Tag Archives: start up

Laura Bianchi
Soapbox

Jeff Sessions’ Latest Moves Should be a Wake-Up Call for the Cannabis Industry

By Laura A. Bianchi
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Laura Bianchi

The legal cannabis industry was recently rocked to its core by the announcement that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be rescinding the so-called “Cole memo” and several other Obama-era legal directives suggesting the federal government would leave state-by-state cannabis reforms more or less alone. Suddenly, it seemed the entire cannabis movement was in jeopardy. Laws legalizing medical and recreational cannabis could be at risk. A booming industry predicted to be worth $50 billion annually by 2026 could instead be going down in flames.

Here’s the good news: As a business transactions attorney who’s been working in the cannabis industry for eight years, I don’t see any cause for panic. The Cole memo and the other directives the Justice Department are rescinding were not laws, orders or even legal precedents – they were simply legal guidance, and murky at that. The memos provided guidance to federal prosecutors regarding cannabis enforcement under federal law, suggesting that federal prosecutors not focus resources on state-legal cannabis operations that weren’t interfering with other federal priorities, such as preventing the distribution of cannabis to minors and preventing revenue from the sales from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels. Yes, federal prosecutors could take Sessions’ recent moves to mean it’s open season on medical and recreational cannabis businesses. But with medical cannabis programs of one form or another up and running in 29 states and Washington D.C., and recreational cannabis now legal in eight states and Washington D.C., dismantling the entire legal cannabis industry would require a Herculean federal effort that would come at the expense of a cornerstone of the Republican Party now in power: The vital importance of states’ rights.The best way to stay on top of those rules? Form relationships with your state program regulators

In other words, I don’t see the termination of the Cole memos as the end of the nascent cannabis industry. But I do think the development should be a wake-up call for all those people in the cannabis industry who have been playing fast and loose with their business operations. After all, if federal prosecutors do decide to make examples of certain cannabis operations, they’re going start with those who are not operating within the confines of the applicable state rules and regulations.  Any business that smells even slightly of tax evasion, interstate trafficking or the allocation of cannabis-derived revenue to benefit a criminal enterprise will end up at the top of that target list.

So how should well-meaning cannabis operators stay off the feds’ radar? Simple: Follow all the rules.

Unless you want orange to be your new black, you can’t afford to be sloppy with your business structure and financial records.For starters, you need a CPA who’s not just at the top of their game, but who also understands the very specific – and potentially debilitating – nuances of cannabis-specific tax liabilities. That’s because thanks to a quirk in the tax code called IRS section 280E, cannabis companies are utterly unique in that they are not allowed to deduct expenses from their business income, save for the costs of goods sold. You want an accountant who thoroughly grasps this issue, so they can help you plan for and (to the extent possible) minimize your tax liability. And you want to address such matters before you start to realize positive revenue, so you’re ready to handle an effective tax rate that can be upwards of 70 percent. Last I checked, the IRS doesn’t consider “But I can’t afford to pay my taxes!” a valid excuse.

Along the same lines, you need a business corporate attorney who’s well-versed in the world of cannabis. That’s because while it might seem exciting to jump headlong into the cannabis green rush, you’re not going to get very far if you don’t deal with the boring stuff first. I’m talking about start-up financing strategies, business contracts and agreements, profit and loss forecasts, cash-flow analysis, and long-term financial plans. Properly structuring your business from the get-go isn’t just important if you ever plan to seek capital or sell your business. It’s also necessary if you want to keep the feds happy. In other industries, regulators might cut first-time business owners some slack. Not so in cannabis. Unless you want orange to be your new black, you can’t afford to be sloppy with your business structure and financial records.

Jeff Sessions and Eric Holder
AG Jeff Sessions (left), the man responsible for the recent uptick in worries

Finally, make sure you’re playing by all the cannabis rules, regulations and requirements of your state and jurisdiction. While this suggestion might seem like a no-brainer, far too often cannabis brands hire hotshots from Fortune 500 companies who don’t know anything about cannabis regulations and how they apply to their business.

The best way to stay on top of those rules? Form relationships with your state program regulators. Here in Arizona, I am in constant contact with our regulators discussing nuances and new business concepts for which the rules are unclear, convoluted or simply silent. Working with the enforcers might not come naturally to many folks in the cannabis business, but we’re dealing with a new and evolving industry where there’s little or no business, regulatory or judicial precedent. We’re all in this together.

It’s exciting to be at the bleeding edge of a bold and booming new industry like cannabis, but to do so safely and legally, cannabis industry pioneers need to make sure they’re striking the right balance between daring innovation and sensible business security.

We shouldn’t expect Jeff Sessions to launch a new army of prohibition agents around the country to kick down doors of cannabis businesses. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea for cannabis entrepreneurs to start acting like he might.

Marijuana Matters

A Guide to Documentation and SOPs for Start Ups

By David C. Kotler, Esq.
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As your company grows, or whether you want to have certain documentation to make an application for licensure and/or for outside entities looking to invest, it is necessary to handle issues from a documentation standpoint. Learning how to handle situations with staff through proper employee manuals and how to establish and practice standard operating procedures can help businesses avoid common pitfalls with a little forethought.

Beginning with standard operating procedures (SOPs), there are many resources available to get assistance in crafting them. You can consult with individuals such as safety content producers, business consultants, lawyers, technical writers, and even borrowing SOP writers from other industries. I am aware of a Connecticut producer who tapped pharmaceutical SOP writers as consultants with the focus of establishing their standard operating procedures. I am not convinced that there is any proper person or method by which an entity may want to consider an SOP. As a threshold, however, it is important that a proper format is created, i.e., simple steps, hierarchical steps format or perhaps even a flow chart format.

One would want to consider the audience who will be reading the SOP and the information to impart to that audience. It is also important to consider SOPs that you want to update as practices evolve or change.

It is possible to create SOPs internally, and frankly, this may be the most recommended route. If the SOPs are being used for guidance and not just to support the license application process, this is particularly important. It is a time-consuming task and if created from the inside out, it can be most effective.

It is possible to get lost in the minutia by documenting every step taken within a particular process. I have seen SOPs number in the hundreds just for cultivation and processing operations. One particular entity in Colorado created over 63 SOPs within the past year. If you are writing your own SOPs, it is important to understand the scope and applicability, i.e. why a particular process is performed and how it is used, then the procedures and/or steps that are necessary to accomplish that particular process, clarify any terms that are necessary so that the reader is able to follow the steps throughout a particular outline, cover health and safety issues, address equipment and supplies and provide emergency procedures.

The process that I can attest to as being fruitful is interplay between an employee who is actually responsible for a given task and a third party looking from a 1000-foot view. For instance, have the employee who completes a number of tasks within the organization provide a list of what they do on a general day-to-day basis. From that list, have the third party extrapolate what topics might be covered, often times borrowing from other well known standard operating procedures that are seen across industries and come up with a master list of the SOPs which are desired. It is important for the employee and third party to collaborate to finalize SOPs.

Employee guides or manuals provide information on benefits, when time sheets are due, paydays, holidays, vacation days, sick days and more. For employees, it helps mitigate risk by providing guidelines for conduct, discipline, and local practices in the states in which you operate. Employee guides are most effective when they are created to match your company’s needs. When it is tailored to your company, you are certain that the policies meet the laws of the places where your offices and employees are located. It allows you to provide input so you can ensure that you have developed policies that your company will follow. Unwritten policies are unwise as they may cause issues and can potentially lead to lawsuits. There are three types of multi-state employee guides: a guide with favored nations status, meaning that the most liberal laws in one location apply to the entire organization; an employment guide for each location in which you operate; or you can create one guide with a local practice section.

Creation of employee guides is a time consuming and arduous practice, but once completed, they help guide the relationship between employee and employer. Employees should review the employee manual and sign off upon receipt and review. This will serve to protect the employer in the future should an issue covered by the manual arise.

An effective employee guide might include (but certainly not be limited to) the following:

  • An “employment at will” disclaimer
  • An anti-harassment policy
  • An internal grievance procedure
  • Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)
  • Employee benefits
  • Paid time off (vacation, personal days, sick leave)
  • Unpaid leaves of absence
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (for employers with more than 15 employees)
  • Jury duty, military leave
  • Hours of work
  • Introductory/probationary period
  • Legally mandated language concerning pay deductions
  • Proper E-mail/Internet usage
  • Professionalism/dress code
  • Drugs in the workplace
  • Social media policy

There are many other policies that would be included in order to comply with requirements that might be mandated by a particular regulatory scheme i.e. security compliance. The guide should be a living, breathing document that evolves over time based on new knowledge, changes in laws and business fluidity.

Both standard operating procedures and employee manuals or guides are integral to the viability of a cannabis related business whether a hands on the plant license holder or an ancillary company. I encourage my clients to craft self-created content that they have invested their time and knowledge into, with some help where necessary. Purchasing forms online does not provide a workable format and will only lead to problems in the future. You get what you put in and creating these documents internally and from the ground up gives more control to the business.

Marijuana Matters

What Happens When the Attorney-Client Relationship Goes South

By David C. Kotler, Esq.
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Today I get to take a break from talking about what some lawyers, where ethically permissible, generally deal with in the cannabis space in terms of drafting leases, distribution agreements, licensing agreements, and/or application assistance. Within the cannabis industry, I personally serve as outside general counsel to entities to which I provide legal guidance and advice under retainer agreements, which comply, with my ethical obligations as a member of the Florida Bar. Over the last two years, I have spoken with individuals in other states and lawyers who practice in other states. As the cannabis industry has evolved, we continue to witness start-ups that need legal help and often take the most cost-effective route. In certain jurisdictions, I have heard of attorneys, particularly attorneys in Colorado, who have expanded into those jurisdictions and taken an equity stake of the start-up for their legal services. Whether or not this is true, and furthermore permissible, remains to be determined or even addressed by me, as this is a topic for another day.

But what happens when the lawyer-client relationship goes south?

It just so happens that in Florida a lawsuit is taking place between a well-known industry participant and its former lawyer. The names of the parties are omitted to protect them; however, perhaps more importantly, not to put myself in anyone’s cross hairs. This dispute was first reported in a reputable industry publication. Having had experience in media-worthy cases in the past, I am assuming that one party or the other reached out to self report the lawsuit for whatever advantage they thought they would garner. Upon review of the docket in preparation for writing this piece, I noted the docket’s length. For those who are unaware, a docket is essentially a listing of the dates and matters that have been filed during the pendency of a lawsuit.

The docket for the case begins between our anonymous parties, on October 26, 2015 with the filing of a complaint. Since October 26, 2015, there have been approximately 59 docket entries. In some cases, that number could encompass all of the docket entries over the life of a full litigation, short of trying a case, and probably gives the reader some idea as to the litigiousness between the parties. In part, this could be due to the personalities of both former counsel and new counsel representing the company in defense, but probably is not indicative of what would happen in every dispute between former counsel and a company. It is certainly a scary proposition considering the fees that may be incurred in defense of the action, aside from the sum that is allegedly owed to the plaintiff. Without getting into the minutia of the complaint, of note was a portion of the retainer agreement that served as the basis of the breach of contract claim, which granted the law firm incentive stock options pursuant to the company’s incentive stock program. It is imaginable that at the time of signing the retainer agreement, the company probably did not think too much about signing such an agreement; however, as time went on, this may have become problematic on a number of levels. Further review shows the parties airing out their dirty laundry in a public forum.

What example has this lawsuit shown us, and what can one take from it?

Well, this lawsuit is illustrative of what can go wrong for start-ups and newer companies in hiring counsel, either on a one-time basis or as outside general counsel. Giving stock options may not always be advisable as a means of deferring payment on the front end. Also realize that counsel who you hire will be privy to some very important and intimate details of how your company operates. In the cannabis industry, one might wish to be especially guarded, as the industry still has considerable exposure federally. The attorney-client privilege, which some readers may have heard about, can cover communications and work done on behalf of the company during the relationship and survive termination; however, that privilege may very well be waived if the services/fees of the attorney are being attacked or defended. Overall, like anything else, it is important to understand who you may be working with on the front end and memorialize any relationship properly and clearly in writing. Go into the professional lawyer-client relationship with reasonable expectations, reasonable demands, and pay reasonable compensation for the work being performed. As a business, don’t try to get something for nothing. And as an attorney, don’t expect the company to be your golden ticket.