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Learning from the First Wave Part 1: How Law Shapes the California Cannabis Industry

By Todd Feldman
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As a cannabis lawyer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that regulations affect a cannabis company’s bottom line. Since I’m in California, the ways are many.

In late 2017 I became the chief compliance officer for an Oakland startup that carried out delivery, distribution, cultivation and six manufacturing operations. A big part of my job was preparing my company, along with several equity cannabis companies, for California’s First Wave of cannabis licenses.

For the most part, First Wave licensees came from California’s essentially unregulated medical cannabis market, and/or from California’s by-definition unregulated “traditional” market. When California began issuing licenses in January 2018, many First Wavers were unprepared because their businesses practices had evolved in an unregulated market. A big part of my job was to help them adapt to the new requirements. As a result, I saw the regulations, and the effects of regulations, in sharp relief.

Regulation touches virtually every aspect of the legal cannabis industry in California. So anyone who wants to understand the industry should have at least a basic understanding of how the regs work. I’m writing this series to lay that out, in broad strokes.

Some key points:

  • The regulated market must be understood in relation to the previous unregulated (medical) market as well as the ongoing traditional market.
  • Regs define the supply chain.
  • Regs are designed to ensure product safety and maximize tax revenue.
  • Many regulations mandate good business practices.
  • Local enforcement of building, health and safety codes tends to be zealous and costly.

A Tale of Three Markets

California’s regulated cannabis market can only be understood in relation to the medical market that preceded it, and in relation to the traditional market (illegal market) that continues to compete with it.

The Before Times

California’s legal medical cannabis market goes back to 1996, when the Compassionate Use Act passed by ballot measure. One fact that shaped the medical market was that it was never just medical – while it served bona fide patients, it also served as a Trojan horse for adult-use (recreational) purchasers.

Another fact that shaped the medical market was a near complete lack of regulation. On the seller’s side, you had to be organized as a collective. On the buyer’s side, you had to have a medical card. That was it.

Meanwhile, the cannabis supply chain was entirely unregulated. This tended to minimize production costs. It also meant that a patient visiting a dispensary had no way of verifying where the products had been made, or how.

The Regulated Times

Licensing under the Medical and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (the “Act”) began on January 1, 2018. It was the beginning of legal adult-use cannabis in California. It was also the beginning of the Regulated Times, as the Act and accompanying 300-plus pages of regulations transformed the legal cannabis market.

 For example:

  • The Act defines the cannabis supply chain (as a series of licensees).
  • Across the supply chain, the internal procedures of cannabis companies are subject to review by state agencies;
  • Cultivators and manufacturers cannot sell directly to a dispensary – they must go through a distributor;
  • All cannabis must be tested for potency and a long list of contaminants by a licensed testing laboratory before it may be sold to consumers;
  • And beginning in 2019, all licensees were required to participate in the California Cannabis Track and Trace (CCTT) program, which is designed to track all cannabis from seed to sale.

Just as importantly, the Act establishes a dual licensing system – that is to say, in order to operate, a cannabis company needs a local permit (or other authorization) as well as a state license. In fact, local authorization is a prerequisite for a state license. And your local jurisdiction will have its own rules for cannabis that apply in addition to the state rules, up to and including a ban on cannabis activities.

Needless to say, operating in the Regulated Times is a lot more complicated and expensive than it was during the Before Times.

Especially when you consider the taxes. For example, in the City of Los Angeles, sale of adult-use cannabis is taxed at 10%, which means that any adult-use purchase in L.A. gets a 34.5% markup:

  • 15% state cannabis excise tax, plus
  • 10% Los Angeles Adult Use Cannabis Sales tax, plus
  • 5% sales tax.

Note that the distributors must collect the excise tax from the retailer, so the 15% markup is not necessarily visible to the consumer. Similarly, consumers are generally unaware that there is a cultivation tax of $9.65 per ounce (or about $1.21 per eighth) of dried flower that the distributor has to collect from the cultivator.

Theoretically, all of this might be unproblematic if licensed retailers were only competing with each other. Which brings us to:

The Traditional Market

The traditional market is the illegal market, which is to say, the untaxed and unregulated market.

Legalization of adult-use cannabis was supposed to destroy the traditional market, but it hasn’t. As of early 2020, the traditional market was estimated to be 80% of the total cannabis market in California. This is not surprising, since the traditional market has the advantages of being untaxed and unregulated.

The traditional market has a pervasive negative effect on the legal market. For example, the traditional market tends to depress prices in the legal market and tends to attract talent away from the legal market. Some of these effects will be discussed in the following articles.

This article is an opinion only and is not intended to be legal advice.

Important Security Considerations When Designing Cannabis Facilities

By Heather Bender
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The cannabis industry is growing so quickly that even COVID-19 can’t slow it down. Before the pandemic, the industry amassed $13.6 billion in U.S. legal cannabis sales in 2019 – a figure that is expected to more than double to $30 billion in the next five years, according to New Frontier Data.  In states where cannabis is legal for medical or recreational use, dispensaries have been deemed necessary, essential businesses – especially when it comes to calming stress and anxiety in our ever-changing times.

Cannabis legalization and newly budding dispensaries have expanded across the U.S., which may come with an unfortunate counterpart – a higher incidence of crime. Despite lower prices in states that have legalized cannabis, as compared to states where it is still illegal, theft has run rampant across grow operations, warehouses and, most often, dispensaries.

Heavy-duty security doors at the front of the dispensary block sight access and provide a visual deterrent.

Dispensaries can be targeted more frequently. Robbers may perceive them as an easy target, because they are businesses that have larger amounts of cash on hand. Many dispensaries only accept cash because payment processors and financial institutions aren’t willing to work with them. This is primarily because cannabis is still deemed an illegal substance under federal law, and the actions of financial institutions are governed by federal, not state, laws. Once the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is approved, cannabis businesses will be able to work more easily with banks, in turn reducing the amount of cash on site and erasing the dollar signs in opportunistic thieves’ eyes.

However, cash isn’t the only high thieves seek when they break into dispensaries. There’s also the product itself. Protecting it – and providing peace of mind to the facilities’ owners and occupants – is a concern for dispensaries, grow operations and warehouses. Robbers are motivated by the opportunity to make even more fast cash through reselling the product found onsite.

To eliminate such easy targets, security requirements for the cannabis industry are a necessity. They are also involved, complicated, and vary from state to state. A number of security specifications apply between state laws and local ordinances. Inventory must be properly surveilled and managed at all stages of transportation and storage. Any discrepancies in inventory can result in large fines and other penalties. To aid in understanding security compliances, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), a national trade association, recommends that start-ups obtain attorneys to guide businesses through their state’s laws and regulations.

This is why, especially for new business owners, it is critical to consider the best, most advanced security solutions – especially when it comes to doors and points of egress – that are easily integrated into buildings during the design phase. These solutions protect the products, properties, and people throughout the cannabis supply chain.

Understanding State Security Regulations
While there are no federally recognized security requirements for the cannabis industry, there are similar requirements across all states that have legalized cannabis, including:

  • Maintaining strict access control throughout the facility – this is especially important for grow operations and warehouses
  • Functional alarm systems
  • Documented standard operating procedures
  • Video surveillance systems – many states mandate very precise requirements, such as length of storage time and even video resolution specifications
  • Notifying appropriate regulatory agencies immediately or within a strict timeframe after a security incident or theft
  • Securing all records and record storage

While these are common, state-mandated security requirements, it is critically important to know and understand all rules, regulations, and laws concerning the industry within the business’s specific state. Making sure the business is compliant with all aspects of state laws for security and preventing violations, including the hefty financial penalties that can accompany them, is key.

States require cannabis facilities to implement sophisticated security features for several reasons. One of the most obvious is the fact that the industry supplies a high-value product and is a cash-intensive business. Integrating security features into the building can be a challenging task for architects and designers. To help tackle these challenges, manufacturers have introduced products to the cannabis industry, creating easier, more effective and aesthetically pleasing security solutions.

Integrated Designs For High Level Security
Security shouldn’t be a constraint when considering design aesthetics. Certain elements can be discretely tucked away, including cameras and security doors by way of specifying a concealed rolling door, conveniently disguised in the ceiling during operating hours. These doors can even close under alarm eliminating the need for manual intervention. Other security measures, such as bullet resistant glass, are hidden in plain sight.

Rolling doors like this one can be conveniently disguised in the ceiling during operating hours.

Untrustworthy employees, smash-and-grab thefts or meticulously planned heists mean secure building design is of the utmost importance. In order to have the most effective security, there needs to be design vision – a clear intent for incorporating advanced security into the facility, whether visible or not.

Suggested security measures include video surveillance around the outdoor perimeter of the property as well as inside the facility. Physical barriers, such as specialized entrance locking systems – including fingerprint-scanning biometric technology – and security doors that may also include intrusion detection and automatic closure systems are recommended. All systems may be paired with 24/7 visual monitoring by security personnel.

Many state regulations also require restricted access to specific areas within dispensaries, grow operations and warehouses, with employee names and activities logged for reference. These necessary measures aid in inventory monitoring and control, further reducing the likelihood of internal theft.

When specifying building security, it’s important for architects to consider what type of building they are designing. There are differences in providing security for dispensaries versus warehouses and grow operations. Dispensaries and storefronts are frequently out in the open and in locations that are well-known to consumers. Warehouses and grow operations are usually tucked out of the way, rarely publicized, and less noticeable.

Rolling Grilles And Doors Deter Dispensary Theft
With a high-value product and cash on hand, dispensaries in particular have unique security challenges. And because they are retail businesses, egress and fire codes must be strictly adhered to, in addition to special security regulations.

Rolling grilles can be an effective deterrent against dispensary theft

In light of this, security doors require special consideration. They are necessary to provide secure protection against theft but shouldn’t distract from the architectural vision of the building or interior design.

Rolling security grilles are the ideal solution to protect the counter inside the dispensary and may also be ideal for the front of the store. They fit in small headspaces where there is limited ceiling room and can be easily concealed when not in use.

Even heavy-duty rolling doors used to protect the glass storefront of the dispensary and prevent intruders from entering the building’s dock area can be hidden when not in use. If building code allows, architects may specify a rolling door that coils up into the door’s header, residing behind an exterior soffit. These robust security doors’ lift-resistant bottom bars also can be obscured from sight.

Heavy-duty security doors at the front of the dispensary block sight access and provide a visual deterrent. They give the building a secured look when in use, but heavy-duty rolling doors don’t need to be imposing to customers during the dispensary’s operating hours.

Robust Visible Protection For Grow Operations And Warehouses
Grow operations and warehouses usually opt for more visible security doors to deter criminal activity. They also have different design considerations because of building layout and production needs. For instance, larger grow operations house plants and supplies which require heavy equipment to move throughout the facilities.

A heavy duty steel rolling grille

Heavy duty rolling security doors can be made with up to 12-gauge steel with interlocking slats and tamper resistant fasteners – making them stronger than standard garage doors. They provide high-end security at loading docks and limit access to restricted areas inside.

Rolling doors can also be used to block employee access to off-limits areas common in grow operations and warehouses. Because they are heavily reliant on utilities and infrastructure, such as water mains and humidity and temperature controls, warehouses and grow operations are ideal applications for rolling doors. If unauthorized personnel with ill intentions access these utility areas, it could spell disaster with ruined crops and damaged or unsafe products – turning into substantial financial losses. From a design standpoint, these doors do not need to be concealed. In fact, their visibility signals restricted access areas and hints at the security measures taken to protect these facilities.

Enhanced Security Features
Whether designing a dispensary, a grow operation facility, or a warehouse, rolling doors may be paired with automatic protection features to enhance the building’s security and help workers feel safe. These automatic closing systems allow the security doors to be immediately activated by a building alarm or the push of a panic button in emergency situations. The doors also feature advanced locking systems – some of which are hidden in non-traditional locations – providing further tamper resistance.

Some rolling door manufacturers offer in-house architectural design groups to guide architects and designers in choosing the ideal security doors. These groups can address and solve any design dilemmas that arise during the project. Every rolling door is built to a specific opening, making each product unique to that area of the project. Because of this customization, manufacturers can meet virtually any specification.

Meeting Insurance Requirements
Selecting the correct rolling door along with other advanced security features aids in meeting insurance requirements. Each insurance company has individual minimum-security conditions in its policy. Many insurance companies will not provide theft insurance if cannabis businesses do not have adequate security or cannot demonstrate they have it.

Planning Leads To Integrated Protection
The technical and legal aspects of securing dispensaries, grow operations, and warehouses can be overwhelming and, at times, confusing. Legal counsel, state agencies, industry associations, and manufacturers encourage new cannabis businesses to use them as resources as they unravel the nuances of the industry’s security regulations.

By combining robust security features such as video surveillance, proper access controls, rolling doors or grilles and automatic closure systems, cannabis facilities can meet state and insurance requirements and deter theft. With thoughtful design consideration and planning, these security features also have the capabilities to seamlessly blend with interior and exterior design aesthetics.

photo of outdoor grow operation

The 2020 Global Cannabis Regulatory Roundup

By Marguerite Arnold
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photo of outdoor grow operation

As a strange year heads to a final, painful finish, there have been some major (and some less so) changes afoot in the global world of cannabis regulation. These developments have also undoubtedly been influenced by recent events, such as the recent elections in the United States, state votes for adult use reform in the U.S. and the overall global temperature towards reform. And while all are broadly positive, they have not actually accomplished very much altogether.

Here is a brief overview of the same.

The UN Vote On Cannabis
Despite a wide celebration in the cannabis press, along with proclamations of an unprecedented victory by large Canadian companies who are more interested in keeping their stock prices high than anything else, the December 2 vote on cannabis was actually fairly indecisive.

Following the WHO recommendations to reschedule cannabis, the UN voted in favor of the symbolic move. Despite removing cannabinoids from Schedule IV globally, a regulatory label designed for highly addictive, prescription drugs (like Valium), the actual results on the ground for the average company and patient will be inconclusive.

The first issue is that the UN did not remove cannabinoids themselves, or the plant, from Schedule I designation. This essentially means that countries and regions will be on the front lines to create more local, sovereign policies. This is not likely to change for at least the next several years (more likely decade) as the globe comes to terms with not just a reality post-COVID-19, but one which is very much pro-cannabis.

In the meantime, however, the ruling will make it easier for research to be conducted, for patient access (for the long term), and more difficult for insurers to turn down in jurisdictions where the supposed “danger” of cannabis has been used as an excuse to deny coverage. See Germany as a perfect example of the same.

It is also a boon for the CBD business, no matter where it is. Between this decision and the recent victory in Europe about whether CBD is a narcotic or not (see below), this is another nail in the coffin for those who want to use semantic excuses to restrain the obvious global desire for cannabinoids, with or without THC.

The U.S. Vote On The MORE Act

While undoubtedly a “victory” in the overall cannabis debate, the MORE Act actually means less rather than more. It will not become law as the Senate version of the bill is unlikely to even get to the floor of the chamber before the end of the session – which ends at the end of this year.

The House voted 228 to 164 to pass the MORE Act.

That said, the vote is significant in that it is a test of the current trends and views towards big issues within the overall discussion, beginning with decriminalization and a reform of current criminal and social justice issues inherent in the same. The Biden Administration, while plagued with a multitude of issues, beginning with the pandemic and its immediate aftershocks, will not be able to push both off the radar. Given the intersection of minority rights’ issues, the growing legality of the drug and acceptance thereof, as well as the growing non-partisan position on cannabis use of both the medical and adult use kind, and the economy, expect issues like banking to also have a hope of reform in the next several years.

Cannabis may be taking a back seat to COVID, in other words, but as the legalization of the industry is bound up, inextricably, in economic issues now front and center for every economy, it will be in the headlines a great deal. This makes it an unavoidable issue for the majority of the next four years and on a federal level.

Prognosis in other words? It’s a good next federal step that is safe, but far from enough.

The European Commission (EC) Has Finally Seen The Light On CBD

One of the most immediately positive and impactful decisions of the last month was absolutely the EC decision on whether CBD is a narcotic or not.

This combined with the UN rescheduling, will actually be the huge boost the CBD industry has been waiting for here, with one big and still major overhanging caveat – namely whether the plant is a “novel” one or not. It is unlikely as the situation continues to cook, that Cannabis Sativa L, when it hits a court of law, will ever be actually found as such. It has inhabited the region and been used by its residents for thousands of years.

However, beyond this, important regulatory guidance will need to fall somewhere on the matter of processing and extraction. It is in fact in the processing and extraction part of the debate that this discussion about Novel Food actually means something, beyond the political jockeying and hay made so far.

Beyond this of course, the marketing of CBD now allowed by this decision, will absolutely move the topic of cannabinoids front and center in the overall public sphere. That linked with sovereign experiments on adult use markets of the THC kind (see Holland, Luxembourg and Denmark as well as Portugal and Spain right after that), is far from a null sum game.

Legal Challenges Of Note

The European Court of Human Rights

Against this changing regulatory schemata, court cases and legal decisions remain very important as they also add flavor to how regulations are interpreted and followed. The most important court case in Europe right now is the one now waiting to be decided in the Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg regarding the human rights implications of accessing the plant.

Beyond that, in Germany, recent case law at a regional social benefits court (LSG) has begun to establish that the cannabis discussion is ultimately between doctors and their patients. While this still does not solve the problem of doctor reluctance to prescribe the drug, barriers are indeed coming down thanks to legal challenges.

Bottom line, the industry has been handed a nice whiff of confidence, but there is a still high and thorny bramble remaining to get through – and it will not happen overnight, or indeed even over the next several years.

Analysis of 2020 Ballot Measures

By Laura Bianchi, Justin Brandt
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November 3 was a historic night for legalization across the country. Only a decade ago, cannabis was illegal for nonmedical use in all 50 states. Now, the tide has turned, and every presented cannabis-related initiative has passed, pushing the U.S. adult use cannabis market to 15 states with a population of over 110 million. If nothing else, this year’s election results provided clarity that American voters have become more open to the benefits of cannabis.

Here’s a list of states that passed cannabis-related measures in the 2020 election, along with an analysis of each initiative and what it means for the future: 

New Jersey: Public Question 1

New Jersey’s ballot proposed and ultimately passed the measure Public Question 1, making it the first Mid-Atlantic state to legalize adult use cannabis.

Expected to take effect January 2021, this measure legalizes the adult use of cannabis for anyone over the age of 21 along with cultivation, processing, and retail sales. The Cannabis Regulatory Commission oversees the state’s medical cannabis industry and will now be responsible for the new adult use cannabis market. However, since the ballot measure didn’t outline many details, it has left a lot of discretion up to the state’s legislature, leaving residents awaiting specifics about home-grow rules, possession limits, and other retail regulations.

Public Question 1 will apply the state sales tax of 6.625 percent. However, under this measure, the local jurisdictions are permitted to implement an additional 2 percent, so the final tax rates remain undecided. With New Jersey’s nearly 8.9 million residents, it’s projected to have adult use sales of around $375 million in just the first year and estimated to reach up to $900 million by 2024.

Mississippi: Initiative 65 & Alternative 65A

Mississippi had two competing measures on the ballot to legalize cannabis for medical purposes: Initiative 65 and Alternative 65A. Initiative 65 prevailed with 74 percent of the vote.

Between 2018 and 2019, over 228,000 Mississippi residents signed a petition that led to Initiative 65 appearing on the ballot. And by mid-2021, the legalization of medical cannabis is expected to take place. This initiative is designed to allow medical cannabis treatment for people with at least one of 22 specified qualifying conditions, including ALS, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. The passage of the initiative allows those patients to possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis at one time with a cannabis sales tax set at the state’s regular sales rate of 7 percent.

The Mississippi Legislature proposed the competing ballot item, Alternative 65A, in what supporters of Initiative 65 believed was an effort to confuse voters. This measure restricted the use of cannabis to only terminally ill patients but did not specify qualifying conditions, possession limits or a tax rate leaving the results somewhat ambiguous with many details to be set by Mississippi Legislature. Initiative 65 easily won over the alternative with nearly 74 percent of voters approving versus just over 26 percent for Alternative 65A.

Montana: I-190 & CI-118

Montana became the 14th state to legalize adult use, passing both cannabis-related initiatives on the ballot: Initiative 190 (I-190), which creates a legal adult use cannabis market, and Constitutional Initiative 118 (CI-118), which supplements I-190, allowing the state to establish the legal purchasing, consumption or possession age of 21.

These ballot issues will go into effect beginning January 2021. Initiative I-190 legalizes the adult use and possession of up to one ounce of cannabis or 8 grams of concentrate. It also allows individuals to cultivate up to four cannabis plants and four seedlings in their residence.

Depending on the circumstances, anyone serving cannabis-related sentences for reasons no longer considered crimes under I-190 may request to be resentenced or have their conviction expunged.

Cannabis and infused product retail sales will be taxed at 20 percent. Following the Montana Department of Revenue’s deduction of administrative costs to enforce the measure, remaining tax revenue is set to be allocated to the state’s general fund, veterans programs, conservation programs, drug addiction treatment programs, and local law enforcement and healthcare workers.

South Dakota: IM-26 & CA-A

South Dakota made history as the first state to legalize both medical and adult use in the same election, moving from total prohibition to legalization in just one night. First came Initiated Measure 26 (“IM-26”), South Dakota’s medical cannabis ballot item, passing with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Then came the adult use initiative, Constitutional Amendment A (CA-A), narrowly passing with almost 54 percent of votes.

Both ballot issues are set to go into effect on July 1, 2021. IM-26 establishes a medical program for individuals with a physician-certified debilitating medical condition. Patients can possess a maximum of three ounces of cannabis and, for patients registered to cultivate at home, they will be permitted to grow up to three plants at minimum unless otherwise prescribed by their physician. However, under this measure, the Department of Health can limit the number of cannabis products each person may possess and make amendments to the conditions qualified as debilitating.

CA-A legalizes the adult use of cannabis for adults age 21 and older, allowing possession or distribution up to one ounce, and for those living in a jurisdiction with no licensed retail stores, permitting the growth of up to six cannabis plants in a private residence. This measure also requires the state to adopt hemp laws.

Marijuana sales will be taxed at 15 percent under Amendment A, estimating revenue of $29.3 million by 2025. After any revenue is used for costs associated with implementing this measure, remaining revenue will be divided between public schools and the state’s general fund. 

Arizona: Prop 207

On November 3, voter initiative Proposition 207 passed with 60 percent of the vote, and Arizona became the 13th state to legalize adult use cannabis – a movement that’s expected to make a great addition to the state’s already thriving medical cannabis program.

Also known as the Smart and Safe Act, this initiative legalizes the possession and use of cannabis for residents age 21 and older. It requires the Department of Health and Human Services to develop the rules regulating businesses in areas like licensing of retail stores, and production and cultivation facilities. Individuals will now be allowed to grow up to six plants in their private residences, with no more than 12 plants per household.

Prop 207 placed a 16 percent excise tax on cannabis sales in addition to the state’s 5.6 percent, totaling a 21.6 percent tax. It is estimated that legal cannabis will generate $300 million in revenue, which will be divided between community college districts, municipal police, sheriff and fire departments, fire districts, highway funds and a new Justice Reinvestment Fund. This initiative also allows anyone convicted of certain cannabis-related crimes like possession, consumption, cultivation or transportation to petition for the expungement of their record beginning July 2021.

Each of the initiatives above is expected to provide a wealth of job opportunities and economic growth for their state. This transition also allows those in the cannabis law and regulation industry the chance to develop and implement meaningful and accessible social equity licensing programs. In addition to day-to-day business needs, our firm will be working closely with clients as they transition from strictly medical cannabis licenses to dual licensing. We will also help new licensees build out and develop their adult-use licenses with long-term success in mind.

Cannabis has quickly become a mainstream health and wellness solution for people all across the globe. With the estimated annual national market for cannabis being $50-$60 billion, it’s believed to be a real solution to many local economic shortfalls caused by COVID-19, opening up the country and cannabis industry to a whole new world of opportunity.

Soapbox

The Cannabis Industry, After the Election

By Serge Chistov
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While the 2020 Presidential election didn’t exactly end up in a clear landslide victory for the Democrats, there is one group that did well: the cannabis industry.

The results clearly show that the expansion of cannabis is a recognizable part of today’s society across the United States. States like New Jersey, for example, partly thanks to New York and Pennsylvania—which already allow the use of medical cannabis—traffic will start to force the state of New York’s hand and that’s a big chunk of the population of the Northeast.

If the question of legalization was on the ballot, it was an issue that overwhelmingly succeeded in delivering a clear mandate. Adult use of cannabis passed handily in Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and as mentioned above, New Jersey, and was approved for medical use in Mississippi and South Dakota. 

With only 15 states remaining in the union that still outlaw the use of cannabis in any form, the new reality for the industry is here. All of these outcomes show promise as the industry’s recognition is growing. 

Election outcomes and the position of the average American on cannabis

Americans are definitely understanding, appreciating and using cannabis more and more. It is becoming a part of everyday life and this election’s results could be the tipping point that normalizes the adult use of cannabis. It is becoming more widely understood as an effective and acceptable means to help manage stress and anxiety, aid in sleep and general overall wellbeing. 

Voters in New Jersey overwhelmingly passed their adult use measure

This image of cannabis is aided by the many different forms of consumption that exist now: edibles, transdermal, nano tech, etc. No longer does a consumer have to smoke—which isn’t accepted in many circles—to get the beneficial effects of cannabis. 

Knowledge expansion is going to move these products across state lines and eventually, the federal government will have to take notice.

Do Democrats and Republicans view cannabis through the same lens?

Cannabis is and will always be state specific. Republicans in general tend to be a little bit more cautious and there are a lot of pundits who believe that as long as the Republicans control the senate, there isn’t much of a chance for federal legalization.  

President-Elect Joe Biden & Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris

There is some hope, however, that the industry will get support from the Biden administration. While President-Elect Biden has been on record as being against legalization of cannabis at a federal level, even he will eventually see that the train has left the station and momentum continues to build. In fact, Biden’s tone has changed considerably while he running for president, adding cannabis decriminalization to the Biden-Harris campaign platform.

Ultimately, how cannabis is viewed from each side of the aisle matters less than how it is viewed at the state level. 

Cannabis reform under Biden

Biden had an opportunity to legalize cannabis federally in the U.S. during the Obama administration and it didn’t happen. It’s clear that the mandates of the Biden-Harris administration are going to be overwhelmed by current issues, at least in the beginning: COVID-19, the economy and climate change, to name but three.

What will be interesting is if the Biden-Harris administration goes to greater lengths to decriminalize cannabis. For example, cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug on the books, which puts it in the same class as heroin. Biden couldn’t unilaterally remove cannabis from all scheduling, but his government could reschedule it to reduce the implications of its use.  

This could, however, create more problems than it solves: 

“It’s generally understood, then, that rescheduling weed would blow up the marijuana industry’s existing model, of state-licensed businesses that are not pharmacies selling cannabis products, that are not Food and Drug Administration-reviewed and approved, to customers who are not medical patients.

Biden rescheduling cannabis “would only continue the state-federal conflict, and force both state regulators and businesses to completely reconfigure themselves, putting many people out of business and costing states significant time and money,” as Morgan Fox, chief spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in an email on Monday.” (Source) 

In reality however, there is little chance that Biden will spend any political capital that he has, particularly if the Senate remains in Republican control, dealing with the legalization of adult use cannabis.

What needs to happen for legalization to become a reality

Outside of the law, if Trump suddenly decided to legalize adult use cannabis before leaving the White House, the states would still need to agree on issues such as possession, transportation, shipment and taxation.  

It’s clear that further normalization of cannabis use is required—which will likely take a good couple of years—in order for it to become as understood and as simple as wine, liquor or cigarettes.

Beyond that, it’s Congress that dictated that cannabis be illegal at the federal level and it will have to be Congress that makes the decision to change that. Even the Supreme Court has been reluctant to get involved in the question, believing this to be an issue that should be dealt within the House.

What does all of this mean for investment in the cannabis industry?

Cannabis should be part of most long-term investors’ portfolios. Like a group of stocks in a healthy market with the right balance sheets, cannabis is an expanding industry and growth is there.  

Whether or not this is specifically the right time to invest, it’s always important to evaluate each stock or each company individually, from the point of view of the merits of the investment and investment objectives, as well as risk tolerance perspectives.  

There isn’t any unique or special place to buy into the cannabis industry, unless it is connected to some new real estate or other opportunity that is COVID-19 related. This moment in time isn’t really any different from any other when it comes to the opportunity to own some cannabis stocks. It’s always a good time.

The short term returns of this market shouldn’t be speculated upon. There are just way more factors than the fundamentals of a company that will affect the short-term play. The country is in a transition of power, in addition to much international change taking place that can also contribute to returns in the short term, making speculation unhelpful.

The cannabis market in 2021

The cannabis industry is likely to continue to expand and grow with the select companies acquiring more and more and getting back to their cash flow. Some companies will slowly be going out of business and/or will be acquired by others going into a certain consolidation period of time. Whatever the outcomes in specific tourism dominated markets, the industry as a whole can really go in one direction. 

Cannabis Won Big: A Post-Election Analysis

By Aaron G. Biros
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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include the presidential and congressional election results.


While the votes continue to come in for the presidential and congressional elections and we have some concrete results materializing, cannabis legalization has emerged as a clear winner across the board. Five states had initiatives on the ballot to legalize cannabis in one form or another and voters in all five states approved those measures by wide margins.

As of this writing, 15 states now have legalized adult use cannabis and 36 states have legalized medical cannabis. That is a significant portion of the United States with some form of legal cannabis, even without counting the emergent hemp markets across the country.

After a tight race and mail-in vote counts diminishing President Trump’s lead days following the election, Joe Biden has won the White House. Most cannabis industry stakeholders see this as a win for cannabis as both Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris have voiced support for federal decriminalization of cannabis. The vocal support is very much so tied to their campaign on ending racial injustices and systemic racism, citing the failed war on drugs for disproportionately harming communities of color.

While it is looking like the Democrats will retain control of the House of Representatives, it is still unclear which party will control the Senate. That  question likely won’t be answered until January 2021, when voters in Georgia will decide on two Senate seats in runoff elections that will decide which party gets the majority. With a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, it is entirely possible that the Biden administration could decriminalize cannabis on a federal level within the next four years. Without that majority, however, it is possible reform could come at a much slower pace.

As more states legalize cannabis, their neighbors see the potential economic benefits and want to cash in on the movement. Just take a look at the West Coast.

Comments made by politicians leading up to the election in the Northeast also shed some light on the alleged domino effect coming to the United States. In late October, about two weeks before the election, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was asked when his state will legalize adult use cannabis. His answer: “Soon, because now we need the money.” Back in September, Pennsylvania Governor Tom wolf specifically asked the state legislature to legalize adult use cannabis. Governor Wolf said “people will go to New Jersey” to purchase cannabis once it becomes legal in the neighboring state.

Question 1 in NJ won by a very wide margin

Well, New Jersey legalized adult use cannabis. So now it appears we are in a waiting game to see which neighboring state will move forward before the other. Alyssa Jank, consulting services manager at Brightfield Group, predicts cannabis sales in New Jersey to reach about $460 million in 2021, up from about $94 million this year. She says the market could reach $1.5 billion by 2025.

Sam D’Arcangelo, director of the Cannabis Voter Project, a division of HeadCount, says the New Jersey measure is pretty bare-bones, so the legislature will need to pass enabling legislation that actually creates the adult-use program. “It’s tough to tell exactly what that legislation will look like or how long it will take to pass, but it’s possible it will be approved pretty quickly,” says D’Arcangelo. “Tonight’s results could set off a domino effect that inspires lawmakers to move forward with legalization in a number of states throughout the region.”

Let’s take a closer look at Arizona: Back in 2016, Arizona had a measure on the ballot to legalize adult use cannabis that failed to get enough votes. Things have clearly changed in the state in the last four years because Prop. 207 (the 2020 ballot initiative to legalize adult use cannabis) won 59.8% to 40.2%. Arizona now joins a massive West Coast bloc of states slowly creeping inland that have legalized adult use cannabis, including, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and now Arizona, not to mention Montana. Drug Policy Alliance’s Emily Kaltenbach believes that New Mexico will follow suit as well, with three out of four voters in the state in favor of it.

Voters in Mississippi approved a medical cannabis program by a wide margin with almost 74% in favor. Even more encouraging, voters in the state rejected the legislature’s attempt to hijack the initiative with their own alternative measure that would have involved developing their own program as they see fit without any sort of deadline.

While Montana can tend to lean slightly Democrat, it is surrounded by heavily Republican-dominated states like Wyoming and Idaho. With both Montana and South Dakota voters approving adult use legalization measures, this presents a potential inroad for cannabis to reach far more conservative states in the Northern Rockies and beyond.

Greg Kaufman Partner at Eversheds Sutherland and frequent Cannabis Industry Journal contributor, says this election puts considerable pressure on Congress to take some action on one or more of the cannabis-related bills currently pending. “In several states, cannabis was more popular than the winning presidential candidate, regardless of the party of the winning candidate,” says Kaufman. “This suggests that cannabis is not a partisan issue, nor should it be.”

The 15 states that have legal adult use cannabis now represents about 34% of the population in our country. “During the most divisive election in modern U.S. history, Americans demonstrated unity around at least one issue – cannabis policy reform,” says Aaron Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association. He says the victories we saw this week are commendable and will lead to a lot of new jobs, tax revenue and thousands of fewer arrests, but there is still a lot of work to be done. “We look forward to building on this progress as we continue to work with Congress to end the conflict between outdated federal laws and the growing number of states with regulated cannabis markets, and help undo the racially and economically disparate harms caused by prohibition.”

While we wait to hear who will control the Senate in 2021, which will have a massive impact on cannabis reform, we leave you with this great quote from Aaron Smith: “There is still a lot of work to do, but the wind is at our backs.”

To see the details and results of each cannabis measure on the ballot in this election, click here. 

Branding for Cannabis Companies 101: Part 2

By Jennifer Whetzel
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Editor’s Note: In Part 1, Jennifer Whetzel introduced the concepts of branding, marketing and advertising for cannabis companies. Part 2 takes a closer look at the benefits of branding. Stay tuned for Part 3 coming next month.


The Value of Branding

Think back: do you remember the very first Nike ad you saw? Probably not.

But when you see the swoosh, you immediately think of Nike. When you see the swoosh, you probably even think “Just do it.” A whole sensibility, one that signifies perseverance and athletic excellence, gets conjured up by that swoosh. A lot of people think that’s the power of advertising, but they’re only partially correct.

The fact that you don’t just know the swoosh but have thoughts and feelings that bubble up when you see it is due to branding. Companies like Nike don’t spend millions on branding reflexively. They do it because brand recognition and the feelings that come with it turn potential consumers into buyers. Branding success is necessary, measurable and valuable – especially for brands looking to establish themselves.Strong branding is what will increase the chances that your marketing and advertising will be effective, and it’s why branding must be one of your top priorities.

Branding: The Precursor to Advertising

You might not know specifically what ads work on you. But the ones that do work are driven by a strong brand.

For example, check out this ad campaign run by McDonald’s: Essentially, the fast food giant used fractions of its logo to make a wayfinding system on highway billboards. It’s clever and memorable, but it only works thanks to McDonald’s strong branding. McDonald’s has spent years building that shorthand because they understand that immediate recognition pays off in the literal and figurative sense.

Similarly, you know an Apple or an Under Armour ad when you see one. And you know this because there’s a consistent look and sensibility that these companies have worked to codify – that’s the branding piece. If you immediately recognize who these messages are coming from even before you engage with the ad, you’re more focused on the message rather than trying to suss out which company it’s coming from or what they’re selling.

This is why branding has to be a precursor to advertising. If you create ads before you build your brand, you may get a message out about what you’re offering. But if you do this, you’re talking at your customer rather than building a relationship with them. Strong branding is what will increase the chances that your marketing and advertising will be effective, and it’s why branding must be one of your top priorities.

The Benefits of Branding

Branding is about building a lasting, positive relationship with your customer. When you present a consistent brand personality and identity to your audience, you build trust. Consider how you form any long-term relationship; it’s through repeated positive, consistent encounters that allow you to see the other party for who they are. You trust them because you feel that you understand them and that they understand you.

Strange as it seems, it’s also true of brands. Building that bond with your customers will give you an advantage against brands that aren’t very distinct. With proper branding, a company can build and solidify consumer trust, trust that pays off in the form of increased sales, loyalty and good reviews. These brands aren’t constantly introducing themselves to consumers because over time, the branding itself does the selling and makes it easier to introduce new products down the line. Companies that don’t build that trust will have to fight for recognition, and things only get worse with more competition.

The Dollar Value of Branding

And of course, there are numbers to back this up. Every year, Forbes puts out a list of the world’s most valuable brands, and they use complex math to determine the actual value of this intangible thing called a Brand. Based on their thinking, a branded product should earn an 8% premium over a generic product. You can see some of their findings in the table below for a few categories that are traditionally very well-branded.

Industry Brand Brand Value (Billions)[1]
Technology Apple $205.5
Technology Microsoft $125.3
Consumer Packaged Goods Coca-Cola $59.2
Restaurants McDonald’s $43.8
Apparel NIKE $36.8
Restaurants Starbucks $17.0
Apparel Adidas $11.2
Consumer Packaged Goods Kellogg’s $8.0

These numbers, however, make it difficult to compare how well a company’s branding works for them because the brand’s total value is influenced by the size of the company. After doing a few simple calculations, we compared the Brand Value to the total Enterprise Value of each company to determine what we will call their Brand Contribution, which demonstrates how their branding efforts paid off.

When you compare the percentage of total company value that solely comes from the value of the brand, we can see that Nike significantly outperforms competitor Adidas, McDonald’s has a stronger brand than Starbuck’s, and Apple comes close to doubling the brand performance of Microsoft — none of which is surprising.

What might surprise you is the brand at the top of the list when it comes to contribution versus overall company value. Kellogg’s is one of the smallest companies to make the list in terms of Brand Value, and it has the lowest enterprise value in our list. Yet, Kellogg’s has the highest brand contribution. This makes sense in the high-stakes world of consumer-packaged goods; the competition is fierce, well-funded and global, which means that branding that resonates with customers is extremely important.

Industry Brand Brand Value Enterprise Value[2] Brand Contribution[3]
Consumer Packaged Goods Kellogg’s $8.0 $28.4 28.2%
Apparel NIKE $36.8 $133.4 27.6%
Restaurants McDonald’s $43.8 $187.2 23.4%
Consumer Packaged Goods Coca-Cola $59.2 $254.8 23.2%
Technology Apple $205.5 $950.3 21.6%
Apparel Adidas $11.2 $59.0 19.0%
Restaurants Starbucks $17.0 $109.7 15.5%
Technology Microsoft $125.3 $990.9 12.6%

These companies are all massive and wealthy because they prioritize trust and consistency as part of their long-term plan to sell products. Branding promotes loyalty, but its ability to promote trust can be even more powerful by paying off in the long-term. And in this new legal cannabis market, trust is going to be just as critical as it is for traditional companies. After all, the power of branding isn’t just getting people to know who you are — it’s getting them to believe in you.

  1.  https://www.forbes.com/powerful-brands/list/#tab:rank
  2. Enterprise value gathered from ycharts.com on 6/20/2019. Ycharts defines enterprise value as: Enterprise Value (EV) is a valuation metric alternative to traditional market capitalization that reflects the market value of an entire business. Like market cap, EV is a measure of what the market believes a company is worth. Enterprise value captures the cost of an entire business, including debt and equity. It is a sum of claims of all preferred shareholders, debt holders, security holders, common equity holders, and minority shareholders – unlike market cap, which only captures the total value of common equity securities.
  3. Ladyjane’s valuation of the strength of a brand. What percentage of the company’s overall valuation can be attributed to the brand? Brand Contribution = Brand Value / Enterprise Value

Arizona Still Doesn’t Require Lab Testing, But That Could Change Soon

By Aaron G. Biros
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As of today, Arizona is the only state in the country that has legalized medical cannabis but does not require producers to test their medical cannabis. States throughout the country that legalize medical cannabis routinely implement regulations that require third-party, independent lab testing to protect patient and consumer safety. Arizona legalized medical cannabis for a number of qualifying conditions back in 2011, but still has no measure like other states to protect patient safety.

Lawmakers in Arizona now have the opportunity to change that with SB1494, which passed unanimously through the state’s Senate back in March of 2019. According to the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association (ACLA), the bill awaits action in the House of Representatives. The ACLA says in a press release that “supporters of the bill are calling on lawmakers to move on a bill that unanimously passed in the Senate earlier this year.” The bill would require producers to use independent, third-party labs to test cannabis for things like harmful toxins and molds.

Ryan Tracy, co-founder of the ACLA and founder/CEO at C4 Labs.

According to Ryan Treacy, co-founder of the ACLA and CEO/Founder of C4 Laboratories, the ACLA was formed for a few important reasons: “We feel it is very important that we encourage and cultivate a professional and collaborative rapport among the reputable Arizona cannabis labs,” says Treacy. “So that we can call upon the collective groups’ years of experience to help provide insight and suggestions on how we as a group can insure the most accurate and consistent results for our clients throughout the state and ultimately their patients.” Treacy went on to add that it is particularly important their collective voice be heard at the State Capitol as lawmakers work towards passing SB 1494.

“There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”George Griffeth, President of the ACLA, says there is a sense of urgency in passing this bill before the voters decide on legalizing recreational adult-use cannabis next year. “Everyone agrees that now is the time to be proactive to protect patients from unsafe contaminants,” says Griffeth. “Currently 61 tons of medical marijuana is consumed by patients and many believe that the number of people using the medicine will continue to grow. With a ballot initiative related to the recreational use of marijuana facing voters next year, Arizona must act now to make sure standards are in place.”

They say the bill has bipartisan support and many stakeholders in Arizona’s cannabis industry express support for it as well. For Ryan Treacy, he is worried about patients consuming harmful chemicals and toxins. “My colleagues and I are deeply concerned that more than two-hundred thousand people who use medical marijuana could be inadvertently exposing themselves to toxic chemicals, E. Coli, Salmonella or mold,” says Treacy. “There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”

Treacy says this bill is particularly difficult to pass because the original measure to legalize medical cannabis was a ballot initiative. That means the bill needs 75% support in both the House and the Senate in order to amend the original measure. “The passing of this bill would be a huge win for the patients and will help to ensure honesty and transparency for those that operate in the current medical cannabis program here in AZ,” says Treacy. “This testing bill is also written with legislative intent to cover any and all future adult use or recreational use legislative laws or ballot initiatives. We hope to have a final verdict on this bill by end of this week or early next.”

Seven Steps To Avoid the Green Rush Blues: Investigate Water Supplies Before Planting Cannabis

By Amy M. Steinfeld
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A clean, reliable water supply lies at the heart of every successful cannabis farm. It’s no surprise that the stakes for finding land with ideal growing conditions, including adequate water, are high. But new buyers (and lessees) caught up in the green rush often gloss over water rights or are unaware of California’s byzantine rules governing the irrigation of cannabis.

Water rights are complex. Water regulations applicable to cannabis cultivation are even more complex. And our new climate reality convolutes things further. Longer droughts, more volatile weather, political uncertainties, increased groundwater regulation and water quality concerns are exacerbating tensions over local and statewide water supplies. In many areas of California, landowners can no longer rely on local water districts to meet their needs.

A robust investigation of the property must consider water supplies. Because a property’s water supply is dependent on water rights, local ordinances, state regulations, politics and hydrology, it’s important to consult a water lawyer (and in some instances a hydrologist) before closing. A bit of foresight can prevent a grower from being left high and dry.

The following checklist provides a roadmap to conduct water rights’ due diligence. While many of these details are California-specific, this type of due diligence applies throughout the West.

Step 1: Identify Available Water Supplies and Consider Potential Limitations On Irrigation, Including Potential Future Changes

Conduct a site visit to identify existing water infrastructure, natural water features and existing or potential water service options. Next, determine if the property is served by a public water supplier. If that’s the case, the California State Water Resources Control Board (“State Water Board”) does not require any specific documentation to irrigate cannabis, but the water supply must be disclosed in the CalCannabis license application.

Groundwater is generally the best supply for cannabis, but the era of unregulated groundwater pumping is over. Many groundwater basins in California are now governed by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (“SGMA”), which requires water agencies to halt overdraft and restore balanced levels of groundwater pumping from certain basins. As a result, SGMA may result in future pumping cutbacks or pumping assessments. It’s imperative to identify the local groundwater basin via the Department of Water Resources’ Bulletin 118, and determine whether the groundwater basin is adjudicated or governed by a groundwater sustainability agency. Growers should also test the local water supply’s pH and salt levels because cannabis plants are finicky and water treatment can be cost prohibitive. If a new well is needed, growers should consult with their local county before drilling a new well. In some areas, moratoriums and restrictions on drilling new wells are on the rise.

As a rule of thumb, cannabis cultivators should avoid using surface water to irrigate cannabis. Surface diversions are subject to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s permitting authority. And under the interim State Water Board Cannabis Policy, commercial cannabis cultivators cannot divert anysurface water during the dry season (April 1 through Oct. 31), even if they have a riparian right that can be used to irrigate other crops. During the dry season, cultivators may only irrigate using water that has been stored off-stream. And even during the wet season, cannabis cultivators must comply with instream flow requirements and check in with the state daily to ensure adequate water supplies are available. Cannabis cultivators are also required to install measuring devices and track surface water diversions daily. And buyer beware, a groundwater well that extracts water from a subterranean stream may be considered a surface-water diversion. So be especially cautious if the well is located close to a creek or river.Develop a water use plan to optimize water efficiency 

Step 2: Identify Water Supplies Used On the Property, Including the Basis of Right, and Quantify Historical Use

Review information on historic and existing water use. This may include past water bills and assessments. If there is a well on the property, the seller or lessor may have metering data, electrical records and crop data that can establish historic groundwater use. Cultivators must submit a well log to CalCannabis as part of the cannabis cultivation application. If surface water is available, the purchaser should review the State Water Board eWRIMs database for water rights permits, licenses, stock pond registrations and certificates, decisions and orders. The purchaser should also identify surface water diversion structures and review annual filings to determine compliance with all terms and conditions of the water right. Lastly, the purchaser should request all documents and contracts pertaining to water rights.

Realistically estimate water demand for irrigation and other on-site purposes.Step 3: Confirm Ownership of Right and Assess Any Limitations On Water Right

Determine whether the right has been abandoned, lost to prescription or forfeited. Evaluate the seniority of the water right, availability of the right, adequacy of place of use, purpose of use (must include irrigation), season of use, and quantity of any permitted or licensed post-1914 right. Determine whether historical diversions pursuant to an appropriative right support the full amount of the claimed right, and whether any changes to the water right are needed to support the proposed new use. Cultivators in California who plan to utilize surface water also need to file for a “Cannabis Small Irrigation Use Registration” to store water during the wet season for use during the dry season.

Step 4: Reconcile Water Demand With Available Supply

Realistically estimate water demand for irrigation and other on-site purposes. Develop a water use plan to optimize water efficiency (drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting, water monitoring, hoop structures) regardless of supply sufficiency. Many counties, such as Santa Barbara County, require that cannabis growers meet certain irrigation efficiency standards. Determine whether available supplies can meet all proposed demands, including plans for full buildout. If not, consider whether additional supplies are available for use on the property.

Step 5: Determine Water Supply Compliance Obligations

 The rights associated with water supplies are defined by their source, the time frame during which supplies can be taken, the quantity of water to which the right attaches, and any limitations on the purpose of use of the water supply. There may also be reporting requirements associated with taking and using the supply—these can include requirements to report the quantity of water used as well as information regarding the end use of the water. Failure to timely report can have serious consequences. Cannabis cultivators are also subject to additional water quality regulations and restrictions, including waste discharge requirements pursuant to the State Water Board’s Cannabis General Order.

Step 6: Negotiate Deal and Draft Conveyance Documents

After obtaining an understanding of the water supply associated with the property, the property conveyance documents may be drafted to incorporate the transfer of rights associated with the property’s water supplies. These may include the assignment of contracts pursuant to which water supplies are obtained, the transfer of permits or licenses as to the water supplies, or the transfer of water rights arising out of a judgment or decree.

Step 7: Consider Unused Water Supply Assets That Could Be Monetized 

To the extent the water supply rights associated with the property exceed the cannabis plants’ water demand, it may be possible to monetize unused or excess water supply assets through transfer of the rights to a third party.

If you have any questions about water rights related to cannabis cultivation it’s always in your best interest to contact an experienced water attorney early on in the process.

New Taxes for California Cannabis Industry

By Jasmine Davaloo
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Welcome to the evolving world of cannabis legislation and taxation in California. With the recent 2018 midterm election, a green wave of new laws and regulations has washed ashore, and Taxnexus, a cannabis tax compliance service provider for cannabis businesses, has analyzed the results, looking for insights to guide cannabis business owners in 2019.

In summary, the trend of local counties and cities imposing new cannabis taxes on dispensaries, distributors and cultivators continues, but with some important lessons being learned.

A Brief History of California Cannabis Tax Regulations.

The legalization of cannabis in California brought with it cannabis excise tax and cultivation taxes with the hope of bringing in significant amounts of income in cannabis taxes. The state had projected $185M in cannabis tax revenue for the first six months of 2018. Although California has since collected tens of millions of dollars fewer than anticipated, it did bring in over $135M in the first and second quarters from a brand new industry.

Local governments are able to collect these taxes directly from cannabis businesses.  With the green light from the state and the need for a new source of revenue, many local governments followed suit and passed laws to impose taxes on cannabis businesses operating in their jurisdictions. The need for additional revenue is even greater for localities that allow cannabis business operations given that the state takes virtually all of the state-imposed cannabis taxes while the local government entities are burdened by the related costs of regulations and enforcement at the local level.

Cannabis business taxes have an extra allure for local jurisdictions. Unlike local sales and use taxes, the state does not require local cannabis business taxes to go through the state before a portion of it gets funneled back to the localities. Local governments are able to collect these taxes directly from cannabis businesses.

Since January 1, 2018, many local jurisdictions have come onboard and placed ballot measures for their voters to decide whether to tax cannabis businesses. According to research conducted by Taxnexus, by the end of the second quarter this year, there were over 500 different local cannabis tax rates in California.The new cannabis tax measures are also continuing the trend of widely ranging local cannabis tax laws.

Midterm Results Continue Overwhelming Support for Cannabis Industry

With over 50 cannabis tax measures placed on the November 6 local ballots, most of which passed with overwhelming support from voters, the number and variation of local cannabis business taxes continue to grow. This demonstrates the continuing trend of local governments welcoming cannabis businesses, the evolving voter attitude toward recreational cannabis, and perhaps most importantly, the localities’ desire to take their cut of the new industry’s tax revenue.

The new cannabis tax measures are also continuing the trend of widely ranging local cannabis tax laws. Given that the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act granted local jurisdictions control over deciding their own cannabis business regulations, there is no statewide uniformity. Here are a few examples of the cannabis business tax measures that were on local ballots on November 6:

San Francisco

While some local jurisdictions were quick to impose cannabis taxes, others have delayed in taxing their local cannabis businesses. San Francisco’s Proposition D, which received a 66% voter approval, won’t go into effect until January 1, 2021. It imposes taxes on cannabis businesses that do business in the city, whether or not they are physically located there. The new cannabis business taxes are as follows:

  • For cannabis retail businesses, 2.5% of gross receipts up to $1M and 5% of gross receipts over $1M.
  • For cannabis non-retail businesses, 1% tax of gross receipts up to $1M and 1.5% of gross receipts over $1M.

These taxes do not apply to the first $500,000 of recreational cannabis gross receipts nor revenues from medical cannabis retail sales. The measure allows the Board of Supervisors to adjust the tax rates up to 7%. The cannabis businesses taxes are expected to generate $5M to $12M in cannabis tax revenue, and will go into the City’s general fund.The new tax measures underscore the lack of uniformity in local cannabis business taxes throughout the state. 

Emeryville

Emeryville passed a new cannabis business tax measure to increase its current nominal rate. Measure S imposes a cannabis business tax of up to 6% of gross receipts. This is estimated to generate $2M in tax revenue to be used for unrestricted governmental purposes.

Oakland

Oakland is among the few local jurisdictions that placed a measure on its November 6 ballot to lower its existing cannabis business tax rates. Previously, Oakland imposed a 5% tax on medical cannabis and a 10% tax on recreational cannabis, for all cannabis activities throughout the supply chain. These are among some of the highest cannabis tax rates in the state and are squeezing out small operators. Although Oakland has long been seen as the leader in California’s cannabis industry, the high taxes are making it difficult for its cannabis businesses to compete with nearby cities that charge lower taxes. While the city acknowledged the hardship its high taxes imposed, it maintained that it could not lower the rates on its own and required the voter approval. On November 6th, Oakland voters passed Measure V by 78%, which gives the City Council the authority to lower the city’s cannabis tax rates through an ordinance. To give additional relief to the cannabis businesses in the city, this measure also allows them to deduct the cost of raw materials from their gross receipts- something they cannot do on their federal tax returns. Furthermore, local cannabis business taxes can now be paid on a quarterly basis instead of one annual payment at the beginning of each year, which was severely burdensome for most businesses.

Lake County

Voters in Lake County approved Measure K by a majority vote to tax cannabis businesses in the unincorporated county effecting January 1, 2021. The county was previously only taxing cultivators at $1 to $3 per square footage depending on the method of cultivation. These rates will be reduced to $1 per square footage for cultivators and nurseries, and other cannabis businesses will be taxes between 2.5% and 4% of their gross receipts.

Mountain View

While there is a maximum of four cannabis businesses permitted to operate in Mountain View, over 80% of voters approved Measure Q to tax them. The measure imposes up to 9% of gross receipts to fund general city purposes, with an estimated annual revenue of $1M.Some have even set the effective dates of their cannabis tax laws several years out to allow their local cannabis businesses an opportunity to establish roots and drive out the black market.

Lompoc

Some jurisdictions have passed more creative cannabis business tax regimens than one rate applicable to the entire supply chain. Voters in Lompoc in Santa Barbara County approved Measure D2018 to authorize the city to impose following cannabis business taxes:

  • Up to $0.06 per $1 (6%) of recreational retail sales proceeds;
  • Up to $0.01 per $1 (1%) of cultivation and nursery proceeds;
  • An annual flat fee tax of $15,000 if net income is less than $2M of manufacturing and distribution proceeds;
  • An annual flat fee tax of $30,000 if net income is $2 Million or more of manufacturing and distribution proceeds;
  • A total aggregate tax of $0.06 per $1.00 (6%) of microbusinesses proceeds, not including medical cannabis transaction proceeds; and
  • No tax on testing.

Riverbank

There are signs that other localities that waited to jump onboard have learned from these high-taxing jurisdictions and opted for lower rates. There are even those localities that although they do not statutorily permit cannabis businesses to operate in their jurisdictions, they still want a piece of the action when it comes to cannabis taxes. The city of Riverbank in Stanislaus County currently does not allow cannabis businesses to operate without first obtaining a permit from City Hall and entering into a development agreement with the city that negotiates how much of their revenue the city would take. However, the voters just passed Measure B, which authorizes Riverbank’s City Council to impose a business license tax of up to 10% of gross receipts on cannabis businesses in the event the city allows cannabis businesses to operate within its city limits in the future. This tax has incentives other than the apparent potential of tax revenue. This guarantees the city a cut of the earnings of any illegal cannabis businesses, and serves as a protection in the event the permit and development agreement scheme the city has enacted is later found to be invalid.

The Chaos Continues

The new tax measures underscore the lack of uniformity in local cannabis business taxes throughout the state. Compliance is especially burdensome for delivery companies and multi-location and multi-license cannabis businesses. Cannabis businesses are required to keep up with new and evolving cannabis tax regimens, which, judging by the shortfall in cannabis tax revenues compared to their projections so far, is a difficult feat for these highly-regulated businesses.Of course, there are still some local governments that appear to have missed all the signs and have passed new high taxes. 

The overall trend in 2018, persisting through the midterm elections, is that more local jurisdictions are joining the cannabis tax bandwagon, and while the tax rates and structures are still all over the map, there appears to be some movement toward honing the cannabis business rates toward that “sweet spot.”

Cities like Oakland and Berkeley that immediately began to tax cannabis businesses at high rates have lowered or taken steps to lower their tax rates to keep their competitive edge and retain cannabis businesses within their jurisdictions. There are signs that other localities that waited to jump onboard have learned from these high-taxing jurisdictions and opted for lower rates. Some have even set the effective dates of their cannabis tax laws several years out to allow their local cannabis businesses an opportunity to establish roots and drive out the black market.

Of course, there are still some local governments that appear to have missed all the signs and have passed new high taxes. In due time, they, too, will give in to the market pressures and make necessary adjustments if they want to continue to benefit from the legal cannabis industry in their jurisdictions.


Taxnexus is an automated transaction-to-treasury cannabis tax compliance solution for the entire cannabis supply chain that provides point-of-sale state and local cannabis tax calculation, sales and use tax calculation, tax data management as the authority of record, and timely filing of returns with all applicable taxing authorities.