Things are about to change for cannabis and cannabis-related businesses, as landmark legislation to reform federal cannabis banking and insurance laws is just around the corner with the SAFE and CLAIM Acts now making their way through Congress.
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which already passed in the House, would allow financial institutions to do business with cannabis companies without facing federal penalties. There are high expectations the proposal will make its way through the Senate and onto President Biden’s desk.
The Clarifying Law Around Insurance of Marijuana (CLAIM) Act was introduced in Congress in March and is in the first stage of the legislative process. If it passed, it would allow insurance companies to service cannabis businesses without the threat of federal penalties.
For years, fear of sanctions kept banks and credit unions from working with the cannabis industry, forcing cannabis businesses to operate on a cash basis which made them targets of crime and created complications for financial regulators. This is a significant first step for cannabis businesses toward conducting more legitimate and safe operations.
The SAFE Banking Act: Providing a Legitimate Avenue to Banking and Loans
With 37 states and D.C. having taken action to legalize cannabis in some way, it is clear the federal cannabis regulatory model has shifted and the path forward for the SAFE Banking Act shows promise.
The bill creates a safe harbor for banks and credit unions to the extent they would not be liable or subject to federal forfeiture action for providing financial services to a cannabis-related business.More competition means greater capacity and lower premiums for all.
The bill would prohibit a federal banking regulator from:
Recommending, incentivizing or encouraging a depository institution not to offer financial services to an account holder affiliated with a cannabis-related business or prohibit or otherwise discouraging a depository institution from offering services to such a business
Terminating or limiting the deposit insurance or share insurance of a depository institution solely because the institution provides services to a cannabis-related business
Taking any adverse or corrective supervisory action on a loan made to a person solely because the person either owns such a business or owns real estate or equipment leased to such a business.
The CLAIM Act: Backing Cannabis Businesses with the Right Insurance Coverage
Should the CLAIM Act pass, it will protect insurance companies that provide coverage to a state-sanctioned and regulated cannabis business. It would also prohibit the federal government from terminating an insurance policy issued to a cannabis business and protect employees of an insurer from liability due to backing a cannabis-related business.
The CLAIM Act will be a boost for the insurance market and drive more underwriters to write cannabis policies. More competition means greater capacity and lower premiums for all. The act would also have a notable impact on currently hard-to-source policies like Cyber coverage, Directors & Officers (D&O) insurance, Errors & Omissions (E&O) and other management liability policies that have been extremely limited to cannabis businesses.
Cannabis Sales Still Growing Strong Globally
The cannabis market is not slowing down in the United States or globally. Recent forecasts have U.S. sales reaching $28 billion in 2022.
As was the case in Canada where cannabis was made federally legal in 2018, there’s going to be a steep learning curve industry-wide for financial services and insurance vendors who don’t yet understand the risks and liabilities of cannabis operations, even if the SAFE and CLAIM Acts pass this year. And yet this is one giant step in the right direction toward the safe and equitable sales of cannabis country-wide.
By Seth Mailhot, Steve Levine, Emily Lyons, Leah Kaiser, Marshall Custer No Comments
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warning letters this month to two companies concerning the marketing and sale of over-the-counter (OTC) drug products containing cannabidiol (CBD) as an inactive ingredient. The letters allege violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act related to current good manufacturing practice requirements and marketing of new drugs without FDA approval.
At issue: labeling, NDAs and active ingredients
The companies subject to the warning letters market OTC drug products that contain CBD as an inactive ingredient. In the warning letters, the FDA states that it has not approved any OTC drugs containing CBD. According to the FDA, an approved new drug application (NDA) is required to legally market nonprescription or OTC drug products containing CBD, regardless of whether the CBD is an active or inactive ingredient. The FDA notes that CBD has known pharmacological effects and demonstrated risks, and that CBD has not been shown to be safe and suitable for use, even as an inactive ingredient. As a result, the FDA states that CBD cannot be marketed in OTC drug products.
Further, the warning letters noted the marketing of several CBD products that highlighted the benefits of CBD for a range of conditions in such a manner that, according to the FDA, “misleadingly suggests that [their] . . . products are approved or endorsed by FDA in some way when this is not true.” The FDA also took issue with the way products were labeled, which included callouts on the front label regarding the CBD content of the product (a requirement under most state laws that permit CBD as an ingredient). Similarly, the FDA also noted that some of the products advertised CBD as an active ingredient in a topical pain reliever product. According to the FDA, no company may legally market such a product, since there are no OTC monographs or NDAs that allow the use of CBD in an OTC drug.
What this means for you
These warning letters highlight the FDA’s vigilance regarding OTC CBD products. Regardless of whether the CBD is labeled as an active or inactive ingredient, the FDA has taken the position that nonprescription CBD drugs are in violation of the FD&C Act. Companies marketing CBD products should be careful to ensure their marketing practices, as well as their product formulations, do not present a heightened risk of FDA enforcement.
As a cannabis lawyer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that regulations affect a cannabis company’s bottom line. Since I’m in California, the ways are many.
In late 2017 I became the chief compliance officer for an Oakland startup that carried out delivery, distribution, cultivation and six manufacturing operations. A big part of my job was preparing my company, along with several equity cannabis companies, for California’s First Wave of cannabis licenses.
For the most part, First Wave licensees came from California’s essentially unregulated medical cannabis market, and/or from California’s by-definition unregulated “traditional” market. When California began issuing licenses in January 2018, many First Wavers were unprepared because their businesses practices had evolved in an unregulated market. A big part of my job was to help them adapt to the new requirements. As a result, I saw the regulations, and the effects of regulations, in sharp relief.
Regulation touches virtually every aspect of the legal cannabis industry in California. So anyone who wants to understand the industry should have at least a basic understanding of how the regs work. I’m writing this series to lay that out, in broad strokes.
Some key points:
The regulated market must be understood in relation to the previous unregulated (medical) market as well as the ongoing traditional market.
Regs define the supply chain.
Regs are designed to ensure product safety and maximize tax revenue.
Many regulations mandate good business practices.
Local enforcement of building, health and safety codes tends to be zealous and costly.
A Tale of Three Markets
California’s regulated cannabis market can only be understood in relation to the medical market that preceded it, and in relation to the traditional market (illegal market) that continues to compete with it.
The Before Times
California’s legal medical cannabis market goes back to 1996, when the Compassionate Use Act passed by ballot measure. One fact that shaped the medical market was that it was never just medical – while it served bona fide patients, it also served as a Trojan horse for adult-use (recreational) purchasers.
Another fact that shaped the medical market was a near complete lack of regulation. On the seller’s side, you had to be organized as a collective. On the buyer’s side, you had to have a medical card. That was it.
Meanwhile, the cannabis supply chain was entirely unregulated. This tended to minimize production costs. It also meant that a patient visiting a dispensary had no way of verifying where the products had been made, or how.
The Regulated Times
Licensing under the Medical and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (the “Act”) began on January 1, 2018. It was the beginning of legal adult-use cannabis in California. It was also the beginning of the Regulated Times, as the Act and accompanying 300-plus pages of regulations transformed the legal cannabis market.
Note that the distributors must collect the excise tax from the retailer, so the 15% markup is not necessarily visible to the consumer. Similarly, consumers are generally unaware that there is a cultivation tax of $9.65 per ounce (or about $1.21 per eighth) of dried flower that the distributor has to collect from the cultivator.
Theoretically, all of this might be unproblematic if licensed retailers were only competing with each other. Which brings us to:
The Traditional Market
The traditional market is the illegal market, which is to say, the untaxed and unregulated market.
Legalization of adult-use cannabis was supposed to destroy the traditional market, but it hasn’t. As of early 2020, the traditional market was estimated to be 80% of the total cannabis market in California. This is not surprising, since the traditional market has the advantages of being untaxed and unregulated.
The traditional market has a pervasive negative effect on the legal market. For example, the traditional market tends to depress prices in the legal market and tends to attract talent away from the legal market. Some of these effects will be discussed in the following articles.
This article is an opinion only and is not intended to be legal advice.
A new California Proposition 65 mandate took effect on January 3, requiring health warning labels for all cannabis products sold in the state. Failure to comply with the requirements can and will result in enforcement against cannabis producers and sellers, resulting in hefty penalties. Here’s what you need to know.
Some Background on Proposition 65 and Cannabis
California’s Proposition 65, also known as the “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986,” requires various parties in the supply chain for consumer products to provide warnings on products they sell in the state if exposure to certain chemicals in those products will pose a significant risk of cancer or reproductive harm. Proposition 65 applies to any company that sells products in California, regardless of whether the business is headquartered or manufactures products in California.
“Cannabis (Marijuana) Smoke” was listed under Proposition 65 in 2009 because of the potential that it contains ingredients or emits chemicals known to cause cancer. These chemicals include toxins such as arsenic, benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde, lead and nickel. In January 2020, Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was added to the list of toxic chemicals under Proposition 65 because of THC’s potential to cause reproductive harm. Now, both THC and cannabis smoke are listed under Proposition 65 and require warning labels.
What This Means for You and Your Company
The updated chemical list, which includes THC, became effective January 3, 2021, so the clock to come into compliance is ticking if you are not already complying. Many cannabis companies selling in California already comply with Proposition 65 by including warnings on their products that emit cannabis smoke. However, now companies that have previously issued a consumer warning regarding cannabis smoke must expand their warnings to include both the potential risk of cancer and the potential risk of reproductive harm. Additionally, products that previously did not require a warning for cannabis smoke will now be subject to Proposition 65 for exposure to THC.
The listing of THC implicates a broader range of cannabis products because it affects any product that contains detectable levels of THC, including products that contain less than 0.3% THC in compliance with the 2018 Farm Bill. Under the THC listing, a wide range of cannabis and hemp-derived CBD products, including products that do not emit smoke, such as edibles, topicals and other concentrates are subject to the Proposition 65 labeling requirements.
The agency that oversees Proposition 65 has provided so-called “safe harbor” levels for many listed chemicals that allow companies to forego a warning label if exposure to the chemical occurs at or below a certain threshold. However, no safe harbor level has been established for cannabis smoke or THC, and so the burden falls to the business to determine if the levels of the chemical pose a significant risk to the consumer. This determination typically requires extensive and costly testing that is not practical for most businesses. Thus, parties in the cannabis supply chain should work to properly label all cannabis-related products at this time. Failure to do so is risky. Proposition 65 “bounty hunters” team up with individuals to enforce Proposition 65 by sending notice of violation letters and then often filing lawsuits against businesses they believe are in violation of the statute. Many of these demands and lawsuits settle, as the cost to litigate is expensive. Settling, though, can be expensive, too.
To say 2020 was a historic year is an understatement.
Arizona landed in a solid eighth place among the top ten most successful cannabis states thanks to its expansive medical cannabis program. To close out the year, voters approved Proposition 207, also known as the Smart and Safe Arizona Act (SSAA), making Arizona one of 15 states, plus Washington D.C., to legalize the adult use of cannabis, which is expected to rocket the state’s overall cannabis sales to new heights.
It’s essential to this conversation that we clarify the two sides of this rapidly growing industry. Medical cannabis is a form of treatment, the adult use and consumption of cannabis is a choice. During the pandemic, in many medical cannabis states, the medical cannabis industry was deemed an essential service and allowed to continue providing valuable medicine to patients and caregivers. As medical cannabis programs continue to provide safer therapeutic options which are complementary to or serve as an alternative to many traditional treatments and narcotics, especially opioids, patients can be confident the need for medical programs will continue. Arizona’s adult use cannabis program imposes greater limitations on quantity and potency, while also requiring higher standards for packaging. We saw a trend during the pandemic as again, many states prioritized and allowed their medical programs to continue, while limiting adult use facilities, in the same manner as other non-essential businesses.
It’s also worth noting that we have seen many inevitable changes in patient behaviors during the pandemic, including an increased need for medical cannabis. There was a patient demand for convenience, safety and no-contact services, increased online ordering, scheduling and curbside pick-up or delivery. Many of these services were already on the rise in popularity throughout the various legal states. While Arizona’s recreational program prohibits delivery until at least 2023, retail adult use consumers will expect some of these services to extend to the new market. As life after the COVID-19 pandemic continues on and the need for some of these safer more convenient options also continues, we hope to see them more permanently implemented from a legal and regulatory perspective. For now, here are the highlights we’ll see come into play in the first few months of 2021 as Arizona adopts its new adult use cannabis program.
Smart and Safe Arizona Act (Prop 207):
Legalizes the sale, possession (one ounce) and consumption of adult use cannabis for adults at least 21 years old.
Adds a 16 percent excise tax on adult use cannabis sales, in addition to the state’s 5.6 percent, totaling a 21.6 percent tax.
Allocates an estimated $300 million in Arizona revenue to be divided between community college districts, municipal police, sheriff and fire departments, fire districts, highway funds, public health programs, infrastructure, and a new Justice Reinvestment Fund.
Allocates more than $30 million annually for addiction prevention, substance treatment, teen suicide prevention, mental health programs, and justice reinvestment projects.
Provides opportunities for expungement of certain lesser cannabis-related crimes such as possession, consumption, cultivation or transportation.
But of course, state law is just one part of the equation. Adult use cannabis facilities must be licensed separately from state to local levels, including counties to cities to local municipalities, all of which may also adopt rules and requirements through zoning and land use ordinances. Swift and certain timelines established by the Smart & Safe Act dictate the speedy launch of this new program, first utilizing the existing medical cannabis infrastructure.
Many Arizona consumers are under the impression that they’ll be able to walk into a dispensary on January 1, 2021 and buy cannabis. But that is not the case. They’ll have to wait until the Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS) completes the early applicant licensing process, which begins in January 2021. Currently, local and multistate operators are waiting for AZDHS to complete the rules and regulations for the adult use cannabis program. Here are two of the most significant steps to be navigated in the upcoming weeks:
Smart and Safe Arizona Act (Prop 207) – Step 1: The Rulemaking Process
AZDHS has been tasked with developing the rulemaking process for the Smart & Safe Act. The first draft of the adult use cannabis program rules has already been released, primarily consisting of the application requirements for the early applicant process. AZDHS collected its first round of public comments for consideration on Thursday, December 17, 2020. The exact details and parameters of the adult use cannabis program will not be finalized or known for certain until AZDHS completes the rulemaking process. We anticipate the next draft of adult use cannabis rules to be released sometime in early January.
Smart and Safe Arizona Act (Prop 207) – Step 2: The Application Process
AZDHS will begin accepting early applicants under the Smart & Safe Act on January 19, 2021, closing the process on March 9, 2021. Current medical cannabis license holders who apply for and acquire an adult use license in the early applicant process will be authorized to a dual-licensed dispensary (both medical and adult use license), as well as one offsite manufacturing facility (which may later be amended to include both medical and adult use manufacturing license), and offsite cultivation.
Early adult use license applicants are reserved for those that currently hold in good standing at least one Medical Marijuana Registration Certificate (“Medical Marijuana License”) and applicants applying to counties with no current operating dispensaries. Any county with a single operating dispensary (a medical cannabis dispensary) will be allocated an adult use license (dual license) as long as the medical license holder is in good standing for the application. All adult use licenses allocated to those counties without a current operating dispensary must keep that dispensary within that county.
AZDHS will have 60 days to process each application. Adult use licenses for counties without a current operating dispensary will be allocated through a random selection process, if more than two applications are received for that county. Additionally, upon the conclusion of the early applicant process, any adult use license that has not yet been awarded through that process, will be available to the general public and allocated through a random selection process.
This brings us to later phases of implementation of the Smart & Safe Act: within approximately six months of the adoption of the initial recreational program rules, AZDHS must develop and adopt the rules and regulations for the Social Equity Ownership Program (SEOP). The primary goal of the SEOP is to allocate 26 adult use licenses to “communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of previous cannabis laws.” In other words, communities disproportionately and negatively impacted by cannabis criminalization. Smart & Safe is light on the exact manner and process at this point, so Arizona voters and cannabis companies will look to AZDHS for the development and implementation of this important part of the adult use program. Stay tuned.
On Friday, December 4, 2020, the US House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 (the MORE Act), which would effectively legalize cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act. The bill (H.R. 3884) has several key components:
Most importantly, the bill would remove cannabis from the list of controlled substances in the Controlled Substances Act, as well as other federal legislation such as the National Forest System Drug Control Act of 1986. This would effectively end many of the obstacles created by the federal illegality of cannabis such as the lack of access to banking, tax consequences such as 280E, adverse immigration impacts and threats of federal criminal enforcement.
Second, not only does the bill preclude future prosecution for cannabis-related crimes, the bill is designed to be retroactive and would provide for the expungement of past non-violent cannabis offenses.
The bill creates a prescribed excise tax on cannabis and cannabis products. The funds collected from the taxes would be channeled into opportunity and reinvestment programs.
A Community Reinvestment Grant Program would be established aimed at the provision of services for “individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs,” such as job training, education, literacy programs, mentoring, and substance use treatment programs;
A Cannabis Opportunity Program would be established providing state funds for small business loans in the cannabis industry targeted at social equity candidates; and
An Equitable Licensing Grant Program providing funds for states to implement equitable cannabis licensing programs aimed at minimizing “barriers to cannabis licensing and employment for individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.”
The bill would require all cannabis producers to obtain a federal permit. Cannabis businesses would need to be licensed at the state, local, and federal levels to operate.
This MORE Act is a substantial step in cannabis legislation. Reactions to the proposed legislation have been mixed. While the bill does include some measures aimed at social equity, critics of the bill claim it does not go far enough. Similarly, while the bill includes a federal permitting provision, this would be the beginning of a nascent federal regulatory scheme.
What does this mean for your business?
While this bill passed in the US House of Representatives, it would still need to pass in the U.S. Senate this term, which by most accounts does not seem likely. However, the passage of this bill signifies the progress that has been made and provides insight on what further legislation may look like.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a co-sponsor for the bill and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, donned a cannabis leaf mask as he presided over the floor debate in the House of Representatives on the morning of December 4. After the debate on the floor, the House of Representatives voted 228 to 164 to pass the MORE Act.
While this vote is historic and should certainly be celebrated, it is unfortunately a mostly symbolic win. During the Post-Election Analysis episode of the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference, Andrew Kline, director of public policy at the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), told attendees that this bill always had strong support in the House, but not enough support in the Senate. “You know I think there is pretty much a 100% chance of it passing the House,” Kline said back in early November. “I don’t think they would’ve scheduled the vote if they didn’t have the votes.”
Kline told attendees that Republican priorities are most likely to blame when the MORE Act fails to get enough support in the Senate. “The bigger question is what happens when it reaches the Senate and I think it is all but dead when it gets there,” says Kline. “Mitch McConnell has been reluctant to move any legislation over the past four years. He’s really ignored most legislation and particularly any legislation he doesn’t like. He doesn’t like cannabis and it appears to me he barely even likes hemp. He’s really not even fighting for the hemp industry.”
While the MORE Act likely doesn’t have a chance in the Senate, it passing the House is still a monumental moment in cannabis legalization history. This marks the first time in 50 years that Congress has revisited cannabis prohibition, according to Justin Strekal, political director of NORML. “This is a historic day for marijuana policy in the United States,” says Strekal. “By establishing this new trajectory for federal policy, we expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations – arrests which disproportionately fall upon those on people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”
Along with all of the success that cannabis had on Election Day, including five states legalizing it, the House passing this legislation is a symbol of shifting attitudes toward cannabis and serious progress on the federal legalization front.
The real question that should be asked is what will the 117th Congress do? If Democrats gain control in the Senate following the runoff elections in Georgia, it could reinvigorate the momentum behind this bill and offer a renewed breath of life.
As states grapple with flagging tax revenues and soaring unemployment as a result of the pandemic, governors and state legislators are facing a quandary. Either cut back on programs that voters like, or increase taxes to keep them funded. According to a recent assessment by iUNU, many legislatures will look to the booming business of legal cannabis as a revenue source.
“For those states that have only made incremental steps towards legalization within their jurisdiction… there’s going to be pressure to initiate, whether it’s through medical marijuana programs or the expansion into recreational,” says Martin Glass, a partner at Jenner & Block who specializes in mergers & acquisitions and securities transactions.
In recent months, the average per-store retail sale of cannabis increased in legalized states – a telling change given the current state of the economy. Other facts – a loyal consumer base, proven health benefits and strong external investment – all point to a dependable industry. Mr. Glass saw this as a sign that cannabis is more stable than most believe: “The industry has proven to be quite resilient… it has absorbed the COVID-19 shock very well.”
Not only is cannabis a dependable industry, it’s also an expanding one. In 2019, global revenue rose to $15 billion, a 48% increase from the prior year. By 2020, economists expect that number to reach $20 billion. Kristin Baldwin, executive director of the Cannabis Alliance, added some perspective: “Right now, we’re at about 240,000 people employed according to the latest numbers I have. Maybe even 250,000. In King County, which is the largest county in Washington and where Seattle is, we had a 22% increase in sales in March alone.”
In the United States, the revenue from annual sales increased by nearly 40% from 2018 to 2019, rising 3.3 billion over the course of the year. This growth is expected to continue at a similar rate in the coming years, forecasted to hit $29.7 billion in revenue by 2025. These growth statistics are impressive and especially attractive as state legislatures and governors search for options to balance their budgets.
The industry also is logging similarly impressive growth on the employment side. The cannabis industry was recently dubbed “the fastest growing job market in the country” by CNBC, leaping an estimated 110% from 2017 to 2019 and hitting six figures in real numbers during that three-year period. The industry turned in those impressive numbers while constrained to 33 states (11, if evaluated from a recreational standpoint), leaving plenty of room for growth.
Baldwin agreed. “I think employment will grow along with the sales just because you are going to need budtenders, delivery drivers, and farmers,” says Baldwin. “For example, in California, Oregon, and Washington – highly regulated systems – there’s still going to be a significant amount of growth because there’s a significant amount of demand.”
Heading into budget negotiations in 2021, states are facing huge revenue gaps. Right now, those dismissing cannabis are, as Glass says, “leaving a lot of money on the table” by failing to take advantage of a major economic resource. Not only does the industry produce tax revenue to expedite states’ recoveries, as legalization expands, the cannabis industry has the ability to provide thousands of jobs.
Still dubious? Baldwin shared this fascinating piece of information: “It’s a generational shift that’s occurring as we speak. The fastest growing consumer group in cannabis right now is women over the age of 40.”
At the outset of 2020, the cannabis industry appeared poised for a series of incremental changes: a number of states were considering decriminalization and legalization measures, and support was growing for federal legislation allowing cannabis businesses access to banks and financial services. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which disrupted state legislative sessions (and legislative priorities), obstructed signature gathering for ballot initiatives, and reshuffled federal priorities. However, despite all of these changes, the cannabis industry has seen significant developments across the country. Beyond of course the many challenges and losses brought by the pandemic and its aftermath, in some ways, it may prove a boon for the industry.
Legalization and Decriminalization
Currently around a dozen states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, while just under two dozen states allow use of medicinal cannabis. With support for legalization measures steadily growing in most states, a number of major states seemed poised to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis, including large potential markets in the Northeast such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. And in many other states, advocacy groups were well underway gathering signatures to qualify legalization measures for the November 2020 ballot. When the pandemic hit, however, state legislatures largely suspended their normal operations, and signature gatherers were stymied by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements.
Despite these major obstacles, legalization and decriminalization legislation has continued to move forward in a number of states, and still others will have legalization referenda on the ballot for November’s election. Perhaps more important than these initiatives themselves are the diverse states that are moving toward loosening of restrictions around cannabis: rather than being limited to a handful of especially liberal states, cannabis advocates are seeing tangible progress is every geographic area, among states whose political leanings span the spectrum.
While the Northeast corridor had planned to undertake legalization efforts in a coordinated fashion this year, those results were put on hold given the seriousness of initial COVID-19 outbreaks in the greater New York area. However, the New Jersey General Assembly nevertheless passed decriminalization legislation, though the matter has not yet cleared the New Jersey Senate, and the appetite for full-scale legalization remains strong there, with a ballot initiative going directly to voters in advance of the New Jersey Legislature considering the issue. The Commonwealth of Virginia enacted decriminalization legislation also, and a legislative caucus in Virginia has pledged to introduce recreational legalization legislation this summer when Virginia convenes a special legislative session. Voters in Mississippi and South Dakota will be able to vote on ballot initiatives to legalize recreational cannabis, and similar ballot initiatives are underway or likely in Arizona and Nebraska. Advocates in Arkansas and Oklahoma had also hoped to bring initiatives to the ballot, but have encountered practical and legal obstacles to gathering the required signatures in time for this year’s election.
These myriad initiatives reflect a strong shift toward legalization of recreational cannabis across the country, and the ability to continue gathering signatures and momentum despite stay-at-home orders and social distancing underscores the growing popularity of the movement. Whether through the legislature or directly by the ballot, it seems all but certain that the number of states permitting recreational cannabis will grow significantly this year.
COVID-19 Business Closures
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the early months of 2020, most states instituted various forms of stay-at-home orders that required the closure of nonessential businesses. While these policies had—and continue to have—serious impacts on businesses of every type, cannabis companies have largely seen strong economic growth notwithstanding.
One of the most important developments in this space came in the context of state and local governments designating certain businesses as “essential” for purposes of business closure orders. In nearly every state to consider the issue—Massachusetts being the main outlier—state and local governments recognized cannabis companies as essential, which allowed them to operate during the shutdown.
The “essential” designation largely carried between both recreational and medicinal cannabis jurisdictions. And this matters because of what it means for the industry. State and local governments clearly realize the important medicinal role that cannabis plays for patients dependent on it for treatment, and the overlapping customer bases of mixed dispensaries further contributed to keeping cannabis companies open during the pandemic. Even in states where certain dispensaries operate solely in a recreational capacity, those jurisdictions recognized the importance of allowing access to a safe recreational substance, like alcohol, during prolonged stay-at-home orders.
Similarly, likely as a result of those same stay-at-home orders, cannabis companies largely saw significant increases in sales revenue. More customers visited retail establishments, and those customers often purchased more product per visit. This resulted in better-than-expected sales revenue for cannabis companies, and also produced increased tax revenues for state and local governments.
The cannabis industry saw more than just increased sales, however. In the process of issuing emergency rules for the cannabis industry during quarantine, a number of state and local jurisdictions either began to allow cannabis deliveries or expanded its availability, a shift in policy that may stick around well after the pandemic subsides.
One final impact of the pandemic may also help push legalization initiatives forward in the coming years: decreased tax revenue and major budget gaps. Due both to a decrease in economic activity like shopping and dining, as well as the unexpected health care costs associated with responding to the COVID-19 crisis, state and local budgets are expected to see significant shortcomings for years to come. In response, state and local governments are starting to see cannabis as a significant and viable source of tax revenue. For example, various cities in California that had previously been reluctant to permit recreational cannabis are beginning to welcome cannabis companies in hopes of making up for lost tax revenue. Similarly, in New Mexico, where legalization has remained a heated topic of discussion, Gov. Lujan Grisham has explicitly expressed her regret that the state failed to legalize cannabis, recognizing that tax revenues from the industry could have reached upwards of $100 million. Other state and local governments are coming to similar realizations, which should help propel expanded access to legal cannabis in coming years.
Major changes in the cannabis industry in 2020 have not been limited to the states. In the midst of changes and crises across the country, the federal government has been making meaningful progress in two major respects, COVID-19 notwithstanding.
First, cannabis companies are edging closer to having full access to banks, bank accounts and related financial services. The SAFE Banking Act, championed by Rep. Perlmutter, has made it through the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. However, as Congress continues to toil away at future COVID-19 relief legislation, political signals from Washington, D.C., suggest there is a reasonable likelihood that the protections of the SAFE Banking Act will be included, in some form, in the next round of major COVID-19 legislation out of Congress. The enactment of these banking provisions will provide substantial relief to cannabis companies who have largely been excluded from opening bank accounts and utilizing the services major banks provide. Additionally, allowing access to banks and their services should further facilitate the rapid growth in the cannabis economy we are witnessing elsewhere, and this movement could further legitimize the industry as part of a broader push for federal legalization.
Second, after a four-year delay, the DEA has finally proposed draft rules to expand the DEA’s limited cannabis research program. For decades, all cannabis research to date has relied on limited supplies of cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi. Now the DEA is finally following through on its promise to further develop, refine and expand its research program by allowing additional suppliers and market participants to play a role in cannabis research. While the rules proposed are not without detractors and critiques—and the rules themselves have not been finalized—this marks an important step forward to a better understanding of the effects of THC on consumers, not only because more research is needed to understand a substance consumed by millions annually, but also because the limited supply of cannabis on which researchers currently rely has been shown to differ substantially in appearance, consistency and chemical composition from cannabis that is commercially available in states across the country. With an expanded research regime comes the hope that scientists will be able to develop new and innovative cannabis-derived medications, while also furthering our understanding of how THC affects health and the body.
At every level of government, the year in cannabis so far has proven to be far more eventful than many predicted. And the COVID-19 crisis has not slowed progress. There appears to be continued momentum to further mature how cannabis is treated at every level of government, which signals that significant changes are on the horizon. Industry observers will be closely focused on how the rest of the year proceeds, especially with a presidential election on the horizon.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised to clarify that New Jersey has not yet decriminalized marijuana. A decriminalization bill passed the New Jersey General Assembly, but the New Jersey Senate has not acted as of this writing.
Under current federal law, financial institutions are extremely limited in the services and resources that they can offer to cannabis companies. Without access to traditional financing, cannabis companies have been forced to turn to outside investments to finance their operations. The private equity approach can be a “dank” opportunity for cannabis companies; however, these companies should be cognizant of the securities laws implications that are present with this type of business structure. The focus of most cannabis companies when forming their business is compliance with the regulatory scheme of their jurisdiction as it relates to the operation of a cannabis business. While compliance with these laws is important, it is also important that these companies ensure that they are compliant with the Securities Act of 1933 (the Securities Act) before accepting investments from outside sources.
Securities Act Application
Oftentimes, smaller companies don’t realize that they are subject to the Securities Act. However, the definition of a “security” under the Securities Act is very broad1 and under S.E.C. v. W.J. Howey Co., an investment in a common enterprise, such as a partnership or limited liability company, where the investor expects to earn profits from the efforts of others is considered a “security” and thus, subject to the rigorous requirements of the Securities Act.2 In general, all companies offering securities within the United States are required to register those securities with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) unless a registration exemption is available.3 A company can register its securities (i.e., its ownership interests offered to investors) with the SEC by filing a Registration Statement. These statements generally offer investors certain information about the company in order to enable investors to be able to make an informed decision about their investment. Filing a Registration Statement can be both time-consuming and costly, and most companies want to avoid filing one if they can. Luckily, the Securities Act offers certain exemptions from registration requirements to companies who meet certain standards.4 While there are numerous exemptions from securities registration, the most common exemptions used are the Regulation D5 exemptions, which provides three different exemptions based on the size of the offering and the sophistication of the investors, and the Rule 1476 Intrastate exemption.
Regulation D Exemptions
Rule 504-Limited Offerings
Rule 504, often called the “Limited Offering” exemption, provides an exemption from securities registration for companies who limit the offer and sale of their securities to no more than $5,000,000 in a twelve-month period.7 Unlike the other Regulation D exemptions, which are discussed in further detail below, the Limited Offering exemption does not have any limitations on the level of sophistication or number of investors.8 This means that companies who rely on this exemption do not have to verify the net worth or income of their investors or limit the number of investors in the company. Like all Regulation D exemptions, companies relying on the Limited Offering exemption are required to file a “Form D” with the SEC within 15 days of the first securities sale.9 A Form D is a relatively simple form which provides basic information about a company to the SEC, including the registration exemption that is being relied upon. A copy of Form D can be found here.
The “Private Offering” exemption can be found at Rule 506(b) of Regulation D.10 This exemption is commonly used for larger investment offerings with varying levels of investor sophistication. The Private Offering exemption can be used for investment offerings of any size so long as the company: (1) does not use general solicitation or advertising, such as newspaper articles or seminars, to attract investors; and (2) limits the number of “non-accredited investors” to no more than 35.11 “Accredited investors” are those investors whom the Securities Act deems sophisticated enough to properly weigh the risk of their investment in the company. In order to qualify as an accredited investor, the investor must:
Have an individual income of more than $200,000 in the past two years
Have a joint income with their spouse of more than $300,000 in the past two years
Have an individual net worth, or joint net worth with their spouse, in excess of $1,000,000 or:
Be a director, executive officer or manager of the Company.12
If the investor is a corporation, partnership, limited liability company or other non-trust entity, then to qualify as an accredited investor, it must either have assets in excess of $5,000,000 or each of its equity owners must meet one of the requirements for individuals listed above.13 If the investor is a trust, then the trust must: (1) have total assets in excess of $5,000,000 and the investment decision must be made by a “sophisticated person” (i.e., the person who is making the investment decision has such knowledge and experience in financial and business matters that he or she is capable of evaluating the merits and risks of an investment in the company); (2) have a trustee making the investment decision that is a bank or other financial institution; or (3) be revocable at any time and the grantor(s) of the trust must meet one of the requirements for individuals listed above.14
The Private Offering exemption allows a company to have an unlimited number of accredited investors, but only up to 35 non-accredited investors. However, companies should be very cautious of allowing non-accredited investors to invest in the company. The Securities Act requires that companies make extensive disclosures to non-accredited investors which are essentially the same requirements as the company would have to provide in a registered security offering. These requirements include providing investors with financial statements, operations plan, detailed descriptions of the company’s business, description of all property owned, discussion and analysis of the company’s financial condition and the results of operations, biographies of and descriptions of each officer and director, as well as other descriptions regarding the details of the company.15 Failure to provide the necessary information to non-accredited investors can disqualify companies from the benefits offered by the Private Offering Exemption. Companies should be very cautious when relying on the Private Offering exemption. If a company does choose to utilize the Private Offering exemption, they must file a Form D with the SEC within 15 days of the first securities sale.
Rule 506(c), the “General Solicitation” exemption, is similar to the Private Offering Exemption. Unlike the Private Offering exemption, companies relying on the General Solicitation exemption are permitted to use general solicitation and advertising to advertise their securities to potential investors.16 However, investors relying on the General Solicitation exemption must only sell their securities to accredited investors.17 Under Rule 506(c), the company selling the securities must take steps to verify the accredited-investor status of their investors.18 These steps can include reviewing past tax returns, reviewing bank statements, or obtaining confirmation from the investor’s attorney or accountant that such person is an accredited investor.19 Like the other Regulation D exemptions, companies relying on the General Solicitation exemption should file a Form D with the SEC.Private equity can be a dank opportunity for cannabis companies, but it is critical that these companies ensure that they are in compliance with all applicable securities laws.
Rule 147, known as the “Intrastate” exemption, provides an exemption from securities registration for companies who limit the offer and sale of their securities to investors who are residents of, if they are an individual, or have its principal place of business in, if they are an entity, the state where the company is organized and has its principal place of business.20 The Intrastate exemption permits general solicitation to investors who are in-state residents, and there are no limitations on the size of the offering or the number of investors, whether accredited or unaccredited. In addition, companies relying on this exemption are not required to file a Form D with the SEC. The Intrastate exemption can be very desirable to companies who wish to obtain a small number of key investors within their communities.
In addition to complying with the Securities Act, companies are also required to comply with the securities laws of each state where their securities are sold. Each state has its own securities laws which may place additional requirements on companies in addition to the Securities Act. Most states (including California, Colorado, Oregon, and Oklahoma) require that a copy of the Form D filed with the SEC be filed with the state securities commission if securities are sold within that state. Before offering securities for sale in any state, companies should thoroughly review the applicable state securities laws to ensure that they are in compliance with all state requirements in addition to the requirements under the Securities Act.
Additional Considerations for Cannabis Companies
Despite the fact that the purchase and sale of cannabis is illegal under federal law, cannabis companies are still subject to the Securities Act in the same manner as every other company. However, the SEC has issued a warning to investors to be wary of making investments in cannabis companies due to the high fraud and market manipulation risks.21 The SEC has a history of issuing trading suspensions against cannabis companies who allegedly provided false information to their investors.22 Cannabis companies who wish to rely on any of the registration exemptions under the Securities Act should ensure that they fully disclose all details of the company and the risks involved in investing in it to all of their potential investors. While cannabis companies are permitted to rely on the registration exemptions under the Securities Act, the SEC appears to place additional scrutiny on cannabis companies who offer securities to outside investors. It is possible to fully comply with the onerous requirements of the Securities Act, but cannabis companies should engage legal counsel to assist with their securities offerings. Failure to comply with the Securities Act could result in sanctions and monetary penalties from the SEC, as well as potentially jeopardize a cannabis company’s license to sell cannabis. It is extremely important that companies seek advice from legal counsel who has experience in these types of offerings and the requirements of the Securities Act and applicable state securities laws. Private equity can be a dank opportunity for cannabis companies, but it is critical that these companies ensure that they are in compliance with all applicable securities laws.
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