Curaleaf Is Upbeat About Cannabis Reform. Here’s Why. – Barron’s

Curleaf grew 2020 revenue 161% and expanded its national store count from 51 to 96.

Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

While American investors went wild this year for unprofitable Canadian pot producers, U.S. businesses like Curaleaf Holdings  outgrew their northern counterparts.

Now, Curaleaf (ticker: CURLF) has reported quarterly results that maintained its place as the world’s biggest legal cannabis seller.

The company’s December quarterly revenue of $233 million was up 186% from the year-ago quarter. And unlike most well-known Canadian growers, Curaleaf made solid cash profits, reporting $54 million in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (adjusted for one-time charges).

Canada’s Aphria (APHA) and Tilray (TLRY) boast that their pending merger makes them the world’s largest marijuana company, but much of their combined revenue will come from a European pharmaceutical distribution business.

In over-the-counter trading Wednesday, Curaleaf stock was down 2%, to $15.92. After a February runup, cannabis stocks have slid lately. The ETFMG Alternative Harvest ETF (MJ) was down 1% Wednesday afternoon, compared with a basically flat Nasdaq Composite Index.  

Curaleaf, Green Thumb Industries (GTBIF), Trulieve Cannabis (TCNNF) and Cresco Labs (CRLBF) and others sell cannabis in states that allow it under their laws. But the American pot producers trade at a discount to their better-known Canadian rivals, because the drug’s illegality under U.S. federal law deprives the American operators of the institutional investors and big exchange listings enjoyed by the Canadians. Curaleaf Chairman Boris Jordan tells Barron’s he’s confident that U.S. cannabis companies will outdo Canadian producers and see their stocks trade at parity.

“It’s very simple,” says Jordan. “The U.S. companies are more profitable. They access a bigger market and are growing at a much different pace than their Canadian counterparts.”

A few institutions like BlackRock (BLK) have tiptoed into the stocks of American operators, but most big institutions are holding back until the U.S. government makes it clear they can buy the stocks. “The U.S. sector is wholly beholden to retail and fast money,” says Jordan. “And so the stability in their capital structures isn’t the same as it is in the Canadian companies.”

He expects change, now that Democrats control the White House and Congress. Congressional leaders like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) say they want to fully legalize marijuana under federal law, but Jordan thinks reform will happen in steps.

Curaleaf’s lobbyists doubt that the 50-50 party split in the Senate will allow enough votes for legalization. But Jordan says the votes are there to pass the SAFE Act, which would allow banks to deal with the state-legal operators, let institutions and stock exchanges handle their shares, and remove punitive corporate tax treatment of the weed sellers. The SAFE Act should alleviate the stock market discount on American pot producers, says Jordan.

Further federal legalization will probably have to await the outcome of the midterm elections in two years, says Jordan. Legalization would allow interstate commerce by the industry and lighten the overhead burden imposed by the current need to have completely vertical operations in each state.

December’s results also show that Curleaf grew 2020 revenue 161%, to $653 million, as it expanded its national store count from 51 to 96. Counting some yet-to-close acquisitions, 2020 sales would have been $767 million. While the year’s net losses were $62 million, or 11 cents a share, adjusted Ebitda was $144 million.

In 2021, Curaleaf expects sales to nearly double to between $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion, with adjusted Ebitda margins of around 30%.

The company also said that it was making its European entrée. For $286 million, mostly in stock, Curaleaf will buy EMMAC Life Sciences, which has production facilities in Portugal and Spain. Jordan says EMMAC will break even this year, on sales of about $40 million.

Europe allows cannabis trade between its nations, with a population that is twice that of the U.S. Switzerland and the Netherlands are launching recreational cannabis pilot projects this year. Jordan expects that Germany will have a vote on legalizing recreational sales within six months of the departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who only favored medical cannabis.

“We think that in the next five years Europe becomes one of the largest markets in the world,” Jordan says. “As the U.S. starts to mature a little bit, I was looking at where I am going to get my growth after 2023, 2024, 2025.”

Write to Bill Alpert at william.alpert@barrons.com

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