicts directly with the FDA’s position that CBD products are excluded from the definition of a dietary supplement. Further, despite the state’s categorization of CBD products as dietary supplements, New York prohibits the addition of CBD to food and beverages. These regulations have resulted in a confusing landscape for retailers and manufacturers in the Empire State.

Several states also have labeling requirements specific to CBD products. Batch numbers and ingredients are ubiquitous, but an increasingly common requirement is the inclusion of a scannable code that links to specific information about the product. States imposing this requirement include Florida, Indiana, Texas, and Utah. Indiana is viewed as having one of the more comprehensive labeling requirements for CBD products – or, depending upon your perspective, the most onerous.

Do Varying Cannabis Laws Adequately Serve Patients, Businesses or Government?

By Jason Warnock
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Cannabis laws are changing at a rapid pace across all 50 states and around the world. Currently, Cannabis is legal in 11 states for adults over the age of 21, and legal for medical use in 33 states.

Across the nation, many states have been struggling to enact a viable medical and potential adult use cannabis system since Initiative 59 and the “Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 1998.”

Unfortunately, the program has been continuously impacted by the federal government’s presence, first with the passage of the Barr Amendment by Congress overturning the early legalization progress and continuing to delay the onset of the first medical sale at a dispensary until 2013. The federal government continues to exert influence and control over the program expansion including adding Congressional riders on every proposed update including the latest “Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2019.”

In Washington DC for example, 18 organizations including the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the ACLU and Law Enforcement Action Partnership petitioned the US House and Senate Financial Services Subcommittees to remove the rider given that “[the] Current law has interfered with the District’s efforts to regulate marijuana, which has impacted public safety. Without the ability to regulate marijuana sales, the grey market for marijuana flourishes despite the need and want of the District leadership and residents alike to establish a regulatory model.”

States with limited availability of medical cannabis, possession laws or with the ability to legally gift up to one ounce and the constant pressure by the federal government, the grey market has expanded with public safety and the safety of these pop-up businesses put at risk. The current state health and safety laws require a seed-to-sale tracking system and testing at independent labs for all medical cannabis, however the grey market consumers are afforded no such protection. The District of Columbia is unique in the US cannabis landscape as it grapples with the local government trying to provide clarity, safety and equity to a medical and adult use community, but it is hampered by what it can and cannot control through federal influence.

As the United States continues to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, control and use of tax revenue will move to center stage in all these communities and the cannabis tax revenue will return to focus.

Cannabis tax revenue has shown a massive disparity between projection and reality. In 2018, California projected upwards of one billion dollars in cannabis tax revenue, but in reality was only able to recover a third of that amount. California in response continues to increase the excise tax and even proposed changes to taxes dependent on the amount of THC, creating new pressure on producers, in-part pushing some back into the grey market.

During the pandemic, Colorado enacted emergency rules to extend cannabis sales online. Allowing customers to pay for cannabis via the web and then pick up their purchases at the store. In a testament to what is considered a “critical businesses” the cannabis industry is given opportunity to expand during the pandemic, but still hampered by severely limited access to standard e-commerce options as credit card merchants still remain concerned that cannabis sales are illegal under US federal law. Alaska, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois and Oregon also allowed online sales and curbside pick-up, but remain limited in sales as federal banking and access to credit is limited as the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act remains in limbo.

Overarching technologies such as DNA tracking that provide a clear indicator that the cannabis is produced and tested from legal sources, can be proven safe and protects local legal businesses’ products against out of market cannabis would provide such clarity.

As the country moves forward from the COVID-19 health crisis, all legal and safe ways to rapidly restart the economy will be needed, the cannabis economy will be no exception. We should be looking to this emerging market right now to help safely drive revenue and taxes into our states.

WSLCB

Washington Suspends License for Shipping Out of State

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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WSLCB

On October 7, 2020, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) issued an emergency suspension for El Rey De La Kush, based in Riverside, Washington, for allegedly distributing cannabis products across state lines. This information was found in an email sent out by the WSLCB late Wednesday night on October 7. El Rey De La Kush does not have a website, but it looks like they own this Facebook page.

This picture taken from their Facebook page, appears to show an El Rey De La Kush-branded package of cannabis

Back in September, the Wenatchee Police Department told the WSLCB that they were investigating 4.3 pounds of cannabis they found shipped from a residence in Wenatchee via UPS. When they served a search warrant, they found roughly 620 pounds of cannabis with traceability tags leading them back to El Rey De La Kush.

The suspect in the case is Brandi Clardy, who is affiliated with the company in question and listed on their license. The original licensee, Juan Penaloza, passed away in July this year and Clardy had been the chief operator following Penaloza’s death.

In an interview with the police, the WSLCB says that Clardy admitted to the crime of removing cannabis from the premises with the intent to distribute across state lines.

The WSLCB says cannabis products were actively being diverted to Texas, where adult use cannabis sales is still very illegal.

The license remains suspended for 180 days, after which point the WSLCB will “pursue permanent revocation.” This marks the first and only emergency suspension issued in 2020.

Biros' Blog

Judge Dismisses Claims in Vaping Illness Lawsuit

By Aaron G. Biros
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In September of 2019, Charles Wilcoxen fell seriously ill after vaping cannabis oil from a cartridge. Just days after he began experiencing symptoms he was hospitalized and later diagnosed with lipoid pneumonia, the mysterious lung illness now known as EVALI associated with the 2019 vape crisis.

Wilcoxen spent three days in the hospital and ever since he was diagnosed, he has been unable to exercise, return to work full time or even play with his daughter. Attorneys for Herrmann Law Group representing Wilcoxen filed a product liability lawsuit, Wilcoxen v. Canna Brand Solutions, LLC, et al., in Washington State Court, naming six cannabis companies as defendants: Canna Brand Solutions, Conscious Cannabis, Rainbow’s Aloft, Leafwerx, MFused and Janes Garden.

This image came from the complaint filed, alleging that Mr. Wilcoxen believes this was a CCELL product.

This case was allegedly the first lawsuit in the wake of the 2019 vape crisis. The Vanderbilt University Law School Blog has a very comprehensive post on this case that has the original complaint and a lot of information on the lawsuit.

Canna Brand Solutions, the primary defendant named in the complaint, is a packaging supplier and distributor for CCELL vaping products (heating elements, pens and batteries) in the state of Washington. The complaint alleges that Wilcoxen believes he used a CCELL vape. CCELL is a Chinese company, which makes it notoriously difficult to pursue legal action against them, hence why Canna Brand Solutions was listed as a defendant instead.

On August 31, 2020, Judge Michael Schwartz dismissed all claims against Canna Brand Solutions. “All claims asserted by Plaintiff against Canna Brand in the above-mentioned matter shall be voluntarily dismissed without prejudice and without costs or fees to any of the parties to this litigation,” Judge Schwartz says in the dismissal. Judge Schwartz dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning it could be brought to the court again should the plaintiff’s attorneys decide to do so.

With the allegations against Canna Brand Solutions focusing on CCELL products, it seems that the case was dismissed largely due to a lack of evidence connecting exactly which product resulted in the illness, as well as the lack of culpability for a distributor of products they did not manufacture.

These are the vape cartridges that Mr. Wilcoxen purchased

Daniel Allen, founder and president of Canna Brands Solutions, claims that the product mentioned in the complaint did not come from his company. “We stand by our high quality and customizable CCELL vaporization products,” says Allen. “We feel vindicated in this case by the judge’s decision, which shows the claims against our company and products were completely unfounded from the beginning.”

He also added that the quality and safety of the products they distribute is their highest priority. “The product in question involved in this case did not come from Canna Brand Solutions,” says Allen.

Wilcoxen’s illness and subsequent long-term lung injury is extremely unfortunate. Thousands of people have been hospitalized and 68 deaths have been confirmed by the CDC. The CDC is still calling the illness EVALI (e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury). According to the CDC, there is no real known cause of EVALI, but they have found that vitamin E acetate is “strongly linked” to the outbreak. Knowing that, it is entirely possible that Mr. Wilcoxen’s illness was a result of one of the cannabis products he consumed, just most likely not anything that came from Canna Brand Solutions. A closer look at the contents with an independent lab test of the THC oil he consumed could shed some more light on what exactly caused the illness.

I would venture to guess that one of the products he consumed did have vitamin E acetate. Because the case was dismissed without prejudice, it could be brought to the court again if, say, Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys were to obtain more evidence, such as an independent lab report showing vitamin E acetate in the contents of one of the products he consumed. If Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys can figure out which product actually contained vitamin E acetate, perhaps the lawsuit could get a second shot and Mr. Wilcoxen could have a greater chance at getting some long-overdue and much-deserved restitution.