The Canadian cannabis market continues to mature and flourish under a liberal national legalization policy, and here to help us understand the latest trends in Canada is Ben Kaanta, COO of licensed producer Westleaf Inc.
As a vertically integrated Canadian cannabis company, Westleaf has significant assets operating under development across the value chain. The company builds and operates cultivation, extraction, processing, manufacturing, research and development, and wholly-owned retail.
This includes Westleaf’s new retail brand Prairie Records, a unique dispensary that creates an unparalleled purchasing experience celebrating the inherent tie between music and cannabis.
In this episode, Ben shares with us an inside look at Prairie Records and where he sees the Canadian cannabis market heading in the next few years.
Learn more at https://www.westleaf.com
- Ben’s background in mechanical engineering and how he came to enter the cannabis space
- Differences Ben has observed between the cannabis market in the US versus Canada
- How Westleaf has evolved since it was founded in 1992, including the scope of its grow operation and the products it currently manufactures
- How Westleaf came up with the idea to create a record store retail experience
- A deep dive into Westleaf’s strategy in determining where to position its dispensaries
- An inside look at the Prairie Records dispensary and the unique customer experience it works to create
- The capital-raising process involved in launching Prairie Records
- Westleaf’s upcoming initiatives and Ben’s insight on what Canadian cannabis will look like in the next 5 years
Matthew: Hi, I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday, look for a fresh new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at cannaninsider.com. That's cannainsider.com. Now, here's your program.
The Canadian cannabis market continues to mature and flourish under a liberal national legalization policy year. Here to help us understand the latest trends in Canada is Ben Kaanta, COO of Westleaf, a licensed producer, or LP, in Calgary. Ben, welcome to CannaInsider.
Ben: Thank you, Matt. It's a pleasure to be here.
Matthew: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?
Ben: So today, I'm actually located in Calgary, Alberta, which is home to Westleaf's headquarters.
Matthew: Okay. And I'm in Chicago. Tell us, what is Westleaf at a high level?
Ben: So Westleaf is a vertically integrated Canadian cannabis company. And what I mean by that, some people toss that term around, is that we actually own control or have interests and assets across the traditional value line of the chain. So that includes cultivation. So we actually grow our own product. We have extraction and manufacturing capabilities where we will extract the oil out of the flower trim and convert it into end products. Additionally, we have product branding and we actually have our own retail spaces as well.
Matthew: Okay. Ben, can you share a little bit about your background and journey and how you got into the cannabis space so we can get some context of how you ended up in the great white north?
Ben: Yeah, happy to do that. So I actually started off as a mechanical engineer, worked on ion thrusters and some other research for NASA. From there I went into product development for biomedical instrumentation, primarily on cancer diagnostics. And that led me to a company where I did operations, and oversaw the startup of several particle accelerator-based cancer therapy centers. There's actually, while I was working there, a friend of mine introduced me to Mjardin, who you've had on this show before, and at the time they were one of the largest producers of legal cannabis based out of the United States. So I worked there for a couple of years as their director of operations where we saw the cultivation of several indoor and outdoor grows and as well as some greenhouses. And that was a great time, and several colleagues and myself, we eventually split off and developed our own small company doing similar type of work, but mostly on the advising space.
And between that and in our time in Mjardin, we'd actually consulted in 11 different U.S. states, 5 countries, operated in 24 different facilities and we designed over 40. And so we really loved it, but one of our first clients was Westleaf. And we started working alongside them for several months and they actually asked us to join them early on and we said, "You know what, we're kind of enjoying our own thing." But we watched them develop their strategy and how they're going about their process for working in Canada and their retail strategy. And we fell in love with it and we just couldn't say no after a while, and we decided that we had to be a part of them. So we ended up joining them all as executives.
Matthew: Okay. Okay. So you've been involved in the U.S. cannabis market and now in the Canadian cannabis market. What are kind of the differences between the two? How do you compare and contrast those in your mind and keep them separate? What are the big themes and how they're different in your mind?
Ben: Yeah, so as you know, the United States is kind of funny in that there's not one contiguous market. So every market there is a little bit different. That said, there definitely are some things that are unique about Canadian cannabis I've seen. And I'll break it down kind of by the different verticals here. So if we look at on the cultivation side, one of the things we noticed is that since Canada's program was originally started as a medical program with mail order, that really drove the cultivation companies be focused more on efficiency more than quality.
So, just like a brief example on that, when you look at product at a dispensary in the United States, typically it's hand-trimmed and there's a...very much concern is put around the aesthetic appeal of it. Whereas what we'd see in Canada is that there are using processes that valued just getting that product from harvest to the customer as fast as possible, and little things such as using whole bunch of machine-trimming versus hand-trimming would reduce the aesthetic appeal, but also knock off a lot of the trichromes on the extraction.
And another piece we've seen is on the extraction side, right? So this is similar to other young markets. There aren't as many products available. And so, for example, today, you can only get extracted oils and capsules. And on October 17th, they're gonna be opening that up to more products such as vapes, edibles, topicals, things you might see more in the United States markets. But what that means is that today's extractors really don't know how to make all these other products. And then finally, I would say that on the kind of the retail and branding side, this is why one of the biggest differences that we've seen, Canada is very restrictive on what you can do. So if you got to buy cannabis today at a retail store in Canada, what you'll find is that 80% to 90% of the label is warnings and facts from Health Canada, and you have the small little space about the size of a U.S. postage stamp where you can put your brand. So there's really not a great opportunity for people to brand up here.
Matthew: Good point. So how do you brand? That's kind of a difficult question. It's kind of word of mouth, I guess, is experience and aesthetics. Some of the things you talked about are gonna become a big, big part of it. Also, there's a lot of challenges to vape pens and vape cartridges, you know, viscosity, and kind of the additives to make sure it all works properly. So I'm sure there will be some hiccups in the beginning that you've seen in the U.S. that you can bring over. Is there anything else that you feel like gives you maybe a little bit of advantage having worked in two markets?
Ben: Yeah, so I'd say there's several different things there. And you touched on a few of them. You know, so one is aspect. You know, we've worked in these 24 different cultivation facilities, so we've learned a lot about what works well and what doesn't work well. And one of the things that we're seeing is companies who are going big, they're announcing these, you know, million square feet facilities. And we've seen this happen in the United States before where people will do this, they'll take an old greenhouse and they'll think, "Hey, this could grow great tomatoes, surely it can great cannabis." And what they don't take into account, that cannabis is a unique plant and it's held to different standards such as the microbials. And so they'll grow a bunch of product, but it will all fail. So on the cultivation side, we were very thoughtful and careful about when we designed our facility, about making sure that we can go craft at scale.
And on the extraction side, you're absolutely right. There's a lot to do with the viscosity, but also even whose hardware you use and how often it will fail. And so to that end, we actually partnered with a company out of Denver called Xabis. And so they've developed over 24 different form factors and 200 unique skews working in multiple extraction labs across the United States. So we wanted to take their skill sets and knowledge because we recognize that there's a lot of mistakes that people are gonna learn the hard way and why not fast forward ahead and just cut to the end working with experienced people.
I think the one other thing that we've seen, you know, when I look across the United States markets and how many we've seen kind of mature, is that you'll see the economic shift throughout that value chain. Early on there's a lot in cultivation and some in retail. But the best thing to do that we done is to be vertically integrated so you can control that whole value chain. So those early stages you can capitalize on, you know, where some of the good profit margins are and the cultivation side, but over time it will shift. But additionally, you wanna have control over your supply chain. You know, even on the extraction side, we've seen companies who struggle to make sure they're getting good, consistent feedstock for extraction. And by us growing our own product, we can make sure that we're providing high value and good quality product for our end consumers, but also for our retail stores to pull through and for our extraction facility to use as feedstock.
Matthew: Okay. And just a practical question here, I'm pretty quick to spot Canadians when I hear the word of about instead of about, or when they say A to Z. But other than that, I really cannot tell I'm speaking with a Canadian. Is there any little things that you do, little idiosyncrasies that reveal your American-ness and kind of out you to your new Canadian countryman?
Ben: Yeah, it's funny you mentioned that, there's that and a couple others I've found. Yeah. In general, it's interesting to me. Calgary is very much like Denver where it's a busy city, right on the prairies up against the rocky mountains, but there are few things, I think, give me away. One is I've had to learn to say washroom instead of bathroom. Another is that I found that when I use my credit card, and this is just a funny little thing that, sometimes they'll require me to give a signature, whereas the Canadian credit cards almost never require you to give a signature. And then the final thing that I've certainly saw that some this weekend is that you do not go hiking in the mountains here without bear spray. There is a lot more bears up here.
Matthew: I bet you don't wanna find that out too in the wrong way.
Ben: No, you don't. So they're pretty serious about that. And I appreciated it this weekend.
Matthew: Although in boulder I did have a bear family live in our tree out front, a mother and two cubs, and they came back more than once. And you hear him in the middle of the night and that is up close and personal because you can...they breathe so loud, especially the mother is that, it's like, you can feel their breathing like through the wall. It's just unbelievable. Like the power of those creatures. And to watch them scale up a tree, they can just fly up a tree in just a moment, they're up.
Ben: That is amazing.
Matthew: I hope to never have to out run one of these things. So you carry bear spray, and have you had to use it yet?
Ben: I have not. But it's interesting when you read the directions, they say to make sure to aim down the nostrils of the beast, which I'm kind of concerned. I didn't wanna to get that close, that my aim would be that good.
Matthew: Yeah. There's a lot of YouTube videos of people shooting bears and mountain lions pretty much in the face with those things and it really seems to work. I mean there's a lot of power that comes out of that bear spray. You guys seem to shoot it pretty far.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. Thankfully I haven't had to use it yet or practice it, but it's good to know that it works.
Matthew: Yeah. Okay. Well enough about bear spray here and wild animals. Let's get back into cannabis. Okay. Now tell us how many licensed producers, or LPs, there are in Canada.
Ben: Yeah, so the last report I saw that, which was May of this year, 2019, was that there were 175 approved licenses, which is up from about October last year when it's 132 when it first become more technically legal. But according to Health Canada, there's actually like 614 applications in the queue as of March of this year. So there's still quite a people, a number of people in the queue, and they've recently made some changes where they are making it so that they're prioritizing applicants who've actually built out their facilities, which is great, because there's a lot of people who have an interest in it, but not everyone has actually gone through the work to design and build out a facility.
Matthew: Okay. And what types of products are available for consumers to buy right now?
Ben: Yeah. So right now you can buy flour and pre-rolled joints. You know, on the more traditional side, as well as they have derivative products that are quite some right now, so oils, such as tinctures or sprays and capsules. And we actually have our own brand of a store. It's called Prairie Records, which we sell those and we really focus kind of on the higher standard portion of that chain.
Mathhew: Okay. And then, what's coming down the pike in terms after October 17th?
Ben: Yeah, so they're gonna open it up pretty well. There's still gonna be a lot of restriction on the branding side of things, but they are opening up vape cartridges. So I expect to see a broad market there. And as you know, in the United States, in markets where extracted products are available, you know, it takes up typically, you know, 50 or more percent of the market. We expect to see a lot of vape cartridges coming online. Additionally, they are saying they're gonna allow concentrates, you know, so the shatter and wax type of products. Candies, beverages, chocolates and topicals are some of the different things. They're all going to be coming online there. And it's gonna be a slow roll is what we're all expecting. You know that October 17th will happen, then you'll start to see more and more products kinda coming online towards the end of this year and the beginning of next.
Matthew: Gosh, I would think that's gonna be a huge demand out of the gate. It's like getting this whole new spectrum of products that you didn't have access to before. I mean, that's exciting.
Ben: It is.
Matthew: Okay. And what's the scope of your grow operation? Give us a well more detailed what that looks like.
Ben: Yeah, so we have a grow operation that's coming online up in Saskatchewan. It's in the Battleford area. And so that place is gonna be about 100,000 square feet when it's fully built out, a little bit over than that, and able to produce 14,000 kilograms of dried cannabis flour in the course of a year once it's fully built out. But we also have a extraction facility that we're building right here in Calgary. And that's gonna be...we're finishing up construction actually as we speak right now. So it's gonna be coming online here this summer and it's gonna be able to produce or actually process about 30,000 kilograms of cannabis feedstock per year. So that's quite a bit. And from that we're gonna be able to produce all those products we discussed. So of course, day one type out products such as the, the oils and tinctures and gel caps. But then we're very much interested in targeting all these other products that are gonna become available to us, such as the edibles, the vapes, topicals, and other high value products.
Ben: How about your background in engineering from NASA, particle accelerators, and everything you were doing before? Do you use that to solve any automation or growing problems or think about things perhaps differently than another executive mind?
Ben: Yeah. So it's hard not to look at things and see problems or ways you can improve, particularly in a young industry. You know, recently one of the areas that we've been looking a lot at is the harvest process. So when you have a crop and you have to harvest it, there's a lot of labor that goes into that. And because there's a high chance of microbial contamination during that period because the plants have been cut down, it's lost a lot of its natural defense mechanisms. A lot of people are touching it. We really wanted to focus on how could we reduce the labor, but also the microbial contamination while maintaining a process that will end up with a high value product? So we've been looking a lot at what are different tools that we can use. And you know, even from just moving the product from point A to point B, as well as helping the people in their work so that they can optimize that and decrease the labor and microbial contamination.
Matthew: Okay. And you mentioned Prairie Records, the dispensary brand, but since we're in a audio medium here, it's kind of hard to express what this looks like. I've seen pictures and the design concept and it's really interesting. Can you kind of walk us through what it would look like to walk into a Prairie Records dispensary? What that look and feel of it is like?
Ben: Yeah, happy to. So this is actually one of the things that really stood out to us, and one of the reasons that the three executives here from Colorado all joined the Westleaf team. So if you look at most dispensaries or cannabis retail places, you'll notice that they kind of gravitate towards one or two different tropes. One is the head shop, you know, so you'll see a Cheech and Chong posters on the wall, tie dye. And I think there's still a place for that in the market, but it's not what's going to attract millions and millions of new users to the market. Right? That is intimidating. The other is you see what people try to say is the Apple Store of cannabis.
Matthew: I've seen a lot of that.
Ben: Exactly. And there's also nothing inherently wrong with that in my opinion. You know, it's a very clean aesthetic. It can be warm and inviting, but it also isn't any different, you know, so there no real way. If you're just another one of those, how do you stand out against everyone? You know, if you were to remove the color palette, it would be hard to tell apart some of those different stores. And we really wanted to do something different. So at a Prairie Records store, right as you walk through the door, the first thing you'll notice is it actually looks much more like a modern day record store. The difference is when you start flipping through the stacks of our records and you are looking at those sleeves, what you'll find on the sleeve is different names of strains or cultivars. So you'll see you a Blue Dream or Girl Scout cookies on there.
And when you take it over and you flip it on the back, you'll find just a little bit of prose on how this type of product might make you feel or what kind of inspired this different cultivar. You'll also find a bunch of information about how much CBD and THC there, what's the strength of that strain, you know, what are the different ways that we offer it such as a pre-roll or just flour. And even a little bit about, you know, what music this pairs with. Is this more of a sleepy time type thing or is this dancing on the sunshine as you walk into our store lab, broken down those different sections? So it really kind of plays off of this instinctual tie that we've all had between music and cannabis.
Matthew: Okay. It's a great idea, really is a great idea. If you can't be first in a category, create a new category where you can be first and own that. So if anybody tries to do that after you, it'll be a comparison. Like, is this as good as Prairie Records? So that's really cool.
Ben: Yeah. And the other thing is you mentioned that as, you know, we talked about some of those branding restrictions that make it really difficult for LPs to stand out. And what we do by having this experience where people can walk in and they have a tactile experience with something and they're flipping through it, they're looking at an album that has colors and it represents the brand that LP wants to promote, it allows them to give branding and an environment that otherwise wouldn't allow that. So with our own products as well as with our other partners, they can flip through there and they can actually see something the way that that LP wishes that they could brand it.
Matthew: That's really cool. And tell me a little bit about how you decide where to position a dispensary. I mean, what's the thought process there? I know, you know, some companies say, "I wanna be close to like a natural grocer or a high end wine bar or coffee shops." There's a lot of different strategies there. I only know, I think Kensington's Lane neighborhood I'm familiar with in Calgary. Maybe you can just touch a little bit about what's your thought processes there.
Ben: Yeah, some of that is similar to the aspects you said there, which is we're focused, I would say, on finding high caliber location where there's a good foot traffic, touristy areas or high traffic areas. But we're also trying to find areas that kind of line up well with the vision of, you know, we're looking for something where there's maybe some recreation going on there and socialization, but we're trying to get it so that there's listening emotions of happiness, discovery, enjoyment. So a couple of examples. Our flagship store right now in Saskatoon is on Broadway Avenue, which is a great walking street. You know, lots of hip cool bars and restaurants along there. It's a very vibrant, energetic community. So it fits in perfectly. You walk past our store, there's great music playing, you walk away then, you hear the music and you can start shopping. Similarly in Calgary, we're gonna have a store located at Palo Stater [SP], which is a music venue. And so it's fantastic for people who, you know, are going to that concert. Boom, we're right there, and you can stop in and experience our store.
Matthew: Yeah. What's kind of the cultural norm in Calgary versus let's say a city like Denver in terms of consuming cannabis outside? What do you see there, just anecdotally?
Ben: It's pretty similar in many ways and that, you know, it is frowned upon to consume largely in public, however, you walk down the street and occasionally get the usual smell of cannabis.
Matthew: Yeah. And where are you in the capital raising process, and what's the process been like since you got started raising capital for Westleaf?
Ben: Yeah, so we started over a year ago, actually really kicked off with a strategic partnership with Thunderchild First Nation, which is an indigenous band in Saskatchewan. They invested $8 million in the company, and it's its largest shareholder, and actually the former chief sits on our board of directors.. Yeah. So that started off and then a few different things including the vertically integrated strategy really kind of put us on the map. And since then we've developed agreements and supply agreements and investments with companies such as Xabis, Tilray, Vivo, and Candera that have allowed us to kind of leverage that and continue to grow. And then I think the one other thing that's pretty unique is that we were able to secure about up to $24 million of debt financing from ATB Financial, which is one of the first traditional lenders I know of to enter the cannabis space in Canada.
Matthew: Okay. I just wanna circle back to extraction really quick. So I'm guessing you're probably doing CO2 extraction, that's kind of the way you're going?
Ben: Yeah, that's correct. We're focused right now on CO2 for several different reasons. One, it's very clean and it's also very diable, something you can dial in. And Xabis has a quite a bit of experience on that and they've got quite a number of years of doing extraction on that.
Matthew: Okay. Okay. How do you kind of measure in your mind how much capacity you need when this market changes on October 17th and you'll be able to have all these extracted products, and how are you kind of gauging how much you should have ready? I mean, that's kind of an art and a science, I guess. What do you do?
Ben: That's exactly what it is. It's part art, part science, and part crystal ball. You know, the great thing is that we do have other markets such as Colorado and Washington and California to look at. That said, you know, so you can predict a little bit about what the market demand is gonna look like. And I always look at, you know, we've done quite a bit of modeling on different markets and what we've seen is that there's micro and macro trends, right? So within each market, as it comes online, there's an adoption rate, but then when you look globally, you'll see that there is overall a greater acceptance going on for cannabis and particularly CBD. And so that's kind of amplifying things. But then there's this last piece of we all kind of know what the other LPs are doing, but you don't know for sure.
So, when you come to your production forecast, we've made it so that we can be quite dynamic, an ability to just scale up or scale down how much production we want to do based upon what are the needs and demands of the market and what else is going on in this market, how much white space is there to grow in different areas?
Matthew: Okay. And how do you think the Canadian market will mature and evolve over the next five years?
Ben: Yeah. Well, so I think there's a few things. One is, you know, we are seeing globally there's more and more acceptance, and I hope that continues and I've certainly seen that as a trend. I've seen some of the negative stigmas being shattered there. You know, I think more and more people are coming up out about how they use cannabis. You know, whether it's for recreation or it's to help treat some mild conditions such as anxiety or depression or other concerns they may have. Additionally, I think that I suspect what we'll see happen over time is that some of those branding standards will relax a little bit over time. I think that people will start to see that the parade of horribles isn't happening and that there are ways that if we want to try to muscle out the black market, you have to learn how to compete with it. So there's things there of...and the black market today in Canada you can find well-branded products for cheap, and that have higher dosing of what would be allowed today under the current regulations. And so I expect that Canada will try to combat the black market by attacking those items.
Matthew: Okay. Ben, I like to ask a few personal development questions to help listeners get a better sense of who you are personally. With that, is there a book that's had a big impact on your life or way of thinking that you'd like to share?
Ben: Yeah. So there's been a few. You know, one that really stands out, and this guy does a great Ted Talk. He's a gentleman by the name of Daniel Pink, wrote a book called ''Drive.'' And what he does, he looks at what motivates us, and he really looks at and he explores intrinsically versus extrinsically motivated individuals. And I've always really found, I enjoy working more with people intrinsically motivated. And so I found this to be a great read of, you know, what is it that helps reward those people and then how do you make it so that people are more likely to be intrinsically motivated than extrinsically motivated.
Matthew: Oh, cool. I think I ever read a book from him called ''A Whole New Mind,'' and I thought that was excellent too.
Ben: Yeah, he's great.
Matthew: Yeah, he really helps you see things in a different way. Is there a tool that you or your team use that you consider valuable to your productivity?
Ben: Yeah. So, you know, it's interesting, I've been watching Microsoft kind of evolve over the last few years and they have a product out called Teams, which is a very similar to Slack, which is a kind of an instant messaging chat tool. But it's really cut down on how much we need to use email and it gets people just quick updates and anyone can go in there and check in on the status of a project. Additionally, it allows us to collaborate much easier on documents. And so it used to drive me nuts when someone would send out a press release, for example, to eight people and say, "Hey, everyone, can you take a look?" And then eight different people are exchanging emails and sometimes they're talking about the same thing, sometimes not. And this allows us to all work on the same copy and to be much more efficient.
Matthew: That's a great idea. How frustrating is that when you have a spreadsheet being updated by so many different people? It's madness. That makes sense, or Word doc. What do you think is the most interesting thing going on in your field besides what you're doing?
Ben: Yeah, I think there's a couple different aspects going on. You know, one is that there is a lot of focus in the United States and in other nations about what could happen in the future with cultivation, for example, and where is that production gonna be done. I also think it's interesting to watching it now that Canada has done a federal legal program. There's two different things that kind of in mind. One is a medical research. As I mentioned before, I've worked in biomedical instrumentation but I also worked in cancer therapy. And, you know, with that heavy analytical background, one of the things that I really would love to see more of, is some great research that shows, you know, how can this plant help people and get rid of some of the stigma of that. Another thing is that, you know, with all of these new products coming online and market access, I expect it's gonna be a lot of innovation in Canada on new products and different ways to deliver it. And we have a few things up our sleeve, and hope to talk about those in the future.
Matthew: And then a Peter Thiel question for you. What is the one thing that you believe that most people would disagree with you on?
Ben: Yeah. You know, there's been a lot of talk about cannabis and the cultivation of it becoming a commodity, and I think there's an aspect of that's true, but I actually disagree in that I think that there's always gonna be a space for people who can grow a high quality product that really speaks to a certain market. And so that's something that we've really focused on and we put a lot of our strategy around, is the ability to grow craft at scale. You know, we're not gonna be everything to everyone, we're not gonna be the person with a million square foot facility that's just pumping out a lot of basic product. But I think that there actually is a space for people who are not growing a commodity.
Matthew: Ben, as we close, please let listeners know how they can find you and learn more about Westleaf.
Ben: Yeah, so you can find out more information on our website, which is www.westleaf.dot. And additionally, if you wanna learn more about Prairie Records, which I definitely recommend checking out, you can go to prairierecords.ca, or you can check us out on Instagram and Facebook at prairierecords.com
Matthew: Well, Ben, all the best to you. We wish you good luck, and keep us updated on how things progress in Canada, and I really want to see a one of the Prairie Records store in person so I can experience that.
Ben: Yeah, please come to visit us. It's a fantastic store. We have an amazing staff who are extremely knowledgeable, and they're beautiful stores.
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