Cannabis Nation: From Woodstock to Wall Street

When I was 12 years old, my dad took me to the local movie theater to see Woodstock, a film that blew my little adolescent mind. By the time the lights came up, I had outgrown Disney.

Marijuana, of course, played a prominent role in this Academy Award-winning 1970 documentary about the legendary music festival in upstate New York. During the Woodstock era, pot was the forbidden fruit that hippies, freaks, college kids, and rebels of all stripes imbibed to taunt the establishment.

Fast forward to 2017 and one of the hottest investment themes is “canna-business.” As increasing numbers of states legalize marijuana for medical and/or recreational purposes, marijuana is becoming a multi-billion-dollar industry. Meanwhile, the Canadian government is expected to legalize recreational marijuana by July 2018.

Mary Jane has moved from Woodstock to Wall Street. Problem is, as marijuana gets legalized and becomes a mainstream moneymaker, inherently shaky micro-cap cannabis companies have been sprouting up like pot plants under a grow lamp. These thinly financed and often poorly managed newcomers suffer from weak underlying fundamentals; most will go bankrupt. Investors who blindly pile into dubious pot stocks are headed for a bum trip.

Marijuana is indeed a compelling investment theme, but you should shun the proliferating number of tiny OTC-traded stocks.

Certain quality plays stand out, though, and one of them enjoyed a spike in its stock price on Tuesday: 22nd Century Group (NYSE: XXII), a small-cap biotech that genetically engineers tobacco and cannabis plants to change their chemical potency.

XXII stock jumped 3.49% on Tuesday, immediately after the company’s announcement that the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health’s Fifth Annual Conference will discuss Tobacco Regulatory Science and spotlight the science behind 22nd Century’s low-nicotine tobacco cigarettes. The influential national conference is scheduled for October 5-6 in Burlington, Vermont and its keynote speaker will be Mitch Zeller, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products.

Now’s an opportune time to take a closer look at 22nd Century Group.

The FDA lights a fire…

Make no mistake, I’m not taking a stand on the legalization of marijuana, one way or the other. My job isn’t advocacy; it’s finding profitable investments.

Consider this: In the wake of this week’s Las Vegas mass shooting, gun-maker sales and equities have soared. Whether that’s immoral depends on your perspective.

Regardless of your personal views on pot, the legalization and subsequent commercialization of marijuana is an unstoppable trend and a once-in-a-generation chance to get onto the ground floor of an industry that’s becoming a juggernaut. Regulators already are getting on board.

The FDA announced in July that it would try to severely limit and in some cases eliminate flavorings in tobacco products even as it takes a more conservative approach on other regulatory goals. “Big Tobacco” is transitioning away from conventional cigarettes toward e-cigarettes and smokeless, low-nicotine products.

The FDA asserted that encouraging the development of low nicotine cigarettes would be a regulatory priority, an unexpected development considering the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory approach to all industries. The FDA’s announcement was good news for 22nd Century, which occupies the vanguard of this research.

A significant milestone for 22nd Century occurred on September 25, when the company announced that its Research License and Commercial Option Agreement of 2013 between XXII and British American Tobacco (LSE: BATS) is now finished.

The conclusion of this restrictive agreement frees 22nd Century to forge lucrative new partnerships. British American Tobacco can no longer claim rights to any intellectual property or other assets of 22nd Century, which gives the latter complete control of its prolific intellectual property portfolio.

In recent days, 22nd Century has started talks with global tobacco and pharmaceutical companies that previously approached 22nd Century for joint ventures but were stymied by the agreement between XXII and BAT.

22nd Century’s proprietary technology aims to dramatically reduce levels of nicotine and other nicotinic alkaloids in the tobacco plant through plant breeding and genetic engineering. 22nd Century has the ability to make cigarettes with nicotine levels 95% lower than conventional cigarettes.

22nd Century Group is the only firm in the world that possesses viable and well-tested technology to grow tobacco leaves that carry nicotine beneath the FDA’s recommended threshold for addiction. The company can calibrate the amount of nicotine in tobacco plants without blunting the elements of the tobacco leaf that bestow taste, aroma and other pleasurable qualities.

A budding market…

With a market cap of $289.2 million, 22nd Century is big enough to weather volatility, but small enough to offer potentially market-thumping returns. The company on June 26 became a member of the Russell Microcap Index.

22nd Century’s THC-free marijuana is sought by medical scientists, farmers, and agricultural programs throughout the U.S.

The company’s researchers are now creating so-called enabling tools that expedite the targeted bioengineering of cannabinoid production in the cannabis plant, with the goal of creating new strains of industrial hemp plants with lower levels of cannabinoids for new drug treatments and agricultural applications.

Among the company’s key initiatives is the development of a new strain of hemp containing zero THC, the key psychoactive compound in cannabis. THC produces the chemical high in the human brain that got marijuana banned on the federal level.

Apart from medical uses, a THC-free plant would have significant consequences for the industrial hemp industry, which is all but crippled here in the U.S. Hemp is one of the world’s most sustainable and practical basic materials yet has been illegal since 1970.

But the most immediate opportunity for XXII relates to tobacco. At a meeting this year of the Society for Research on Nicotine & Tobacco, industry leaders, scientists, public health officials, and regulators analyzed the effects of reducing nicotine in cigarettes. They came to the conclusion that lower nicotine results in lower cravings and hence lower cigarette consumption.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently published an Advisory Note titled Global Nicotine Reduction Strategy. The purpose of the data is to help health officials develop policies for limiting the sale of cigarettes to brands with a nicotine content that isn’t powerful enough to foster addiction.

WHO’s report asserted that this goal could be reached with a 95% reduction in nicotine compared with the conventional cigarette brands on the market today. This nicotine level corresponds to 22nd Century’s research program.

22nd Century Group plans to conduct Phase III clinical trials of its leading, extremely low nicotine product called X-22. Scheduled to commence in early 2018, the study is designed to prove that X-22 can serve as an effective aid to help smokers quit cigarettes. If the FDA eventually approves the product, demand would be huge and shares of 22nd Century Group would skyrocket.