How to sell a California cannabis businessSince passage of the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (“MCRSA“) and Proposition 64, one of the top questions our California marijuana lawyers have been getting from existing medical marijuana operators is “how can I sell my medical marijuana collective?” Of course, many collectives are not hard-pressed to find willing buyers. In the City of Los Angeles, for example, where only 135 Proposition D-compliant dispensary collectives are allowed to exist (which will also receive priority status from the City under the MCRSA and Prop. 64 in the event Measure M passes on March 7th), buyers are lining up to try to buy LA dispensaries that can get them into that market. There is also plenty of buyer interest in other California collectives that can demonstrate continuous operation and good standing with their local jurisdictions to qualify for “priority status” under both the MCRSA and Prop. 64.

But here’s the big issue: neither the MCRSA nor Prop. 64 repealed Proposition 215 and Senate Bill 420, which together make up California’s current and very vague medical marijuana laws. What this means is that all medical marijuana collectives must still operate as non-profit entities unless and until the application period opens for licenses under the MCRSA or Prop. 64. And just to further complicate matters, “collective” is an industry term of art; it is not a specific type of California legal entity and you are not going to find it in the California Corporations Code. One of the main reasons for California’s “collective model” is that the California Attorney General’s office issued a memo in 2008 with its interpretation of the medical marijuana laws that concluded those laws forbid the sale of medical marijuana for profit and, therefore, only “non-profit operation” would be allowed in the event qualified patients were to “collectively or cooperatively” cultivate and distribute medical cannabis to other qualified patients.

As a result of that 2008 memo, most qualified patients form nonprofit entities to handle their “commercial” medical marijuana activity. They typically form nonprofit mutual benefit corporations (“NPMBCs”) that they refer to as “collectives.” In turn, it isn’t possible to “buy” a collective. Why? Because there’s no equity or stock to purchase. Of course, there are other solutions to this non-profit conundrum, but they must be carefully considered and well thought out by both a prospective purchaser and the collective.

In NPMBCs, the articles of incorporation and the bylaws govern the collective’s every move and decision–but the bylaws really govern the day-to-day activity and decision-making authority of the members. For example, NPMBC bylaws will have provisions that dictate, among a slew of other things, admission of new qualified patient members and what they must do to maintain their membership in the collective. In addition, well-drafted bylaws also typically will address the voting rights of the members and directors. Under the California Corporations Code, a prospective purchaser cannot buy the stock of a NPMBC (because none is authorized or issued). The California Corporations Code does however permit membership transfers if the collective’s bylaws allow them, and these transfers are fairly unrestricted unless the bylaws specifically create restrictions around them.

Section 7320 of the Corporations Code governing NPMBC membership transfers states the following regarding the transfer of membership rights:

Subject to [member voting restrictions in the bylaws]:

(a) Unless the articles or bylaws otherwise provide:

(1) No member may transfer a membership or any right arising therefrom; and

(2) Subject to the provisions of subdivision (b), all rights as a member of the corporation cease upon the member’s death or dissolution.

(b) The articles or bylaws may provide for, or may authorize the board to provide for, the transfer of memberships, or of memberships within any class or classes, with or without restriction or limitation, including transfer upon the death, dissolution, merger, or reorganization of a member.

(c) Where transfer rights have been provided, no restriction of them shall be binding with respect to memberships issued prior to the adoption of the restriction, unless the holders of such memberships voted in favor of the restriction.

The ideal situation is usually one where the bylaws create two classes of membership: usually directors who manage the NPMBC and qualified patient members who access the NPMBC for medical marijuana, with the directors being the only ones who vote on management decisions affecting the NPMBC. The bylaws usually also allow for director membership transfers (presumably with a fee), without requiring a vote of every single qualified patient who has ever become a member of the NPMBC. In turn, directors can sell their memberships to prospective buyers who can then take over and operate the NPMBC until MCRSA and Prop. 64 licensing.

Unfortunately, nearly all of the NPMCB bylaws our California cannabis lawyers have seen on the deals on which they have worked are a mess, largely because most of the lawyers in California that do cannabis law are criminal lawyers not corporate transactional lawyers. Much of the time, the NPMCB bylaws do not contain a provision allowing for membership transfers or they require every single member of the collective vote on such a transfer because they lack multiple membership classes or voting exceptions. In these situations, it is sometimes possible to set up a system where the departing directors provide notice to every single qualified patient member that new directors could take over the board of directors and those new directors might vote to pay the departing directors a fee for services to be rendered to the NPMBC after-the-fact. For example, the new directors could vote to hire the departing directors in a consultant capacity and pay them a fee for that work. Though neither ideal nor efficient, this is one of various workarounds that can be done to transition the management of an NPMBC with bad bylaws.

The bottom line is that non-profit collectives cannot be “purchased,” and it takes good bylaws (or convoluted workarounds) to be able to transition from one group of directors to another. So, if you are looking to “sell” or “buy” a California cannabis business, be sure that the relevant bylaws allow for such a change and that your transition documents are in-line with what the bylaws actually allow. If such care isn’t taken, the buyer can be left with nothing but an empty wallet and the collective may find itself in direct violation of California’s Corporations Code and an expensive and painful lawsuit as well.