Tag Archives: regulatory

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

By Soren Lindstrom
No Comments

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.

Biros' Blog

Washington Changes Course, Selects MJ Freeway as New ASV

By Aaron G. Biros
3 Comments

Two weeks ago, we reported on the State of Washington choosing Franwell as their apparent successful vendor (ASV) for their seed-to-sale traceability system contract. Late last week, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) sent out an email explaining that they are no longer going with Franwell and the new ASV is MJ Freeway.

The email (left) consisted of a letter sent by Peter Antolin, Deputy Director of the WSLCB, to licensees “who had written to the Board and staff regarding the marijuana traceability Apparent Successful Vendor and RFID tags.” Apparently, the reason behind switching the ASV to MJ Freeway is because Franwell’s system requires only one method for tagging plants- RFID tags. According to the letter, Deputy Director Antolin says the initial request for proposal (RFP) stated that the traceability system needs to support a variety of tagging methods, including bar codes and RFID. “The RFP requirements did not allow a vendor to make any assumptions regarding use of a single tagging methodology or allow vendors to include any such costs affecting the state or our licensees in their proposal,” says Antolin. As they made clear in the previous press release, the ASV is not the official contract winner until they complete negotiations and sign the contract.

On June 7th, Franwell withdrew their proposal for the state’s traceability system, thus Washington went with the second highest scoring vendor, MJ Freeway. Deputy Director Antolin says they submitted a strong bid, but there are still many questions left unanswered. How could such a glaring mistake be overlooked when the state named Franwell the highest scoring bidder? Is MJ Freeway’s system robust enough and capable of handling the state’s cannabis licensees’ traceability requirements even though they were not the highest scoring bidder? The deadline for the new system to be in place is October 31, 2017, which is quickly approaching for such a massive systems overhaul.

The WSLCB’s oversight highlights a few inadequacies with the state’s regulatory agency, particularly their indecision and lack of foresight. So much of the concept behind seed-to-sale traceability rests on Cole Memo compliance. A big reason why some states seek to implement a robust tracking system is to remain compliant with the Cole Memo; preventing diversion to crime organizations with regulatory oversight is a key tool that states use to tell the federal government they are complying with their directive and intend to protect their state’s legal cannabis operations from federal prosecution. Without a proper system in place, the state runs the risk of exposing their entire cannabis market to threats of federal enforcement, a scenario that seems unlikely but could be disastrous to cannabis businesses and the local economy.

The WSLCB needs to get their act together fast.

Soapbox

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

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
1 Comment

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?

ASTM International Begins Crafting Cannabis Standards

By Aaron G. Biros
No Comments

Last week, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International) approved the formation of a committee to develop standards for the cannabis industry. ASTM International is a standards development organization that develops voluntary consensus-based standards for industries. United States regulatory bodies and the World Trade Organization have recognized the organization’s standards in other industries.

On March 1st, the non-profit announced the formation of a committee for ““creating technical standards and guidance materials for cannabis and its products and processes.” So now that the vote has passed, what is the next step? They will begin the process of member training, appointment of leadership and writing the bylaws. ASTM will have two online briefings before their official meeting for the cannabis committee (D37) in June. Those meetings will discuss how the committee was formed and how it’ll be structured. The first official meeting of the cannabis committee will take place June 11th and 12th in Toronto.

Lezli Engelking
Lezli Engelking, founder of FOCUS

Voluntary consensus-based standards means there is a balance of interests, an appeals process and an overall consensus has been reached. The areas of focus for the cannabis standards include indoor and outdoor horticulture and agriculture, quality management systems, laboratories, processing and handling, security and transportation, and personnel training, assessment and credentialing. Many standards will be developed under each of these broad categories. A large component of consensus-based standard development is openness…so anyone who wants to participate in the development of the standards is welcome and encouraged to do so. They are still looking for participants from the cannabis industry and those interested can register here.

Lezli Engelking, founder of the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS), says this is terrific news for the cannabis industry. “To have a global organization like ASTM, that federal governments actually work with and respect, is a huge stride forward for the cannabis industry,” says Engelking. “FOCUS is thrilled to be working with ASTM.” FOCUS and ASTM International have a derivative work license agreement that provides ASTM the FOCUS standards to use as a baseline for developing their standards. “FOCUS will continue to certify cannabis businesses to the FOCUS standards, but we will be able to add in the ASTM standards to our certification platform,” says Engelking. “It helps us expand our depth and reach in tools for our clients.”

FOCUS standards and ASTM standards are both voluntary consensus-based, meaning it is the businesses and stakeholders participating that ultimately write the standards. The organizations’ staff does not actually contribute to and develop the standards; they are more like a vehicle for the industry and stakeholders to come to a consensus, according to Engelking. “ASTM does the same thing that we do for the cannabis industry, just on a much larger scale,” says Engelking. “Its role is to fulfill the development, not actually develop it.” Because of that, ASTM and FOCUS standards can work in harmony.

Canada Releases Proposed Cannabis Legislation

By Aaron G. Biros
No Comments

The government of Canada published a press release on April 13th proposing a piece of legislation, the Cannabis Act, which would regulate the industry by July of 2018. The press release puts a heavy emphasis on keeping cannabis away from children, curbing impaired driving and reducing criminal and organized crime profits.

The press release says the legislation would set up a regulatory framework “for controlling the production, distribution, sale and possession of cannabis in Canada.” It would set the minimum age to purchase cannabis at 18, but provinces can increase that minimum age how they see fit. Health Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canada Border Services Agency and the Department of Public Safety would be responsible for enforcing the regulations.

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada
Photo: John McCallum

The Cannabis Act states they plan on implementing a fully functioning regulatory framework by July of 2018. Transporting cannabis across international borders or selling to minors would be serious criminal offenses. If the legislation becomes law, adults could have up to 30 grams of cannabis on their person and grow up to four plants in their home.

Individual provinces would ultimately be the regulating authorities, but if local jurisdictions do not have a regulatory framework in place, the press release says Canadians could purchase cannabis online and have it shipped to them. In addition to establishing the regulatory framework, the Cannabis Act would tighten laws on impaired driving. “Additionally, the proposed legislation would authorize new tools for police to better detect drivers who have drugs in their body,” reads the press release. That would give the police authorization to use oral fluid drug screeners, but cannabis is particularly difficult to detect at low concentrations. It is unclear exactly how that would be enforced and specifically what technology they would use.

In a Facebook post this morning, Justin Trudeau announced the proposed legislation to his followers. “It’s too easy for our kids to get marijuana,” says the Prime Minister. “We’re going to change that.” That mention of keeping cannabis out of reach of the Canadian youth is heavily emphasized in the press release as well.

Pennsylvania Opens Cannabis Licensing Applications

By Aaron G. Biros
1 Comment

PA Secretary of Health Dr. Karen Murphy last week announced applications for growers and processors, while dispensary license applications will be available January 17, 2017. License applications will be accepted from February 20 through March 20, 2017. Governor Wolf signed the medical cannabis bill into law back in April of this year.

Philadelphia City Hall Photo: Michael Righi, Flickr
Philadelphia City Hall
Photo: Michael Righi, Flickr

“We’ve reached an important milestone in the program with the release of permit applications on January 17, 2017,” says Secretary Murphy. The PA Department of Health will issue 12 licenses for growers and processors and 27 dispensary licenses, according to Secretary Murphy’s statement. “The decision for which counties will be issued permits in this first phase was determined by using the department’s medical data, as well as comments from more than 5,000 patients and nearly 900 potential grower/processors and dispensary applicants.”

PA Capitol building in Harrisburg Photo: Harvey Barrison, Flickr
State Capitol building in Harrisburg
Photo: Harvey Barrison, Flickr

According to the Philly Voice, the highly populated Southeast region of Pennsylvania will get ten dispensary permits, including three in Philadelphia, two in Montgomery County and one in Bucks, Chester, Berks, Delaware and Lancaster counties each. The state will fully implement its medical cannabis program by 2018, but a temporary program with ‘Safe Harbor guidelines’ was effective in May of 2016, essentially allowing access for patients in the mean time, while establishing preliminary regulatory compliance guidelines.

In last week’s statement, Secretary Murphy also stressed the importance of their Physician Workgroup in developing the regulations. “We cannot underestimate the role of physicians in making sure that patients can access medical marijuana,” says Secretary Murphy. “That’s why the involvement of physicians and health care professionals through our Physician Workgroup is vital to the successful development and implementation of Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program.” The Workgroup’s recommendations include establishing quality monitoring, training for dosage recommendations while addressing rural and urban access, education and delivery.

Soapbox

Labeling Cannabis Products is a Booming Market

By Marsha Frydrychowski
1 Comment

Legal marijuana sales are expected to hit $6.7 billion in 2016, with the market expected to climb to $21.8 billion in sales by 2020. As legal cannabis sales rise, cannabis labels are quickly becoming one of the fastest growing markets for label manufacturers.

An Industry Gaining Legitimacy

Since California first legalized medical cannabis in 1996, the cannabis industry has grown considerably. Voters in four states legalized recreational cannabis last week on Election Day, including California, which is currently the world’s 6th largest economy. Voters in another four states legalized medical cannabis as well, bringing the total to 28 states with some form of legalization measure.

The market is moving ahead and will not be limited to small businesses and dispensaries either. Already, more than 50 publicly traded companies have blitzed the market, including pharmaceuticals, medical growers and even major tech companies.

An example of a cannabis flower label in Oregon with all of the required information.
An example of a cannabis flower label in Oregon with all of the required information.

What’s more, public support for full cannabis legalization is at an all-time high 61 percent, according to a recent survey from the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The market is here to stay.

Cannabis flower labels

Legal cannabis has primarily consisted of dispensaries selling cannabis flower or leaves (ready-to-smoke marijuana) in pouches or childproof containers. Regulations have essentially required two cannabis labels for the pouches: a branded label on the front and a regulatory label on the back. Many dispensaries also use pre-printed pouches.

Similar to the way alcohol labels must contain information for alcohol content, the informational labels that sit on the backs of pouches are legally required to provide certain accurate information, including:

The universal symbol required on all cannabis products in Colorado
The universal symbol required on all cannabis products in Colorado
  • THC %
  • CBD %
  • Net weight in grams
  • Lab name and test number confirmation
  • Batch number
  • Date tested
  • Strain name
  • Warning Label

And cannabis flower labels are just the beginning. Many smoke-free product categories are emerging with similar labeling requirements. These often allow for increased branding opportunities that will afford better profit margins for label suppliers. Some of the many products in this young category include:

  • Edibles — such as dark chocolates, baked goods, snack crackers and teas infused with cannabis.
  • Topicals — such as pain-relieving lotions and creams.
  • Tinctures — cannabis-infused oils that are applied in drops to the tongue.

Bottom line: For label and packaging suppliers, cannabis represents one of the fastest growing market opportunities today and the opportunities extend way beyond labeling for the flower itself.

Managing Compliance

As more and more states move toward legalization and regulation, uneven laws in different states are increasingly governing the market. Businesses must respond to ever-changing requirements, including labeling standards. While many dispensaries have gotten away with minimalist labels, states are increasingly demanding dispensaries meet more stringent legal requirements. For example, Oregon passed new labeling requirements this year and products that failed to meet them by October 1, 2016 were not allowed on store shelves.

Label suppliers entering the market must keep abreast of the changing regulations and be able to help brands navigate them. They need to work to understand the intricacies of this new market, rather than simply looking to redirect the capabilities they already possess. See the original post here.

 

Exploring Opportunities in Emerging Markets

By Aaron G. Biros
No Comments

This November 8th, voters in five states will head to the polls to decide on legalizing recreational cannabis and another three states have ballot initiatives that would legalize medical cannabis. If any of those five states pass a measure for recreational legalization, including Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Arizona and California, (which are all leading in the polls) they could potentially create massive new market opportunities for cannabis brands that have their eye on expansion.

Nancy Whiteman, co-owner of Wana Brands and chair of the Cannabis Business Alliance Infused Product Committee, sees great potential in capitalizing on those markets early. Whiteman has been working with Wana Brands since 2010 in Colorado, starting out in the young medical market there.

Nancy Whiteman holding a batch of cannabis gummies
Nancy Whiteman holding a batch of cannabis gummies

After expanding to the recreational market, Wana Brands saw its sales skyrocket. From January to August 2016, Wana had the best-selling candy brand in Colorado with 21% dollar share, according to BDS Analytics. Wana Brands has already expanded to Oregon and will launch in Nevada on November 15th, with agreements signed to expand in other states as well. “The model we are pursuing is a licensing agreement where we partner with existing or new license holders in their state,” says Whiteman. “In many ways they are doing the heavy lifting, but we are providing an enormous lift by licensing our intellectual property to them.” That model for growth is becoming increasingly common in some of the more established brands, like Steep Hill Laboratories, GFarma Labs, Dixie and others. Whiteman says that Wana Brands also has a partner in Illinois, Massachusetts and a number of other states they hope to reach.

Mark Slaugh, CEO of iComply
Mark Slaugh, CEO of iComply

According to Mark Slaugh, executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance and chief executive officer of iComply, a compliance services provider, brands from Colorado expanding to other states need to ask themselves if their reputation is on the line with these new operators. “If you are licensing to companies that are not compliant, the penalties could be huge and they vary state to state- that could potentially hurt the overall brand image nationally,” says Slaugh. “People doing the licensing that are operating with full compliance really need to look at controlling that risk and mitigating that as much as possible.” With brand trust on the line, there are substantial risks that come with expansion. “We help clients ensure quality is consistent so, for example, an edible product would taste the same in Colorado as it would in Nevada or Arizona. They need to follow the intellectual property consistently but more importantly follow those specific regulations in that state to stay afloat.” Managing ongoing compliance in different states requires monitoring regulatory updates across multiple markets, which can get incredibly complex.

rsz_unspecified-3
Processing SOPs vary widely stae to state

“Six years ago, it was much easier to get into the market in Colorado,” says Whiteman. “There were no capital requirements, no limits on the number of licenses, but there was still a lengthy application and vetting process- as long as you met those minimum requirements you could get a license.” Other new states put stringent limits on the number of licenses granted and some have extraordinarily cost-prohibitive capital requirements, up to a million dollars, as is the case for New York. “Anyone who becomes a license holder in Massachusetts has to be prepared to embark on three separate business models, which is a massive undertaking,” says Whiteman. Massachusetts requires license holders to cultivate, process and dispense in a vertically integrated model.

In other states, Wana Brands is working with exclusive partners who will have the capabilities to manufacture and distribute throughout the entire state, but in Massachusetts that won’t be the case. “To cover the state, we need several partnerships; the partner we are working with is a little south of Boston,” says Whiteman. But all that could change if voters in Massachusetts legalize it recreationally, opening a much larger market than the current medical program. “With no legislation drafted yet, the regulatory environment is still up in the air in Massachusetts so there is no way of telling what the recreational market will look like.” In terms of ongoing regulatory compliance, Whiteman believes that Colorado still has some of the most stringent rules. The universal symbol printed on every individual edible product serving is one example. “Every state has different lab testing and licensing requirements, but Colorado looks like the most stringent currently,” says Whiteman. “Colorado requires a full gamut of lab testing including homogeneity, potency, residual solvents, contaminants and soon pesticides too.” According to Mark Slaugh, Nevada’s lab testing regulations are fundamentally different from Colorado’s with regard to sampling procedures, but the broader inconsistencies in lab standards need to be addressed. “The lack of laboratory standardization state to state with regard to methods creates a big challenge to get consistent, proficient lab testing across the board,” says Slaugh.

Wana's edibles come stamped with the universal symbol (THC!)
Wana’s edibles come stamped with the universal symbol (THC!) in Colorado, as required by law.

A big differentiator between Colorado and other states is that it was a first mover. “When Colorado came online there were not any established brands to speak of anywhere in the country- we were all pioneers,” says Whiteman. “Because it is so difficult to get a license in another state, either the organization or investor groups are looking to partner with established brands.” The advantages to this business model are many. Expediting your entry to market gets you the advantage of being a first mover. Working with an established brand also minimizes risks and the learning curve. “Bigger players understand that building a brand from scratch is time consuming and expensive so I think we will see a lot of these partnerships.”

As those new states come online, similarities in their regulations might appear in the form of standard operating procedures (SOPs) or good manufacturing practices (GMPs). “We might start to see a standardization from state to state that models FDA GMPs or USDA GAPs, [good agricultural practices] moving toward a framework that is more consistent with the possibility of federal regulation,” says Slaugh. Another commonality among a number of states is the implementation of a statewide tracking system. According to Slaugh, California has no such mandated system in place yet. “They will probably have one eventually but the market is so localized there- we will see if California will be ready with a statewide compliance system for tracking by 2018,” says Slaugh. “With such a weird patchwork of local governments allowing or not allowing certain operations to exist, it is a tough business to be in and it’s getting tougher every day.”

Soapbox

Best Practices for Submitting a Winning Application

By Leif Olsen
No Comments

Even though half of U.S. states and the District of Colombia now permit the possession of medical or recreational cannabis, state regulatory bodies differ greatly in their approaches to managing our industry. In Washington, anyone over the age of 21 can legally possess one ounce of usable cannabis and/or seven grams of concentrate. In Minnesota, patients are only allowed to purchase non-smokable cannabis in pill, liquid or oil form.

Given these substantial differences, it is no surprise that the application process to open a dispensary or cultivation facility also varies from state to state. The question I am most often asked (and catch myself mulling over late at night) is what can applicants do to ensure their success, regardless of where they are applying?

Recently we helped a client secure one of the first 15 licenses issued to grow medical cannabis in Maryland. The Maryland application process was particularly unique because most of the applicants had political or law-enforcement ties, or were connected to successful out-of-state growers. That experience, along with our work in places like Arizona, Colorado and Florida, has shown me the importance of teamwork, diversity and security in developing a winning application.

So here are my suggestions for ensuring a successful submission, regardless of which state you are operating in:

  1. Build the Right Team. My dad likes to say, “Use the right tool for the right job.” I think the same is true about creating the team for your application. Do not assume one or two people will be able to fill all of the required roles. You will need experts in a range of different areas including medicine, pharmacology, capital investment, cultivation, real estate, security and law.
  2. Focus on Diversity. I think one of the reasons we have been successful in helping clients secure applications (we are six for six, in six different states) is our commitment to gender, racial and even geographic diversity. For example, we recently helped a client secure a license in an economically underdeveloped area. I think our choice to headquarter the new business outside of the metropolitan corridor was at least partially responsible for our success.
  3. The Devil is in the Details. According to ArcView Market Research, the cannabis industry is expected to be worth $23 billion by 2020. If you want to be one of the organizations selected by your state to sell cannabis, you need to have your act together. Most applications ask incredibly detailed questions. Therefore it is essential that you answer them thoroughly and accurately. All answers should be in compliance with your state’s regulations.
  4. Put Safety First. You will need a comprehensive plan that takes all aspects of security into account. This includes everything from hiring security guards to purchasing cameras, and implementing internal anti-theft procedures. Regardless of the size of your operation, safety should be a primary consideration.
  5. Secure Funding. Successful cannabis businesses require capital. It’s important to be realistic about the amount of money you will need to have on hand. Application costs typically range from $500,000 to $1 million. This will cover things like hiring an architect or leasing land. Ideally, your organization will have another $5 to $10 million or more available to start your project once you’ve been approved so that you can quickly become operational.
  6. Connect With Your Community. It is essential to consider the impact of your business on the community. Being a good corporate citizen means being transparent and engaging in a two-way dialogue with neighbors, government officials and patients. I strongly recommend that my clients develop a comprehensive community outreach plan that designates which organizations they plan to work with, (hospitals or universities, for example) and what the nature of those partnerships will be.
Lezli Engelking

Q&A with Lezli Engelking: Why Are Standards Important?

By Aaron G. Biros, Lezli Engelking
1 Comment
Lezli Engelking
Lezli Engelking
Lezli Engelking, founder of FOCUS

FOCUSlogoLezli Engelking founded the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS) in 2014 to protect public health, consumer safety, and safeguard the environment by promoting integrity in the cannabis industry through the use of standards. Standards are an agreed upon way of doing things and specify guidelines or requirements for producing goods or providing services, according to FOCUS.

Peter Maguire, committee chair of the FOCUS Cultivation Standard
Peter Maguire, committee chair of the FOCUS Cultivation Standard

Standards can take the form of a “reference document, which may include specifications, guidelines, conditions or requirements for products, operations, services, methods, personnel and systems on how to design, operate, manufacture or manage something.” Peter Maguire, VP of System Applications for Lighthouse Worldwide Solutions and committee chair of the FOCUS Cultivation standard, joined the organization wanting to make a positive impact on the industry that is in line with protecting people and medical patients. He sees so much variability in the industry and the need to homogenize standard operating procedures (SOPs). “I have worked with multiple cultivation facilities and a few of them have operating procedures in place but having them in place is only half the solution- it’s critical to have the right ones in place,” says Maguire. He has twenty years of experience in contamination control in manufacturing, before entering the cannabis industry.

The FOCUS cultivation standard was created by experts who have years of experience in both cannabis cultivation, good agricultural practices and in the tightly regulated pharmaceutical industry. “FOCUS created these guidelines as a sort of roadmap for success in business; You need to keep your employees healthy and your products safe to survive in the long term,” says Maguire. We sit down with Lezli Engelking to find out how the standards are created, what makes them significant and what businesses can gain by working with them.

CannabisIndustryJournal: Why are standards important?

Lezli: Standards are the international language for trade – they exist in every industry. “The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that standards and conformity assessment impact more than 80% of global commodity trade.” FOCUS is not reinventing the wheel with what we are doing. We are simply adapting a business model the federal government already uses. In the 80s, when the heroin epidemic swept across the US, methadone clinics popped up in every state in the country within two years. The clinics were all operating under different state, city and county regulations – much like the cannabis industry is today. The federal government took a look at the situation and decided they needed a way to regulate these clinics in order to protect public health and safety. They released a Request For Proposal (RFP) looking for an organization to create voluntary-consensus standards and a third-party certification system for the methadone clinics. Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) is the organization that answered and won that RFP. CARF continues to work with Health and Human Services to maintain the standards and provide third-party certification to the clinics today. FOCUS develops international, voluntary consensus standards and a third party certification program for the global cannabis industry based on the CARF model. This is extremely important, because of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act, (Public Law 104-115), signed into law March 7, 1996 by President Clinton. The act requires that all federal agencies use standards developed by voluntary-consensus standards bodies, instead of government-unique standards wherever possible. Perhaps even more importantly, the Act includes provisions that encourage federal agencies to partner with the private sector in the development of standards that not only help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government, but also strengthen the U.S. position in the global marketplace.

CIJ: What exactly goes into developing a voluntary-consensus standard?

Lezli: Voluntary-Consensus refers to the type of standard and how it is developed. Everyone who participates in the development of voluntary-consensus standards does so on a voluntary basis. Committee members must come to a consensus on every point within the standard- down to every comma or semicolon. Once the development process is complete, the standards must undergo a 30-day public review period. The process for developing voluntary-consensus standards is designated by International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ISO has member agencies in 163 countries that participate in the development of standards. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is the American body for ISO. FOCUS follows all ISO/ANSI guidelines in the standards development process. This is extremely important because it means FOCUS standards are suitable for accreditation and adoption into regulations according to the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act. All voluntary-consensus standards are developed under the principles of:

  • Openness| Participation in the standard development process is open to individuals with a stake in the standard who bring useful expertise along with the spirit and willingness to participate.
  • Balance| Focus stakeholder groups involve all stakeholder groups: industry, regulatory, quality assurance, medical, law enforcement, business, research, consumers, patients and the general public.
  • Voluntary-Consensus| Individual subcommittees of volunteers develop each area of the standard, offering their unique expertise to form a consensus. They are not paid for their participation.
  • Lack of Dominance| No party has dominant representation, or influence to the exclusion of fair and equitable consideration of other viewpoints.

CIJ: More specifically, how are the FOCUS standards developed?

Lezli: To create a baseline standard, FOCUS utilized World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), Good Laboratory Practices (GLP), Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) for pharmaceutical GMPs, nutraceutical GMPs, food safety standards, OSHA and HACCP. From there, applicable cannabis regulations from around the world were added. All of this information was compiled into auditor-style checklists. Each committee member was provided time to go edit, remove or add to items in the checklist on their own. Over the next two years, each of the eight committees had monthly meetings, going through and coming to a consensus on each line item of the standard. Once the committees completed development, the standards were open for a 30-day Public Review to collect comments and feedback. The first eight FOCUS standards, completed and ready for use, cover Cultivation, Retail, Extraction, Infused Products, Laboratory, Security, Sustainability and Packaging & Labeling.

FOCUS is currently recruiting committee members to begin development of five new cannabis standards later this year: Advertising/Marketing, Insurance, Banking/Finance, Patient Care and Research. Committees will receive a list of proposed suggestions for what should be considered in developing the standards. Each committee member will develop a list to select criteria they think should be included into the standard. FOCUS will compile the lists, then committees will go through the monthly standards development/vetting process for each line item in the standard.

CIJ: So what does a business have to gain by adopting a FOCUS standard?

Lezli: Compliance becomes easily manageable with the FOCUS software platform, integrating standards, training and SOPs into the everyday operations of the business. FOCUS certified clients could expect to reduce costs, reduce risk and reduce liability by assuring they are producing safe, quality and consistent products. FOCUS certification allows a business to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and prove to their patients and customers they can trust their products. Certification also allows businesses to access reasonable insurance rates and drives interest from investors.

FOCUS is here to partner with cannabis businesses. We are there to hold their hand, by providing guidance and assistance along every step of the way. Unlike state mandated audits that delineate what a business is doing right or wrong, FOCUS is an on-going compliance management system. We are here to make sure a business runs as efficiently as possible and take the guesswork out of compliance. Under FOCUS certification, a business receives ongoing consulting, customized SOPs, employee training and a documentation management software system to track and prove compliance.

CIJ: Can you give us an update on FOCUS’ progress in 2016?

Lezli: A large milestone for FOCUS this year, aside from completing version one of the standards, is choosing an appropriate software platform, (Power DMS) to house the standards and provide an ongoing compliance management system for our clients. Power DMS also houses regulatory standards for law enforcement; health care, federal aviation and fire departments, so most agencies in public health are already familiar with it. The familiarity and access to this platform is a huge benefit on the regulatory side. It allows first responders to access the schematics of a FOCUS certified client in the event of an emergency. This is crucial in the event of an explosion from extraction equipment, or a fire in a cultivation facility, as without first identifying where the hazards are, they will not access the facility. The FOCUS software platform allows first responders access to all pertinent information through computers in police cars, ambulances, or fire trucks.

For the industry, the FOCUS software platform is equally as impressive. Not only does the platform house the standards and all SOPs, it is also complete compliance management system. FOCUS certified clients have a simple management tool that houses all training and documentation, assuring all required compliance documentation can be easily accessed at any time. The platform also allows FOCUS certified clients to provide access to governing bodies in advance of state audits –streamlining the process and minimizing time and interruption caused by state audits. The FOCUS platform tracks all changes to required documents, provides real time updates on employee training, creates appropriate traceability logs, and provides updates on regulatory changes, including which SOPs need to be changed to maintain compliance. The platform allows FOCUS to be way more than an auditing company. FOCUS is a partnership in compliance for cannabis companies wanting to maintain good business practices and stay compliant with regulations.

We have about 140 new committee members that will assist existing committees with standards updates and participate in the development of the next set of FOCUS standards for advertising/marketing, banking/finance, research, patient care and insurance. All committees will convene before 2017.