Update: Governor Ned Lamont has signed S.B. 1201 into law, officially legalizing cannabis in the state of Connecticut
On June 16, 2021, the Connecticut House of Representatives voted to pass their version of S.B. 1201, a bill that legalizes adult use cannabis. Following the House’s approval of the changes, the bill made its way back to the Senate on June 17, where they approved all changes. It now heads to the Governor’s desk, where Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to sign it into law.
With Gov. Lamont’s signature, Connecticut will become the 19th state in the country to legalize adult use cannabis. The bill is slated to go into effect on July 1, just a couple of weeks away.
Come July 1, adults in Connecticut can legally possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis in public and up to five ounces at their home. The bill allows for adults to grow at home, just not until 2023 unless you are an existing patient registered in the medical program.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the bill will expunge cannabis records for low-level crimes and puts “the bulk of excise tax revenues into a Social Equity and Innovation Fund, which will be used to promote a diverse cannabis industry and reinvest in hard-hit communities.” Half of the cannabis business licenses issued will go to social equity applicants that can receive funding, workforce training and other types of assistance from the program.
DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel at MPP, says the bill includes provisions to repair harm done by the prohibition of cannabis. “The Connecticut Legislature’s commitment to legalizing cannabis through a justice-centered approach is commendable,” says Ward. “For decades, cannabis prohibition and criminalization has harmed some of the state’s most vulnerable communities. This bill not only ends this failed and unjust policy, but it also includes measures that will work to repair the harm that it has caused. This state will be a model for others to follow.”
The bill includes strong protections for employees, tenants and students by limiting discriminatory actions based on positive drug tests. It also dedicates 25% of tax revenue from cannabis to go toward mental health and substance use treatment.
When it comes to small business opportunities these days, few phrases give people the old dollar-sign-eyes more than “legal cannabis”.
From states like Michigan where it’s been approved for both medicinal and adult use, to places like South Carolina where legalization has been a popular topic for ballots and voters, cannabis is slowly turning into one of America’s biggest businesses.
You don’t need us to tell you that – Investopedia reports that (as of Nov. 2020) over 340,000 American jobs were devoted to the handling of plants at various stages along the retail cycle, and the industry was estimated at over $13 billion as of 2019.
Not bad for a plant that’s still technically illegal under federal law, huh?
If you’ve read this far, it probably means you’re hoping to be among the lucky ones who can strike it rich with their own cannabis business. A noble undertaking, but are you really prepared to make your mark? In a field as competitive – and occasionally complicated – as cannabis can be, you really need to lead with your best foot forward, and make sure you’re as well prepared for the various challenges of a fairly new industry as possible.
With that in mind, below is a list of the five things you’ll need to double-check and make sure you actually have access to before embarking on your new business venture.
The right shelving & equipment
You see this a lot with smaller businesses as well as, er, ‘independent growers’. A lot of people assume that they can just buy some greenhouse shelves, line the walls of their business with it, and call it a day, right?
This approach leads to problems more often than not. Even above and beyond the inherent concerns of helping your plants grow safely (and productively!), the sort of equipment you use should reflect the sort of business you’re trying to run. A cannabis retail outlet, for example, is going to need different sorts of shelves and tables than a dispensary or growing facility, as the work being done is completely different.
It will take a little research, but it helps that a lot of businesses these days are starting to offer shelving specifically designed for various cannabis operations. Check to see if any of the big warehouse suppliers near you have gotten into the cannabis game yet – Shelving Inc, Metro, and Rack & Shelf are a few of the bigger shelving names with cannabis offerings as of this writing.
Long gone are the days when all you needed to be successful in cannabis was a booth at the shady flea market, a pun name and a big sign that said “Head Shop” to throw off the authorities.
Far too many cannabis businesses launch themselves headlong into a business plan without stopping to think of a good name, or just settling for the first one they think of. With as crowded as the playing field is quickly becoming, it might honestly be worth it to pay someone to help you come up with a decent logo and branding – it’ll go a long way towards helping you stand out against everyone else using a green font. Places online like High Hopes specifically offer these services for cannabis businesses, so you know they’ll be able to figure out what you’re about more quickly.
An understanding of your consumer base
The exact sort of work your cannabis business performs is going to affect what your potential customer base can be – and vice versa.
Early on in the planning stages, make sure to figure out exactly who you’re going to sell your products to, as this will inform nearly every other decision your business makes. Do you want to sell directly to the customer, or to work as a distributor for CBD/cannabis retail outlets? Are you prepared to manage and run your own storefront, or are you just going to rent warehousing space to sell your plants to other retailers? If so, do you know who the businesses are in your area that you could work with? Or, if you are planning on entering the retail space, do you know how many other cannabis businesses could be operating in your desired geographical area? Finding an audience may be the hardest part of opening any business, but it’s important work.
Banking that understands your industry
Maybe the biggest drawback to being involved in an industry as comparatively new as cannabis, is that a lot of the old methods of doing business aren’t quite available to you. Many financial institutions of various sizes are limited in the ways they can help finance cannabis businesses, from not understanding the regulations and needs of your industry, all the way to being unable to assist cannabis businesses with banking in the first place.
It might be advantageous to look into banks, credit unions or financing companies in your area that specifically offer banking services (like business accounts and the like). A few examples include Aery Group from New Mexico, or Seed to Sale in Michigan. (It’s important to note that many of these companies, such as Aery Group, can only service the state they’re located in due to different state-by-state regulations – check ahead to make sure you find a place that can help you!)
Knowledge of the needed licensing and regulatory requirements
Getting a license to open any business is a tricky prospect on a good day, but for an industry as wide-ranging and varied as cannabis, getting licensed can require a lot of homework.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be setting up shop in a state that allows for the sale of cannabis, the licensing process can vary widely from state-to-state. In New Mexico, for example, it can take months to acquire a license simply due to the amount of paperwork, research and submissions required to cement your business. Before going too far down the rabbit hole of opening your business, make sure to take the time you need to completely research and understand the various local and state regulations you’ll need to adhere to for your business to get off the ground.
Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of other hurdles and requirements that come with starting a business – but by remembering these five things, you’ll be off to a much better start than many others.
In a press release sent out this morning, a new coalition announced their launch to “end the prohibition, criminalization, and overregulation of cannabis in the United States.” The Cannabis Freedom Alliance (CFA) says their core values include federal descheduling, criminal justice reform, “reentry and successful second chances,” promoting entrepreneurship in free markets and reasonable tax rates.
Who’s Behind the CFA?
The organizations that founded the CFA are Americans for Prosperity (AFP), Mission Green/The Weldon Project, the Reason Foundation, and the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce (GACC). Take a look at that list and see if you recognize the names. AFP is a well-known conservative and libertarian political lobbying group founded and funded by the Koch brothers. The Reason Foundation, another Libertarian think-tank and an advocate for prison privatization, also listed the Koch brothers as some of their largest donors in disclosures filed in 2012.
The Koch family business, Koch industries, makes hundreds of billions of dollars a year in the oil and gas industry and has held massive political influence for decades. They regularly donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Republican campaigns. Historically, they’ve played a major role in opposing climate change legislation. They’re widely known as conservative advocates for lower corporate taxes, less social services and deregulation.
Interestingly enough, prominent criminal justice reform advocate Weldon Angelos and rapper Snoop Dogg appear to have joined forces with the Koch-backed group, CFA, following a Zoom meeting where Charles Koch told them he thinks all drugs should be legalized, according to Politico. “We can’t cut with one scissor blade. We need Republicans in order to pass [a legalization bill],” Angelos told Politico. The tie between cannabis legalization and traditional Republican and Libertarian values is obvious: their free market, personal liberties and small government ideology fits well within the legalization movement.
Big Oil, Alcohol and Tobacco, Oh My!
The Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation (CPEAR) is a group that was founded in March 2021. Two of the founding members are Altria, the company that makes Marlboro cigarettes, and Molson Coors, a multinational alcohol company. The CPEAR website says that they want to work on responsible federal reform. “We represent a vast group of stakeholders — from public safety to social equity — focused on establishing a responsible and equitable federal regulatory framework for cannabis in the United States.”
Founding members of CPEAR also include: The Brink’s, a private security firm, the National Association of Convenience Stores, the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers and the Convenience Distribution Association. In other words, the group is made up of large and powerful corporate interest groups that represent the alcohol, tobacco, insurance and security industries.
Both NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) have spoken out against CPEAR. Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, says it’s a matter of corporate interests coming in and working to change laws for their companies to capitalize on legalization. “We’ve seen how big corporate money and influence have corrupted and corroded many other industries,” says Altieri. “We can’t let the legal marijuana industry become their next payday.”
The DPA also released a statement opposing CPEAR. Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the DPA, says that she urges caution to elected officials in taking counsel from these corporate powers. “We have long been concerned about the entry of large commercial interests into the legal marijuana market,” says Frederique. “Big Alcohol and Tobacco have an abysmal track record of using predatory tactics to sell their products and build their brands – often targeting low-income communities of color and fighting public health regulations that would protect people.”
While their motives and desired outcomes remain unclear, it is apparent that we’re reaching a new age in the cannabis legalization movement, one where powerful corporations outside of the cannabis space want in. Whether its oil and gas, insurance, security, tobacco or alcohol, these groups are using their power and money to influence cannabis policy reform.
The bill establishes the Office of Cannabis Management, which will launch and manage the regulatory system for the commercial cannabis market in New York.
According to Steve Schain, senior attorney at Hoban Law Group, the Office of Cannabis Management will have a five-member board that will oversee not just the adult use cannabis market, but also medical cannabis as well as the state’s hemp market. For the medical market, the new legislation provides for more patient caregivers, home cultivation and an expanded list of qualifying conditions.
Troy Smit, deputy director of the New York NORML chapter, says the bill might not be perfect, but it’s a massive win for the cannabis community. “It’s taken a great amount of work and perseverance by activists, patients, and consumers, to go from being the cannabis arrest capital of the world, to lead the world with a legalized market dedicated to equity, diversity, and inclusion,” says Smith. “This might not be the perfect piece of legislation, but today, cannabis consumers can hold their heads high and smell the flowers.”
The MRTA sets up a two-tier licensing structure that separates growing and processing licenses from dispensary licenses. The bill includes a social equity aspect that requires 50% of the licenses to be awarded to, “minority or women-owned business enterprise, service-disabled veterans or distressed farmers,” says Schain.
Melissa Moore, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says she’s proud of the social equity plan the bill puts in place. “Let’s be clear — the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act is an outright victory for the communities hit hardest by the failed war on drugs,” says Moore. “By placing community reinvestment, social equity, and justice front and center, this law is the new gold standard for reform efforts nationwide. Today we celebrate, tomorrow we work hard to make sure this law is implemented fairly and justly for all New Yorkers.”
Schain says the new tax structure in the bill shifts to the retail level, with a 9% excise tax and 4%-of-the-retail-price local excise tax (split 25%/75% between the respective counties and municipalities). Revenue from cannabis taxes will enter a fund where 40% will go to education, 40% to community grants reinvestment fund and 20% to drug treatment and public education fund.
It appears that businesses already established in New York’s medical market get a head start on the new adult use market, while other businesses enter the license application process, according to Schain. “Although the existing Medical Marijuana licensees should be able to immediately to sell Adult-Use Cannabis, it will take up to two years for the New York’s Adult Use Program to launch and open sales to the public,” says Schain.
Update: The House Judiciary Committee has passed the legalization bill, HB0209, by a 6-3 vote. After moving out of the Judiciary Committee, the bill now awaits a floor hearing, which is expected to come within the next week or two during the legislative session that ends on April 2.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Wyoming have introduced a bill to legalize cannabis in the state’s legislature. First reported by Buckrail.com, HB0209 was assigned on March 2. The bill would legalize possession, home grow and sales for adults, as well as establish a regulatory framework for licensing, tracking and taxation.
In November 2020, voters in Montana and South Dakota passed ballot measures that legalize adult use and sales of cannabis. About a month after Election Day, the University of Wyoming conducted a poll that found roughly 54% of Wyoming residents now support legal adult use cannabis. In 2018, UW found that 85% of Wyoming residents support medical cannabis legalization.
In March of 2019, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signed a bill into law that essentially legalized hemp in the state. That bill was a boon for the state’s agricultural economy, giving many farmers a much-needed boost in their crop diversity.
You can find the current version of HB0209 here. Sponsors of the bill include: Representatives Jared Olsen (R-Laramie), Mark Baker (R-Sweetwater) Eric Barlow (R-Campbell/Converse), Landon Brown (R-Laramie), Marshall Burt (L-Sweetwater), Cathy Connolly (D-Albany), Karlee Provenza (D-Albany), John Romero-Martinez (R-Laramie), Pat Sweeney (R-Natrona), Cyrus Western (R-Sheridan), Mike Yin (R-Teton) and Dan Zwonitzer (R-Laramie) and Senators Cale Case (R-Fremont) and Chris Rothfuss (D-Albany).
According to Buckrail, if the bill becomes law, Wyoming could get roughly $49.15 million in tax and license fee revenue in 2022. That number would mean a sizable windfall for the state that saw an 8.5% decline in tax revenue in 2020. Governor Gordon proposed budget cuts as high as 15% for agencies across the state last year. Most of the revenue generated from cannabis taxes would be earmarked for education.
Part One of this series took a look at how the regulated cannabis market can only be understood in relation to the previous medical market as well as the ongoing “traditional” market. Part Two of the series describes how regulation defines vertical integration in California cannabis.
If you are considering getting involved in California cannabis, imagine the following sentence in ten-foot-tall letters made out of recently ignited $20 bills:
Before you put any money down on property, carefully examine the local cannabis ordinance and tax rates.
This article is written in the form of advice to a newbie cannabis entrepreneur in California, but it will discuss issues that are also of significance to investors, as well as (to various degrees) cannabis entrepreneurs in other states.
Here are seven basic questions that you need to ask about local regulations (in order, except for Number 7).
1. What’s Your Jurisdiction?
If you’re in city limits, it’s the city. If you’re outside city limits, it’s the county.
2. Does the Jurisdiction Allow Cannabis Activities?
If the answer is yes, go to the next question. If the answer is no, pick another jurisdiction.
3. Where Does the Jurisdiction Allow Cannabis Activities?
A zoning ordinance will limit where you can set up shop. The limitation will probably vary by license type.
4. How Does the Local Ordinance Affect Facility Costs?
The short answer is: in many ways. Your local ordinance is a Pandora’s box of legal requirements, especially facility-related requirements.1 Read your local cannabis ordinance very carefully.
Generally speaking, the cannabis ordinance will set out two types of requirements – those that are specific to cannabis and those that apply generally to any business.
Typically incorporate state cannabis laws by reference.
Have significant overlaps with state cannabis laws. For example, the state requires commercial-grade locks and security cameras everywhere cannabis may be found on a given premises. Local ordinances generally include similar requirements – keep in mind that you will need to comply with a combined standard that satisfies both state and local requirements.2
Vary greatly according to type of activity. For example, manufacturers will need to comply with Health & Safety Code requirements that can have a major impact on construction costs.
Vary greatly by jurisdiction when it comes to equity programs.
Include by reference building and fire codes, which can require very expensive improvements. Note that this means your facility will be inspected by the building department and the fire department.
Can include anything from Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements to city-specific requirements, such as Design Guidelines.
Will be zealously enforced because you’re a cannabis business.
5. What is the Enforcement Policy?
It may be that your local jurisdiction will give you temporary local authorization after meeting some, but not all, of the requirements. For example, you may be able to begin operations once you’ve provided your city or county with your cannabis permit application, a zoning clearance and a business permit. In this jurisdiction, you would be able to bring your building up to code sometime after you begin operations.
On the other hand, your local jurisdiction may require you to meet every requirement – from cannabis-specific security requirements to general building code and ADA requirements – before you can begin operations. Depending on the type of cannabis business (and facility condition), this might be inconsequential. Or it might mean that you will have to pay more than a year’s worth of rent (or mortgage) before you can start making money.
6. Can You Choose a Facility That Saves You Time and Money?
Of course, you won’t have to spend much time or money bringing your facility up to code if it’s already up to code. How likely it is that you will find such a facility varies wildly according to the type of cannabis activity in question. In general:
Service-side activities (delivery retail, storefront retail, distribution) are in many respects similar to their non-cannabis counterparts. From a facilities standpoint, the major differences come from security requirements. So, it may be possible to save time and money by choosing a facility that is already up to code for a similar use.
Manufacturing activities are trickier, since you will need food-grade facilities and equipment. You may be able to save money by setting up shop in a commercial kitchen.
Extraction with volatile solvents is a special (and particularly expensive) case, since it is inherently dangerous and requires special facilities.
Outdoor cultivation may be relatively unproblematic if it has an appropriate water source.
Indoor cultivation is expensive because of climate-control and lighting requirements. Buildings potentially suitable for large-scale indoor grows frequently come with significant problems. Former warehouses will typically require major power upgrades, while former factories may have inconvenient architecture and/or hidden toxic waste. In all cases, internal reconstruction is likely to be necessary, and will trigger all sorts of building and fire code requirements.
Local cannabis ordinances and taxes can make or break your business, so you need to understand them before you commit to a location. The seven basic questions listed above are designed to get you started.
This article is the opinion of the author and is not intended to be legal or other advice.
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.
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.
After a slow start following a disappointing 2019, M&A in the cannabis space closed 2020 with a bang, with more than $600 million in deals announced immediately following the November elections. Prospects for the New Year are expected to continue the explosive year-end trend with a backlog of nearly $2 billion in deals heading into 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic boosted sales of cannabis products, and election results opening up five new states to legal cannabis use and possible federal regulatory reform are further boosting prospects. Analysts now predict the U.S. cannabis market is poised to double by 2025.
Growth is expected to be led by multi-state operators who have achieved scale, cleaned up their balance sheets and stockpiled dry powder for roll-up acquisitions. Cannabis companies raised nearly $134 million in the two weeks before Election Day, a 185% increase over the same period last year. Most of the money flowed to multistate operators. In addition, the biggest stocks by market capitalization saw a roughly 20% bump ahead of the election and now are trading at record volumes, providing plenty of stock currency for further acquisitions.
Among the headline acquisitions last year:
Curaleaf continued its multi-state expansion with two of its largest acquisitions – the all-stock purchases of its affiliated cannabis oil company Select and of Grassroot, another MSO player. Curaleaf is now the largest cannabis company in the world based on annualized revenues, with annualized sales of $1 billion and operations in 23 states and 96 open dispensaries. Curaleaf also raised $215 million privately last year end for further expansion.
Close behind, Aphria and Tilray announced in December that they will merge, creating what they say will be the largest cannabis company in the world with an equity value of roughly $3.8 billion. The combined entity will have facilities and offices in the U.S., Canada, Portugal and Germany. The deal is expected to close during the second quarter of this year.
Also in December, Illinois-based Verano Holdings LLC unveiled plans to go public at a $2.8 billion valuation through a reverse takeover of a Canadian shell company. That deal followed the announcement that Verano will merge with Florida-based AltMed.
In addition, publicly traded New York cannabis firm Columbia Care signed a definitive agreement last month to acquire Green Leaf Medical, a privately held Maryland-based cannabis manufacturer and retailer, for $45 million in cash and $195 million in stock. The acquisition is expected to close this summer. Including Green Leaf’s inventory, the Columbia Care will operate 107 facilities, including 80 dispensaries and 27 cultivation and manufacturing facilities. Columbia Care also took advantage of cannabis fever last year by raising $100 million privately.
Also in December, Ayr Strategies announced it would acquire Liberty Health Sciences, one of the largest cannabis companies in Florida, for $290 million in stock, as well Garden State Dispensary, a New Jersey marijuana company for $41 million in cash, $30 million in stock and $30 million in the form of a note. This follows Ayr’s $81 million acquisition of an Arizona medical marijuana operator in November. Voters approved marijuana use in Arizona and New Jersey in November. Ayr has completed a string of acquisitions in Nevada, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio and, upon the closing of December’s deals, New Jersey and Florida.
Not all cannabis companies will rely on acquisitions, however. Trulieve, as an example, has focused its efforts on Florida and organic growth. It remains to be seen whether a multi-state approach fueled by acquisitions or a single-state organic growth model will prove the more lasting. Growth and profitability in the short term likely will continue to be hampered by limits on economies of scale due to federal restrictions and differing state laws.
In light of the maturing industry and the 2019 bust, the valuation model for acquisitions in the cannabis space is evolving from one based on sales, typically associated with emerging growth industries, to a more mature industry model based on profits or Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA). Most cannabis MSOs have stabilized and generate positive EBITDA, which justifies the evolution away from a sales-driven model.
From a legal standpoint, the same limitations that have vexed the cannabis industry for years will continue to challenge deal makers until there is greater clarity on the federal front. Institutional investor reluctance, financial industry constraints, haphazard state regulation and the unavailability of federal forums such as national copyright and trademark registration will continue to be issues for acquirers and their lawyers in the space.
Acquisition agreements will continue to have to address the federal Damocles’ sword should expected relaxation of federal enforcement under the Biden administration and further legislative relief does not materialize as expected. Although the U.S. House in December passed the “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act” (MORE) to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, the Senate did not take up the bill in 2020 and it will have to be re-introduced in 2021. Notably, the MORE Act does not affect existing federal regulation of cannabis, such as the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, under which the FDA has limited the use of CBD in certain products despite hemp being removed from the Controlled Substances Act in 2018.
The cannabis M&A market is moving into a more mature phase, as MSOs will be choosier in their approach rather than continuing the land-grab mentality of years past. Due to improved financial strength, 2021 should see these MSOs continuing to expand their footprints either within existing states or new ones. Although uncertainties abound, further consolidation and expansion through add-on acquisitions is likely to continue apace in 2021, providing plenty of opportunities for deal makers and their lawyers.
This piece is intended to provide some considerations that current and potential license holders should think about as they work with advisors to make entity selection decisions or consider potential tax elections. Please note that this article is a high-level overview and is not intended to declare the best type of entity structure for a license holding entity. Although there are numerous tax variables that should be contemplated, tax issues are not the only concerns relevant to determining entity type. In addition, some states may tax entities differently than how the entity is taxed for federal purposes.
First, let’s look at the legal entity types that may be set up to hold a license, operate a business and what that may mean for how an entity is taxed. Often, entities are set up as either limited liability companies or corporations.
If a limited liability company is organized and the entity is owned by only one owner, a single member LLC, the default tax treatment would be that the entity is disregarded for tax purposes. In other words, it would not file a separate federal income tax return, except in some states including CA, TX, TN and RI. All the tax consequences of the activities within the legal entity are reported on the tax return of the owner of the entity.
If a limited liability company is set up and the entity is owned by more than one owner, a multiple member LLC, the default tax treatment would be that the entity is taxed as a partnership. An entity taxed as a partnership reflects the tax consequences of the activities within the legal entity on a partnership return. The partnership generally does not pay tax on the activity, but rather the taxable income and loss are passed through to the owners of the LLC. The owners of the LLC reflect the taxable income or loss on their tax return and are responsible for paying any resulting tax. In the rare instance of an entity being audited, there is a possibility that the entity may have to pay tax on the partners behalf, depending on the ownership structure. Either a single member LLC or a multiple member LLC may elect to treat the LLC as a C-corporation or an S-corporation for tax purposes.
The Taxation of C-Corporations & S-Corporations
The default treatment for an entity set-up as a corporation is the entity will be taxed as a C-corporation. An entity taxed as a C-corporation, including an LLC electing to be taxed as a C-corporation, pays the tax on any taxable income generated by activities within the entity. Additionally, any distributions of earnings from the C-corporation to the owners of the entity are generally considered dividends which are required to be reported as taxable income by the owners when received. In other words, the earnings of an entity taxed as a C-corporation are potentially taxed twice. Once, as they are earned within the entity, and then again upon distribution to the owners of the entity.
An entity set-up as a corporation, a single member LLC or a multiple member LLC may elect to be treated as an S-corporation. Like an entity taxed as a partnership, an S-corporation does not pay tax at the entity level, but rather passes the taxable income and loss through to the owner or owners. Additionally, like a partnership, distributions from an S-corporation are not taxable as dividends to the owner when received.
Since we covered how different entities are taxed based on how they are set-up, and what elections they may or may not make, we will explore some of the issues that should be considered when making an entity selection. We will also address potentially electing to treat an entity one way or another for tax purposes.
Advantages: The advantages of an S-corporation are limited to the avoidance of double taxation associated with C-corporations, as well as some potential benefits of lower Social Security and Medicare taxes.
Disadvantages: The primary disadvantage of an S-corporation for a license holding company is any non-deductible expenses resulting from 280E are passed through to the owner(s), which then reduces the ownership’s tax basis in its investment in the entity. A reduction in tax basis is determinantal to owners of an entity because the basis is used to reduce taxable income when/if the owner liquidates ownership in the entity.
Other disadvantages of S-corporations include but are not limited to restrictions on ownership of the entity, a requirement for reasonable compensation paid to owners and a lack of flexibility in the allocations of earnings among owners.
Advantages: The advantages of a partnership include but are not limited to the avoidance of double taxation associated with C-corporations, flexibility in the allocation of earnings and losses among owners, and flexibility in the type of owners of the entity.
Disadvantages: Like S-corporations, the primary disadvantage of a partnership is any non-deductible expenses resulting from 280E are passed through to the owner(s).
Other disadvantages of partnerships include potential self-employment taxes on earnings allocated to active owners, potential complexity in the allocations of taxable income and losses among partners in entities with many owners or different classes of ownership.
Advantages: In contrast to S-corporations and partnerships, the tax basis resulting from the ownership’s investment in the entity is not subject to reductions from non-deductible expenses being passed through to owners. This protection of tax basis is particularly important to owners of license holding entities.
An additional advantage of C-corporation tax treatment may be a lower tax rate applied to taxable income.
Disadvantages: The most significant disadvantage of C-corporation tax treatment is the potential double taxation of earnings that might be applicable if the entity does have earnings that are distributed.
In addition to the items address above, the advantages and disadvantages of the entity type and related tax elections, additional considerations include:
How much of the 280E nondeductible expenses will the taxpayer be subject to?
How much earnings will the entity be distributing to the owners?
How complex is the entity’s ownership?
The lack of certainty regarding whether or not the qualified business income deduction (QBID) enjoyed by pass-through entity owners is allowable as a deduction by owners receiving pass-through income from an entity subject to 280E.
Are there plans for selling the entity and if so, what is the time horizon for doing so?
At Bridge West, we advise taxpayers to consult with cannabis advisors who have experience in the industry, can help navigate the complexities of tax compliance and Code Section 280E and are experienced with entity structures.
As states grapple with flagging tax revenues and soaring unemployment as a result of the pandemic, governors and state legislators are facing a quandary. Either cut back on programs that voters like, or increase taxes to keep them funded. According to a recent assessment by iUNU, many legislatures will look to the booming business of legal cannabis as a revenue source.
“For those states that have only made incremental steps towards legalization within their jurisdiction… there’s going to be pressure to initiate, whether it’s through medical marijuana programs or the expansion into recreational,” says Martin Glass, a partner at Jenner & Block who specializes in mergers & acquisitions and securities transactions.
In recent months, the average per-store retail sale of cannabis increased in legalized states – a telling change given the current state of the economy. Other facts – a loyal consumer base, proven health benefits and strong external investment – all point to a dependable industry. Mr. Glass saw this as a sign that cannabis is more stable than most believe: “The industry has proven to be quite resilient… it has absorbed the COVID-19 shock very well.”
Not only is cannabis a dependable industry, it’s also an expanding one. In 2019, global revenue rose to $15 billion, a 48% increase from the prior year. By 2020, economists expect that number to reach $20 billion. Kristin Baldwin, executive director of the Cannabis Alliance, added some perspective: “Right now, we’re at about 240,000 people employed according to the latest numbers I have. Maybe even 250,000. In King County, which is the largest county in Washington and where Seattle is, we had a 22% increase in sales in March alone.”
In the United States, the revenue from annual sales increased by nearly 40% from 2018 to 2019, rising 3.3 billion over the course of the year. This growth is expected to continue at a similar rate in the coming years, forecasted to hit $29.7 billion in revenue by 2025. These growth statistics are impressive and especially attractive as state legislatures and governors search for options to balance their budgets.
The industry also is logging similarly impressive growth on the employment side. The cannabis industry was recently dubbed “the fastest growing job market in the country” by CNBC, leaping an estimated 110% from 2017 to 2019 and hitting six figures in real numbers during that three-year period. The industry turned in those impressive numbers while constrained to 33 states (11, if evaluated from a recreational standpoint), leaving plenty of room for growth.
Baldwin agreed. “I think employment will grow along with the sales just because you are going to need budtenders, delivery drivers, and farmers,” says Baldwin. “For example, in California, Oregon, and Washington – highly regulated systems – there’s still going to be a significant amount of growth because there’s a significant amount of demand.”
Heading into budget negotiations in 2021, states are facing huge revenue gaps. Right now, those dismissing cannabis are, as Glass says, “leaving a lot of money on the table” by failing to take advantage of a major economic resource. Not only does the industry produce tax revenue to expedite states’ recoveries, as legalization expands, the cannabis industry has the ability to provide thousands of jobs.
Still dubious? Baldwin shared this fascinating piece of information: “It’s a generational shift that’s occurring as we speak. The fastest growing consumer group in cannabis right now is women over the age of 40.”
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