Operational compliance has become paramount to the success of many cannabis businesses following new state regulations that went into effect earlier this year. For others, non-compliance has been a great downfall. Following the legalization of commercial cannabis, the state of California hastily drafted and passed emergency regulations which outlined licensing and operational requirements for cannabis businesses under the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MAUCRSA). These emergency regulations went into effect in December of 2017 to provide a temporary solution for the lack of cannabis legislation until more thorough regulations could be drafted and adopted by state agencies. Just three months ago, the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) approved new regulations which were immediately adopted by all three state licensing agencies. The new regulations include many significant changes from the previous emergency regulations and introduce more restrictive guidelines for cannabis businesses. Further, the new regulations define serious implications for businesses who violate the new guidelines – from fines up to $250,000 to loss of licensure. In recent months, a rapid number of compliance enforcement agencies have emerged at both the local and state level. Licensed cannabis businesses in California have experienced a peak in random compliance inspection visits, raids from local and state law enforcement, and seizure of cannabis products. With the commercial cannabis industry now in full effect, local and state agencies are beginning to focus less on setting the framework for the industry and more on enforcement of regulations.
A majority of licensed cannabis businesses are in some way in violation of current regulations despite their intentional efforts to comply. This is largely due to the cumbersome location-dependent nature of cannabis regulations. Although cannabis is legal in the state of California, commercial cannabis businesses are still federally illegal, and there is no federal legislation governing the licensing and operational compliance of cannabis businesses. As a result, cannabis regulations vary between states. Further convoluting the concept of cannabis compliance, regulations also vary within-state and are dependent on legislation issued by local authorities. All California cannabis businesses must adhere to statewide regulations enforced by the three state agencies – the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) – in addition to guidelines enforced by local agencies. For instance, outdoor cultivation is legal at the state level per the CDFA, but it is prohibited within the City of Los Angeles per the local Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR). Cannabis businesses must also comply with local Fire Department safety codes which also vary by jurisdiction.
With compliance enforcement on the rise, it is crucial for all cannabis businesses to stay informed about both state and local regulations in order to avoid high penalties or business closure. Our firm offers full-coverage compliance counseling to licensed cannabis businesses. Our team is in regular attendance of local city hall and county government meetings pertaining to commercial cannabis in all areas of California and maintains current knowledge of the ever-changing regulations. We provide counsel in all areas of business compliance for cannabis retailers, distributors, cultivators, and microbusinesses. Our attorneys have a combined 20+ years of experience in the commercial cannabis industry and are active in compliance consulting throughout the state. We are able to provide our clients with expert contractors in building safety code pre-inspection, packaging and labeling compliance, product inventory and storage, advertisement restrictions, etc. We would love to help ensure that your cannabis business is successful and in compliance with all local and state regulations, giving you one less thing to worry about. If you have any questions or would like to speak with our attorneys to further discuss our compliance services, please feel free to reach us via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (323-253-9700).
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.
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.
Last Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors in Riverside County approved an ordinance allowing the following commercial activities starting on 26th December: Testing, Manufacturing, Distribution and Wholesale Nurseries. There is now a 60-day deliberative period regarding the cannabis businesses in Riverside based on the newly approved ordinance. The Board also voted to allow a limited number of dispensaries and cultivators to operate in 2019. Up to nineteen dispensaries and fifty grows will be permitted in unincorporated Riverside County as decided by a 3-2 vote following a public hearing that last nearly four hours. The Board also approved an “Implementation Plan for Retail and Cultivation” uses that is scheduled for process in early January 2019. The proposal process will include pre-registration by interested applicants, and the issuance of a Request for Proposals by the Planning Department. However, there are certain conditions that will be enforced regarding additional taxation and fees associated with each of these activities as determined by the Planning Commission.
Getting a commercial cannabis license in California is complicated enough when coordinating your proposed business activities with a variety of government agencies. Depending on what activity (or activities) your business plans to conduct, every commercial cannabis license will ultimately be processed by one of three state agencies: the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) or the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). In addition to applying through these departments, your business may need permission from regulatory agencies that manage peripheral elements of the cannabis industry. This may include attaining water permits, landscaping protocols, motor carrier permits, and certification of processing equipment. This will, however, depend on what activities your business seeks to engage in, and will require due diligence and -in many cases - subcontract work. All license applications require the business to register for a seller’s permit with the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA). Every applicant must also comply with the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s database, known as EnviroStor, which tracks cleanup, permitting, enforcement, and investigation efforts at hazardous waste facilities and sites with known or suspected contamination issues. The other type of compliance required for all activities is through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which is primarily enforced by the Bureau of Cannabis Control. However, CEQA compliance was recently resolved for all licensees in an Environmental Impact Report.
The logistics of running a legal cannabis operation involve many questions that may seem surprising or daunting to both current and aspiring business owners. As a California cannabis law firm, here are a few of the issues that we’ve seen cannabis businesses need answers for. If you’ve found yourself asking any of these questions about your own operation, our lawyers may be able to help.
How much can I expect to spend?
At present, the capital requirements to start a cannabis business are very high; on top of the normal costs of starting a business, like buying real estate and hiring employees, the industry is very tightly regulated, and it’s not possible to get an outside loan. That means your business has to be privately fundraised, so it’s important to figure out exactly how much money you have and how much you’re willing to spend.
The application fees alone for cannabis licensing are often several thousand dollars, and many jurisdictions require both proof of funding and a detailed business plan before they consider a cannabis licensing application complete. A cannabis lawyer can help you find this information in order to start your licensed operation.
Is my property in an eligible location for cannabis business?
Zoning requirements vary widely based on your jurisdiction and which type of cannabis activity you’re interested in, so it’s not always easy to tell whether a given property or address is eligible for a particular activity. In addition to restrictions on which zones a given activity can be located in (for instance, cannabis cultivation might be banned in commercial zones but allowed in industrial ones), many municipalities have setback restrictions that prevent cannabis businesses from being located within a certain distance of schools, parks, residential areas, or other cannabis businesses.
Interpreting the local zoning regulations to determine for what activities your business is eligible is another service that cannabis lawyers can provide.
What information do I need to apply for a cannabis business license?
Applying for a cannabis business license isn’t just a matter of filling out an application form – most state and local licensing authorities will require a large amount of information about the business and its owners, including a complete operating plan describing how your establishment will meet all legal requirements for cannabis business activity.
On top of this information, you’ll also need to have business documents such as a seller’s permit, federal employer ID number, and certificate of good tax standing in order. On top of that, most applications will require you to provide accurate financial information, insurance documentation, and enough personal documentation for each member of your business to pass a full background check.
Finding these documents and preparing them for your final application is just one service that cannabis lawyers can provide for your business.
Should I get a license for medical-use or adult-use cannabis?
At the present moment, many states and municipalities have separate regulatory regimes for medical-use and adult-use cannabis, often with very different legal requirements. For your cannabis business to succeed, you’ll need to decide which license (or combination of licenses) is best for your business, then master the licensing and compliance processes for the type of cannabis business you choose. A cannabis lawyer can help guide you through this process, from choosing the right activity to applying for a license to remaining in compliance with the law once your business is operational.
What cannabis activity should I apply for?
In addition to medical-use and adult-use, cannabis business licenses are broken down into different activities, such as cultivation, manufacturing, and retail. Additionally, many of these categories are split into subcategories such as indoor and outdoor cultivation or storefront and non-storefront retail. As with medical and adult-use cannabis, these different types of cannabis activities often have very different requirements.
Some jurisdictions also offer boutique categories with special requirements such as Microbusiness, impose restrictions on how many licenses can be granted, or limit which types of licenses a single business can hold simultaneously. For your cannabis business to succeed, you’ll need to optimize which activities to apply for – another task that a cannabis lawyer can help with.
How can I ensure that my business is licensed as quickly as possible?
Given that legal cannabis licensing is a complex, highly regulated bureaucracy currently receiving a large number of applications, it can be difficult for a cannabis business owner to predict how long it will take their business license application to be approved, or to optimize their application in order to be licensed and operational as soon as possible.
Some areas offer a fast track to licensing under their Social Equity Program, in order to ensure that business owners who are disadvantaged or disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs have a quicker path to licensed operation than other applicants. Our cannabis lawyers can help you find out whether you qualify for one of these programs.
Whether or not you qualify for a Social Equity Program, the best way to ensure that you’re licensed as soon as possible is to choose the right license for your business and make sure that the information in your application is complete and correct.
What license should I apply for if I plan to expand my operation?
Especially for new cannabis businesses, the size of a cannabis business at the time of initial licensing might not be the same as the size of the business you hope to run in two or three year’s time. However, cannabis license application fees often vary based on the size of the operation in question, and applications often require businesses to provide details that depend on the size of their operation, including what types of equipment they plan to use, their planned hours of operation, and how many employees they’ll hire (including their labor practices and management structure).
Our cannabis lawyers can help you figure out how to reflect your long-term growth plans in your licensing application, including the multi-year pro forma budgeting and income documents that many municipalities require.
Will I need to apply for additional licenses or permits?
For many businesses, the cannabis license itself is only one of a number of licenses you’ll need for a fully licensed operation. To begin with, new cannabis businesses will need to apply for their tax registrations and seller’s permits. Additionally, depending on your activity, you may need to apply for Conditional Use Permit or Land Use Permit from your local planning department before you can apply for a cannabis business license.
For some activities, like outdoor cultivation, this may require further permits, such as for diversion of water, tree removal, or environmental review. On the other hand, businesses located in cities may be required to apply for enrollment in local Social Equity or community benefits programs. Our cannabis lawyers can help you find out what additional permits you need and help you apply for them.
Originally, Senate Bill (SB) 1459 was written to allow the county agricultural commissioners (CACs) to include cannabis among reports about the condition, acreage, production, and value of the county’s agricultural products as submitted to the Secretary of Food and Agriculture. The bill was first introduced in the California State Senate on February 16th, 2018, by Senator Cannella (coauthored by Senators Galgiani and McGuire, Assembly Members Caballero and Wood). The impetus for suggesting that CACs report cannabis as an agricultural product was based on the National Agricultural Statistics Services assessment that “providing crop statistics is basically a way to stabilize the agricultural marketplace." Such action would ultimately facilitate the integration of cannabis cultivation into the marketplace, and moreover encourage unlicensed growers to legitimize their businesses. After passing the Assembly Appropriations Committee 13-4 on August 8th, SB 1459 then received a majority vote upon a third reading on the Senate floor.
Legalization has been a bumpy road for California cannabis operators, and since January 1, owners are learning that it also comes at a price. The state’s steep taxes on cannabis businesses – with effective tax rates as high as 57% for some cannabis activities – have many operators bracing, and calling for a reduction in these so-called sin taxes. Consumers are also encountering price increases -- prices are up about 15% compared to last year.