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A Dank Opportunity: Private Equity in the Cannabis Industry & Compliance with the Securities Act

By Kayla Kuri
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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.

Rule 506(b)

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:

  1. Have an individual income of more than $200,000 in the past two years
  2. Have a joint income with their spouse of more than $300,000 in the past two years
  3. Have an individual net worth, or joint net worth with their spouse, in excess of $1,000,000 or:
  4. 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)

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.

Intrastate Exemption

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.

State Requirements

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.


References

  1. See 15 U.S.C § 77b(a)(1)
  2. 328 U.S. 293 (1946).
  3. 15 U.S.C § 77f.
  4. See 15 U.S.C § 77d.
  5. 17 CFR § 230.500.
  6. 17 CFR § 230.147.
  7. 17 CFR § 230.504.
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. 17 CFR § 230.506(b).
  11. Id.
  12. 17 CFR § 230.501.
  13. Id.
  14. Id.
  15. 17 CFR § 230.502; 17 CFR § 239.90; 17 CFR § 210.8; 17 CFR § 239.10.
  16. 17 CFR § 230.506(c).
  17. Id.
  18. Id.
  19. Id.
  20. 17 CFR § 230.147.
  21. Investor Alert: Marijuana Investments and Fraud. (2018, September 5).
  22. Investor Alert: Marijuana-Related Investments. (2014, May 16).

2020 Financial Trends for the Cannabis Industry

By Melissa Diaz
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The past year has been another strong year in cannabis. Investors continued to pour money into the burgeoning industry — surpassing 2018 investment totals in just 40 weeks — and new markets opened up for recreational and medical cannabis. And following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD has proliferated and become one of the hottest health supplements in the country.

But as the year winds down, the industry appears to be poised for a more challenging shift in the new year, as once-heady expectations for some big companies don’t pan out and some states clamp down, rather than loosen up, certain regulatory hurdles.

Here are some financial trends to keep an eye on in cannabis over the next year:

Finding New Capital Investment Will Be Tougher

After an initial investment boom in recent years, cannabis investors are realizing not everything colored green turns to gold. With public cannabis companies not performing as well as hoped and restrictive tax laws still plaguing the industry, investors are growing more cautious when it comes to cannabis. Add in other macroeconomic trends that are pointing to a global economic slowdown, and 2020 is shaping up to be a tough year to find cannabis capital.

Image: Flickr

That’s not to say funding will completely dry up, but operators and business owners must be aware that investment deals that perhaps closed in a matter of days in previous years, likely will take weeks or months while investors dig deeper into books and perform higher levels of due diligence before inking a deal. This means cannabis businesses must carefully plan and watch their cashflow and pursue fresh capital or investment earlier rather than later.

Expect More M&A and Consolidation

With the green rush reaching a crest of sorts, reality is setting in for some smaller cannabis operators. Expect to see more consolidation with smaller dispensaries and cultivators being bought up and absorbed by the big kids. More limited capital and investment options coupled with continued regulatory and legal uncertainties mean unsustainable operating costs for independent and smaller operators, which means the only way to survive may be to sell to a larger player.

New Markets & Regulations

The new year brings new states opening up to recreational or medical cannabis sales, as well as newer or altered regulations in existing markets. Cannabis firms must keep an eye on these new markets and regulations to best determine whether they plan to expand or not.

How stringent or lenient regulations are written and executed will determine the size and viability of the market. One state may severely limit the number of licenses it issues, while others may not put any limit. For example, Oklahoma issues unlimited licenses to grow hemp at $1,500 a piece. While that sounds promising for smaller hemp producers, it also could potentially lead to an oversaturation in the market. On the flip side, a more restrictive (and costly) licensure structure could lead to a far more limited market where only the industry’s largest players will be able to compete.

Image: Cafecredit, Flickr

Cannabis businesses also should keep an eye out for new regulatory hurdles in existing cannabis markets. For instance, California is raising its excise tax on cannabis beginning Jan. 1. That will result in higher costs for both consumers and cannabis companies. High state and local taxes have been a challenge industrywide because they make legal operators less competitive with the illicit market. Also, a proposed rule in Missouri could ban medical cannabis operators from paying taxes in cash. Such a rule would prove problematic for an industry that has had to rely on cash because of federal banking regulations. 

Credit Card Payments

While cannabis businesses may face several new and recurring hurdles in 2020 on the financial front, at least one looming change should make business easier: credit card payment processing. Because of cannabis’ continued banking woes, dispensaries and other plant-touching operations have not been able to accept credit cards. Though federal banking limitations remain in place, in 2020 we will see payment processors introduce new, creative and less expensive ways to navigate current banking limitations that will allow cannabis sellers to take credit cards. Opening up payments in this way will not only make transactions and record keeping easier for customers and businesses alike, it also will attract consumers who don’t use cash.

While some of these trends may prove challenging, in many ways they are signs that the cannabis industry is shifting and maturing as we enter a new decade. Many hurdles remain, but the size and momentum of the industry will only continue to grow in 2020 and beyond.

Federal Funding Is Flowing To Canada’s Cannabis Production

By Marguerite Arnold
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The Canadian federal government is going where the U.S. (for now) is not: namely allowing provinces to channel federal agricultural funds into commercial cannabis production on the provincial level. The program is called the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (or CAP), which is a $2.2 billion annual initiative designed to support agricultural businesses across the country.

So far, not every province has opened this funding to cannabis production, although British Columbia already has, and Alberta is currently considering it.

Even more intriguing of course, are other programs that tie into such agricultural subsidies (including government support for exporting product). See Europe for one.

These programs are of course nothing new, including in the United States.

What is new, different and intriguing, is that unlike the United States, for the first time such government funds are being used to support not only the domestic cultivation of cannabis, but its global export. If there ever was the beginning of a “green new deal” then this might be it.

Canadian companies are certainly seeming to benefit from this federal largesse at the production point. For example, in the first weeks of April, CannTrust Holdings Inc. announced that its entire 450,000 square foot, perpetual harvest facility in Pelham, Ontario is fully licensed and will be online by summer 2019. THC BioMed just announced that it received Health Canada’s permission to begin additional production at its flagship location in Kelowna, B.C. And Beleave has just commenced sales of cannabis oil products at licensed facilities in Hamilton, Ontario.

The Rise of Government Funding In a “Publicly Owned” Company Environment

One of the more intriguing impacts of the rise of government funding for the industry comes at a time when the industry itself, certainly coming out of Canada, is facing a bit of a zeitgeist moment.

Sure, the industry has gained legitimacy, and there might be nascent cannabis funds in the UK, Switzerland and Germany, but the entire “public cannabis company” discussion is hitting a bit of a reset at the moment.

It was after all, ostensibly “public” Wayland that just dusted much higher fliers from the stock price perspective on winning the German cultivation bid. In fact, some insiders on the ground have commented that it is precisely because Wayland is not a stock market favorite, rather focused on fundamentals that they got chosen in the first place. Starting with the old-fashioned idea of committing resources and elbow grease to create production on the ground, locally.

There are also firms who are benefitting from the first tax funds that have flowed to promote the hemp industry (those are available from state governments here).

However, it is not just Germany where this discussion is going on in Europe right now. In Spain, there is political discussion about ensuring that the nascent and valuable cannabis industry does not end up in the control of “outsiders.” Namely international firms who have more of an eye on profit than community building. The idea of the cannabis industry as an economic development tool has certainly caught on in Europe (see Greece and Macedonia). And core in that idea is that the euros generated by this still remarkably price-resilient plant, and the products produced from it, should stay local.

Cannabis Socialism?

For now, and certainly in Canada, federal public funding looks pretty much like a fancy agricultural grant. But in the future as prices drop and the wars over strains and “medical” vs. “recreational” really begin to rage in Europe, the idea of government-funded cannabis cultivation may be an idea whose time has come.

The German automobile industry, for example, did not come from nowhere – and even today receives massive government funding. For now, certainly in Deutschland, that is not the case with cannabis, but things may be changing with the resolution of the first tender bid.

In the future, in other words, as countries across Europe begin to think about posting their own production bids and Germany contemplates additional ones, government funding of the industry and certainly incentives to help its growth will become much more widespread.

A Province-By-Province Look At Recreational Cannabis In Canada

By Marguerite Arnold
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Federal recreational reform is coming to Canada next month, the second country after Uruguay to take the plunge. For the first time in almost a century, in other words, cannabis is now about to be legal again.

The federal government will license and regulate the industry. However each province and territory (analogous to American states) will set the rules on distribution and sales. As a result, there is quite a bit of difference across the country with implications both for licensed producers (LPs) and consumers.

A quick guide to the general Canadian regulations broken down by Province.

Who Can Buy, Sell and Grow?

With two exceptions, the legal age of consent is 19, home growing of up to 4 plants is allowed across many provinces (with only Quebec, Manitoba and Nunavut banning the practice), and rules vary by province on both public and private consumption.

However what the industry is really looking at right now is where private enterprise will be allowed to flourish at the retail end of the industry. Private retailers will be allowed to operate in 7 provinces and territories where they will compete with government run outlets. In New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and the Yukon, consumers will be required to shop in only government-run establishments.

Nunavut, with no licensed producers, will allow online sales only, even in a recreational market. This gives Tilray an instant advantage with their established online presence not only from the company website, but Leafly.However, the two largest provinces are also where the competition will be most intense nationally.

Power Provinces

One of the most interesting statistics to look at is mapping this information to the number (and size) of licensed producers in each province. For example, Ontario currently clocks in at 59 producers, British Columbia at 23, Quebec at 8 and Alberta at 6, while the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have none. Of these, Ontario and Quebec will not allow producers to sell direct to private establishments but rather mandate sales via government-run dispensaries.

Ontario is slated to become the largest of all provincial markets in the country with Quebec coming in second.

However, the two largest provinces are also where the competition will be most intense nationally.

Where The Big Dogs Lie

Even these statistics do not tell the entire story. The biggest producers (especially those engaged in international rather than just domestic production and distribution) are scattered all over the map. For example, Tilray is in British Columbia. This gives the company the unprecedented ability, via its online portal and information website, Leafly, to engage in direct sales to both patients (via online sales) and recreational users from its home base.

How this will shape regional sales figures once the rec market actually starts is uncharted territory.Aurora is in a similar situation as it is situated in Alberta.

Canopy is headquartered in Ontario, but has grow sites across the country, giving it wide market access, and has just been picked as one of four companies to begin recreational sales in Manitoba.

Aphria and MedReleaf headquarters are also both located in Ontario. But it is not necessarily where such producers are located which will determine market access. Ontario has opened the door to suppliers of all sizes, across the country.

Quebec, in contrast, has signed deals with Canopy, Aphria, Aurora, Tilray, MedReleaf and Hydropothecary with both Aurora and Hydropothecary expected to have large home-court advantage when it comes to branding. MYM Nutraceuticals, with a huge greenhouse in Weedon, Quebec, has now also signed the largest deal in Quebec (as of June). The company represents one of Canada’s largest greenhouses.Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logo

Prince Edward Island and Brunswick have followed a bit of a hybrid model, signing deals with both small local players and the larger national companies.

The interesting twist to the Canadian medical market (that does not exist in Europe for example) is that all licensed producers are allowed to sell directly to patients online. How this will shape regional sales figures once the rec market actually starts is uncharted territory.

Ontario, with 40% of the country’s population and home to more than half of Canada’s registered producers, is slated to become the country’s largest recreational market.

British Columbia, in contrast, is developing as a place where mom and pops can still thrive.

The First Map of the Cannabis Genome

By Aaron G. Biros
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Sunrise Genetics, Inc., the parent company for Hempgene and Marigene, announced last week they have successfully mapped the cannabis genome. The genome map was presented at the 26th Annual Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego, CA during the panel “Cannabis Genomics: Advances and Applications.”

According to CJ Schwartz, chief executive officer of Sunrise Genetics, the full genome map will allow breeders to develop strains using DNA sequence information to complement phenotyping. “In this way a breeding program can be guided by the breeder versus blindly as it is for just pheno-hunting,” says Schwartz. “At the DNA level, we can identify what version of a set of genes a plant contains, and make predictions as to the phenotype, without ever growing the plant. As we make more and more gene markers, we have more genes to track, and breeding becomes more rapid, efficient and precise.” Schwartz says this is essential for breeding stable, repeatable plants. “A commercial strain will be grown in different environments, with solid genetics, the phenotype will mostly stay true, a term we call Genetic Penetrance.”

Ancestry-painted chromosomes for marijuana Image: Chris Grassa / Sunrise Genetics

Determining a plant’s DNA can be extremely valuable and completing the map of the genome now makes this more precise. It can serve as a point of proof, according to Schwartz, providing evidence of lineage in a breeding project and confirming the uniqueness and identity of a strain. The genome map can also allow breeders to select specific genes to develop custom strains. And in addition to all that, it provides legal protection. “Knowing your plants DNA code is the first step to being able take action so no one else can protect it,” says Schwartz. “Well documented evidence in the development of a customized strains is essential to maintaining control of your plant and keeping those you distrust (big pharma) away, many of which have minimal interest in the whole plant anyhow.”

CJ Schwartz, chief executive officer of Sunrise Genetics

Schwartz says this project took them roughly 18 months to wrap up. “One of the biggest problems was just finding the right plants to grow,” says Schwartz. “In addition we used some emerging technologies and those had some challenges of their own.” According to Schwartz, a key aspect in all this was finding the right collaborators. They ended up working with CBDRx and the plant biology department at the University of Minnesota, where a DEA-licensed lab has been researching cannabis since 2002. “George Weiblen’s group at UM has been working on Cannabis for over a decade,” says Schwartz. “During that time they did repeated selfing to make highly inbred marijuana and hemp lines. The lines were instrumental in deterring the physical order of the genes.”

Ancestry-painted chromosomes for hemp Image: Chris Grassa / Sunrise Genetics

After finishing up some experiments, they expect to get the genome map published on public domain in less than a year, opening up their research to the general public and allowing breeders and growers to use their data. “This will be a very significant publication,” says Schwartz. “The genome assembly allows for the assimilation of all the currently incompatible Cannabis genome sequence datasets from academia and private companies,” says Schwartz. “Joining datasets from 1000s of strains, and from every continent, will generate an essential public resource for cannabis researchers and aficionados alike.” With a tool like this, we can discover the genes that help produce desirable traits. “This project is a major accomplishment for cannabis, bringing it on par with other important crops, providing a scientific tool to unravel the secrets of this incredibly versatile plant,” says Schwartz.

Sunrise Genetics is assisting cannabis businesses in evaluating strains and developing breeding programs, working with a number of customers currently to develop strains for many different specific traits. “We have the expertise to help select parental strains and guide the selection process at each generation using genotype and phenotype information,” says Schwartz. “Essentially we are bringing all the tools any modern plant breeder would use for improving strawberries to cannabis.”