Everyone, it seems, wants it to happen. The Baby Boomers will have their revenge. The medical marijuana mystery tour will smooth the way for a safer chill that doesn’t kill. Politicians want the tax revenue. Police are tired of fighting it. Pharma needs a new blockbuster.
The zeitgeist is prepared. In Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” a drug called soma calms the people. “The soma had begun to work. Eyes shone, cheeks were flushed, the inner light of universal benevolence broke out on every face in happy, friendly smiles.” Today Soma is a lingerie store, a ceramic mug, a video game, and an actual prescription drug. We are ready, but how do you make money on it?
Not so fast. When I asked a recovering heroin addict from Recovery Advocates, a wonderful non-profit that stages free interventions, if legalizing marijuana was a good idea, he said, roughly, “This is not your father’s pot. It’s much stronger than it used to be, and the side effects can include anxiety, high blood pressure, and schizophrenia. The body can’t metabolize these levels of THC.” He was against it.
The main criticism of marijuana legalization is that there is not much formal research — in part because marijuana is still federally illegal and a DEA Schedule I controlled substance, so even the only federally sanctioned growing program at the University of Mississippi is not producing. What would you expect of a federally operated weed monopoly? A commenter on R&D Magazine notes, “They have terrible quality pot, a 2-3 on a 10 scale, barely smokable.”
Lacking research, I asked my bank teller. She said, “I know an older veteran who has been in chronic pain for years. His doctor suggested that he try medical marijuana, but he didn’t want to smoke it. When he found out about edibles, he reluctantly tried it, and now he says he couldn’t live without it.” The other bank tellers chimed in with similar stories. Anecdotal evidence abounds, and it seems to give legalizing marijuana a sense of inevitability.
New Jersey’s legislative vote to legalize was canceled for lack of support on March 25, but Governor Murphy said, “History is rarely made at the first attempt. History is often a bumpy road of fits and starts, of progress and of setbacks but eventually barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down.”
Generally, I am interested in companies that make productive tools, but everyone is talking about investing in marijuana. One man said he bought into a machine that will make one of the active Cannabis molecules, allowing the company to cut out the whole growing operation. Another told me about the problem of securing a dispensary license in New Jersey, which costs $500,000 just to prepare the application, so dispensaries will probably go to large companies or those that own them in other states.
On March 22 a Los Angeles-based company called MedMen (MMNFF) secured $250 million from Gotham Green Partners, which, according to its website, owns a photo of Manhattan and a suite on 5th Avenue. CrunchBase reports that Gotham Green has invested in other industry leaders like the High Note, Grow Generation, Flow Kana, Chooze, and iAnthus Capital Holdings, which claims to own 21 dispensaries with licenses for a further 63 dispensaries and a combined 600,000 square feet of cultivation.
Marijuana is hot, so I called Karen Paull (no relation), a producer and co-host of “The Marijuana Show,” which you can watch on Amazon Prime. The particular genius of Paull’s business model is that, since it’s illegal to advertise marijuana, people who want to get their message across can come on Paull’s show and ask for money. After season two, “The Marijuana Show” is Shark Tank meets Ganja.
The legal markets for weed today are a weird confederation of Canada, Colorado, and Jamaica, so one strategy is to ask, “Where else can I find bobsleds?” and invest there ahead of the curve.
Paull notes many ways to invest in marijuana. Since the plant itself is still federally illegal, much of the action is around technology that supports growth or extraction. Companies like Helix TCS (HLIX, $2.87) track seed-to-sale with RFID tags.
Most of the research is coming out of Israel, but BDS Analytics is in Colorado, and New Frontier Financial in Washington, D.C., aims “to elevate the discussion around the legal cannabis industry globally by providing unbiased vetted information and educating stakeholders to make informed decisions.”
A casino-circus atmosphere clouds the industry. One “Marijuana Show” contestant says that “Anything you can make from plastic, you can make from hemp.” Naturally, he has made a car from hemp and seeks a $10 million valuation for his company. Hemp may be a great source of construction material, but it’s a terrible source of THC — the psychoactive molecule that people like to smoke. The maximum government-allowed THC content in hemp is 0.3 percent. Hemp is often mentioned, but it’s a marginal contender in the rush to money.
THC is one of two molecules found in both hemp and marijuana. The molecule that serious people promote is CBD, which has no psychoactive properties, but, many say, has powerful medical effects. Acreage Cannabis’ medical marijuana commercial rejected by the Super Bowl is quite touching. For years scientists have studied the body’s cannabinoid receptors involved in appetite, pain-sensation, mood, and memory.
It’s almost as if the government had outlawed all alcohol during prohibition, and proponents said, “Alcohol is really helpful for wounds,” and prohibitors said, “Maybe, but people might also drink it,” and proponents said, “Well, yeah….”
Paull points out that, as in many new industries, the narrative is, “This industry will have phenomenal growth; companies that scale up fast will be acquired for rich sums by industry leaders.” For instance, Altria invested $1.8 billion in Canadian cannabis company Cronos Group (CRON $18.92) and $12.8 billion for 35 percent of privately-held e-cigarette maker Juul — valuing it at more than $38 billion or more than two times Ulta, the leading make-up chain.
Fun fact: the CEO of Juul is named Kevin Burns. A website called Hail Mary Jane already promotes ways to get THC into Juul pods. Altria execs might even be aware of this trend.
A surprising number of marijuana companies are already public. In the next Perfect Company column, we’ll see if we can find a comfortable marijuana investment: that is, a company that makes money, is growing sales, and whose insiders are buying their own stock.
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