Marlboro maker reportedly eyeing pot producer Cronos as Aphria tumbles on short seller’s attack


More than a month after a report surfaced that Marlboro cigarette maker Altria Group Inc. was in talks with marijuana producer Aphria Inc., the tobacco company is reportedly in talks to acquire a different pot company, Cronos Group Inc., as legacy companies continue to look for ways into the marijuana industry.

Shares of Cronos

CRON, +11.15%

CRON, +10.74%

 surged as much as 30% in Monday trading, though gains settled down and shares closed up 11%; Cronos stock ticked up 1.5% in the extended session. Aphria

APHA, -23.42%

APHA, -27.69%

closed down 23%, after a short seller published a report questioning the company’s legitimacy. Aphria shares slid 3% in after-hours trading.

A guide to pot stocks: What you need to know to invest in cannabis companies

Citing anonymous sources, Reuters reported Monday that the talks are preliminary, expected to go on for “several weeks” and may not result in a deal. The Reuters report did not specify how much Altria was willing to pay for Cronos, which investors have valued at roughly $1.6 billion, according to FactSet.

A source familiar with the matter confirmed to MarketWatch that Altria and Cronos have talked recently. Cronos declined to comment, and Altria did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report of Altria

MO, +1.64%

 and Cronos discussions also helped other pot stocks, as the ETFMG Alternative Harvest ETF

MJ, -0.89%

and Horizons Marijuana Life Sciences ETF

HMMJ, -2.97%

 , which track marijuana-related stocks, jumped after it was released just before noon Eastern time Monday.

According to a different source familiar with the Canadian cannabis sector, there are “a number” of similar deals in the works at the moment.

The news fits in with reports that show Altria attempting to jump into new smoking categories. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Altria is in discussions with e-cigarette startup Juul Labs Inc. for a minority stake, though a deal has not been reached.

The talks between Altria and Aphria were for a minority stake in the pot company and executives from both companies met in Leamington, Ontario, where Aphria is located, according to The Globe and Mail. At the time, the Canadian newspaper reported that the deal, if closed, would have a similar structure to Constellation Brands Inc.’s

STZ, +1.25%

 $4 billion investment in Canopy Growth Corp.

CGC, -0.66%

WEED, -2.39%


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Beverage companies have been ahead of tobacco companies in targeting the marijuana space. MolsonCoors Brewing Co.

TAP, +0.56%

  is pursuing a joint venture with Quebec-based weed producer Hexo Corp.

HEXO, -3.14%

HYYDF, -2.84%

  and there have been rumors about Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker maker Diageo PLC talking with several Canadian pot companies. A source familiar with the cannabis sector told MarketWatch in the past that a deal with a beverage conglomerate is something of a Holy Grail for Canadian weed makers.

Hindenberg Research published a scathing note Monday about Aphria’s business, calling into question a number of its acquisitions in Latin America — among other things — and said, “We are of the strong opinion that Aphria is part of a scheme orchestrated by a network of insiders to divert funds away from shareholders into their own pockets.”

Aphria called Hindenberg’s note a “malicious and self-serving attempt to profit by manipulating” the company’s stock price “at the expense of Aphria’s shareholders.” The company also said that it paid a fair price for its most recent acquisition in Latin America.

In other pot-stock news, New Age Beverages Corp.

NBEV, +9.07%

 announced the acquisition of a beverage company with international distribution capabilities, Morinda Holdings Inc., and shares gained about 10%. Aurora Cannabis Inc.

ACB, -0.52%

ACB, -1.05%

 announced that its gelcap technology has hit the market.

Cronos’s stock has rallied 47% year to date, while the ETFMG Alternative Harvest ETF

MJ, -0.89%

 has lost 6.6% and the S&P 500 index

SPX, +1.09%

 has gained 4.0%.

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