by Claudia Della Mora, Black Legend Capital
What would it take for cannabis to become a commodity? To answer this question, we must first understand what a commodity is. Commodities are often raw materials, such as mineral ores, petroleum, sugar, rice, corn, wheat, etc., traded in large quantities, with little restriction, with prices fluctuating based on supply and demand. These commodities are often traded on exchanges to facilitate transactions, as price and availability are the main factors, not product differentiation or branding. Thus, standardization of the commodity and minimum quality standards are essential to commoditization. Currently in the EU and UK, hemp raw materials and finished goods must be compliant with the Novel Food Regime to be sold. To be compliant, manufacturers must apply for Novel Food status which will then be approved by the Food Standards Agency. This is a perfect example of standardization beginning to take place. However, globally, there are ~800 recognized strains of cannabis, although realistically, that number is likely in the thousands. This is in comparison to most commodity markets which usually have less than a dozen different variations. We can break this down into three main sub-sectors: industrial hemp, medical cannabis, and adult-use cannabis, and the challenges to commoditization for each.
Industrial hemp is cultivated primarily for its seeds or fibers to make clothing, paper, biodegradable plastic, building materials, etc. Most CBD extracts also come from industrial hemp, so the hemp farmers can potentially be seen as commodity producers while the buyers, who then use the CBD extracts to produce their differentiated products, are not. However, one major issue is the lack of price stability and transparency for differentiation seen in other commodities. In the United States, prices for high-CBD cannabis biomass declined up to two-thirds in value in 2020 compared to the previous year.
Medical cannabis, which can be over the counter or pharma-grade, has various medical applications, some still yet to be discovered. On the pharma side, GW Pharma has the only cannabis drug that has been approved by the FDA, which treats different types of epilepsy. Cannabis is also being researched for its effectiveness in treating Alzheimer’s, cancer, eating disorders, mental health disorders, seizures, and many more. However, firms focused on medical cannabis often attempt to produce products with specific ratios of THC and CBD through crossbreeding and generating unique terpene profiles. However, for a company to develop pharma-grade products, the product must meet the minimum standards required by its prospective country. These are usually for a particular type of treatment, making commoditization difficult.
Adult-use cannabis has seen tremendous growth and legalization in the past years; however, products differ between producers. While there are thousands of strains of cannabis, even the same strain can vary widely between producers depending on cultivation methods and conditions. Naturally occurring terpenes also allow for differentiation. It can come in a wide range of different potencies, even due to farming techniques, thus making it challenging to produce premium quality cannabis at scale consistently. At the same time, countries are beginning to implement minimum requirements for its products, like the EU and UK’s Novel Food Regime explained above. As countries continue implementing these requirements, the ability to differentiate products will decrease.
As you can see, the most likely to be commoditized would be industrial hemp, as standardization would be a massive obstacle for both recreational and medical cannabis. However, other factors need to be resolved before cannabis can reach commodity status, including price transparency and legalization. There are benchmark prices for commodity products that are easily accessible, and currently, a platform to publish these benchmark prices has not been fully developed yet. Regarding legalization, in the US, cannabis with a THC content over 0.3% remains federally illegal, despite individual states allowing growth, processing, and sale. Multi-state operators cannot transport THC products across state lines, preventing the national distribution of branded products. The problem with interstate commerce would disappear when cannabis becomes federally legal, but it is currently a challenge and simply put, for now, a surplus in California stays in California.
While there are still many hurdles for cannabis to become a commodity, many tailwinds could lead to its successful commoditization. Federal legalization in the U.S. would likely remove restrictions in transactions, allowing for the free trade of cannabis within the country. On a global scale, the real barrier to global trade centers around the United Nations Drug Treaty. In December 2020, the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs transferred cannabis from a Schedule 4 to a Schedule 1 drug. Schedule 1 drugs are still prohibited substances but are seen as having medicinal value. For cannabis to trade freely, the United Nations must move cannabis to a U.N. Schedule II or III drug. This is because countries must be compliant with the 1961 U.N. Convention to import and export cannabis, which requires a narcotic license. Additionally, once regulators such as the FDA come out with specific rules, CBD will begin to act more like a commodity with significant supply and demand. One World Pharma, The Cannabis Mercantile Trading Exchange (CMTREX), Panexchange, and Canxchange have begun developing exchanges for cannabis to trade on, with One World Pharma even beginning to offer limited futures contracts. On the positive side, cannabis has a head start in testing to meet minimum quality standards. Most jurisdictions already require it, although the threshold levels needed to sell the product still vary between locations. The regulations between different countries vary greatly, as countries in South America and places like Canada and Israel are very open to cannabis. However, in others, such as most EU and Asian nations, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding cannabis, which will likely take much longer to gain widespread acceptance. While there are still many hurdles to cross until commoditization, the current Biden administration has shown a willingness to legalize cannabis federally, the first and most crucial step towards cannabis becoming a commodity.
Reference: Grower Talks
Ms. Della Mora is the Co-founder of BLC, a financial advisory and investment firm based in Los Angeles with satellite offices in Houston, New York, London, Hong Kong, and Melbourne. During her tenure at BLC, she successfully invested, assisted in the capitalization, and helped business develop small cap oil companies in Kentucky, Texas, Louisiana, Illinois, Colorado, California, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Alaska. She has also structured oil & gas partnerships in several U.S. states, and in Ecuador, Central America. Ms. Della Mora has been involved in many LNG (Liquid to Natural Gas) projects in the U.S., as well as many commodity trades worldwide. She has personally advised also Chinese conglomerates in their U.S. oil & gas investments.
Black Legend Capital is a leading Merger & Acquisition boutique advisory firm based in California with offices worldwide. Black Legend Capital was founded in 2011 by former senior investment bankers from Merrill Lynch and Duff & Phelps. We provide M&A advisory services, structured financing, and valuation services primarily in the cannabis, technology, healthcare, and consumer products industries. Black Legend Capital’s partners have extensive advisory experience in structuring deals across Asia-Pacific, Europe, and North America.