A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Wyoming have introduced a bill to legalize cannabis in the state’s legislature. First reported by Buckrail.com, HB0209 was assigned on March 2. The bill would legalize possession, home grow and sales for adults, as well as establish a regulatory framework for licensing, tracking and taxation.
In November 2020, voters in Montana and South Dakota passed ballot measures that legalize adult use and sales of cannabis. About a month after Election Day, the University of Wyoming conducted a poll that found roughly 54% of Wyoming residents now support legal adult use cannabis. In 2018, UW found that 85% of Wyoming residents support medical cannabis legalization.
In March of 2019, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signed a bill into law that essentially legalized hemp in the state. That bill was a boon for the state’s agricultural economy, giving many farmers a much-needed boost in their crop diversity.
You can find the current version of HB0209 here. Sponsors of the bill include: Representatives Jared Olsen (R-Laramie), Mark Baker (R-Sweetwater) Eric Barlow (R-Campbell/Converse), Landon Brown (R-Laramie), Marshall Burt (L-Sweetwater), Cathy Connolly (D-Albany), Karlee Provenza (D-Albany), John Romero-Martinez (R-Laramie), Pat Sweeney (R-Natrona), Cyrus Western (R-Sheridan), Mike Yin (R-Teton) and Dan Zwonitzer (R-Laramie) and Senators Cale Case (R-Fremont) and Chris Rothfuss (D-Albany).
According to Buckrail, if the bill becomes law, Wyoming could get roughly $49.15 million in tax and license fee revenue in 2022. That number would mean a sizable windfall for the state that saw an 8.5% decline in tax revenue in 2020. Governor Gordon proposed budget cuts as high as 15% for agencies across the state last year. Most of the revenue generated from cannabis taxes would be earmarked for education.
Multi-state operators (MSOs) are on the rise in the United States, navigating complex regulatory frameworks to drive profitability through economies of scale and scope. C21 Investments is a vertically integrated cannabis company with operations in Nevada and Oregon; traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CXXI) and on the OTCQX (CXXIF). The company recently secured a commitment from Wasatch Global Investors, JW Asset Management (Jason Wild/TerrAscend) and CB1 Capital Management (Todd Harrison) who, in addition to C21’s CEO, provided an equity commitment for repayment of all convertible debt.
We spoke with Bruce Macdonald, Chairman of C21 Investments. Bruce joined C21 in 2018 after reviewing the company as a personal investment and getting to know the senior management team. Prior to C21, Bruce had a long and successful career in finance and capital markets at one of Canada’s largest banks.
Aaron Green: Can you give a brief overview of C21?
Bruce MacDonald: C21 is a cannabis company that has operations in both Nevada, and in Oregon. Oregon is fundamentally a wholesale business, and we recently announced a divestment of some non-core assets in the state. Our cash cow and where we currently see our best opportunity for future growth is our Nevada operations. We run a seed-to-sale business in the state with two dispensaries doing about $35M a year in revenue, with a 40% EBITDA Margin, and servicing 600,000 customers.
Aaron: Can you tell me about a little bit about your background and how you got involved in a cannabis company?
Bruce: I spent 37 years working for RBC in the capital markets business. I started as a floor trader, back when there was such a thing as a floor, and over the years held a number of positions, ultimately working my way up to Chief Operating Officer of the bank’s global capital markets division. Throughout my time, I built a lot of businesses, which was why C21 and this opportunity was so interesting to me.
My involvement in the cannabis sector was a bit of an accident, but it’s turned into a passion. It actually found me. I was an investor in the C21 IPO. I sat down with management to understand the investment and given my experience, they asked if I would consider becoming a member the Board. Since joining the Board, my involvement has been primarily focused on strategy and the financing side of the business. While I certainly didn’t anticipate it, it’s turned into a 24/7 gig and a challenge I am thoroughly enjoying.
Aaron: Can you tell me about the history of C21 becoming a MSO? Did you start in one state?
Bruce: While this history predates my time at the company, my understanding is that as a Canadian company, we had first mover advantage to be able to access public funding and get established in the US cannabis space. As part of that, the team at that time reviewed approximately 100 different properties. Because we were based out of Vancouver, the focus was primarily the Western states like Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. Arizona wasn’t in the game yet. The first transaction C21 did was in Oregon, with a company called Eco Firma. In all, there were four acquisitions in Oregon, and one in Nevada. In fact, it was the investment in Silver State (Nevada) that was by far the most meaningful. As far as our Oregon assets are concerned, we have worked hard to integrate and streamline them into an efficient operation.
So, when I joined the Board, we were just completing the paperwork on the acquisitions, and finalizing our strategy and business plan to go forward.
Aaron: Today there are a number of MSOs. How does this more crowded market impact your value proposition; how do you think about gaining and maintaining strategic advantage?
Bruce: It’s important first to start with strategy. From a strategic perspective, we had the advantage of being the first operator in Nevada with Silver State. Sonny Newman, our CEO, started the business back in 2013. We run a seed-to-sale business so we have a deep knowledge of all aspects of the operation and really know the Nevada market. In fact, 70% on a dollar volume basis of the 700 SKUs that we sell are products that we manufacture. It’s a critical piece of our strategic advantage.
What I would say is our most important strategic advantage is the fact that C21 is a stable, self-sustaining operator. What I mean by that is we’re one of the few businesses that actually makes money. This is what really allows us to be strategic and disciplined in our approach to growth. For example, it’s been more than 18 months since we did our last capital raise and that’s by choice. Every decision we make is through the shareholder lens and focusing on delivering value to customers and shareholders.
Looking at our value proposition, simply put, it comes down to four things – the right products, at the right price, in the right location, with the right environment. Some people might call this motherhood, but there’s a lot of work that goes behind each of them.
Great quality products, that’s table stakes. You have to be a top-notch grower and generate quality products that people demand if you want to build a loyal customer base. Right price – to some it sounds like just putting the right sticker on the package – it’s not. It’s all about making sure you are efficient in your operations because to be profitable, you have to be a low-cost producer to deliver on a lower price promise. Tons of work has gone into our operation around being a “right price” business.
Right location is another important element of our value proposition. We wanted to build a loyal customer base which for us meant focusing more on locals than on tourists. This is why Sonny positioned the dispensaries on commuter paths.
The last key factor is having the right environment to sell our products. In Nevada, the company ended up building fit-for-purpose dispensaries rather than fitting ourselves in a strip mall. We cater to over 600,000 clients a year. Now we’re doing 10,000 curbside pickups a month. With that type of volume, logistically speaking you need ample parking, a well-lit exterior so people feel safe, and of course, great curb appeal. These factors are essential in maintaining a loyal customer base.
Aaron: Tell me more about Silver State Relief and why it has been so successful?
Bruce: I think what you’re really asking for is: what is Sonny’s secret sauce? There are a few ingredients that go into it. As I highlighted, it was a purposeful decision to build a business with a loyal customer base focused primarily on locals. That needs product, price, and convenience. Sonny lives in the Reno area, which is one of the main reasons Silver State is located up North.
Critical to success has been the culture of the organization. Let’s start with the company being nimble and I’ll give you an example. The early days of the pandemic included the complete shutdown of dispensaries. We went from serving over 1500 customers a day in our stores to the next day being told that we could offer delivery only. Within a week, we were able to pivot and had lockboxes, regulatory approvals and a delivery capability. When you look at our Nevada operation, we ended up with just a 10% dip in our revenues for the quarter, even though we had to live through six weeks of delivery-only and then a phase of curbside-only.
Another key element of the culture is our laser focus on cost management. We’ve talked a little about cost management, but it’s absolutely critical, especially in the context of the high cost of capital that we see in this sector. Add to that the punitive tax impact of 280e where federal tax is applied to gross margins which means SG&A and interest are non-deductible expenses for tax purposes. So, to enhance our profitability, we are intent on having the lowest SG&A of the public cannabis companies. We’re also among the lowest in interest expense. That whole drive for efficiency has given us a formula and a mantra that has allowed us to have a stable business with significant cash flow. We get to make strategic decisions — not hasty or desperate ones — and focus on what’s good for the shareholder.
Aaron: How was C21 capitalized?
Bruce: We did a $33M raise on the RTO of a listed shell company. That was how C21 was established, and then signed contracts with the Oregon and Nevada properties.
Aaron: I recently saw a press release about expanding the Nevada cultivation. Can you give me some more details?
Bruce: We announced that we are tripling our capacity within our existing 100,000 square foot warehouse facilities. We’re going to build out another 40,000 square feet, and we currently use 20,000. That’s the tripling. Expanding our cultivation was clearly the next logical step in our growth story. This should yield us an additional 7,500 pounds of high-quality flower. We can do this very cost effectively with about $6M in capex, and we anticipate funding the project internally. We will still leave another 40,000 square feet of expansion capacity as market needs justify.
This announcement was significant, but I don’t think it was fully understood by the market. Just to play with some numbers, 7,500 pounds of flower has a wholesale market value today of about $17M. It will cost us approximately $2M in incremental operating expense to add these additional grow rooms. We already pay the rent, so we just need to pay for the people, power, fertilizer and product testing. When you do the simple math, we see this as a big win for shareholders and extremely accretive on an after-tax basis.
Historically, we always used to grow more than we needed, but with the increase in demand that’s going on in the market, we now run at a flower deficit. In the near term, this build-out will allow is to meet our current retail needs, with the balance that we will sell on the wholesale market. Ultimately, this positions us well on a seed-to-sale basis to support our plans to extend our retail footprint in Nevada.
Aaron: It sounds like the decision was made based on both revenue growth and supply chain consolidation?
Bruce: Yes, and just the pure profitability of it! You can’t get a bigger, better bang for your buck from spending $6M to generate $17M with ongoing operating costs of $2M.
Aaron: The next question here is about the recent note restructuring and, and how the debentures was restructured. How’d that come about and what is the advantage now of having gone through that process?
Bruce: This all fits into our medium-term growth strategy. For C21, the first thing we focused on was getting our house in order to ensure that we were efficient and profitable. We knew we needed to have a scalable machine to grow. The second step, which the debt restructuring relates to, was around fortifying our balance sheet. To support our growth plans, we needed to have a solid foundation.
Our balance sheet had two things that needed fixing. One was that we had an $18M obligation coming due to our CEO. The effect of the restructuring extended this obligation over the next 30 months at favorable terms. Additionally, $6.5M of convertible debentures were reaching maturity in January of 2021. And while the debentures were in the money and theoretically would convert to shares, we didn’t want to take the risk that our stock price could drift a bit and all of a sudden there could be significant cash required for redemptions. We’ve seen a lot of companies suffer significant unwanted dilution when their debentures get out of control. So, we approached Wasatch, Jason Wild’s JWAM and CB1 Capital, three seasoned investors, who provided a backstop whereby they would purchase any shares not taken up by people though the conversion of their debentures, so that we would be able to pay any debenture holders back cash with the money we would receive as the investors took shares. In exchange for providing this backstop, C21 gave them an upside participation in the form of warrants. I think it was absolutely critical to get this in place. And it’s phenomenal to have these three names in our corner. We couldn’t imagine better partners.
Aaron: So, what’s next for C21?
Bruce: I hope you are getting the feeling that here at C21 our objective is to play the long game. That means we make measured decisions with the interest of shareholders top of mind. We’ve worked hard in 2020 to get our house in order, fortify our balance sheet, and generate significant cash flow. I think we’re clocking in at around $12M in trailing annual cash flow, which interestingly, is about the same number that Planet 13 is doing. That’s obviously a fantastic result for a company with $150M of market cap.
“We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics.”When we think about our medium-term growth strategy, we will continue to make our decisions through a cash flow and earnings lens rather than hype and flash. While we will remain opportunistic with respect to strategic alternatives, the core of our expansion is going to focus on where we already have a proven track record: Nevada. We’re big believers that to achieve long term success, you have to own your home market. And what I mean by that is today we’re about 5% of the Nevada market. Owning your home market looks more like a 15% share. That is our focus. I think we’ve shown that our disciplined approach delivers results – results such as having top five metrics in Net Income, Cash Flow and EBITDA Margin, across the range of public companies that we can see.
I think it’s key we’re getting noticed. We talked about the strategic investors, but we’re also one of the 17 plant-touching companies that’s in the MSOS ETF. So, we’re going to follow our clear growth trajectory, focused on the bottom line and delivering for shareholders. If you look under the hood right now, you see a 10% cash flowing company, which is a pretty rare bird in our industry. We’re excited about where we are.
One thing I haven’t touched on in great detail is our plans for expanding our retail footprint. How do you grow in the dispensary space? Aaron, I think what’s key here is looking at the expected return relative to the cost of capital. For example, if you targeted buying a dispensary with $20M in revenues, and are able as we are, to generate 25% in after-tax cash based on those revenues, then once optimized, it would generate $5M in earnings. An asset like this is going to trade at roughly one and a half times revenues. So, you’re going to have to pay $30M. For the people that have been going out and borrowing money at 15%, their annual cost would be $4.5M. We’re not going to give four and a half to the moneylenders, it just doesn’t make sense for shareholders. We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics. It is something we believe will be afforded to companies with stable earnings and profitability such as ours. Of course, no deal’s a deal until it’s on the tape, but we are very hopeful that we have cracked the code ahead of SAFE Banking to get capital costs down. This is just a little bit of an inside look into our thought processes.
Aaron: Okay, awesome. All right. That concludes the interview.
After a slow start following a disappointing 2019, M&A in the cannabis space closed 2020 with a bang, with more than $600 million in deals announced immediately following the November elections. Prospects for the New Year are expected to continue the explosive year-end trend with a backlog of nearly $2 billion in deals heading into 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic boosted sales of cannabis products, and election results opening up five new states to legal cannabis use and possible federal regulatory reform are further boosting prospects. Analysts now predict the U.S. cannabis market is poised to double by 2025.
Growth is expected to be led by multi-state operators who have achieved scale, cleaned up their balance sheets and stockpiled dry powder for roll-up acquisitions. Cannabis companies raised nearly $134 million in the two weeks before Election Day, a 185% increase over the same period last year. Most of the money flowed to multistate operators. In addition, the biggest stocks by market capitalization saw a roughly 20% bump ahead of the election and now are trading at record volumes, providing plenty of stock currency for further acquisitions.
Among the headline acquisitions last year:
Curaleaf continued its multi-state expansion with two of its largest acquisitions – the all-stock purchases of its affiliated cannabis oil company Select and of Grassroot, another MSO player. Curaleaf is now the largest cannabis company in the world based on annualized revenues, with annualized sales of $1 billion and operations in 23 states and 96 open dispensaries. Curaleaf also raised $215 million privately last year end for further expansion.
Close behind, Aphria and Tilray announced in December that they will merge, creating what they say will be the largest cannabis company in the world with an equity value of roughly $3.8 billion. The combined entity will have facilities and offices in the U.S., Canada, Portugal and Germany. The deal is expected to close during the second quarter of this year.
Also in December, Illinois-based Verano Holdings LLC unveiled plans to go public at a $2.8 billion valuation through a reverse takeover of a Canadian shell company. That deal followed the announcement that Verano will merge with Florida-based AltMed.
In addition, publicly traded New York cannabis firm Columbia Care signed a definitive agreement last month to acquire Green Leaf Medical, a privately held Maryland-based cannabis manufacturer and retailer, for $45 million in cash and $195 million in stock. The acquisition is expected to close this summer. Including Green Leaf’s inventory, the Columbia Care will operate 107 facilities, including 80 dispensaries and 27 cultivation and manufacturing facilities. Columbia Care also took advantage of cannabis fever last year by raising $100 million privately.
Also in December, Ayr Strategies announced it would acquire Liberty Health Sciences, one of the largest cannabis companies in Florida, for $290 million in stock, as well Garden State Dispensary, a New Jersey marijuana company for $41 million in cash, $30 million in stock and $30 million in the form of a note. This follows Ayr’s $81 million acquisition of an Arizona medical marijuana operator in November. Voters approved marijuana use in Arizona and New Jersey in November. Ayr has completed a string of acquisitions in Nevada, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio and, upon the closing of December’s deals, New Jersey and Florida.
Not all cannabis companies will rely on acquisitions, however. Trulieve, as an example, has focused its efforts on Florida and organic growth. It remains to be seen whether a multi-state approach fueled by acquisitions or a single-state organic growth model will prove the more lasting. Growth and profitability in the short term likely will continue to be hampered by limits on economies of scale due to federal restrictions and differing state laws.
In light of the maturing industry and the 2019 bust, the valuation model for acquisitions in the cannabis space is evolving from one based on sales, typically associated with emerging growth industries, to a more mature industry model based on profits or Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA). Most cannabis MSOs have stabilized and generate positive EBITDA, which justifies the evolution away from a sales-driven model.
From a legal standpoint, the same limitations that have vexed the cannabis industry for years will continue to challenge deal makers until there is greater clarity on the federal front. Institutional investor reluctance, financial industry constraints, haphazard state regulation and the unavailability of federal forums such as national copyright and trademark registration will continue to be issues for acquirers and their lawyers in the space.
Acquisition agreements will continue to have to address the federal Damocles’ sword should expected relaxation of federal enforcement under the Biden administration and further legislative relief does not materialize as expected. Although the U.S. House in December passed the “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act” (MORE) to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, the Senate did not take up the bill in 2020 and it will have to be re-introduced in 2021. Notably, the MORE Act does not affect existing federal regulation of cannabis, such as the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, under which the FDA has limited the use of CBD in certain products despite hemp being removed from the Controlled Substances Act in 2018.
The cannabis M&A market is moving into a more mature phase, as MSOs will be choosier in their approach rather than continuing the land-grab mentality of years past. Due to improved financial strength, 2021 should see these MSOs continuing to expand their footprints either within existing states or new ones. Although uncertainties abound, further consolidation and expansion through add-on acquisitions is likely to continue apace in 2021, providing plenty of opportunities for deal makers and their lawyers.
While we’re pleased to report that 2020 is almost over, 2021 will be a mixed bag. New jurisdictions will open their doors to cannabis and consumption will continue to rise, but competition from new operators and illicit supplies will increase. As California’s cannabis industry matures and turns the page on a bizarre year, market uncertainty will linger as the pandemic drags on and overtaxation and regulation strangle profits. But let’s remember, cannabis has been cultivated for over 6,000 years and has withstood far worse—this market isn’t going anywhere and will continue to grow and become more impactful.
Access to Traditional Finance Services
The U.S. Senate will likely pass legislation providing cannabis businesses access to traditional banking and financing services. This will be a game changer for the industry. Valuations will go up. Increased liquidity will smooth transactions. Companies will look to affordable debt to expand their footprints and capacity to compete on a new scale. Full federal legalization could be a game changer if 280E tax restrictions are lifted and interstate and international cannabis trade open up, but the timing of this is hard to predict.
Continued Quarantine-Induced Consumption
Cannabis consumption will continue to increase as Californians seek to ease pandemic-related stress, temper quarantine conditions, and sample an eye-popping array of new products. Sophisticated consumers will be open to spending more on unique and niche products. But hemp-derived cannabinoids may present a new source of competition, especially if CBD remains unregulated. By the end of 2021, cannabis beverages will begin to compete with mainstream alcohol categories. Pharmaceuticals will increasingly take notice of this industry and the increasing share of consumers turning to plant-based remedies.
Ever More Cultivation Opportunities
In pursuit of revenue, agricultural counties will liberalize their policies on cannabis cultivation by permitting more acreage and streamlining permit processes. Neighborhood groups will push back, but policymaker concerns will be assuaged when they see cannabis farms operating innocuously (and sustainably) around the state. Advances in seed breeding, pest-and-disease control, outdoor growing techniques and odor abatement technology will help too.
Cities and counties will revisit opening their borders to cannabis retail storefront and delivery as they attempt to fill budget gaps. Many cities will allow cannabis retail for the first time and/or expand the number of licenses available. These new dispensaries will provide a much-needed outlet for the influx of licensed flower and will continue to spur innovation and consumer education. But a “second wave” of retail speculators seems poised to let optimism override judgement, setting themselves up for failure or acquisition by incumbents.
Getting Social Equity Right
2021 will be a pivotal year for social equity, which will establish a foundation for a just cannabis economy. The industry will have to grapple with how to ensure that those most impacted by the criminalization of cannabis and most often excluded from traditional financing exposure are provided with equitable access to meaningful opportunities. As California’s regulated cannabis market grows, getting social equity right will be important if the industry is to firmly establish itself as an inclusive industry that addresses impacts on marginalized communities and responds to customer demands.
California’s new CalCannabis Appellations Program will provide cultivators and brands a way to credibly market the value of their unique growing regions and cultivation methods. These distinctions only apply to cannabis planted in the ground, excluding greenhouse and warehouse grows. The expectation is that high-end consumers, trained to recognize place-based designations and quality certifications in other products, will reward products that boast these designations. How many consumers will be willing to pay the premium and how long full implementation of the program will take, remains to be seen.
Prices May Begin to Drop
2020 was a great year for the few fully licensed cultivators in California permitted to sell to the regulated market. 2021 may be different. Numerous licensed cultivation projects will complete the permitting processes and come online next year. While growing demand may outpace supply at first, by Q3 supplies could swamp the market. Premium flower is perhaps an exception. Adding to the pricing pain, as always, is California’s illicit market, which will continue to undercut prices, as legal growers toil to comply with a labyrinth of state and local regulations. Nonetheless, cannabis will remain the most profitable crop on a per acre basis for some time.
The drop in prices coupled with continued high taxes and regulatory burdens will result in turnover of assets and businesses. Less efficient and inexperienced cultivators will struggle, many unable to ultimately withstand pricing pressure. Others will be hit by enforcement actions for failing to comply with California’s myriad regulations. Retailers, already burdened by punitive tax structures, real estate finance commitments and onerous local regulations, will need to be disciplined and have a clear strategy to address new competition.
Driven by business failures and renewed investor interest, California’s regulated cannabis industry may consolidate rapidly in the second half of 2021. Institutional finance will enter the space with a much more disciplined approach than prior capital sources. Traditional agricultural interests will invest in cannabis cultivation projects. Well-run retail chains will begin to outcompete, and then acquire, mom-and-pop competitors. Big brands will continue to expand their shelf space, relegating smaller competitors to niche and novelty status.
In short, the cannabis industry will continue to be highly dynamic, exciting, enticing and risky.
In June 2020, John W. Elias, a prosecutor in the United States Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, testified to the U.S. House Committee Judiciary that investigations of cannabis mergers were pursued based on Attorney General William Barr’s personal dislike for the cannabis industry rather than legitimate antitrust issues. Specifically, Elias testified, among other things, that since March 2019, the Antitrust Division has conducted ten investigations of mergers in the cannabis industry. Further, Elias testified that, “While these were nominally antitrust investigations, and used antitrust investigative authorities, they were not bona fide antitrust investigations.” Elias went on to state that, with respect to a proposed $682 million merger between two cannabis companies, MedMen and PharmaCann, career staff in the Antitrust Division initially examined the transaction to determine whether there should be no investigation, a brief investigation or a full investigation. Upon conclusion of its review, career staff determined that “the cannabis industry appeared to be fragmented with many market participants in the states that had legalized the product.” Accordingly, staff concluded that the proposed combination between MedMen and PharmaCann was “unlikely to raise any significant competitive concerns.”
Notwithstanding the career staff’s determination, Attorney General Barr ordered the Antitrust Division to issue “Second Request” subpoenas. According to Elias’s testimony, a “Second Request” subpoena is a full investigation of a proposed merger. Moreover, Elias stated, “Across the entire American economy, the Antitrust Division performs the full Second Request investigation on around 1-2% of the thousands of mergers filed each year – ordinarily, only the most concerning deals.” Based on the foregoing, Elias testified that Attorney General Barr’s decision to pursue the MedMen/PharmaCann combination was based on his dislike for the cannabis industry rather than any legitimate antitrust concerns.
There are some immediate impacts to Attorney General Barr’s decision – not limited to the MedMen/PharmaCann merger but potentially reaching any cannabis companies considering a merger or similar transaction. For example, a politically motivated probe would more than likely result in a drop of stock prices for publicly trade cannabis companies. Moreover, non-bona fide antitrust investigations of cannabis businesses could result in proposed merger transactions eventually not coming to fruition.
However, Attorney General Barr’s decision could arguably have longer term and more widespread effects on the cannabis space, and could affect situations not involving mergers or other proposed business combinations. In particular, the fact that legitimate cannabis businesses that comply with all applicable laws are still subject to unwanted and unnecessary scrutiny conceivably could lead to something that regulators had hoped would be curbed through the legalization of cannabis for adult use: cannabis operators gravitating towards the omnipresent black market. Despite cannabis being legal in 33 jurisdictions for medicinal use and 11 jurisdictions for adult use, the black market continues to thrive for several reasons, one of them being that the cost of regulatory compliance is so significant. Attorney General Barr’s decision may have created another reason for cannabis operators to abandon their plans to continue operating as or become legitimate businesses and instead revert back to operating in the black market.
Indeed, Attorney General Barr’s decision is a concern for cannabis operators because it shows that, notwithstanding that any particular operator may be compliant with state and/or local regulations, it does not mean that such cannabis operator is going to be permitted to conduct “normal” business that a non-cannabis business would be able to conduct, simply because of the underlying nature of the business. Stated differently, following the rules does not mean that a cannabis business will be left alone by people in charge who simply do not like the cannabis space.
Cannabis operators are very mindful of being targeted because of the nature of their business, and having regulations in place with which they could and would comply provided them with some level of certainty that they would not be targeted, or so they thought. Particularly in states like California where the regulations are complex, current and aspiring cannabis operators tend to be very concerned about being compliant with cannabis regulations from the inception of their business operations, believing that being compliant will assist them in flying under the proverbial radar and not become targeted unnecessarily simply because they are in the cannabis space. Attorney General Barr’s decision may have taken away or, at the very least, significantly decreased, that level of certainty. His decision to investigate a proposed merger of two legitimate cannabis businesses sends the message that it does not matter if a cannabis business is being compliant, and that there are other, completely subjective reasons why its operations could be investigated. This makes it extremely difficult for current and aspiring cannabis operators to determine what actions they can take to avoid unwelcome investigations or other scrutiny. If a cannabis operator is unable to mitigate scrutiny by complying with rules, this raises the concern that cannabis businesses will go back to black market activity, not only because the cost of compliance is high, but because being compliant does not necessarily protect them.
Attorney General Barr’s decision is likely not the only instance of a decision regarding cannabis businesses that was made notwithstanding existing statutes or regulations that do not support such a decision. In fact, since adult use became legal in certain jurisdictions it is not uncommon to see news discussing applicants for cannabis licenses who were denied licenses, notwithstanding that those applicants complied with all applicable laws and regulations. When applicants were denied even after complying with all rules and regulations, and when no other legitimate reason was cited for the denial, there is an indication that the denial was based on political or other personal feelings concerning the cannabis space. This not only potentially calls into question the integrity of the cannabis space, but again could lead cannabis operators back to the black market.
There are many costs of regulatory compliance for a cannabis operator, including, without limitation, high application and license fees, development and mitigation fees and exorbitant taxes. Other than the fees and taxes assessed on cannabis businesses, there are other expenses, such as the cost to construct a facility, security costs and the general operational costs that all businesses must pay, such as rent or payroll. What incentive does a cannabis operator have to expend significant resources – time, money and otherwise – to become a legitimate, licensed cannabis business if doing so does not provide any type of protection against investigations that are politically motivated or otherwise based on negative personal feelings toward the cannabis space? It may be that Attorney General Barr’s decision has given cannabis operators one more reason to reconsider going back to black market activity.
Under current federal law, financial institutions are extremely limited in the services and resources that they can offer to cannabis companies. Without access to traditional financing, cannabis companies have been forced to turn to outside investments to finance their operations. The private equity approach can be a “dank” opportunity for cannabis companies; however, these companies should be cognizant of the securities laws implications that are present with this type of business structure. The focus of most cannabis companies when forming their business is compliance with the regulatory scheme of their jurisdiction as it relates to the operation of a cannabis business. While compliance with these laws is important, it is also important that these companies ensure that they are compliant with the Securities Act of 1933 (the Securities Act) before accepting investments from outside sources.
Securities Act Application
Oftentimes, smaller companies don’t realize that they are subject to the Securities Act. However, the definition of a “security” under the Securities Act is very broad1 and under S.E.C. v. W.J. Howey Co., an investment in a common enterprise, such as a partnership or limited liability company, where the investor expects to earn profits from the efforts of others is considered a “security” and thus, subject to the rigorous requirements of the Securities Act.2 In general, all companies offering securities within the United States are required to register those securities with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) unless a registration exemption is available.3 A company can register its securities (i.e., its ownership interests offered to investors) with the SEC by filing a Registration Statement. These statements generally offer investors certain information about the company in order to enable investors to be able to make an informed decision about their investment. Filing a Registration Statement can be both time-consuming and costly, and most companies want to avoid filing one if they can. Luckily, the Securities Act offers certain exemptions from registration requirements to companies who meet certain standards.4 While there are numerous exemptions from securities registration, the most common exemptions used are the Regulation D5 exemptions, which provides three different exemptions based on the size of the offering and the sophistication of the investors, and the Rule 1476 Intrastate exemption.
Regulation D Exemptions
Rule 504-Limited Offerings
Rule 504, often called the “Limited Offering” exemption, provides an exemption from securities registration for companies who limit the offer and sale of their securities to no more than $5,000,000 in a twelve-month period.7 Unlike the other Regulation D exemptions, which are discussed in further detail below, the Limited Offering exemption does not have any limitations on the level of sophistication or number of investors.8 This means that companies who rely on this exemption do not have to verify the net worth or income of their investors or limit the number of investors in the company. Like all Regulation D exemptions, companies relying on the Limited Offering exemption are required to file a “Form D” with the SEC within 15 days of the first securities sale.9 A Form D is a relatively simple form which provides basic information about a company to the SEC, including the registration exemption that is being relied upon. A copy of Form D can be found here.
The “Private Offering” exemption can be found at Rule 506(b) of Regulation D.10 This exemption is commonly used for larger investment offerings with varying levels of investor sophistication. The Private Offering exemption can be used for investment offerings of any size so long as the company: (1) does not use general solicitation or advertising, such as newspaper articles or seminars, to attract investors; and (2) limits the number of “non-accredited investors” to no more than 35.11 “Accredited investors” are those investors whom the Securities Act deems sophisticated enough to properly weigh the risk of their investment in the company. In order to qualify as an accredited investor, the investor must:
Have an individual income of more than $200,000 in the past two years
Have a joint income with their spouse of more than $300,000 in the past two years
Have an individual net worth, or joint net worth with their spouse, in excess of $1,000,000 or:
Be a director, executive officer or manager of the Company.12
If the investor is a corporation, partnership, limited liability company or other non-trust entity, then to qualify as an accredited investor, it must either have assets in excess of $5,000,000 or each of its equity owners must meet one of the requirements for individuals listed above.13 If the investor is a trust, then the trust must: (1) have total assets in excess of $5,000,000 and the investment decision must be made by a “sophisticated person” (i.e., the person who is making the investment decision has such knowledge and experience in financial and business matters that he or she is capable of evaluating the merits and risks of an investment in the company); (2) have a trustee making the investment decision that is a bank or other financial institution; or (3) be revocable at any time and the grantor(s) of the trust must meet one of the requirements for individuals listed above.14
The Private Offering exemption allows a company to have an unlimited number of accredited investors, but only up to 35 non-accredited investors. However, companies should be very cautious of allowing non-accredited investors to invest in the company. The Securities Act requires that companies make extensive disclosures to non-accredited investors which are essentially the same requirements as the company would have to provide in a registered security offering. These requirements include providing investors with financial statements, operations plan, detailed descriptions of the company’s business, description of all property owned, discussion and analysis of the company’s financial condition and the results of operations, biographies of and descriptions of each officer and director, as well as other descriptions regarding the details of the company.15 Failure to provide the necessary information to non-accredited investors can disqualify companies from the benefits offered by the Private Offering Exemption. Companies should be very cautious when relying on the Private Offering exemption. If a company does choose to utilize the Private Offering exemption, they must file a Form D with the SEC within 15 days of the first securities sale.
Rule 506(c), the “General Solicitation” exemption, is similar to the Private Offering Exemption. Unlike the Private Offering exemption, companies relying on the General Solicitation exemption are permitted to use general solicitation and advertising to advertise their securities to potential investors.16 However, investors relying on the General Solicitation exemption must only sell their securities to accredited investors.17 Under Rule 506(c), the company selling the securities must take steps to verify the accredited-investor status of their investors.18 These steps can include reviewing past tax returns, reviewing bank statements, or obtaining confirmation from the investor’s attorney or accountant that such person is an accredited investor.19 Like the other Regulation D exemptions, companies relying on the General Solicitation exemption should file a Form D with the SEC.Private equity can be a dank opportunity for cannabis companies, but it is critical that these companies ensure that they are in compliance with all applicable securities laws.
Rule 147, known as the “Intrastate” exemption, provides an exemption from securities registration for companies who limit the offer and sale of their securities to investors who are residents of, if they are an individual, or have its principal place of business in, if they are an entity, the state where the company is organized and has its principal place of business.20 The Intrastate exemption permits general solicitation to investors who are in-state residents, and there are no limitations on the size of the offering or the number of investors, whether accredited or unaccredited. In addition, companies relying on this exemption are not required to file a Form D with the SEC. The Intrastate exemption can be very desirable to companies who wish to obtain a small number of key investors within their communities.
In addition to complying with the Securities Act, companies are also required to comply with the securities laws of each state where their securities are sold. Each state has its own securities laws which may place additional requirements on companies in addition to the Securities Act. Most states (including California, Colorado, Oregon, and Oklahoma) require that a copy of the Form D filed with the SEC be filed with the state securities commission if securities are sold within that state. Before offering securities for sale in any state, companies should thoroughly review the applicable state securities laws to ensure that they are in compliance with all state requirements in addition to the requirements under the Securities Act.
Additional Considerations for Cannabis Companies
Despite the fact that the purchase and sale of cannabis is illegal under federal law, cannabis companies are still subject to the Securities Act in the same manner as every other company. However, the SEC has issued a warning to investors to be wary of making investments in cannabis companies due to the high fraud and market manipulation risks.21 The SEC has a history of issuing trading suspensions against cannabis companies who allegedly provided false information to their investors.22 Cannabis companies who wish to rely on any of the registration exemptions under the Securities Act should ensure that they fully disclose all details of the company and the risks involved in investing in it to all of their potential investors. While cannabis companies are permitted to rely on the registration exemptions under the Securities Act, the SEC appears to place additional scrutiny on cannabis companies who offer securities to outside investors. It is possible to fully comply with the onerous requirements of the Securities Act, but cannabis companies should engage legal counsel to assist with their securities offerings. Failure to comply with the Securities Act could result in sanctions and monetary penalties from the SEC, as well as potentially jeopardize a cannabis company’s license to sell cannabis. It is extremely important that companies seek advice from legal counsel who has experience in these types of offerings and the requirements of the Securities Act and applicable state securities laws. Private equity can be a dank opportunity for cannabis companies, but it is critical that these companies ensure that they are in compliance with all applicable securities laws.
So, there you are, pondering your finances, there are many expenses and costs that go into running your business and when your budget is already tight, should you add or increase training to the expense list? Why frustrate yourself, looking for ways to train people, when you could be focusing on things like technology, product development or sales that help with business growth?
We all know that product development and sales are important. But what differentiates training from other expenses is that while on the surface training might appear as an expense, it’s not.
Think about this analogy: We know one achieves a greater plant quality and yield by using advanced cultivation practices. That said, the quality of the plants also greatly depends on the lighting, the nutrients and the nurturing they receive. The training and development of your people depends on the quality of effort you give them. Therefore, it is not so much a cost as it is an investment in the growth of your people, and when your people grow, you experience business growth.
Why invest in continual training?
The answer as to why continual training is important can be summed up in four points:
Well trained employees = happy and loyal employees.
Happy employees = educated and happy customers.
Happy and educated customers = customer loyalty.
Customer loyalty = increased business revenue
Any break in the chain breaks the relationship with the customer. There isn’t any business right now that can afford to lose a customer over something as intuitive as keeping people knowledgeable and happy.
This approach does, however, come with a caveat. Your training needs to be amazing and it needs to stick. You need to be willing to give your people the tools they need to succeed, and amazing training doesn’t come with a low-price tag. It requires not only a monetary investment but the investment of time and energy of the entire team.
Consider this, according to a Gallop research paper, happy and well-trained employees increase their value, and dedicated training and development fosters employee engagement, and engagement is critical to your company’s financial performance.
In short, this means your happy people will be earners for you. They will help you exceed industry standards, sell more and hang around longer. This means lower turnover costs.
Who doesn’t want that?
Educated and loyal employees lead to increased financial results
According to another Gallup study, businesses that engaged workgroups in continual development saw sales increase and profits double compared to workgroups that weren’t provided with development opportunities. The pressure to succeed among competitors of the cannabis industry is intense and rewards high. Having a good product is a start, but if your customer does not trust you or your employees…then what?
You can have the best product in the world, but if you can’t sell it, you still have it.
Can your business survive without trained people and loyal customers? The growth rate for legalized cannabis will be $73.6 billion with a CAGR of 18.1% by 2027. Plus, total sales of illicit cannabis nationwide were worth an estimated $64.3 billion in 2018, projections call for the U.S. illicit market to reduce by nearly $7 billion (11%) by 2025.
Those customers are going somewhere, will they be coming to you? Are you and your people prepared to earn potential customer trust and build critical relationships? Can you afford to miss being a part of this growth because your people were not carefully trained and your customers were uninformed about you, your product and your services?
A common adage is, “What if I train them and they leave? What if you don’t and they stay?” – where does your business stand?
Time for non-traditional approaches for high-impact training
With the rapid growth of the industry with ever changing regulations, new types of edibles, better product with exponentially more options – your customers will demand higher quality standards and expect your people to be in-the-know. This requires “just-in-time” knowledge as opposed to formalized training delivery.
Disappointingly, only 34% of businesses feel their overall training is effective. So, as the industry continues to evolve, it is important to know how to make your programs as effective as possible for your people. The traditional training that has failed corporate America is not the answer for this non-traditional cannabis industry. The need for new and non-traditional training methods will be critical for your people to be efficient, productive and adaptable to react to fluctuating business needs.
Six areas to focus your non-traditional training
1) Build a strategy
As the gap begins to widen and the competitive “cream of the crop” starts rising to the top, you will need to take the initiative in training and upskilling employees. This means planning future training efforts and reimagining current ones.
The steps involved in creating a training plan begins with establishing business goals. Ask yourself what business factors and objectives you hope to impact through training? You will also need to decide what critical skills are needed to move the business forward. Start your training focus with high-impact skills. These are the skills, if mastered, that will lead to customer loyalty and education. Ultimately impacting your bottom-line.
2) Target skills that build relationships
Building relationships is often placed in the category of, “soft skills.” However, this is a misnomer; “soft-skills” are core strengths you will need for your business to stand apart from your competition. This goes beyond smiling at the customer. Your business requires adaptable, critical thinkers who can problem solve and communicate effectively. Soft skill training is never “finished.” Therefore, consider how reinforcement is going to be delivered and how coaching will evolve.
3) Personalize training to individuals
Many traditional training programs approach people with a “one size fits all” mentality. Just put all the people in all the classes. This is a common failed approach. Each person on your team has individual skills and needs that require attention. This means creating and planning the delivery of training programs to address specific strengths and skills challenges. Not everyone will be at the same level of knowledge. If you are hiring for culture (which you should) rather than specific skills this means providing ongoing support at different times. This requires developing a training plan that allows people to choose their training path.
4) Create digital learning spaces
Ensuring employees make time for learning was the number one challenge talent development teams faced in 2018. One way to combat this challenge is putting training in the hands of people through platforms they are already using. Most notably, their cell phones and mobile applications.
Training should be created and delivered through multiple platforms (mobile and on-demand), where the training can be personalized, and offer ongoing job support. For example: Consider training to be delivered through mobile apps, text messaging or instant messenger. This type of training is targeted, direct, can be tracked and supports “just-in-time” delivery of help. Help when the people need it and when the business needs them to have it.
5) Make training interesting through gamification
There is a general misunderstanding about how gamification and training programs work. Many business owners discard the idea of gamification because they believe it means turning training programs into video games. Understandably, owners do not want critical and regulatory compliance training to be like a game of Candy Crush. What is important to realize is that gamification is a process of building a reward system into training that imitateschallenge games. Allowing people to “level-up” based on skill or knowledge acquisition. The use of badges, points and leaderboards encourage participation in online experiences. Thus, making training interesting and more successful.
6) Plan to educate your customers
As stated, providing customer training around your products or services is a fantastic way to differentiate yourself from competitors. It also boosts customer engagement, loyalty and enables them to gain more value from you.
Customer training is now considered a strategic necessity for businesses in every industry and within the cannabis industry, education programs will play a critical role in attracting new customers. Although, keep in mind your new customers do not need “training.” They need educational awareness. Consider the education you are providing customers as an onboarding process. Thoughtfully designed educational content can help customers make the right decisions for them, and you are there every step of the way.
Choose a different path for your training efforts
Your business needs a non-traditional training plan to help your people to be better, smarter, faster than your competitors and to gain customer trust and loyalty. Cannabis is a non-traditional industry, why box your business into traditional corporate training models proven to be unsuccessful? Your business and your people deserve better.
Contact Learning Rebels to learn more about what we can do for you to help you develop training tools and resources that will make your people stand above the rest.
It is almost impossible to turn on the tv and not find a show or news conference or even live footage of an ongoing protest over “Black Lives Matter” or “Economic Equality.” The same situation exists with social media platforms, radio broadcast, etc. All sharing the common theme of social equity. While we all seek a solution, the state of Illinois is doing their part by awarding the coveted adult use cannabis business licenses for craft growing, infusion, transportation and dispensaries to social equity applicants by using a scoring system that favors the social equity applicant. We believe in this vision at TGC Group and our dream is to pay it forward.
We see the world, especially for minorities living in poverty, quite differently because of where we come from. “Black Lives Matter” is a movement to save the lives of all people and have human life viewed equally no matter the race of an individual. Economic equality is a totally different fight. Our communities that are impoverished need cash infusions. There needs to be financial infrastructure that recirculates the dollars from the poor communities and that comes from having business owners in the affected community to put their profits back into their community. There needs to be a system of lending that is not based on credit scores and criminal background checks because most people at the bottom will never qualify. An example would be my husband, Christopher Lacy: he went to prison for 3.5 years for growing cannabis back in 2009. He is not a violent man; he never even had a fight in prison. He spent much of his time in prison teaching inmates how to read, write and most importantly, he tried to teach them economics. He is educated about cannabis because he has been intimately involved with this plant and has been growing it for just about 20 years. Yet when he tried to apply for jobs in Illinois for growing cannabis, his invisible barrier starts with the resume. Just think about it, my husband, knows more about cannabis than most people in the industry today and could manage a facility with ease. No one could see his worth because of his background and work experience? This is the same situation with so many others in our poor communities. We know for a fact that there is hidden talent in the impoverished communities and prison system, and we intend to find it and empower these individuals to rebuild what was destroyed by the war on drugs. I speak for all the ghettos when I say this: give us access to the capital and we will get the rest done on our own. Conventional banks have their hands tied with this approach because they are regulated, but private funds have more flexibility. The excess capital needed to rebuild will not come from jobs, it only comes from ownership. Luckily, J.B. Pritzker and Toi Hutchinson are aware of this and hence created the social equity fund to help the social equity applicants fund their projects if and when they are awarded a license. We must find a way to give to the bottom so that the dollars can trickle up. Trickledown economics is kind of like that movie “Platform” on Netflix. There are never enough resources to get to the bottom because the people sending the resources down have no idea how to get them to the bottom floors of society. Trickle up economics can start at the very bottom rungs of society and still will reach to this highest level of the economic system because its built in such a way that it will inevitably get there.
These new licenses, literally pathways to financial freedom if operated correctly and efficiently, are revenue machines capable of changing our community. This change does not come from providing jobs (although jobs do help and will be available), but by providing capital to rebuild. These funds can provide scholarships, business loans, even small infrastructure projects can get accomplished via the tax revenue generated by the local governments. We have already made a written commitment to give a portion of net margins to the village. Capital in the right hands can make dreams come true. In theory, poverty can be solved. Poverty is not a prerequisite to the American way of life. That is why we were so proud to get zoning approval by our village. They see what we see. We can change neighborhoods like Beacon Hill. The dollars must recirculate in the community. Wherever you see high poverty rates you see high crime rates. This is not a coincidence. If you can lower the poverty rate you can lower the crime rates. This raises the quality of life for everyone. We see the state is on board, the county is on board, the Village of Park Forest is on board and the citizens of the community are on board. Now all we need is the license and capital to get the resurrection started.
Unlike other applicants, we were only capable of applying for one license for a craft grow facility. Some may see this as a disadvantage because only 40 licenses will be issued for this purpose. I wish we could have applied for more to increase our odds, but resources were scarce and applying was not cheap. We decided to stick with the efficient market theory and put all our eggs in the one basket that we know we can carry and be successful with. Without the help of Justice Grown, we would’ve never completed the application so shout out to them and anyone else that helped “true” social equity applicants apply.
The wheels are in motion so all we can do is wait to see who wins. I would hate to be on the team who must decide who wins these licenses. Everyone knows large corporations found ways to apply as social equity applicants because they only needed a certain number of “social equity” employees to qualify. But if you go ask the employees, not the owners, if they have been cured of their financial burdens and see if $15 has raised their quality of life to a middle-class level. The answer is emphatically NO. You cannot give out band-aids for heart attacks. If these large corporations are awarded the licenses, it will perpetuate the cycle of poverty. We do not personally have anything against the big companies. Like Toi Hutchinson said regarding the first round of dispensary and cultivation licenses: we needed the big company dollars to fund the next round of licenses. Well, the next round is here. Let’s do right by the communities that were truly affected by the war on drugs and on a more personal level and my reason for applying: let’s do right by my husband because he lost 3.5 years of his life and was excluded from participating with his family for doing what is now legal.
In our previous posts, we discussed why state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses are likely not eligible to receive federal financial assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program due to the fact that these businesses are inherently engaged in federally illegal activities.
While our view has not necessarily changed, this post is intended to highlight the implications of a recent temporary restraining order prohibiting the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) from excluding strip clubs from receiving financial relief under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act or the “Act”).
The Case for Strip Clubs to Receive SBA Assistance
Last month, DV Diamond Club of Flint LLC (dba Little Darlings) sued the SBA in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan claiming, among other things, that the agency exceeded its authority under the CARES Act by excluding otherwise eligible strip clubs from receiving Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.
On April 6, 2020, Little Darlings, an adult entertainment establishment licensed in Flint, Michigan, applied for a PPP loan to mitigate its business losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to rapidly diminishing PPP funds and the rejection of applications submitted by other seemingly eligible adult entertainment establishments, Little Darlings filed a claim against the SBA alleging that the agency’s April 15, 2020 “Business Loan Program Temporary Changes; Paycheck Protection Program “ Rule (the Interim Rule) exceeded the SBA and Department of Treasury’s regulatory authority under the CARES Act.
The Interim Rule, in part, provided that:
“Businesses that are not eligible for PPP loans are identified in 13 CFR 120.110 and described further in SBA’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 50 10, Subpart B, Chapter 2, except that nonprofit organizations authorized under the Act are eligible.” 1
The Interim Rule effectively clarified that those businesses that “are identified” in 13 C.F.R. § 120.110 (the Ineligibility Rule) and “described further” in Standard Operating Procedure 50 10 5(K) are “not eligible for PPP loans.”
The Ineligibility Rule – 13 C.F.R. §120.110
In 1996, the SBA declared that certain types of businesses are not eligible to participate in SBA lending programs. Under the Ineligibility Rule (codified at 13 CFR § 120.110), certain sexually oriented businesses2 and “businesses engaged in any illegal activity,”3 in addition to other enumerated businesses, were barred from receiving SBA financial assistance.
In 2019, the SBA issued “Standard Operating Procedure for Lender and Development Company Loan Programs 50 10 5(K)” (the SOP) providing guidance to lenders regarding how to administer the Ineligibility Rule. The SOP explained that certain business types such as “Businesses Providing Prurient Sexual Material”i and “Businesses Engaged in any Illegal Activity,ii” among others, may be “ineligible” to participate in SBA programs.4
In addition to arguing that the SBA’s regulations violated Little Darlings’ Constitutional rights under the First and Fifth Amendments, Little Darlings alleged that the SBA lacked authority to promulgate regulations clarifying what businesses were eligible for PPP loans, as Congress intended to “increase eligibility” for PPP loans under the CARES Act by establishing only two criteria for PPP eligibility. Moreover, Little Darlings relied on the fact that Congress explicitly provided that “any business concern . . . shall be eligible” for a PPP loan if it met the criteria identified in 15 U.S.C. § 636(a)(36)(D)(i) of the CARES Act.
As a result, Little Darlings sought a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), Preliminary and Permanent Injunction enjoining the SBA from enforcing or utilizing the Ineligibility Rule or SOP to exclude otherwise eligible PPP loan applicants. As part of the orders, the SBA would be required to immediately notify all SBA lending banks to immediately discontinue utilizing 13 CFR § 120.110 or the SOP as criteria for determining PPP eligibility and to process all PPP loan applications without reference to such regulations and procedures.
On May 11, 2020, U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman granted Little Darlings’ TRO blocking the SBA from enforcing the Ineligibility Rule and SOP finding that Congress intended to provide temporary paycheck support to “all Americans employed by all small businesses that satisfied the two eligibility requirements – even businesses that may have been disfavored during normal times.”5
Notably, the Sixth Circuit refused to overturn the TRO reasoning that withholding loans from previously “ineligible” businesses, such as strip clubs, conflicts with the broad interpretation of the CARES Act.
Similar cases have also been brought in Illinois and Wisconsin on behalf of adult entertainment businesses that have been denied PPP relief. Notably, on April 23, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin issued a comparable injunction blocking the SBA from denying federal financial assistance to multiple Wisconsin gentlemen clubs.
Implications for Cannabis Businesses
As we previously discussed, one of the largest hurdles for cannabis businesses to receive federal financial assistance from the SBA is that applicants must make a good faith certification that they are not engaged in any federally illegal activity.6
The SBA has historically relied on both the Ineligibility Rule and SOP to uphold its position that “illegal activities” include both Direct Marijuana Businessesiii and Indirect Marijuana Businessesiv that “make, sell, service, or distribute products or services used in connection with illegal activity.”7
However, should Judge Leitman’s interpretation hold true and continue to prohibit the SBA from utilizing the Ineligibility Rule or the SOP as criteria for determining PPP eligibility, cannabis businesses (namely Indirect Marijuana Businesses8) may be eligible to receive PPP loans so long as they satisfy the eligibility requirements identified in the CARES Act.
Although it would ordinarily be absurd to conclude that Congress intended to provide financial assistance to businesses operating in clear violation of federal law (such as Direct Marijuana Businesses), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and the Sixth Circuit have concluded that the expansive definition of “any business concern” in the CARES Act is not subject to SBA limitations.
As Judge Leitman elaborated in his May 11, 2020 order:
“Congress’s decision to expand funding to previously ineligible businesses is not an endorsement or approval of those businesses. Instead, it is a recognition that in the midst of this crisis, the workers at those businesses have no viable alternative options for employment in other, favored lines of work and desperately need help. It is not absurd to conclude that in order to support these workers, Congress temporarily permitted previously excluded businesses to obtain SBA financial assistance.”
Therefore, although we believe it to be highly unlikely that cannabis businesses will actually receive PPP loans due to their continued violation of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and need to make a good faith certification that they are not engaged in any federally illegal activity, the door has been opened for certain types of cannabis businesses to potentially receive PPP loans should the SBA remain prohibited from relying on the Ineligibility Rule or SOP to disqualify otherwise eligible applicants.
See Interim Rule, p. 2812
12 C.F.R. § 120.110(p) Businesses which: (1) Present live performances of a prurient sexual nature; or (2) Derive directly or indirectly more than de minimis gross revenue though the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature
12 C.F.R. § 120.110(h) Businesses engaged in any illegal activity.
See the 2019 SOP, ECF No. 12-11, PageID.570
Specifically, U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Leitman reasoned that: “While Congress may have once been willing to permit the SBA to exclude these businesses from its … lending programs, that willingness evaporated when the COVID-19 pandemic destroyed the economy and threw tens of millions of Americans out of work…” In response to the SBA’s argument that such an interpretation would lead to “absurd results,” Judge Leitman stated: “[T]hese are no ordinary times, and the PPP is no ordinary legislation. The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the country’s economy, and the PPP is an unprecedented effort to undo that financial ruin.”
It is our position that Indirect Marijuana Businesses (or non plant-touching businesses that service state licensed marijuana establishments) will have an easier time alleging that they are not operating in violation of federal law than those businesses whose existence is inherently premised on cultivating and distributing marijuana in violation of the Controlled Substances Act
i Businesses Providing Prurient Sexual Material (13 CFR § 120.110(p))
A business is not eligible for SBA assistance if:
It presents live or recorded performances of a prurient sexual nature; or
It derives more than 5% of its gross revenue, directly or indirectly, through the sale of products, services or the presentation of any depictions or displays of a prurient sexual nature.
SBA has determined that financing lawful activities of a prurient sexual nature is not in the public interest. The Lender must consider whether the nature and extent of the sexual component causes the business activity to be prurient.
ii Businesses Engaged in any Illegal Activity (13 CFR § 120.110(h))
SBA must not approve loans to Applicants that are engaged in illegal activity under federal, state, or local law. This includes Applicants that make, sell, service, or distribute products or services used in connection with illegal activity, unless such use can be shown to be completely outside of the Applicant’s intended market.
Because federal law prohibits the distribution and sale of marijuana, financial transactions involving a marijuana-related business would generally involve funds derived from illegal activity. Therefore, businesses that derive revenue from marijuana-related activities or that support the end-use of marijuana may be ineligible for SBA financial assistance.
iii “Direct Marijuana Business” mean “a business that grows, produces, processes, distributes, or sells marijuana or marijuana products, edibles, or derivatives, regardless of the amount of such activity. This applies to recreational use and medical use even if the business is legal under local or state law where the applicant business is or will be located.”
iv “Indirect Marijuana Business” means “a business that derived any of its gross revenue for the previous year (or, if a start-up, projects to derive any of its gross revenue for the next year) from sales to Direct Marijuana Businesses of products or services that could reasonably be determined to aid in the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Examples of Indirect Marijuana Businesses include businesses that provide testing services, or sell or install grow lights, hydroponic or other specialized equipment, to one or more Direct Marijuana Businesses; and businesses that advise or counsel Direct Marijuana Businesses on the specific legal, financial/ accounting, policy, regulatory or other issues associated with establishing, promoting, or operating a Direct Marijuana Business. However … [the] SBA does not consider a plumber who fixes a sink for a Direct Marijuana Business or a tech support company that repairs a laptop for such a business to be aiding in the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Indirect Marijuana Businesses also include businesses that sell smoking devices, pipes, bongs, inhalants, or other products if the products are primarily intended or designed for marijuana use or if the business markets the products for such use.”
UPDATE: Late in the evening on May 15, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES package, voting 208-199 (with 23 abstentions). The bill now now heads to the Senate where its fate is more uncertain.
On page 1,066, those in the cannabis industry will find a very exciting addition: the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. For the uninitiated, the SAFE Banking Act would ensure access to financial services for cannabis-related businesses and service providers.
Currently, federally regulated financial institutions face penalties for dealing with cannabis companies due to the Controlled Substances Act. The bill, if passed, would eliminate the possibility of any repercussions for doing business with cannabis companies.
The impact of this bill becoming law would be widespread and immediate for both the cannabis market and banks looking to invest in the cannabis industry. With banks given the green light to conduct business with the cannabis industry, there is no doubt that many financial institutions will rush to the opportunity. Cannabis businesses will benefit greatly, no longer having to deal with massive quantities of cash and gain access to things like loans, bank accounts and credit lines. Furthermore, cannabis companies will benefit from the rush of banks getting in the game, leading to a competitive and affordable banking market.
It is no secret that cannabis businesses have had a cash problem for decades now. Given the coronavirus pandemic, CDC guidelines dictate minimizing the handling of cash and encourage payment options like credit cards. Cannabis businesses dealing with large quantities of cash puts them, their employees, their customers and even regulators at risk.
According to Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the cash problem is a serious, unnecessary health risk. “On behalf of the legal cannabis industry, we commend the congressional leadership for prioritizing public health and safety by including sensible cannabis banking policy in this legislation,” says Smith. “Our industry employs hundreds of thousands of Americans and has been deemed ‘essential’ in most states. It’s critically important that essential cannabis workers are not exposed to unnecessary health risks due to outdated federal banking regulations.”
In fact, it was the NCIA and a handful of other industry organizations that lobbied Congress last week to include language from the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES Act, citing the known fact that cash can harbor coronavirus and other pathogens, along with the “personal proximity required by cash transactions as reasons for urgency in addition to the other safety and transparency concerns addressed by the legislation.”
The SAFE Banking Act was already approved by the House of Representatives. In September of 2019, the bill made a lot of progress through Congress, but stalled once it made it to the Senate Banking Committee.
The HEROES Act will be debated by the House of Representatives prior to a floor vote. If it passes the House, it moves to the Senate, which is about as far as it made it the last go around. However, because the banking reform is included in coronavirus relief legislation, there is a newborn sense of hope that the bill could be signed into law.
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