On January 18, 2017, California state regulators attended a cannabis event in Sacramento to discuss cannabis policy and what lies ahead for California. Though previous reports indicated that California cannabis licensing could be delayed for an additional year, state regulators at the event promised a licensing program would be operational by January 1, 2018.
We will not fail. We will make this happen by Jan. 1, 2018, because we have to […] It may not be pretty. But we will get there.”
Since Prop 64 passed last November, California regulators are now in charge of crafting comprehensive regulations and issuing state licenses to not only medical marijuana businesses but to recreational cannabis businesses as well. This includes 17 license types for medical businesses and 19 licenses types for recreational businesses, covering cultivation, manufacturing, retail dispensaries, distribution, testing, and transportation. The authority to regulate and license these cannabis businesses is divided among ten California state agencies.
The California Department of Food and Agricultural will oversee cannabis cultivation activities, and it created a new division, the CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing program, to issue permits and develop regulations for cultivators, including setting up a track and trace system for all cannabis plants that enter the California market. Amber Morris, a branch chief for CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing, was also in attendance at the event in Sacramento and she said that California state departments are working with economists to create a tiered permit fee program that will assign fees to cannabis cultivators based on the size and scale of their businesses.
A big challenge faced by state regulators is the lack of banking available to cannabis businesses and affiliated companies. Ajax expressed her hope that there would be some clarity on the matter by the time state licenses are issued, stating that banking is “a challenge for us, too. As we set up our online permitting system, we would like to accept credit cards. We don’t want to have to accept wads of cash.”
The banking issue has been high on the mind of California lawmakers, as we get closer to statewide regulation. In December, California Treasurer John Chiang wrote a letter to President Donald Trump seeking guidance ahead of California’s licensing program. In his letter, Chiang wrote that the new program could “exacerbate” the banking problem because California’s cannabis economy will be so large.
Due to federal prohibition on marijuana and anti-money laundering regulations issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), banks are reluctant to work with cannabis businesses. The banking challenge is not unique to California and it affects businesses in legal marijuana states across the United States. Several U.S. senators sent a letter to FinCEN in December asking for more guidance and explaining how the dearth of cannabis banking promotes tax fraud and creates a public safety issue because cannabis businesses are forced to deal in large amounts of cash.
Under the new California cannabis licensing program, state agencies will need to collect fees from licensed cannabis businesses. Yet most of these agencies have only one office — in Sacramento — which means anyone paying their fees in cash will need to carry that cash with them all the way to the capitol. To address this issue, California legislators recently introduced new legislation to increase the number of government offices that can accept payments from cannabis businesses for state fees and taxes. The legislation, known as the Cannabis Safe Payment Act, is sponsored by the Board of Equalization (BOE), which has been collecting sales tax from California medical marijuana businesses since 1996.
The BOE currently accepts payments in cash from cannabis businesses at its 22 offices across the state. However, to reach these offices, many California cannabis cultivators have to travel great distances with “bags of cash” in their cars, which BOE Chairwoman Fiona Ma agrees “is not the safest method of paying your taxes.” Thus, Ma states that the BOE’s “priority has to be increasing safety—for the business owner, the public, law enforcement, and state employees by enabling cannabis businesses to pay their taxes and fees in as many a safe and secure locations as possible.” Under the Cannabis Safe Payment Act, California counties that receive approval by board of supervisors and tax collectors will be able to accept cash payments from local cannabis businesses on behalf of the BOE and other state agencies.
With promises from the Marijuana Bureau to begin issuing state licenses by January 1, 2018, collaboration from state agencies to develop regulations and set permit fees, and efforts from state lawmakers to alleviate banking challenge, California legislators are showing they are hard at work creating a viable state licensing program for cannabis businesses. For cannabis businesses planning to take advantage of California’s new cannabis program, a lot of work lies ahead and you should start preparing now.