Despite the US making cannabis regulations challenging to navigate, the industry is snowballing toward profitability. New Jersey legalized adult use cannabis on April 21 this year. One month earlier, The Garden State began accepting applications for Class 5: Retailers, Dispensing and Delivery.
Regardless of what kind of retailer you operate —medical or adult use — it’s critical to know what you’re up against. The following are the most common risks we’ve watched cannabis retailers face daily in New Jersey, making a customized risk management strategy necessary.
Like other retailers, New Jersey cannabis retailers are vulnerable to theft. Unfortunately, theft can come from various angles, such as in-store, in-transit and insider crime. Besides cannabis retailers typically having a well-stocked inventory, it’s not uncommon for them to have more cash on hand than most other businesses.
Although the SAFE Banking Act could positively impact the cannabis industry, it’s in a notorious stall yet again. Briefly, the SAFE Banking Act would no longer allow financial institutions, such as banks and credit card companies, to refuse to do business with cannabis companies. However, cannabis retailers must operate in a cash-only environment, for now, forcing them to make bank runs multiple times a day. We probably don’t have to explain how enticing a significant inventory and fat bank bags look to criminals.
Since the onset of the global health crisis, the cyber liability landscape has nearly spun into a death spiral. In other words, cybercriminals sat on the edge of their seats during the pandemic, waiting to pounce on anything that looked slightly vulnerable. Remote workers, small businesses, and emerging industries were hard-hit.
It’s no surprise that New Jersey cannabis retailers face many cybersecurity risks through their point of sale (POS) systems. Additionally, retailers often gather and store personal information, such as email addresses, credit card numbers, shipping addresses, etc. Hackers and cybercriminals gravitate to this vital data rapidly.
In addition to the risk of theft, as mentioned above, cannabis retailers must protect their property from losses. Without adequate protection, damage to equipment or buildings could add up to high out-of-pocket costs. Consider the damage a weekend office fire or late-night vandalism would cause. If property damage occurs, retailers must figure out how to sustain business operations while recovering from the loss simultaneously. As a result, New Jersey retailers must protect their property and maintain business continuity.
How to Customize a Risk Management Strategy
Watch or listen to any news reports and there’s a decent chance that you’ll feel some slight sense of doom and gloom. And sure, a lot is going wrong in our world; however, that doesn’t need to impact how you perceive your businesses. Instead of casting a massive net over every possible risk that you can imagine, we recommend trying the following 5-step approach. Here’s the gist:
Identify: Pinpoint high-level risks that are specific to the cannabis industry. Then, let the process trickle down to focus on company-specific exposures.
Analyze: Determine how badly a particular risk could harm your retail company. How much will this hurt should the “what-ifs” play out?
Evaluate: Categorize risks according to how risk tolerant your company is. Will you avoid, transfer, mitigate or accept the risk?
Track: Use your history or the stats from a similar retailer to map out how you’ve handled the risk over time. Older retailers have an advantage over younger retailers, of course, but you can still get a feel for your risk management style.
Treat: Make good on your evaluation promises by avoiding, transferring, mitigating, or accepting the various risks you identified.
Recommended Insurance for New Jersey Retailers
The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission issued detailed requirements for new cannabis businesses. That said, part of the application requirements considered is the plan for companies to obtain liability insurance. Many new retailers opted for a “letter of commitment” as opposed to a certificate of insurance (COI), stating their plans for obtaining the following coverages:
Commercial general liability: Protects cannabis companies against basic business risks.
Product liability: Protects against claims alleging your product or service caused injury or damage.
Property: Reimburses cannabis companies for direct property losses.
Workers’ compensation: Covers employees if they are injured on the job and can no longer work.
In addition to the required insurance coverages, we recommend New Jersey retailers customize their risk management package with these policies:
Crime: Protects your cannabis company against specific money theft crimes.
Cyber: Protects your cannabis company against damages from specific electronic activities.
Directors & officers: Protects corporate directors’ and officers’ personal assets if they are sued.
Employment practices liability: Protects cannabis companies against employment-related lawsuits.
Professional liability: Protects cannabis companies against lawsuits of inferior work or service.
With more states in the US entering the marketplace soon, New Jersey is doing its fair share of the heavy lifting by spearheading the onboarding process. Remember, doing your due diligence at the start pays off in the long run — New Jersey retailers are proving that. Consider teaming with a commercial insurance broker calibrated to the cannabis industry, so you get the most out of your broker, marketplace and the cannabis industry as a whole.
Like this article and want to see more? Subscribe to our free newsletter here The cannabis industry could receive a significant boost if the recently introduced Capital Lending and Investment for Marijuana Businesses (CLIMB) Act passes Congress. The bipartisan bill was introduced by Rep. Troy A. Carter, Sr., a Democrat from Louisiana, and Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican from Pennsylvania. It is intended to boost the cannabis industry by creating greater access to capital, banking insurance and other business services. Unlike the SAFE Banking Act (which specifically addresses banking services for the cannabis industry), the CLIMB Act was introduced “to permit access to community development, small business, minority development and any other public or private financial capital sources for investment in and financing or cannabis-related legitimate businesses.”
Currently, the cannabis industry faces a serious dilemma with regard to accessing not only traditional banking services, but also essential capital and financing sources. The latest member of the cannabis bill alphabet soup attempts to remedy this by addressing two key issues.
First, the CLIMB Act would permit access to key “business assistance” programs from various financial institutions by prohibiting any federal agency from bringing any civil, criminal, regulatory or administrative actions against a business or a person simply because they provide “business assistance” to a cannabis state-legal company. The CLIMB Act defines “business assistance” broadly to include, among other things, management consulting work, accounting, real estate services, insurance or surety products, advertising, IT and other communication services, debt or equity capital services, banking or credit card services and other financial services.
This provision of the CLIMB Act would immediately create more access to traditional insurance, lending and credit. This broad protection would not only apply to private entities providing “business assistance,” but arguably means that the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) could not be penalized by Congress or another government agency for providing loans to state-legal cannabis companies. Moreover, currently the cannabis industry does not have access to use credit cards, as major credit card companies refuse to permit such transactions. The CLIMB Act could pave the way for major credit card providers to begin permitting cannabis transactions. Permitting the use of major credit cards like American Express, Mastercard and Visa could result in an increase in sales for cannabis retailers.
The second, and possibly the most important, aspect of the CLIMB Act is that it would amend the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 to create a “safe harbor” for national securities exchanges like Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to list cannabis companies and would permit the trading of these cannabis businesses stock. Currently, plant-touching cannabis companies with operations in the U.S. can only be listed on a Canadian-based exchange and can also only be traded in the U.S. via the over-the-counter (OTC) markets. Trading securities on the OTC markets does not provide the same level of security as securities traded on a national exchange like Nasdaq or NYSE. Specifically, the CLIMB Act delineates that the federal illegality of cannabis is not a bar to listing or trading of securities for legitimate cannabis-related businesses.
This provision of the CLIMB Act has two immediate effects. First, the CLIMB Act would allow for U.S. cannabis companies currently listed in Canada to list on the Nasdaq or NYSE. Second, this provision would allow more traditional, “blue-chip” industry companies currently listed on Nasdaq or the NYSE who haven’t been able to operate within the cannabis industry as a plant-touching entity, to enter the cannabis industry as an active participant.
In announcing the CLIMB Act, Representative Reschenthaler stated that “American cannabis companies are currently restricted from receiving traditional lending and financing, making it difficult to compete with larger, global competitors. The CLIMB Act will eliminate these barriers to entry, and provide state-legal American cannabis companies, including small, minority, and veteran-owned businesses, with access to the financial tools necessary for success.”
It is important to note that the CLIMB Act, like the SAFE Banking Act, only represents one small, but important step toward cannabis reforms. Neither proposal would legalize, de-schedule or reschedule cannabis. Rather, the CLIMB Act addresses very real-world, operational issues facing the cannabis industry. With that in mind, the CLIMB Act would certainly provide much needed clarity for issues facing all cannabis companies.
Passage of the CLIMB Act is not a forgone conclusion, but rather is quite uncertain. Other pieces of cannabis-related legislation, like the SAFE Banking Act, have passed the House of Representatives multiple times without the U.S. Senate taking any action. Moreover, the CLIMB Act was introduced with only two legislative supporters.
By Tamara L. Kolb, Amy Bean, Caitlin Strelioff No Comments
As the legal cannabis market expands, banks and nonbank financial institutions (NBFIs) across the United States continue to explore how to safely provide banking and other financial services to cannabis-related businesses (CRBs) and other CRB ecosystem players. At the same time, these organizations are taking into account changes they might need to consider relative to their Bank Secrecy Act ( BSA), anti-money laundering (AML) and related compliance programs.
Under the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986 (MLCA) and the BSA as amended, covered banks and NBFIs are prohibited from providing financial services to businesses that are engaged in illicit activities. Because federal law prohibits the distribution and sale of cannabis, financial transactions involving CRBs are therefore deemed to be transactions that involve funds derived from illegal activities.
As of Feb. 3, 2022, 18 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to regulate cannabis for adult use. Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia and four territories have approved comprehensive, publicly available medical and cannabis programs. Eleven states allow for the use of low-THC, high-CBD substances for medical reasons in limited situations or as a legal defense.
The growing divide between federal prohibition and state legalization of the cannabis industry creates a precarious position for federally regulated banks and NBFIs with the main concern involving exposure to legal, operational and regulatory risk. The situation begs the question: How might the federal government and regulators pursue and prosecute players in the legal cannabis industry?
The current economic trajectory predicts that retail sales of legal cannabis products in the U.S. will surpass an estimated $41.5 billion annually by 2025, and many banks and NBFIs are eagerly awaiting the federal green light to do business with CRBs without fear of prosecution or legal ramifications.
From 2018 forward, Congress has made several attempts to pass legislation that would protect CRBs when cultivating, distributing, marketing, and selling cannabis products in their state-legalized form. These efforts to declassify cannabis-related activity as a specified unlawful activity have thus far been unsuccessful.
Passage of the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2021 (SAFE Banking Act) and the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (MORE Act) would enable banks and NBFIs to provide financial services to CRBs. The SAFE Banking Act would provide a safe harbor for banks and NBFIs that provide financial services to CRBs. The MORE Act would deschedule cannabis from the CSA entirely.
Questions to ask
Banks and NBFIs interested in providing financial services to CRBs should ask these questions:
Do we adequately understand our risk, and what are the implications for our organization? How should we augment our risk assessment process and our controls?
To what extent are we willing to accept the risk of banking CRBs? Do we have the ability to identify CRB customers, and if so, do we have any?
How should we advise the board of directors about setting risk appetite?
What customer due diligence (CDD) and enhanced due diligence (EDD) will we need to safely continue with existing customers and onboard new ones?
How will we monitor for unusual and suspicious activity? What will be the alerting and judgmental criteria?
How will our resource needs change so that we stay abreast of new processes and controls?
Risk appetite considerations
In order to determine whether to accept or prohibit CRBs, banks and NBFIs should identify the level of acceptable risk they are willing to take on. Several key components need to be considered, such as:
The board of directors’ stance on legal cannabis, given that good governance recommends and regulators expect that the board sets risk appetite
Cannabis laws in states within the customer footprint and the impact on customers’ communities
Risk profile, customer base, geographic location, products, and services
Relationship with regulators and any recent deficiencies or weaknesses in the BSA and associated compliance programs
Ability to implement appropriate controls and staffing
Developing a strategic road map
If the decision is made to bank CRBs, banks and NBFIs should perform an assessment of compliance maturity for existing BSA/AML program processes and controls to identify potential gaps and develop a strategic road map that helps the organization achieve its vision for future state compliance and sustainable operations.
A well-developed and well-articulated strategic road map visualizes what actions or key outcomes are needed to help organizations achieve their long-term goals. When creating the road map, banks and NBFIs need to demonstrate a keen understanding of their desired strategy, outcomes, markets, and products for onboarding and banking CRB customers. Specifically, banks and NBFIs need to define and explain how desired outcomes and business strategies create risk and exposure.
In addition to a road map, banks and NBFIs should develop and document a detailed risk-based approach that is aligned to the organization’s risk tolerance to determine necessary compliance steps when banking CRB customers.
Specifically, the following activities should be considered when developing a CRB banking program that meets regulatory expectations:
Identifying BSA/AML control gaps related to CRB risk identification and mitigation and formulating a plan to address them
Updating a board-approved policy framework
Updating detailed operating policies and procedures
Planning for capacity, developing job descriptions, and onboarding new personnel
Training for all three lines of defense, senior management, and the board
Developing and documenting a phased or full approach to acceptance of CRB customers
Developing and documenting a CRB program oversight policy
This framework is intended to help banks and NBFIs differentiate types of CRBs and their corresponding risks, and it separates CRBs into three tiers and details risks for each tier. The following exhibit summarizes the approach:
Risk framework by tier
Indirect with substantial revenue from Tier 1
Indirect with incidental revenue from Tier 1
Source: CRB Monitor
Even the most conservative of risk appetites equivalent to outright prohibition is not devoid of significant risk considerations. Residual risk frequently encompasses a large number of indirect connections in the total CRB ecosystem. Common examples are printers, lawyers, accountants, landlords, and even utilities and taxing authorities, and all of these are subject to regulatory scrutiny and, importantly, visibility to law enforcement. Also, policies to prohibit or restrict will be audited and examined for compliance, and exceptions will require explanations.
This panorama necessitates expertise and prudence in identifying and evaluating risks within the many layers of CRBs. For example, consider a bank or NBFI that banks a CRB’s employee or vendor. If a bank fails to properly implement controls that would allow it to identify and mitigate risk associated with banking CRBs, it will be susceptible to severe violations of the BSA, including civil money penalties, criminal penalties, and regulatory enforcement actions.
Implementing necessary precautions
A well-developed road map should consider and implement the following activities:
Understanding the most current state and federal cannabis laws and regulations to ensure the bank or NBFI’s compliance
Understanding the local, state, or tribal program to ensure CRB customers are compliant with the program
Implementing a CRB risk assessment
Implementing executive approval practices for direct CRBs
Developing adequate risk ratings (possibly through a risk-based, tiered approach) and corresponding monitoring for CRB customers that includes:
Integrating various customer onboarding and AML solutions at both onboarding and periodic levels
Scheduling regular reviews to include recurring enhanced due diligence, site visits, and transaction monitoring
Performing adequate CDD and EDD that will validate that the CRB-offered products, services, and programs are compliant with most current state laws and regulations by:
Collecting appropriate documentation as evidence of compliance, perhaps including a comprehensive onboarding questionnaire, beneficial ownership information, and contracts for the growing, harvesting, transporting and processing of the product
Reviewing applications and supporting documentation used to obtain a legal cannabis state license
Understanding the normal and expected activity of the organization’s CRB customers and their product usage
Developing adequate training programs and governance and oversight programs to address this customer type by:
Updating existing policies and procedures to review inherent risk presented by banking CRB customers
Updating annual training for employees
Auditing initial program design and periodic operational effectiveness
Moving forward cautiously
The ins, outs, and unknowns of cannabis banking are complex, and they require banks and NBFIs to be extremely vigilant with current policy and aware of new developments. Overall, the idea of creating a cannabis program might seem like a daunting task, but with appropriate guidance and care, organizations can provide services in compliance with laws and regulations.
Crowe disclaimer: Qualified organizations only. Independence and regulatory restrictions may apply. Some firm services may not be available to all clients. Given the continued evolution and inconsistency of various state and federal cannabis-related laws, any company should seek competent legal advice relating to its involvement in the cannabis industry, including when considering a potential public offering as a cannabis-related company.
Federal regulations have made compliant credit processing in the cannabis industry difficult to achieve. As a result, most cannabis retailers operate a cash-only model, limiting their ability to upsell customers and placing a burden on customers who might rather use credit. While some dispensaries offer debit, credit or cashless ATM transactions, regulators and traditional payment processors have been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.
Two companies, KindTap Technologies and Aeropay, are addressing the cannabis industry’s payment processing challenges with innovative digital solutions geared towards retailers and consumers.
We interviewed both Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, president at KindTap Technologies and Daniel Muller, CEO at Aeropay. Cathy co-founded KindTap in 2019 after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products. Daniel founded AeroPay in 2017 after a career in digital product innovation, most recently at GPShopper (acquired by Financial), where he oversaw the design and development of over 300 web and mobile applications for large scale Fortune 500 companies.
Green: What is the biggest challenge your customers are facing?
Iannuzzelli: Our customers include both cannabis retailers and their end consumers. As long as cannabis is illegal at the federal level, normal payment solutions such as debit and credit cards cannot be accepted for cannabis purchases. This has resulted in heavy cash-based sales and unstable, transient work-around ATM payment solutions that can be ripped out with little notice, disrupting the entire business. The lack of a mature payment network to support retail payments for cannabis purchases is a huge challenge for all stakeholders. Cannabis retailers bear the high cost and safety issues of operating a heavily cash-based retail business. Consumers encounter several friction points that require them to change their behavior when purchasing cannabis relative to how they purchase everything else.
Muller: Our cannabis business customers have faced a constantly changing and, frankly, exhausting financial services environment. From the need to move and manage large amounts of cash, to card workarounds, added to the disappointment from legislation around the SAFE Banking Act, these inconsistencies have acted as a roadblock to their potential growth and profitability. Aeropay is in the position to be a stable, long-term, reliable payments partner ready to help them scale their businesses. We believe these opportunities are limitless.
Green: What geographies have got your attention and why?
Iannuzzelli: KindTap’s focus is on the U.S. market where federal policy has created the need for alternatives to traditional payment networks. KindTap is available in every U.S. state where cannabis is legally sold. In terms of our distribution channels, KindTap’s digital payment solution was brought to market during the COVID-19 pandemic when curbside pick-up and delivery became critically important. These channels are where the exchange of cash at pick-up posed the greatest security risk to employees and customers. Our early integrations were with e-commerce platforms focused on delivery and pick-up orders, and our integration partners have strong customer bases in California and the northeast. So, while KindTap can provide its “Pay Later” lines of credit and “Pay Now” bank account solutions anywhere, we have heavier penetration in those regions.
Muller: California, for its established tech culture and how it plays into the cannabis industry – your product simply has to live up to their tech standards to be heard. Also, Chicago, our headquarters, with its newly emerged commitment to financing the cannabis industry and bringing with it a more traditional business approach. In Chicago, you have to have elevated standards of professional practices in any industry you enter. And of course, we love to watch emerging markets like New York and Florida as they head towards adult-use and what shape cannabis and payments will take.
Green: What are the broader industry trends you are following?
Iannuzzelli: We continue to see a strong transition from cash and ATM transactions over to digital payments. Since KindTap has a fully-integrated payment “button” on e-commerce checkout screens, the adoption rate of end consumers to that one-click experience is quite strong. We are also seeing trends of more “express lines” in the retail environment – for those KindTap users who paid online/ahead – and faster/safer delivery experiences to people’s homes since there is no longer the need to collect any payment upon delivery. We are firm believers in the delivery/digital payments combination and a strong increase of that trend as more states allow for delivery.
Muller: The cannabis industry is starting to normalize payments and mirror traditional online and brick-and-mortar. With bank-to-bank (ACH) payments, cannabis businesses can now offer modern customer shopping experiences including pre-payment for delivery orders without the need for a cash exchange at the door, offering the option to buy online pickup in-store and contactless in-store QR scan-to-pay customer experiences. With these familiar and customer-driven options now available, we are seeing widespread adoption, as well as meaningful increases in spend and returning customers.
Green: Thank you both. That concludes the interview!
About KindTap: KindTap Technologies, LLC operates a financial technology platform that offers credit and loyalty-enabled payment solutions for highly-regulated industries typically driven by cash and ATM-based transactions. KindTap offers payment processing and related consumer applications for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers. Founded in 2019, the company is backed by KreditForce LLC plus several strategic investors, with debt capital provided by U.S.-based institutions. Learn more at kindtaptech.com.
About AeroPay: AeroPay is a financial technology company reimagining the way money is moved in exchange for goods and services. Frustrated with the current, antiquated payments landscape, we believe there is a better way to pay and a better way to get paid. AeroPay set out to build a payments platform that works for all- businesses, consumers, and their communities. Learn more at aeropay.com.
Practicing Law Institute Press’s Legal Guide to the Business of Marijuana: Cannabis, Hemp and CBD Regulation is a one-of-a-kind deep dive into the many regulations governing the industry. Aimed at attorneys representing clients in this space, the treatise offers guidance on a range of interrelated topics including state regulation of medical and non-medical cannabis; federal law, enforcement and preemption and their implications for employment, taxes and banking; and the various aspects of establishing and managing a cannabis enterprise, from growth to licensing, transport and distribution. We spoke with co-authors James T. O’Reilly, professor of Public Health Policy at the College of Medicine of the University of Cincinnati and author of leading references on food and drug law, and Edgar J. Asebey, a founding partner of Keller Asebey Life Science Law and a life sciences attorney with over twenty years of experience, about the intersection of the cannabis business and the law.
Q: From the legal industry’s perspective, how has this area of the law evolved over the past few years – and what would you advise clients in cannabis to look for when engaging legal assistance for their businesses?
James T. O’Reilly & Edgar J. Asebey: Over the past few years, we have seen a growing acceptance of the idea that lawfully serving the needs of cannabis consumers is a commendable business initiative. This evolution in thinking – tied to the myriad business opportunities cannabis presents – has given large, mainstream corporate law firms the incentive to grow practices and develop specialists in this area, which is a very positive development.
But it is not enough for lawyers to know their way around M&A and the capital markets; they must also have experience with federal regulatory bodies. As regulations continue to evolve, it is essential for practitioners to be familiar with the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act as well as the Federal Trade Commission Act. The framework for regulating cannabis products already exists, as can be seen in the Warning Letters sent to hemp and CBD companies by both the Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration (as well as, most recently, the FDA and CDC’s warning about delta-8 THC). If a client places their hemp or CBD product into the stream of commerce, that product will be subject to FDA, FTC and relevant state laws. We strongly recommend seeking out advisors who truly understand these regulations and how they align with the regulatory agencies’ procedures and agendas.
Q: What are the most urgent legal and regulatory topics the industry is watching these days?
O’Reilly & Asebey: Our treatise follows and analyzes the most pressing legal issues facing those in the cannabis and hemp space. In our most recent edition, we add discussion of the Final Rule for the establishment of a domestic hemp production program. We think this is a significant development in that it attempted to address some of the industry’s criticism of some provisions found in the Interim Final Rule, particularly around issues of sampling and testing for THC content. The Final Rule clarified issues around THC percentage testing methodologies, but disappointed many in the industry by leaving in place the low 0.3% dry weight threshold for an acceptable hemp THC level. On the other hand, The Final Rule raises the threshold for a negligent violation from 0.5% to 1.0% total THC and limits the number of violations a grower can receive in one year to one, easing potential penalties for violations.
Of course, the regulation of CBD products is on the minds of many in the industry. Key questions remain about whether cannabinoids such as delta-8 THC can be lawfully sold. Since the FDA has provided no clear guidance with regard to the sale and use of CBD and other hemp-derived cannabinoid-containing products, well-meaning businesses find themselves operating in a regulatory gray area. While some states have raced to place delta-8 THC on their controlled substances lists or otherwise regulate it, at the federal level it remains unclear. Our book provides a legal argument showing that current regulations support the lawful production and sale of delta-8 THC. To date, this and other legal arguments have not been tested in the courts and, without FDA guidance, the delta-8 THC sector will remain gray.
Editor’s Note: The Legal Guide to the Business of Marijuana: Cannabis, Hemp and CBD Regulation is now available for purchase here.
About James T. O’Reilly
James T. O’Reilly of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine is former chair of the 8,000-member Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice of the American Bar Association and has been active in numerous ABA, Federal Bar Association, and state and local bar activities. He retired as Associate General Counsel of The Procter & Gamble Company to teach full-time, and served as a consultant to three federal agencies and to the Deputy Secretary General of the European Commission. He has authored fifty-six texts and more than 230 articles, and his work was cited numerous times in appellate opinions, including “The experts have written . . . ” in a March 2000 opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court (Food & Drug Administration v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 120 S. Ct. 1291). He has received numerous honors and awards for his professional and electoral activities and has been listed in Who’s Who in American Law for twenty-five years. He is a graduate of Boston College and the University of Virginia School of Law.
About Edgar J. Asebey
Edgar J. Asebey, a partner at Asebey Life Sciences Law PLLC, is a regulatory and transactional attorney with over two decades of experience in federal regulation of pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, food, dietary supplement and cosmetics companies. Since 2015, he has been working on cannabis-related matters and transactions, and since 2018, he has provided regulatory compliance, business transactional, venture finance and international trade services to hemp/CBD companies. Mr. Asebey practices before the FDA, the USDA, the CBP, the EPA, and the FTC, representing client companies on regulatory compliance, product approval/registration and FDA enforcement defense matters. He founded and served as president of Andes Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a natural products drug discovery company, from 1994 to 2000, and has served as in-house counsel to two life sciences companies. Mr. Asebey is a member of the American Bar Association (Section on Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice: Food and Drug Committee and International Committee), the Food & Drug Law Institute (FDLI), the Dade County Bar Association, and BioFlorida.
Few people will disagree that financial compliance isn’t the most exciting topic within the cannabis industry. But compliance is, and always will be, the engine grease to the legal cannabis market. Cannabis operators have the arduous task of dealing with multiple layers of compliance, both operational (maintaining and adhering to regulations enforced by the state licensing board) and financial. These compliance measures include managing everything from seed-to-sale systems for all plant-related activity to on-site requirements like facility access points and alarms systems to name a few.
With complex compliance requirements for the business, the last thing cannabis operators want to think about is financial compliance. We created Confia on this notion. Just as cannabis regulators impose the tracking of plants through the supply chain via a seed-to-sale system, we have developed a storyboard similarly designed to follow the money, which is the equivalent of a transaction-to-deposit system.
Having experience in regulatory technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the world’s largest banks across multiple countries. This experience has afforded us the luxury of working alongside regulators, chief compliance officers and chief risk officers, understanding how risk is perceived by financial institutions and how it ought to be mitigated. It was this access and knowledge that allowed us to effectively reform, enhance and improve the antiquated BSA programs with a technology-enabled process. Leveraging technology is a necessity, almost a requirement, for the cannabis industry as legalization nears and banking access begins to broaden.
Jamming cannabis requirements into an existing BSA program doesn’t scale well. BSA programs are very manual, descriptive and process oriented. So, we’ve taken our prior experience and success in banking to form Confia, distilling the complexities and simplifying the deliverables surrounding cannabis banking compliance. To best articulate cannabis banking requirements, I break it down into three pillars.
Pillar One: KYC-Enhanced Due Diligence
The first pillar is the client-onboarding bucket or KYC – Know Your Customer. In the complex world of cannabis banking, banks must know and understand their clients to great depths. It’s not enough to simply know that the client exists; you also have to understand whether or not that client could be a potential risk to the bank, and one step further, the financial system. Cannabis is a high-risk industry, so the KYC requirement is escalated to a deeper diligence and review, called Enhanced Due Diligence (EDD).
Banks need to know and understand their customers’ story, and all the key parties (officers, directors, and those with key decision-making powers or access to the bank accounts) within that organization. This includes reviewing personal, business, and legal history – not to mention watchlists and negative news presence. An initial onboarding review must then be followed with daily screening and monitoring of all watchlists and adverse media. Typically, banks do KYC refreshes every three years. In cannabis, a full refresh should be done annually with the daily monitoring systems in place.
The high-risk nature of the industry also requires a level of diligence on all parties to a transaction, even if one of the parties, whether a payer or recipient, is not a client of your bank. Unlike traditional banking sectors, reliance on other banks’ KYC programs is far less defensible in the cannabis industry.
Pillar Two: Transactional Monitoring & Detection
Tracking and monitoring the actual financial transactions comprises the second pillar required for cannabis banking. At Confia, we have focused on streamlining processes, so the cannabis operator can seamlessly support the compliance obligation for every transaction. A bank must demonstrate supporting documentation for every cannabis transaction, and gathering such information is a large undertaking in and of itself and can pose future issues if not done properly, see the pitfalls for lack of compliance. Banks are obligated to understand the nature and reason for each transaction, the source of funds, ensure cannabis licenses are in good standing for all parties, and collect evidence such as accounting records and seed-to-sale data.
Core to transaction monitoring in the traditional sense, is the overarching support through anomaly detection. Relying on information is important, but testing those inputs keeps everyone honest. It is important to evaluate transactions from a holistic point of view relative to peers and relative to the general contents of a transaction. This anomaly detection layer is your last line of defense, and as new information is collected, it continues to refine itself.
Pillar Three: Filing and Reporting Requirements
The third component to compliant cannabis banking is regulatory filing and reporting. Once a client is onboarded, the account requires an initial suspicious activity report or SAR-Initial within 30 days of that client being approved by the bank. Then, a report must be filed every 90 days after that for all the transactions of that cannabis operator. Banks must file the SAR-Initial and the Continuing-SAR reports for each cannabis client they have.
Solutions like Confia automate the filing process and support the filing with transactional data evidenced on our distributed ledger of record. This provides immutable audibility and simplifies the process for all parties involved.
Compliance Requirements After US Legalization
The anticipation of federal legalization and banking reform bills has many operators hoping for easier banking. Yet, in my opinion, regulatory oversight and audits will likely increase after such reform or legalization. As other financial institutions start to support cannabis, it will inadvertently create greater opportunity and expose the financial system to nefarious or illegitimate transaction activity. This is why cannabis banking will be carefully monitored by regulators, and more so, why banks will be slow and pragmatic in standing up their internal cannabis banking programs. Some banks may forever avoid the cannabis industry due to the known pitfalls of an industry specific program, while others may simply mitigate the possible exposure to reputational risk.
Choose Wisely: Pitfalls for Lack of Compliance
Financial compliance is the responsibility and duty of the banks, but the real losers and result of non-compliance always fall on the cannabis operators. Regulatory action against an institution may result in the bank shutting down its cannabis program or may require them to complete a remediation of all their cannabis transactions for a certain period from its clients. At the end of the day, regardless of action, the cannabis operator is the one being punished. Operators either lose their bank account and have business massively disrupted, or they are asked to provide all the compliance docs for a historic period, which is a huge undertaking and operational distraction, ultimately impacting business and productivity. So, choose your banking partner wisely.
Summarizing Key Banking Requirements
In summary, banking in the cannabis industry will undoubtedly remain a high-risk industry, with or without legalization. Although banking opportunities may expand as US policies change, there will be continued compliance and regulatory requirements for the foreseeable future.
Onboarding and ongoing screening are critical
Evidence for every transaction is a significant portion of compliance and must not be dismissed
Evaluating activity with broader strokes is essential in mitigating against money laundering
Managing the staggered filing timelines and due dates for each client
Compliance is the most crucial factor in cannabis banking at this point. It cannot be overlooked or taken for granted. Cannabis operators must take an active role in evaluating the compliance programs of their financial providers. To open a bank account is one thing, but the consideration and effort that goes into keeping a bank account is the difference that will protect your business in the long run.
Cannabis is still federally illegal and is included on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), along with such other substances as heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamines.1 It is a federal crime to grow, possess or sell cannabis.
Despite being federally illegal, 36 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized the sale and use of cannabis for medical and/or adult use purposes,2 and both direct and indirect cannabis-related businesses (CRBs) are growing at a rapid rate. Revenue from medical and adult use cannabis sales in the US in 2019 is estimated to have reached $10.6B-$13B and is on track to reach nearly $37B in 2024.3
Because the sale of cannabis is federally illegal, financial institutions face a dilemma when deciding to provide services to CRBs. Should they take a significant legal risk or stay out of the market and miss out on a significant revenue opportunity? So far, the vast majority of financial institutions have been unwilling to take the risk, resulting in a dearth of options for CRB’s. Until recently, cannabis business operators had few options for financial services, but times are changing.
This piece will discuss current trends in banking for cannabis-related businesses. We will cover differences in legality at state and federal levels, complexities in dealing in cash versus digital currencies, Congressional actions impacting banking and CRBs and how banking is changing. The explosion of state legalization of cannabis over the past several years has had a strong ripple effect across the US economy, touching many industries both directly and indirectly. Understanding the implications of doing business with a CRB is both challenging and necessary.
Feds Versus States
Money laundering is the process used to conceal the existence, illegal source or illegal application of funds.4 In 1986 Congress enacted the Money Laundering Control Act (MLCA), which makes it a federal crime to engage in certain financial and monetary transactions with the proceeds of “specified unlawful activity.”5 Therefore, CRB transactions are technically illegal transactions under the MLCA.
Financial institutions therefore face a risk of violating the MLCA if they choose to do business with CRBs, even in states where cannabis operations are permitted. In addition, financial institutions could also face criminal liability under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) for failing to identify or report financial transactions that involve the proceeds of cannabis businesses operating legally under state law.6
In short, because cannabis is illegal at the federal level, processing funds derived from CRBs could be considered aiding and abetting criminal activity or money laundering. States, however, began legalizing cannabis in 1996, and by 2009, thirteen states had laws allowing cannabis possession and use.7 Despite this legislation, federal authorities continued to aggressively enforce federal cannabis laws.8 That changed under the Obama administration when, shortly after being elected, President Obama stated that his administration would not target legal CRB’s who were abiding by state laws. In an attempt to provide clarity in this murky environment, beginning in 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued three memos designed to guide federal prosecutors in this area. However, none of the DOJ memos issued from 2009 through 2013 addressed potential financial crime related to the legal sale or distribution of cannabis in states allowing the use of medicinal or recreational cannabis.
To assist financial institutions in navigating potential financial crime implications of banking CRBs, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) issued guidance in 2014 that clarified how financial institutions could conduct business with CRBs and maintain compliance with their Bank Secrecy Act requirements (2014 Guidance).9 According to the 2014 Guidance, financial institutions may choose to interact with CRBs based on factors specific to each institution, including the institution’s business objectives, the evaluated risks associated with offering such services, and its ability to manage those risks effectively.
The 2014 Guidance requires those who choose to provide services to CRBs to design and implement a thorough customer due diligence review that includes, in part, analyzing the licensing of the entity, developing an understanding of the business operations of the entity, and ongoing monitoring of the entity.9 In addition, financial institutions are required to file a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) for every transaction they process for a CRB, should they choose to accept the business.
Although the 2014 Guidance does outline a path for financial institutions to engage with CRBs, it does not change federal law and, therefore, does not eliminate the legal risk to financial institutions.10 By its very nature, the 2014 Guidance was a temporary fix, subject to changing views of different administrations, evidenced by the fact that all three of the DOJ guidance documents noted above were rescinded by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions on January 4, 2018.12 The DOJ enforcement posture could change once again in a Biden administration. Biden is on record as favoring decriminalization, and Attorney General candidate Merrick Garland has stated that if confirmed he will deprioritize enforcement of low-level cannabis crimes. Garland also believes using limited government resources to pursue prosecution of cannabis crimes states where cannabis is legal does not make sense.12
Because of the uncertainty and high risk, most banks remain unwilling to serve CRBs. Those that do serve CRBs charge exorbitant fees (fees of $750-$1,000 or more per account per month are not uncommon), pricing many smaller operators out of the financial services market.
Cash is King – Or Is It?
Cannabis operators have discovered the old adage “cash is king” is not necessarily true when it comes to the cannabis space. Bank-less CRBs are forced to utilize cash to pay business expenses, which can be particularly difficult. Utility companies, payroll companies, and taxing authorities are just some of the providers that are difficult, if not impossible, to pay in cash. For example, cannabis operators have been turned away from IRS offices when attempting to pay large federal tax obligations in cash. Likewise, cannabis operators have been unable to utilize payroll processing companies to administer payroll and benefits for their businesses because the processors won’t take cash. CRBs can’t use Amazon or other online retailers because online providers cannot accept cash.
Because dealing in cash is so difficult, CRB operators look for workarounds such as using personal credit/debit cards to purchase business equipment and supplies. This doesn’t eliminate the cash problem, however, because the credit card holder will likely have to accept cash as reimbursement. Such transactions could be considered an attempt to hide the source of the cash, which is, by definition, money laundering.
Some bank-less CRBs try to skirt the system by obtaining bank accounts in the name of management companies or other entities one step removed from the actual business. While operators often choose this route in an effort to streamline business and operate out of the shadows, it again runs afoul of banking laws. Transferring cannabis related financial transactions to another entity is actually the very definition of money laundering – which, as noted above, is defined as the process used to conceal the existence or source of “illegal” funds.
In addition to the difficulties in making payments or purchasing business supplies, operating in a cash-heavy environment poses significant safety risks for cannabis operators. CRBs often have large sums of money onsite and transport large sums of cash when purchasing product or paying bills, making them a target for robbery. In 2017, there was a spate of dispensary robberies across the Phoenix Metro area, including one at Bloom Dispensary that took place during operating hours.13
Managing all that cash increases the cost of doing business as well, in the form of increased labor, insurance, and security costs. Cash must be counted and double counted, which can be time consuming for staff, not to mention the time it takes to deliver physical cash payments to hither and yon. Ironically, lack of banking significantly decreases transparency and clouds the waters of compliance, as operating strictly in cash makes it easier to manipulate reported financial results.
Potential Congressional Solutions
In recent years Congress has undertaken several efforts to pass legislation designed to address the state/federal divide on cannabis, which would likely clear the way for financial institutions to provide services to CRBs, including:
R. 1595 – Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (“SAFE Act”);
1028 & H.R. 2093 – Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act); and
2227 – Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 (MORE Act).
The climate in Washington DC, however, did not allow any of these initiatives to pass both houses of congress. Had any been sent to the White House, President Trump was unlikely to sign them into law.
The cannabis industry has new reason to believe reform is on the horizon with shift in political leadership in the White House and Senate. Newly anointed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently committed to making federal cannabis reform a priority, and President Biden appears committed to decriminalization, reviving the hope of passage of one of these pieces of legislation.
The Changing Banking Landscape
Even though there is little in the way of formal protections for financial institutions, and with the timeline for a legislative fix unknown, an increasing number of banks are working with cannabis operators.
According to FinCen statistics, there were approximately 695 financial institutions actively involved with CRBs as of June 30, 2020. It is important to note that these statistics are based on SAR filings, which banks are required to file when an account or transaction is suspected of being affiliated with a cannabis business. However, some of these SARs may have been generated on genuine suspicious activity rather than on a transaction with a known cannabis customer.
There are arguably more banking institutions offering services to CRBs than ever before. The challenges for CRBs are (1) finding an institution that is willing to offer services; (2) building/maintaining a compliance regime that will be acceptable to that institution; and (3) cost, given the high fees associated with these types of accounts.
How CRBs Get Accepted by Banks
The gap between CRBs’ need for banking and the financial services providers’ sparse and expensive offerings to the sector has created an opportunity for third-party firms to intervene and provide a compliance structure that will satisfy the needs of the financial institutions, making it easier for the CRB to find a bank.
These third-party firms perform extensive BSA-compliant due diligence on applicants to ensure potential customers are following FinCen guidance required to receive banking services. After the completion of due diligence, they connect the CRBs with financial institutions that are willing to do business with CRBs and provide checking/savings accounts, check writing capability, and merchant processor accounts. These firms often provide additional services such as armored car and cash vaulting services. Some of these firms also offer vendor screening, pre-approving vendors before any payments can be made.
One such firm, Safe Harbor Private Banking, started as a project implemented by the CEO of Partners Credit Union in Denver, Colorado, who set out to design a cannabis banking program that would allow Partners to do business with Colorado CRBs.15 The program was successful and has since expanded into other states who have legalized cannabis. Other operators include Dama Financial and NaturePay.
While these services offer hope for many CRBs, the downside is cost. These services perform the operations necessary to find, open, and maintain a compliant bank account; however, the costs of compliance are still high, pricing some small operators out of the market.
Is Digital Currency an Answer?
Digital currency is also making its way into the cannabis world. Digital currency, or cryptocurrency, is a medium of exchange that utilizes a decentralized ledger to record transactions, otherwise known as a blockchain. One of the largest benefits of blockchain is that it is a secure, incorruptible digital ledger used for, among other things, financial transactions.16 Blockchain technology offers CRBs a transparent and immutable audit trail for business and financial transactions. Several cannabis-specific cryptocurrencies have sprung up in the past several years, including PotCoin, CannabisCoin, and DopeCoin, to name a few.
In July 2019, Arizona approved cryptocurrency startup ALTA to offer services to the state’s medical cannabis operators.17 ALTA describes itself as a “digital payment club where cash-intensive businesses pay each other using digital tokens instead of cash.”18 ALTA members purchase digital tokens that are used to pay other members using a proprietary blockchain based system. The tokens are redeemable for US dollars at a stable rate of 1:1, and CRBs do not need a bank account to participate in the ALTA program.
ALTA proposes to pick up members’ cash and exchanges it for tokens, which are then used to pay other members for goods and services. Tokens may be redeemed for cash at any time.18 The company has been approved by the Arizona State Attorney General, and one of the first members they hope to enlist is the Arizona Department of Revenue (ADOR). Enlisting ADOR into the program would allow dispensary members to pay state taxes digitally rather than hauling large amounts of cash to ADOR offices.
Similarly, Nevada recently contracted with Multichain Ventures to supply a digital currency solution to the Nevada cannabis industry. Nevada Assembly Bill 466 requires the state create a pilot program to design a “closed loop” system like Venmo in an effort to reduce cash transactions in the cannabis sector. Like ALTA, Nevada’s proposed system will convert cash to tokens which can then be transacted between system participants.19
While both proposals are promising for Arizona and Nevada CRBs, the timeline as to when, or if, these offerings will come online is unknown. Action on cannabis reform at the federal level may render these options moot.
Looking to the Future
Although states are legalizing cannabis in one form or another in growing numbers, the fact that cannabis is still federally illegal poses a significant barrier to accessing the financial services market for CRBs. While most banks are still reluctant to offer services to this rapidly growing industry, there are more banks than ever before willing to participate in the cannabis industry. Recent changes in leadership in Washington DC offer a positive outlook for cannabis reform at the federal level.
As the “green rush” continues to envelop the country, financial services options available to CRBs are slowly growing. Many new options are now available to help CRBs find a bank, develop compliance programs, and manage the cash related problems encountered by most CRBs. However, these solutions may be out of reach for the budget-conscious small operator. Also, there are a number of cryptocurrency solutions designed specifically for CRBs; however, when, or if, these solutions will gain significant traction is still unknown.
Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C., Subchapter I, Part B, §812.
“State Marijuana Laws”; National Conference of State Legislatures, February 19, 2021.
“Exclusive: US Retail Marijuana Sales On Pace to Rise 40% in 2020, near $37B by 2024”. Marijuana Business Daily, June 30, 2020.
Kaufman, Irving. “The Cash Connection: Organized Crime, Financial Institutions, and Money Laundering”. Interim Report to the President, October 1984.
S. Code § 1956 – Laundering of Monetary Instruments.
Rowe, Robert. “Compliance and the Cannabis Conundrum.” ABA Banking Journal, September 11, 2016.
“History of Marijuana as a Medicine – 2900 BC to Present”. ProCon.org, December 4, 2020.
Truble, Sarah and Kasai, Nathan. “The Past – and Future – of Federal Marijuana Enforcement”. org, May 12, 2017.
The cannabis industry in the United States represents about a $50 billion asset class making it one of the largest new asset classes in the country. Commercial real estate lending is a key enabler for companies seeking to expand and scale. Pelorus Equity Group is one of the largest commercial lenders in cannabis with over $170 million deployed since its first cannabis transaction in 2016.
Since 1991, Pelorus principals have participated in more than $1 billion of real estate investment transactions using both debt and equity solutions. Pelorus offers a range of transactional solutions addressing the diverse needs of cannabis related business operators. While most cannabis private equity lenders focus on real estate acquisition and refinancing, Pelorus has leveraged its experience in more than 5,000 transactions of varying size and complexity to offer value-add loans, a rarity in the industry.
We spoke with Rob Sechrist, president of Pelorus Equity Group and manager of the Pelorus Fund. Rob joined Pelorus in 2010 after several years in the California real estate market. In 2018, Pelorus launched the Pelorus Fund where Rob is currently the manager. The Fund converted to an REIT in 2020.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Rob Sechrist: Pelorus is a value-add bridge lender. We’ve been lending for a long time, originally in the non-cannabis space. We’ve done 5000 transactions for over a billion dollars – more than a lot of banks.
In 2014, our local congressman Dana Rohrabacher passed the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment that defunded the Department of Justice from prosecuting any cannabis related business in a medically licensed state. We were a supporter of that legislation and once that passed, we took a serious look at utilizing our expertise in being a value-add lender and applying it to the largest asset class of real estate that is newly coming about today. That cannabis related asset class is about $50 billion.
We decided that we had the expertise to move into this space and to build these facilities out for our borrowers so that the cannabis use tenants would have a fully stabilized facility and make it operate. After the amendment passed in 2014, by 2016 we had originated our first transaction. Since that time, we’ve originated 51 transactions in the cannabis space for over $177 million so far. It wasn’t that big of a pivot when you’re just providing the value-add loan.
“Value-add” in the loan business means that a portion of the loan amount, let’s just say is a million dollars, maybe 250,000 of that, is a pre-approved budget to go back into the property. In cannabis property those are typically tenant improvements and/or equipment to fully stabilize that tenant. So, we’re the first fully dedicated lender in the nation exclusively to cannabis and we’ve done more transactions than anybody else in the nation.
Green: What are some challenges of cannabis lending compared to traditional lending?
Sechrist: The number one challenge in cannabis is that you must disclose to your investors that you’re originating the loans to cannabis use tenants. Many people have concerns that lending indirectly might be federally illegal. If you did not disclose that to your investors when you form that capital stack to fund these transactions, you’re going to run into issues. So, you would need to create a vehicle where you disclose to your investors that you’re intending to lend into cannabis and it’s still federally illegal. Doing one-off stand-alone transactions deal by deal is not sustainable if you’re going to be a large lender.
There are other challenges. Because cannabis is still federally illegal, it gives insurers and other third parties the ability to deny a claim, or certain lender protections. Some examples include errors and omissions insurance, title insurance, property insurance, etc. and all of them say in those policies that if you’re doing something federally illegal, then the policy is null and void. So, you must think your way through very carefully all the things that could potentially be an issue. You also have to disclose to those third parties and find a way to get them to acknowledge it to make sure you have the coverage if you ever have to make a claim. That’s a very difficult process.
Green: How has the investor profile in cannabis lending changed over time?
Sechrist: Our fund was structured to allow for institutional capital from the inception. We were able to do that because we are completely non-plant touching. Our fund only lends to the owners of commercial real estate. We do not lend to any cannabis licensed operator directly whatsoever. Our borrowers – the owners of the properties – would then have a lease agreement with the cannabis use tenant. Even if it’s an owner-operator, those are separate entities. That’s how we’ve distinguished ourselves.
Regarding the investor profile, the first $100 million plus we raised was primarily from retail investors who were individuals writing checks up to a million dollars. Once we had three years of audited track record and our fund was $100 million, we then pivoted over to family offices and institutional investors and pension funds. We’re now working primarily with those types of investors.
The reason that we started with retail investors is that it’s very easy for me to explain our model to a single decision maker and answer their questions. Once I move into family offices or institutional investors, the opportunity goes to a credit committee where I’m relying on some other party to educate the investor about our investment. It’s enormously challenging at that point if it’s not me doing the talking. I know the answers, but I’m having to rely on somebody else to answer questions. We’ve tried to educate everybody we speak with and craft our documentation in such a way that even when it’s not myself answering the questions directly, people can understand how we thread the needle through some of the legal hurdles.
Green: How do you prioritize deal flow, and what are the qualities of a successful loan applicant?
Sechrist: We typically maintain a pipeline of around $150 million in transactions at any one time.
Applicants must have real estate. We’re not doing business loans or operator loans directly to tenants or business operations. So, that’s the starting point. We want a real estate piece of collateral where we feel more than comfortable with the loan-to-value and ratios and the loan to cost and other figures, that we feel that this transaction is going to be a success for our borrower and ultimately the tenant.
Next, we will only work with very experienced operators who have a proven track record where this is not their first transaction. Ideally, we are working someone who is looking to expand their operations and who is ready to either move from being a tenant of their previous facility and buying their next facility.
The next aspect that we’re looking for is the strength of the borrower’s guarantor. They must be able to qualify to support that transaction. Many of our transactions are millions or 10s of millions of dollars. You must have a sponsor that can support that size of a transaction.
Green: What sort of value-adds should a cannabis property owner look for in their lender?
Sechrist: Most people that are looking for loans are only familiar with getting loans for themselves on their owner-occupied house. Most loans have points, they have a rate and a term, loan-to-value and things like that.
“We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments.”When you move into construction loans or value-add lending, there are other elements that are more important than the pricing of the loan. The number one thing is to get that property fully stabilized and built as quickly as possible. Cannabis tenants are generating 10 to 15 times more revenue per month than non-cannabis tenants.
If you go to a bank and borrow money it may be a third of what it costs to borrow from us, but they process draws maybe once a month. So, if you’re having to advance the money for improvements of the property, and then the bank reimburses once a month, at a certain point you’re not going to be able to advance any more money until you get reimbursed. The project comes to a stop. So, in your mind, you might have saved an enormous amount on the pricing of the rate, but it’s costing you dearly in revenue and opportunity costs. We typically process 50 to 100 draws post-closing on transactions, and we get that facility built and the money reimbursed to all the contractors on a multiple-times-a-week basis. It’s happening in real flow all the time.
A typical problem for a tenant is that the tenant improvements are orders of magnitude higher than a non-cannabis tenant – anywhere from $150 to $250 per square foot. In addition, the equipment is often enormously expensive as well. It’s tough to put money into a buildout for a building that you may not own. Our vision at Pelorus was, let’s not force these tenants – the cannabis operators – to raise equity at the worst possible time when they’re not generating revenue through the facility. Let’s shift that capital balance for those tenant improvements and equipment from the from the tenant to the owner of the building, which is where it’s secured and adds value to that building anyway. Our vision was to shift that money from the balance sheet of the tenant over to the owner of the real estate so the tenant didn’t have to sell equity to come up with that money. Then the tenant is paying for the improvements in the lease rate and the borrower is paying for improvements in the note rate. And so we’ve shifted tenant improvements from being an equity component to now it’s just priced in the debt. This way you know what the terms are and you know what your total exposure is there.
We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments. Most of our peers in the space don’t look at it that way. They just do the acquisition or the refinance. They don’t do anything for the tenant improvements. They don’t do anything for the equipment. The tenant is left out there to either raise that equity or the borrower – the owner of the real estate – is having to come up with that additional capital on their own. We think you’re set up for failure in that circumstance. So, we blend all that into one capital stack. It’s important that the tenants can get all the way up to being able to cash flow and support that facility and be fully stabilized so they can refinance into a lower cost bank or credit union transaction.
Green: What federal policies and trends are you monitoring?
Sechrist: First, I think that it’s important to remind people that the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment has protected everybody from any prosecution. So, there’s no jeopardy out there that exists. The second thing I like to tell people is there are 695 banks on FinCEN’s website of cannabis Tier 1 depositors, and of those, we’re tracking numerous FDIC insured state banks and credit unions that are lending directly. We’ve been paid off by banks.
So, there’s this massive misconception that there’s no banking at all and that everything is happening by cash. The only cash buildup that happens is at the retail dispensary level because credit cards aren’t allowed for retail sales at the dispensaries. Out of the 2,000 transactions that we’ve either processed or reviewed, not one has ever not had banking set up. So, it is a big misnomer that there’s no depositor relations for Tier 1 banking, which is plant touching.
Tier 2/3 depositors are ancillary, which is what we are at Pelorus. There are 100 private lenders and dozens and dozens of state and federal credit unions or state banks and credit unions, not federal, that are FDIC insured and lending. Those banks are difficult to get loans from because they only want to do urban environments. They want to do fully stabilized companies and they want to use alternative views and the facility has to have seasoning for cash flow. It’s difficult to qualify for them. So, banking and lending exists out there, and most people are not aware of that.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about? This could be either in cannabis or in your personal life.
Sechrist: My two passions are snowboarding and racetrack driving. I just came back from the Mille Miglia race in Italy, and I do a lot of driving on the racetracks. I’m always looking to learn from those experiences.
In the cannabis sector, social equity programs are happening across the nation and cannabis licenses are being issued to operators. We would like to help participate in some system of educating these applicants that win the awards. Lending to an owner of a property who just won a license but has no experience is going to be problematic. Somebody needs to be thinking that out and making sure that these people that win have enough experience and education to set them up for success. Cannabis is one of the most complicated businesses ever, and they’ve got this license as their ticket, but they need to know how to make sure they’re going to be successful.
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.
When it comes to small business opportunities these days, few phrases give people the old dollar-sign-eyes more than “legal cannabis”.
From states like Michigan where it’s been approved for both medicinal and adult use, to places like South Carolina where legalization has been a popular topic for ballots and voters, cannabis is slowly turning into one of America’s biggest businesses.
You don’t need us to tell you that – Investopedia reports that (as of Nov. 2020) over 340,000 American jobs were devoted to the handling of plants at various stages along the retail cycle, and the industry was estimated at over $13 billion as of 2019.
Not bad for a plant that’s still technically illegal under federal law, huh?
If you’ve read this far, it probably means you’re hoping to be among the lucky ones who can strike it rich with their own cannabis business. A noble undertaking, but are you really prepared to make your mark? In a field as competitive – and occasionally complicated – as cannabis can be, you really need to lead with your best foot forward, and make sure you’re as well prepared for the various challenges of a fairly new industry as possible.
With that in mind, below is a list of the five things you’ll need to double-check and make sure you actually have access to before embarking on your new business venture.
The right shelving & equipment
You see this a lot with smaller businesses as well as, er, ‘independent growers’. A lot of people assume that they can just buy some greenhouse shelves, line the walls of their business with it, and call it a day, right?
This approach leads to problems more often than not. Even above and beyond the inherent concerns of helping your plants grow safely (and productively!), the sort of equipment you use should reflect the sort of business you’re trying to run. A cannabis retail outlet, for example, is going to need different sorts of shelves and tables than a dispensary or growing facility, as the work being done is completely different.
It will take a little research, but it helps that a lot of businesses these days are starting to offer shelving specifically designed for various cannabis operations. Check to see if any of the big warehouse suppliers near you have gotten into the cannabis game yet – Shelving Inc, Metro, and Rack & Shelf are a few of the bigger shelving names with cannabis offerings as of this writing.
Long gone are the days when all you needed to be successful in cannabis was a booth at the shady flea market, a pun name and a big sign that said “Head Shop” to throw off the authorities.
Far too many cannabis businesses launch themselves headlong into a business plan without stopping to think of a good name, or just settling for the first one they think of. With as crowded as the playing field is quickly becoming, it might honestly be worth it to pay someone to help you come up with a decent logo and branding – it’ll go a long way towards helping you stand out against everyone else using a green font. Places online like High Hopes specifically offer these services for cannabis businesses, so you know they’ll be able to figure out what you’re about more quickly.
An understanding of your consumer base
The exact sort of work your cannabis business performs is going to affect what your potential customer base can be – and vice versa.
Early on in the planning stages, make sure to figure out exactly who you’re going to sell your products to, as this will inform nearly every other decision your business makes. Do you want to sell directly to the customer, or to work as a distributor for CBD/cannabis retail outlets? Are you prepared to manage and run your own storefront, or are you just going to rent warehousing space to sell your plants to other retailers? If so, do you know who the businesses are in your area that you could work with? Or, if you are planning on entering the retail space, do you know how many other cannabis businesses could be operating in your desired geographical area? Finding an audience may be the hardest part of opening any business, but it’s important work.
Banking that understands your industry
Maybe the biggest drawback to being involved in an industry as comparatively new as cannabis, is that a lot of the old methods of doing business aren’t quite available to you. Many financial institutions of various sizes are limited in the ways they can help finance cannabis businesses, from not understanding the regulations and needs of your industry, all the way to being unable to assist cannabis businesses with banking in the first place.
It might be advantageous to look into banks, credit unions or financing companies in your area that specifically offer banking services (like business accounts and the like). A few examples include Aery Group from New Mexico, or Seed to Sale in Michigan. (It’s important to note that many of these companies, such as Aery Group, can only service the state they’re located in due to different state-by-state regulations – check ahead to make sure you find a place that can help you!)
Knowledge of the needed licensing and regulatory requirements
Getting a license to open any business is a tricky prospect on a good day, but for an industry as wide-ranging and varied as cannabis, getting licensed can require a lot of homework.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be setting up shop in a state that allows for the sale of cannabis, the licensing process can vary widely from state-to-state. In New Mexico, for example, it can take months to acquire a license simply due to the amount of paperwork, research and submissions required to cement your business. Before going too far down the rabbit hole of opening your business, make sure to take the time you need to completely research and understand the various local and state regulations you’ll need to adhere to for your business to get off the ground.
Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of other hurdles and requirements that come with starting a business – but by remembering these five things, you’ll be off to a much better start than many others.
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