The Justice Department rescinding the Cole Memo, the Omnibus bill including Leahy Amendment protections, a host of potential bills for federal cannabis policy change: a lot has been happening in Washington D.C. recently with respect to cannabis business. With the National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) Cannabis Business Summit in San Jose fast approaching, as well as the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days, we thought it would be a good time to hear what NCIA has been up to recently.
We sat down with Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of NCIA, to learn what the organization is working on right now and how we might be able to make some real federal policy changes for cannabis.
CannabisIndustryJournal:With the Department of Justice rescinding the Cole Memo, working as a group to tackle federal policy reform is now more important than ever. Can you give us a 30,000-foot view of what NCIA is doing right now to help us work together as a group and affect policy change?
Aaron Smith: So our team in D.C. consists of three full-time staff members as well as lobbying consultants, who have been really focused on the appropriations process, which is the way we’ve been able to affect change in such a dysfunctional congress by affecting the budget and restricting law enforcement activities. The medical marijuana protections, formerly known as the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, [and now known as the Leahy Amendment] prevent the Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute state-legal medical marijuana businesses and patients. Going into the fiscal year, thankfully after a lot of hard work, we were able to include protections for medical marijuana, which just happened last week. Now we are really focused on the next year’s fiscal budget, working to hopefully expand those protections to cover all state-legal marijuana activity so the Department of Justice cannot go after all state-legal cannabis businesses, including those businesses in the recreational cannabis industry, which is certainly one of our priorities right now. As Congress starts to transition into fiscal year 2019 appropriations, the D.C. team is working with Capitol Hill staff and other cannabis groups in D.C. to ensure an organized, uniformed strategy through the appropriations process.
CIJ: What are some other priorities for NCIA in the House and Senate right now? What is NCIA focusing its resources on?
Smith: Another big issue for us is the 280E section of tax code, which prevents legal cannabis businesses from deducting normal business expenses. A lot of these businesses face upwards of a 70 percent effective tax rate. Working with our champions in Congress, we are working on reforms to 280E so we can make normal deductions and be treated fairly, just like any other legal business. The Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017 addresses this issue and has bipartisan support in the House and the Senate right now, and we are working to build more support for that. This bill currently has 43 cosponsors in the House.
The other big issue for us right now is banking reform, which is a very high priority for NCIA as it affects most of our members. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act of 2017 provides a “safe harbor” and additional protections for depository institutions who provide “financial product or service” to a covered business. This bill currently has 89 cosponsors in the House. NCIA’s D.C. team and lobbying consultants continue to push for cosponsors and support on these important bills.
CIJ: I saw that the Omnibus spending package includes Leahy Amendment protections for cannabis businesses through September. Would you consider that a win in your book? How are you working to maybe extend those protections?
Smith: It was a big win for us. It doesn’t always seem like it because it is really just maintaining the status quo, but we are up against an Attorney General lobbying congress to strip those protections and the house didn’t allow us to vote on it. But by including the Leahy Amendment in the budget we are not only protecting medical marijuana patients and businesses, but we sent a clear signal to Congress that the intention is not to go backwards. We have been playing some defense recently given the current administration’s policies. But we are working with our allies in congress to negotiate those protections for recreational businesses as well. Negotiations for that are just getting started now.
The fiscal year ends September 30th so the protections are in place for now, but Congress needs to pass another budget for the next fiscal year with those protections included. It’s hard to say when the vote will be, because they haven’t been passing budgets in a timely manner, but usually it’s in May or June, right around our Lobby Days. This is what we are focused on now, getting as many of these cannabis businesses and NCIA members out there to really show Congress what the legal industry looks like.
CIJ: NCIA is hosting the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days a little more than a month from now; do you have any goals for that event? Is there anything in particular you hope to accomplish there? How can cannabis businesses get involved?
Smith: The primary purpose of Lobby Days is to show members of Congress and their staff (many of whom have never had exposure to cannabis businesses) what a responsible industry really looks like. And it lets business owners come tell Congress how current policies and laws are affecting their business. It is great for the cause and helps change minds in DC.
Last year, we came out of Lobby Days with several new co-sponsors of cannabis legislation and we hope to get that again this year. It is a great opportunity to connect and network as well; some of the top people in the industry will be there.
Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold has just raised the first funds for her blockchain-based company, MedPayRx in Germany (and via traditional investment funding, not an ICO). She will also be speaking about the impact of blockchain on the cannabis industry in Berlin in April at the International Cannabis Business Conference.
You have probably heard of cryptocurrencies, tokens and smart contracts. You might have also heard, even if you did not understand the significance, that IBM recently suggested that the Canadian government use their form of blockchain, called Hyperledger, to track the recreational cannabusiness. Or that a large LP called Aurora is also looking at this space (as are other licensed producers large and small). Or maybe you have seen an item in the mainstream news about an ICO for a cannabis company that is now also going terribly wrong.
What on earth is going on?
These are all related issues, even if highly confusing and disjointed. Blockchain technology and cryptocurrency are hot right now and getting hotter – both in the mainstream world and in the cannabis industry globally. But for all its fans, the drumbeat for caution is also growing louder the more mainstream this technology (and the legitimate cannabis industry) becomes.
The many problems the entire cannabis vertical has with banking has make this current development almost inevitableOn the technology and finance side, that is why so many big names right now are urging caution. Nouriel Roubini, professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, is just the latest to do so – and for reasons that everything to do with history. Including recent history ten years ago, when the world stood on the brink of a financial disaster thanks to unchained derivatives. The biggest worry in fact, right now, is about the financial implications of widespread adoption of the technology, beyond the tech itself and how it may (and may not) be legitimately used. Which itself is a huge question.
So why all the fuss?
This is revolutionary technology which is also being introduced into the market at a time when decentralized processing for automation is on the horizon. But also because blockchain can be used to create tokens or digital coins that act like financial instruments. And once created, such tokens can be issued much like money or even stock, to raise additional funds – for both start-ups and ongoing enterprises. The best thing though? This technology was invented to create a decentralized form of value exchange and trust-less, anonymized auditing and verification. No traditional financial institutions or even governments needed, wanted or should apply (at least in theory).
The many problems the entire cannabis vertical has with banking has make this current development almost inevitable. Not to mention accessing investment cash (although this is certainly changing outside the United States). Compliance issues in every direction are another wrinkle this tech will help solve. Starting with tracking product but also rapidly expanding to uses including protecting users’ privacy and facilitating access to high-quality, inspected product for qualified users and buyers. Not to mention other areas that are literally space-age but coming fast. Look for cool stuff coming soon involving both AI (artificial intelligence) and IoT (internet of things).
It is a fascinating, complex space. However, one aspect of this world, in particular, Initial Coin Offerings – or ICOs are getting attention right now. Why? They can be an incredibly efficient way to raise money for companies – both ones currently in business and start-ups with little more than a whitepaper or business plan and perhaps a working prototype. More and more of the successful ICOs are, however, for an existing company or are even attached to an asset, including a license, a prototype or a fund of money (or other combinations). They also rely on blockchain and alternative currency or tokens (sometimes also referred to as smart contracts) to work.
From a technology perspective, you can “mint” new coins relatively easily these days, sourced from a variety of different kinds of blockchain. Or even combinations thereof. You also can issue tokens or altcoins without an ICO.
In a world where there is vastly expanding cannabis opportunity, and many of these hopeful entrepreneurs are both digitally astute but without access to traditional capital, what could be better?
From a financial and investor perspective, ICOs are a hybrid form of an IPO meets social media. “Coins,” “tokens” and “smart contracts” –or cyber currency collectively– are digital forms of cash, contracts, membership cards, discounts or even authorizations for identity. There are many ways tokens can be used, in other words. This by way of saying there are also important differences too. Not all tokens are the same. Not all are used as “money.” Some are but have assets assigned to them (like real estate). Others, particularly smart contract tokens, are strictly functional (pay funds when product is delivered and verified). The one caveat here is that the exchange of any token or altcoin will also cost money. Why? It is the electricity cost of computer processing the request for transfer. Plus access and service fees. There is no such thing as a “free” token. How tokens are priced, sold, bought, maintain value and for what purposes, is a debate if not process function that will not be solved anytime soon. Starting with the fact that some blockchains are more energy efficient (and sourced from green energy) than others.
To add to all of this confusion, not all ICOs function the same way. Some do give investors ownership in the company or specific portfolios that even include real-world assets. Others offer to use pooled funds to buy assets (like real estate or an expensive license). Many rely on the “coin” issued as a kind of discount scheme, reward mechanism and in many cases, direct discounted payment for future goods and services, of both the digital and real world kind. Many offer banking services directly, including in the very near future, the ability to exchange cyber cash for the fiat variety at even remote ATMs. Sound futuristic? It is coming and soon.
Most ICOs in the market now, however, rely on the following supposition: Issue a token with a unique name. Put up an ICO website. Encourage investors from anyplace on the planet with an internet connection, to use either crypto or fiat currency to buy tokens in the issuing startup as an investment that will give the new company funds to operate and build out services or the application (whatever that is). Also, plan to use the tokens for an exchange of some kind in the future (either for other coins or a good or service). Watch the value of the coin increase (for whatever reason) while informing investors (or contributors) that this is not really a security but a “utility” token that is expected but not guaranteed to become more valuable. Retire early with the prospect of having brokers of expensive real estate in places like London and Dubai come calling.The public tide of opinion, even if regulations are slow to move, is on the side of reform if not outright advocacy.
That will not be the case for the vast majority of ICOs, however, no matter what returns, goods or services they offer. Even if they also have vibrant communities already using their services (whatever those are). It will not be the case for most of the cryptocurrencies upon which such ICOs are based (most at the moment are based on Ethereum, NEO, Hyperledger or combinations of the three). There will be more of those too. And not every blockchain will make it (cryptocurrencies and tokens are based on an origin protocol or blockchain much like computer operating systems are either PC or Mac or mobile phones are Android or Apple). Some speak to one another well. Most do not “exchange” easily – even between themselves – let alone back into good old cash. And while nobody wants to be the Betamax of blockchain, there will, inevitably, be quite a few of them. When that happens, any economic value of the coins and even contractual relationships created with them disappear as well. Add in extreme price volatility in the current market pricing of these tokens, and you begin to get a sense of the risk profile involved in all of this.
The real hurdle, not to mention expense, comes when transferring back from the world of crypto to the one of fiat (regular money). Being a Bitcoin billionaire (there are about 1,000 individuals who own about 40% of the entire global Bitcoin issuance) is no fun if you have no place to spend it.
A Rapidly Changing Marketplace
In the past 18 months, cryptocurrency and ICOs have gotten increasing attention because of the increasing value of all kinds of cyber currency (far beyond Bitcoin). The total market cap for all forms of cryptocurrency itself zoomed past $700 billion at the turn of the year. That is impossible to ignore. You might have heard of some of these currencies too. There is ETH, Litecoin, Bitcoin Cash, Dash, even Dogecoin (created originally as a joke on an internet dog meme). Right now, in fact, at some of the most expansive exchanges, there are literally hundreds of these coins which are constantly bought and sold if not exchanged and used.
And then there are the sums ICOs are bringing in some cases, flagrantly flaunting regulatory agencies and doing end runs on the global banking system that cannot keep up with them. The top ICO of 2017, a company called Block.one and registered in the Cayman Islands, so far holds the record at $700 million and counting. Filecoin, the second largest ICO last year, raised $262 million in one month from August to September. And then, of course, there is the cannabis industry-specific case of Paragon – now headed for class-action lawsuit litigation over their $70 million pre-and ICO sale intentions.
It would be logical to assume, given the eye-watering sums potentially involved not to mention the large role a smart digital media footprint has to do with an ICO’s success, beyond its service or technology offerings, that this would be a perfect place for cannapreneurs to turn for funding. The global market is opening for cannabis reform at the same time the crypto craze meets Fintech Upheaval is occurring – in fact, these two things are happening almost simultaneously.
Thanks to regulatory realities and an ongoing stigma, there is still no institutional investment in the industry in the United States (that is rapidly changing other places). These are two new industries and dreams are large.
In the legit cannabis space, so are the expenses.
The price of opening a dispensary in most U.S. states tops a million dollars right now. In Europe, the price of entry is even more expensive. A GMP compliant grow facility in Western Europe, plus the money for lawyer’s fees and negotiations for the license itself will set you back anywhere from $20 million and up, depending on the location. Even staying afloat in the industry once the doors are opened is a challenge. And loans, even for outstanding invoices, are still tough to come by in an industry where banking services of the simple business account kind are a challenge. Particularly in the United States.
The public tide of opinion, even if regulations are slow to move, is on the side of reform if not outright advocacy. Why shouldn’t a reform-group-rooted ICO aspire to own or provide ongoing business financing to a community-minded canna farm in California, Canada, Germany, Israel or Australia? Or even Greece?
However, right now, with some noted exceptions, the cannabis business remains at minimum, a dangerous place to consider issuing altcoins that act like financial instruments or raise money with them. Why and how?
The writer now helmed to lead this effort is Alex Halperin, a business journalist in the U.S., who landed the gig apparently on the success of Weedweek – a highly cryptic weekly summary blog of mostly U.S.-based industry events and updates.How the Guardian will cover the industry and related issues will be interesting to follow.
This is also not The Guardian’s first foray into the topic. The media outlet, which got its start in the 1800’s in Northern England and expanded dramatically to reach a global digital audience over the past decade, has covered cannabis legalization on a fairly regular basis for the last four years. This new focus also comes at an interesting time. Apart from events in the U.S., Canada is moving forward with recreational this summer. And in Europe, the medical discussion continues apace. That said, it appears the Guardian is going to focus on the U.S. market, at least initially.
It will be interesting to see if that focus shifts (and if they allow other journalists outside of the U.S. to participate in the expanded coverage). While California might well be the largest state economy in general, the Canadian market is already larger and more developed, being regulated nationally across multiple provinces.
Another Mainstream Media Cannabis Column?
This is hardly news. The Guardian is actually treading on ground established already by most of the big news and business publications – including niche publications, blogs and of course, the trade press.
How the Guardian will cover the industry and related issues will be interesting to follow.
The purpose of the column apparently is to spark an “adult conversation” about cannabis – and how it is “changing modern life.” The initial focus on the U.S. market (and California in particular) may have seemed to make sense to a media outlet looking for outrageous stories. But as everyone knows, the U.S. is only one market – and further one still without federal protection.
However, the Guardian is also now competing with other business and mainstream publications that are already in this space. Main Street, the online business ‘zine helmed by Jim Cramer, created one of the first mainstream specialty cannabis sections almost four years ago with the coincidence of the Colorado rec market. Other notable publications and media outlets have significantly increased their coverage of cannabis as well. CNN has been reporting consistently on cannabis topics like legalization and U.S. federal reform efforts for some time now. Business Insider and Forbes have covered ongoing and growing investments and the financial side of things for several years. The Denver Post has its own entirely cannabis-focused subsidiary, The Cannabist.
And as public companies, in both the U.S. and elsewhere have begun to move through the legal thickets of legalization, business-focussed journals and blogs are even beginning to cover cannabis stocks. Starting with Motley Fool and Seeking Alpha (although again, most of this coverage is of companies outside the United States). Specialty publications are also of course, flourishing online, particularly with the beginning of an advertising market that is also beginning to establish itself, albeit around some still thorny regulatory issues.
In general, although the Guardian has a reputation as critical of the British monarchy, with strong left-leaning tendencies, its coverage of the industry has been fairly mainstream – so far at least.
Will that begin to change? And what will really be tackled and covered? And while the ostensible focus is what is going on in the world of cannabis in California (and presumably other foreign markets) could the Guardian’s ostensible new feature also be geared to drive reform at home? The U.K. has yet to even approach the topic of criminalization.
Marijuana. Mary Jane. Pot. Reefer. Ganja. Weed. Joint. Grass.
The variety of terms used to describe cannabis are as diverse as the potentials of the plant itself – as well as the opinions of its proper nomenclature. A quick web search came up with a number of articles about how we should refer to cannabis, and opinions can be just as annoying and stinging as mosquitoes in the Everglades at the peak of season. Each of these words has an origin with which, having all the facts, you might not choose to align yourself. Words matter, and whether born from racism, xenophobia, or just plain ignorance, one will never go wrong following one simple piece of advice: “Never use a word or a phrase unless you know its meaning.” That said, it is not my intention here to add another opinion, but rather to present the topic from a different vantage. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not it is worth your while to learn what you are saying, and in so doing, empower yourself to consider your audience as you consider your slang, just as you would with any other word.
The legalized cannabis industry has opened a plethora of professional opportunities. Thoughtfully considered, these opportunities can lead to new heights of professional accomplishment and financial earning capability. For those with the good fortune to have such opportunity in legalized cannabis, congratulations! You are a member of a very small group of pioneers who have the potential to shape an entire industry (remember that what Henry Ford did by creating the assembly line brought benefit, not just to the automotive industry, but to all industry.)
In this industry we are not just creating medical cannabis dispensaries, cultivation and processing facilities, we are creating new ideas and platforms for compliance, security, financial planning, quality assurance, botany, agriculture, sustainability, packaging, retail, inventory control, human capital – the list is as endless as the imagination – with the potential to influence capacity in every aspect of all types of industry, around the world. In the course of your career as a cannabis professional you will have a chance to interact with legal and healthcare professionals, legislators, regulators and investors. You may attend high profile events, hobnob with those who inspire social change and exchange dialog with thought leaders from all walks of life. As you represent your particular cannabis company, you will recognize that you also represent yourself, and in that very recognition will your thoughtfully chosen vernacular reveal your personal level of professionalism, eloquence and dignity; and irrespective of what, or from whom, any opinion originates, these core values are irreplaceable. Simply put, adults speak like adults.
A colleague reflected that we are not winning a long and drawn out struggle to divest ourselves from outdated prohibitions against the use of medical cannabis because of the words we are using, but because of education. While I agree with that assessment, the use of slang in professional discourse has a tendency to discredit the speaker and narrow the audience receptive to his message. As the scientific community and cannabis industry continues to re-educate society, our efforts will be bolstered by reaching as broad an audience as possible. Education presented professionally, eloquently, and with maturity engenders respect, goodwill and understanding. And that makes for fertile ground upon which to plant new ideas.
CanPay, a debit payment solution for the cannabis space, announced today their partnership with Harborside, the largest medical dispensary brand in the United States. The partnership will allow Harborside’s more than 200,000 patients to use a mobile debit app when purchasing cannabis through their delivery service, instead of bringing cash.
For deliveries, patients would use the CanPay app on their device “to generate a secure, single-use payment token that includes no personal identifiable information,” according to the press release. A Harborside delivery employee scans the token and the money is transferred from the patient’s checking account to Harborside. This allows for delivery employees to make less cash transactions and affords patients the luxury of not having to take out cash to get their medicine.
Harborside, founded in 2006, is recognized as the largest nonprofit cannabis dispensary in California, and the United States. They were reportedly the first dispensary to lab test their products. Being an advocate for patients and their safety, they offer a variety of free health and wellness services. “It’s important to us that we stay on the forefront of patient care and access to the products our community needs to improve their quality of life,” says dress wedding, co-founder of Harborside. “CanPay enables us to continue delivering on those goals by normalizing the payment process for our patients and staff.”
CanPay launched last year in November and has since expanded to over 50 dispensaries and six different states. The premise of their system is a secure and safe transaction for customers or patients of dispensaries. “To ensure privacy and security, all purchases are made using non-identifiable, single-use, and random payment tokens generated in the CanPay App,” reads the press release. CanPay is currently serving businesses in Washington, California, Colorado, Maine, Florida, and Oregon.
“Patients who rely on cannabis for preexisting medical conditions should not have to be inconvenienced or have their safety put at risk by a cash-only model,” says Dustin Eide, chief executive officer of CanPay. “Delivery is a mainstream solution and payments should be able to keep up with the industry. By partnering with Harborside, we are providing their patients the benefits of more secure, transparent transactions.” According to Eide, their service is compliant with federal medical cannabis policy and guidance. “CanPay’s service operates under compliance programs built around the Cole Memo and FinCEN Guidance issued by the Department of Justice and the Treasury, respectively, and updated on Feb. 14, 2014 which provided guidance to financial institutions on the conditions with which they can provide banking services to the state regulated cannabis industry without incurring federal action,” says Eide. “Also, CanPay utilizes the Automated Clearing House (ACH) network to affect our services in full transparency. While Visa and MasterCard have established clear rules prohibiting cannabis transactions on their networks, the ACH network relies on the individual financial institutions to determine what type of transactions may occur.” Because of that, Eide says, there’s no need to hide transactions, unlike services that use Visa or MasterCard that require using an obscure legal entity name or a financial intermediary’s name.
According to Dustin Eide, CanPay is designed to be a long-term solution for the cannabis industry’s cash transaction woes. “At approximately 2% fees to the dispensary (and no cost to the consumer), CanPay will be a low cost payment service compared to Visa and MasterCard when they do enter the market, which we’ve been told by our contacts at the companies that this won’t be until federal law changes,” says Eide. He thinks that when MasterCard and Visa begin working with cannabis businesses, they will charge higher transaction fees in the 3-4% range, given the high-risk nature of the market. “CanPay’s challenge is to gain sufficient breadth of coverage with dispensaries and adoption among cannabis consumers to be able to offer that value on a wide scale prior to Visa and MasterCard’s entry into the market.”
Looking to the future, Eide hopes the partnership with Harborside will lead to more business. “CanPay couldn’t ask for a better partner to enter into the California cannabis market, which is expected to top $20 billion by 2020, than Harborside, one of the world’s most respected and well-known cannabis organizations,” says Eide. “It is an honor to be chosen by Harborside, who has their pick of services for the cannabis industry, to facilitate their cashless delivery payments and enhance the safety and convenience of purchasing medicine from Harborside for both their patients and their employees.”
According to the Marijuana Policy Group, the U.S. cannabis industry is expected to reach more than $13 billion in sales by 2020 and create more jobs than the U.S. manufacturing industry. According to Viridian Capital’s Cannabis Deal Tracker, there were close to 100 M&A transactions in the U.S. cannabis industry in 2016 and approximately $1.2 billion was raised in equity and debt. As the cannabis industry has grown more mature and businesses begin to have more capital available, the M&A activity within the industry is poised to grow significantly over the next years to assist businesses gain necessary scale and take advantage of synergies and diversification.
The Obvious Wrinkle
U.S federal law has prohibited the manufacture and distribution of cannabis since 1935. The U.S. regulates drugs through the Controlled Substances Act, which classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug (i.e., drugs determined to have a high potential for abuse with no currently accepted medical use and a lack of accepted safety regarding their use). Yet, more than 25 states have by now legalized cannabis for medical and/or recreational purposes and, as a result, there is a clear conflict between such state laws and existing federal law. To possibly help bridge that conflict, the U.S. Attorney General’s office in 2013 issued guidance directing the federal government not to intervene with state cannabis laws except in specific, limited circumstances, but, contrarily, the DEA has shown no desire to re-classify cannabis. To add to the confusion, President Trump and the new U.S. Attorney General have provided mixed statements and signals about their positions.
All of this means that it continues to be risky to acquire cannabis businesses. The requirements to legally grow, distribute, prescribe, and use cannabis for either medical or recreational purposes vary widely by country, state, and local jurisdiction, making it tricky to determine whether such businesses can be legally combined, in particular, across state lines.
Pick the Right Team of Advisors
When preparing to sell or buy a cannabis business, it is important to pick the right team of advisors. Your regular legal counsel, accounting firm or CPA may not be the right advisors for a cannabis M&A transaction. Choose a legal counsel that not only has experience with cannabis laws and regulations, but also has cannabis M&A experience and can offer expert advice on areas like IP, employment, tax matters, etc. Similarly, verify that your accounting firm or CPA has real experience with financial and quality of earnings analysis and due diligence.
Conduct Gating Due Diligence Up Front
In any contemplated M&A transaction, it is wise to prioritize your due diligence investigations. There will always be some more prominent risks and business objectives in a particular industry or with respect to a specific target business. It will be more cost and time effective if those specific risks and business objectives are prioritized early in the due diligence process. These can dictate whether you even want to pursue the target further before you dig into a deeper and broader due diligence investigation. Conducting gating due diligence up front is even more important in an industry like cannabis that contain complex and thorny regulatory hurdles.
So, before you spend money and time on a broader legal, business and financial due diligence investigation, have your legal counsel analyze and confirm that the potential transaction is feasible from a regulatory perspective. This will include whether it is possible to obtain or transfer necessary local and/or state licenses and whether a combination or sale can occur across state lines if necessary. Early on in the process, It is also advisable to request that the target business complete a legal compliance questionnaire or discuss with the target its regulatory compliance program, policies and training. Such up front due diligence will either clear a path to negotiations and broader confirmatory due diligence or flush out “red flags” that may kill a possible deal or require the buyer to investigate further before proceeding.
Important Terms and Pitfalls in the M&A Agreement
Generally, a sale or purchase agreement for a cannabis business does not appear to vary much from a similar agreement in any other industry. However, the complex environment and the premature nature of the industry impacts certain deal terms and processes in different ways from most other developed industries.
Here are few examples to keep in mind when preparing and negotiating a sale or purchase agreement:
Third Party and Governmental Consents: Buyer’s legal due diligence must focus on the consents that may be required from seller’s suppliers, customers, landlords, licensors or other third parties under relevant contracts. Additionally, the due diligence should focus on consents and approvals required by local and state regulators as a result of the sale. The M&A agreement should contain solid seller representations and warranties about all such consents and approvals and any such material consents and approvals should, from a buyer’s perspective, be a condition precedent to closing of the transaction.
Legal Compliance: A buyer should not agree to a boilerplate seller representation about the target’s compliance with laws. Be specific and tailor seller’s legal compliance representation to relevant state and local cannabis laws, regulations and ordinances. From a seller perspective, be careful and thoughtful about any appropriate exceptions (including the federal prohibition) to be disclosed to buyer in the disclosure schedules underlying the sale or purchase agreement.
Financial statements: The cannabis industry is very fragmented and consists of many small businesses. Many of these small businesses do not have financial statements prepared in accordance with GAAP and may consist of only management prepared financials. In that scenario, a buyer should have its financial advisor do an analysis of the financials available and ask seller to provide a representation and warranty about the accuracy and good faith preparation of the provided financials.
Escrow: Typically, a buyer will request some part of the purchase price be placed with an independent financial institution for a period of time post-closing as a source of recovery for losses as a result of breaches by seller of any of the representations and warranties in the definitive sale or purchase agreement. Due to the federal cannabis and banking regulations, many of the larger commercial banks will not provide financial services to cannabis businesses, in particular if the business touches the plant. The parties must therefore consider alternatives, including local financial institutions with more relaxed compliance requirements or perhaps place the escrow in a trust account of a law firm or other independent party.
Working Capital Dispute Procedures: Similar to the escrow, larger accounting firms generally do not provide services to cannabis businesses. Due to the rapid evolution of cannabis related regulations, if the terms of the transaction include provisions for a post-closing working capital/purchase price adjustment and related dispute procedures, it is advisable to not name an arbiter in the agreement. Instead, parties should agree to mutually select the arbiter if and when a dispute should arise.
Indemnification: Because of the tricky legal environment of the cannabis industry, it may be prudent for a buyer to request, at the very least, that certain parts of seller’s legal compliance representation and warranty not be subject to the “regular” caps, deductibles and other indemnification limitations. Also, if a buyer has unearthed a significant issue in its due diligence investigation, it should consider asking seller for a special indemnity for such issue that would be indemnifiable regardless of buyer’s knowledge of the issue and not be subject to the general indemnification limitations.
R&W Insurance: If there’s a lot of competition for the purchase of a target, particularly in a bidding process, it is now common for buyer to offer to purchase a representation and warranty insurance policy (“R&W Insurance”) to possibly gain an advantage by limiting the seller’s post-closing indemnification exposure. The good news is that many of the R&W Insurance carriers do offer such insurance in connection with the sale and purchase of cannabis businesses. However, typically, R&W Insurance cannot be obtained for insured amounts of less than $5 million. Experienced M&A counsel can advise of the advantages and disadvantages of R&W Insurance and assist in the negotiation of the related terms.
The above are just some examples of what to expect in a cannabis M&A transaction. Every M&A transaction will have its unique issues that will need to be appropriately reflected in the sale or purchase agreements and good M&A practices will continue to evolve with the industry. If you are an owner of a successful cannabis business, buckle your seat belt and be prepared for an exciting ride as the industry gets closer to significant consolidation.
Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Karen Murphy recently released a draft of temporary regulations for physicians, asking for feedback via a survey from the medical community. “The process for a patient to obtain medical marijuana will begin with the physician, so it’s vital to ensure that our regulatory process for those physicians is open and transparent,” says Secretary Murphy. “Our focus remains to implement a patient-focused medical marijuana program that gives help to those who need it, and these temporary regulations mark an important step forward in achieving that goal.” The temporary rules, published on April 11th, outline physician and practitioner registration, patient certifications, physician training and other key regulations.
In the temporary rules lie some stipulations for doctors, which seem intended to limit corruption or financial conflicts of interest. According to Steven Schain, Esq., consumer finance litigation, banking law and cannabis law expert practicing with Hoban Law Group, the market’s growth will hinge on doctor participation. “The entire program will rise and fall based on the speed in which we involve doctors,” says Schain. “If the doctors don’t certify for medical conditions and make recommendations, the market won’t go anywhere.” Pennsylvania’s program, under the current language, requires doctors to issue patient certifications, similar to what other states might call a doctor recommendation or prescription.
According to Schain, other states with similarly worded regulations experience a lack of physician participation, and tepid market growth at best. “If you look at New York, New Jersey or Maryland, they run into issues where there just is no incentive for doctors to participate,” says Schain. “If you look at the existing language of the regulations, there is no financial incentive for doctors to get involved, they can’t charge for a recommendation, which is good and bad.”
“The good part is it reinforces that doctors can’t really be a financial backer of a grow operation or a dispensary,” says Schain. Under the current language, physicians can’t solicit, accept or offer any form of compensation from any patient, prospective patient, caregiver or anyone involved in a medical cannabis business if they intend to register with the Department to issue patient certifications for cannabis. “Some doctors thought this would be a cottage industry for them, it’s not.” Doctors are also not allowed to advertise as a practice issuing patient certifications for cannabis. “Another benefit of the language in the proposed regulations is the continuing care of a physician,” says Schain. “They want the people doing the bulk of referring or recommendations to be primary care physicians. Those are the people doing most of the recommendations, as it should be.”
Those rules contrast starkly with what many are familiar with in California’s regulations where doctors could advertise freely and charge fees without the need for ongoing care. “Looking at previous regulations in a state like California, where there were no requirements for ongoing care, we saw doctors making a business out of writing recommendations for cannabis,” says Schain. “The PA regulations are much stricter, which I think is great.”
In addition to those preventative measures, the temporary rules require physicians to actively use the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. This means doctors must consider a patient’s history of controlled substance prescriptions to see if that might impact their medical cannabis use. Doctors have to take this into account before issuing or modifying a patient certification. The rules also provide for a 4-hour training course, required for all physicians seeking to register as a practitioner who can certify patients for medical cannabis use. The Department of Health expects the program will be fully implemented by 2018.
Election Day brought a renewed sense of vigor to the market with voters in eight states legalizing forms of cannabis. California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts passed recreational cannabis measures, making legalization’s momentum seem exponential.
But November 8th also gave Donald Trump the presidency, and his cabinet appointments, namely Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, gave many a feeling of uncertainty for the future of federal legalization. Adding insult to injury, the DEA repeatedly stood by their antiquated and ludicrous judgment for cannabis to remain a Schedule 1 narcotic.
A lot of the fervor surrounding public safety could be described as overdramatic or somewhat unwarranted. 2016 was the year of misinformation. Fake news spread like wildfire with people sharing stories like this or this that turned out to be very misleading or just downright false.
States with legal cannabis came under heavy public scrutiny and addressed problems like consumer education, public safety and lab testing. Pesticides became a highly publicized and persistent issue in a number of areas, with some states regulating it heavily and addressing public health concerns. Plenty of new rules were formed surrounding labeling and testing, with Oregon, Colorado and Washington experiencing some regulatory growing pains.
Those growing pains shed light on the need for regulators to craft rules that allow for changes, adding rules where necessary and getting rid of cumbersome rules that might thwart market growth. Rules need to be able to adapt as the industry grows, much like businesses need to adapt to a changing market climate to stay afloat. This is all the more reason why cannabis businesses need to make their voices heard and work with regulators to move things forward.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the future of legal cannabis in America, the word of the year for 2017 should be resiliency. In a social-ecological context, resiliency is “the capacity of a system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions. It describes the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation.”
Self-organization, learning and adaptation are three very important attributes of a resilient system. Without knowing what will happen when Trump’s cabinet takes the reigns of federal agencies, it is important to prepare for the unexpected. Adhering to standards like FOCUS allows cannabis businesses to prepare for unexpected events like recalls or product safety failures.
Those standards could also become the law down the road, as government officials often look to an industry’s voluntary consensus-based standards when deciding how to regulate it. In 2017, a number of state governments will embark on the heavy undertaking of writing the regulatory framework for legal cannabis.
2017 will bring opportunities and challenges to the cannabis industry. The industry’s rapid growth juxtaposed with political, economic and regulatory uncertainties create a climate that requires resilience to be built into the system at all levels. It is critical, now more than ever, that cannabis businesses build strong relationships with industry groups, advocacy groups and regulators to craft the institutional capacity and mutual trust needed to weather the uncertainty ahead.
On Wednesday, ten U.S. Senators from both sides of the aisle signed a letter pleading with the U.S. Treasury Department to help with banking for cannabis businesses, according to Lisa Lambert of Reuters. The letter seeks some form of protection for cannabis-friendly banks and credit unions, even those doing business with ancillary companies.
Notable signatories include Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon). “Most banks and credit unions have either closed accounts or simply refused to offer services to indirect and ancillary businesses that service the marijuana industry,” states the letter. “A large number of professionals have been unable to access the financial system because they are doing business with marijuana [sic] growers and dispensaries.”
According to a spokesman, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network will be addressing it. It is unclear exactly how Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general nomination, would deal with cannabis-friendly states, let alone banking for them.
Many think Sessions would restrict access, ramp up federal crackdowns and make it difficult for cannabis businesses to grow. Once again however Jeff Sessions has not shared any plans on enforcing the Controlled Substances Act or cracking down on legal cannabis.
Philly Tech Week held its first cannabis industry conference this past weekend, hosted by Greenhouse Ventures, a cannabis startup accelerator based in the Northeast. The Innovation in the Cannabis Industry conference brought leaders in cannabis technology, investing and medical research to discuss the changing landscape of the cannabis marketplace in the Northeast.
Kicking off the event, Tyler Dautrich, co-founder of Greenhouse Ventures, welcomed attendees to the first ever Philadelphia cannabis conference. The initial panel of the day reviewed investment trends and included Scott Greiper, president & founding partner of Viridian Capital Advisors, Marc J. Ross, Esq., founding partner of Sichenzia Ross Friedman Ference LLP, Jim Fitzpatrick, advisory board member at Kodiak Capital Group and John Kagia, director of industry analytics at New Frontier Data Analytics. The panel, moderated by Kevin Provost, co-founder of Greenhouse Ventures, examined various financial trends in the marketplace, roadblocks to raising capital for startups and emerging markets.
John Kagia of New Frontier provided useful tools in comparing cultivation models as well as industry projections. “It [the legal cannabis market] has largely been dominated by the West Coast,” said Kagia. “The East Coast is very well poised for success.” Scott Greiper, president of Viridian Capital, discussed his top performing markets. “Biotech is definitely the top performing category and a close second is cultivation and retail –production and sale is at the root of every industry,” said Greiper. “At its core, cannabis is an agricultural commodity.” He went on to list infused products as the third top performing market, noting that edibles account for over half of retail sales.
In looking at emerging markets, Leslie Bocksor, president and founder of Electrum Partners, echoed Scott Greiper’s advice for new businesses to stay grounded in the numbers and operations. “Stay focused on solid, tangible data,” Bocksor said. The two also shared a similar view in opportunities in hemp. “Hemp is a very underserved niche and there are ample opportunities for new businesses,” said Bocksor.
State Senator Daylin Leach (D- Montgomery/Delaware), co-sponsor of the bill for Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis legalization, delivered the keynote address. He lauded the bill, mentioning that patient advocates were instrumental in swaying the legislature. “This is the most important piece of legislation for PA in thirty years,” said Leach. “I have always believed in moving this bill forward and very recently, we passed it with a huge bipartisan majority.” Attendees gave Senator Leach a standing ovation in response to his positive outlook on Pennsylvania’s future with cannabis. “This will be a huge new industry and medical technology is vital to moving it forward.”
In the afternoon, a panel on medical technology discussed the need for more comprehensive diagnostic tools and crowd-sourced data for treatment with cannabis. David Goldstein, chief executive officer and founder of PotBotics, expressed concerns over bringing consistency to patients. “We need to understand how cannabinoids are affecting patients,” said Goldstein. “We want patients to feel confident in their medication.”
The conference closed with a panel of physicians discussing their clinical experience with recommending cannabis and the gaps in medical research. Among them, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, board-certified anesthesiologist and pain management specialist from Pearl River, New York, discussed some of his experience in recommending cannabis in treating neuropathic pain. The closing panel emphasized the need to educate more physicians and some of the obstacles to physicians recommending cannabis. The conference highlighted the Northeast as a quickly emerging cannabis market ripe with business opportunity.