Long before Tripp Murray ever set foot inside a legal cannabis cultivation facility, he knew what it took to grow a small startup company into a thriving business: seed money.
For 17 years, the New York native worked in the traditional world of investment banking, eventually becoming director of the U.S. equity capital markets for a major French bank. Then, a few years ago, a friend asked Murray to review a business plan for a potential investment opportunity in an industry with which neither had any previous experience.
Though the commodity — marijuana — was unusual, the business fundamentals were not. Besides investors, all startups need guidance from someone who understands banking, balance sheets, cash flows, and the complexities of tax and regulatory policies.
So Murray met with the Colorado-based operator and a lawyer who had been involved in writing the laws that now govern Denver's adult-use cannabis market. Soon the financier was an informal member of the "cannabis club," spending every third week meeting with pot producers in the Denver area, touring facilities, building relationships and providing financial advice on behalf of his then-employer, Medallion Financial Group.
That firm, whose slogan is "In niches there are riches," got its start by financing taxi medallions, or licenses. With cannabis, Medallion Financial was looking to invest not just thousands but millions of dollars in what it saw as a major growth industry. The legal market is projected to expand from $4.6 billion in 2014 to $21.8 billion by 2020 — a 30 percent annual growth rate — so the financiers saw plenty of green to be made in this rich niche.
"It's a very entrepreneurial business," Murray says. "There are a few very large players in Colorado, but the majority of them are smaller entrepreneurs."
Today Murray, 42, is the managing partner of his own Burlington-based consulting firm, Virentium Advisors, which specializes in the legal cannabis industry. The name comes from the Latin word meaning "evergreen." Though the Vermont legislature failed to legalize marijuana this session, Murray is one of a handful of Vermonters already making a legal living in cannabis commerce. He advises businesses and investors in some of the 24 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have legalized the production and sale of marijuana.
And, no, his first name isn't a drug reference. It's a nickname he acquired from his given name, William Terrence Murray III — "Tripp is short for triple," he explains.
Murray has local clients, too. They include some of Vermont's medical marijuana dispensaries and the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative, a coalition of local entrepreneurs and nonprofits that helped push this year's legalization campaign.
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"Tripp was extremely helpful for us," says Burlington attorney Ken Merritt, who worked on that campaign for the VCC. While the effort ultimately fell short, Merritt adds, "I'm sure we'll eventually find some good things for him to do."
When Murray meets with Seven Days in a downtown Burlington coffeehouse, it's readily apparent that he's trying to redefine the public face of cannabis. Instead of the Queen City's typical business-casual attire, he shows up for the interview in a suit jacket, slacks and a dress shirt. Anyone eavesdropping on the conversation might easily mistake him for a financial planner providing advice on a 401(k) plan.
Murray's choice of words similarly reflects the industry's concerted effort to move beyond what he calls its "Reefer Madness, fear-based" public persona. He consistently refers to the product as cannabis, not marijuana, ganga, weed or dope. He also eschews the term "recreational market" in favor of the more responsible-sounding "adult-use market."
Such distinctions are more than mere semantics. Murray calls the underground or black market the "unregulated market." The implication is that many cannabis consumers are otherwise law-abiding citizens who would be happy to buy their product from licensed, taxed and regulated suppliers.
As for Murray's consulting services, in many respects they barely differ from those in more conventional industries. He often helps companies with their strategic planning and even serves as their interim chief financial officer until the startup is off the ground.
"This industry is growing very quickly," he says. "With most entrepreneurs, they're going in so many directions at once that sometimes they lose sight of the bottom line."
For example, a company may consult him on whether it makes sense to purchase a commercial-grade extractor of THC, the chemical compound that produces a high, so the company can manufacture edibles. Murray helps the partners decide whether they should make that $175,000 to $250,000 investment — or just bring their excess flower and trim to a contractor, who can do that extraction for a fee.
"There's a lot of revenue in this industry," Murray notes. "But there's a big difference between revenue and profit."
He estimates that about 75 percent of the issues he helps companies tackle are growing pains that all businesses experience when they go from being, say, a $3 million enterprise to a $12 million one.
Brooke Gehring is a partner and CEO of Patients Choice of Colorado, a medical and adult-use cannabis company headquartered in Denver. PCC owns four dispensaries in the Denver metro area and two grow facilities. Like Murray, Gehring got into the cannabis industry from commercial banking. In 2008, while overseeing a real estate portfolio, she began receiving calls from investors looking for deals on foreclosed storefronts and industrial warehouses — ideal locations for the newly legalized cannabis grow facilities and dispensaries. Once she realized why those bank-owned properties were in such high demand, she jumped into the cannabis market herself.
One reason Gehring likes working with Murray, she says, is that he "speaks the language" of traditional investment bankers yet understands the unique challenges of the legal cannabis industry.
"We don't have traditional ways to go to a bank and apply for a small business loan or have a business line of credit," she explains. "Tripp has been very helpful in finding us creative and transparent ways to optimize our business."
The federal government still lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, on par with LSD, cocaine and heroin, and thereby places significant financial constraints on those who manufacture and sell it legally. Banking, payroll, checking and lines of credit all pose major challenges. Many dispensaries do not accept credit cards because the transactions may be electronically routed through states where marijuana is illegal, raising the specter of federal money-laundering charges.
"It's still a big challenge," says Murray. Last year, the State of Colorado issued a charter and bank routing number to Denver-based Fourth Corner Credit Union, the first financial institution that specializes in cannabis commerce. However, the Federal Reserve System's Kansas City branch refused to issue a master account that would allow the credit union to conduct interstate wire transfers with other financial institutions. In January, a federal judge dismissed Fourth Corner's federal lawsuit, ruling that to allow such transactions would "facilitate criminal activity."
Such decisions reflect the federal government's often self-contradictory policies about commercial weed. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has allowed at least one "cannabis-focused agriculture company," Terra Tech, to trade its stocks publicly on the Nasdaq's OTC exchange. Even federal tax policies vary depending on whether a company cultivates, manufactures, extracts or dispenses marijuana — or does all of the above, a model known as vertical integration.
Vermont lawmakers didn't seek out Murray's advice this session while they debated how legalization should look in the Green Mountain State. Yet, as someone who conducts business in a variety of regulatory settings, he's eminently qualified to speak on the pros and cons of each state's approach to legalizing its medical and adult-use markets.
What advice would he offer to lawmakers when they inevitably take up this issue again?
First, Murray suggests that Vermont opt for a "regulated market" with a limited number of licensees. All those businesses should start out vertically integrated, he further advises, to assuage public and law enforcement concerns about diversion of the product into the unregulated markets of neighboring states.
Over time, however, Murray thinks Vermont could ease up on those restrictions and open its "cannabis space" to more specialized companies, such as organic and non-GMO growers, edible-only producers, THC-oil extractors and the like.
Should the state limit cannabis investments to Vermont residents — exclusively or predominantly — as some have suggested? In Murray's opinion, that's a bad idea. He points out the high cost of starting up a commercial cultivation facility and dispensary, which requires $2 million to $5 million at the outset. Once a company completes its paperwork, purchases its license, finds a facility, outfits it with grow equipment and security systems, and hires employees, it will still have to weather nine months of operations, with zero revenue, before any product is ready for market. In Murray's experience, he says, allowing as many as 50 percent out-of-state investments per company ensures a healthy marketplace without sacrificing strong in-state controls.
"If you formulate regulation that doesn't allow companies to succeed, then you hurt the industry and the state," he adds. "You need to have a give-and-take so that companies can employ individuals and increase tax revenue."
Murray's final recommendation for Vermont lawmakers may surprise some pro-legalization advocates.
"Go it slow," he says. "Start with just a handful of licenses, then open it up to more. Don't jump in with both feet. Because every state is different, and the social tolerance to it is different, too. I do think it's going to take a while to change the public's perception of what cannabis is. But it will change."
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.