It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. – Mark Twain
Legal marijuana is undoubtedly having a moment. Since Colorado first paved the way in November of 2012 to legalize recreational cannabis, efforts to move the drug into the mainstream of society have gained real momentum. Even with the election of Donald Trump, seven states voted to legalize either recreational or medical marijuana this past month. Here at home, Justin Trudeau campaigned on the promise of legalizing marijuana “right away”, adding to the growing movement of normalising the drug.
The debate over marijuana has been all but won by the champions of recreational use, certainly from moral and scientific standards. All that is left is the actual laws that must be struck down, and as we near that day I have been bombarded with questions from my clients about whether it is a good idea to buy some of the publicly traded marijuana stocks available on the market. So is it a good idea?
My answer to this question is typically Canadian: “It depends…”. The question that I ask investors looking for advice is what purpose would this investment serve them in their goals? Driving the excitement for investing in publically traded grow-ops are a heady brew of excitement over the possibility of legalization, reports of weed tourism and a weed economy, and the news stories about how quickly the stocks have been appreciating. This mix of positive media have given the story of investing in the “pot business” a veneer of inevitability; that the price of the stocks will rise for some time.
In fact, according to Vice, just last week trading had to be halted on several medical marijuana companies on the TSX because their price had appreciated so quickly in a single session of trading that it tripped a “single stocks circuit breaker.” The enthusiasm for these stocks is real, but does that mean its a good time to buy?
First, what are the risks? The most glaring is that weed isn’t actually legal yet and continues to face significant uphill challenges to be made so. Though individual states have voted to end its prohibition, pot is still considered a Class A drug in the United States, and while Barack Obama had told his Attorney General to leave states alone that had allowed legal recreational or medicinal use of the drug, it still falls under the purview of the Department of Justice. Notably Donald Trump’s appointment to this position is by an avowed opponent to any form of marijuana legalization. How long the federal government stays out of individual state’s business is now up for debate.
The knock on effect of the appointment of someone like Jeff Sessions could be felt here too. Though Canadians might like to think that our government policies won’t be impacted by that of our neighbours, the United States will be unlikely to look fondly on their neighbours to the north legalizing a drug that they are working hard to stomp out. The impact at the border on traffic and trade may be enough to dissuade the government from moving ahead too aggressively with legalization.
But even if we do get to the promised land of legal weed, that still doesn’t mean that the market will be good for marijuana companies. One of the arguments for legal weed is that weed is no more dangerous than cigarettes, which is true, but just look at how we have treat tobacco. Over the last 50 years we have been putting endless pressure to discourage and end the use of tobacco. You can not smoke inside, on a patio, in private clubs, or in a car with children. Cigarettes can’t be displayed and all packages must come with both graphic and written warnings about the impact on your health. In the very near future there may be no branding on packages at all.
Against these challenges, medical marijuana companies are expanding rapidly. Companies banking on a future of recreational use with few regulations are borrowing money to expand their operations to meet both rising demand and expected demand. Since the companies are growing many have never turned a profit, the current surging stock price really represents a bet about the future, and not about the current financial health of the company.
Take Canopy Growth, a medical marijuana grower that became Canada’s first “unicorn” in the sector, valued in excess of $1 billion. According to a Reuters survey of analysts, the company is considered a “Buy” and the Globe and Mail has some positive views of the company, largely that it has good stock momentum and low relative debt. A surprise positive earnings report per share last week gave the company a significant boost in terms of share price. So how much has it made? Nothing. The company has a negative PE and no earnings to report on.
And so we return to the original question, is it a good idea to buy publically traded marijuana companies? It depends; depends on whether you are comfortable with risk, with companies that have yet to turn a profit and with possibility that you could see steep losses as well as happy and rapid gains. It depends on what role you expect any of these stocks to play in your investment goals. Is this money for play, or is it meant to be an integral part of a retirement plan? If you as an investor can make peace with those realities, then maybe these stocks are for you.
These are the opinions of the writer, and not necessarily reflect those of Aligned Capital Partners Inc. Aligned Capital Partners Inc. is a member of IIROC and CIPF.