Back in 2014, we wrote that bankruptcy is not an option for marijuana businesses. That issue has been litigated here and there since then, but as of today, cannabis businesses are no better off than before. The hard reality is this: all bankruptcy cases are handled in federal courts under rules outlined in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Those courts have held that it would be impossible for a U.S. Trustee to control and administer a debtor’s assets (cannabis) without violating the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Bankruptcy laws are designed to afford a fresh start to honest but unfortunate debtors, while providing equal treatment to creditors. Without recourse to bankruptcy, parties can only: (1) liquidate without court supervision, or (2) explore state court receivership. Liquidating without court supervision offers no protection to pot business creditors. State court receivership does afford protections, but adds complexity because states closely regulate who is allowed to possess and sell marijuana (through licenses). For a while, it was an open question as to whether a state court receivership would actually work in the cannabis context. Recently, one actually did.
In the case at issue, a landlord (creditor) had leased space to a licensed marijuana business tenant (debtor). The tenant failed to pay rent, and the landlord evicted the tenant and acquired a judgment for unpaid rent. Because RCW 7.60.010 et seq. provides that a Washington state court may appoint a receiver over a marijuana business, the landlord convinced the court to issue an order appointing a receiver to sell the tenant’s cannabis and satisfy the judgment. The landlord then successfully navigated the licensure issue with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, sold the pot, and collected on its judgment.
Washington is not the only pro-cannabis state with statutes and administrative rules that seek to bridge the bankruptcy gap by allowing creditors to seize and sell cannabis. In Oregon, OAR 845-025-1260 provides “Standards for Authority to Operate a Licensed Business as a Trustee, a Receiver, a Personal Representative or a Secured Party.” Our Oregon and Washington cannabis lawyers have assisted numerous clients in acquiring and perfecting security interests under the relevant rules. We expect California to adopt a similar regime.
One of the reasons creditors get such high rates of interest for loans to cannabis businesses—in addition to the fact that banks won’t lend to them—is because many pot businesses lack lienable collateral. For many of them, the net worth of the business is mostly tied up in the cannabis itself. It is now clear that, at least in Washington, the cannabis can be liquidated by a third party, whether or not the pot was initially proferred by the debtor as collateral for a loan. In that way, cannabis businesses are being treated by progressive states much like non-pot concerns.
That we finally have had one successful state court receivership probably won’t nudge circumspect lenders to reach out to the cannabis industry. However, cannabis businesses can feel encouraged that their number one asset (their cannabis) may have marketable value when looking for loans; and lenders can feel hopeful that if everything falls apart, there may be liquidation value in the cannabis crop. None of this “solves” the bankruptcy issue, but it’s a step in the right direction.