Tag Archives: debtor

Alternatives to Bankruptcy for Cannabis Companies: Part 1

By Brent Salmons, Yuefan Wang
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The problems facing the cannabis industry arising from its ongoing status as a federally illegal enterprise are numerous and well documented: 280E tax burdens, limited access to banking, exclusion from capital markets, uneven access to federal intellectual property right protections and the inability to access the stream of interstate commerce. The recent woes faced by cannabis companies operating in mature markets reveal another key legal hurdle for cannabis companies, their investors and their creditors: the inability to access federal bankruptcy protection. However, cannabis companies may have access to a number of contractual and state law remedies to deal with insolvency and other financial woes.


Bankruptcy laws in the United States are unique in the world; nowhere else is access to bankruptcy so available or forgiving for ordinary citizens and companies alike, allowing debtors a fresh start by either liquidating their assets or reorganizing their debt. Commentators have observed that such favorable bankruptcy laws encourage entrepreneurship and have been at least partially responsible for American innovation. Indeed, the ability of Congress to enact bankruptcy laws is enshrined in the United States Constitution. Like almost all laws in the U.S. at the time, bankruptcy was originally the domain of the various states; it was not until the late 18th century that Congress saw the importance of a uniform set of protections for debtors and passed the first federal bankruptcy law in 1800; since then, bankruptcy has been exclusively the purview of federal law, with current bankruptcy law governed by the United States Bankruptcy Code.

Yuefan Wang, attorney at Husch Blackwell

This exclusivity, however, poses a problem for state-regulated cannabis businesses: because cannabis is federally illegal, in the eyes of the United States Trustee Program, a division of the United States Department of Justice responsible for overseeing the administration of bankruptcy proceedings, the reorganization of any cannabis business amounts to “supervis[ing] an ongoing criminal enterprise regardless of its status under state law.” Therefore, since there is no such thing as state law bankruptcy, even cannabis companies operating in full compliance with state laws do not have access to any bankruptcy protections.1

All financing transactions, whether debt or equity, occur in the shadow of bankruptcy. The basic distinction between debt and equity is predicated on the favorable treatment of holders of the former compared to holders of the latter (within debt, the favorable treatment of secured debt over unsecured debt), and this is true, especially in bankruptcy. Even beyond distribution priorities, the Bankruptcy Code’s provisions on automatic stays, avoiding powers, and discharge fundamentally shape the relationship between debtors and creditors: a bankruptcy judge has the power to impose the Bankruptcy Code on the relationship between a debtor and its creditors, no matter their previous contractual relationships. Just as the possibility of litigation is a Sword of Damocles hanging over any legal disputes, the prospect of a bankruptcy filing affects any negotiations between a debtor and its creditors ab initio. Therefore, when financial problems arise and a cannabis company must begin the difficult task of approaching its lenders for relief, it does so without an effective incentive for creditors to come to the table available to other companies in otherwise similar situations.

Alternatives to Bankruptcy

Just as disputants often prefer the contractual certainty of a settlement agreement to the capriciousness of a jury, debtors and creditors may choose extra-judicial solutions for insolvency. The downward trend in bankruptcies over the last few decades may partially be the product of such out-of-court arrangements, and debtors and creditors are increasingly comfortable with them as an alternative to voluntary or involuntary bankruptcy filing. While the effectiveness of these solutions is, in industries other than cannabis, ultimately evaluated with bankruptcy in mind, these solutions may also be preferable for a creditor of a cannabis company that is defaulting on its obligations.

Contractual Remedies: Lender Workouts, Exchange Offers and Composition Agreements

Given that the relationship between a debtor and its creditors is essentially contractual, the parties may choose to modify their relationship in any manner to which they can mutually agree. A lender workout is an agreement for a financially distressed company to adjust its debt obligations with a creditor (or often multiple creditors given that a lender’s payment obligations to one creditor necessarily affect its obligations to its other creditors). These contractual adjustments are tailored to the particular situation and can take the form of deferrals of payments of interest or principal, extensions of maturity dates, covenant relief (e.g., adjustment of the lender’s debt-to-asset ratio or other financial covenants which would otherwise trigger an event of default), and/or debt-for-equity swaps. This last option (including its related concepts, such as grants of options or warrants) is especially prevalent in the cannabis industry, given that cannabis companies often do not have traditional bank debt (though, at the same time, such solutions may be increasingly unattractive to creditors given lower valuations and the prevalence of equity as a form of consideration in cannabis mergers and acquisitions transactions).

Brent Salmons, attorney at Husch Blackwell

Similarly, an exchange offer restructures a faltering company’s capital stack. Typically, a company facing a default will offer its equity-holders new debt or equity securities in exchange for its outstanding debt securities, which new securities have more favorable terms, such as covenants, events of defaults and maturity. Exchange offers have the same goal as lender workouts in that they seek to eliminate a class of securities with an impending maturity date, event of default or breach of a covenant.

Composition agreements are contractual arrangements between a debtor and its creditors whereby the creditors agree to accept less favorable claims in order for the debtor to reorganize its operations so that the debtor’s future inflows can meet its reduced outflows, with the alternative being a complete collapse of the debtor (in which case no one, or perhaps only the most senior secure lenders, is repaid). These agreements often provide for oversight by a committee of the creditors and will often involve contractual promises by creditors to forbear from exercising their previously existing rights until a defined triggering event.

Statutory Remedies: UCC Article 9 Sales and ABCs

If the contractual remedies described above are akin to Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, whereby a company in dire (but ultimately salvageable) straits continues to operate while its debt obligations are reorganized, state law statutory remedies are analogous to Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings; the business is a sinking ship and must liquidate its assets to maximize payments to its creditors (in the bankruptcy context, per the rules of absolute priority). Such liquidation is governed by rules under state law which may be available to cannabis companies.

If a creditor has a security interest in the collateral of a debtor, then the most popular option is usually a sale under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). The UCC is a standardized set of laws and regulations for conducting business, including lending. The UCC itself is not law; rather it is a codex that has been adopted by most states and incorporated into their statutes as law, usually with some variations. UCC Article 9 deals with secured transactions and, in particular, provides for the sale and disposition of collateral subject to a security interest upon a default by the debtor. Similar to a §363 sale under the Bankruptcy Code, a sale under UCC Article 9 provides for a “friendly foreclosure” whereby a defaulting debtor and its lenders cooperate to facilitate a sale of the secured collateral.

Article 9 imposes certain parameters on such dispositions, including that foreclosure sales be “commercially reasonable”, which the UCC specifies as meaning that the collateral be sold in a reasonable and customary manner on a recognized market, at then-current market prices. If the sale was approved in a judicial proceeding, by a bona fide creditors’ committee, by a representative of creditors or by an assignee for the benefit of creditors, then this creates a presumption of commercial reasonability under the UCC.

A less common option is an assignment for the benefit of creditors (ABCs). Laws governing such assignments vary by state and are generally rare, with California being a notable exception where both ABCs are more common and where cannabis is legal. An ABC is initiated by the debtor, which then enters into an agreement to assign its assets to a third-party assignee, which holds such assets in trust for the benefit of the creditors and is then responsible for their liquidation, similar in principle to a trustee in bankruptcy.

ABCs, however, are generally not suitable for cannabis companies as the third-party assignee would not be able to take possession of a licensed cannabis business, or certain assets such as cannabis plants, distillates and other products, without itself being licensed by the relevant state regulatory agency. A similar problem occurs under Article 9 sales, whereby the purchaser of the collateral must be licensed in order to possess and operate cannabis product and, more importantly, the all-important state-issued licenses which provide a cannabis company with the authority to operate as such; the pool of potential purchasers is therefore limited to those purchasers already licensed or which are willing to undergo the burdensome process of becoming licensed, hence shrinking the market for such assets and reducing their value. These issues may be resolved in some states by the assignor/seller entering into a management services agreement with the assignee/purchaser, pursuant to which the assignee/purchaser effectively manages the operations of the cannabis business. These agreements, however, need to be carefully drafted so that they are not seen as constituting ownership of the business by the assignee/purchaser (until the actual transfer of the licenses occurs), as defined under applicable state law.

  1. While absolutely true for “plant-touching” companies, recent cases in the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals provide some (fact-dependent) hope for cannabis-adjacent companies such as those housing the employees or intellectual property of a plant-touching operational cannabis company (this structure itself largely a solution to deal with federal illegality).

Cannabis Receiverships: A Viable Alternative to Bankruptcy

By Oren Bitan
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Doing business in California’s legal cannabis industry remains a risky endeavor. The majority of the industry is still unlicensed, tax rates at the state and local levels are high (notwithstanding a recent reprieve from California’s cultivation tax) and there are not enough licenses to meet geographic demand throughout the state. Outside financing remains difficult to secure for equipment, tenant improvements, account receivables and working capital because, under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), cannabis remains a Schedule I narcotic. Therefore, entrepreneurs, investors and lenders who have stakes in state-sanctioned cannabis enterprises expect to see returns that justify the higher level of risk, which places additional financial pressure on cannabis businesses. In addition to the industry specific challenges, the United States economy is on the verge of a recession that may further hamper the industry notwithstanding the industry’s resiliency during the pandemic when it was deemed to be an “essential” industry that benefited from consumer spending of stimulus monies.

These outside pressures increasingly lead to ownership disputes and creditor defaults that result in litigation and the need for restructuring. In some instances, business partners cannot agree about control and finances of the licensed businesses and in other instances unpaid creditors file suit to enforce their interest in a company’s assets. And sometimes a local municipality discovers wrongdoing by an operator and initiates a health and safety lawsuit to cease the illegal condition.

Bankruptcy reorganization is an option typically utilized by struggling businesses to shed or restructure debt. Cannabis businesses, however, cannot take advantage of bankruptcy remedies because bankruptcy is a product of federal law and federal law still prohibits the sale of cannabis.

As a result, stakeholders in legal California cannabis enterprises must consider alternatives to bankruptcy to collect what they can on their loans and investments in the event the enterprise becomes insolvent or requires restructuring. A well-established alternative to bankruptcy is a state court remedy – the appointment of a receiver over the assets of a business or over the entire business operations. Through the receivership process, stakeholders may obtain many of the same protections available to them through bankruptcy

A. Federal Illegality Bars Access to Bankruptcy Protection

Over the past ten years, bankruptcy courts have routinely prohibited licensed cannabis businesses from seeking bankruptcy protection because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Bankruptcy trustees are typically charged with managing and operating property in the same manner that the owner would be bound to do if in possession thereof. Because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, trustees are not able to manage and operate licensed cannabis businesses.

B. Receivership as an Alternative to Bankruptcy

Under California law, a receiver is a neutral agent of the court appointed to preserve, control, manage and ultimately dispose of property that is subject to the litigation before the court.1 The receiver, therefore, holds property for the court, not the parties to the litigation.

Appointment of a receiver is a statutory provisional remedy. Other than corporate dissolutions under Code of Civil Procedure section 565, the law does not have a specific cause of action to appoint a receiver. Thus, the proponent of a receiver must have a valid cause of action in an underlying lawsuit.

1. The Appointment of a Receiver

The appointment of a receiver rests within the trial court’s discretion. Code of Civil Procedure section 564 contains the broadest statutory authority to appoint a receiver. Subdivision (b), details twelve possible situations in which a receiver may be appointed, most of which are beyond the scope of this article. The most common of these is a lender’s request to appoint a receiver when a borrower defaults on a loan and the lender seeks the appointment of a receiver over its collateral. The statute, however, clarifies that the situations listed in the statute are not exclusive: a court may appoint a receiver “[i]n all other cases where necessary to preserve the property or rights of any party.”

The receiver’s powers are limited by the statute under which the court appointed the receiver and those conferred by the court. The appointment order should, therefore, detail the duties the receiver owes to the court, and actions that the court authorizes the receiver to take to perform those tasks. The order should also specify the property that will be part of the receivership estate.

2. The Receiver’s Powers

The receiver has general statutory powers.2 The statutory powers include (i) commencing or defending litigation; (ii) taking and possessing property of the receivership estate, (iii) receiving rent, collecting debts, and making transfers, and (iv) acting in accordance with the court’s instruction with respect to the property.3 But the court’s authorization is necessary to sue the receiver and for the receiver to commence litigation.4 In the foregoing scenarios, the receiver is immunized personally from tort liability, but not in his or her official capacity as receiver.5

In addition to taking possession of property, the receiver may dispose of receivership property with the court’s approval.6 If the receiver is an equity receiver, the receiver may take possession and satisfy creditors from all the debtor’s assets.7

The court may further authorize the receiver to issue “certificates of indebtedness” to raise money to administer the receivership estate.8 This device permits the receiver to provide liquidity to the estate and gives the certificate holder an interest-bearing priority claim against the receivership estate.

3. Liquidating Cannabis Assets Through a Court Appointed Receiver

After the court appoints the receiver, the receiver should have sufficient powers to, among other things: (i) take over the management of the company; (ii) open bank accounts; (iii) borrow money by issuing receivership certificates; (iv) manage all of the company’s property; (v) hire counsel and other professionals; and (vi) sell the receivership estate’s assets for the benefit of the creditors. To maximize repayment to the creditors, the receiver may hold an auction to sell the assets and assist in facilitating the cancellation of company’s state license while the buyer of the assets secures its state license after the local license is transferred.

State cannabis licenses may not be sold or transferred.9 Yet, to maximize recovery for the creditors, the receiver may need to participate in the regulatory process to maintain a license during the pendency of the receivership and to assist in the amendment of a license while a prospective buyer seeks to obtain its own license. To do so, the receiver will first need to qualify as a licensee under state law to join as a licensee on the license and further the licensee as a going concern. Next, the principals of the prospective buyer will themselves need to qualify as licensees under the license. Then, once the sale of the company’s assets (including any interest in the license) to the buyer closes, the receiver and the company’s original owners will terminate their capacities as licensees of the license, leaving only the new owners as licensees. Thus, the proposed order should be written with attention to ensure the receiver has powers to further the foregoing and not diminish the value of the receivership estate.

After the conclusion of the sale of all assets, the receiver will need to obtain a discharge from the court of his or her duties as receiver. The receiver may do so by the parties’ stipulation or by motion. Together with the request for a discharge, the receiver should seek approval to pay: (i) any lenders to the receivership estate; (ii) professionals that the receiver hired; and (iii) him or herself for his or her services. Upon the court’s approval, the receivership will be terminated.

The conflict between federal and California law regarding cannabis continues to be an impediment for stakeholders in California’s cannabis market. Because of this conflict, stakeholders in California’s legal cannabis market lack access to vital traditional institutions, such as bankruptcy remedies. As a result, stakeholders must be prepared to consider alternatives such as a court appointed receiver, which can be a useful alternative to both secured creditors and unsecured creditors. Stakeholders who pursue a court appointed receiver will benefit from a long-established body of law and experienced professionals.


  1. Cal. Rules of Ct., r. 3.1179(a).
  2. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 568-570.
  3. Free Gold Mining Co. v. Spiers, 136 Cal. 484, 486 (1902); Steinberg v. Goldstein, 129 Cal. App. 2d 682, 685 (1954).
  4. Vitug v. Griffin, 214 Cal. App. 3d 488, 493 (1989).
  5. Chiesur v. Superior Court, 76 Cal. App. 2d 198, 201 (1946).
  6. Helvey v. U.S. Bldg. & Loan Ass’n, 81 Cal. App. 2d 647, 650 (1947).
  7. Turner v. Superior Court, 72 Cal. App. 3d 804, 812 (1977).
  8. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 568.
  9. See e.g., Cal. Code Regs. tit. 16, § 5023(c).