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Marijuana ads are here and largely unregulated, as the industry acts to set own guidelines

Cigarette commercials have been banned from radio and television since 1970. Liquor ads were once prohibited from TV as well. Illinois law allows marijuana advertising on the airwaves — but the federal prohibition on pot effectively limits ads to within the states where it’s legal.

Faced with conflicting regulations for a newly legal and growing industry, members of the industry are coming up with their own guidelines. They hope to promote a positive image in the public eye, as lawmakers consider whether to let legal cannabis continue its expansion nationwide.

Cresco Labs, headquartered in Chicago and one of the biggest cannabis companies in the country, is issuing a detailed set of marketing standardsit shared with the Tribune on Tuesday. Fellow industry heavyweight Green Thumb Industries has its own general principles. And the National Association of Cannabis Businesses has standards as well.

People check in before entering the Sunnyside dispensary, by Cresco Labs, in Schaumburg on Aug. 6, 2020.
People check in before entering the Sunnyside dispensary, by Cresco Labs, in Schaumburg on Aug. 6, 2020. (José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)

But Cresco plans to promote its guidelines with regulators, advertisers and publishers. Its 35 principles prohibit advertising or events aimed at minors, unfounded claims, or depicting getting wasted or driving while high, and not using certain medical words or symbols like “RX,” among other things.

The guidelines largely agree with Illinois law that bans false messages, ads aimed at those under 21 or those that show overconsumption. Illinois law also bans the depiction of the consumption of cannabis, precludes ads within 1,000 feet of a school, park or library, or on public transportation, and bars any health claims.

With 11 states having legalized pot, and 33 allowing medical marijuana, each state has its own regulations. Industry officials said they’d like one set of rules to create a positive, professional image for a business that used to be defined by outlaws and stoners.

“It’ll be good for this industry, the customers and stakeholders,” said Cresco’s chief commercial officer, Greg Butler.

With Illinois seeing explosive growth in sales, in June Cresco showed it can turn a profit, as the industry consolidates. Butler expects it to become one of the top 10 consumer goods in the country within a decade.

Expect to see more ads, as the industry has more money to play with during the upcoming holiday season. To introduce its new Sunnyside dispensaries, Cresco launched an “Ask us anything” ad campaign answering basic consumer questions like, what is CBD, or how many edibles should one consume?

On the national level, the federal ban on use or possession of cannabis means that most networks won’t touch cannabis ads. That helps explain why CBS kept a pot spot from running during the Super Bowl last year.

As a result, most cannabis companies keep their ads highly targeted to within the state where it’s legal, using magazines, newspapers, radio or digital media.

At this crucial time in the industry’s development, officials say they want to be on their best behavior, to help turn the legal and business framework around.

Critics of marijuana legalization, though, remain opposed to the spreading presence of cannabis ads.

Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, cited a recent study showing that roughly one-third of youths ages 15-19 saw marijuana ads on social media and were five times more likely to report using it in the past year.

“Simply put, the marijuana industry should not be able to advertise its highly potent and addictive products,” Sabet said. “The data is clear here that advertising further normalizes the industry, which normalizes the use of the drug, which leads to harmful consequences for health and safety.”

Despite opposition, as advertising ramps up, big brands are likely to emerge, said Timothy Calkins, marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

“Cannabis has a long history full of colorful characters,” Calkins said, “They’re trying to transition to a very different spot that is responsible and productive. It’s not just about making sure it’s legal, it’s about making sure media companies are comfortable with the advertising, so they really need some standards.”

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Consumers’ cannabis buying patterns change markedly in wake of COVID-19 pandemic

Consumers’ purchasing patterns involving marijuana have changed noticeably over the past several months in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Marijuana shoppers are spending more money per visit to recreational retail outlets. But they are shopping less often, perhaps for safety, or scheduling, reasons.

Our heat map of weekly adult-use sales changes in four western states show sales recovering through the year, with retailers benefiting from favorable treatment by state governments that allowed them to stay open or provide curbside service.

Across the country, in fact, many states declared cannabis companies “essential” businesses.

But there have been roller-coaster weeks in adult-use sales in California, Colorado, Nevada and Washington state, according to data provided by Seattle-based analytics firm Headset.

The initial state lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders caused recreational sales to drop almost 50% in late March in the four states – at least until federal stimulus checks started hitting consumers’ bank accounts in April and sales rebounded.

In the past month, however, a downturn in weekly sales has started to emerge. But it is too early to understand the exact cause.

One possibility: The U.S. government’s temporary lifeline to tens of millions of unemployed workers – $600 a week in extra jobless benefits – expired at the end of July.

But up until now, cannabis sales have been relatively recession-resistant.

The National Bureau of Economic Research formally proclaimed the recession began in February, when the coronavirus crisis caused much of the U.S. economy to pause.

Recession or not, marijuana shopping habits have changed markedly since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as shown by this chart:

The average amount a consumer purchases at one time – or the average basket size – has increased in California, Colorado, Nevada and Washington state, while at the same time, the number of shopping trips, or baskets, per week have declined.

For example, Nevada’s average basket size jumped $22 after March 23, from $55 to $77.

California and Colorado experienced increases of $10 or more, while Washington state consumers boosted their average purchases by close to $8.

Meanwhile, the number of baskets purchased per week has started to improve since the record lows recorded in March.

Colorado recorded an estimated 362,000 baskets for the week of March 23, the lowest of the year.

That figure has since recovered to 603,000 baskets at the end of August, just shy of the 613,000 recorded at the first of the year.

California, Nevada and Washington state recorded similar buying patterns.

Other mainstream industries report comparable trends as consumers adjust to pandemic shopping.

A survey of grocery shoppers conducted by the Food Industry Association found that 78% of customers changed where they shop, with 40% shopping at fewer stores and 44% spending more money per visit.

While the markets aren’t exactly comparable, the question for cannabis retailers is: Will be is this a temporary, pandemic-induced trend, or have consumers changed their shopping patterns for good?

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California Cannabis Licensing Authorities Unveil New Unified License Search Tool

The new platform provides an easy way to search through the state’s thousands of cannabis business licenses.

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – PRESS RELEASE – California’s three cannabis licensing authorities – BCC, CDFA and CDPH announced today the launch of a unified licensing search platform, the culmination of a collaboration between the California Department of Technology, the California Health and Human Services Agency Office of Innovation, the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz), and the licensing authorities.

The unified license search tool allows the public to search for cannabis license information from all three licensing authorities by using one search tool. The need for a unified search was identified through conversations with, and surveys of, licensed businesses, local governments, and law enforcement conducted in late 2019 and early 2020. 

“This unified license data search tool will make it easier for the public to access cannabis license information without having to inquire with each licensing authority separately,” Bureau Chief Lori Ajax said. “This will also help consumers identify licensed cannabis retailers near them.”

Some features of the new license search include an interactive map and geolocation tools. There is also a survey where users can submit usability feedback to the licensing authorities as they continue to refine the search tool. The unified license search tool can be accessed at https://search.cannabis.ca.gov/.

The unified license search will be updated every 24 hours; however, the most recent data will still be available through each licensing authority’s existing search tool on its website.

In January 2020, Gov. Newsom announced plans to consolidate the three cannabis licensing authorities into a single Department of Cannabis Control, in an effort to improve access to licensing and simplify regulatory oversight of commercial cannabis activity. Today’s announcement is part of that overall plan.

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Marijuana vape firms say one year after vaping crisis, customers turning to legal suppliers over illicit market

A year after the vaping health crisis upended the cannabis industry, marijuana vape companies report that sales have rebounded as consumers grasp the danger of consuming illicit-market vaporizers and switch to legal suppliers.

Arnaud Dumas de Rauly, co-founder and CEO of New York-based vape manufacturer The Blinc Group, sees this as the biggest impact of the vaping health scare.

“It made consumers realize that you can’t just buy any cannabis vaping product,” he said. “You can’t go to the black market.”

The outbreak of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dubbed e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) in the summer of 2019 slowed the growth of some companies and stifled sales toward the end of the year.

But vape products, like other cannabis goods, seem to also be weathering not only the health crisis but the current economic downturn.

“We’ve seen tremendous bounce back from the vape crisis,” said Sammy Dorf, chief growth officer and co-founder of Verano Holdings, a vertically integrated cannabis company in Chicago. “Business is extremely strong.”

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed business much, either, according to the vape companies, despite fresh warnings that vaping and smoking can make a person more vulnerable to the virus.

“We haven’t seen a change in the purchasing pattern of our patients or customers due to the pandemic,” Dorf added.

How it played out

The vape health crisis unfolded rapidly, beginning in the summer of 2019 with mainstream media reports seizing on the news that people were dying from allegedly vaping mainly THC products.

Some states with regulated cannabis markets such as Washington temporarily banned additives in vapes, while others, including Massachusetts, banned the sale of vape products altogether.

It took a few months for more information about the illness to surface.

Scientists identified one substance, vitamin E acetate, which is added as a cutting agent to some vape oil, as a possible culprit in the lung illness.

Many industry officials claimed that vitamin E was more commonly found in illicit market products and pointed out that legal cannabis is regulated, tested and safer than unregulated street products.

Most recently, an academic study published in August confirmed that states lacking licensed, regulated cannabis saw the highest rates of EVALI, particularly those in the northern Midwest. (See chart above.)

The report, from the Society for the Study of Addiction, noted “these results suggest that EVALI cases did not arise from e-cigarette or cannabis use per se, but rather from locally distributed e-liquids or additives most prevalent in the affected areas.”

“We believe the bigger lesson here is that the data clearly indicate that there were fewer cases of lung illnesses and injury in states where legal, regulated cannabis products were available,” said Steve Fox, strategic adviser to the Cannabis Trade Federation.

“In fact, the lowest rates of incidence were in Colorado, Washington and Alaska – three of the first four legal states – with Oregon and Nevada close behind.”

‘Very scary’

According to Seattle data-analytics company Headset, sales of adult-use vape products in three of four states with recreational markets generally have recovered, though Nevada retailers saw sales still lower than pre-health scare levels after the state enacted stricter lockdown measures for marijuana retailers during the pandemic.However, market share for vape pens is lower year-over-year, according to the Marijuana Business Factbook, as flower tends to represent a more economical choice amid COVID-19 and greater economic concerns.

Several cannabis vape business executives interviewed for this story said sales have completely rebounded.

George Sadler, president of San Diego-based Platinum Vape, which sells products into several markets, said sales plateaued right after the initial scare but started trending upward in the early winter.

“We never really saw much of anything on the level of decline that we thought,” Sadler said.

Dumas de Rauly said his sales started to recover in December as consumer confidence in the legal market returned.

“We have doubled our revenue in terms of vaping hardware since the vaping crisis,” Dumas de Rauly said.

But he added that his business likely lost a year of growth because of the earlier drop in sales.

In Denver, Dan Gardenswartz, chief operating officer at Spherex, said his company’s sales never took a “meaningful hit,” but the end of 2019 was “a little bit of a roller coaster.”

“It was a very strange time,” he said. “The vape crisis was a very scary thing for people in the industry.”

Seth Wiggins, chief revenue officer for Clear Cannabis, also in Denver, saw a decline in sales for about 60-90 days before the trend began to reverse.

The health crisis “was very painful initially,” he added.

However, Wiggins said his company has posted record sales in recent months.

Illicit to licit

Wiggins attributes that lift in sales to customers who are shifting from illicit suppliers to legal providers.

“The compliant market allows for more regulations and safety,” he added. “It’s breaching the tipping point where the cost basis is not worth the risk” to buy off the street.

Morgan Fox, spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association, also identified that trend.

“Across the board, we’ve seen a lot of people moving away from the unregulated market largely because of public-health concerns,” he said.

Gardenswartz said he saw more people transition from the illicit to the legal market in California than in Colorado, which has imposed tighter controls on illegal dispensaries peddling products.

Sadler agreed. He believes there has been some decline in vape sales on the unlicensed market, and he noted that some of his consumers have made the shift from the illicit market to licensed businesses.

He cited Weedmaps’ decision to curtail advertising for unlicensed dispensaries as helping consumers find legal, tested vape products.

Consumers are more aware that they’re going to a licensed dispensary, and stores in California have even displayed QR codes on storefronts so customers know they’re buying from a legal shop.

“People are more diligent about asking the questions,” he said.

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3 Tips to Help Cannabis Dispensary Buyers Select Vendors

© Vinnie Neuberg

Oregon’s market is flooded with more cannabis than Oregonians can consume, meaning customers have more options than ever to shop for quality and value. When it comes to vendor selection in Oregon’s highly competitive market, quality will always beat quantity. 

At Oregon’s Finest (OF), our purchasing team searches out quality first and foremost, so you’ll know what is on the shelf is the best possible representation of that product. As the company’s founders always say, “The strain is only as good as the grower.” Here are three tips to help ensure your vendors are worthy of your store: 

1. Work with transparent vendors. 

OF has an extensive and rigorous transparency process to ensure our customers are consuming the best cannabis products in Oregon. Each vendor must provide samples, extensive lab tests, detailed information about their company practices and processes, and agree to allow OF’s buying team to tour their facility at any time. 

The OF process requires vendors to disclose all grow methods and nutrients used. We ask vendors to specify their extraction methods for concentrated products, including all ingredients (including flower source), solvents, sources for any added terpenes and intended uses. 

2. Work with third-party certified vendors. 

As a Clean Green Certified dispensary, OF partners with other third-party certified companies. Due to federal restrictions, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certifications cannot apply to cannabis businesses. Many cannabis companies use these third-party certifications, such as Clean Green and Certified KIND, to help them distinguish themselves from farms with conventional methods. That said, some vendors might not be able to afford a certification, so keep an open-mind and check if their processes meet those same standards. 

3. Don’t be shy about discussing ethics. 

Consider a company’s ethics when selecting your vendors. At OF, we give preference to companies who focus on sustainable business practices by being involved in their community, having earth-friendly processes, offering employee benefits and paying a living wage. Try to find vendors who relate and align with your mission statement, and don’t be afraid to trust your gut if something feels off. 

Justin Lipchitz is the general manager for Oregon’s Finest. He started with the company just as recreational cannabis became legal in Oregon. Lipchitz began working in the cannabis industry after moving to Oregon from the East Coast, where he acquired years of knowledge in both the fine dining and retail industries.

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Ethical Questions Posed by Cannabis Proprietary Protections

Protecting industry secrets sparks high competition and patent wars.

The legalization of cannabis (and hemp) has spiraled down many interesting rabbit holes, one of which is the evolving pursuit of plant patents and protections. A lot is riding on botanical invention within a global industry expected to reach nearly 100 billion USD by 2027 (15.26 billion hemp and 73.6 billion legal cannabis).

But cannabis is an industry built on the backs of clandestine breeding programs. Furthermore, many cultivators are still passionate about patient-controlled medicine. The growing drive for cannabis and hemp plant patents pose an ethical dilemma to the sector.

PLANT PATENTS PROTECT THE CORPORATE SIDE OF THE INDUSTRY 

Both the backyard breeder and the industrial-scale producer can easily breed new cannabis cultivars. The main difference is the investment, as the producer pumps much more into the program than the backyard breeder. A new strain, with exceptional disease resistance, an exciting cannabinoid profile, or other unique characteristics, can provide exponential returns. A commercial grower lays their money, name, and future on the line with these genetic inventions. Financially speaking, it makes sense to protect these new botanical strains against the competition, and have a chance to reap the financial returns.

This need to protect the financial investment is the driving force behind plant patents. At the most elemental level, a patent provides financial protections to the inventor (in this case, the breeder). Upon approval, a patent ensures that the inventor can hold exclusive rights to the invention for the life of the patent. Whether it’s a new technology, pharmaceutical, or a unique cultivar, the same principle holds.

Although other crops have long had the option of plant patent protection, this is a relatively new development for hemp (and still not on the table for cannabis). As patent lawyer Jeremy Kapteyn discussed with KUNR in 2019, “the race is on for cannabis producers to secure the rights to their inventions.” In his opinion, protections like these help legitimize an emerging industry, meaning patents will quickly transform cannabis from a back yard, black market crop into an all-out-corporate industry.

GROWING DRIVE FOR CANNABIS PATENTS IGNORES THE PAST

Even Kapteyn recognizes this move to proprietary protections will not play fair. He explained, “there’s going to be winners and losers. It’s not a merit-based system. It’s whoever’s first and has the most money.” Small craft producers, who have transitioned from the black market to the open market may have invested years into specialized cultivars, but all this could be taken away with an aggressive move by a more financed commercial operation.

It’s impossible to discuss the ethics of cannabis and hemp patents without discussing the plant’s recent and illicit history. Although cannabis is now legal in a growing number of countries and states, it wasn’t that long ago that it existed only in the black market. This illicit history forced cannabis breeding programs underground and pitted producers and consumers against the government.

Cannabis advocates have a long history of distrust for government, bureaucracy, and regulation – and rightly so. There is also a strong tradition of medical cannabis patients who turned to the plant as a rejection of Big Pharma and corporate control. Cannabis has long offered people personal control over their own lives, and they have fought hard to maintain this control.

With hemp and likely soon, THC-rich cannabis, getting swept under the control of large corporate entities through proprietary protections, this old guard of cannabis advocates remains staunchly opposed to corporate greed and botanical takeovers. From their standpoint, cannabis (and especially medical cannabis) is a plant for the people, not corporate profits.

LESSONS FROM THE MONSANTO EXAMPLE

Patent fear isn’t just a holdover from a black market of regulation. Cannabis cultivators have watched patent wars play out in other agricultural settings, like the now-famous examples from Monsanto.

Monsanto, an agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology, has long patented it’s biological and chemical innovations and followed up with fierce litigations against hundreds of farmers who often unknowingly break the rules. Under most Monsanto patents and licensee agreements, their genetically engineered seeds (for potato, wheat, rapeseed, soybeans, and more) may be planted and harvested, but the seeds of these plants may not be collected and planted again.

But despite Monsanto’s fierce control of their genetic property, nature still controls the winds and pollination patterns. In some cases, farmers have replanted seed collected or harvested seeds from windblown crops, cross-pollinated with Monsanto’s cultivars. Monsanto continues to take these farmers to court for stealing protected property. Monsanto, a company worth 60 billion USD, has one every single lawsuit it has pursued against these small-scale farmers.

Cannabis cultivators see the Monsanto precedent and worry about cannabis. With hundreds, if not thousands, of unique cannabis cultivars available, could these long-standing strains snapped up by commercial grow operations with deep pockets?

NO STRAIGHT ANSWER ON THE ETHICS OF PLANT PATENTS AND PROTECTIONS 

The nascent cannabis sector has long held itself apart from commercial conventions. This is especially true in comparison to the conventional agricultural industry. But as the cannabis and hemp sector grows, cannabis is going corporate. A bigger market and bigger payoffs mean the industry is leaning into more competitive business practices.

One aggressive move by a big commercial grow, could financially devastate long-time growers who have worked for generations to cultivate award-winning strains. Furthermore, plant patents may even threaten patient rights. Could patients eventually be excluded from growing their medicine depending on how cannabis and hemp plant patent scheme develops? For the older generation of cannabis entrepreneurs and advocates, the business of prosperity patents is a terrifying evolution.