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California Poised to Make Huge Advances in Market Expansion and Regulation

By Chuck Epstein
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California’s tradition of social and political experimentation has made it the national leader in areas ranging from environmentalism and social justice to technology. Now it is poised to make the same far-reaching transformations in the cannabis industry.

As one of the world’s top ten economies and the nation’s most populated state (having a population of 38 million), California could propel the decriminalized recreational cannabis industry to $6.5 billion in 2020, according to a report by ArcView Group and New Frontier.

At the same time, California is in the process of moving from state to local zoning control, as far as issuing the OK to become licensed, effective Jan. 18, 2018. This means collectives and dispensaries have to obtain local approval before they receive a state license. It also puts greater pressure on gray market operations to become licensed.

On the regulatory front, the state is also heading toward a historic vote in November 2016 in the form of Proposition 64. This will open up the customer base to all Californians. It has a similar licensing path as the medical regulations the Governor signed last year, except it allows vertical integration between growers and dispensaries, which is not allowed under the medical regulations, except in very limited circumstances.

Credit: cannabisbenchmarks.com
Credit: cannabisbenchmarks.com

“My bet is the demand will outweigh the supply for a while and the legal cannabis businesses that are licensed by the locals and have their supply chain in place will end up profiting,” says Andrew Hay of Frontera Accounting, a cannabis-focused CPA firm based in California under the umbrella of the Frontera business group.

A Huge Market Awaits

If the Adult Use of Marijuana Act passes and is enacted by 2018, the state’s legal cannabis sales are projected to hit $1.6 billion in their first year, the ArcView and New Frontier market report said. Even without the new expanded legislation and working amid a fractured medical cannabis regulatory environment, California now accounts for about half of all the legal cannabis sales nationwide, according to the report.

At the same time, the state is well positioned to capitalize on new technology and financing from Silicon Valley in terms of human talent, money and the applications of new technology in both the medical and recreational sectors. One driving force will come from the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which mandates that 10 percent of sales tax collected on cannabis sales be re-directed towards medical research and drug abuse programs.

In addition, according to Marijuana Politics, the expected tax windfall is slated to be divided up among a variety of programs: $10 million to public universities, $10 million to business and economic development, $3 million to California Highway Patrol and $2 million for medical cannabis research at UC San Diego. The remainder will be divided between youth drug education and prevention (60%), environmental protection (20%) and law enforcement (20%).

This flow of new funds is expected to propel research into biomedical and applied research, as well as nutraceuticals, or products derived from food sources with extra health benefits in addition to the basic nutritional value found in foods. The driving new ingredients in these products will be derived from cannabis.

Consolidating the Recreational and Medical Markets

Californians will vote in November 2016 to legalize the sale of recreational cannabis. This vote will have serious repercussions since it could mean that the delineation between medical and recreational markets will disappear.

“Should California vote to legalize recreational use this November, we expect implementation of a combined regulated market as soon as 2018,” says Matt Karnes, founder of GreenWave Advisors. Karnes says a merged California market is significant, not only because of its sheer size (it represents about 55% of the U.S. market), but also because it “would mark the first state to implement regulations for a fully legal market without initial oversight of medical use purchases. This could serve as a catalyst for similar action in Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts and Maine which will also vote to fully legalize cannabis this November.”

In the report, “Mid Year Update: The Metamorphosis of the U.S. Marijuana Market Begins,” the firm said it projects cannabis sales in the U.S. to hit $6.5 billion for 2016. The firm forecasts that by 2021, revenues should reach about $30 billion. This assumes that marijuana will be legal in all 50 states to various degrees. The firm also notes that this year’s election choices can potentially generate $4.2 billion in incremental retail revenues by 2018 and $5.8 billion by 2021.

The Impact on Branding, Music and Culture

As the nation’s culture manufacturing center for films, TV and music, the cannabis business is also expected to shape artistic direction for years to come. Jeff Welsh is a partner at Frontera, a business group that holds a suite of services including the Frontera Law Group, Frontera Advisors, Frontera Accounting and Frontera Entertainment, which is headquartered in Sherman Oaks with a specific focus on the cannabis industry. Welsh says he sees more partnerships between the cannabis industry and mainstream entertainment outlets. Welsh recently signed Chris Sayegh, the herbal chef who uses liquid THC to create elegant restaurant-quality food, in a deal with the United Talent Agency. This marks a cultural breakthrough that links the cannabis and culinary industries.

Because Los Angeles is the largest market, this cultural nexus is expected to contribute more new alliances between celebrity branding and cannabis products.

Luke Stanton, founder and managing partner of Frontera, also said less stringent regulations in the cannabis legal environment could find their way into the regulations and laws of other states that often adopt California laws as templates for their own state. “We have seen this happen in other areas, such as environmental and criminal justice, so it would not be surprising to see our state regulations and policies being enacted in states nationwide, and even in some countries outside of the U.S.,” Stanton says.

California has also been the site of innovative marketing efforts between cannabis patients and growers. The Emerald Exchange held in Malibu, was the first event in cannabis that allowed a direct conversation between Northern California cultivators and the Southern California patient community. According to Michael Katz of Evoxe Laboratories, a California cannabis product manufacturer, “Often the farmers don’t have a chance to really engage with patients, and we wanted everyone to be able to come together, discuss practices, provide information and ultimately support the entire ecosystem of the cannabis community.”

Caveats for Investors

While the California market looks very attractive, it may be the siren’s call for investors until issues related to finding solid companies and taxation are settled.

Since more operations will have to become fully compliant with state regulations, these businesses will face more significant expenses to meet security, taxes, licensing fees, accounting and reporting operations requirements. This could drive smaller operations out of business or force them to become more efficient.

In addition, California’s huge potential and changing regulatory environment is attracting large growers into the state that will compete with smaller, established operations. According to Jonathan Rubin, chief executive officer of Cannabis Benchmarks, these regulations affecting commercial growing vary greatly by municipality. For instance, Mendocino and Humboldt counties have enacted measures to protect local growers, while other counties have not, Rubin says.

Credit: https://www.cannabisbenchmarks.com
Credit: cannabisbenchmarks.com

In addition, cannabis wholesale prices have been falling due to changes in cultivation methods and variations in supply.

Andrew Hay, a CPA at Frontera Accounting, believes investors should make sure there is a solid plan behind any cannabis company investment. “I’ve seen significant money thrown behind ‘cannabis brands’ with no substance,” Hay says.

“In these cases, the winners are the growers, manufacturers, distributors and dispensaries that are licensed (or are in the process of getting licensed), who pay their taxes and have a successful track record. I wouldn’t invest until you see the underlying operational structure, their tax/regulatory compliance and financials that prove there have been sales,” he says.

Another major problem for investors lies in the IRS accounting regulations. “The biggest hurdle I see facing the California cannabis business is the IRS / IRC 280E, which only allows cost of goods sold deductions. Every cannabis business should be planning their operations around IRC 280E, as there is no way to legitimately survive in the cannabis industry without doing so,” according to Hay.

“IRC 280E is here to stay regardless of California legalization. It is up to the Federal government to fix this issue, which I don’t see happening any time soon. Every cannabis business should hire a CPA and business attorney that work well together to devise a cost accounting strategy to minimize IRC 280E and its impact. Without this, an investor’s profits can go up in smoke to the IRS,” Hay says.