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Cannabis M&A: Practice Pointers and Pitfalls When Buying or Selling a Cannabis Business

By Soren Lindstrom
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The Stage is Set

According to the Marijuana Policy Group, the U.S. cannabis industry is expected to reach more than $13 billion in sales by 2020 and create more jobs than the U.S. manufacturing industry. According to Viridian Capital’s Cannabis Deal Tracker, there were close to 100 M&A transactions in the U.S. cannabis industry in 2016 and approximately $1.2 billion was raised in equity and debt. As the cannabis industry has grown more mature and businesses begin to have more capital available, the M&A activity within the industry is poised to grow significantly over the next years to assist businesses gain necessary scale and take advantage of synergies and diversification.

The Obvious Wrinkle

U.S federal law has prohibited the manufacture and distribution of cannabis since 1935. The U.S. regulates drugs through the Controlled Substances Act, which classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug (i.e., drugs determined to have a high potential for abuse with no currently accepted medical use and a lack of accepted safety regarding their use). Yet, more than 25 states have by now legalized cannabis for medical and/or recreational purposes and, as a result, there is a clear conflict between such state laws and existing federal law. To possibly help bridge that conflict, the U.S. Attorney General’s office in 2013 issued guidance directing the federal government not to intervene with state cannabis laws except in specific, limited circumstances, but, contrarily, the DEA has shown no desire to re-classify cannabis. To add to the confusion, President Trump and the new U.S. Attorney General have provided mixed statements and signals about their positions.

All of this means that it continues to be risky to acquire cannabis businesses. The requirements to legally grow, distribute, prescribe, and use cannabis for either medical or recreational purposes vary widely by country, state, and local jurisdiction, making it tricky to determine whether such businesses can be legally combined, in particular, across state lines.

Pick the Right Team of Advisors

When preparing to sell or buy a cannabis business, it is important to pick the right team of advisors. Your regular legal counsel, accounting firm or CPA may not be the right advisors for a cannabis M&A transaction. Choose a legal counsel that not only has experience with cannabis laws and regulations, but also has cannabis M&A experience and can offer expert advice on areas like IP, employment, tax matters, etc. Similarly, verify that your accounting firm or CPA has real experience with financial and quality of earnings analysis and due diligence.

Conduct Gating Due Diligence Up Front

In any contemplated M&A transaction, it is wise to prioritize your due diligence investigations. There will always be some more prominent risks and business objectives in a particular industry or with respect to a specific target business. It will be more cost and time effective if those specific risks and business objectives are prioritized early in the due diligence process. These can dictate whether you even want to pursue the target further before you dig into a deeper and broader due diligence investigation. Conducting gating due diligence up front is even more important in an industry like cannabis that contain complex and thorny regulatory hurdles.

So, before you spend money and time on a broader legal, business and financial due diligence investigation, have your legal counsel analyze and confirm that the potential transaction is feasible from a regulatory perspective. This will include whether it is possible to obtain or transfer necessary local and/or state licenses and whether a combination or sale can occur across state lines if necessary. Early on in the process, It is also advisable to request that the target business complete a legal compliance questionnaire or discuss with the target its regulatory compliance program, policies and training. Such up front due diligence will either clear a path to negotiations and broader confirmatory due diligence or flush out “red flags” that may kill a possible deal or require the buyer to investigate further before proceeding.

Important Terms and Pitfalls in the M&A Agreement

Generally, a sale or purchase agreement for a cannabis business does not appear to vary much from a similar agreement in any other industry. However, the complex environment and the premature nature of the industry impacts certain deal terms and processes in different ways from most other developed industries.

Here are few examples to keep in mind when preparing and negotiating a sale or purchase agreement:

  • Third Party and Governmental Consents: Buyer’s legal due diligence must focus on the consents that may be required from seller’s suppliers, customers, landlords, licensors or other third parties under relevant contracts. Additionally, the due diligence should focus on consents and approvals required by local and state regulators as a result of the sale. The M&A agreement should contain solid seller representations and warranties about all such consents and approvals and any such material consents and approvals should, from a buyer’s perspective, be a condition precedent to closing of the transaction.
  • Legal Compliance: A buyer should not agree to a boilerplate seller representation about the target’s compliance with laws. Be specific and tailor seller’s legal compliance representation to relevant state and local cannabis laws, regulations and ordinances. From a seller perspective, be careful and thoughtful about any appropriate exceptions (including the federal prohibition) to be disclosed to buyer in the disclosure schedules underlying the sale or purchase agreement.
  • Financial statements: The cannabis industry is very fragmented and consists of many small businesses. Many of these small businesses do not have financial statements prepared in accordance with GAAP and may consist of only management prepared financials. In that scenario, a buyer should have its financial advisor do an analysis of the financials available and ask seller to provide a representation and warranty about the accuracy and good faith preparation of the provided financials.
  • Escrow: Typically, a buyer will request some part of the purchase price be placed with an independent financial institution for a period of time post-closing as a source of recovery for losses as a result of breaches by seller of any of the representations and warranties in the definitive sale or purchase agreement. Due to the federal cannabis and banking regulations, many of the larger commercial banks will not provide financial services to cannabis businesses, in particular if the business touches the plant. The parties must therefore consider alternatives, including local financial institutions with more relaxed compliance requirements or perhaps place the escrow in a trust account of a law firm or other independent party.
  • Working Capital Dispute Procedures: Similar to the escrow, larger accounting firms generally do not provide services to cannabis businesses. Due to the rapid evolution of cannabis related regulations, if the terms of the transaction include provisions for a post-closing working capital/purchase price adjustment and related dispute procedures, it is advisable to not name an arbiter in the agreement. Instead, parties should agree to mutually select the arbiter if and when a dispute should arise.
  • Indemnification: Because of the tricky legal environment of the cannabis industry, it may be prudent for a buyer to request, at the very least, that certain parts of seller’s legal compliance representation and warranty not be subject to the “regular” caps, deductibles and other indemnification limitations. Also, if a buyer has unearthed a significant issue in its due diligence investigation, it should consider asking seller for a special indemnity for such issue that would be indemnifiable regardless of buyer’s knowledge of the issue and not be subject to the general indemnification limitations.
  • R&W Insurance: If there’s a lot of competition for the purchase of a target, particularly in a bidding process, it is now common for buyer to offer to purchase a representation and warranty insurance policy (“R&W Insurance”) to possibly gain an advantage by limiting the seller’s post-closing indemnification exposure. The good news is that many of the R&W Insurance carriers do offer such insurance in connection with the sale and purchase of cannabis businesses. However, typically, R&W Insurance cannot be obtained for insured amounts of less than $5 million. Experienced M&A counsel can advise of the advantages and disadvantages of R&W Insurance and assist in the negotiation of the related terms.

The above are just some examples of what to expect in a cannabis M&A transaction. Every M&A transaction will have its unique issues that will need to be appropriately reflected in the sale or purchase agreements and good M&A practices will continue to evolve with the industry. If you are an owner of a successful cannabis business, buckle your seat belt and be prepared for an exciting ride as the industry gets closer to significant consolidation.

Human Resources and the Cannabis Workforce

By Aaron G. Biros
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Cannabis businesses encounter a variety of problems when hiring and managing employees. Some of those are issues that every business runs into and some of them are quite specific to the cannabis industry. Chris Cassese, co-founder and managing director of Faces Human Capital Management, has some solutions for cannabis businesses facing seemingly daunting workforce management issues.

Cassese co-founded Faces HCM with Caela Bintner after two decades of working in the human resources and sales strategy across a variety of financial institutions. He oversees software platform development, daily operations, sales, and business development for their organization. Before co-founding the company, Cassese held a variety of operational and product development roles during his ten-year tenure at Merrill Lynch, worked in marketing at HSBC and was a sales and performance advisor at Insperity, a professional employment organization. Faces HCM is a professional employment organization that handles workforce compliance, education, and other HR needs for cannabis companies. They work with companies like Dixie Elixirs, LivWell and Women Grow, among other cannabis businesses.

Chris Cassese, co-founder and managing director of Faces Human Capital Management

According to Cassese, the cannabis industry faces a roughly 60% turnover rate, which is on par with the turnover rates in retail and call centers. Those are industries that typically have high turnover rates simply because the nature of the business. However, Cassese says it doesn’t have to be so high for the cannabis industry. “It is easy to say it is just high turnover by nature, but we found there are some steps that we can put in place that seem relatively easy, but are key tenants of Fortune 500 companies’ hiring strategies,” says Cassese. “Engaging in a needs-based analysis with companies will help us figure out exactly what’s going on.” They start by looking at the onboarding process, or what happens immediately after an employee is hired. “We start by looking at their pay rate, employee handbook and the paid time off policy, which are some of the points that a lot of the owners are familiar with coming from other high-end industries outside of cannabis.” He says things like swag bags, free ski passes after reaching quotas and other perks can keep employees engaged on the team. “Things like that go a long way and can reduce turnover by up to 20 or 30 percent,” says Cassese. “Sometimes [business owners] are so stressed with regulatory compliance that they don’t have time to tackle these issues so employee dissatisfaction often starts with onboarding procedures.” That can include anything from analyzing the overall compensation structure to making a video displaying the company’s vision, mission and values. “There is no panacea for reducing turnover. It requires conducting a needs-based assessment, taking pieces of what we know works well in other companies and bringing that to the cannabis industry.” Making an employee feel like they are part of the team can help boost retention and keep turnover low.

One area they often help companies with is performance reviews. “Performance reviews are a big part of any business,” says Cassese. “You can’t make progress if you don’t know where you’re going. If you don’t know how you’re doing you can’t get better.” Looking at the supervisor level, they have often found employees have never given a performance review before. “We implement processes to teach them how to deliver positive or negative performance reviews and help make them feel comfortable delivering that,” says Cassese. They might have employees perform a DISC analysis (dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness), a personality test akin to the Meyers-Briggs test. “From this we can help figure out the stressors and motivators of people and create effective teams,” says Cassese. “If an employee might be more outgoing or humble, high-spirited, results-oriented, analytical or good working on teams.” These are approaches to workforce management that have been adopted from Fortune 500 companies.

Caela Bintner, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Faces Human Capital Management

Cassese says one of the most overlooked items for companies are proper I-9 verification forms. This goes back to basic record keeping and documentation, but if overlooked, companies can get hefty fines for improper record keeping. “You are supposed to have a separate binder, in a separate locked drawer where your I-9 forms are housed, but a lot of people don’t know about that, which could come back to bite them in the form of large fines” says Cassese. “Businesses can’t afford to have sloppy record keeping. We help businesses take a look at their process and how they put their files in the cloud or physical locations, which is an area where companies often need guidance.” Civil fines can reach up to $20,000 for mistakes on I-9 forms.

Employee education is another crucial aspect of managing the workforce. Faces HCM has a learning management system that gives companies the ability to push education to their employees. Education is of course a broad term and can cover a wide variety of needs for employees. “We can help them take leadership, teamwork, excel, OSHA, safety classes and more,” says Cassese. “Training that shows you active listening, empathy skills and other types of training can really help budtenders deal with customers appropriately.” They have developed customized training programs for cannabis companies expanding beyond their own state too. “As you find certain cannabis companies growing in different states they want to create a repeatable, consistent and predictable experience,” says Cassese. “Putting those standard operating procedures online is important to streamline the process and ensures that you are creating a learning or education plan to meet your employees’ needs.” That can look like requiring employees to take an online course once every quarter, or offering them books on subjects pertaining to their specific job function.

Little things like improving the employee experience, implementing an education program and keeping up with employee records can make or break a business. They all add up to solid workforce management, which if done correctly, can enhance a business’ bottom line and keep employees working for you.

Soapbox

When the Company’s Revenue Drops, Who’s to Blame?

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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The ultimate goal of any business is to produce and generate revenue. Now, when the company’s revenues drop, who’s fault is it? This question, though silent, is in the minds of everyone in an organization, especially when things start to become difficult.

Working as a consultant in productivity with different industries around the world, I have come to realize that question is not openly discussed, but everyone wants to know the answer. To answer it, we will explore the most common areas of opportunity related to this problem.

When we talk about productivity, we are talking about final tangible results, because of the production process and the effort made by each one; when speaking of income, we are talking about the difference between the purchase price and the cost of entering the market. Seeing these definitions, we might conclude that the increase in income is directly related to the increase in productivity.

On the other hand, we must not lose perspective that the increase in productivity is also directly related to the decrease of losses.

First, we have to put into perspective the goals and objectives that a business or organization may have. Many companies go on believing that everyone is clear about the goals and organizational objectives and what is expected in each one of those roles that compose the organization. The reality is that, if we do not know where we are going, the chances of reaching the goal decrease.

When organization’s objectives are properly communicated, and documented, in such a way that the evaluation of the performance is directly linked to the expected results, the chances of success increase substantially.

On many occasions, I have heard phrases such as: “we work hard, we spend many hours, all sacrifice ourselves… we should be more successful”. The question then is: what are we encouraging, efforts or results?

It is hard for organizations to translate or differentiate between organizational goals and individual objectives (expected results) for each of those roles in the company. We all agree that we want to be the first in sales, the best in service and produce the highest quality, but how is that done?

To be the first in sales, what do I have to do as a seller? Get three customers in a three-month period? As secretary, process the orders in the first three days of receiving them? As a carrier, suggest three ideas be more useful in daily deliveries? How does that translate into individual performance?

We focus too much on telling people what they must do, but we forget to be clear on what we expect them to achieve. Hence, the effort versus result dissonance. The success of an organization is the collective behavior that arises from the conduct of individuals. If we align people, we align the organization.

Other elements that we must ponder, and that are directly related to productivity, are: how much of what we do holds value? How much of what we do does not have value? Moreover, how much of what we do, though it has great value, shall be performed by the requirements of law or regulation?

An analysis of productivity is critical, particularly in a time when we want to do more with less. Lately, an area of great success for many organizations is to streamline processes to make them more simple, efficient and with less risk of error. Human errors generated many losses. Defects, the re-process, the handling of complaints and lawsuits are costing companies money equivalent to the salary of 7,200 employees every day (according to statistics in the United States).

Human errors can be avoided. The idea that to err is human has led us to ignore this problem. We think that we can do nothing and lose an infinite number of opportunities for improvement that can help us to increase our income, reducing losses.

Only 16% of organizations measure the cost of human error. The remaining 84% do not measure it and are paying a high price without knowing it. In Puerto Rico, there are no statistics that could shed light on how many local companies lose because of human error, but it is very likely that the numbers are alarming. Human error can be reduced by 60% in less than a year when an intervention is done on systems. Approximately 95% of human errors are due to the design of the company’s systems, and they can be the simplest errors even in the most complex processes.

Today, we have more information, and we know that errors are symptoms of deeper problems in the processes created by the organizations. People play a crucial role regarding how robust methods are, but, we must not lose perspective that human beings operate according to the policies, procedures, and instructions which the same organization designs. Then, if people work according to the designs of the organization, is it not easier to modify designs than eliminating people?

So, who’s fault? Organizations are responsible for providing clear guidance to individuals in the right direction, and individuals have the responsibility of translating their efforts into results. Both have to work with the same objective in mind, and both employers and employees should communicate openly about these objectives. Only by working in partnership will achieve success. Forget who is to blame and focus on the processes and goals that help us be successful.

Soapbox

Quality Controls and Medical Cannabis: What We Can Learn from Pharma

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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When we discuss growing and producing medical cannabis, we must think of it as a medicine. By definition, it is a substance intended to assist you with a medical condition, to help you feel better and not harm you. Drugs produced in the pharmaceutical industry go through extensive quality controls to ensure a level of safety for the consumer or patient. Yet when we talk process and quality controls in medical cannabis production, there is still a lot to learn.

Are we waiting for the wake-up call? Well, ring! Recently Health Canada, the regulatory body overseeing Canada’s medical cannabis market, decided that “It will begin random testing of medical marijuana products to check for the presence of banned pesticides after product recalls affecting nearly 25,000 customers led to reports of illnesses and the possibility of a class action lawsuit.”

Proper quality controls help protect businesses from unforeseen issues like those massive recalls in Canada. These can assure that the product is safe (won’t harm you), has integrity (free of contamination), and that the product is what it says it is (identity). To achieve this important goal, we must have robust systems that will guarantee product quality. Why is this important? Quality controls can ensure a safer and more consistent product, helping build patient and consumer trust and brand loyalty, preventing a public relations nightmare like a recall due to pesticide contamination.

Food processing and sanitation
Product recalls due to manufacturing errors in sanitation cause mistrust among consumers.

The FDA, among other regulatory bodies, has established excellent guidelines to implement these controls. So there is a lot we can learn from the pharmaceutical industry and that FDA guidance regarding quality controls and assurance. After all, we are all interested in the same thing: a safe and effective product.

So, let’s take a look at some of the controls included in the CFR (Code of Federal Regulation), Part 211 , which include Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for finished products, and how you can implement them in the growing business of growing cannabis.

  1. Personnel selection and training: The GMPs establish that “Each person engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall have education, training… to enable that person to perform the assigned functions.” These include the creation of specific curricula per position and the establishment of requirements for specialized tasks. We all want to be successful so training, in this case, is what we call the vaccine for mistakes.
  2. Facilities: “Any building or buildings used in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall be of suitable size, construction, and location to facilitate cleaning, maintenance, and proper operations.” This requirement includes segregation of spaces to avoid cross-contamination, housekeeping, the cleaning process and detergent types, material storage conditions, humidity levels, temperature, water, and even ventilation requirements to prevent contamination with microorganisms. All with the intention of protecting the product.
  3. Pest control: “There shall be written procedures for the use of suitable rodenticides, insecticides, fungicides, fumigating agents, and cleaning and sanitizing agents. Such written procedures shall be designed to prevent the contamination of equipment, components, drug product containers, closures, packaging, labeling materials, or drug products and shall be followed.” There have been many issues pertaining this requirement. In 2010, Johnson & Johnson received many complaints claiming that the product had a musty, moldy odor. Later, the firm identified the cause of the odor to be a chemical, called 2, 4, 6-Tribromoanisole or TBA; a pesticide used to treat wooden pallets. One of the specific requirements of this section is to avoid the use of wooden pallets, but if you decide to use them, the method of sterilization by heat treatment seems like the only safe option for sterilizing wooden pallets and wood cases.
  4. Equipment/Instrumentation: “Equipment used in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall be of appropriate design, adequate size, and suitably located to facilitate operations for its intended use and its cleaning and maintenance.” The intention is to not alter the safety, identity, strength, quality, or purity of the drug product beyond the official or other established requirements. What would happen if lubricants/coolants or any other substance, not intended to be part of the product, comes in contact with the product?
  5. Procedures and documentation: “There shall be written procedures for production and process control designed to assure that the drug products have the identity, strength, quality, and purity they purport or are represented to possess. Such procedures shall include all requirements of this subpart. These written procedures, including any changes, shall be drafted, reviewed, and approved. When we have followable, well written, clear, and specific procedures, we avoid possible errors that can get us in trouble.
  6. Defects Investigation: “Written production and process control procedures shall be followed in the execution of the various production and process control functions and shall be documented at the time of performance. Any deviation from the written procedures shall be recorded and justified.” We want to be successful, for that we need to learn from failures, understanding the root causes, correcting and preventing re-occurrence is what will keep you competitive. As you can see this requirement is essential for, quality, business and to evidence that such deviations did not adulterate the product.
  7. Process controls: Besides written procedures and deviations management, operation controls are pivotal in guaranteeing the quality as well as complete documentation of your process. These controls will vary depending on your technology and your product. If you do alcohol (ethanol) extraction, for example,  you want to keep an eye on the temperature, dissolution time, and even have color standards to be able to quickly and correctly identify possible abnormalities, while you can still correct the mistake. In-process product testing will allow you to monitor “performance of those manufacturing processes that may be responsible for causing variability in the characteristics of in-process material and the final product.”

Regardless of federal regulatory guidance, quality controls can be that one factor which can make or break your business. Why re-invent the wheel?

Going Beyond POS: Innovations in Dispensary Software

By Aaron G. Biros
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In a highly competitive market, dispensaries use wide product selections, competitive prices, rewards and loyalty programs to stay relevant and attract new customers. Many of those tools used to make the retail space more efficient require analytics to stay on top of their performance metrics.

At their SE 7th Ave location in Portland, Oregon, Cannabliss & Co. uses Baker software to better connect with their customers and track sales. According to Kevin Mahoney, manager of that dispensary, they use Baker’s software for things like their online menu, online ordering, text alerts and a rewards program.

Cannabliss & Co. SE 7th Ave location
Cannabliss & Co. SE 7th Ave location

Located in an historic firehouse built in 1913, Cannabliss & Co. was Oregon’s very first medical cannabis dispensary. Now that they offer both recreational and medical cannabis, their product inventory has expanded, their sales have grown and they have a wider customer base.

IMG_7545After using Baker’s software platform for almost a year now, Mahoney says he has seen great ROI on text alerts and the analytics. The online ordering and menu features have not only highlighted sales trends, but have made budtender-customer interactions easier. “We don’t want our budtender using the menu as a focal point of the conversation, but this allows for us to highlight particular specials or strains on our menu that gets eye attention right when the customer gets in,” says Mahoney. “Moving past the point of sale, it allows another conversation to happen organically, which keeps the customer engaged.”

On average, Baker sees conversion rates close to a 5% range per campaign. “That check in option is phenomenal; we get to see how many people actually came into the store from any given text alert,” says Mahoney. “In my mind, text alerts are preferable to email alerts; they can’t be marked as spam, it is easy to delete or opt out and takes much less time.”

Kevin Mahoney at his SE 7th Ave location
Kevin Mahoney at his SE 7th Ave location

Mahoney says the online ordering feature that Baker offers is a big selling point too. “Having an ordering service is absolutely terrific,” says Mahoney. “They can come in and out in less than five minutes with their full order by using the online ordering portal.” Mahoney says they see a real draw in this feature because it lets customers treat their dispensary like a takeout window at a restaurant.

Baker just launched a software platform designed for delivery service that a dispensary in Bend, Oregon has been using for two months now. With Portland legalizing cannabis delivery services recently, Mahoney is eyeing Baker’s software for his online ordering and delivery. “When the time comes, that is something we are very interested in pursuing.”

rsz_baker_kitchen_photo_1_of_1
Analytics allow users to track the success of campaigns

In August of 2016, Baker secured $1.6 million in seed funding, led by Former Salesforce Executive Michael Lazerow, according to a press release. “Baker has created a solution that is clean and easy to use and can help dispensary owners engage their shoppers like never before – online, mobile, social and in-store,” says Lazerow. “I witnessed first-hand how Salesforce supercharges its customers’ businesses and I’m inspired to see Baker driving the entire cannabis industry forward with this same intelligent approach.” In 18 months of business, Baker has worked with hundreds of dispensaries, helping them build better connections with over 100,000 customers. At Baker, we believe the cannabis shopping experience should be as comfortable and personalized as it has become in every other retail environment,” says Joel Milton, chief executive officer at Baker. “With expertise in cannabis, data and technology we have created an industry-specific tool that allows dispensaries and brands engage with customers and build brand loyalty through a personalized shopping experience.”

rsz_connect_sms_1
Text alerts are customizable and easy to send out

According to Eli Sklarin, director of marketing at Baker, the number one reason why patients and customers choose a dispensary is because of products on the shelf. “We originally started the platform in 2014 so people could order ahead and wouldn’t have to wait in lines at the dispensary,” says Sklarin. “In 2015, we saw more dispensaries than fast food establishments in many cities. Once inventory started to settle down, we saw a need for the dispensary to better connect with their customers.” The three core products that Baker offers are online ordering, connect SMS & email and the check in & loyalty program.

Their entire suite of software options is specific to the cannabis retail space. “Our customizable program is designed to help dispensaries catch customers and keep them coming back,” says Sklarin. “The software can give a snapshot of who their customers are, insights into the overall health of their dispensary, sales per day of the week, monthly promotions and other basic analytics that help them understand their customers.” Things like strain alerts can help retain customers, allowing dispensaries to notify certain groups of customers when products are back in stock. Whether it’s a customer who prefers a particular brand of edibles or concentrates, these software tools can help dispensaries get the right message to the right customer.

U.S. Senators to Treasury: Protect Banking for Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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On Wednesday, ten U.S. Senators from both sides of the aisle signed a letter pleading with the U.S. Treasury Department to help with banking for cannabis businesses, according to Lisa Lambert of Reuters. The letter seeks some form of protection for cannabis-friendly banks and credit unions, even those doing business with ancillary companies.

Notable signatories include Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon). “Most banks and credit unions have either closed accounts or simply refused to offer services to indirect and ancillary businesses that service the marijuana industry,” states the letter. “A large number of professionals have been unable to access the financial system because they are doing business with marijuana [sic] growers and dispensaries.”

U.S. Capitol in early December Photo: US Capitol, Flickr
U.S. Capitol in early December
Photo: US Capitol, Flickr

According to a spokesman, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network will be addressing it. It is unclear exactly how Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general nomination, would deal with cannabis-friendly states, let alone banking for them.

Many think Sessions would restrict access, ramp up federal crackdowns and make it difficult for cannabis businesses to grow. Once again however Jeff Sessions has not shared any plans on enforcing the Controlled Substances Act or cracking down on legal cannabis.

Cannabusiness Sustainability

Dear Cannabusiness Community

By Olivia L. Dubreuil, Esq., Brett Giddings
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Dear Cannabusiness Community,

You may have read our two recent articles. We received so much positive feedback that Aaron Biros (editor-in-chief of Cannabis Industry Journal) has invited us to continue with our own column at CannabisIndustryJournal.com. We are very happy to launch this column, and we thought we would take this opportunity to introduce our project, our vision and ourselves so you can understand where we are coming from when you read this series of articles.

Brett and I both have a background in business sustainability and corporate responsibility. We both have backgrounds in management consulting, with a specific expertise in sustainability issues along the supply chain. We have been working together for almost nine months now on sustainability issues in the Bay Area. In May, we started to get interested in sustainability in the cannabis industry and before we knew it we were diving deep into research relating to the environmental, social and ethical impacts of the legal cannabis industry. It was actually difficult to find a lot of information, as the reign of prohibition still very much influences what is available.cannabusiness

In June, we attended the National Cannabis Industry Association’s conference in Oakland to open up the conversation with cannabis industry players and to find out about people’s attitudes and approach to sustainability. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Not only were we encouraged to launch a project, but also excited to discover that many of the speakers presenting at the conference referenced sustainability in one way or another when they talked about environmental impact awareness, social justice, ethics or about staying competitive when “big business” enters the market.

What started out as a side project quickly became the center of focus this summer when we decided to incorporate Project Polaris, a California non-profit, to deliver sustainability knowledge and expertise to the cannabis industry.

Our thinking is as follows:

Thinking about sustainability, means thinking strategically about business. As we forge a new and upcoming industry, let’s seize the opportunity to make it a sustainability-focused one! Let’s create generally accepted industry principles that fosters a positive image of the industry and teaches newcomers about best environmental and social practices. Let’s create a voluntary and industry-led socially responsible code of conduct for cannabis business owners and suppliers, helping the regulators, as they will be drafting all of the future regulations of the legalized cannabis market. Let’s do more research on the market and the consumer. Let’s develop clean and green alternatives to dirty processes or practices. Let’s elevate the discussion and create a model industry, one where short-term, large-scale, quality-lowering corporate interests are kept at bay.

With this vision in mind, we created Project Polaris because we believe that this is a real opportunity for the industry to be a role model for other industries (and educate legislators as well as drive public opinion in those states that are still under prohibition laws). We believe there is a real economic opportunity for those businesses that understand how to embed sustainability properly within their business model. Because we know that sustainability influences legislators in a positive way because it sheds a positive light on businesses.

In the upcoming months, we will continue to research and report on sustainability-related issues facing the cannabis industry, such as packaging, edibles, “organic” in cannabis, butane extraction versus CO2 extraction and so on. We also welcome questions from our readers. If you have a question, please post it in the comments section below.

We will also take this opportunity to call out to cannabis industry organizations, cannabis businesses, or cannabis related services and product suppliers to get in touch with us if they wish to find out how to integrate sustainability more concretely into their action plan. We are not planning on doing this alone, we are seeking partners to join us on this journey, and we want to partner with you on your journey to Cannabusiness Sustainability.

PS: We still have one seat open for the board of directors and would love to hear from you if you are interested!

Greenhouse Ventures Names Lindy Snider Lead Advisor

By Aaron G. Biros
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Greenhouse Ventures (GHV), a cannabis business accelerator based in Philadelphia, PA, announced they are bringing on Lindy Snider as the lead advisor to the organization. GHV helps seed-stage startups through a ten-week, 90-hour curriculum-based program. Using industry mentors and staff, the accelerator trains founders on emerging best practices of building sustainable cannabis businesses and helping them to raise up to $5 million in seed or growth capital, according to a press release.

Lindy Snider, lead advisor at Greenhouse Ventures
Lindy Snider, lead advisor at Greenhouse Ventures

Snider is the founder and chief executive officer of a Philadelphia-based skin therapy company, LindiSkin, as well as an investor in KIND Financial and Poseidon Asset Management. According to Snider, she is involved in a number of cannabis related ventures at the moment. “In a nascent industry like cannabis, early stage companies require hands-on training reinforced with constant mentorship and continuing education,” says Snider. “Greenhouse Ventures is taking a unique education-technology approach towards early- stage venture development, which stands to benefit entrepreneurs who get accepted into their accelerator, as well as investors who are evaluating accelerator graduates for a potential investment.” Snider’s late father, Ed Snider, was the chairman of Comcast Spectacor, a Philadelphia-based sports and entertainment company that owns the Philadelphia Flyers.

GHVtallAccording to Tyler Dautrich, co-founder of Greenhouse Ventures, Lindy Snider is an extraordinarily valuable asset. “Lindy has been essential in the early success that Greenhouse Ventures has experienced to date and we are fortunate to name such an active and respected member of the investment community as our lead advisor,” says Dautrich. The company will be hosting two ten-week semesters in February and September every year. Applicants that are accepted into the program typically receive an average of $60,000 in professional services in exchange for a minor equity stake in their venture. Those accepted applicants are not required to relocate, as virtual participation is available.

Kevin Provost, Greenhouse Ventures co-founder and chief operating officer, believes Snider has played an instrumental role in the company’s growth. “From day one, Lindy has supported Greenhouse Ventures’ goal of positioning Pennsylvania as the east-coast cannabis and industrial hemp capital of the country, and with the recent passing of SB3, Greenhouse Ventures is in a unique position to make Philadelphia the epicenter of medical research and ancillary technology innovation,” says Provost. The organization is currently accepting applications for its Fall 2016 semester in Philadelphia beginning October 3rd and culminating with Demo Day on December 8th.

Soapbox

Sustainability for the Cannabis Industry: Part I

By Olivia L. Dubreuil, Esq., Brett Giddings
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The cannabis industry is an unusual creature. It is so new and fluid that nothing in its space is yet crystallized. Product types, brand names, generally accepted processes and procedures are all still being invented and tested. Consumer market segments are defining themselves as the progression of legalization advances through the states. Seniors, children, veterans, women, and professionals of all backgrounds are feeling the health and wellness benefits of the flower that is slowly losing the negative stigma inherited from the so-called war on drugs. The potential is enormous. Money is already flooding to the lucky entrepreneurs with enough foresight to work in the space, and corporate business leaders from many other traditional sectors are slowly, but steadily flocking to the market.

This is economically encouraging. A whole new industry that creates new jobs, generates tax revenue and creates wealth. But there is a worrying scenario. In that scenario, traditional cannabis business owners and entrepreneurs are pushed out of the market as corporate competitors enter the game. In that scenario the industry grows faster than its regulatory framework, with little to no voluntary regulations, no sustainability leadership, and the industry’s practices and reputation finish in the gutter. In that scenario, federal and state regulators ramp up indiscriminate bans and phony prohibitions. In that scenario the new cannabis industry exacerbates the world’s social and environmental problems by being non-inclusive, by creating a divide within communities, by adding its own share of pollution, by pushing unhealthy and unsafe products – all for the sake of an easy buck.

That scenario is not a certainty – it does not have to see the light of day. This industry has the potential to be different. It has the unique opportunity to integrate sustainability practices from the start, to create a space where business meets mindfulness, and where corporate profits do not trump consumer health, worker welfare, community engagement or environmental preservation.

Sustainability strategy is the best risk management tool available to the cannabis businesses emerging today that hope to stay relevant in the future. A sustainable cannabis industry is one where women and minorities feel included, where the consumer recognizes and is loyal to brands and labels, where businesses are thriving while having a positive influence on their peers, a positive impact on their community and on the environment, where the race to the top breeds best practices and innovation.

Three levers can push sustainability: the consumer, the industry (and the businesses that comprise it) and the government (local, regional, national and international). Surprisingly, businesses can have a significant influence on all three. Consumers make and shape a market. What will happen when the consumer becomes aware of fossil-fuel (benzene) extraction in the age of climate change, when they request organic flowers that fits their ‘Wholefoods lifestyle’, or when they boycott non-biodegradable packaging? What will happen when a scandal breaks, linked to an avoidable health and safety accident, or when they realize people of color do not have equal opportunity in a cannabis business?

It is preposterous to think, that in this day and age – where information travels at the speed of light, some type of potentially damaging information about a product manufacturing process will not get out at some point or another (in some cases they have). There is absolutely no need to gamble with that. The solution is simple: adopt sustainable practices from the start.

The third lever is the government – we will come back to the second lever later. The cannabis industry, better than any other industry, knows how the government can make or break a business. If the government decides, like they did in Colorado, that in nine months cannabis packaging needs to be resealable and childproof, businesses will have to sit on several weeks worth of sales until they can find new suppliers, they will probably have to rethink their processes, while absorbing the costs of the packaging they had bought in advance. Worse case, they also have marketing and merchandising to rethink. All of that is costly.

However there is good news; government can be channeled, generally speaking, by doing the right thing. If an industry actively demonstrates a desire to do the right thing, and there is not an exaggerated amount of complaints (or accidents), then regulators will leave it alone. Businesses can and should invest as a group into drafting and endorsing generally accepted industry practices and organizing industry self-regulations. Those will guide governments when they draft regulations, but they could also preempt a lot of nonsensical top down rules

The second lever is the most important, and that is the business lever. Cannabis businesses can make or break this industry. Those who believe that the unsustainable practices that worked in the context of an illegal/black/grey market will work in the context of a 21st century legal industry may need a reality check. Those who continue to promote and endorse them are dangerous for the industry because they breed a climate of distrust, and they bring the industry under closer scrutiny. The cannabis industry needs businesses that display exemplary behaviors, think about their impact, and elevate the discussion as well as their peers.

Whether a business is small, large, mature or emerging, developing a strategic response to these challenges can and will create a sustainable business model. Businesses can gain robust competitive advantages over their peers, reap the rewards of having loyal customers, create thriving communities, and foster healthy natural environments by doing the right thing and embedding sustainability within their business decisions.

Tomorrow’s cannabis industry business leaders will be those that chose to be part of the solution, those that understood that sustainability was vital to their business model and took action early on.logo name1


Editor’s Note: Project Polaris is a California non-profit corporation, offering sustainability coaching and guidance to cannabis industry businesses. By becoming a member of Project Polaris, businesses have access to sustainability experts throughout the year, to set, support and carry out cost-effective, meaningful and impactful sustainability solutions.

Marijuana Matters

Patent Options Available for Breeding Cannabis

By David C. Kotler, Esq.
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Patent No.: 909554. Date of patent: August 4, 2015. Years from now, historians and academics may look back on this patent number and date as a watershed mark in the evolution of legal cannabis. Feel free to read the 147 pages of the patent documents but, in short, it “leads to many innovations, provides compositions and methods for breeding, production, processing and use of specialty cannabis.” It was the first time that the U.S. Patent Office (USPTO) had issued a patent for a plant containing significant amounts of THC. One USPTO spokesman recently discussed with a journalist that “there are no special statutory requirements or restrictions applied to marijuana plants.” The following is a broad, and I mean really broad, overview of the options available to protect intellectual property within the cannabis species and strain realm.

Generally speaking, to be patent eligible, an invention must be useful, it must be new, it cannot be obvious and it must be described in a manner so that people of skill in the relevant specialty can understand what the invention is, make it and use it without engaging in undue experimentation. In terms of cannabis, essentially the breeder must have created a new and non-obvious strain over what already exists that is useful such as being highly resistant to molds or having a specific concentration of CBD.

Breeders potentially have a number of options available to them, despite the common belief otherwise. In the U.S. there are five types of intellectual property protection that breeders can obtain for new plant varieties or their use of clones:

One may seek protection for seeds and tubers, known as Plant Variety Protection. A tuber is essentially a swelled root that forms a storage organ. The Plant Variety Protection Office provides this protection. To apply for Plant Variety Protection, the applicant submits information to show that the variety is new, distinct, uniform and stable.

For asexually propagated plants except for tubers, a Plant Patent may be sought. These are sought through the USPTO. This is relatively inexpensive compared with a Utility Patent covering the genetics.

Trade secrets are often used to protect inventions that will not be commercially available or cannot be reverse engineered. For example, if a new strain is invented but is only commercially available in its final form, trade secret protection may be the best form. The most important thing to remember is that a company must follow a strict set of requirements to keep the trade secret confidential.

The last patent type protection could be through a Utility Patent. A Utility Patent can be issued for any type of plant showing its utility. These are issued by the USPTO. Seeking and obtaining a Utility Patent is expensive and complex.

In addition to Patent Protection, breeders may seek Contractual Agreements restricting the use of the clones (i.e. a material use agreement). The parameters that a breeder wishes to craft can essentially be crafted into the language of any type of agreement that is drafted to memorialize the relationship and terms between the parties.

A few broad-stroke items to keep in mind with regard to patents particularly relative to the patenting of cannabis strains and the like: First, is the passage of the America Invents Act which among other changes allowed for the U.S. to transition from a First-to-Invent patent system to a system where priority is given to the first inventor to file a patent application. Second, there are the potential bars based on different types of prior use.

Any discussion about the foregoing topic should necessarily include the question: Is it really good for the cannabis industry and its evolution? The dialogue moves out of one steeped in tradition, lure of trips through mountain passages, and potentially patient benefit or in search of higher quality and into connotations of business law and big businesses sweeping in to take over. It is an expensive process. It may be inevitable. In the meantime, protect yourself as best you can and as you see fit.