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Since joining Harris Bricken in 2010, Hilary has earned a reputation as a fearless advocate for local businesses. Hilary’s clients—start-ups, entrepreneurs, and companies in all stages of development—value her bold approach to business strategy.

california cannabis license merger saleOur California cannabis lawyers are seeing a major spike in mergers and acquisitions (M & A), and it’s time to discuss what’s on the horizon for changes of ownership for some California cannabis businesses. In every cannabis state, M & A is no breeze because the regulators almost always require pre-approval of the transaction or of the new buyer(s). In California, it’s going to be more of the same in the red tape department in the future, as per the proposed permanent rules that will (likely) take effect at the middle of this month.

As you all know, multiple agencies in California run point on licensing. The Bureau of Cannabis Control (“BCC”) is the lead agency though when it comes to the implementation of the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (“MAUCRSA”). Under the BCC’s proposed permanent rules (which are still under review by the Office of Administrative Law), we now have a revised change of ownership process for distributors, labs, and retailers. (The California Department of Public Health the California Department of Food and Agriculture both have new change of ownership rules that significantly differ from the BCC in certain ways.)

First, and most importantly for all licensees, state licenses are not transferable. What this means then is that buyers have to purchase the companies that hold those licenses. Second, to accomplish a change of ownership under the new rules, would-be sellers of BCC-licensed businesses will need to submit a “Notification and Request Form” (see here) and check the box entitled “Change in Ownership” or “Change in Financial Interest Holder.” Specifically, for changes of “owners,” under the proposed permanent rules at section 5023(c),

If one or more of the owners of a license change, the new owners shall submit the information required for . . . each new owner be submitted to the [BCC] within 14 calendar days of the effective date of the ownership change.”

This timeline is almost the same as what was set forth under the emergency rules–it’s no surprise that the state has a deadline on disclosure for changes in ownership, as it affects licensure. However, this is the new curve ball for the M & A crowd pursuant to section 5023:

The business may continue to operate under the active license while the [BCC] reviews the qualifications of the new owner(s) in accordance with [MAUCRSA] and these regulations to determine whether the change would constitute grounds for denial of the license, if at least one existing owner is not transferring his or her ownership interest and will remain as an owner under the new ownership structure. If all owners will be transferring their ownership interest, the business shall not operate under the new ownership structure until a new license application has been submitted to and approved by the [BCC], and all application and license fees for the new application have been paid . . . In cases where one or more owners leave the business by transferring their ownership interest to the other existing owner(s), the owner or owners that are transferring their interest shall provide a signed statement to the [BCC] confirming that they have transferred their interest.”

In my experience, most business buyers in cannabis are looking for a full buy-out. And your typical cannabis M & A deal will (hopefully) have as a condition to closing that the state and/or local government(s) approve of the transaction/new buyer(s) prior to closing. However, in California, retailers, labs, and distributors will not be able to operate during a complete buy-out while the state is processing not only all of the new owners (including their background checks) but also an entirely new license application, which could take weeks or months to complete. Without a doubt, buyers will want the business to keep operating during the transaction so this is going to be problematic for a complete buy-out, and it’s pretty much unprecedented that the business shuts down during the transition.

What we’re now very likely to see then is that at least one of the original selling owners will always stay on the licensed entity as part of the transaction and only after the state clears the new license application will that person finally be able to transfer all of their equity (once they provide that written statement to the BCC). What this means is that buy-outs of cannabis businesses in California just got that much tougher and risk-laden for buyers as these transactions will now certainly drag out and become even more complicated.

And if you’re not looking at a full buy-out, life is somewhat easier in that “[a] change in ownership does not occur when one or more owners leave the business by transferring their ownership interest to the other existing owner(s),” and changes to financial interest holders (i.e., anyone who holds less than 20% of the business’s equity) don’t constitute a change of ownership that warrants a new application, etc.

You may be thinking that there’s a silver lining here in that these new rules may only apply specifically to annual licenses. However, regulators ensured that the change of ownership standards apply to those who hold a “License,” which is defined statutorily as “a state license issued under this division, and includes both an A-license and an M-license, as well as a testing laboratory license.” In turn, these standards should apply to those companies that hold temporary, provisional, and annual licenses.

California has certainly set itself apart as a very mixed place when it comes to cannabis business friendliness. And these recent BCC-imposed changes of ownership, at least in my opinion, help bring the state closer to more arbitrary barriers to entry than necessary.

california marijuana cannabis licensingIn California, under the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis and Regulation Safety Act (MAUCRSA), temporary licenses began issuing to cannabis businesses on January 1, 2018. Since then, the state agencies in charge of MAUCRSA’s implementation (the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA)) have worked pretty much round the clock on adopting permanent regulations. In case you forgot, the agencies dropped their initial proposed permanent rules this past summer, tweaked those, and then released another round of revised proposed permanent regulations last month (which are now in the hands of the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) for an overall review). That last round of proposed permanent rules (see herehere, and here) is very likely to become effective (pending OAL’s review) in early January. Right now, all licensees are still operating under the emergency rules that came out in fall of 2017. And pretty much everyone is racing to get their temporary licenses, which will NOT be available after December 31.

Despite the fact that the state has made great progress towards permanent rules, many questions and ambiguities around licensing and operational conduct remain. In fact, some of the grayer areas of the emergency regulations have been expanded by the proposed permanent rules for better or worse. In turn, with 2019 just around the corner, here’s my list of the top 10 unknowns that still remain for California cannabis:

    1.    IP licensing and white labeling restrictions.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, one of the most shocking proposed permanent rules to come from the BCC is section 5032(b) (which, yes, affects all licensees). Essentially, section 5032 (b), as originally written, basically prohibited all IP licensing and white labeling agreements between cannabis licensees and non-licensees. That rule stated that:

(a) Licensees shall not conduct commercial cannabis activities on behalf of, at the request of, or pursuant to a contract with any person that is not licensed under the Act. Such prohibited commercial cannabis activities include, but are not limited to, the following: (1) Procuring or purchasing cannabis goods from a licensed cultivator or licensed manufacturer; (2) Manufacturing cannabis goods according to the specifications of a non-licensee; (3) Packaging and labeling cannabis goods under a non-licensee’s brand or according to the specifications of a non-licensee; (4) Distributing cannabis goods for a non-licensee.

For more detail on that original rule, see our write-up here. During public comment on 5032, there was a good amount of dissent (including our own) in that it’s pretty obvious if such a rule went through a lot of branded product currently on the shelves would have to be tossed. In addition, California would be the only state in the cannabis union to adopt such a strict rule. When the BCC then released the revised proposed rules, 5032(b) was pared down to read as follows:

(b) Licensees shall not conduct commercial cannabis activities on behalf of, at the request of, or pursuant to a contract with any person that is not licensed under the Act.

As you can see, the IP licensing and white labeling examples were deleted, but the rule still makes clear that licensees can’t undertake commercial cannabis activity (i.e., manufacturing, labeling, processing, etc.) “on behalf of, at the request of, or pursuant to a contract” with a non-licensee. Just removing former examples (1)-(4) may have no impact whatsoever here, and it’s certainly confused the situation as a result. And while the BCC’s own comments to 5032 (in its Final Statement of Reasons) indicate that it takes no issue with non-licensee to licensee IP licensing and white labeling relationships, a plain reading of the rule indicates otherwise.

    2.    Ownership issues. 

The BCC struck again in the proposed rules revising “owner” disclosure standards to be much stricter at section 5003. Now, in addition to anyone with 20% or more in equity, the board of directors, the CEO, and anyone or any entity that exercises any direction, control, or management over the licensee, is also an owner. Any individual or entity merely entitled to profit share at or more than 20% is also an owner. This calls into question though how the BCC plans to treat things like cashless options and warrants that have no immediate entitlement to ownership in or profit sharing with the licensee. And what about husbands and wives (which are in community property marriages in California) since there’s no spousal disclosure requirement and they’re technically one person under existing law? The BCC has been silent on all of the foregoing and I have no doubt that these new revised rules may actually incentive people to be even more “creative” in order to avoid owner (and financial interest holder) status.

    3.   Financial Interest Holder woes.

Identifying financial interest holders (FIHs) is more complicated than owners because the FIH definition now encompasses a variety of folks and entities. I recently spoke to the OC Register about how now even lawyers who take a share of the profits of a cannabis business (in exchange for legal services) will now have to be disclosed as FIHs under the new rules. The BCC also made clear that it’s going to sort through more convoluted corporate structures around FIHs to get to the humans providing the capital to or profit sharing with cannabis businesses. At section 5004 of the proposed rules, the BCC now mandates that:

“When an entity has a financial interest in a commercial cannabis business, then all individuals who are owners of that entity shall be considered financial interest holders of the commercial cannabis business. For example, this includes all entities in a multi-layer business structure, as well as the chief executive officer, members of the board of directors, partners, trustees and all persons that have control of a trust, and managing members or non-member managers of the entity. Each entity disclosed as having a financial interest must disclose the identities of persons holding financial interests until only individuals remain.”

Of course, we have no way of really knowing how far the BCC will go here in vetting the individuals behind these structures, though I’m sure more than a few publicly traded companies are suffering severe heartburn at reading this new rule.

    4.    Packaging and labeling compliance in 2019. 

Under CDPH proposed permanent regulations, manufacturers will not have to implement child resistant packaging (CRP) for their cannabis products until 2020. In the interim, retailers will fill the gap by using CRP exit bags. And while CRP is going away for manufacturers, there are a slew of revised and new packaging and labeling standards being implemented upon the rules becoming effective in the new year. The outstanding issue then is that CDPH created no affirmative grace period for manufactured product that’s out there right now and compliant with the emergency regulations, but that doesn’t meet the new packaging and labeling regulations. (A great example is that manufacturers of certain products now have to put the universal symbol not only on outer packaging but also on the product container itself if that outer packaging is “separable” from the product container.) What’s for sure is that retailers cannot possess or sell finished product that doesn’t adhere to the new packaging and labeling rules. So, what exactly will happen to existing, non-compliant product in 2019? That remains a mystery.

    5.    Provisional licensing. 

Provisional licensing is the new temp licensing. (See here for more on the temp license race to secure provisionals for 2019.) Even though a provisional license is the new hot ticket in town, the BCC and CDPH have given no insight into how a licensee actually secures this license. I surmise that the issuance of provisionals will be automatic (similar to how the state was just renewing temp licenses automatically if a temporary licensee was in clear and earnest pursuit of its annual license). CDFA is the only agency that’s produced a fact sheet on the topic, but no agency has publicly announced the exact logistics around provisional licensing yet.

    6.    Social equity programs. 

For every city that’s done a social equity program, it’s been a challenge out of the gate to do it correctly and sustainably. Los Angeles is just getting started with its program while certain other California cities are trying but are producing meager results at best. While the state finally decided to financially back local social equity programs, it’s clear that the state and the cities need to study this particular social experiment for some time before a gold standard will actually emerge. In turn, the success of these programs is definitely a large unknown.

    7.    Banking.

Banking in California is the number question I get on a weekly basis at this point: namely, when the hell is it going to commence? I’m a firm believer that unless and until our permanent regulations are finalized and are proven to work relative to barriers to entry and vetting owners and FIHs, we will not see private sector banking in California. Our licensing and enforcement systems are still too loose/inchoate to satisfy the 2014 FinCEN guidelines, and no public bank is going to materialize here either for various complicated and practical legal reasons (be sure to watch out for banking fraudsters, too). And while California cannabis companies will likely continue to use management companies to help them alleviate some of the inability to access banking, it’s certainly not a long-term solution and it’s downright illegal when that relationship isn’t legitimate or at an arm’s length anyway.

    8.    Fee slotting agreements and anti-competitive tactics. 

On a regular basis now, I’m seeing retailers introduce to my cultivation and manufacturing clients a variety of fee slotting agreements so that my clients can secure known shelf-space in order to remain competitive. This month, I questioned whether such contracts were valid under MAUCRSA where anti-competitive behavior is strictly barred. Only time will tell whether regulators will address these agreements and their impact on the marketplace.

    9.    Tech platforms and delivery. 

The BCC seems to have developed an appetite for wading into increased regulation regarding retailers and delivery tech platforms. Pursuant to section 5415.1 of the proposed permanent BCC regulations, we now have a more robust code of conduct between retailers and tech platforms when it comes to delivery. Now that the BCC has finally opened the door to invading this relationship regarding contractual limitations and restrictions on advertising and marketing for licensees via tech platforms, it begs the question as to whether California is going to go further down the road of trying to essentially regulate tech platforms or not. Given the fact that California is one of the few states that’s embraced delivery, it’s a very important area for development, both legally and for public policy.

    10.    Corporate versus cottage debate rages on. 

Every single state that’s undertaken recreational cannabis has to battle between corporate and cottage interests. And every single state is different in how it’s handled the issue. In the proposed permanent regulations, it’s hard to tell which way California is leaning since those rules still contain some fairly big business friendly propositions (such as still being able to secure countless small cultivation license types, local law permitting, in order to aggregate big acreage) as well as some rules that cut against “Big Marijuana,” like having to disclose shareholders in a publicly traded company as FIHs unless they hold 5% or less of the equity. In 2019, I think we can fully expect the debate between small and large business interests to carry on, but where California lands remains unknown. That’s going to probably continue for quite some time as it works out the kinks spurred by the proposed regulations.

los ángeles cannabis licensingThe ups, downs, and unknowns around L.A. cannabis licensing have abounded from the passage of Measure M back in March 2017. This is not uncommon, especially in large cities, as regulators determine how to handle things on the fly and as issues arise (see, for example, social equity in L.A. and the ability to re-locate for Existing Medical Marijuana Dispensaries (“EMMDs“). L.A., to its credit, has been transparent and pretty consistent in the way it’s treated licensees and stakeholders. To that end, this month, L.A.’s Department of Cannabis Regulation (“DCR”) released a Phase 2 licensing bulletin that’s significantly important for those Phase 2 would-be licensees that seek a temporary license.

Recall, to qualify for Phase II temporary approval/licensing (which triggered priority licensing for existing “non-retailers” like growers and manufacturers) — folks had to meet all of the following criteria:

  1. Engagement prior to January 1, 2016, in the same Non-Retailer Commercial Cannabis Activity for which it sought a license;
  2. Supplier to an Existing Medical Marijuana Dispensary prior to January 1, 2017;
  3. The Business Premises meet all the land use and sensitive use requirements under cannabis laws and the existing City code;
  4. The applicant’s premises have to pass a pre­-license inspection without any fire or life safety violations either;
  5. All outstanding City business tax obligations were paid to the City and the Applicant had to indemnify the City;
  6. Provision to the City of a written agreement with a testing laboratory for testing all Cannabis and Cannabis products and attests to testing all its Cannabis and Cannabis products in accordance with state standards;
  7. Attestation that the Applicant would cease all operations if denied a State license or City License, and the Applicant cannot do any retail activity at its premises;
  8. Qualification under the City’s Social Equity Program (see here for more info); and
  9. Attestation that the Applicant will comply with all operating requirements imposed by DCR and that DCR may immediately suspend or revoke the temporary approval if the Applicant fails to abide by any City operating requirement.
Number 4 above was causing a lot of heartburn amongst Phase II license applicants in that they didn’t really know what to expect. Pre-licensing inspections can be fairly labor intensive depending on the state of the property at issue versus the build out and business plans of a given applicant, and each City has a different standard for a passing grade. In L.A., pre-licensing inspection (which is a pre-requisite to temporary approval) “may include, but is not limited to [an inspection of the business premises by], employees or agents of the following City or county departments: DCR, Building and Safety, Police Department, Fire Department and Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.” And a pre-License inspection consists of, but is not limited to, the following: “approval of the premises diagram; on-site inspection of all applicable building code and fire code requirements; approval of the security plan; fingerprinting; and approval of the fire safety plan (if applicable).”

Plus, applicants must upgrade all applicable electrical and water systems to Building and Fire Code standards before their application will move forward. Again, this is no small task depending on how your building is holding up/what its previous uses and occupancies were.

Temporary approval in L.A. is essential for applicants to also apply for and receive their temporary licenses from the state, which will not be given out or renewed after December 31. This month, L.A. thankfully illuminated for Phase II applicants what to expect for pre-licensing inspections in the City. In its bulletin, the City states:

To be eligible for Phase 2 Priority Processing, among other requirements, an applicant must pass two inspections. One is a DCR inspection to confirm that the applicant’s business premises is built out to substantially match its business premises diagram (i.e., the location and layout of entry points, interior doorways, rooms and walkways match the diagram) and that the business premises is sufficiently secured. The other is a Los Angeles Fire Department Cannabis Unit inspection to confirm that the applicant’s business premises and operations comply with the Los Angeles Fire Code.

The onus here is on the applicant to confirm for the City that it’s ready for pre-licensing inspection. In addition, when DCR confirms a date for an applicant’s inspection, the applicant will be asked to provide its most up-to-date premises diagrams to the DCR (including showing. accurate placement of security cameras). The bottom line of the City’s bulletin is that the physical premises be substantially similar to the premises diagram submitted to the DCR and that the premises be sufficiently secured per City and state law. During the inspection, the DCR will:

  • Walk through each room or area in the premises and assess whether its layout and location is substantially similar to the premises diagram;
  • Determine whether surveillance cameras are recording all areas required to be under surveillance (practically, this is anywhere on the business premises where cannabis goods will be present at any point in time);
  • Determine whether the surveillance system is in a secured area, is functional and can play back recordings upon request; and
  • Determine whether the premises are equipped with a functioning alarm system.

Another big question in L.A. was what the DCR would do with premises that are not 100% built out. The bulletin tells us that:

DCR will inspect the built out area and if all other Phase 2 eligibility requirements are met, grant Temporary Approval for cannabis activities limited to that specific area. Once the remaining areas of the premises are built out, DCR will send out an inspection team again before authorizing cannabis activities in those areas. However, given the large number of Phase 2 eligibility inspections to complete, DCR cannot provide a timeline for when it will be able to schedule a second inspection for an applicant.”

All of this means that it is best to be fully built out (in accordance with your premises diagram and with the fire and safety code) and ready for inspection if you want to get your temporary approval in L.A. anytime soon for your entire facility.

On inspection, also don’t expect to sweet talk the DCR investigator or to learn about the status of your application. Neither will advance your cause with the DCR at this point. Instead, applicants should proceed with business as usual in a professional manner and be as helpful as possible to the DCR investigators and to LAFD.

shelf space california cannabis contract
Shelf space is a big deal right now in California cannabis.

With the roll out of the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (“MAUCRSA“), our California cannabis attorneys see all kinds of agreements between and among licensees. From IP licensing to white labeling to distribution contracts, we’re beginning to see people emerge from the shadows and enter into written agreements with each other, which is undoubtedly for the best given the amount of litigation that already exists in the industry and given the amount of fighting that’s sure to come regarding commercial disputes. Lately though, what we’ve seen a lot of are “pay-to-stay” and slotting fee agreements between cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. In these agreements, cultivators, manufacturers and distributors are locking retailers into contracts for dedicated, prime-time shelf space. The question, though, is whether such agreements are kosher in California and what you need to know to have a reliable, enforceable, pay-to-stay contract.

California is still pretty dynamic when it comes to contracts between licensees. Unlike other states, California hasn’t really broached the subject of massive restrictions on contracts between licensees (the lone exception is the most recent of proposed permanent regulations that attacked IP licensing and white labeling between licensees and non-licensees). Other states are very particular about licensees exerting undue influence over each other via contract when it comes to things like control, term, and the legitimacy of services/goods being provided to the licensee. Here in California, though, the following are pretty much the only contractual restrictions that exist between licensees in the marketplace:

A licensee shall not perform any of the following acts, or permit any of the following acts to be performed by any employee, agent, or contractor of the licensee:
(1) Make any contract in restraint of trade . . .
(3) Make a sale or contract for the sale of cannabis or cannabis products, or to fix a price charged therefor, or discount from, or rebate upon, that price, on the condition, agreement, or understanding that the consumer or purchaser thereof shall not use or deal in the goods, merchandise, machinery, supplies, commodities, or services of a competitor or competitors of the seller, where the effect of that sale, contract, condition, agreement, or understanding may be to substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly in any line of trade or commerce.
(4) Sell any cannabis or cannabis products at less than cost for the purpose of injuring competitors, destroying competition, or misleading or deceiving purchasers or prospective purchasers . . .
(6) Sell any cannabis or cannabis products at less than the cost thereof to such vendor, or to give away any article or product for the purpose of injuring competitors or destroying competition . . .
In turn, licensees pretty much have free reign to contract for whatever they want for however long they want without fear of interference from state regulators (so long as such agreements basically don’t amount to anti-competitive behavior). In addition, in case you’re thinking that licensee contracts don’t matter, California already passed legislation ensuring that commercial cannabis contracts are indeed enforceable in state court so that no one is left holding the bag over some illegality defense to performance.
On to slotting fee and pay-to-stay agreements. When you walk into the grocery store, the retailer likely isn’t just arranging products by name or color. In fact, what’s likely going on is that certain shelf space for new products has been negotiated and paid for by a manufacturer. And with good reason. In commodities, especially saturated ones, face time with consumers isn’t great and margins can be really poor and the competition is vast. In California, only cannabis retailers can sell to the public, so it’s hugely important for wholesale and distributor licensees to have good placement on shelf space in dispensaries and on the retailers’ online menus. The slotting fee agreement essentially amounts to the lump sum fee the supplier pays to the retailer to reserve their sacred, strategic shelf space. The pay-to-stay agreement (which can be similar to the slotting fee) typically takes things a step further where it’s instituted after the initial slot and addresses issues for existing products like marketing, promotion, inventory stocking, failure fees, and paying extra to ensure that your competitors don’t get any valuable shelf space near you or at all.

What should go into these contracts? Like any other agreement, if you’re the supplier, you want to fully articulate exactly where your placement will be in the store, how often that placement occurs, your inventory schedule, what happens in the event you cannot deliver on the inventory, what happens if no one wants your product despite its placement, what happens if the retailer (for its own benefit) wants to place another, better performing product in close proximity to yours, and the list goes on and on. Suppliers of cannabis in California should not be paying robust slotting fees to retailers willy-nilly. Even though retailers have a lot of leverage where there are still so few of them and because they’re the only licensees with a daily, face-to-face relationship with the public, if you are a supplier of a recognized brand (or even if you’re consistent with product potency and quality assurance testing), you still have some leverage where many cannabis consumers are still coming to the marketplace trying to decide what they like. The other reason cannabis suppliers shouldn’t be paying super high slotting fees is because the contract could be invalidated not because of the cannabis aspect, but because it’s anti-competitive in nature.

You’ve probably already concluded that the companies that can afford the highest slotting fees are the ones who will make it to the shelves of cannabis retailers in California. And you’re likely not wrong since retailers also have to financially survive in this newly regulated marketplace and slotting fee agreements certainly help to allocate the risk on what products to buy and re-sell (or not). In addition, the bigger cannabis brands may not even face the prospect of these contracts from retailers because the retailers desperately want to carry on them on their shelves anyway. That begs the question then of whether slotting fee agreements and pay-to-stay contracts are actually anti-competitive in violation of MAUCRSA. There’s no doubt that they certainly could be if retailers band together and start to create extremely high, universal slotting fees. Or if suppliers decide to lock up entire dispensaries. The upside, though, can be that retailers are actually more willing to take on new products since they shift liabilities for their failure back to the supplier, the slotting relationship makes product distribution more efficient, and consumers can benefit from lower prices where the retailer can better allocate its risk on investing in the presentation of new products. In any event, state regulators have stayed silent on this practice for now (although the FTC, the sleeping giant of the cannabis world, has debated the subject a good amount).

The bottom line? Unless and until regulators squarely address it or suppliers start to sue over the practice, if you’re presented with or need a fee slotting agreement or a pay-to-stay contract, make sure that you check the box on the details of the relationship. Make sure, too, that you’re avoiding anti-competitive terms and conditions if you want to make hay in California.

california cannabis licensing raceUnless you’ve been completely out of the loop, you already know that many, many people are in a race to submit their California state temporary cannabis license applications before December 31 of this year, which represents the “drop dead” date for cannabis temporary licenses. Add to that the regulatory curve balls thrown by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) at the end of October (those agencies moved up the their temp licensing submission deadlines to December 1) and you have a stampede of people now trying to get their temporary license applications in by the end of this month. Thankfully, the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) hasn’t yet said that there’s a low chance of successful processing if you submit after December 1, but given the back and forth it takes with the BCC to even get the temp, you may be out of luck.

Why does all of this matter? If you don’t have, or haven’t held, a temporary license for your current cannabis location (which is good for 120 days and gets renewed for additional 90 day periods so long as you’ve applied for your annual cannabis license), you’re ineligible for a provisional license next year, which means you’ll be on ice and non-operational unless and until you get your state annual license. No one really knows how long that will ultimately take.

If you’re finding yourself scrambling to get a temp license in before December 1, you’re not alone. The biggest roadblock of all has been would-be licensees securing local approval from their cities or counties. Certain local governments, though (like Long Beach, the City of Los Angeles, and San Diego) are obliging folks in their local licensing processes by providing them with letters of authorization. These letters of authorization only allow the applicant to go and apply for their state temp license(s)–they do not allow an applicant to actually open their doors until all conditions of official local approval have been met. That’s only half the battle though. Then you have to complete and submit your state temporary license applications, which depending on agency, is no picnic.

All three agencies will ask that you submit proof of local approval from your local government when applying for the temp license. They then contact the local government to verify local approval and the local government has no less than ten days to respond. By far though, CDPH has the simplest and easiest temporary license application. It’s literally one page, and you email or mail it to the agency. And you don’t have to submit even a lease agreement or a premises diagram either. Contrast that though with the BCC and the CDFA, which are a little more intense– especially since the re-adoption of the emergency regulations, which tweaked the temporary license submission requirements for those agencies.

For BCC (for which you must have an online account and then submit online or via hardcopy in Sacramento), you have to submit:

(1) The legal business name of the applicant; (2) The email address of the applicant’s business and the telephone number for the premises; (3) The business’ federal employer identification number; (4) A description of the business organizational structure of the applicant, such as partnership or corporation; (5) The commercial cannabis license that the applicant is applying for, and whether the applicant is requesting that the license be designated as medicinal, adult-use, or both; (6) The contact information for the applicant’s designated primary contact person including the name, title, phone number, and email address of the individual; (7) For each “owner” of the business, the owner’s name, title, percentage of ownership, mailing address, telephone number, and email address if applicable; (8) The physical address of the premises to be licensed; (9) Evidence that the applicant has the legal right to occupy and use the proposed location (that meets all mandatory buffer requirements); (10) A detailed premises diagram; (11) A copy of a valid license, permit, or other authorization issued by a local jurisdiction, that enables the applicant to conduct commercial cannabis activity at the location requested for the temporary license; and (12) a penalty of perjury statement.

For CDFA (for which you must also have an online account and then submit online or via hardcopy in Sacramento), you have to submit:

(1) The license type for which the applicant is applying and whether the application is for an M-license or A-license (note that CDFA still forces people to apply separately for M and A licenses even though those license type designations have since been combined); (2) If the applicant has already submitted an application for annual licensure, the application number; (3) The legal business name of the applicant entity; (4) The full legal name, mailing address, phone number, email address, and affiliation of the “designated responsible party,” who must: (A) Be an owner with legal authority to bind the applicant entity; (B) Serve as agent for service of process; and (C) Serve as primary contact for the application; (5) The physical address of the premises; (6) Copy of local approval; (7) A proposed cultivation plan; (8) Identification of all the following water sources for the cultivation site (as applicable): (A) A retail water supplier; (B) A groundwater well; (C) A rainwater catchment system; (D) A diversion from a waterbody or an underground stream flowing in a known and definite channel; and (9) Evidence of enrollment with the applicable Regional Water Quality Control Board or State Water Resources Control Board for water quality protection programs or written verification from the appropriate board that enrollment is not necessary.

Where are most people going to get screwed up here? Without a doubt, with the BCC it is the premises diagram and the proof of “right to real property” (I.e., your lease agreement). With CDFA, it’s going to be the cultivation plan, identifying water sources, and proof or registration or exemption with the applicable water boards. And many people don’t realize that the cultivation plan, itself, demands the inclusion of a detailed premises diagram, lighting diagram, pest management plan (for which you better have a good amount of knowledge regarding lawful and illegal pesticides and their applications), and waste management plan. All of this is not an insignificant amount of information to compile.

While folks are in the race now to get that initial (and very important) temporary license, there will be another push for these folks prior to the expiration of that 120-day validity period on the temp license where provisional licensing also requires that you have submitted a complete annual license application to the state, which will be another massive information gathering expedition about your cannabis business and how it operates. Undoubtedly, many would-be licensees are going to be out of the game if they don’t get their temps in on time, so stay tuned with updates as the California cannabis regulatory world turns.

cannabis marijuana scams
DON’T BE THE MOOCH.

This morning when I went to the gym before work, I put on an NPR podcast that delved into the story of the FTC’s bust of David Diamond. Diamond is an infamous Angeleno who defrauded hundreds of people via telemarketing scams. In the podcast, the interviewee does a great job of explaining the common scammer term, “mooch.” A mooch is, according to the podcast, “… someone who will essentially buy anything from anybody who calls [them] on the telephone.”

This got me thinking about the ideal marijuana mooch since so much fraud and bad behavior is rampant in the national marijuana marketplace. We’ve covered multiple marijuana scams here, here, and here (and have written about fraud and important red flags (and red herrings) in the industry multiple times in this past).

This time however, I want to dedicate this post to the top 5 red flags of which a marijuana mooch should be aware:

1.  Anyone who tells you to invest in cannabis at all costs because you might “miss the boat.”

News flash–big alcohol, big tobacco, and big pharma are not active in the U.S. cannabis space. Even though they may be thinking about it and may have future plans for it (and even if states may already creating “Big Marijuana” interests), there’s not one single U.S. cannabis company (that actually traffics in cannabis under state licensing laws) that’s tied officially or legitimately back to these big business interests. Normally, the mooch hustle is “You’re going to miss this once in a lifetime opportunity with cannabis since the bigger companies are flooding the space already, so you better invest all you have now, now, now.” Utilize your judgment to understand that this statement is not only overblown, but it’s untrue, and the source of the information is seriously suspect, even today. In any event, before you invest cannabis, which is an extremely volatile prospect, do your homework and determine whether there’s real value at the end of the elevator pitch.

2.  Marijuana penny stocks. 

Stay away from most marijuana penny stocks. As both we and the SEC keep pointing out, many (but not all) publicly traded cannabis companies are vehicles for investor fraud. As we have written before:

It almost seems that publicly traded stock companies are more focused on selling their stocks than on competing in the market. The herd mentality of investors seems to encourage this. Here’s how that basic logic works: Marijuana is booming. Therefore, marijuana businesses must be booming. In turn, all marijuana businesses must be booming. Therefore, I need to invest in a marijuana business. The only way I can easily invest in a marijuana business is to buy the stock in a publicly traded marijuana business. And so the stocks just keep booming.

All of which leads to pump and dump scams where “the group behind the scam increases the demand and trading volume in the stock and this new inflow of investors leads to a sharp rise in its price. Once the price rise has formulated, the group will sell its position to make a large short-term gain.” Pump and dump scams with publicly traded marijuana companies are still quite popular, especially as more and more states have legalized and “medicalized.”

3.  Marijuana franchises. 

Most marijuana franchise “offers” are just plain garbage because they fail to account for all of the reporting, registration, and disclosure requirements required by federal and state franchise laws and regulations. Franchising is governed by FTC and various state agency rules. Because of the state and federal law conflict with cannabis, franchising a cannabis business is a very risky proposition, and we are finding that most cannabis “franchisors” are not providing their potential “franchisees” with nearly enough risk disclosures to really inform franchisees and their investors what they’re getting themselves into at the end of the day.

4.  Marijuana reverse mergers (ESPECIALLY CANADIAN ONES).

Seems like everyone and their mother is trying to accomplish a Canadian reverse merger in the U.S. cannabis industry. Reverse mergers are a relatively fast, cheap and easy way for a private company to “go public” without having to go through all of the SEC reporting, disclosure, and registration requirements required by a standard initial public offering. Just like penny stock fraud though, reverse merger stock fraud is nothing new. In the typical reverse merger transaction, a privately operating company seeks to acquire controlling shares in an already publicly traded company with the goal of acquiring the public company’s listing. In the reverse merger scam, the underlying publicly traded company is usually just a shell company with little or no assets or positive business history. Because the underlying publicly traded shell has no assets, no real management base, and oftentimes no business at all, the whole point of these scams is to acquire investors and raise capital based on pumped-up stock statistics, prices, and claims before everything eventually goes bust. These scams tend to involve the same subset of marginal accounting and law firms that assist by securing IRS and SEC reporting delays. Like anything else, if you’re looking at acquiring stock in a reverse merger company, do your due diligence and know the red flags.

5.  Marijuana crowdfunding.

Back in May of 2015, the SEC released new crowdfunding rules designed to let the small fry swim with the sharks. As of May 16, 2016, companies were able to solicit $2,000 from anyone (and more in many cases) in exchange for an equity stake in their business. Companies can now raise up to $1 million annually through these offerings, which fall under Title III of the 2012 JOBS Act. As we have written before, the SEC does not care whether your business is a pot business, so long as you follow its offerings rules. Though the SEC’s rules for crowdfunding advertising are incredibly strict, we know there are a wind of crowdfunding cannabis companies seeking to skirt these new rules to the detriment of investors and mooches.

Don’t be the marijuana mooch! For more on cannabis scams, check out the following:

california cannabis licensing
A California cannabis licensing backlog is imminent.

A backlog of cannabis license applications has no doubt happened in almost all of the other states that have medical and adult use licensing. You wouldn’t normally think this is such a big or concerning development, but in cannabis licensing delays can mean angry investors, a complete 180 for your business plans and even insolvency.

In California, a licensing logjam was bound to catch up with regulators, especially as cities and counties start to embrace the democratic experiment of legalization. And now we know that at least one state agency, California Department of Food and Agriculture (“CDFA”), which oversees cultivators, is feeling the pinch of hundreds and hundreds of license applicants.

On Friday, October 26, CDFA sent the following email to its stakeholder list serve:

ATTENTION, PLEASE!

FOR NEW TEMPORARY LICENSES ISSUED PRIOR TO DECEMBER 31, 2018

Due to the large number of applications being submitted for temporary cannabis cultivation licenses, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) hereby notifies prospective applicants that any application for a temporary license received after December 1, 2018, may NOT be processed in time for us to issue a temporary license before January 1, 2019. After December 31, 2018, the authority for CDFA to issue temporary licenses expires. To provide sufficient processing time, please submit your temporary application to CDFA’s CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing Division by December 1, 2018.

Even though MAUCRSA makes clear that temporary licenses will no longer be around (or renewed) after December 31 of this year, CDFA is moving that timeline forward based on the sheer volume of applications for just temporary licenses its received. The kicker here is that you will NOT receive a provisional license (to continue to operate while you wait for your annual license) unless you’ve already had or have a temporary license for the same license type at your same location. And, in case you were living under a rock, provisional licenses are the new form of temporary licenses that the legislature okay’ed at the end of last month. Oddly enough, CDFA is the only agency so far that’s given its roadmap for how to get a provisional, but we imagine (based on statute) it will be pretty much the same protocol for the Bureau of Cannabis Control (“BCC”) and the California Department of Public Health (“CDPH”).

Why is all of this important? To date, temporary licenses (which are good for 120 days) represent the only means by which an operator can open and run its businesses before receiving its annual cannabis license. To get a temporary license, the licensee first has to secure local approval from its local government, which can be easy, somewhat challenging or extremely difficult, depending on the local jurisdiction. Importantly, temporary licenses can be renewed for 90-day increments so long as the license applicant is in pursuit of its annual license with the state. As a start-up business, it’s usually lucrative to be able to get operational very quickly because, in cannabis: 1) you likely already have an operational lease that you’re paying on; 2) you’ve completed a costly build out; and 3) you have to answer to your financiers or at least break even on your own contributions to keep going. If you can’t operate while you wait on your license, your fate is likely to just try to hang on while you bleed cash, and licensing can take months to get depending on the state.

The biggest wrinkle here in California is that many cities and counties are not really paying attention to, or cannot adequately address, this future gap in licensing–namely, if you can’t get your temporary license by the end of the year (which requires prior local approval from your city or county), you’re not operating at all in 2019 unless and until you receive your annual license, which is taking months to secure. (I have clients who applied for their annual license in April of this year and they still have no annual license.) A great example is West Hollywood, which for new license applicants for retail–by the City’s own admission–won’t even be done with its retailer selection process until the end of November. This affords successful applicants very little time, if any, to try and get temporary licenses from the BCC to be able to lock down their provisional licenses thereafter. And if you’re looking at Phase 3 general public licensing in the City of Los Angeles, you may not even get the chance to apply for local approval until 2019. This means you will miss the state temporary licensing deadline, and therefore the ability to get a provisional license altogether.

Indeed, many stakeholders will find that if they cannot get their city or county to give them some form of local approval by or before December 31 (or by December 1 if you’re applying to CDFA) so they can go get their temporary and eventually provisional license(s), they will be sitting on unusable businesses, likely paying rent, until they get their annual license from regulators. To us, this is nothing new as regulators constantly pump the brakes on licensing logistics across the board in order to make the situation more manageable for them. To that end, we’ll also likely see in the future prohibitions on being able to relocate your business while in the annual licensing process, prohibitions on changes of ownership while you’re in the annual licensing process, and prohibitions on changing your business plan or operational lay out in any way until you receive your annual license.

The foregoing all goes to show that regulators can and do shuffle the deck on licensing timelines all the time. Stakeholders have to have their heads on a swivel to survive, and failing to take into account how these licensing deadlines and expectations shift is a massive mistake that will inevitably foreclose the ability to participate for lots of would-be licensees. So, prepare accordingly!

california cannabis indemnity
Don’t skim over that indemnification clause!

Coming from Seattle to Los Angeles, I’ve already seen one state flip from being a “gray medical cannabis state” to a fully regulated licensing system and I understand how painful a process this can be. So much of what I saw in Washington State is now happening in California.

In California today, folks are jockeying for operational licenses on the state and local levels under MAUCRSA and “the cream” is rising to the top, just as it did in Washington. One-to-two-person shops and mom and pop operators are feeling the financial pinch of licensing costs and compliance woes. The secondary market for buying cannabis businesses is also beginning to open up as cities and counties solidify and stick with their local cannabis entitlement programs. Transactions between cannabis licensees are becoming increasingly sophisticated, from IP licensing agreements, to distribution agreements, to white labeling agreements, to purchase and sale agreements for inventory.

And just as happened in Washington State at the onset of legalization there, we are seeing many cultivators and manufacturers overpromising on what they can deliver, more often due to overconfidence as to dishonesty. In legal terms, this means we are also seeing cultivation and manufacturing licensees, and distributors agreeing to indemnify retailers and other licensees for everything under the sun, quite often to their own detriment. Even though the cannabis industry is maturing rapidly in California, many are still using boilerplate or Google-discovered or Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer contracts for these very serious transactions. This use of bad template documents (most of which are modified little if at all for the realities of the cannabis industry) has got to stop, or cannabis licensees will soon find themselves embroiled in costly and counter-productive disputes/litigation.

And that brings me to the crux of this post, which is one of the most important “boilerplate” contract provisions that absolutely must be tailored for a California cannabis contract: indemnification. What, exactly, is indemnification? It’s when one party (the “indemnitor”) agrees to hold harmless and compensate the other party (the “indemnitee”) for losses suffered by the indemnitee.

Many cannabis sellers in California are far too willing to indemnify third parties for things completely out of their control, like lab results, changes in regulations that may affect the other party’s operations, and unforeseen conduct by users of the cannabis product. These blanket indemnification provisions are creating liability and exposure.

In the past month or so, many cannabis companies have come to us (both in Los Angeles and in San Francisco) with poorly drafted, irrelevant or nonsensical indemnification provisions and agreements from cannabis sellers. So, what makes for a good indemnification provision in a cannabis contract?

A preliminary question should be the breadth of the indemnification. If you are the seller and you want to protect yourself, you should tailor your indemnification to what makes sense and to what you can afford. You do not want something like the following (which is being used fairly often in California these days by inexperienced lawyers and lawyerless companies):

“The Indemnitor agrees to indemnify, defend, and hold harmless the Indemnitee, its officers, directors, employees, owners, agents, assigns, and affiliates (collectively, the “Indemnified Parties”) from and against any and all claims, liability, loss, expenses, suits, damages, judgments, demands, and costs(including reasonable attorneys’ fees and expenses) (each a “Claim”) arising out of any accident, injury, or death to persons, or loss of or damage to property, or fines and penalties which may result, in whole or in part, by reason of the use or sale of any Product, or its packaging, except to the extent that such damage is due solely and directly to the gross negligence or willful misconduct of the Indemnified Parties and that the Indemnified Parties, or any of them, were acting in bad faith.”

This sort of provision is a bad idea for any cannabis seller. It means that seller will be liable to the buyer for just about anything that could go wrong–anywhere, for anyone–from the product. No one wants to be on the hook for things they cannot control.

Here are a few important things to consider when crafting a cannabis indemnification term:

  • Both the cannabis seller and buyer need to focus on what kinds of losses will or will not be covered by indemnification. If I’m the seller, I’m going to want to exclude incidental, punitive, and indirect damages even if foreseeable. If I’m the cannabis buyer, I’m going to want to include at least incidental damages and foreseeable indirect damages.
  • It is both unusual and risky for a seller to agree to indemnify a party indefinitely, and yet this too has become common in California. If you are the seller, make sure your indemnity agreement or provision has an end date.
  • Your indemnification agreement or provision should include a protocol for making indemnification claims to the indemnifying party. The boilerplate indemnification provisions and agreements we are seeing typically never even mention any claim deadline or claim notice requirements. As the cannabis seller you should, at minimum, address these two issues in your indemnification provision or agreement.
  • If the indemnification is mutual, and captures reciprocal indemnification obligations in the same paragraph or contract section, ask yourself “why?” Putting the same parameters around indemnification for both parties often makes no sense, because each party has a different role in the business relationship. Consider separating the indemnity obligations and applying tailored language for each party, as appropriate for that party’s role in the transaction.
  • Finally, can you just cross it out? If you have deal leverage, and someone presents you with an indemnification provision (particularly an onerous one), you may be able to get rid of it altogether. Sometimes, you can convince the other party to give you everything they need to feel comfortable through appropriate representations and warranties.

There are certainly very good and reliable stock indemnification provisions in most contracts, and there’s a reason for that boilerplate in that it’s time-tested and mostly appropriate for more standard business agreements. However, be sure that whatever you’re putting into your cannabis contracts on indemnification is tailored to your specific situation. If not, you could find yourself holding the bag on way more than what is fair — let alone what you expected or can afford.

california cannabis marijuanaIt’s not a normal day in California if there aren’t around 50 cannabis bills floating around Assembly halls. And this legislative session did not disappoint in getting certain much-needed cannabis legislation passed (though some important legislation also bit the dust). All in all, there is a lot of legislation and it can be difficult to keep track of. It can also be difficult to identify what’s going to have the greatest impact on California’s cannabis industry. We are still in an emergency rule period under MAUCRSA (with permanent regulations probably taking full shape and adoption in early 2019), so it’s comforting to see the legislature fill some of the gaps left over from the emergency rules.

Here’s my list of the most important/recent cannabis bills of 2018 for California:

Provisional licenses. Without a doubt, the industry would have gone into a tailspin and then come to a screeching halt after December 31 of this year without the advent of provisional licenses. We wrote about the provisional license bill, SB 1459, before its passage, and the bill is now law. The basic gist is that if your business holds or has held a temporary license and you’ve file for your annual license, you’re going to get a provisional license (which is good for only one year) in order to keep operating while you pursue your annual license. Temporary licenses will not be issued after December 31 of this year, so this is the new vehicle for continued operation in California while you wait on your annal license. Here’s a fact sheet from CDFA that details what you need exactly for a provisional cultivation license (the other agencies haven’t released anything yet as of the writing of this post).

Events. Finally, the legislature got on board with expanding the venues at which cannabis events can be held. AB 2020 now allows cannabis events to take place at “a county fair event, district agricultural association event, or at another venue expressly approved by a local jurisdiction for the purpose of holding temporary events of this nature. . .” Of course, local jurisdictions still have to approve of these events and only licensees can throw them, but this is a big move for the increased normalization of cannabis in California where we’re now beyond allowing licensees to have temporary events at only county fairs and district agricultural association events as was previously the case.

Cannabis convictions. AB 1793 represents the continued implementation of Prop 64. Namely, when it comes to cannabis-related convictions, Prop. 64 “authorizes a person to petition for the recall or dismissal of a sentence, dismissal and sealing of a conviction, or redesignation of a conviction of an offense for which a lesser offense or no offense would be imposed under [Prop. 64].” In turn, AB 1793 mandates that the State Department of Justice/Office of the Attorney General, before July 1, 2019, review all existing criminal records in the state’s database to identify past convictions that are eligible for recall, dismissal and sealing, resentencing and/or redesignation. The State DOJ then must notify all local prosecutors about the foregoing eligibility. The prosecutors must then, on or before July 1, 2020, review all of their eligible criminal cases to decide whether to challenge the recall, resentencing, dismissal and sealing, or redesignation. If no such challenge is made by that date, the subject court must automatically reduce or dismiss the conviction. Without a doubt, many people in California will have their lives and futures changed for the better due to the passage of this bill.

Social equity. I have long maintained that any meaningful social equity programs on the local level (like those in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland) likely wouldn’t survive unless supported by the state. Thankfully, California is on board with the success of local social equity regimes via SB 1294, also now known as the California Cannabis Equity Act of 2018 (the “CCEA“). The CCEA basically sets up the state to provide “technical assistance” not to social equity applicants directly, but to the local programs that govern them. The Bureau of Cannabis Control (“BCC”) “may, upon request by a local jurisdiction, provide technical assistance to a local equity program that helps local equity applicants or local equity licensees.” “Technical assistance” includes “providing training and educational sessions regarding state cannabis licensing processes and requirements to equity applicants or equity licensees that are coordinated with the local equity program.” Cities and counties will have to petition the BCC for a grant of assistance to get things going under the CCEA, and whether the BCC assists or not depends on various merit-based criteria set forth in the CCEA regarding the nature of the local social equity program.

Pets and pot. AB 2215 addresses veterinarians and their relationship to licensees under MAUCRSA. Under this new law, the Veterinary Medical Board can revoke or suspend a veterinarian license, or can assess a fine, for “accepting, soliciting, or offering any form of remuneration from or to a [MAUCRSA] licensee if the veterinarian or his or her immediate family has a financial interest [in the licensee].” Further, if a vet physician even discusses cannabis with a client (i.e., the pet’s owner) while the vet physician has any kind of an agreement with or is employed by a MAUCRSA licensee, or if the vet physician makes any kind of advertisement for cannabis, the Veterinary Medical Board can revoke or suspend a veterinarian license, or can assess a fine against the vet physician. This is the biggest kicker of all though–AB 2215 “prohibits a licensed veterinarian from dispensing or administering cannabis or cannabis products to an animal patient.” Still, the vet will not get into trouble for just discussing, on their own with the pet owner, the benefits or effects of cannabis on the pet.

Privacy. What companies can and cannot share about their customers seems to be ever changing and certainly constitutes an emerging area of law. And cannabis companies are no exception, and definitely not now in California. As we wrote in a previous post, “AB 2402 is significant in that it prevents licensed cannabis businesses from sharing expansive categories of customers’ personal information with third parties—except in limited circumstances in connection with payments, or where a customer has consented to sharing his or her data with a third party. Notably, AB-2402 prohibits licensed cannabis businesses from discriminating against or refusing service to consumers who do not consent to disclosure of their personal information to third parties.”

No CBD in your booze. For anyone who had dreams of making a cannabis-infused wine, cocktail, or beer, AB 2914. “prohibit[s] a licensee from selling, offering, or providing a cannabis product that is an alcoholic beverage, including, but not limited to, an infusion of cannabis or cannabinoids derived from industrial hemp into an alcoholic beverage.”  Yes, the nail is now officially in the coffin for hemp-derived CBD alcoholic beverages. And this doesn’t just apply to cannabis licensees–it also now applies to alcoholic beverage licensees licensed under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act. Given that CDPH-FDB recently prohibited hemp-derived CBD in all food and regular drinks (via an FAQ), it was really only a matter of time until state government extended that prohibition to alcohol, too.

OSHA. AB 2799 is going to force licensees to get serious about employment laws in California; specifically, it will make cannabis businesses become Cal-OSHA compliant, which really isn’t a bad thing where it’s good public policy to promote and implement safe workplaces for employees. Now, when you apply for your annual license or you to go to renew that annual license, you’ll have to “[p]rovide a statement . . . that [you] will employ within one year of receiving or renewing a license, one supervisor and one employee who have successfully completed a Cal-OSHA 30-hour general industry outreach course offered by a training provider that is authorized by an OSHA Training Institute Education Center to provide the course.”

foreign investment california cannabis
Coming soon to California cannabis?

In addition to our California cannabis business attorneys’ work on corporate, finance, and transactional issues with marijuana-related businesses, we also work with our firm’s foreign direct investment group. As California has implemented MAUCRSA since January 1 of this year, we have been getting tons of interest and questions in and about foreign investment into California’s booming cannabis industry. As would be expected, much of this interest is from Israel, Canada, Spain, Turkey, South America, the Netherlands, the UK and Germany. These investors are interested in California because of the size of the market, but also because California has no residency or citizenship requirement to invest in cannabis businesses.

In general, foreign direct investment (FDI) refers to any type of cross-border transaction where a company or investor from Country A invests money in a company located in Country B. It generally doesn’t refer to dumping money broadly into stocks and bonds — it is specifically about a concentrated, single-enterprise investment.

FDI exists in several forms. Foreign investors can start a new company and can finance and build it from the ground up. They can participate in a joint venture with U.S. partners. They can wholly or partially acquire a U.S. business. They can also take a lighter touch, where they provide primarily branding and process support while having U.S. parties take on the bulk of the financial risk — the basic franchise model.

In the marijuana industry, we have already seen large FDI projects in cannabis ancillary services (i.e., the companies that provide the goods and services that support the actual marijuana traffickers). Foreign investors have opened up domestic companies for the manufacture and import of cultivation equipment like grow lights and hydroponic equipment, processing equipment like automated trimmers and extraction machines, and associated inputs including soil, fertilizer, vapor pen batteries and cartridges, and more. We have also seen large amounts of foreign money come in for cannabis real estate projects, especially in the Coachella Valley and certain desert cities. In addition to buying the real estate, the foreign investors put money into greenhouses, grow lights, storage facilities, and more to offer turnkey cultivation and processing facilities for lease to local businesses. These companies are largely unregulated at the state level, and their foreign investment issues are similar to non-cannabis businesses, dealing with things like registering as U.S. taxpayers for partnership taxed businesses, complying with FIRPTA, and dealing with immigration issues.

For firms directly involved in the buying and selling of cannabis, state-specific restrictions become more of a concern. States like Washington do not allow anyone who is not a state resident (much less not a U.S. resident) from having any profit interest in a marijuana business. California, similar to Oregon, is extremely liberal with its cannabis regulations regarding owners and “financial interest holders.” As mentioned above, there is no residency or even citizenship requirement to participate. Still, on the whole, state regulations and state laws are typically written with U.S. residents in mind. In turn, things like criminal and financial background checks on foreigners remain a bit of a gray area (though California’s Department of Public Health, which oversees manufacturers, has accommodated the situation somewhat with an “out of state owner” background check). Ultimately though, neither state officials nor the FBI are likely to have any real information on foreign nationals who haven’t had prior contact with the United States. How the Feds will react to foreign ownership in terms of the Department of Justice (rather than via immigration through the Department of Homeland Security) still remains to be seen, though nothing’s been publicly reported that’s a red flag against foreign marijuana business ownership in California.  

As far as federal laws go, the Controlled Substances Act doesn’t differentiate between activities that are international, interstate, or fully intrastate in nature. Possessing, manufacturing, and distributing marijuana are illegal federally regardless of where the company’s owners live. Still, there are a couple of criminal statutes that add fuel to the fire when interstate and international commerce are involved. 18 U.S.C. § 1952, for example, criminalizes traveling or using the mail in interstate or foreign commerce with intent to distribute the proceeds of marijuana sales.

More questions arise when considering foreign ownership in the context of the Department of Justice marijuana enforcement memoranda that cannabis-legal states are working under. The main takeaway from the August 2013 Cole Memorandum (which has been rescinded by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions) was that if the states want to keep federal law enforcement away, they need to make sure their regulations prevent state licensees from violating the various federal enforcement priorities. One of those priorities was that state regulations need to prevent “revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels.” If the state and federal criminal background check databases don’t have extensive coverage on foreign crimes, how can a state, including California, have faith that the foreign investors don’t fall into one of those categories?

For now, with no broad pronouncements apparent, it appears that the federal government is taking a wait-and-see approach to foreign ownership of state cannabis businesses. That means it is up to state cannabis business participants and the states themselves to ensure that foreign owners do not violate federal enforcement priorities — starting with California.