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Illinois Supreme Court orders consolidation of lawsuits by applicants challenging the recreational cannabis licensing process

The Illinois Supreme Court ordered the consolidation of lawsuits filed by cannabis dispensary license applicants in an attempt to resolve multiple claims challenging the fairness of the licensing process.

At the request of the Illinois attorney general’s office, the court ordered that several cases be heard together, which could help decide the fate of all 185 new recreational marijuana retail licenses.

The awarding of those licenses have been held up indefinitely by Cook County Judge Moshe Jacobius while he decides a case involving two applicants, WAH Group LLC and HAAAYY LLC vs. Bret Bender, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR), which awards the licenses.

The Supreme Court Monday ordered that a suit by Magic Sparks LLC, against the IDFPR, be transferred from DuPage County to Cook County. There it would be combined with the WAH case, as well as suits by High Haven Dispensary LLC, Green Equity Ventures 1 and Hempathy LLC, under the heading of High Haven.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office had argued in court papers that combining the cases would avoid potentially conflicting rulings.

The licensing process has been in turmoil since early 2020, when state officials delayed it, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic. In September 2020, only 21 out of more than 700 applicants were given perfect scores on their license applications, qualifying them for a lottery to award 75 licenses.

Many of the applicants qualifying were owned by wealthy, politically connected white men, in contrast to the goal of the licensing law, which was to give preference to “social equity” applicants, defined as those from poor areas or neighborhoods most affected by high arrests and prosecutions for cannabis crimes.

Numerous applicants complained or filed suit alleging that the scoring process was riddled with errors. The scoring, conducted by consultant KPMG, resulted in identical exhibits receiving different scores, while some applicants said they were never notified of deficiencies in their applications, as was required by law.

In response, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration announced it would rescore the applications that didn’t qualify. Lawmakers also passed a measure to create 110 new licenses with easier scoring requirements. This summer, three lotteries were held to choose who would qualify for the licenses. A fourth lottery for six applicants who sued, challenging their exclusion from the lotteries, was pending court approval.

The lawsuits claim, among other things, that the law’s awarding of five points to veteran-owned applicants is unconstitutional, and that the rescoring process was unlawful. Magic Sparks claimed it was unfairly excluded because state regulators unfairly failed to recognize that its owner lived in an area that qualified for social equity status.

Green Equity alleges that regulators erroneously awarded social equity points based on the residences of its employees, not its owners. High Haven, Magic Sparks, Green Equity, Hempathy, Haaayy and WAH all claim they were unfairly excluded from the lotteries, and High Haven wants to rerun all three lotteries. ReNu IL LLC, Truerb LLC and Leafsie LLC, also joined in the suits.

The attorney general’s office conceded that the court may decide to rerun the original lotteries, or run corrective lotteries only for the excluded applicants. The court may also decide whether the plaintiffs would replace previous winners, or be awarded additional licenses.

Because of procedural questions involved in consolidating the cases, Jacobius delayed the WAH case until Oct. 28, but the cases are likely to take much longer to resolve. In the meantime, all the applicants have been burning money to maintain properties or employees, while not being able to open their businesses.

Cannabis Industry Statistics 2021 How the essential industry performed last year

The nice thing about a rapidly-growing industry is the proliferation of new data and insights. We scoured the internet to find the most important and relevant marijuana statistics for North America for 2021.

In this report, you’ll see marijuana consumption stats, the national sentiment around weed acceptance, cannabis market growth, employment trends, and legal facts.

Let’s dive into the findings.

Key findings:

  • 12% of Americans are active marijuana users.
  • Nationwide cannabis sales increased 67% in 2020.
  • Support for legal marijuana is at an all-time high of 68%.
  • The U.S. cannabis industry is worth $61 billion.
  • Cannabis capital raises declined 67% in 2020.
  • Senior-level salaries increased in 2020.

1. Marijuana usage statistics

12% of Americans identified as “current users”

The most recent Gallup poll (from 2019), shows that 12% of Americans are active marijuana users, which is down slightly (from 13% in 2016).

From 2013 to 2016, the number of people who use marijuana nearly doubled. Since then, the rate of use has stayed relatively flat.

U.S. marijuana use statistics 2021
Image source: Gallup

22% of Americans aged 18 – 25 used marijuana in the past month

The National Institute of Drug Abuse shows lower numbers compared to Gallup for their most recent survey (2018).

That survey has 8.6% of individuals over 26 years of age identifying as having used marijuana in the past month (which correlates to the Gallup criteria for being a current user). This number is up from 7.9% in their 2017 study.

Meanwhile, 22.1% of 18 – 25-year-olds say they’ve used marijuana in the past month. Half of all people over 18 have used marijuana in their lifetime.

American marijuana use over the past month
Image source: National Institute of Drug Abuse

Worldwide, the United Nations estimates that 192 million people used marijuana in 2018.

Cannabis consumers diversified (though gender is nearing 50/50)

The cannabis consumer continues to diversify.

The 2020 report from Eaze, a cannabis delivery service in the San Francisco Bay Area, shows the divide in gender disappearing, especially in the boomer age group.

New cannabis customers by gender
Image source: Eaze

Regarding age, Eaze’s 2019 report showed consumers age 50+ increasing by 105%. They also purchased 67% more topicals than in 2018. 

2020 sales by generation from dispensaries using Flowhub shows the generational breakdown of customers as: 

2020 Cannabis Sales by Generation

Medical

  • Gen Z17%
  • Millennials42%
  • Gen X23%
  • Boomers17%
  • Silent Gen1%

Recreational

  • Gen Z17%
  • Millennials48%
  • Gen X21%
  • Boomers13%
  • Silent Gen1%

Similarly, cannabis data firm, Headset, found that from 2019 to 2020, Generation Z had 127% sales growth, compared to just 5% for boomers.

This could be due to Gen Z aging into the market every day, but the pandemic also played a role in older generations and their willingness to go out and shop (or use ecommerce).

Total cannabis sales 2020 by age group
Image source: Headset

Nationwide sales increased 67% in 2020

Analysts attribute this massive increase both to changing public perception, but also to the pandemic. More home-bound than ever, and with ongoing fear of shutdowns, people stocked up on cannabis to the tune of nearly $18 billion

Flowhub data from the State of the Cannabis Industry 2020 report shows the percent change in total sales from 2019 to 2020.

Cannabis sales data - percent change from 2019 to 2020
Image source: Flowhub

Even during the summer of 2020, when most states were shut down, dispensaries saw increased average order size and thus, increased revenue, even as people shopped less frequently. 

Delivery and online ordering reigned supreme

Online ordering, curbside pickup, and delivery were big trends in 2020 that helped consumers get their products quickly and safely. 

According to Eaze, in the 30 days following the March 13 declaration of a national emergency, new delivery customer sign-ups jumped by nearly 60%.

Similarly, the State of the Cannabis Industry found that stores with order ahead enabled sold 22% more on average compared to stores without order ahead. Not surprisingly, tech companies in cannabis ecommerce, like Dutchie, dramatically increased their market share in 2020.

Cannabis product type preferences changed

As consumers change, so do their THC preferences.

In 2019, Eaze saw vape sales decrease by 15% after “vape gate.” Those consumers turned toward edibles (up 24% in Oct. 2019).

2020 followed suit, with edibles being the most popular product category, accounting for 22% of all sales for Eaze.

Speculation was that because COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, consumers would shift away from inhalables.

Leaflink, a cannabis industry wholesale marketplace, found that at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, inhalables remained popular. And that trend continued throughout 2020, despite flower shortages in some key states like California and Colorado. 

Cannabis product category breakdown for 2020
Image source: LeafLink

14% of Americans used CBD products

CBD is a broad category, and has hit mainstream since becoming federally legal in 2018. While marijuana users and CBD users may be different, it’s important to note usage in this group. 

According to Gallup, 14% of all U.S. adults use CBD. This jumps to 20% for those ages 18-29. 

Perhaps most interesting is the question of familiarity with CBD products: 49% of those age 65+ are unfamiliar with CBD (compared to just 26% of those age 18-29). 

Americans' use of CBD products in 2020
Image source: Gallup

The same study found the most common reasons for using CBD include:

  • Pain – 40%
  • Anxiety – 20%
  • Sleep/Insomnia – 11%
  • Arthritis – 8%
  • Migraines/Headaches – 5%

2. Acceptance of recreational marijuana

Recreational use is legal in 12 U.S. states

As of January 2021, 12 states have legalized the use of recreational cannabis (in addition to medical marijuana) for individuals over age 21: California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Colorado, Nevada, Vermont, Michigan, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Arizona (plus the District of Columbia).

Legal cannabis map 2020
Image source: Business Insider

During the 2020 election, Arizona voted to legalize recreational and started sales in late January. Montana and New Jersey also voted to legalize adult-use. South Dakota voted in favor of medical and recreational simultaneously.

Two in three Americans support marijuana legalization

According to a Gallup poll, support for legal marijuana is at an all-time high of 68%. Among 18 to 29-year-olds, that support rises to 79%. In 2018, 66% of all Americans supported legalization.

The first time Gallup took the same poll, in 1969, just 12% of American held the same view.

Currently 48% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats are in favor, showing that recreational legalization at the state level in Republican-dominated states still has a way to go. Between 2018 and 2020, Republican support for legalization decreased (from 53% to 48%), while Democrat support jumped (from 71% to 83%). 

That said, several traditionally red states have entered the cannabis market with gusto, including Oklahoma. 

More Americans support legal cannabis than ever before
Image source: Gallup

3. Growth of the medical marijuana market

Medical cannabis is now legal in 34 US states

Cannabis is also now legal in 34 states for medical purposes: Hawaii, Montana, Rhode Island, New Mexico, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, North Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, Missouri. And the 12 states that also have recreational marijuana: California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Colorado, Nevada, Vermont, Michigan, Massachusetts, Illinois, Arizona, and the District of Columbia.

Election day 2020 was big for medical marijuana: Mississippi voted to legalize medical, and South Dakota passed legislation for both med and rec. 

Time from medical to recreational to first sale shortened

As the industry matures, we’re seeing significantly less time from when medical weed is first legalized, to the first recreational sale. 

According to Marijuana Business Daily, California took 7,308 days from med to rec to first sale. Massachusetts, just 1,463 days. 

Time from med to rec to first sale is getting shorter
Image source: Marijuana Business Daily

4. Cannabis market opportunity

The U.S. cannabis industry is worth $61 billion

Every year, analysts predict what the cannabis industry is worth. And every year that number exceeds expectations.

The U.S. cannabis industry is now projected to be worth $100 billion USD by 2030.

For reference, in 2019, Wall Street’s top cannabis analyst, Cowen Vivien Azer, predicted it’d be $80 billion by 2030

The U.S. cannabis industry is worth $61 billion
Image source: Business Insider

Illinois: first year of MMJ sales topped $1 billion

Recreational sales started in Illinois in January 2020, and total sales numbers (including both med and rec) topped $1 billion dollars by December.

That’s over 14.5 million products sold — with 25% going to out-of-state residents.

Illinois cannabis sales tops $1 billion in first year
Image source: Marijuana Business Daily

States smashed prior years’ sales records, despite COVID-19

2020 was an odd year, with the onset of a global pandemic, quickly-changing local regulations, and an eventual “essential” status for cannabis businesses. 

Throughout all this, though, several states crushed prior year sales records, including mature markets like California, Oregon, and Colorado.

Marijuana Business Daily says experts expect this trend of increasing market size to continue. 

Several key cannabis markets crushed prior sales records in 2020
Image source: Marijuana Business Daily

Cannabis capital raises declined in 2020

Investments into cannabis brands, including capital raises, slowed dramatically in 2020.

However, once dispensaries were deemed essential, investors showed renewed interest. $2.6 billion was raised in the first half of 2020 — a 67% decline.

However, following a Democratic election, North American cannabis companies raised over $1.6 billion in January 2021 alone.

Cannabis capital raises 2016-2021
Image source: Marijuana Business Daily

5. Employment demand

2020 staffing stalled during COVID-19; resumed pace by year-end

The 2020 Cannabis Industry Salary Guide from staffing agency, Vangst, found that most companies were planning to increase headcount in 2020.

However, the immediate reaction once the pandemic swept the U.S. was to maintain or even reduce headcount.

Cannabis hiring plans 2020
Image source: Vangst

Hiring bounced back by Fall 2020. And while mature markets, like Denver, LA, Portland, and Seattle were hotspots for hiring cannabis-experienced professionals, the place to look for job seekers wanting to enter the industry are new legal marijuana markets are Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Tulsa, St. Louis, Reno, Tucson, Newark, and Philly.

Senior-level cannabis salaries increased in 2020

According to Vangst’s survey of marijuana industry professionals, median salary for retail roles increased in 2020 (compared to 2019).

Dispensary General Manager salaries increased by 13% and Director of Retail Operations saw a healthy 22% increase. 

2020 cannabis retail salaries
Image source: Vangst

See the report for details on salaries for retailers, cultivators, extractors, and more.

20,000 new cannabis jobs expected in 5 years

As new states enter the legal market, with it comes new cannabis workers.

Vangst found that in the new states alone — Montana, South Dakota, New Jersey, Arizona, and Mississippi — 26,000 new jobs are expected in the next five years. Nearly 20,000 jobs are anticipated in New Jersey alone.

Thousands of cannabis jobs are currently posted on Glassdoor nationwide.

6. Legal updates

Cannabis won the 2020 elections

Every cannabis-related ballot measure in 2020 passed, including a few new medical markets, and several new recreational markets.

South Dakota was the first state to legalize medical and recreational marijuana at the same time. 

And with 1 in 3 Americans now living in legal states, the rest of the U.S. is facing pressure to legalize as well. 

Immediately after the election, with Joe Biden winning and Democrats taking control of the House and Senate, legalization conversations intensified.

New York, followed by the rest of the Northeast, is making headlines with plans to move legalization forward, recognizing the economic impact and tax revenue of legalization and the desire to stay competitive with neighboring states.

Democratic Senators eye federal legalization

In early February 2021, top Democratic Senators made waves with talks of legalizing marijuana federally. The conversation went from “if” to “when.” 

While any decision and corresponding nationwide changes would be slow, this proves to be the first time that conversations are likely to move past both the House and Senate.

New U.S. Cannabis Council advocates for federal legalization

Several top cannabis businesses, associations, and advocacy organizations joined to create the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC).

The mission of the council is to “align and unify its members’ collective voices to advance cannabis reform” and also to “focus on securing federal reforms that advance social equity and promote fair, safe, and well-regulated markets nationwide as states continue legalizing cannabis at a rapid rate.”

Cannabis-Infused Gummies Continued to Grow in 2020

According to executives from cannabis edibles manufacturers Wana Brands and Dixie Brands, the companies’ biggest takeaway in 2020 was that edibles—and particularly gummies—could continue their steady growth, even in the wake of a global pandemic.

“Over time, the gummy has continued to be a pretty massive part of the edibles industry,” Wana Brands Chief Marketing Officer Joe Hodas told Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary.

Edibles represent roughly 15% of sales in the legal cannabis market, according to a recent webinar from BDSA. The U.S. edibles market is dominated by candy, which makes up 67% of edibles sales, according to the webinar, and gummies are the most popular form of candy, making up 85% of candy sales.

Despite limited travel and remote working conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wana was able to capitalize on the popularity of the gummies category this year through its launch in Oklahoma, Maryland and Canada, and it plans to launch into Florida and Missouri by the start of 2021.

To conduct the necessary training with its partners in the new markets, Wana created a video series covering product formulations, SOPs and more.

In addition to expanding to new markets this year, Wana also launched its new Quick line of fast-acting gummies in March.

“We partnered with a company called Azuca because they have a technology that allows … the cannabis molecules to be encapsulated in a way that does not get absorbed through digestion,” Hodas said. “You still digest the gummy as you would normally, but in terms of the activation of the cannabis, it goes directly into the bloodstream, so it gives an onset time for most people anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes.”

Gummies are also a major part of Dixie Brands’ product portfolio, and Andrew Floor, SVP of Marketing for Dixie’s parent company, BellRock Brands, said the company differentiates itself by ensuring the entire consumption experience is the best it can possibly be, rather than just viewing edibles products as a delivery vehicle for cannabis.

“Yes, we want to make sure we have the right potency levels and the right flavors in place, but then it’s also about, what’s the shape of the gummy?” Floor said. “What’s the size? How’s it going to be coated, and is that complementary to the flavors in the gummy?”

Floor said Dixie’s gummies experienced “fantastic growth” in 2020 despite this year’s challenges.

“We had the momentum, and then we rode the wave of increased purchasing and consumption of cannabis products,” he said. “For us, 2020 was primarily about making sure we could keep up with demand. It wasn’t about cutting corners. It wasn’t about finding a way to increase productivity at … the expense of the quality of our products. It was about, how do we integrate with the industry? How do we make sure we are doing everything we can from a safety perspective, from a supply perspective, to help our customers maintain their business and their supply for their consumer base, as well?”

According to Floor, “edibles are on fire,” and not just in newer and rapidly growing cannabis markets, such as California, but also in more mature markets like Colorado.

“We’re not even hitting our tipping point yet,” Floor said. “As the canna-curious start moving in, it’s the edibles and the gummies that the people are looking for. It’s an exciting product segment to be in right now.”

Dixie has expanded its edibles product line from its home state of Colorado and into Michigan and California, and the company plans to launch in Oklahoma and potentially Maryland next year.

Dixie’s THC gummy flavors, which include Sour Smash, Tropic Twist, Citric Blast and Berry Blaze, are meant to align with trends in the broader candy market, not just the cannabis market, Floor said.

“We don’t want to look at what everyone else is doing from a flavor perspective and put that into the market,” he said. “We want to open up new markets and bring new flavors into play. We are constantly looking at and keeping our finger on the pulse of consumer trends and behaviors outside of our industry.”

In January, Dixie will launch a new spicy mango flavored gummy to continue providing variety to its customers.

“They don’t want the same thing all the time, so I think providing variety and keeping the flavors on the cutting edge of consumer palates and consumer trends is the smart thing to do,” Floor said.

More Growth Means More Innovation

Edibles sales grew roughly 24% year-over-year from 2019 to 2020, according to BDSA’s webinar, and looking ahead to 2021, the Dixie and Wana teams don’t expect the popularity of gummies to slow down at all.  

As it expands, Hodas anticipates that the market will continue to break out into two distinct categories: value brands and premium brands.

“I think that’s going to be a good thing for the gummy market as a whole because there will be price compression, and I think the ability for brands to identify with consumers against their strengths and differentiate from one another is going to be critical,” he said.

Wana aims to be a premium brand, Hodas added, and innovation remains a primary goal as the company heads into next year.

“With the launch of our Quick products and with a number of our products that we have in development that we hope to launch in 2021, innovation is going to be a huge, huge tentpole for us,” he said.

While it continues to innovate and grow in its current markets—including Arizona, where  the company is excited for growth opportunities following adult-use legalization—Wana is also eyeing new states, including New Jersey, which also legalized adult-use cannabis in the 2020 election.

Wana will also continue its push for diversity and inclusion in the industry, building upon its Cannabis for Justice website that launched in September with resources for cannabis companies to broaden their understanding of social justice and systematic racism, and tools to make their companies more inclusive .

“We made a decision that this is a path we’re going down,” Hodas said. “Our customers don’t have to see eye to eye with us on that. They can make decisions as to what products they purchase, but we’re going to continue to focus on that into 2021, as well.”

The company also has its eye on the possibility of federal legalization, especially since the U.S. House voted to pass the MORE Act earlier this month to deschedule cannabis.

“I think cannabis for the foreseeable future, and not too much longer, will continue to be this game of ping pong until the new administration comes in and things begin to settle down,” Hodas said. “My hope and belief is that some good, hard work will go into figuring out, what is that path forward? And I think we’ll see some clarity there.”

And in the meantime, Wana will continue to evaluate its customers’ needs and meet those needs with product innovation.

“We don’t think of ourselves as a CPG company,” Hodas said. “We think of ourselves as a cannabis company, and I think that’s a big difference. We’re not looking to, what’s our next flavor? Or, are we going to get into chocolates? We’re looking at this as delivery systems, and what is the best delivery system that allows us to respond to our patients’ needs? And I think that’s going to drive our innovation pipeline for 2021.”

Floor said Dixie will continue to focus on bringing more exotic flavors to market to keep up with what he views as an important consumer trend.

“I think you’re going to start seeing the gummy elevate from old school sweet shop flavors into more mature, … adult flavor trends,” he said.

Floor also sees microdosing as another important trend heading into 2021.

“Right now, 10 mg [of THC] is the equivalent of a standard drink in the adult beverage world, but that’s still a lot for a lot of people, especially when you start thinking about the canna-curious and people who are looking to come into the category,” he said. “So, bringing those individual unit dosages down so that the consumer can be in more control of the effect that they’re feeling is one aspect of it.”

And while Floor said it is important to appeal to the canna-curious consumer who may be trying cannabis edibles for the first time, the industry is also slowly becoming more sophisticated, and more experienced consumers are demanding more from products.

“Let’s understand what they’re looking for and let’s make sure we’re delivering what they’re looking for versus just doing what we’ve always done,” Floor said.

Like Wana, Dixie aims to continue improving upon its products as it heads into 2021, and the company remains focused on R&D and exploring new technologies to meet consumers’ everchanging demands.

“I think it comes back to ensuring as deep an understanding of consumers as we can get,” Floor said. “I think we understand where they are now, but we also want to understand where they’re headed, so we can give them the flavors they want, the potency levels that they want and the entire consumption experience that they’re looking for.”

If interested in learning about infusing gummies click here for classes

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.”

10 Tips for a Winning Cannabis Dispensary License

Five licensing consultants, attorneys and operators who have secured licenses in competitive cannabis markets share tips on how to create a winning dispensary license application.

Winning a coveted dispensary license is your golden ticket into the competitive cannabis market. The license application process is more demanding than ever, and it can be tricky to navigate all the nuances—especially if you’ve never done it before. But there are a few secrets to creating an application that stands out. 

Cannabis Dispensary spoke with five licensing consultants, attorneys and operators who have secured licenses in competitive cannabis markets: 

Jonathan Havens, co-chair of the Cannabis Law Practice at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP, resident in the firm’s Baltimore and Washington, D.C., offices. 

Erin Alexander, associate general counsel for Cresco Labs, a Chicago-based cannabis grower, processor and retailer operating in seven states. 

Sara Gullickson, CEO of Item 9 Labs Corp., a publicly traded cannabis company specializing in the development of cannabis products and proprietary delivery platforms. Gullickson also owns the Strive Life of North Dakota dispensary, and Strive Wellness of Nevada LLC, a medical cannabis cultivation and processing facility with distribution rights. Gullickson previously served as the CEO and founder of Dispensary Permits, a nationally recognized cannabis consulting firm that won multiple cannabis licenses across more than a dozen competitive state markets. 

John Darwin, founder and president of ONE Cannabis Group, a vertically integrated cannabis operator and franchisor based in Denver. 

Armen Yemenidjian, co-founder and CEO of Integral Associates LLC, a retail and wholesale cannabis operator that has been awarded licenses in Nevada and California. Integral Associates operates Essence Cannabis Dispensary on the Las Vegas strip, as well as Desert Grown Farms and Cannabiotix NV, its cultivation and processing facilities. 

Here are their tips on how to create a winning dispensary license application. 

1. Understand your state’s application quirks. 

Sara Gullickson: “This industry, specifically the licensing process, is still very new. Each state has its idiosyncrasies, and the application process in Pennsylvania was much different than in Hawaii or Arizona. In some states, specifically California and Michigan, you have to get local jurisdiction support in addition to the state’s blessing. In those situations, the municipality’s application process is more rigorous than the state’s.” 

2. Secure real estate with the appropriate zoning. 

Erin Alexander: “The first step is looking at the regulations to figure out the setback requirements—where can you be, where can’t you be: 1,000 feet from a church, 500 feet from a school? Finding real estate is the most difficult and challenging part of the process; finding places that meet the setback requirements, but also meet your requirements to be able to operate the business. Have Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, because everything ends up being more complicated than you anticipated.” 

Jonathan Havens: “Make sure you can put your dispensary where you want to put it. In some states, the siting process is part of the application process, but sometimes you’ll get a pre-award from the state and then you need to go to the town, and that’s where people get tripped up. Having zoning approval from the local [municipality] is critical.” 

3. Establish security protocols. 

Havens: “Remember that the product you’re dealing with is federally illegal, so security is very important. Even though these states say you can sell it in a dispensary, they want to make sure you have a very tight control over what you’re selling. If you can’t control your product and it’s getting into people’s hands who are underage or don’t have a medical card, that’s the quickest way to lose your license. States are very focused on that, so you can’t overlook having a strong plan in your application to address security.” 

Dispensary Do’s & Don’ts 

DO: Pursue the industry because your skill-set complements this business. 

DON’T: Pursue the industry for profits only. 

DO: Over-plan and research: Dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to the project. 

DON’T: Under-plan: Thinking this will be a walk in the park will land your application in the loser’s pile. 

DO: Ensure your entity is all-inclusive: Diversity matters. 

DON’T: Only include wealthy white men. 

DO: Save for a rainy day: If you think your venture is going to be $500,000, multiply that by four and raise that much capital. 

DON’T: Try to fund the project solo: You will most likely come up short. Cannabis businesses are more expensive than you think! 

DO: Call an industry expert. 

DON’T: Think, ‘It’s just dispensing a plant.’ It’s much more complicated. You will save time, energy and heartache if you call in a pro. 

DO: Rethink real estate: Retrain your brain on what’s a good location—it’s where the city will have you, not in a high-traffic strip mall. 

DON’T: Undervalue how much time it will take you to secure a building/location: This is not a typical landlord-tenant relationship. 

— Sara Gullickson, CEO, Item 9 Labs Corp.

4. Build a strong team with experience. 

John Darwin: “Assemble a great team. Licenses are getting more and more competitive, so someone with a strong pharmaceutical background [for medical dispensaries] or a good government relations background is a great addition to your team. Make sure your team has operating experience. A lot of these licenses are merit-based, so being able to reference a track record of compliance and operational excellence in another state is huge. Also do background checks on all of your team members, because there are key items that can come up and derail the whole process.” 

Havens: “Having an accountant who has worked with clients in the cannabis space is critical. You don’t want to be their guinea pig while they learn the accounting and tax rules. Also have strong legal support, whether that’s an in-house attorney and/or an outside law firm with experience, because questions are going to come up that need quick answers, and you want to have them in your contact list when those questions come up.”

5. Get involved with the local community.

Alexander: “I think the best piece of advice is: Be connected to the community where you want to locate. That can be the secret sauce to winning an application. A lot of people know how to run a dispensary, but you have to spend the time attending city council meetings and engaging with local elected officials so they trust you and so they understand what you can bring to the community. Part of that is also engaging with civic and charitable organizations, finding out what the local priorities are, so you can be a good neighbor and a good steward of the community values.” 

Havens: “A lot of people overlook an aspect of the application that I’m always quick to tell clients to focus on, which is community engagement and education. You can understand the opposition if you take the time to get out and have educational events that show that you’re not just trying to make money, but you really do care about the community. If you have events that are open to the community, not just people who are purchasing your product, you might win people over and you might ward off potential opposition down the road.” 

Gullickson: “Research the specific town or jurisdiction and figure out: ‘Is it red or blue? What are the pain points in the community; are they environmental or are they opiate-related?’ Then pull in some community leaders who focus on those pain points, to make sure you’re hyper-focused on the community. We put together sophisticated community benefits programs that address how we’re going to give back. We build parks, we build sidewalks, we’ve funded little league teams and hosted clothing drives—whatever the area needs. When you contribute to your communities, they’re so much more welcoming.” 

6. Budget more capital than you think you’ll need. 

Alexander: “It can get expensive. You’re obviously going to need application fees and license fees, which can range from a $500 application fee to a $30,000 license fee that you might get refunded if you don’t win. But then you’ve got property hold fees. You’re going to be paying attorneys to review documents. You’re going to be paying planners and architects to design your site. You might be paying both a planner and a zoning attorney to help you through the zoning process. From soup to nuts, I think a fair budget for a good-quality application is probably half a million dollars—which is crazy, but that’s what it takes. There’s a lot of moving pieces to making this successful.” 

Darwin: “We advise clients to have the available liquid funds to cover capital expenses over the course of a year. You want to be making money by the end of that year, but if there’s a rainy day, you want to be well-capitalized to survive.” 

Armen Yemenidjian: “Understand it is a highly competitive market. Because there are so many competing applicants, it’s imperative to have a clear, concise plan with a budget and a path to victory. Applicants need to demonstrate they will be successful if awarded the license. You need to not only have the budget to pay for the application, but also show regulators you have the capital to [operate the business successfully].” 

7. Get a head start before applications are released. 

Gullickson: “When you’re proactive in putting a business plan together and engaging in the state’s programming before the rules and regulations are even finalized, you’re going to position yourself light-years ahead of somebody that just gets the idea to throw an application in when it’s published. My most recent successes are the clients that we’ve spent eight months or a year with, building their team and making sure they had a solid foundation on which to apply.” 

Havens: “The No. 1 thing is to not wait until the last minute. The application timeline is going to be shorter than you want, so look for business partners prior to the application coming out. Attend meetings of medical cannabis commissions to understand what’s coming down the pike and when that next round of licenses is going to be dropped. Get your plans in order. The more elements you have to populate your application before they’re even dropped publicly is going to give you a leg up.” 

8. Impose internal deadlines. 

Havens: “Submission day always goes quicker than you think. It would be nice if everyone on the team could operate with the assumption that this is really due the day before it’s due, because there are always unforeseen circumstances. 

“A lot of states require hand-delivery, so you can’t be finalizing things the day of. Have a single point person who’s the final arbiter of [deadlines, who determines,] ‘What time do we need to stop editing and head over to the state agency to make sure it gets in on time?’ 

“Some states have electronic submissions now, and to the extent they allow you to do a test submission, absolutely do that. If it’s due at 5:00, I wouldn’t start trying at 4:30 to upload a 700-page document. Start late morning at the latest, because there are always issues, and sometimes you can’t get the regulators on the phone to say, ‘What do I do now?’” 

“From soup to nuts, I think a fair budget for a good-quality application is probably half a million dollars—which is crazy, but that’s what it takes.” 

–Erin Alexander, associate general counsel, Cresco Labs

9. Turn a boring application into a creative story. 

Darwin: “Some companies have full teams of technical writers that have graded these types of applications before. That’s who you’re competing against, so it’s important to have a strong technical writing team.” 

Alexander: “Write it in such a way that it’s easy to follow. These end up being massive legal writing projects, so taking the time to put together a very well-written piece will help you stand out. [That requires] … good writers and good subject-matter experts. We have a couple attorneys that work on applications, and we have technical writers that have some operational expertise and can write about our operational practice [so it’s] readable to somebody who may or may not be familiar with how a dispensary operates.” 

Gullickson: “You can hire a technical writer to put your application together, but if you don’t have style and grace and an overarching theme throughout your application, it’s not going to stick out. Who wants to read 100 security plans? Nobody. So how can you create a theme or a story and be really creative in your presentation?” 

10. Partner with industry consultants who have done this before. 

Yemenidjian: “If you’ve never operated a dispensary before, you probably could have gotten away with writing your own application five or six years ago. Now, the process has become so advanced, applicants must have an understanding of technical writing and standard operating procedures to be successful—especially because there are more criteria now, such as community engagement, corporate responsibility and social citizenship, that are being taken into consideration.” 

Havens: “If you go at this alone and don’t involve consultants who know the cannabis business, it’s an uphill climb. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but one of the reasons you see a lot of national or multi-state operators is, obviously they want economies of scale and they want to broaden their footprint, but local interests need their help. It’s hard to populate an operational plan, a clinical plan and a security plan if you haven’t done it before.” 

Gullickson: “I don’t urge working with an expert because I want clients; I urge working with an expert because … you’re just not going to win if you don’t know all these idiosyncrasies, no matter how much you research on the internet. The devil’s in the details with the application, so you need that industry expertise; it’s mandatory. States don’t feel comfortable anymore giving licenses to somebody that doesn’t have the experience.”

Cresco Labs Announces Approval for Tenth Illinois Dispensary in Naperville

The adult-use dispensary is located in one of the busiest shopping areas in Naperville, the third largest city in Illinois with approximately 150,000 residents.

CHICAGO – September 22, 2020 — PRESS RELEASE — Cresco Labs, one of the largest vertically integrated multistate cannabis operators in the United States, has announced the approval and the location of its tenth Illinois dispensary in Naperville. The adult-use dispensary is located in one of the busiest shopping areas in Naperville, the third largest city in Illinois with approximately 150,000 residents. 

“We have been consistent in choosing locations for our dispensaries in Illinois, focusing on high traffic areas in traditional retail enivronments. Sunnyside* Schaumburg, which is adjacent to Illinois’ busiest mall and our new Naperville dispensary, which shares a block with Costco, Walmart and Starbucks, are great examples of this strategy,” said Charlie Bachtell, Cresco Labs’ CEO and co-founder. “Our approach of meeting the consumer where they are and providing a normalized cannabis shopping experience is allowing our dispensaries in Illinois and all Sunnyside stores nationwide to outperform industry averages.” 

Upon final approval from the State of Illinois for the Naperville location, Cresco will operate the maximum allowed ten dispensaries in Illinois. Cresco’s dispensaries are located in some of Illinois’ biggest cities, busiest shopping areas and most strategic locations to introduce new customers to normalized and professionalized cannabis and take an outsized share of the Illinois market. Total Illinois cannabis retail sales were $95 million in August, while total sales through the first eight months of 2020 were $600 million in the state.

Illinois gives recreational marijuana store applicants chance for a do-over

Illinois regulators are allowing some applicants for adult-use cannabis retail licenses an opportunity to correct their applications and refile before the state’s lottery for permits.

The state announced finalists for 75 retail licenses weeks ago, but only 21 total applicants scored perfectly on their applications, calling into question the state’s intended effort to advance social equity.

According to Crain’s Chicago Business, while some applicants contend they weren’t notified of problems with their applications and allowed to correct them, others were given that opportunity.

That situation has led to several lawsuits, one of which could be settled because of the state’s changes.

“We believe that these new steps will inject more equity and fairness in the first round of license awards and provide insight as we improve the process for future rounds,” Gov. JB Pritzker said, according to Chicago TV station WLS.

The governor’s office said those applicants who didn’t receive a perfect score, or 252 points, will be notified and given a score sheet detailing how they lost points.

Those applicants will then be able to respond with an amended application.

Illinois’ licensing rules initially stipulated that applicants would be made aware of deficiencies and given an opportunity to fix them before final scores were handed out.

But several applicants claimed they didn’t receive such notices and lacked a method to appeal.

No date has been set for the licensing lottery.

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?