Don’t lie to your investors, and don’t be taken in by investments that don’t make sense. That’s the moral of this story, which made the rounds based on an SEC press release on Friday. A few years ago, the founder of a marijuana ancillary services company allegedly pumped up the value of that company with misleading press releases and created illusory revenues by transacting “sales” between the “operating” company and the publicly traded company. The SEC found out, investigated, charged the founder, and settled for a hefty fine. The cannabis industry is full of these stories. Every time a local newspaper touts how high marijuana tax revenues are or any new milestone in local marijuana sales, it invites investors to throw their money at any company they can. Investing in small, local, state-licensed cannabis companies is challenging and time-consuming due to state regulations, and the back-end return is fine, but usually not amazing. Public companies, on the other hand, promise enormous growth by having their hands in and around all aspects of the industry, and investors flock.
For those of us that try to do things the right way in this industry, it’s easy to highlight stories like this as indicative of bad actors and move on, but it’s important to remember a few things. The company described in the story was prominent in the cannabis industry for a while, and a lot of people thought it was making a lot of money and doing really well. It’s not just investors that get taken for a ride in cases like this. Attorneys, accountants, industry lobbying organizations, and others often get taken in the same way investors do, and they can face similar consequences. Public company fraud often relies on complicit actions by people who don’t realize they are a party to the fraud.
Here’s how things can spiral: Fraudco, Inc. puts out a press release touting big money and amazing technology. Small media outlets jump on it because they desperately need content. Attorneys, accountants, and potential business partners across the country that are looking for opportunities see the initial media coverage and rush in to see if they can do business with Fraudco. Fraudco is light on the details but says yes. Larger industry organizations get word that Fraudco is aligning itself with well-known professionals within the industry and give Fraudco a more prominent public and political role (after Fraudco pays to be a gold-level member). Larger media stories follow, and the public sees a company with positive reporting from large and small outlets and business relationships with recognizable and respected businesses and other professionals. Fraudco doles out just enough money to the industry groups and professionals to make it seem like they are doing real business and to avoid too many questions.
It can take months or even years to figure out that much or all of a company’s business can be fictitious. This happens because we fall into the trap of relying too much on trust. A modicum of due diligence can generally unravel most fraudulent schemes. Just last week, in Buying a Cannabis Business: The Top Five Due Diligence Items or Buyer Beware, we stressed the importance of due diligence when buying a cannabis business. The same holds true when investing in one. Despite what most people think, the fraud aspect isn’t usually that complicated. The problem is that even a modicum of due diligence is hard. It’s time-consuming, and short cuts are attractive. One of the most prominent shortcuts you see in small industries is to assume that a company is legitimate because the media and other businesses in your industry act as though they are legitimate. You say to yourself, “Well they can’t all be wrong about Fraudco,” and you let your guard down. Now you’re part of the problem — a self-reinforcing feedback loop that gives power to a company whose only output is a constant churn of press releases. See also Oregon Cannabis Fraud: How to Stay Out of the Newspapers
If you’re a potential investor in the cannabis space, it’s not that hard to protect yourself. Even if you don’t know the first thing about due diligence, you can still follow the tips that FINRA laid out in its stock scam investor alert of a few years ago. You can also make the decision to have your lawyer review all transactions and perform due diligence before you enter anything binding. There’s no reason to go it alone. See The Six Top Marijuana Scams to Avoid and Top Ten Marijuana Industry Red Flags.
But if you’re an attorney or an accountant or an industry organization or other professional to whom people look for guidance, you have a greater responsibility. It isn’t just to make sure that you don’t do anything illegal. Your associations and your reputation matter. They matter for your business and they matter to the outside world. If you haven’t done your homework on a company to be sure it’s legitimate, don’t vouch for it. If you’re an industry organization, make sure that the businesses you promote and put at the forefront are real, compliant, successful businesses. The overwhelming majority of cannabis businesses we see are legitimate, but I also can tell you right now that there are plenty of cannabis businesses in California, Oregon, and Washington that those in the know whisper about and will not touch, and yet plenty of others seem to have no problem just diving in.
As long as marijuana is illegal federally, the cannabis industry is in a somewhat precarious position and every prominent cannabis company that engages in illegal conduct — whether illegal drug trafficking or investor fraud — is a stain on the industry that makes progress that much harder. Industry participants can’t prevent bad acts, but they can do their part to make sure they don’t contribute, mistakenly or not, to those bad acts.