Standing Up: A Personal Journey To The Legal Cannabis Industry

Standing Up: A Personal Journey To The Legal Cannabis Industry

I never imagined I’d be writing about this topic. For 25 years, I’ve enjoyed an amazing journey as a serial entrepreneur building companies and brands, leading companies in the beer, wine and spirits, distribution, and technology industries. The alcohol industry has been good to me and to my family.

Other than a little exposure in college, I have not been around marijuana. A few years ago, I met a bunch of U.S. Marines. Travis McVey created Heroes Vodka and I helped him launch the brand. His friend Stephen told me a story that has stayed with me. Stephen Cochran served as part of the 2nd (LAR) Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was severely injured on patrol. Stephen spent nearly a year in hospitals paralyzed, unable to a walk. After undergoing an experimental procedure at Vanderbilt, he was miraculously able to walk again. Stephen said,

“In recovery, I suffered from extreme pain and Doctors prescribed me every prescription medicine you could imagine. The pain meds nearly killed me. That is when I turned to cannabis. Today I’m raising my family, writing, and performing music. I give back to veterans wherever and whenever I can ( Semper Fi Fund). Medical cannabis is the reason I can do these things today. It saved my life and the lives of many of my fellow veterans.”

This conversation opened my eyes to the many benefits of cannabis. There are more than 50 medical conditions for which cannabis is legally recognized as some form of therapy or medicine including Alzheimer’s, anorexia, arthritis, cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve come across people suffering with chronic pain and others going through cancer treatment. Cannabis allows them to live their lives without the destructive side effects of opioid based pain medicines. The more I learned about the benefits of cannabis to people suffering, the more research I did to understand the industry. Based on this, I’ve come to believe that its place in society needs to change.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA – FEBRUARY 15: Al Harrington (L) and Viola Harrington arrive at exNBA Star Al Harrington Launches New CBD Business at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse on February 15, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic)

Al Harrington is a 16-year NBA great and cannabis entrepreneur. I used to watch Al at Pacer’s games. Al found his way into medicinal cannabis and CBD to treat his pain from a botched knee surgery. He tells a funny story about recommending medical marijuana to his grandmother Viola. She suffered from multiple ailments, and after some initial resistance, she tried it and immediately felt better. His cannabis brand, Viola, was soon born. He also has his Harrington Wellness line of CBD. Al’s story is genuine. In an interview with Al, former NBA commissioner David Stern pronounced that the laws and rules need to change around cannabis (See Al Harrington and David Stern). Al, and my friend, musician, and NFL great Kyle Turley, have been outspoken advocates for awareness and change. It’s clear, cannabis prohibition and the aggressive pursuit of its enforcement have also particularly ravaged the African American community.

The opioid epidemic is destroying lives, families, and devastating whole communities. I personally have more than one friend who has lost a (grown) child recently, due to accidental overdose or tainted product. We must do something to stop this epidemic. Doctors overprescribing opioids is one of the primary causes. Many patients start out with legal prescriptions and become addicted. They then turn to the illegal market to meet their addiction needs. Cannabis can be used to help wean people off these destructive drugs. Ideally, it could be prescribed to avoid opioid abuse in the first place. It is a legitimate part of the solution. Given this, I decided to find out how I could make a difference.

I attended the MJ Business conference in Las Vegas and networked with Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and other friends. I wanted to figure out how I could play a positive role in this emerging industry. I did some research to understand what led to the abrupt prohibition of cannabis in the US in 1937. I learned that Indianapolis pharmaceutical powerhouse, Eli Lilly was in the cannabis business until the prohibition. Cannabis prohibition seems to have been motivated by a combination of racism and the business interests of a few that had political influence (Why Is Marijuana Illegal). I learned that many feel the ratcheting up of cannabis to a Schedule I drug (the same as Heroin) in 1970 also had racist motivations. It was certainly not based on science.

The American public now overwhelmingly supports cannabis legalization, with over 64% in favor according to Gallop. It is more popular than any current politician. State by state, citizens have made local option the law of the land. There are now 30 states plus Washington DC where medical cannabis use is legal. There are 9 states where adult recreational use is now legal. This is a prime example of the importance of state’s rights leading the way.

As the industry has come out of the shadows of illegal activity and into the light of permitted activities in many states, incredible entrepreneurial spirits have been unleashed. I feel the excitement of being at the forefront of another Repeal of Prohibition. This time though, we have the added dimension of extraordinary medical benefits. Drawing from my 25+ years in the beverage alcohol business, I see many parallels to the industry I know well. The legal framework around local option, licensing and taxes are similar to alcohol beverage laws in many respects. Constellation Brands [STZ] recent $191 million investment into Canopy Growth [WEED] further convinced me that this developing industry is going mainstream.

Legal cannabis is likely to rival the Beer, Wine and Spirits categories and exceed $50 billion annually in the coming years. Some analysts predict the US industry over $100 billion. Regardless of the number, it is and will be massive.

I met my partners Todd Kaplan and Courtney Dorne through YPO last year. I joined the team at Vertical Companies as a partner, President of Distribution and Chief Marketing Officer in January 2018. I could not be more excited in this venture, building a large scale new enterprise in the emerging cannabis space. One of my objectives will be to play my part in bringing the right coalitions together to address and correct the State vs Federal conflict that exists today.

Channel Conflict II: Grocery Alcohol Fights Across the Land

Channel Conflict II: Grocery Alcohol Fights Across the Land

Last week I wrote about Channel Conflict in the 3 tier system of alcohol distribution between wholesalers and Anheuser-Busch Inbev and the craft community. I received quite a few interesting comments from my friends on both sides of the issue.   One highly respected industry member commented to me “Very nice job trying to ride the third rail of these issues and explain a complex issue in simple terms.”

Well here goes again with an issue that I get asked about frequently. Another interesting channel conflict is between and among the members of the retail tier. This channel conflict involves questions regarding who (what types of retailers) can sell which types of beverage alcohol and when alcohol can be sold (e.g. Grocery Sales of beer spirits and wine and Sunday Sales). These questions are raging across the country in different states. The conflict pits independent liquor stores (and specialty chain liquor stores depending on the state) against the corporate chains (Costco, Kroger, Publix, Target, Walmart etc). An example of this is the Sunday sales of alcohol at retail in Indiana. After passing out of committee with a “poison pill change” Sunday sales was killed in the Indiana legislature. Sunday Alcohol Sales Meet Familiar Fate.

liquor store sign liquor sales sunday closed

In a closely related question pertaining to which type of retailer can sell which products, in 2014 Tennessee passed a law allowing grocery stores to sell not only beer, which they already could sell, but also wine. Wine in grocery stores passes; what’s next?

In Florida, Walmart and others are pushing legislation for the right to sell spirits within the same store as groceries and not be required to have a separate stand-alone entrance. Publix, another grocer, does not support the change since they already have stand-alone entrances throughout the state. Beer and wine are treated differently in Florida and groceries are able to sell inside a grocery store. Publix opposes, Walmart backs Florida bill to let grocers sell liquor.  Update – More Here: Florida: Spirited Battle Ahead over Florida’s Liquor Separation Law

3/23 Update: Beer bill on tap in Florida House on Tuesday

 

kroger store outside kroger wine shop walmart store shot outside

In some cases, these fights are spilling over into the courts and not just the legislatures. Walmart lawsuit highlights Texas’ surprising alcohol laws. In the case of Texas and Walmart’s litigation, it is about their right to sell products that the specialty retailers currently have a lock on and have created work-arounds for ownership of large-scale chains.  UPDATE:

Costco joins coalition to broaden liquor sales laws in Texas

The reality is there are so many new brands, it is hard to keep up with them all, for people in the industry, let alone consumers. This proliferation of new brands is driven by today’s consumer thirst for new things, literally. Generally speaking, I believe more open markets are better for consumers, but taken to extreme can cause massive consolidation and the independent specialty liquor shops and specialty chains find themselves at a significant disadvantage to the corporate chains. Markets like California and Arizona are examples of wide-open sales of beer, spirits and wine. This has been the case for a long time. In these markets the corporate chains dominate the retail landscape. The independent sector is a much smaller portion of the total business. The large specialty chains have also been very successful in these markets (Bevmo! and Total Wine & More).

Bevmo store shot Bevmo logo

 

The relative advantage of full line retailers (grocery) is what is driving the fights over Sunday  sales. Liquor stores are not open on Sundays, but the grocery chains are. The groceries of course want to be able to sell alcohol, as they are open, fully staffed and have consumers in their stores who would like to purchase it. The liquor stores would have to man their stores with staff and the thinking among many is the incremental sales on Sunday will simply come out of sales during the week they would get anyway. Their worse fear is that the groceries will end up with a greater share of the incremental business with so many consumers already shopping in their stores on Sunday.  The package stores won the recent Indiana fight by taking a quite reasonable position – that all retailers should be under the same sets of laws.  In the end, the groceries could not support losing the significant freedoms they currently have just to get Sunday sales.

Sunday-alcohol-sales-prohibitdotcom

To people (consumers) who live in both more “open” or “closed” states, these fights seem strange indeed.   There has been a long-term trend to more liberalization of alcohol laws on a state-by-state basis. But this liberalization has been gradual and certainly not continuous. As the large grocery/mass retailers have shifted their attention to gaining share of the increasingly important beverage alcohol market and Total Wine continuing their massive expansion around the country, the independent sector will continue to be under pressure and where organized, able to continue to slow the pace of change through state legislatures and regulations. That said, the most strategic of the independents and specialty chains are innovating and investing

in their ability to serve their customers and compete effectively with the other retail sectors. Walmart and most other full service retailers will never have the specialized staff that a focused specialty retailer of alcohol can have (There are exceptions on a store level, but this is true overall). This high level of knowledge and service with customers is what will keep consumers coming back. I think the bigger fear is a large specialty retailer (Total Wine) that has it all – scale ($1.5 million in alcohol sales) and low pricing, product depth (10,000 skus typically) and highly knowledgeable employees. They are very strong.

Total wine logo total wine store shot

The wholesalers and most of the suppliers all try to stay out of these arguments, since both sets of retailers are their customers. DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council Of The United States) though has a long-standing policy to fight against anything that disadvantages spirits to other types of alcohol. They have been quite effective on this front in many markets. The craft (beer, spirits and wine) producers definitely benefit from a thriving independent market as they get more opportunities for their smaller or new brands than in the corporate chains, but they also benefit by having a more open market with multiple channels for consumers to buy alcohol. It’s a tough balance to maintain with many competing interests, but in the end the market will drive it, albeit more slowly than many consumers want with the local legislation and regulations market by market.

I’d love to hear you thoughts on these issues and other examples in your state.

Cheers,
Smoke

Channel Conflict: 3 Tier Battles Heat Up – Stinging Defeat in KY Raises Questions

Channel Conflict: 3 Tier Battles Heat Up – Stinging Defeat in KY Raises Questions

The headlines and press statements around some of the latest beverage alcohol industry channel conflict are extraordinary and gaining attention across the country.

A new craft brewery is opening up every day, adding to the over 3,000 currently operating in the USA (Brewers Association).   There are 100s of new craft distilleries that have opened up over the past few years with many more in the works (American Distilling Institute). There are more than 7,000 wineries as well (Wines & Vines).

This buds for you

All this growth in new entrants is the result of renewed consumer interest in trying new things. The Millennials have driven much of the new growth and vibrancy. It’s an exciting time in the beverage industry. That said, every large-scale established consumer brand across multiple industries is trying to figure out what to do and how to keep their base, grow it and remain relevant.   Anheuser-Busch Inbev was roundly criticized for their “anti-craft” beer advertisement for Budweise

r during the Super Bowl. As I wrote about, this was them playing the hand they hold and making the best for a giant brand in decline.

These issues are a lot more complex than they appear and have interesting and changing industry alliances. I am constantly asked (last night included) why the laws are the way they are, by consumers and business people who are not from the industry. Here is a brief explanation:

The simple answer is the current legal and regulatory framework in the US is the result of two Constitutional Amendments. The first one was to ban all alcohol aka Prohibition (18th Amendment in 1919). The second one was to repeal Prohibition (21st Amendment 1933). To pass a Constitutional Amendment the Congress must pass it with a 2/3 majority vote in both houses and then it goes to the 50 states and must pass ¾ of the statehouses to become ratified.   A very high bar indeed. Prohibition was a national disaster of epic proportions. However, it was created in response to some significant excesses by the industry and public. A lot of the excesses were blamed on what is known as “Tied-Houses”, whereby the brewers owned the taverns. The drunken excess of many in the public was attributed to the brewers have a direct interest in selling as much beer as possible and controlling the point of consumption. The saying “There is no such thing as a free lunch” came from this era. The brewers would give away free sandwiches at the taverns they owned. Sounds good, but they would salt these sandwiches excessively so that the patrons would drink more beer.

Whether you agree or not that “tied houses” were the root of all evil, this was the majority view when in 1933 the nation’s failed experiment in Prohibition came to an end. Even though it was clear to most that this government intrusion into industry was a disaster, there were still large numbers of anti-alcohol constituents throughout the land. The compromise to get the 21st Amendment passed was to allow each state the absolute right to regulate the sale and distribution of alcohol within its boarders. The 21st Amendment does not have an opinion on tied houses or any other aspect of how the industry does business. The Federal Alcohol Administration Act did spell out specifics on regulations of the industry to insure the revenue and to protect consumers. It did not however, spell out any specifics regarding a “3 tier system”, but rather defers to the 21st Amendment that in turn defers to the states.

IMG_6572

Each state proceeded to set up its own set of laws and regulations.   There are 50 states and 50 sets of laws that while some may resemble each other, none are identical. Layered onto the specific statutes and regulations are the interpretations by alcohol boards or chairmen and the courts.  The most common way in which the states addressed the tied house issue was to legislate a middle tier (wholesaler) to be a buffer between the suppliers and the retailers. This is what is commonly referred to as the 3 tier system. There have always been some states that allowed brewers to own wholesalers, though this was the exception.

In the case of Kentucky’s new law, Anheuser-Busch Inbev has owned distributors there for more than 40 years and had attempted to buy a 3rd. That prompted the wholesalers to attempt to stop them and when other means failed, it ended with this new legislation not only not allowing them to buy the new distributor, but also forcing them to sell their existing businesses. I have no idea of how the courts will view this, but from the sound of it, ABI will not go quietly.

I can’t help but think the latest turn in the 3 tier beverage alcohol industry channel conflict is an example of overreaction that will do nothing but cause further escalation. When one considers all the new brands that have launched and keep launching in beer, spirits and wine and the need for each to find ways to market, it is clear that broad based full line distributors provide a viable route to market for many. All of the main distributors have giant books of brands now, and they serve some very large suppliers and many smaller ones well. In many cases they serve these needs of smaller brands by creating specialty sales divisions. They do not serve every brand well, nor can they. This has created market conditions in most states where a new crop of smaller start up distributors have emerged, primarily handling specialty or craft brands. Where specialty/craft distributors have emerged, they have become a necessary escape valve for small and new brands getting distribution to retail. In markets that allow it, and many states have provisions up to a certain size, craft breweries can self distribute. This is expensive but a necessary option in cases where there are no viable distributors to carry a new brand. Stone Brewery in San Diego and Sun King in Indiana seem to be examples of self-distribution that has been successful. I wonder if this will become more prevalent with spirits as the number of craft distilleries grows.

2015-01-21 11.18.45  IMG_6561The current approach, though ugly at times, has worked to provide a route to market for a thriving craft community.   The pressure to get new brands to market is only going to increase. It is unclear to me where the craft community will end up better off – with strict laws that don’t allow suppliers to own distribution (of any size) or with looser laws that give options. I tend to think most small/new brand will end up supporting a more flexible system, but the bigger brands, that are doing well in the traditional 3 tier system, will support the stricter system.

It may be that there are simply too many competing interests to work out viable solutions to everyone’s satisfaction on these issues. It would certainly be better for the industry if there were agreement as opposed to legal or legislative fights. ABI is a powerful entity as are all the major suppliers. Poking them in the eye with a local legislative win, may end up being a case of winning the battle but losing the war in some ways. It is unclear to me that the KY law actually helps craft brewers or simply hurts ABI or it it even does that. ABI can still control largely the activities of an independent distributor, as they have been able to do, in many other states. What is clear is that this KY battle is not the end to this fight.

It will be interesting to see how this continues to play out. Love to hear your comments or questions. Cheers! Smoke

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Smoke has worked in all 3 tiers of the industry, built beer wine and spirits distributors, owned a craft brewery, a winery, and multiple craft spirits brands.  He built the leading technology for pricing between suppliers, distributors and retailers. He also represented the WSWA as Chairman & President and the Brewers Association on the Government Affairs Committee.

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