California cannabis entrepreneurs have to go through the often lengthy and cumbersome process of applying for local and state commercial cannabis licenses. But that is only the beginning of the journey to becoming a successful, fully-compliant business in this emerging industry.
Entrepreneurs interested in operating a cannabis business in California must decide how their business will operate and what business structure will work best for their specific business goals. They must consider the commercial, legal, and tax implications that come with deciding which business structure they want to operate under.
Once entrepreneurs have decided which business structure will best work for their specific business goals, the next step is to begin the entity formation process. This process consists of deciding what the Company name will be and drafting the entity formation documents that will determine how your cannabis business will operate.
As a full-service cannabis law firm, we represent many clients who have gone through this process already. Two of the most common business structures we have seen entrepreneurs decide to start their cannabis business as have been Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) and Corporations. Although there are some similarities between both business structures, there are some major differences that entrepreneurs need to understand prior to beginning the entity formation process.
At Margolin & Lawrence, our cannabis attorneys can help you with all the formation and governing documents for your LLC, such as the articles of organization, operating agreements, and statements of information. If you decide on structuring your cannabis business as a corporation, our cannabis attorneys can help you with your corporate formation documents such as bylaws and articles of incorporation.
Additionally, we understand how important it is for new businesses to raise capital to continue to grow their business. Given that cannabis is still illegal under federal law, entrepreneurs looking to raise capital for their cannabis business need to seek private investment capital. In order to do so, there are a series of important documents private investors want to examine before they decide to invest in your cannabis business.
For instance, companies looking to raise capital need private placement memoranda (PPMs) and subscription agreements. A PPM is a legal document that is given to prospective investors when selling stock or any other security interest in a business. The PPM provides prospective investors with an in-depth look at your business, including management, analysis of operations, risks factors, financial information, among other things. The goal of the PPM is for prospective investors to be fully informed about all aspects of your cannabis business.
A subscription agreement is an agreement between a corporation and the investor (the subscriber) in which the corporation promises to sell a certain number of shares at a specific price to the subscriber and, in return, the subscriber promises to buy the shares at the agreed upon price.
At Margolin & Lawrence, our cannabis attorneys can help you and your business with any capital-raising compliance and legal representation. Additionally, our cannabis attorneys can help you decide which business structure best meets your cannabis business goals. And we can help your cannabis business remain compliant with all the governing laws every step of the way, including ongoing compliance with state and local commercial cannabis regulations and employment laws, avoiding and minimizing the expenses of civil litigation, addressing the implications of federal illegality of cannabis, and helping to informally resolve any internal or external disputes that jeopardize the business operation.
Many are excited about California’s new era of legalized marijuana. For the first time, state and local governments are allowing marijuana sales to all adults. There is also a new licensing system for all sectors of the industry. The new system creates many new opportunities for businesses and consumers. But is also comes with new taxes that have caused sticker shock for many California cannabis operators and customers visiting dispensaries this month. Governments are eager for the new tax revenues, although some predict that if taxes are too high, a black market will persist as people opt out of the licensed system. One of the questions our Los Angeles cannabis attorneys are most frequently asked is about the new cannabis taxes and how they will affect California cannabis businesses.
To sum it up, effective tax rates for marijuana operators are high. Not only do cannabis businesses have to pay corporate taxes like any other business (except that they can't take deductions on their federal taxes due to 280E), but there are also additional city and state taxes specifically for cannabis operators that need to be factored in as well. Just as Federal, State and Local law apply to cannabis operators, those governments all also apply their own taxes to cannabis.
Here is a chart that gives you an overview of the effective tax rates for different cannabis businesses, using Los Angeles as an example for factoring in local taxes as well:
NOTE that the Excise Tax (15%) and Sales Tax (8.5%) imposed on retailers is passed directly on to the consumer. So the effective tax rate is similar to the other activities when you factor that in, but overall the tax rates are very high for operators.
One of the reasons cannabis operators must pay so much in taxes is that cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance under Federal Law. Section 162 of the U.S. Tax Code allows for businesses to deduct Ordinary and Necessary expenses from their taxes. An exception to this section is 280E, which prevents deductions from Federal Taxes for businesses involved in selling Schedule I controlled substances. You can read the text of 280E here and check out a seminal 2007 Tax Court decision -- CHAMPS v. Commissioner (2007) which allowed an operating dispensary to separate out product-touching deductions and deductions for a separate ancillary business. A related 2015 ruling in U.S. Tax Court held that unlike CHAMPS, an operator running an activism business and selling cannabis could not separate the two businesses and take deductions under 280. These two cases apply to retailers. Other cases have found that cultivators and manufacturers can take certain deductions for costs of production. We will cover this in a future post.
Here are the individual maximum tax rates that apply:
|Federal Corporate Tax Rate***||California Cannabis Taxes||California Business Taxes 8.84%||Los Angeles Cannabis Taxes||Los Angeles Business Taxes (.425%)||Payroll Taxes (Estimated effective rate)||Estimated Effective Tax Rate|
|Retail||21%||23.5% -- 15% excise tax + 8.5% sales tax||8.84%||10% in LA for adult use; 5% in LA for medical||0.43%||3%****||57%|
|Cultivation*||21%||12% estimated ($9.25/ounce tax on flower = $148 per pound) + $0 sales tax||8.84%||2%||0.43%||3%||45%|
|Manufacturing||21%||Collect Cultivator Tax + $0 sales for resale||8.84%||2%||0.43%||3%||35%|
|Distribution||21%||Pay CDTFA Cultivator Tax + $0 sales for resale||8.84%||1%||0.43%||3%||35%|
|Testing||21% + Deductions = Estimated 15%||-||8.84%||1%||0.43%||3%||34%|
|Microbusiness||21%||per activity||8.84%||per activity||0.43%||3%||Varies per microbusiness activity|
|*(flower - different tax rates for stems and fresh plants; clones are not taxed by state)|
|**280E likely does not apply to testing labs|
|***280E prevents deductions for businesses trafficking cannabis|
|****Social Security, Medicare, Calif & Fed. Unemployment - this is a percentage of employees' salaries, for purposes of the chart it is converted to be tied to revenue consistent with the other percentages|
These are the required California state cannabis taxes by activity:
Cultivators must pay a $9.25/ounce tax on all dried cannabis flowers (and a lower rate per ounce for cannabis leaves or fresh cannabis plant).
Retailers must pay both a 15% excise tax on all their purchases of cannabis, as well as a sales tax on all their taxable retail sales, which varies by locality but can be close to 10%.
Manufacturers must collect cannabis cultivation taxes from cultivators from which they receive unprocessed cannabis, and pay these cultivation taxes to the distributors.
Distributors must collect cultivation taxes from cultivators and manufacturers from which they receive cannabis, and collect cannabis excise taxes from retailers they supply with cannabis.
In addition to these taxes, localities are free to impose their own cannabis business taxes, and many impose substantial taxes on both cultivation and all business proceeds.
It is important to note that the cannabis specific taxes are in addition to standard taxes like Federal and State corporate tax, and local business taxes for businesses operating in cities like Los Angeles.
While distributors, testing facilities and manufacturers appear to pay less taxes than cultivators or retailers, they will no doubt share the costs of taxation as cultivators increase their prices to account for the cultivation tax.
If these taxes are passed directly on to consumers, that could mean a retail outlet previously charging $60 per 1/8 of an ounce of marijuana would increase their price to $90. On the other hand, many have predicted that the pre-tax prices of cannabis will drop over time, as more large-scale cultivation, distribution, and retail operations reduce their overhead costs and margins, would could counteract some of the higher taxes.
For operators, these effective tax rates are extremely high and it is important to consult with a tax attorney and a qualified accountant who can help you with tax planning and preparation to set up your business for success. For more information and worksheets to calculate your California cannabis taxes, refer to the CDTFA’s website.
As cannabis entrepreneurs and investors learn about the legal requirements to operate a compliant cannabis business, the next question many arrive at is - so how do I find a compliant property?
While Jeff Sessions made his announcement last week that he was repealing the Cole Memo, Los Angeles opened their online portal for recreational cannabis applications. The conflict of law continues, but many operators in Los Angeles just want to know - “when can I get my license!?”
Currently, only cannabis retailers who qualify for Measure M Priority Processing are eligible to apply for licensure. Measure M Priority is limited to those operators who have a Business Tax Registration Certificate (BTRC) from 2015, 2016, or 2017 that is categorized as L050. This group is more expansive than just “Pre-ICOs” and will allow for newer businesses that have not been operating in Los Angeles for over a decade, in fact, you could have even opened a store a little over a year ago and qualify (you can read more in our previous post).
If you qualify for Measure M priority, you are considered an EMMD (existing medical marijuana dispensary) by the City. EMMDs numbers will not count towards the neighborhood caps that will be established for undue concentration or the limit on the number of licenses that will be issued for dispensaries in the City (around 390). They will receive licenses before anyone else in the City of Los Angeles, and will also be able to obtain their state licenses once they receive local authorization from the City.
Los Angeles will be issuing the first temporary licenses for Measure M Priority Dispensaries within the next couple of weeks. The temporary license is free to apply and you will need your BTRC number, a site plan, a lease, and identifying information for the owners of the operation. The Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation has not given guidance as to when the annual license applications will be open for EMMD cannabis retailers in the City.
The next wave of applications will be Phase 2, when the City will be rolling out its Social Equity Program. Many of the details for the program are still being ironed out and we expect to hear more from the LA DCR in the coming weeks.
As of January 1st, 2018, the long wait is over: cannabis business owners can apply for California state trademarks. The application form can be obtained here: http://bpd.cdn.sos.ca.gov/ts/forms/tm-100.pdf. Because cannabis is still federally illegal and cannabis products themselves cannot be trademarked, this is a viable avenue for many California cannabis brands that will protect your business marks within the state. You can read our prior post about USPTO Trademarks here.
According to the website for the Office of the California Secretary of State:
“Beginning January 1, 2018, customers may register their cannabis-related Trademark or Service Mark with the California Secretary of State's office so long as:
1.The mark is lawfully in use in commerce within California; and
2.Matches the classification of goods and services adopted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
If the application submitted to register a Trademark or Service Mark is found deficient, the application will be returned to the registrant for correction.
Note: Not all cannabis-related products can be registered under current law due to the inability to meet federal classifications.”
This means that in order to obtain your state marks, you must be lawfully using the marks in commerce at the time of the application. Therefore, you will need to be licensed in compliance with SB 94, both at the local and state level, before you’re eligible for trademark approval. Otherwise, if you claim an unlicensed use, you may run into issues with the Secretary of State. Further, once your license is obtained, you must also show that you’re making actual, bona fide use of the trademarks on your products in the stream of commerce. That means that customers are identifying you by your brand when they purchase your goods or services in the marketplace.
Yesterday the LA City Council passed three ordinances that will regulate recreational cannabis sales, manufacturing, cultivation, distribution, delivery, and microbusiness in the city of LA. The council also voted on the Social Equity Program and cannabis zoning, including the setbacks from sensitive-use areas that will be required of licensed cannabis businesses. Volatile cannabis manufacturers, for example, will have to be not only 600 feet away from schools, but also at least 200 feet away from any residential parcel.
The city is also imposing caps on the number of licenses granted per neighborhood, so licensing will be a competitive process in some areas; if you haven’t already, now is the time to start preparing your cannabis business for licensure. The city has rigorous requirements for proof of operation in compliance with Prop D if your business is a pre-ICO, as well as strict safety and environmental regulations for marijuana cultivators and manufacturers.
The new regulations passed by the city can be found here:
If you are a cannabis operator with an existing marijuana business in the city of LA, email us at email@example.com to speak with one of our cannabis attorneys. We can advise you on the next steps for your operation as Los Angeles enters a new era for cannabis.
Under California’s SB-94 (aka MAUCRSA), the retail sale of marijuana products to consumers is only legal if the business owner holds a license for cannabis distribution. Since this covers all sales of cannabis products, from marijuana proper to derivatives like hash oil and CBD, these licenses are in high demand. Many clients often ask our cannabis lawyers what happened to the Transportation license. This was a license type under the MCRSA but that provision was repealed in SB 94 and the activities covered by the old Transportation license have now been merged into the Distribution license. So, the state license is now for the same activity but under a different name.
In order to qualify for the state license, your business must first hold a local license (or local authorization), which can only be granted by the municipality the business intends to operate in. For those eager to enter the world of cannabis distribution, the question is: which cities are giving out these licenses? Here are a few cities that have distribution in their ordinance and are either already issuing distribution licenses or are on the road towards doing so:
- California City
- Cathedral City
- Desert Hot Springs
- Long Beach
- Los Angeles (expected* but we will have to wait for the Ordinance to be sure)
- Nevada City
An ordinance does not necessarily mean that it will be easy to secure a license. Many cities put heavy restrictions on how many distribution licenses will be granted, and the regulations that must be complied with are robust.
Regarding Los Angeles, all indications appear that LA will allow this cannabis activity. However, the City has until September 30th to promulgate an ordinance, and we will not know for sure until we see the final version. The fact that they have included distribution in the draft location ordinance (which you can read more about here and here) and in the operating requirements suggests that they will. Stay tuned for updates from our LA cannabis attorneys as the City’s local regulations take shape.
As California gears up for the full legalization of adult-use commercial cannabis, entrepreneurs across the state are considering breaking into the marijuana industry. However, the entry costs for marijuana businesses can be high, and the exact legal requirements for starting an operation are often confusing. Given this background, a would-be cannabis enterpreneur might wonder: is it worth it for a new marijuana business to hire an attorney?
On this subject, it's fair to take a cannabis law firm's comments with a grain of salt – a little like asking a barber whether you need a haircut. That said, as lawyers with years of experience providing legal support to california's top cannabis businesses, we're familiar with the legal demands of the cannabis industry in California. Given this inside perspective, we will advise you that the state and local laws which marijuana businesses must adhere to are extremely complex and intertwined, with harsh consequences possible for even relatively minor violations. In this context, our view is that it's a dangerous gamble to try to maintain a business in the cannabis industry without a cannabis attorney.
Of course, we can’t advise anyone to enter the industry in the first place – according to federal law, possessing, using, or selling marijuana in any capacity is still entirely illegal. The only thing protecting California marijuana consumers and businesses from federal prosecution is the Department of Justice's decision to allow “state and local authorizes [sic] to address marijuana activity through enforcement of their own narcotics laws.” While this federal deference to state law has been the norm since 2013, there's no guarantee that this won't change in the near future, especially given that Trump administration appointees like Attorney General Jeff Sessions have announced their intent to crack down on marijuana use. To avoid federal prosecution, then, it's crucial to stay within the bounds of state and local law. However, in a state as large as California, this is easier said than done.
While California currently affords limited immunity from prosecution to certain marijuana businesses, many cities and counties don't, which means that even a business which follows state law to the letter could be operating in a manner that violated local regulations. Our Los Angeles cannabis lawyers have advised hundreds of businesses who ran into issues with Prop D and have defended their rights since even before that regulation was passed. With the new cannabis regulations being introduced into the City of LA, it is important to speak to a los angeles cannabis attorney who is familiar with the regulations and can advise you on how to set up your business for success. (For more on these changes, see our recent blog posts on LA marijuana licensing.)
Retaining a cannabis lawyer provides a degree of access and ease in interpretation of these regulations that a private citizen doesn't have. Though it's easy to find information online, but the amount of outdated, contradictory, misleading, or outright false advice on marijuana business on the internet is nothing short of overwhelming.
For these reasons, it's worth considering hiring a california cannabis attorney for your business. Not only does having legal counsel help you stay within the law, it helps offset the financial risk inherent to any new business by ensuring that your organization's paperwork and cannabis licensing applications are in order. For more information or to arrange a consultation with one of our los angeles cannabis lawyers, check our brief overview of California's marijuana laws or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.