qualified opportunity zones cannabisQualified Opportunity Zones, which provide a tremendous benefit to investors and low income communities, are the hot new topic in the real estate investment world. The cannabis industry is buzzing about investment opportunities in these zones, but we remain hesitant to recommend them without reservation. Congress disqualifies certain businesses from participation in Qualified Opportunity Zones, and we have seen some indications Congress is considering disqualifying cannabis businesses as well.

Qualified Opportunity Zones were created under the relatively new federal tax law, known as the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” That law authorized each state to nominate certain low-income communities as “qualified opportunity zones.” A list of qualifying census tracts can be found here.

To take advantage of the benefits of these zones, taxpayers must invest in a Qualified Opportunity Fund, which is an investment vehicle organized as a corporation or partnership for the purpose of investing in qualified opportunity zone property that holds at least 90 percent of its assets in qualified opportunity zone property.

The benefits to investors include (1) a deferral of tax on capital gains from the sale of existing property that are reinvested into a Qualified Opportunity Fund, (2) subsequent basis increases on deferred capital gains reinvested into a Qualified Opportunity Fund, and (3) the elimination of capital gains tax on growth attributable to gain reinvested in a Qualified Opportunity Fund held for at least ten years.

The State of California explains that Opportunity Zones will support new investments in environmental justice, sustainability, climate change, and affordable housing, and has created a website to educate investors about various opportunities.

This brings us to cannabis. Commercial cannabis activity, outside the industrial hemp context, is federally prohibited. As such, marijuana businesses are treated as criminal enterprises in the eyes of the feds. We’ve previously written extensively this. (See here, for example). Marijuana’s criminality colors how all federal agencies, including the IRS, treat cannabis businesses.

We have written extensively about Section 280E and its implications for taxation of cannabis businesses (See here, here, here and here). Section 280E disallows deductions and credits for any amount paid or incurred in carrying on any trade or business if such trade or business (or the activities which comprise such trade or business) consists of trafficking in controlled substances.

The benefits provided in connection with Opportunity Zones are not deductions or credits, but deferrals. The new Opportunity Zone clause provides a list of business activity that is disqualified from tax benefits, which includes “any private or commercial golf course, country club, massage parlor, hot tub facility, suntan facility, racetrack or other facility used for gambling, or any store the principal business of which is the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption off premises.” The disqualified list does not include cannabis businesses.

Because the statute omits “cannabis activity” or “marijuana activity” from the list of disqualified businesses, some contend that marijuana qualifies as an opportunity zone business. However, many tax practitioners worry that cannabis businesses being omitted from the list of disqualified businesses was an oversight that Congress will fix in a technical corrections bill. The list of disqualified businesses isn’t limited to illegal businesses — even if Congress is inclined to relax criminal marijuana laws, it hasn’t shown any indication that it wants to provide tax benefits to marijuana businesses. The final regulations governing Opportunity Zones have not yet taken effect.

Cannabis businesses that invest in Opportunity Zones hoping to benefit from the tax benefit need to weigh the risk that Congress will pull the rug out from under them by adding marijuana businesses to the list of disqualified businesses. If marijuana businesses are able to avoid that fate, however, Qualified Opportunity Zones could provide a great opportunity for investors and low income communities.

california marijuana leaseWe’ve previously written about some of the pitfalls for landlords to avoid when leasing to commercial cannabis tenants in California. We’ve also recently discussed some relevant issues for landlords created by the state’s near-final regulations. And we’ve also looked at some of the biggest uncertainties remaining after the state issued those regulations. Now that we have a clearer picture of what the regulatory regime will look like in 2019, here are some issues we’ve encountered in practice that both landlords and tenants should consider before finalizing a commercial cannabis lease in California.

Status of Cannabis Enforcement in California

As of today, the cannabis plant (which includes hemp), including any parts of the cannabis plant and all derivatives therefrom, remains a Schedule I controlled substance that is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act, except to the extent it contains a THC concentration of not more than 0.3% on a dry weight basis (i.e. not psychoactive), in which case it is now legal under federal law thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill. This confusing result follows a year in which the federal government, despite some early drum-beating about a resurgence of the drug war, made clear time and time again that its priorities when it comes to cannabis enforcement are illegal grows on federal land and organized crime. There has been no crackdown on state-licensed cannabis businesses in California (or elsewhere, as far as we know), and on the other side of the equation, the legalization and decriminalization movement has forged ahead to now include several more states, Canada and Mexico, and an incoming Democratic House leadership that has pointedly prioritized the issue in line with surging public support nationwide. Still, however unlikely federal enforcement efforts against state-legal cannabis businesses may seem, until full federal legalization occurs, landlords and tenants alike should consider building contingencies into the lease to anticipate enforcement actions and how they will affect the tenancy.

Structuring the Tenancy Relationship

Even before California came out with its new regulations, it was still a risky proposal for landlords to accept ownership in or profits of a cannabis tenant in lieu of rent. That concern has become even more salient under the state’s new regulations, since landlords can unintentionally become undisclosed “owner” or “financial interest holders” of the tenant cannabis business, thereby subjecting themselves to unanticipated and burdensome disclosure and vetting requirements. The parties to the lease should consider the unintended consequences of anything other than an arms-length tenancy and pay careful attention to the new regulations on point.

Licensing and Permitting Contingencies

The easily obtainable temporary state cannabis license is a thing of the past; now applicants must submit the full annual license application, which is far more robust and demanding (although applicants can now obtain provisional licenses if they previously held a temporary license, they can only do so after submitting a full annual application). Similarly, it can take months for an applicant to obtain a conditional use permit in localities that require one, which is common. Understandably, neither landlord nor tenant will know quite how they feel about the tenancy–and how much they want to invest in tenant improvements–until there is more certainty on licensing. A common solution has been to build into the lease an anticipated licensing timeline with benchmark contingencies that allow the parties to evaluate progress and decide whether to terminate if there is not enough.

Operating Expenses

Cannabis tenancies often involve unexpected costs that neither party fully anticipated, which can create a problem especially for multi-tenant properties. For example, you can expect that the landlord’s building insurance policy will not allow for a cannabis tenant and that the replacement policy will be more expensive. Cannabis businesses in California have to comply with strict security protocols that require security cameras, fencing, and security guards on site, and depending on what the existing uses are at the leased premises and the needs of other tenants, adding a cannabis tenant could create unique requirements that upset the existing proportional allocation of operating expense, and this should be addressed up front in the lease. If a cannabis tenant is a manufacturer or an indoor cultivator, it’s also likely that utility usage will not only increase beyond that of other tenants on a multi-tenant premises, but that additional water or electricity infrastructure will need to be installed to accommodate the increased usage, thereby creating additional capital improvement costs that need to be amortized and proportionally allocated. Another issue that comes up is cannabis waste management: for one, cannabis licensees—especially cultivators—must have strict waste management protocols in place that include securing waste on site or hauling it away under strict requirements. The regular building garbage service will likely not be a good match for a cannabis tenant.

For more on California cannabis leasing, check out the following:

california cannabis lease
May be required of certain California cannabis landlords.

We’ve previously written about some of the pitfalls for landlords to avoid when leasing to commercial cannabis tenants in California. We’ve also written about how the state’s recently proposed modifications to its final cannabis regulations could affect licensees and the industry writ large (see here, here, and here). The comment period for those rule changes is now over and we expect to see final rules from the state agencies within the next couple of weeks. This post focuses on a few examples of how those proposed modifications would affect cannabis landlords specifically.

One of the biggest proposed changes in the new rules has to do with who qualifies as an “owner” or a “financial interest holder” of a cannabis licensee that must be disclosed and vetted as part of the cannabis operator’s license application. Under the current proposed final rules and existing statutes, all “owners” of a cannabis business licensee must be listed in a licensee’s annual license application, including each owner’s contact information, social security number and tax identification number, employment information, disclosure and description of all past convictions, and a live scan fingerprint analysis for a background check with the Department of Justice. All “financial interest holders” in a licensee business must also be disclosed, though disclosure requirements are lesser than for owners and vary slightly across agencies, ranging from a simple list of financial interest holders to the name, and type and number of government identification for individuals; business name and tax ID for entities.

Under the most recently proposed rule modifications, a “financial interest holder” in a cannabis licensee such as a retailer, distributor, testing laboratory, or microbusiness would now include “[a] landlord who has entered into a lease agreement with the commercial cannabis business for a share of the profits.” And if that agreed share is 20 percent or more of the tenant’s profits, then the landlord would qualify as an “owner” of the cannabis licensee. (Landlords already qualify as “owners” under prior versions of the rules if they own 20 percent or more of the cannabis tenant business).

While we have previously written about the problems associated with landlords entering into anything other than an arms-length relationship with cannabis tenants for payment of rent in exchange for leased space, you can now add to that list the regulatory burden of disclosure and vetting of the landlord. However, if the landlord is an entity such as a holding company or an investment fund, the disclosure burden is amplified exponentially: if an entity landlord is an “owner” or a “financial interest holder” in certain kinds of cannabis licensees, then the same disclosure requirements apply for various layers of ownership to all individuals and entities that are owners or financial interest holders in that landlord entity, along with board members, CEOs, etc., all the way up the chain until only individuals remain.

What this means is that if cannabis landlords agree to accept a share of the tenant’s profits in lieu of rent—and this is not an uncommon arrangement especially for smaller or undercapitalized cannabis tenants—the landlord and its owners and investors could unknowingly be exposing themselves to unexpectedly high burdens of regulatory disclosure and vetting that would not normally apply if the tenant was anything other than a cannabis licensee.

It remains to be seen what the state agencies’ final rules will look like, especially in light of the widespread effect such disclosure requirements would have on investment in the cannabis industry in California, but in the meantime landlords considering profit-sharing arrangement with their cannabis tenants would be wise to consider the full regulatory implications of doing so, even if on an anticipated basis during pendency of the rulemaking process.

For more on California cannabis leasing, check out the following:

california real estate development agreement
You get what you negotiate in development agreements.

This is the third post in our three-part series on development agreements in California. In our first post we provide an overview of the use (and misuse) of development agreements in the cannabis industry. The second post breaks down the basics of development agreement laws. Here, we will discuss the key terms to include and what to watch out for when negotiating a development agreement with a public agency.

Term

As we’ve explained, California’s development agreement laws were enacted to provide assurances to developers faced with uncertainty in government approval processes for complex and long-term development projects. A development agreement should provide developers with assurances that the developer will see a return on investment by providing vested rights to engage in a particular use on a property. The rights are locked in so that if local laws change in the future (e.g., the voters or legislative body prohibit a particular use), the uses permitted in the agreement can continue for the remaining term of the agreement.

Accordingly, one of the fundamental terms of a development agreement is its duration. Commonly, development agreements in the non-cannabis context provide vested rights for a period of ten to twenty years. Properly building out a facility tailored for commercial cannabis uses may cost millions to tens of millions of dollars. If the term of a development agreement is only one to five years (as many California public agencies are proposing), a developer will not likely recoup the value of his or her investment. Imagine investing $15 million into a state-of-the-art cultivation and manufacturing facility, only to be prohibited from engaging in commercial cannabis activity one year down the road. Don’t go in for a short-term agreement!

Permitted Uses

Another key term of a development agreement is the description of permitted uses at the property. This clause should be given careful attention, and must be drafted to ensure that all of the contemplated uses of the property are explicitly spelled out. Stating “commercial cannabis activity” without referring to specific categories or license types will lead to confusion and potential problems. If the developer wants to engage in manufacturing, cultivation, and distribution, for example, then all of those uses should be described with as much specificity as possible to ensure that there is no question as to what the public agency authorized.

Many developers want to include uses that the local jurisdiction has not yet authorized. For example, a local jurisdiction may currently allow cultivation and manufacturing, but no retail use. A developer might want to engage in retail use at some point down the road, and therefore want to include retail in the permitted use clause. However, while a developer can commit to uses more restrictive than those set forth in the zoning ordinance, a development agreement may not allow uses or create exceptions to use restrictions beyond those allowed in the zoning code; to do so requires a rezoning or amendment to the zoning ordinance. Neighbors in Support of Appropriate Land Use v County of Tuolumne (2007) 157 Cal. App. 4th 997, 1015. Once the zoning code is amended, the developer can apply to amend the development agreement accordingly.

Vested Rights

Another fundamental aspect of a development agreement is the provision of vested rights to the developer. A “vested right” is a right to proceed with construction or other land use activity despite an intervening change in the law. See Avco Community Developers, Inc. v South Coast Reg’l Comm’n (1976) 17 C3d 785. Obtaining vested rights is essentially the entire point of a development agreement. However, we have seen some cities attempt to expressly prohibit developers from obtaining a vested right to engage in commercial cannabis activity. A development agreement should explicitly grant vested rights to the developer, and the vesting should not be conditioned on unreasonable or unattainable benchmarks.

Notice and Cure Period

Development agreements should provide developers with an adequate notice and cure period to enable the developer to remedy any problems and maintain its rights under the agreement before the public agency has the right to terminate. Vested rights under a development agreement are a valuable asset to the property, and developers (and their lenders, if applicable) need to have an opportunity to cure any potential defect and remain in good standing with the public agency to protect the value of the property.

Non-Mandatory

A development agreement should provide developers with the right, but not the obligation, to develop and use a property. Similarly, a development agreement should not require the developer to pay fees for a use it does not pursue. Many development agreements we have seen purport to require developers to pay fees to the public agency even when the cannabis uses are not actually pursued by the developer.

Construction Schedule

Some public agencies require developers to include a construction schedule in the development agreement. If the public agency insists on such a provision, make sure that the proposed schedule provides maximum discretion and control to the developer, is realistic and attainable, and does not penalize developer for failing to reach certain construction milestones. Construction is riddled with unforeseeable delays, which means there is a strong chance of running afoul of the development agreement terms or having to amend the development agreement if a strict construction schedule is spelled out in the agreement.


This post is not exhaustive, and you should consult with an experienced cannabis real estate attorney before negotiating a development agreement related to this highly dynamic industry in California.

AB 2164 cannabis fines marijuana
AB 2164 may create surprises for cannabis landlords.

Prior to the enactment of AB 2164, California law required cities and counties to grant a person responsible for a continuing municipal code violation a reasonable time to remedy the violation before the city or county could impose fines or penalties when that violation pertained to building, plumbing, electrical, or other similar structural and zoning issues that did not create an immediate danger to health or safety. Cal. Gov. Code section 53069.4.

In June, California’s Fifth District Court of Appeal interpreted Government Code section 53069.4 to require the County of Fresno to provide a cannabis cultivator a reasonable time to abate cultivation activity before imposing a fine. See Thao v. County of Fresno, Court of Appeal of the State of California, Fifth Appellate District, Case Nos. F072276, F073035, Filed June 28, 2018 (unpublished).

Apparently, the state legislature didn’t like that, because earlier this month, Governor Brown signed AB 2164 into law, which amends Government Code section 53069.4 and allows local governments to eliminate the “reasonable time period” to correct a code violation in cases of cannabis cultivation. According to the bill’s author, this removes at least one monetary incentive for illicit grows to continually move while giving local governments the ability to bring meaningful penalties on willfully illegal growers.

While it may sound reasonable, in practice this new law will have drastic impacts on unwitting landlords who may or may not know that cannabis cultivation is occurring at their property. Even the most sophisticated property owners are befuddled by California’s new regulatory scheme, unsure of whether cannabis activity is authorized as a matter of right in all jurisdictions (it is not), or whether they are even allowed to prohibit cannabis use or activity in their leases (they can).

We have been assisting a number of property owners facing excessive fines and penalties imposed by cities due to unlawful cannabis activity by their tenants (see here for more on that). Some cities impose strict liability against property owners for their tenants’ code violations, rack up fines of $10,000 per day, and then record the fines as an assessment on the property owner’s tax bill. This can result in a tax bill for hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, non-payment of which results in sale of the property by the county.

Providing a reasonable period of time to correct a violation like cannabis cultivation ensured that property owners, who generally cannot proactively inspect property that is leased to a tenant (and therefore may be unaware of illegal activity) could take action to eliminate unlawful activity before it became an insurmountable financial burden. Now, property owners face serious and immediate risks and must take steps to ensure they are not held liable for unlawful cultivation activity by their tenants.

Fortunately, AB 2164 includes a “safe harbor” that requires cities and counties to provide a reasonable period of time to correct a violation prior to the imposition of administrative fines or penalties if all of the following are true:

  1. A tenant is in possession of the property that is the subject of the administrative action;
  2. The rental property owner or agent can provide evidence that the rental or lease agreement prohibits the cultivation of cannabis; and
  3. The rental property owner or agent did not know the tenant was illegally cultivating cannabis and no complaint, property inspection, or other information caused the rental property owner or agent to have actual notice of the illegal cannabis cultivation.

So, if you are a commercial landlord and want to protect yourself from municipal fines and penalties without warning, make sure that either (1) your tenant is lawfully cultivating pursuant to all local and state laws, or (2) you are complying with items 1-3 above. Otherwise, the consequences of city or county action can be painful.

RICO cannabis landlord
RICO suits are not just busting up gangs these days.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a federal Nixon-era law originally intended to combat drug cartels and organized crime. Among other features, it allows average citizens claiming a loss in property value to bring suit for triple damages plus attorney’s fees against any “person” or “enterprise” that has a part in any neighboring “racketeering activity” which includes—you guessed it—“dealing in a controlled substance.” Currently, federal law continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance—meaning it has no medicinal value, and is supposedly more dangerous than methamphetamine, methadone, hydromorphone, and oxycodone, among other things.

RICO has been read broadly enough by its patrons to include operators, as well as landlords, lenders, and even government licensing agencies and customers, as co-conspirators in licensed cannabis operations, meaning angry neighbors have found their deliverance when it comes to trying to shut down state-legal cannabis businesses. The painful irony of all this is that anyone with an aversion to cannabis in a state where voters democratically decided to legalize it has unique power to be an American Gangbuster because of an almost-half-century-old relic of the federal War on Drugs; yet, meanwhile, companies that would be investing in local communities are looking north to do five-billion-dollar Canadian Blockbusters. The bottom line is that as long as federal law remains unchanged, it does not matter how state voters decide to govern themselves, or even how sensibly the federal government decides to enforce federal laws prohibiting cannabis. RICO provides a private right of action for any would-be provocateurs that can plausibly claim they have been damaged by a neighboring cannabis business.

So how can landlords and tenants approach this issue when designing a cannabis tenancy? The short answer is that RICO will continue to be a real issue for as long as federal law allows it to be, but the parties can take some proactive measures in drafting the lease to mitigate that threat:

Build in an early termination option for third-party lawsuits. Just as the lease can include early termination options for a variety of cannabis-specific occurrences, it can provide an opportunity for one or both parties to address an undismissed third-party lawsuit by terminating the tenancy. This can include RICO actions as well as standard nuisance actions, which often have longer legs than RICO lawsuits. It can also include indemnification obligations if, e.g., the tenant causes the problem by failing to comply with the lease terms, or if the landlord misrepresents neighborhood sentiment (more on that below).

Vet the neighbors. Just as a tenant would analyze the zoning laws applicable to a proposed use, a cannabis tenant should take some time to see what the neighborhood is all about. Does the community support the use? How are the neighboring areas zoned? Is there any kind of history of bad actors in this space that’s left a bad taste? The tenant will have to make sure the site isn’t within any prohibited buffer zones of schools or youth centers as part of its state license application anyway, and what better opportunity to get to know your potential neighbors? Even some casual exploring is better than nothing, and can save loads of trouble down the road. Depending on how the parties negotiate the lease, it can include, e.g., landlord warranties of no known neighbor objections after diligent inquiries, or a term that puts the responsibility on the tenant to figure out how the use would go over in the community.

Tighten up those compliance obligations. Compliance with state and local law is the key to avoiding enforcement actions, and is equally important when it comes to neighbor relations. State regulations contain strict requirements about security protocols, waste management, hours of operation, and product transportation. Local rules will typically dictate things like parking requirements, odor management, and noise. The stronger and more specific the lease is with regard to complying with these various rules, the better chance you will have that the tenant (i) knows them, and (ii) follows them. Simply indemnifying yourself in the lease makes little difference if you end up losing an otherwise good tenant because they were uninformed.

Research the local politics and get to know local law enforcement. California’s cannabis regulatory regime is unique in that local jurisdictions are still king when it comes to who gets to operate and where. And we’ve already seen a repeat of what’s happened in other states that have legalized: jurisdictions sometimes change their minds and declare previously allowed cannabis operations to be non-conforming uses. Having your finger on the community pulse and knowing the level of support for your local cannabis ordinance when it passed is going to put you in a better position to know whether your cannabis tenant or your cannabis operation is more likely to be a welcome neighborhood feature or a walking lawsuit.

For more on California cannabis leasing, check out the following:

california cannabis marijuana development
Development agreements are a unique process.

This is the second post in our three-part series on California development agreements. In our first post we provided an overview of the use (and misuse) of development agreements in the cannabis industry. This post breaks down the basics of development agreement laws.

California’s development agreement statutes are located in Government Code sections 65864 – 65869.5. According to the legislative findings and declarations, the lack of certainty in the approval of development projects can result in a waste of resources, escalate the cost of housing and other development to the consumer, and discourage investment in and commitment to comprehensive planning which would make maximum efficient utilization of resources at the least economic cost to the public. Cal. Gov’t Code § 65864(a).

Providing assurance to development project applications that, upon approval of a project, the applicant may proceed in accordance with existing policies, rules and regulations, and subject to conditions of approval, strengthens the public planning process, encourages private participation in comprehensive planning, and reduces the economic costs of development. Cal. Gov’t Code § 65864(b). In other words, the California State Legislature has determined that providing certainty and predictability in the development process is good for everyone.

Government Code section 65865(a) provides that anyone with a legal or equitable interest in real property may enter into a development agreement with a city or county for the development of the property.

“Development” is not defined in the development agreement statutes, but “development project” is defined in a subsequent chapter as any project undertaken for the purpose of development, including a project involving the issuance of a permit for construction or reconstruction, but not a permit to operate. Cal. Gov’t Code § 66000. Accordingly, a cannabis business that obtains permits for tenant improvements would fall under this definition, but a development agreement would likely not be appropriate where a cannabis business enters a turn-key facility that requires no construction. In practice, this does not seem to be the case, and we’ve seen cities require development agreements where no construction is contemplated.

The development agreement process begins with the local agency’s procedures for development agreements. If none exist, a city or county must adopt procedures upon the request of an applicant, at the applicant’s expense. Cal. Gov’t Code § 65865(c).

The development agreement statutes provide minimum standards for local procedures and requirements, including periodic review of the agreements at least once every twelve months, specification of the duration of the agreement, the permitted uses of the property, the density or intensity of use, the maximum height and size of proposed buildings, and provisions for reservation or dedication of land for public purposes. Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 65865.1-65865.2

A development agreement is a legislative act that must be approved by ordinance and is subject to referendum. Cal. Gov. Code § 65867.5(a). A noticed public hearing by both the planning agency and by the city council are required before a development agreement is approved. See Cal. Gov’t Code § 65867. A development agreement cannot be approved unless the legislative body finds that the provisions of the agreement are consistent with the general plan and any applicable specific plan. Cal. Gov. Code, § 65867.5(b). Like all other ordinances, the ordinance approving the development agreement must go through a two-reading process, with at least a five-day intervening period. See Cal. Gov’t Code § 36934. A development agreement cannot legally take effect until after the 30-day period for a referendum expires. See Cal. Elect. Code § 9141; Referendum Committee v. City of Hermosa Beach, 184 Cal. App. 3d 152 (1986); Midway Orchards v. County of Butte, 220 Cal. App. 3d 765 (1990).

In practice, all of this means that the development agreement approval process takes a substantial amount of time. First, the developer and local government need to negotiate essential terms. Once the terms have been negotiated, the agreement is placed on the planning commission calendar for hearing, followed by two separate city council meetings. Only after the referendum period has expired can the agreement become effective. In a best case scenario, this process may take 90 days. It often takes much longer.

Development agreements in California are rarely challenged, and when challenged, development agreements are usually upheld because the statutes are liberally construed to encompass agreements that substantially comply with their specific terms and conditions and achieve their essential objectives. Santa Margarita Area Residents Together v. San Luis Obispo County (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 221, 228.

However, given the popularity of use of development agreements in the California cannabis industry, we anticipate seeing an increase in legal challenges, especially where the agreements are mandatory, require substantial fees, have short terms, and lack any connection with construction.

Stay tuned for our next post in this series regarding key terms to fight for in development agreement negotiations related to California cannabis use.

california cannabis marijuana development agreement
California municipalities are missing the mark on development agreements.

Development agreements have become a popular tool for California municipalities regulating commercial cannabis activities. We’ve talked a bit about development agreements in the cannabis context here. In a nutshell, a development agreement is a contract between a municipality and developer that freezes applicable rules, regulations, and policies pertaining to a property at the time of execution. Our California cannabis real estate and land use lawyers have come across quite a few of them lately. Unfortunately, many times local jurisdictions are misusing them at the industry’s expense.

Development agreement laws were enacted to provide assurances to developers faced with uncertainty in government approval processes for complex and long-term development projects. A development agreement should provide developers with assurances that the developer will see a return on investment by providing vested rights to engage in a particular use on a property. The rights are locked in so that if local laws change in the future (e.g., the voters or legislative body prohibit a particular use), the uses permitted in the agreement can continue for the remaining term of the agreement.

The scant authority dealing with development agreements focuses on the broad purpose of the statute to provide assurances to developers as soon as project commitments must be made. Santa Margarita Area Residents Together v. San Luis Obispo County (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 221, 230.

Development agreements allow municipalities to impose fees without having to deal with the uncertainty and expense of putting the matter before voters (as required with the imposition of a tax), and to negotiate community benefits and public improvements to be provided by developers. They also put municipalities in privity of contract with developers, providing an additional degree of control and remedies for each party that would not otherwise exist.

In the context of cannabis, we are seeing a perversion of the intent of California’s development agreement statutes. Many municipalities require development agreements for commercial cannabis activity regardless of whether there is actual land development involved. The terms are incredibly short (often only 1 to 5 years), the fees are substantial, and developers are not expressly provided with vested rights to operate. In other words, most of the cannabis-related development agreements fail to provide developers with assurances that they will see a return on their investment.

Further, the vast majority of municipalities do not allow any negotiation of commercial cannabis development agreements, which calls into question the validity of any associated fees. After all, the justification for exempting development agreements from the constitutional and statutory requirements applicable to municipal fees and taxes is that the terms are bargained for between the parties.

Stay tuned for the next two parts of this series on demystifying development agreements. In part two, I’ll break down the basics of development agreement laws, and what they mean for the marijuana industry. In part three, I’ll cover some key terms to fight for in development agreement negotiations related to California cannabis use.

california cannabis lease
Entirely avoidable, fortunately.

We’ve written previously about some common issues landlords run into when leasing to cannabis businesses (see links at the bottom of this article). Now that we’ve seen almost a year’s worth of emergency regulations, and the state has released its proposed final regulations, we’ve also seen a variety of cannabis leasing issues crop up. Here are a few of the most common ones.

Insurance

This is a frequent problem. Sometimes it’s an issue with the landlord’s current carrier being no longer willing to provide coverage, or a questions of how to pass the increased cost of premiums on to the tenant if coverage is actually available. Or sometimes it’s about the tenant’s inability to obtain reasonably priced coverage with sufficient policy limits and necessary endorsements. But more often than not, insurance presents a problem for one or both parties. Fortunately, insurance is becoming more available and reasonably priced as more admitted carriers join the market. There are different strategies suitable for different insurance-related problems, but some examples have been building a termination contingency into the lease for landlord’s inability to obtain or maintain coverage on the building, or for tenant’s failure to obtain or maintain its required policies. Generally in cannabis leases, the cost of premiums gets passed directly onto the tenant, and in a multi-tenant building the increase will be allocated directly to the cannabis tenant. We do anticipate that insurance will become less of a problem as the market for providers continues to expand.

Federal and state enforcement actions

As we’ve also written previously, while federal enforcement is a concern both parties need to account for, state enforcement is the more pressing and predictable concern, especially now that both federal and state enforcement priorities are ostensibly aligned. The keys to accommodating enforcement concerns are: building early termination options into the lease; training indemnification obligations to enforcement event-related costs, damages, and claims; and including robust use restrictions in the lease. One solution has been to levy hefty increases in the security deposit to act as an indemnification bond, and to expand its use to act essentially as a landlord legal defense fund in the event the tenant’s noncompliance with the lease triggers an enforcement action.

Licensing

The easily obtainable temporary state cannabis license is a thing of the past: Now applicants must submit the full annual license application, which is far more robust and demanding. Similarly, it can take months for an applicant to obtain a conditional use permit in localities that require one, which is common. Understandably, neither landlord nor tenant will know quite how they feel about the tenancy–and how much they want to invest in tenant improvements–until there is more certainty on licensing. A common solution has been to build into the lease an anticipated licensing timeline with benchmark contingencies that allow the parties to evaluate progress and decide whether to terminate if there is not enough.

Security instruments

If a landlord’s property is financed, the note and deed of trust will often have terms requiring compliance with “all laws” (including federal), or prohibiting nuisances, or maintaining insurance coverage. A landlord’s compliance with those requirements can be jeopardized by a cannabis use on the premises, so the parties need to consider the possibility that landlord could be held in breach by the mortgagee, or would not be able to finance or refinance the property if needed. One solution to this problem has been to build in an early termination option for the landlord, but to also provide the tenant the option of securing or providing alternative financing, or paying the difference in interest rate between the landlord’s traditional loan and a hard-money loan.

Payment

Cannabis tenants are forced to deal mostly in cash because of federal banking regulations, and would love to be able to pay their rent the same way. Landlords should resist the temptation, and prohibit the tenant from paying in cash. Right now there really isn’t a great solution for this problem, except for landlords to make sure it’s not their problem. There are a handful of banks that serve cannabis businesses, and it’s the tenant’s responsibility to find them.

Subletting, multi-tenant buildings, and premises modification

Often, a cannabis tenant will be applying for multiple types of permits and licenses, with the intent of conducting several separate operations on site. For example, indoor cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution businesses all owned by tenant and operated under separate licenses under the same roof. Under current proposed regulations, this is possible, but licensed premises must remain separated by distinct barriers and locked doors. This means that where one or more cannabis tenants are operating on the same site (often a former warehouse) tenant improvements will be needed (often they already are due to a required increase in utilities capacity), and strict protocols must be followed regarding access and security. The parties should anticipate these issues with a through regulatory review during the leasing process and crafting of the tenant work letter, and part of that can also include requiring the tenant to submit its security and access plan to the landlord for approval, as it already will have to be submitted to the state (and often the local government as well).

One thing we have not noticed since this time last year is a cool-down in real estate purchases and leasing. Because of the limited number of jurisdictions allowing cannabis uses, and the even more limited number with accessible permitting regimes and attractive taxation, real estate in suitable locales has stayed expensive and competitive. Now that California is seriously considering the prospect of a public bank for cannabis, it will be interesting to see if real estate prices ease off at all as more jurisdictions open for business.

For more on California cannabis leasing, check out the following:

california cannabis marijuana landlord
…In a good way, for cannabis landlords.

Almost two years after the passage of Proposition 64, the 2016 California voter initiative to legalize and regulate medicinal and adult-use cannabis, California has begun to finalize its regulations that will govern the largest cannabis market in the country, though that effort has not been without some hiccups and bumps in the road. But, things are coming along and we anticipate that, as in other states that legalized cannabis like Washington and Oregon, after an initial period of turbulence, the rules will be solidified, prices will clam down, and there will be at least some measure of market stability going forward, notwithstanding those localities that decide to sit this one out. In the meantime, how are marijuana landlords faring in the midst of these industry growing pains? As it turns out, quite well. Here are a few examples.

Availability of insurance. Landlord insurance is essential in any tenancy. It protects the landlord against liability for injuries and property damage that occurs on the leased premises, and it covers losses to the building such as fire or burglary. Just months ago, California approved the first lessor’s risk policy for cannabis landlords to be written by a traditional state-admitted carrier. That may not sound like a big deal, but it really is: admitted carriers are held to high standards, and for the California Department of Insurance to agree to allow (and therefore essentially underwrite) such policies to be issued despite the subject activities being federally illegal is encouraging for the industry. The state also recently approved a business owners policy for cannabis operators, which is good for tenants.

Mainstream investor acceptance. One does not have to look to Canada to see mainstream investment success for U.S. cannabis companies. Real estate investment trusts (REITs) are highly regulated investment vehicles that can also be subject to federal scrutiny. In the U.S., only a handful of publicly listed REITs include properties leased to cannabis tenants, and now one of the country’s preeminent financial publications is openly recommending investment in a cannabis REIT, on the premise that businesses that lease to cannabis tenants “don’t actually ‘touch the plant’ which makes it a safer bet for long-term investors.” With the proviso that the CSA doesn’t necessarily agree with that assessment, this is one of many watershed moments in the normalization of commercial cannabis, with due respect to the republican former Speaker of the House becoming a board member of a cannabis investment fund.

Emergence of renewed federal enforcement priorities. Since the rescinding of the Cole Memo at the beginning of 2018, it has slowly emerged that federal cannabis enforcement priorities in California will be aimed at aligning with the state’s own enforcement priorities, as well as traditional federal prerogatives such as protecting federal lands and preventing organized crime. Notably, these articulated enforcement priorities have not included any mention of pursuing landlords of commercial cannabis tenants that are in compliance with state laws.

Advancement of tenancy-friendly state legislation. Recently, the state legislature has advanced a proposed law encouraging shared tenancy resources and tenant cost savings, e.g. bathrooms, break rooms, locker rooms, hallways, or loading docks. This is obviously an encouraging development for tenants, especially in places like the Bay Area where commercial space is at a premium. But it is also good news for landlords, who can market their properties to multiple tenants, rather than try to lease larger multi-unit spaces to a single tenant because of the inability to share common areas.

As long as cannabis remains federally illegal there will always be a measure of uncertainty and risk involved in commercial cannabis leasing for both landlord and tenant. But the trend lines do seem to be pointing towards normalization, which in turn points to decreased risk. Only time will tell.

For more on California cannabis leasing, check out the following: