In states with legal cannabis programs, most licensed cannabis businesses fall into three broad categories: producers, processors and retailers. Some states offer more exotic classes of licensure for activities like testing, research and even wholesaling marijuana, but a substantial majority of pot entrepreneurs are trading in the basics. Whether you are on the landlord or tenant side of the transaction, though, marijuana leases are anything but basic.
Unlike with standard commercial leases, pot landlords and tenants must account for the status of federal prohibition, the strictures of state-level programs, and the peculiarities of local zoning laws. These considerations are separate and distinct from baseline commercial lease considerations, which can themselves be complex and run into the dozens of pages. Without getting too far into the weeds, here are ten items to consider specifically in your marijuana lease.
1. Profit Sharing. We have seen many, many pot leases drafted by parties where a landlord agrees to take a cut of business profits over and above base rent. This type of transaction is typically frowned upon by regulators, who may view anything beyond ordinary, arms-length payments as de facto license ownership, subject to disclosure and vetting. Both parties should check local rules before entering into any sort of profit sharing arrangement, even if it is a small percentage of rent overall.
2. CSA Indemnity. Savvy landlords will often push for an indemnity requirement from tenants on general liability issues. The experienced marijuana landlord will also require indemnity on the specific issue of civil forfeiture under the federal Controlled Substances Act. This stipulation requires a marijuana tenant to defend a landlord and absolve the landlord of wrongdoing if the federal government takes enforcement action against the landlord for renting to the pot business.
3. Licensing Cooperation. Most marijuana licenses are tied to locations. A marijuana tenant will want to ensure that its landlord is obligated to assist if new administrative rules impose unforeseen requirements on them during the lease term. If a tenant is forced to move, the chances it will be able to drag its license from one place to the next are low. And if the property contains any peripheral attributes relevant to cannabis licensure, like a state-approved water right, the tenant will also want to ensure that the landlord is obligated to maintain that feature.
4. Access. States have strict rules about who may enter onto a marijuana licensee’s premises, and when. The right of the landlord to enter onto a premises should be clearly outlined, and it should dovetail with the provisions contained in any relevant statute or administrative rule regarding entry by anyone other than the licensee.
5. Occupancy and Commencement Dates. A typical cannabis lease will provide that a tenant will abide by all state and local laws, which includes a requirement not to begin any marijuana related activity on the premises prior to licensure. Sometimes, this creates a chicken and egg problem for a tenant, who needs a lease to get licensed, and also needs a license to operate under its lease. The parties should plot out a realistic timeline for licensure, and discuss whether rent will be abated or reduced prior to licensure.
6. Outs. Both parties will want a series of cannabis-specific “outs,” or escape clauses, drafted into the lease. These outs may accrue in situations ranging from federal law enforcement action, to local cannabis license denial. The landlord may also want outs for a tenant’s noncompliance with state or local cannabis laws.
7. Environmental Concerns. This is a big one in production and processor leases. Landlords and tenants will want to address fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides used and stored at the premises, along with the disposal of cannabis products and byproducts. States have both general environmental laws and cannabis specific laws that govern these issues and a properly drafted cannabis lease will take them into account.
8. Lease Term. Commercial leases often extend five or ten years at minimum, and a tenant may have one or more options to renew its lease beyond the initial term. In cannabis, parties tend to agree to shorter lease terms with fewer renewal options, because of the uncertainty inherent in cannabis laws and markets. Each party should weigh its desire for contract stability against the risk of market disruption, before committing to a term.
9. Dispute Resolution. The default rule in commercial leasing is that disputes are settled in court. Landlords are accustomed to expedited court proceedings designed to deal with FED (“forcible entry and wrongful detainer”) and courts are well versed in the summary eviction process. With cannabis, however, there are compelling arguments to be made for arbitration when it comes to contracts, including leases.
10. Federal Illegality. As with any cannabis contract, a well drafted cannabis lease should stipulate that federal illegality is not a valid defense to any claim arising from the lease, and that the parties waive the right to present any such defense related to the status of cannabis under federal law. Otherwise, a court could throw out the lease entirely, causing some serious headaches.
The above list is not exhaustive, and every marijuana lease will be different, depending on the parties, activity, state and location. Above all, it is important to note that marijuana leases, like other marijuana contracts, are unusual agreements that require expert attention.