Best of Cannabis Business Times

Features - Cover Story

Board members and contributors share their thoughts and insights into the past and future of the cannabis industry as Cannabis Business Times magazine celebrates five years in print.

January 24, 2020

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2020 is already shaping up to be a momentous year for the cannabis industry. Just this month, Illinois joined states such as Michigan, California and Massachusetts by rolling out adult-use cannabis sales. Cannabis is now legal in 11 states. Meanwhile, more mature markets such as Colorado and Washington are in their fifth year of recreational sales, and more recently legalized states like Nevada are seeing the power of cannabis to attract tourists in places like Las Vegas.

Cannabis Business Times is also celebrating an anniversary, as 2020 marks the fifth year of the print publication’s existence. The staff is recognizing this milestone in many ways—including on this month’s cover, which depicts wood, the traditional anniversary gift couples give to each other to honor a half decade of marriage. Throughout 2020, readers will see this symbol appear on articles with themes that mark the five-year anniversary.

For this month’s cover story, the CBT staff reached out to some of the magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board and contributors—many of whom have been with the publication since its launch—for their thoughts on the biggest changes during the past five years, their predictions for the next half-decade and their tips for navigating challenges.

The remainder of the January issue is dedicated to sharing some of CBT’s most popular articles during its first five years, as well as a few of the CBT staff's personal favorites.

Mojave Richmond

Photo by Jake Gravbrot
founding member, Bioagronomics Group Consultants; CBT Columnist

Biggest Change With Greatest Impact: “Over the past few years, growers have had to scale up operations to meet the demands of the ever-expanding legal market. In the past, the high cost per pound of cannabis meant a clandestine grower could easily make ends meet with a small production facility. Today, the high cost of compliance and falling commodity prices have forced growers to scale up operations and move from basement and garage grows to greenhouse and broad-acre production.”

Greatest Challenges and How to Overcome Them: “Legalization has presented cultivators with the task of keeping up with an evolving regulatory landscape. In the past, cannabis cultivation has largely been dictated by the burdens of prohibition. Moving from an illicit market to a legal, regional market presents cultivators with the need to redesign facilities and cultivation techniques, while the rules of the industry continue to change. Staying ahead of the foreseeable future is more important than ever.”

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: “There is much innovation needed in our fledgling industry. In order to catch up with other crops, we must strive to identify what specific attributes are most desirable from cannabis, identify appropriate varieties and improve upon those varieties through breeding. The challenge will be to stay ahead of consumer demand and create products with a lasting place in the market.”

Robert C. Clarke

Headshot by Git Skoglund
co-founder, Bioagronomics Group Consultants; CBT Columnist

Biggest Change With Greatest Impact: “Certainly, CBD cultivation has most deeply affected our industry. In just a few years, Farm-Bill-compliant cannabis with less than 0.3% THC fled from clandestine grow rooms onto the agricultural center stage, rushing into production all-female and auto-flowering cultivars and creating regionally volatile markets—a crash course in the agronomic complexities of transitioning cannabis into the agricultural marketplace!”

Greatest Challenges and How to Overcome Them: “The agronomic shift from home gardening to large-scale production comes with many serious challenges. Our industry is evolving at a breakneck pace, and navigating the ever-changing regulatory landscape has been daunting for many. While canopy sizes increase and cultivar diversity decreases, pest and disease pressures are reaching economic thresholds. Citizens have limited influence on policy makers, but as cultivators, we are fully empowered to control the quality of our crops. Patience, agility and attention to detail should serve us well!”

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: “I wish for our industry to further its normalization, while allowing all interested stakeholders to participate in the process.”

Kenneth Morrow

Headshot by Shoey Sindel
Owner, Trichome Technologies; CBT board member and columnist

Biggest Change With Greatest Impact: “What stands out most is that the U.S. became the world’s leading hemp producer in such a short time—between now and when the Farm Bill passed [at the end of 2018].

“Also surprising is that markets such as Canada and Oregon overproduced huge volumes and flooded their marketplace. The problem is exacerbated in Canada, where many provincial markets suffer from a lack of brick-and-mortar points of sale. Overproduction has led to a market crash in Canada, and a supersaturated market in Oregon. [Editor’s Note: A Financial Post story calculated the Canadian oversupply at 30 times the monthly sales rate.]

California’s recreational cannabis opt-out rate has also been surprising. Despite being at the center of the legalization movement, more than 60% of its cities have chosen to ban recreational retail sales.”

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: “International markets will quickly catch up to American production capacities, and the rapid acceleration of imported products hitting the U.S. market will be difficult for most producers, especially with respects to CBD. Already, Yunnan and Heilongjiang Provinces produce 11% of the world’s hemp supply. Once Chinese producers truly get behind hemp, it will be very difficult for U.S. producers to compete in a commodity market. To compete, some current cannabis companies will need to join forces and close the supply chain loop.”

Dr. Nadia Sabeh

Photo courtesy of Dr. Nadia Sabeh
President & Founder, Dr. Greenhouse; CBT Contributor

Biggest Change With Greatest Impact: “The conversation has been elevated from ‘bro science’ to plant science. Growers today have a better understanding of the fundamentals of VPD [vapor pressure deficit], evapotranspiration, pest management, nutrient delivery and the interactions between them all. Ultimately, this shift in knowledge has helped growers improve crop performance, yield and quality, while also reducing the knee-jerk reaction to over-design a facility for lack of understanding, or under-design it for lack of budget.”

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: “Cannabis prices will continue to drop, and building codes will be written to regulate the design and operation of CEA [controlled environment agriculture] facilities. These trends will ultimately reduce profit margins and put a greater focus on efficiency—labor efficiency, energy efficiency and overall resource use efficiency—to help reduce the costs of production.”

Tom Schultz

Headshot by Emily Savage Photo & Design
Co-Founder, CTPharma; CBT Columnist

Biggest Change With Greatest Impact: “Five years ago, I expected the industry to develop much faster than it has. In general, I expected mandatory product testing to have become the norm. As a consequence of the general absence of uniformly enforced standards, the development of the patient and consumer markets remains uneven. For example, the CBD market consists overwhelmingly of untested products.”

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: “With standards, the industry and its products will become more aligned with the American mainstream, which will bring a more stable and a substantial cashflow to the industry. As a result, consumer confidence will support a significant growth in consumer demand.

There will be less investment spending justified by pure hype. Within five years the industry will be more focused on cash flow and less on some ephemeral, ethereal market potential.”

Dr. Brian Whipker

Headshot by Jake Gravbrot

professor of floriculture, North Carolina State University; CBT Board member and Contributor

Biggest Change With Greatest Impact: “Building up knowledge through experience over time. This has improved operating efficiency.”

Greatest Challenges and How to Overcome Them: “Continuous licensing of new producers. Market saturation will be coming soon based on this rate of growth, so companies need to establish a solid marketing outlet for what they produce.”

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: “Maturing of the industry into more common production norms of quality production and quality control. Being a health/food product, sound production and sanitation practices are needed.”

Ryan Douglas

Headshot courtesy of Ryan Douglas
Owner, Ryan Douglas Cultivation; CBT Columnist

Biggest Change With Greatest Impact: “The rapid infusion of cash into large cannabis operators in Canada. As a founding employee [at] one of Canada’s largest cannabis companies, I had a front-row seat to the capital and investor attention that was flooding into an industry that only months before was a taboo subject.”

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: “Cannabis operations will become more focused on greenhouse cultivation to lower production costs and lighten the company’s carbon footprint. Skilled cultivators will be in short supply and will command high salaries.”

Crystal Oliver

Headshot courtesy of Crystal Oliver
President and Co-Founder, Washington’s Finest Cannabis; CBT Board Member And Contributor

Biggest Change With Greatest Impact: “In Washington, the change to allow out-of-state financing had the biggest impact on the regulated industry. It facilitated the largest operators in getting larger and grabbing significant market share.”

Greatest Challenges and How to Overcome Them: “Keeping up with and impacting evolving laws and rules. In Washington, we are seeing a trend toward loosening of regulations and laws that were established to protect small independent businesses alongside adoption of regulations and laws that increase barriers to enter and remain in the industry. Cultivators need to join and financially support organizations and advocates who represent their interests before regulators and legislators.”

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: “I'm hoping to see policymakers take steps to protect existing independent and craft cultivators. I would especially like to see tax relief, farm-direct sales, tasting rooms, farmers markets and consumption lounges. ... Small-business-friendly policies ... are necessary to encourage greater equity and diversity in the legal cannabis marketplace.”

Rich Kwesell

Headshot courtesy of Strawberry Fields
Co-Founder, Strawberry Fields; CBT Board Member and Contributor

Biggest Change With Greatest Impact: “On a national scale, publicly traded companies moving into the cannabis industry. Public money getting spent on state-of-the-art cultivation facilities, making it hard to compete as a private company.

Within Colorado, market fluctuations—in 2014, retail cannabis was being sold anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 per pound, and by 2017 market oversaturation forced cultivators to sell pounds of retail cannabis anywhere from $500 to $600. This market crash caused several cultivators to shut down their businesses. In 2019, we've seen the wholesale cannabis market start to bounce back, and pounds are selling anywhere from $1,300 to $2,000 per pound. The AMR (Average Market Rate) for the State of Colorado increased over $300 per pound the last quarter of 2019!”

Greatest Challenges and How to Overcome Them: “To handle market fluctuations ... we had to figure out a way to grow and sell a pound of cannabis flower for under $500 and still bring in a profit. This forced us to adopt traditional horticulture methods and automation to lower our cost to produce. Now that the market is coming back around, we're reaping the benefits of the moves we made when pounds were below $500.”

Dr. Markus Roggen

Headshot courtesy of Markus Roggen
Founder, Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures; CBT Board Member and Contributor

Biggest Change With Greatest Impact: “I have observed the introduction and specialization into different extraction processes. As different products demand different cannabis ingredients, those diverse extraction methods can support these demands.

Additionally, a better understanding of the molecular makeup has led the extract producers to offer more than just distillate oils.”

Greatest Challenges and How to Overcome Them: “A lack of fundamental knowledge! To extract and process compounds of the cannabis plant, a few fundamental principles need to be met. First, what are those compounds? Right now, we only test for about 10 cannabinoids, but over 140 are known. Second, we need to know how those compounds behave in the processes. What are their solubilities and what happens to them when treated with heat?”

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: “More research, more collaboration, more openness.”

Dr. Raymond Cloyd

Headshot by Jake Gravbrot
Professor/Extension Specialist, Department of Entomology, Kansas State University; CBT Board Member and Contributor

Greatest Challenges and How to Overcome Them: “The challenge is getting growers to understand that biocontrol will be successful, but it takes a very, very preventative mindset and understanding of environmental conditions, temperature, light ... to be successful.”

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: “I’d like to see a brain trust of researchers and experts developed …that growers can contact for unbiased, reliable information to help them be successful. I think that’s so critical because there is so much misinformation out there. I’d like to do more research in biologicals because everyone is going to benefit in the long run.”

Leif Abel

Photo By Alisa Weiss Photography
Co-owner, Greatland Ganja; CBT board member and contributor

Biggest Change with Greatest Impact: “The biggest observation I have made is the importance of human relationships; relationships with my family, with my team, my customers, regulators, lawmakers, and the public. These relationships are not only the foundation, but the reason for the existence of our company. It gives me a higher sense of community to see these relationships blossom!”

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: “We will see large-scale consolidation coupled with the absorption or failure of over half of the licensed businesses. Highly specialized micro/artisanal/craft brands will survive if run correctly, including providing the highest level of customer service. Distribution companies or networks will form, and the majority of commerce and sales will occur through them; even the micro brands will use them for sales, distribution, and delivery. Two markets will form: commodity (likely controlled by the pharmaceutical giants), and craft (recreational and state-by-state like alcohol). We want to be part of the second, all of us. Much of this will be driven by the increasing barriers to entry of the regulatory burden, insurance and bank restrictions on companies with substandard practices or violations on record, the increasing complexity of laboratory testing, labeling and looming FDA oversight.”

Dr. Brian Jackson

Headshot courtesy of Brian Jackson
Associate Professor, Department of Horticultural Science, North Carolina State University; CBT board member and contributor

Biggest Change with Greatest Impact: “The increased freedom of academic and private scientists to conduct research relating to the many opportunities and challenges that cultivators are facing.”

Greatest Challenges and How to Overcome Them: “Access to, and reliance on science-based data and information. For growers who have been involved with cannabis production, particularly commercial or larger-scale production, the information overload [during] the past five years may have been welcomed or approached with caution. There is also still the tendency for cannabis production data/info to be held back, prioritized, kept secret under the assumption that it was going to get someone further ahead in the industry. … How can cultivators avoid the information overload or hesitancy to adopt and adapt? Going to professional conferences and education sessions; reading publications from reliable sources; adoption of small changes slowly to build confidence in the new approach or system.”

David Holmes

Headshot by Jacob Kemplar
Founder/CEO, Clade9; CBT board member and contributor

Biggest Change with Greatest Impact: “Regulations and testing requirements have made the most dramatic impact on cannabis cultivation in the past five years. For decades, cannabis cultivators have answered to no one regarding their use of pesticides, growth regulators and supplements. Although there have been pockets of self-regulation stemming from dispensaries that required testing in California's Bay Area, most cannabis products sold before 2015 were untested for pesticides, bacteria, mold or heavy metals.

The strict testing requirements imposed by regulators on cannabis producers of today have forced business owners to invest in compliance. For example, cultivators must now envision batch sizes beyond turkey bags and boxes (box is a term for 100 pounds of flower in 1-pound turkey bags) that must be lab tested before distribution into the market.

Today, when designing cannabis facilities, product testing and compliance are critical components in the overall approach.”

Greatest Challenges and How to Overcome Them: “This can be a very regional issue, but price compression, competition and taxes are all relatively new issues facing cannabis cultivators over the past five years. Taxes cannot be avoided, but price compression and competition can be lessened by finding niche markets like high-end craft flowers, organic no-till farming or cultivating rare varietals.”

Web Exclusive: Dr. Allison Justice

Headshot courtesy of Allison Justice
Owner, SC Botanicals, The Hemp Mine; CBT Contributor

Biggest change with biggest impact:The biggest thing that stands out is the implementation of regulations for hemp and medical cannabis. As I agree these are necessary and were meant to provide safety and security for the patient/customer, they have been borderline devastating for the industry. This is very obvious for states like California which have implemented testing and higher taxation making profitability difficult which is then passed on to the consumer. This has encouraged customers to choose to buy from the black market and for growers to avoid growing in the regulated market. This supports the opposite of what the regulation intended. This is not yet a problem for states which are newer to medical cannabis legalization. Additionally, the new Federal USDA regulations in the hemp industry have put a wrench in the profitability and created a fear of growing. Comments for the new USDA regulations are due Jan 29th, please participate! See our comments here

Five-Year Hopes/Predictions: I think that slowly regulations will change and evolve with the cannabis industry to support a more normalized industry. We will grow and learn what works and what does not. Hopefully, cannabis will become federally legal which will contribute to lesser restriction and greater interstate commerce. Additionally, science, experience, and the sharing of information will continue to help push our industry forward which will lead to better/safer product grown with higher margins supported by medical research. It will be an exciting decade!