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Navigating the Cannabis Industry in the Current Climate

By Serge Chistov
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All major industries took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but in many states, cannabis dispensaries were labeled as essential, which has allowed the industry to continue with some alterations. The impact now will come from what innovations and improvements the industry can leverage going forward.

From changes to protocols and buyer behaviors to supply chain disruptions, there were many new hurdles for the industry in addition to the ones cannabis businesses already faced, such as funding. But the silver lining could be that businesses within the cannabis industry become less of a specialty and more ‘every day’ than ever before.

The effects of the pandemic on the cannabis industry

Overall, the industry has fared well, in part thanks to its distinction as an essential service in states where cannabis is legal. It’s possible states made this decision for the same reason that alcohol businesses were deemed essential in most places: hospitals are not equipped during pandemic times to take care of people who are being forced to detox or those suffering from anxiety because they don’t have access to their legal drug of choice.

In a multitude of ways, cannabis businesses have adapted to bring calm in a storm while at the same time making manufacturing adjustments to meet the CDC guidelines. For example, there is more attention placed on individually pre-packaged products for single use; something that is less sharable as an experience but eminently practical.

Another area that has shifted a little is in the limiting of the exchange and interaction between business owners and staff relative to the customers. It’s all in the aim of mitigating the risk of exposure, but it has changed the dynamic in many cannabis businesses. This is the new normal for the time being and the industry has adapted well.

Ultimately, retail cannabis businesses today are no different than the retail of candy, cigarettes or alcohol. Certainly, segments of the industry have still struggled. Lack of tourism and the curbside/take out circumstances at dispensaries took their toll. But without the opportunity to still conduct business in some capacity, 50-60% of all operators would have gone out of business. Plus, as many people use cannabis to offset medical symptoms, including pain management, there is a legitimate need for cannabis to be available. The pandemic has provided the opportunity for many who might not have tried it before to give it a chance to help them medicinally.

Behaviors have changed, including those of buyers

Driven by consumer interests, many dispensaries have adapted to provide curbside pickup options, delivery of online orders and more. That has meant that the customer also needs to be more knowledgeable about cannabis: the experienced consumer knows what they like and want and can make their choices at a distance. Someone who is new to cannabis use might find navigating the choices and options a little more difficult, without the help of experienced staff. The breadth of material online and the ability of some dispensaries to share content that helps the consumer to make choices, in the absence of walking around the dispensary, have been additional tools at the disposal of businesses.

That said, the cannabis industry today is not a vastly different one: it is adapting to the new rules and new reality. Whether this way of doing business—at a distance—is a temporary or permanent solution will be dependent upon what federal and state regulators dictate in the months ahead, but there is likely to be ongoing demand for being able to order online and keep social distance protocols in place.

An interesting example is the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) in Ontario, Canada. This is a government run shop that has retail as well as a robust online presence, with free delivery during the pandemic. This has facilitated an increase in new customers, which had already jumped, post legalization. People who might have felt uncomfortable going into a dispensary can still learn about cannabis online and order it, from the relative comfort and safety of their sofa.

Supply chain disruptions and the cannabis industry

The industry has long been focused on overseas suppliers. With the arrival of the pandemic and restrictions on obtaining products from other countries, supply chains have been disrupted for many cannabis businesses. That has forced many to shift their supply chains to more local manufacturers, in North and South America.

In the long run, this should have a positive impact for the industry, so that despite the short-term disruption to the supply chain, which is having an impact on the industry as a whole, there could be an upside for local producers, growers and manufacturers. It will take time to know how this will all play out.

Funding and other issues for the cannabis industry

For a new cannabis startup in these times, the key will be what it has always been for any business, just to a greater degree: due diligence. Companies that want to open a cannabis business, whether during the pandemic or not, need to evaluate the opportunity as one would any investment. It’s all about the numbers: data for the industry as a whole and specifically from competition. These days, that data is widely available and more and more consultants and investors have expertise in this industry. “Overall, there is more interest in the industry than ever before”

It’s vital to be extremely well versed, particularly for businesses that are relatively new in the industry, because the single biggest issue for many has and will continue to be funding and investment. The cannabis industry is no different than any other business, except for the fact that it is a specialty business. With that comes the need to look for funding among investors who have some knowledge or appreciation for the industry.

Some of the key concerns traditional investors will have include:

  • Regulatory differences from state to state: since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, there can be an array of hurdles at state and local level that make cannabis businesses trickier to work with.
  • There are religious based/morality issues for some lenders in dealing with the industry. These aren’t dissimilar from issues with other industries such as adult entertainment and gaming. It’s also fair to point out that, morality aside, these industries have thrived in the last several decades.

So, while traditional banking institutions will often deal with the proceeds from the cannabis industry, including allowing bank accounts for these businesses, there is far less of a chance that they would invest in a cannabis business, for fear of risking their license. They can even go so far as to refuse to include income from a cannabis business in the determination of a loan application.

There are more unique lending or investing groups that either specialize in cannabis or are starting to open their books to specialize in cannabis. Overall, there is more interest in the industry than ever before, as it becomes normalized in American society: more participants and more insiders of the industries that are willing to invest in the right idea.

Will legalization be more likely in the future?

The fact that cannabis businesses and dispensaries have been deemed essential services during the pandemic, where they legally operate, has shed new light on the relevance of these businesses and the advantages of more widespread legalization.“Consumers will help drive the innovations as they demand clean consumption methods”

In fact, the pandemic has normalized a lot of new behaviors, including the acceptable use of cannabis to help with stress and anxiety. People are, perhaps thanks to staying at home more, doing the legwork to understand how cannabis could be useful to them in managing their stress. The medicinal benefits of cannabis have long been researched and understood: consumers are coming into the fray to express their interest in it, which can only fuel the possibility of more widespread legalization.

Add to this the fact that the cannabis industry is a growth industry. There are companies and jobs that aren’t coming back, post-pandemic. There is an opportunity to grow the cannabis industry to the general benefit of many, both as business owners and employees. The revenue generated from taxation following legalization would also benefit many state coffers. Federal level legalization would be the panacea to eliminate the mixed message, state by state regulation that currently exists.

Opportunities for innovation, moving forward

As more and more people become interested in the industry, and as cannabis use is normalized within society through legalization, the opportunities for the industry can only expand.

For an industry that started on the simple concept of smoking cannabis, the advances have already been legion: edibles, nanotechnology-based formulations for effective, clean consumption and many more innovations.

In a world that increasingly sees smoking as a negative, for the obvious impact to lung health, there are so many opportunities to grow the industry to find consumption methods that are safe and still deliver the impact of the inhaled version.

Here again, consumers will help drive the innovations as they demand clean consumption methods. The technology is available to make this possible; it only takes innovation and education to find the best ways to move this industry forward.

As legalization expands—and particularly if it is dealt with at the federal level—the industry will be able to capitalize on existing infrastructure for manufacturing and distribution, allowing new businesses to grow, get funded and thrive in the new normal.

SAFE Banking Act Included in COVID-19 Legislation

By Aaron G. Biros
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UPDATE: Late in the evening on May 15, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES package, voting 208-199 (with 23 abstentions). The bill now now heads to the Senate where its fate is more uncertain. 


Earlier today, Speaker Nancy Pelosi debuted the latest piece of legislation to help Americans impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act) is a large bill containing emergency supplemental appropriations more than 1,800 pages long.

On page 1,066, those in the cannabis industry will find a very exciting addition: the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. For the uninitiated, the SAFE Banking Act would ensure access to financial services for cannabis-related businesses and service providers.

Currently, federally regulated financial institutions face penalties for dealing with cannabis companies due to the Controlled Substances Act. The bill, if passed, would eliminate the possibility of any repercussions for doing business with cannabis companies.

The impact of this bill becoming law would be widespread and immediate for both the cannabis market and banks looking to invest in the cannabis industry. With banks given the green light to conduct business with the cannabis industry, there is no doubt that many financial institutions will rush to the opportunity. Cannabis businesses will benefit greatly, no longer having to deal with massive quantities of cash and gain access to things like loans, bank accounts and credit lines. Furthermore, cannabis companies will benefit from the rush of banks getting in the game, leading to a competitive and affordable banking market.

It is no secret that cannabis businesses have had a cash problem for decades now. Given the coronavirus pandemic, CDC guidelines dictate minimizing the handling of cash and encourage payment options like credit cards. Cannabis businesses dealing with large quantities of cash puts them, their employees, their customers and even regulators at risk.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

According to Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the cash problem is a serious, unnecessary health risk. “On behalf of the legal cannabis industry, we commend the congressional leadership for prioritizing public health and safety by including sensible cannabis banking policy in this legislation,” says Smith. “Our industry employs hundreds of thousands of Americans and has been deemed ‘essential’ in most states. It’s critically important that essential cannabis workers are not exposed to unnecessary health risks due to outdated federal banking regulations.”

In fact, it was the NCIA and a handful of other industry organizations that lobbied Congress last week to include language from the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES Act, citing the known fact that cash can harbor coronavirus and other pathogens, along with the “personal proximity required by cash transactions as reasons for urgency in addition to the other safety and transparency concerns addressed by the legislation.”

The SAFE Banking Act was already approved by the House of Representatives. In September of 2019, the bill made a lot of progress through Congress, but stalled once it made it to the Senate Banking Committee.

The HEROES Act will be debated by the House of Representatives prior to a floor vote. If it passes the House, it moves to the Senate, which is about as far as it made it the last go around. However, because the banking reform is included in coronavirus relief legislation, there is a newborn sense of hope that the bill could be signed into law.

CARES Act – Stimulus Package Won’t Aid the Cannabis Industry

By Steve Levine, Megan Herr
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On Wednesday, March 25, the United States Senate approved an estimated $2-trillion stimulus package in response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. The legislation, formally known as the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (or the CARES Act), was approved by the Senate 96-0 following days of negotiations. One of the most highly anticipated provisions of the CARES Act, the “recovery rebates” for individuals, will provide a one-time cash payment up to $1,200 per qualifying individual ($2,400 in the case of eligible individuals filing a joint return) plus an additional $500 for qualifying children (§6428.2020(a)). The CARES Act, which remains subject to House approval, also prescribes an additional $500 billon in corporate aid, $100 billion to health-care providers, $150 billion to state and local governments and $349 billion in small business loans in an effort to provide continued employment and stabilize the economy. The legislation further provides billions of dollars in debt relief on existing loans.

CARES Act – Paycheck Protection Program 

Under the CARES Act, small businesses who participate in the “Paycheck Protection Program” can receive loans to cover payroll expenses, group health care benefits, employee salaries, interest on mortgage obligations, rent, and utilities (§1102(F)(i)). To qualify for these small business loans, businesses must employ 500 employees or less, including all full-time and part-time employees (§1102(D)). Eligible recipients must also submit the following as part of their loan application: (i) documentation verifying the number of full-time equivalent employees on payroll and applicable pay rates; (ii) documentation verifying payments on covered mortgage obligations, payments on covered lease obligations, and covered utility payments; and (iii) a certification that the documentation presented is true and the amounts requested will be used to retain employees and make necessary payments (§1106(e)). The CARES Act delegates authority to depository institutions, insured credit unions, institutions of the Farm Credit System and other lenders to provide loans under this program (§1109(b)). The Treasury Department will be tasked with establishing all interest rates, loan maturity dates, and all other necessary terms and conditions. Prior to issuing these loans, lenders will consider whether the business (i) was in operation as of February 15, 2020, (ii) had employees for whom the business paid salaries and payroll, or (iii) aid independent contractors as reported on a Form 1099-MISC (§1102(F)(ii)(II)).

What Does This Mean for Cannabis Businesses?

Due to the continued Schedule I status of cannabis (excluding hemp) under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), cannabis businesses are not eligible to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program intended to keep “small businesses” afloat during the current economic crisis. Because federal law still prohibits banks from supporting marijuana businesses, financial institutions remain hesitant to service the industry, as anti-money laundering concerns and Bank Secrecy Act requirements (31 U.S.C. 5311 et seq.) are ever-present. As a result, even if cannabis businesses technically qualify to receive federal assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program, they will face an uphill battle in actually obtaining such loans.

Cannabis Businesses Are Also Precluded from “Disaster” Assistance

Moreover, the conflict between state and federal law continues to prevent cannabis business from receiving assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act (H.R. 6201). In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the SBA revised its “Disaster Loan” process to provide low-interest “Disaster Loans” to eligible small businesses. To qualify for these loans, a state must submit documented business losses for at least five businesses per county. The problem, however, is that the SBA still refuses to assist state-legal cannabis businesses in equal need of small business loans. Specifically, in a 2018 Policy Notice, the SBA reaffirmed that cannabis businesses – and even some non “plant-touching” firms who service the cannabis industry – cannot receive aid in the form of federally backed loans, as “financial transactions involving a marijuana-related business would generally involve funds derived from illegal activity.” The 2018 Policy Notice clarified that the following business are ineligible to receive SBA loans:

(a) “Direct Marijuana Business” — a business that grows, produces, processes, distributes, or sells marijuana or marijuana products, edibles, or derivatives, regardless of the amount of such activity. This applies to personal use and medical use even if the business is legal under local or state law where the applicant business is or will be located.

 (b) “Indirect Marijuana Business” — a business that derived any of its gross revenue for the previous year (or, if a start-up, projects to derive any of its gross revenue for the next year) from sales to Direct Marijuana Businesses of products or services that could reasonably be determined to support the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Examples include businesses that provide testing services, or sell grow lights or hydroponic equipment, to one or more Direct Marijuana Businesses. In addition, businesses that sell smoking devices, pipes, bongs, inhalants, or other products that may be used in connection with marijuana are ineligible if the products are primarily intended or designed for such use or if the business markets the products for such use.

More recently, the SBA provided further clarification that cannabis businesses are not entitled to receive a cut of the federal dollars being appropriated for disaster relief because of the CSA’s continued prohibition of the sale and distribution of cannabis. Last week, the SBA reiterated that:

“With the exception of businesses that produce or sell hemp and hemp-derived products [federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill], marijuana related businesses are not eligible for SBA-funded services.” (@SBAPacificNW)

Consequently, because of the continued Schedule I status of cannabis under federal law, cannabis businesses will not be entitled to receive Disaster Loans from the SBA, regardless of whether they qualify as a struggling small business.

Resolving the Issue

While the federal government has been considering legislation, such as SAFE Banking and the STATES Act, to create a more rational federal cannabis policy, neither of these bills are likely to pass any time soon given the current COVID-19 pandemic.

At the end of the day, until Congress passes some form of federal cannabis legalization, these small businesses will remain plagued by the inability to receive financial assistance, as evinced by the Paycheck Protection Program.

Banking Rights in the Hemp Industry

By Jonathan Miller
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The hemp industry has experienced and continues to see a surge of growth and awareness nationwide. Following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, permanently legalizing the crop and removing hemp from its classification as a controlled substance, consumer demand for hemp and hemp products like CBD have skyrocketed.

Unfortunately, there remain many challenges. Confusion about hemp’s legal status – and the differences between hemp and its intoxicating cousin, marijuana – has too often stymied commerce in the industry, particularly with traditional banking products and merchant services being limited in their availability to those trying to grow their businesses.

This month, we witnessed a breakthrough development. Upon the bipartisan urging of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Ron Wyden, four federal banking regulatory agencies – Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network – joined by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors – issued joint guidance confirming the legal status of hemp and the requirements for banks providing financial services to businesses.

Just some of the many CBD products on the market today.

The new guidance achieves many necessary benchmarks integrating hemp and banking, such as no longer requiring banks to file suspicious activity reports for customers solely because they are engaged in the growth or cultivation of hemp in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. Further, the guidance clarifies the difference between hemp businesses and marijuana businesses – adding yet another point of relief to banks concerned with national and state legality.

The hope is that the joint guidance should alleviate any fear of audits or regulatory crackdowns that have slowed financial institution integration with the hemp industry. However, this does not require banks or financial entities to participate in business with hemp companies. Nor does this guidance directly address the legality of hemp-derived CBD commerce.

With all of this in mind, there is still work to be done. Priority #1 is passage of the SAFE Banking Act. This bipartisan legislation, initially focused on providing a green light to marijuana banking in states where pot is legal, was amended to ensure a separate safe harbor for hemp, with far fewer hoops since it is not a controlled substance. It also directs federal financial agencies to provide clear guidance to both banks and other financial institutions – such as credit card companies – that hemp and CBD commerce are legal. The bill was passed overwhelmingly by the House in September and we are hopeful to see full Senate consideration soon.

Banking is one of the key targets that the hemp industry is aiming to secure, as this will allow for an increase in legal hemp business growth and practices. The goal of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable is to provide consumers with safe and legal hemp products along with the knowledge that the companies are meeting the highest standards and complying with national and state law.

CannTrust Meltdown Indicative Of Summer Of Scandal To Come

By Marguerite Arnold
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While you may not have heard of CannTrust Holdings so far, that is now about to change. A summer spectacle of double dealing and corporate greed has put this Canadian cannabis company on the global map.

Unfortunately, the current meltdown underway is indicative of more to come.

A Summary Of The Story So Far

CannTrust, a company which serves 72,000 Canadian patients and got into the game early, decided to do what it saw other companies doing all around them. That covers a lot of ground (good and bad at this point). Regardless, the most relevant recent twist to the saga came when the company hired a new CEO, Peter Aceto last October.

Aceto however, along with the now also fired co-founder and chair of the board Eric Paul, decided to continue growing and harvesting unlicensed product. Worse, this occurred while boasting in public of their productivity gains on the way to securing a hefty investment of capital this spring. $170 million. The grow rooms finally got their certification in April.

What is even more embarrassing however, is that this was a round led by the much-vaunted investors the industry has been courting assiduously for the past several years. Specifically, in this case? Institutional banks like Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Credit Suisse Securities and RBC Capital Markets.

But that is “just” the North American hemisphere. The rather unfortunately named CannTrust (certainly at this point) also had a European footprint – notably Denmark. Unlicensed cannabis ended up there too, of course. Stenocare A/S, the company at the receiving end of the same, reported receipt of product from the unlicensed rooms on July 4.

As far as such things go, however, you have to give it to CannTrust company executives. In terms of setting standards if not benchmarks and “records”, they certainly seemed to have set a few, although probably not the ones they aspired to. If not, with certainty, their investors.

A Surprise Or Inevitability?

That said, for many who have been sounding warnings for at least a year, the 2019 Summer of Canadian Cannascandal is certainly starting to confirm what many have been saying for quite some time. This is not the first time a securities exchange, for one, has sounded the alarm. Deutsche Börse delisted the entire North American public cannabis industry last summer briefly. Then they revised their policy, reluctantly, after Luxembourg changed its stance on medical use. That said, they are still watching with a standing policy of bouncing any company that runs afoul of their rules.

The problems, issues and more bubbling at the center of this cannameltdown, in other words, are not limited to just one company or country.

And everyone knows it.

Accounting For Past Mistakes

For those who are counting, the value of all of that illegally grown CannTrust product is not insignificant. Estimates are floating in the CA$50-70 million range. The problem is, of course, nobody is sure what numbers to rely on. CannTrust employees knowingly provided inaccurate information to the new CEO if not regulatory body until a whistle-blower provided a few more details.

That said, for all of the hullabaloo, one thing this story also does is point a bright spotlight on the lax enforcement of even this pretty easy-to-understand regulation.

The question, however is, if CannTrust thought it could get away with this kind of blatent flouting of the rules, if not lax oversight, are there any other companies who might have also done similiar things?

After all, even the pesticide scandal of 2016 did not occur at just one company either.

Where Are The Proceedings?

This is a rolling story, which began to break at the beginning of last month when Health Canada issued a non-compliance order to CannTrust and impounded 5,200 kg of dried cannabis that was apparently grown in unlicensed grow rooms on July 3.

There have already been some jaw dropping revelations so far (beyond the executive decision to even go down this road in the first place) no matter how attractive pimping numbers was. Starting with things like fake walls being erected to hide the grow. And then of course pictures that have been all over social media of late, of the now departed CEO Aceto being photographed directly in front of said unlicensed rooms too.

As a result, the drama has continued to unfold in a highly predictable way.

By August 1, CannTrust Holdings, a Canadian cannabis company listed on both the New York and Toronto stock exchanges, was facing a “quasi-criminal investigation” by the Canadian Joint Serious Offenses Team. This is a coalition of law enforcement agencies including the Ontario Securities Commission, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Financial Crimes Unit, and the Ontario Provincial Police Anti-Rackets Branch.

But CannTrust’s issues don’t end there. This is an international story that is just beginning. Government regulators in Europe if not elsewhere are paying attention.So are shareholders, and their lawyers.

When You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know: Debunking Cannabis Insurance Myths

By , T.J. Frost
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For all of today’s growing acceptance and legitimacy with cannabis, the reality is that today’s operators – whether growers/producers or dispensary operators – still face risks in running their businesses. If, in the old days, a customer got deathly ill from cannabis contaminated with something from somewhere during the distribution chain, oh, well. But now that there’s a legal system of checks and balances; there’s recourse when issues arise.

The problem is that the business is so new that most people don’t know what they don’t know about mitigating those risks. And that, unfortunately, extends to many in the insurance business who need to be doing a better job helping put the right protections in place.

One grower bemoaned to me at a cannabis trade show, “I sure wish I could insure my crops.” What? “You can,” I told him. His old-school ag broker didn’t know any better and didn’t do him any favors with his ignorance. But it brought home the point: We have to start treating cannabis like the real business it is.

Reviewing the existing insurance policies of today’s cannabis businesses uncovers some serious gaps in coverage that could be financially crippling if not downright dangerous should a claim be triggered. Retail dispensaries, for example, are high-cash businesses, making banking and trusted employees a must-have.Today’s cannabis businesses need to understand there will be risks but they are a lot more manageable than in the old days. 

And a close eye must be cast to lease agreements for hidden exposures, too. We know a Washington state grower that had no property insurance on its large, leased indoor growing facility. The company’s lease made its owners, not their landlord, responsible for any required building improvements. It was one of a variety of serious exposures that had to be fixed.

Today’s cannabis businesses need to understand there will be risks but they are a lot more manageable than in the old days. Rather than find themselves under-insured, they can start by learning what they probably have wrong about insurance. Dispelling three of the most common myths is a good place to start.

Myth #1: Nobody will insure a cannabis business.

Not remotely true. You can and should get coverage. Think property and casualty, product liability, EPLI and directors and officers, employee benefits and workers comp. Additionally, you should be educated on what crop coverage does and doesn’t cover. Depending on your business’ role in production and distribution, you might also consider cargo, stock throughput, auto, as noted, crime and cyber coverage. It pays to protect yourself.

Myth #2: If my business isn’t doing edibles, I don’t have to worry about product liability insurance.

The reality is that product liability may be the biggest risk the cannabis industry faces, at every level on the supply chain. There’s a liability “trickle down” effect that starts with production and distribution and sales and goes down to labeling and even how the product is branded. Especially when a product is an edible, inhalable or ingestible with many people behind it, the contractual risk transfer of product liability is an important consideration. That means the liability is pushed to all those who play any role in the supply chain, whether as a producer or a retailer or an extractor. And all your vendors must show their certificates of insurance and adequate coverage amounts. Don’t make the mistake of being so excited about this new product that you don’t check out the vendors you partner with for this protection.

Myth #3: Any loss at my operation will be covered by my landlord’s policy.

As the example I cited early illustrated, that’s unlikely. Moreover, your loss might even cause your landlord’s insurance to be nullified for having rented to a cannabis business. It’s another reason to examine your lease agreement very carefully. You want to comply with your landlord’s requirements. But you also need to be aware of any potential liabilities that may or may not be covered. Incidentally, even if your landlord’s policy offers you some protection, your interests are going to be best served through a separate, stand-alone policy for overall coverage.

These are interesting times for the burgeoning legal cannabis business. Getting smart – fast – about the risks and how to manage them will be important as the industry grows into its potential.

NCIA Federal Policy Update: Q&A with Aaron Smith

By Aaron G. Biros
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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.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

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.

What’s Happening on Capitol Hill? Part 4: Banking & Tax Reform

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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To round out our federal reform review, we look at the bills introduced into the 115th Congress that attempt to resolve the banking and taxation problems faced by state-legal cannabis businesses. As this is perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of the cannabis industry, any movement by the feds on these issues will be welcomed. As it turns out, there are four proposals currently pending for fixing the broken cannabis financial services system, with each proposal comprising a pair of House-Senate companion bills. We look at each pair in turn.

Group 1

S. 1156 – SAFE Act; or, Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act

HR. 2215 – SAFE Act; or, Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act

Policy: These SAFE Acts would prohibit federal prosecutors and federal regulators from preventing or disciplining in any way a depository institution simply because that depository institution serviced a cannabis-related business.

Impact: The impact of these bills would be widespread for both the cannabis industry and for financial service institutions looking to capitalize on the cannabis industry. For banks, the bills would remove all of the barrier-risks that are now keeping them out of the cannabis business. Currently, the feds have handed down policy guidance to banks stating that as long as they submit what are called “Suspicious Activity Reports, or “SARs” for cannabis-related accounts, and conduct their due diligence to ensure such accounts are complying with state law, then those banks will not be pursued by federal law enforcement. The problem with this guidance is that it is only policy, it is not law, and so it can change on as little as an administrative whim. The protection from cannabis business risk, most banks have determined, is therefore temporary at best and illusory at worst. Passage of the SAFE Act would instantly change all of that and initiate a banking bonanza. Banks will be racing to profit off of what is amounting to a newly minted billion dollar industry. Cannabis businesses will benefit greatly from all of this. Not only will they be able to stop operating strictly in cash and have access to all the traditional financial services that other businesses heavily rely on, but they will also be the beneficiaries of a highly competitive, and therefore affordable and efficient, cannabis banking market.

Procedural Status:

S. 1156

  • Introduced: May 17, 2017 by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

    Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
    Image: Medill DC, Flickr
  • Cosponsors: 3 Republicans, 7 Democrats, 1 Independent
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs

HR. 2215

  • Introduced: April 27, 2017 by Representative Ed Perlmutter (D-CO)
  • Cosponsors: 7 Republicans, 44 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Financial Services

Group 2

S777 – Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017

HR 1810 – Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017

Policy: These bills would carve out an exception to IRC 280E allowing cannabis businesses to deduct ordinary business expenses from their federally taxable revenues.

Impact: If enacted these bills will dramatically ease the tax burden for cannabis businesses. Currently, even when they are in perfect compliance with state law, cannabis businesses are not permitted to deduct ordinary business expenses. This means that net taxable revenues are, and are going to continue to be, substantially higher than net taxable revenues for businesses in any other industry. If enacted, profit margins—and therefore product quality, operational efficiency and innovation—are going to uptick across all states that have legalized.

Procedural Status:

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Image: JD Lasica, Flickr

S. 777

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: 1 Republican, 4 Democrats
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Finance

HR. 1810

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL)
  • Cosponsors: 10 Republicans, 24 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Ways and Means

Group 3

S. 780 – Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act of 2017

HR. 1824  Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act of 2017

Policy: These bills combine to accomplish what each of the foregoing pairs accomplish separately. IRC 280E would no longer apply to state-legal cannabis businesses, and banking would become available for them as well. Additionally, advertising prohibitions in the CSA and the Communications act of 1934 would be removed, with the one exception that advertisements inducing travel from a state where cannabis is not legal to a legal cannabis state would be prohibited. Under Title II of the acts, barriers to federal bankruptcy proceedings would be removed. These bills would also reform the CSA as it relates to criminal liability for individuals, criminal record expungement and medical research for institutions, all of which are noteworthy but neither of which directly impact the legal cannabis industry.

Impact: For the impact of IRC reform, see “Impact” section under S.777/HR.180. For the impact of banking reform, see “Impact” section under S.1156/HR/2215.

By leaving advertising guidelines completely up to the states, we would probably witness the easing of advertising restrictions by the states. Currently, states have tight advertising rules because, after protecting consumers, they do not want their state’s legal cannabis industry to draw attention from the feds in any way. That concern would become moot and we could see more advertising in and across legalized states. This would drive competition across larger markets, in terms of both product and service quality and branding/marketing strategy.

Access to federal bankruptcy proceedings would clarify the landscape for all potential financial scenarios in the lifecycle of cannabis businesses, which in turn will ease uncertainty concerns of potential investors. The bankruptcy provision, combined with the banking provisions will undoubtedly open access to capital for cannabis businesses looking to grow operations and market presence.

Procedural Status:

S. 780

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: None
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Finance

HR. 1824

Representative Earl Blumenaur (D-OR)
Photo: Bridget Baker, 92bridges.com
  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Earl Blumenaur (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: 0 Republicans, 8 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
      • Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law
      • Immigration and Border Security
    • Energy & Commerce
      • Health
    • Ways and Means
    • Financial Services
    • Natural Resources
      • Indian, Insular, and Alaskan Affairs
    • Education and the Workforce
    • Veterans’ Affairs
      • Health
    • Oversight and Government Reform

Group 4

S. 776 – Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act

HR. 1823 – Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act

Policy: Subchapters A and B of these bills would impose two additional federal tax requirements on cannabis businesses. The first would be an excise tax on all producers, beginning at a rate of 10%, and growing each year that a producer is in business to a cap of 25% at five years. The second tax would be an occupational tax of $1,000 per year, to be paid by the principals of any cannabis producer or warehouse proprietor. Significantly, these bills would also authorize the federal government to regulate operations in the industry.

Impact: The tax impact of these bills would be a straightforward additional tax that cannabis businesses would have to pay, on top of state and local taxes. The burden of additional taxes will inevitably impact profit margins, initial decisions on whether or not to enter the market and strategies for expansion and innovation. The impacts of federal authorization and regulatory requirements was discussed in the second article of the series, specifically under the “Impact” section of HR1841

Procedural Status:

S. 776

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: None
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Finance

HR. 1823

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Earl Blumenaur (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: 0 Republicans, 8 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Ways and Means

KIND Financial Launches Canadian Payment Solution

By Aaron G. Biros
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KIND Financial, a technology and compliance software solutions provider in the cannabis industry, is launching a new e-commerce and payment processing platform in Canada. According to the press release, they are partnering with a Canadian bank to launch the KIND Seed to Payment platform, which is essentially an e-commerce gateway integrated with their compliance software, KIND’s RegTech platform.

David Dinenberg, founder and CEO of KIND Financial

David Dinenberg, founder and CEO of KIND Financial, says this is an approach to help alleviate the cannabis industry’s banking woes. “We’ve been very focused on a global vision and taking a strategic approach towards solving the cannabis industry’s largest problem – banking,” says Dinenberg. “Not only have we built a broad portfolio of finance and compliance solutions with a high-level of technical sophistication, but we’ve made a strong commitment to security and compliance, which is evident through our partnership with Microsoft.” A little over a year ago, they entered a partnership with Microsoft to utilize their cloud-based solutions for government traceability software.

According to the press release, the software has regulatory and security features built in, such as age and identity verification, which can help companies comply with security and chain of custody regulations. “Our mission is to ensure business and technological growth for all constituencies within the cannabis industry while ensuring full compliance with evolving regulations, and that’s why we’re thrilled to make these services available to our great neighbors in the north,” says Dinenberg. “We understand compliance will be a critical issue for some time to come, but with our solution, all providers and their partners can focus on the job at hand while keeping in line with regulatory mandates.”

KIND Financial has not done much work in Canada previously, but this could be a sign of a greater push for international expansion. “We’re excited to be working in a new country to boost the Canadian cannabis industry in a safe and regulated manner, and we look forward to expanding into other markets overseas,” says Dinenberg. The press release says the new platform is designed to work with different languages and foreign currencies, including the euro and Australian dollar, which could help Canadian producers enter emerging markets.

In addition to their announcement of the KIND Seed to Payment platform, the company also announced they will be rolling out a mobile payment system called KIND Pay, a digital payment option for consumers that will accept Visa and MasterCard. They anticipate that KIND Pay will launch before the end of this year.

PA Cannabis Banking Committee Announces Formation

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Hoban Law Group announced today the formation of a committee to address banking access issues for the Pennsylvania cannabis market. Steve Schain, Esq., nationally recognized consumer finance litigation, banking law and cannabis law expert practicing with national cannabis law firm Hoban Law Group, is the committee’s spokesman and chair.

Steve Schain, Esq. practicing at Hoban law Group and chairperson of the committee.
Steve Schain, Esq. chair and spokesperson of the committee.

Limited access to banking is an ongoing issue plaguing cannabis businesses due to its federally illegal status. According to Steve Schain, cannabis businesses across the country are forced to pay their vendors, utility bills, payroll, taxes and insurance in cash. “At any time, a dispensary or cultivation operation could have up to $200,000 in cash on site- not having a place to bank opens opportunities for criminal activity,” says Schain. It also presents operational issues for business owners like record keeping or even personal bank accounts getting shut down.

“All of those issues could mean less jobs, less economic activity and less tax revenue for the state,” says Schain. “Fully compliant operations should not have to deal with this.”

Schain formed the committee for a number of reasons, including “Setting the table and starting a dialogue. We want this to be scalable. In the past, the great flaws in banking efforts for cannabis were a lack of cohesion and operating credibility- we hope to approach it from a multi-disciplinary angle and change that,” says Schain.

State Senator Daylin Leach introduced the bill
State Senator Daylin Leach

The committee’s members include three PA politicians: Daylin Leach, State Senator of the 17th District, who introduced the bill that legalized medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, Derek Green, Philadelphia City Councilman and Mary Jo Daley, Representative of the 148th District. Tom Fleming, former assistant director of the Office of Compliance at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, is also a member of the committee.

A number of committee members are actively involved in the legal cannabis industry and cannabis banking initiatives. Sundie Seefried, a member of the committee, is the chief executive officer of Partner Colorado Credit Union, which is

Lindy Snider, advisor at Greenhouse Ventures and KIND Financial
Lindy Snider, advisor at Greenhouse Ventures and KIND Financial

currently handling over half of Colorado’s estimated billion-dollar cannabis banking market, according to Schain. Lindy Snider, founder and chief executive officer of LindiSkin, advisory board member of KIND Financial and Greenhouse Ventures, is also listed as a member of the committee.

“According to the treasury department, only 301 financial institutions have reported banking cannabis cash,” says Schain. “Few federally chartered banks or credit unions will work with cannabis businesses, but two states-Washington and Maine- have banking regulators sensitive to cannabis banking and we have found 36 banks and credit unions providing financial services to cannabis enterprises.”

The goal with forming this committee is to change that and create an environment where banking for cannabis businesses is much easier. “We plan on drafting a white paper with best practices on compliant and profitable banking on behalf of cannabis-related businesses and financial institutions,” says Schain.

Working from a banker’s perspective is the key here, says Schain. They want to create a working, compliant and profitable system for banks to do business with cannabis cash. One of the problems in the meantime is the high-risk nature of dealing with cannabis companies, leading to an inability to get insurance on those accounts. In the eyes of the federal government currently, conducting cannabis-related transactions may be deemed money laundering and highly illegal. “The real issue is with the federal government and I strongly suspect this is not an issue at the top of the Trump White House agenda.”