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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.”