NEW PHASE 3 LEGISLATION APPROVED BY CITY COUNCIL
On April 30th, the Los Angeles City Council approved new legislation to begin the third and final Phase of cannabis licensing within the City of Los Angeles no later than the end of next month.
Phase 3 will include two rounds of applications for Storefront Retailer Licenses in addition to one round of applications for Non-Storefront (i.e., Delivery) Retailer Licenses.
Priority will be given to Tier 1 and Tier 2 Social Equity Applicants for all three rounds. Additionally, each round will operate on a first-in-time rule. In other words, the first application submitted will be given priority over succeeding applications with premises within 700 feet of the property. Licenses will be issued on a first-come-first-serve basis.
PHASE 3: ROUND 1, ROUND 2, & DELIVERY PILOT PROGRAM
The upcoming Phase of cannabis licensing will give priority to applicants under the Social Equity Program, a program designed to provide reparations to individuals who have been disproportionally impacted by the war on drugs. Social Equity Applicants will receive expedited application review among other benefits through the program. Eligible applicants in the program will be classified as either Tier 1 or Tier 2 applicants, depending on the criteria they meet. To qualify for Tier 1 or Tier 2 Applicant status, individuals must have lived in a Disproportionately Impacted Area (DIA) for a minimum amount of time and cannot own an Existing Medical Marijuana Business (EMMB). The City of Los Angeles has listed a set of zip codes that currently qualify as DIAs. The City announced that it may add additional zip codes to this list in the future.
ROUND 1 (STOREFRONT RETAIL LICENSING)
After all Tier 1 and Tier 2 Applicants have been verified and notified by the DCR, the DCR will begin accepting applications for Round 1 of Phase 3. Only verified Tier 1 or Tier 2 Social Equity Applicants will be eligible to submit an application during Round 1. Applicants must submit all required documents (see table) within a 14-day period to be announced by the DCR. The dates of the 14-day period have not yet been identified, but the City Council has ordered the DCR to begin this period no later than September 3, 2019. The DCR will distribute 100 licenses during Round 1 to the first 75 eligible Tier 1 Applicants and the first 25 eligible Tier 2 Applicants. Verified Tier 1 or Tier 2 Applicants can only apply for one license during Round 1.
ROUND 2 (STOREFRONT RETAIL LICENSING)
Following the 14-day period of Round 1, the DCR will host a second round of Storefront Retail License application processing. Round 2 will only accept applications from verified Tier 1 and Tier 2 Applicants, just as in Round 1. For the second round of application processing, the DCR will accept applications during a 30-day period that has yet to be determined. Specific documents will be due within the 30-day application period, while all additional documents will be due within 90 days (see table). The first 150 eligible applicants will be issued licenses. The DCR may issue additional licenses until each Community Plan Area (CPA) has reached Undue Concentration. Tier 1 or Tier 2 Applicants who were issued a license during Round 1 may not apply for a license in Round 2.
DELIVERY PILOT PROGRAM (NON-STOREFRONT RETAIL LICENSING)
The DCR has announced that it will launch a Delivery Pilot Program, where it will issue Non-Storefront Retail (i.e., Delivery) Licenses to the first 60 eligible applicants. The Delivery Pilot Program will accept applications from verified Tier 1 and Tier 2 Applicants as well as General Applicants. The DCR announced that delivery will be restricted to addresses within City limits unless special permission is granted by the DCR.
PRE-VETTING PROCESS FOR SOCIAL EQUITY APPLICANTS
Applicants that qualify as Tier 1 or Tier 2 Social Equity Applicants must submit a preliminary application along with supporting documents to the Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR) in order to have their Tier 1 or 2 status verified. The Ordinance voted into law yesterday identifies an unspecified 60-day period in which these preliminary applications will be received. Although the exact dates of the application window have yet to be determined, the City Council approved a motion ordering that the 60-day period begin no later than May 28, 2019. The DCR will not accept applications or supporting documents after the 60-day period. After the 60-day period ends, the DCR will determine whether or not applicants are verified as Tier 1 or Tier 2 applicants and notify all applicants of their final, non-appealable decision prior to the beginning of the Phase 3 Round 1 application window.
Wednesday, April 17 - The City of Los Angeles Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations Committee discussed and approved an April 12, 2019 report and proposed ordinance from the LA City Attorney regarding cannabis licensing, with recommendations to make some amendments.
All recommendations were approved and will be redrafted for Council consideration and presented on Tuesday, April 30.
Today’s meeting moves the City closer to the opening of the highly anticipated Phase 3, which is the first chance that will allow the general public to receive dispensary licenses. The City Attorney was directed to make requested changes to the proposed new ordinance, to present for City Council consideration on April 30.
Notable Takeaways from Wednesday’s Meeting
The City of Los Angeles and the DCR have been hard at work in recent months, particularly as they sort through the specifics of Phase 3. While Phases 1 and 2 focused on existing cannabis dispensaries, non-retailers (i.e. growers and manufacturers), and social equity applicants, Phase 3 has been the main attraction for many entrepreneurs and would-be business owners looking to break into the industry.
In an earlier April meeting, the fate of Phase 3 was largely unknown due to funding. The DCR claimed that licensing was on hold as they awaited the Fee Deferral Program, which would allow Phase 3 to commence.
While a date has not been announced for the opening of Phase 3 applications, Wednesday’s meeting shed some light as to the direction the City and DCR are taking to solidify the process.
Among the notable new details that are coming out through these recent meetings and reports are:
● Changes to the Los Angeles Municipal Code establishing a first come, first served application process for retailer commercial cannabis activity licenses, with details regarding what is required for an application to be considered complete
● A proposal to allow applications for retail storefront dispensaries beginning January 1, 2020, in neighborhoods that have already exceeded Undue Concentration caps, with City Council approval
● Modifications to the process for issuing non-storefront retail licenses
● Allowing the Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR) to grant Temporary Approval to Phase 3 storefront retail applicants
● Exempting Phase 2 applicants from the Undue Concentration requirements
● Setting deadlines for Phase 2 applicants to finalize their business location (May 15) and obtain Temporary Approval (substantial progress by July 1)
● Revising various requirements to qualify as a Tier 3 Social Equity Applicant and revising various benefits provided to Tier 1 and Tier 2 Social Equity Applicants
● Adding an additional reason to deny a license application — if the City has taken enforcement action against unlicensed cannabis activity at the same address since January 2018
● Clarifying the definition of license ownership relative to management companies
In addition, one of the recommendations to the draft ordinance that was approved on Wednesday was to instruct the DCR to finalize a timeline for all Phase 3 and Type 9 Pilot activities and post the information on the Department’s website. This indicates that an exact date for Phase 3 licensing could be established by April 30, if not sooner.
The LA City Council held a meeting today to follow up on the April 1 meeting of the Budget Committee and approve the recommendations made on April 1. After a good deal of discussion about the enforcement efforts against unlicensed dispensaries, the City Council approved all the recommendations with only minor revisions. This means the licensing process can now move forward.
The funding approved today by the City Council will allow the Social Equity Program to move forward, which is an integral part of the upcoming Phase 3 licensing process awarding cannabis licenses to new businesses in the City of LA. So far, the licensing has been delayed while the City has worked through issues surrounding the Social Equity Program. We are still waiting for the City to announce details of the timing of the next phase of LA cannabis licensing. This phase will start with the issuance of 200 retail storefront and 40 retail delivery licenses, issued largely to Social Equity applicants.
Now that the City Council has approved the Social Equity funding, we expect the licensing to open up soon, and now is the time for anyone interested in applying to find a property and get all the elements of their applications in order.
Before the ruling on the Social Equity funding, there was an update on enforcement efforts against unlicensed cannabis businesses, including utilities disconnects, cease and desist letters, and search warrants.
So far, the City has been shutting down the illegal businesses bureau by bureau. The City started the crackdown in the Valley, where it has gone to 22 locations, with 10 more scheduled for next week when it will be finished with the Valley. Then, it will move to the South bureau, where it will start with 10 locations in the Harbor area, and then move to the Southeast. The City has also been disconnecting utilities from unlicensed businesses in the past month. $2.3 million has been set aside by the police department for cannabis enforcement.
Are we about to see more enforcement against unlicensed cannabis?
California Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced he is calling for the California National Guard to work with federal officials to target the California illicit market. Given the history of the war on drugs and the current federal laws imposing harsh criminal and civil sanctions for cannabis, the involvement of the National Guard and the federal government in a new crackdown is concerning. Governor Newsom’s announcement of this increased enforcement, however, comes amid growing frustration with perceived dysfunction in the state regulatory system and a persistent illicit market that crowds out regulated cannabis.
California has a thriving illicit market in cannabis, estimated by New Frontier Data to be valued at $3.7 billion last year. This is due to many factors, including California’s unregulated cannabis collectives and cooperatives that operated for years before licensing came, the slow speed at which state and local governments in California have issued licenses, the high taxes and burdensome regulations of the new licensing system, and the demand for California cannabis products throughout the country.
In a sense, the entire cannabis market is an illicit market, as cannabis remains illegal under federal law, which makes any inconsistent California state law allowing cannabis invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution. This federal illegality has caused most banks to refuse to do business with cannabis-linked companies, resulting in a largely cash business that is more difficult to track and regulate than it would be if banks were involved. Federal illegality also makes it so the entire interstate market is illegal and unregulated, though lucrative.
The California Bureau of Cannabis Control, tasked with regulating cannabis retail sales, has issued a few enforcement actions against some unlicensed dispensaries, but the efforts have been largely symbolic, against only a tiny fraction of the unlicensed operators. Los Angeles and other cities have also filed misdemeanor cases against unlicensed operators for violations of local licensing laws, but unlicensed dispensaries seem to pop back up faster than they are shut down.
In order for California’s regulatory project to succeed going forward, the state will need to convince more operators to move to the regulated market, through some combination of greater enforcement and lower taxes and regulatory burdens.
The large illicit market and slow roll-out of the licensing process have shaken the confidence of many people who are attempting to comply with California laws. Hopefully, state and local regulators will take advice from frustrated operators, learn from their mis-steps and continue to develop a functioning system. The state and local governments are trying to find the right regulatory balance. Over-regulation makes it so difficult and burdensome to comply that only rich people and companies with lots of resources can operate, and an expensive final product that leads many consumers to buy from the illicit market.
For now, many license holders are playing the long game, hoping the illicit market will shrink over time, and more consumers throughout the state (and eventually the country and world) join the regulated cannabis market. Governor Newsom says that he expects it may take at least five years to develop its complex regulatory system. If the state gets it right, this can be an industry that drives the state economy, creating more resources and jobs for everyone.
One approach that could be successful would be to offer a more simplified and inexpensive process to get new cannabis businesses up and running. More burdensome regulations and higher taxes could kick in only after businesses have gotten through the startup phase and adapted to the regulations. There could be a tiered or graduated system of compliance, taxes, and enforcement that is welcoming to new operators. Startup costs for new businesses are already very expensive, and high licensing expenses and a burdensome application process can dissuade many people from pursuing licenses who might otherwise want to follow the law. Lowering the tax rates in the beginning, while businesses get off the ground, could also encourage new entrants to the regulated market. Once businesses become established and there is a healthy regulated market, taxes could be increased to desired levels. The government has many tools available to help establish a functioning market. We are optimistic that the future is bright for the cannabis economy in California.
There are currently 7 applications for Manufacturing and 6 for Distribution under review. There is no limit to the number of local licenses that will be issued for these types.
The House Committee on Agriculture is in the process of finalizing the 2018 Farm Bill, which is expected to go into effect later this month. It’s likely that the bill’s provisions will include the legalization of hemp, in the form of the removal of the plant from the government’s list of Schedule I Controlled Substances. Not only will this mean that hemp can be grown much more widely, it will also affect the production of hemp derivatives, including hemp-derived CBD. However, the legality of CBD products remains more complicated than this news may suggest.
As discussed in a prior blog post, the legal status of CBD can be very confusing to consumers, businesses, and lawmakers alike. As a substance that is derived from the cannabis plant, but is not cannabis’ main active ingredient, CBD currently occupies an unclear middle ground – particularly in California, where the state has imposed additional rules affecting how the various types of CBD may be legally used.
The legalization of hemp, though a step forward in the overall process of cannabis legalization, doesn’t do much to resolve the confusion surrounding CBD products. Even after hemp is legalized, CBD will be considered a drug and therefore subject to regulation by the FDA. Though the FDA has approved certain cannabis-derived CBD medications, CBD’s status as a drug makes it illegal to use as an ingredient in any kind of food or food additive.
Topicals, oils, and other non-edible forms of hemp-derived CBD, on the other hand, may not necessarily be banned once hemp is legalized. However, the FDA has yet to make a statement regarding this possibility – though they have sent unambiguous legal warnings to CBD businesses that make unsubstantiated or false claims about their products, indicating that they plan to regulate all CBD products to some degree, they’re less clear about the future legal status of hemp-derived CBD and non-edible hemp derivatives in general.
In California, the law on CBD edibles will remain paradoxical even after hemp is legalized. While CBD products with THC levels of 0.3% or more will be treated as cannabis edibles and therefore legal, CBD products with lower THC levels – or no THC at all – will be considered food products and therefore banned, regardless of whether they’re derived from cannabis or hemp. However, hemp-based non-edible CBD products are not currently regulated by any state agency, meaning their legal status remains unclear. For the sake of the state’s cannabis consumers and businesses, hopefully California will respond to the new Farm Bill by clarifying the legal status of these products.
- Disconnecting DWP utility services to unlicensed businesses
- Issuing citations to certain employees working in unlicensed businesses
- -Sending cease and desist letters to businesses and landlords
- Requiring all licensed retailers to display an emblem so the public knows whether a given business is licensed
- Sending letters to creditors and contractors of unlicensed businesses
- Bringing civil and criminal cases against unlicensed businesses
2. Opportunity to Appeal Rejected Dispensary Permits
Applicants who applied in Phase 1 and were found to be ineligible based on failure to qualify as an Existing Medical Marijuana Dispensary were given a chance to appeal the written findings of the DCR. These parties were given an opportunity to present their points, with back-and-forth discussion on the points of the appeal with members of the commission.
Each Applicant appealing was allowed either have a single person present the appeal or to have multiple witnesses – each side was allowed to submit any documents up until a week before hearing, and given 10 minutes to present arguments and evidence. The DCR was then allowed to present its case and findings for 10 minutes. The hearing officer could grant either side more time if appropriate, and the applicant was allowed 5 minutes at the end of the session to address DCR’s comments, followed by discussion and questions.
The main issues in the appeal were whether the Applicant had a 2017 L050 BTRC or, if no 2017 BTRC, if the Applicant had a L050 2015 or 2016 BTRC and met all the pre-ICO requirements, including registering for the ICO in 2007. One applicant was rejected who met all the requirements other than registering for the ICO in 2007 (the City reviewed records of office of city clerk regarding who was on the ICO registry), even though the business had BTRCs from 2007 to 2015 and had been paying taxes all along.
One applicant claimed another applicant mis-used the applicant’s ICO filing, applying under it for priority registration even though he was not an officer or director of the ICO registered entity. However, it turned out the ICO registered entity had registered as a sole proprietor “doing business as” a name similar to the current applicant, and the current applicant corporation was just using a similar same name as the 2007 entity but had a different legal name and different tax history and was a separate legal entity.
There were disputes during the appeals involving BTRCs issued with different account numbers or different entities, BTRCs that had been erroneously issued for addresses outside LA and then closed out, and BTRCs issued to related entities that had failed to follow merger process with the city. As a rule, only the same business entity that meets the eligibility requirements is eligible for priority processing.
Parties found ineligible for priority processing were encouraged to re-apply in Phase 3 general licensing, anticipated to open in 2019. Going forward, the DCR will prioritize annual licensing for Phase 1 and 2 applicants first, then registration for social equity applicants, and then Phase 3 will open.
For more information on the cannabis licensing and social equity process in Los Angeles, keep checking this blog or reach out to our cannabis attorneys at email@example.com.