The Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR) has just confirmed that it is now processing requests for ownership changes to existing Phase 2 (non-retail) cannabis licenses in Los Angeles. This long-awaited news is a game-changer for savvy investors and license holders alike, as it opens opportunities to buy or sell shares of the 139 cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution businesses that are licensed under Phase 2 in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson has called on the city's Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR) to suspend all Round 1 applications in light of recent allegations that the online application process was compromised. In his letter to DCR's Executive Director, Wesson urges that the City "1) suspend all Retail Round 1 applications; 2) refund all monies paid by Retail Round 1 applicants and cancel all invoices; and 3) prepare a full audit and report by an independent third party not involved in the process -- unless there are other options like processing every application..."
Don't panic. Although the first application cycle for cannabis retail licensing in the City of Los Angeles closed this morning, the real fun is only beginning. After today, the City’s Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR) will begin to process and review applications submitted in Round 1. Over 800 applications were submitted in the first round, but only 100 applicants will be issued a license through this electronic process. Applicants who are unable to obtain a license in Round 1 of Phase 3 will be eligible to apply for one of the 150 licenses to be issued in Round 2, although it is anticipated that the final round will yield an even larger applicant turnout. However, applicants can apply for a license in an area of undue concentration, and there is no limit on the number of licenses that can be issued through the undue concentration process. Under Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) SEC. 104.20 (Part a.), the number of Social Equity licenses to non-Social Equity licenses is 2:1, which means that if 190 licenses were issues through Measure M Priority Round 1, 380 should be issued through a combination of Round 1 and Round 2 Phase 3 processing, and the "Public Convenience or Necessity (PCN)" process (for areas of undue concentration) described below. If the city abides by its own ratio, 130 retail storefront licenses will be authorized in addition to the 250 through the electronic process.
WHAT IS "UNDUE CONCENTRATION?"
Phase 3 applicants are subject to the “undue concentration rule” passed into LAMC which restricts business location eligibility based on data from the 2016 American Community Survey, not on any state law requirements. The rule sets a limit on the maximum number of licenses that can be issued in each Los Angeles Community Plan Area. The implementation of undue concentration in Los Angeles further complicates what is already a difficult task for many hopeful cannabis entrepreneurs who have been verified for the City’s Social Equity program, which aims to provide priority licensing and accessibility to individuals who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. Phase 3 Social Equity applicants must find properties that meet not only the plethora of other local requirements (e.g., correct zoning, 700 feet distance from any other dispensary or “sensitive use” areas) but also within specific communities that has not reached their license cap -- unless the candidate is able to successfully lobby City Council to approve them through the PCN process.
THE PUBLIC CONVENIENCE OR NECESSITY (PCN) PROCESS
The "Public Convenience or Necessity (PCN)" process. process was established by the City Council and passed into LAMC to provide applicants who wish to apply for a license in an area that has already met undue concentration a chance to appeal their ineligibility based on the undue concentration rule. Applicants must submit an online application and pay a $1,499 PCN request fee to be routed to the City Council. Then, applicants must lobby the City Council to receive their approval and become eligible to apply for a license in an area that is undue.
Six of the 36 Community Plan Areas in Los Angeles have already met undue concentration. These areas were deemed unduly concentrated (with zero licenses available) prior to the Round 1 application cycle which began on September 3rd. At that time, several other Community Plan Areas had as few as two or three licenses remaining. These numbers can be viewed for each Community Plan Area on the DCR’s interactive map. The DCR will only issue the number of licenses indicated as “available” on the map in each Community Plan Area during Round 1, and licenses will be distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis. Therefore, even individuals who applied for a Round 1 license in an area outside of the six that have already reached undue concentration are subject to the consequences of the regulation and may be routed to the PCN process. In its review of applications submitted during Round 1, the DCR will issue licenses to eligible applicants on a first-come-first-serve basis (i.e., applicants with an earlier application timestamp will be processed first).Once an area becomes unduly concentrated, Round 1 applicants with later submission timestamps will automatically be routed to the PCN process unless their location is within 700 feet of a sensitive use property or another dispensary. Although the application window for the 100 Round 1 licenses closed this morning, the online PCN application will remain open for applicants that did not apply during Round 1 and wish to apply for a license in an area of undue concentration.
Other cities and municipalities in California who have not enforced additional location requirements like the undue concentration rule -- including Oakland, the very city Los Angeles modeled its Social Equity program after -- attest to the rule’s redundant and excessive nature. The 187 businesses currently holding retail licenses in Los Angeles who applied in Phase 1 as Existing Medical Marijuana Businesses (EMMDs) were also not subject to this rule. In addition, places like the Oaksterdam cannabis dispensary district in downtown Oakland have been havens of community, not crime. Moreover, the unfairness that can result from a system like the PCN process -- which has essentially no guidelines and is subject to the very sticky nature of local politics -- would be eliminated if the City simply allowed everyone who applied to run a dispensary, so long as they respected the sensitive use requirements other than the intradispensary buffer. Our firm will continue to advocate for the eradication of the undue concentration restriction but is helping applicants navigate the requirement and its consequences since the situation does exist presently.
WHY YOU WANT US TO LOBBY FOR YOU
Over 800 applications were submitted in Round 1. It is likely that several more Community Plan Areas in addition to the existing six will become unduly concentrated and applicants in these Areas will be required to undergo the PCN process - regardless of whether or not their Area was one of the original six. Given the high degree of uncertainty regarding who will be subject to the PCN process, our team is proactively preparing to take the first steps of a PCN appeal for each and every one of our clients who applied during Round 1.
Margolin & Lawrence has obtained over 200 state and local cannabis licenses throughout California and one in Massachusetts. Our founding partners, Allison and Raza, have litigated cannabis and other drug cases throughout their careers ( 17 and 16 years, respectively ) across the state and federal courts of our country, and have appeared in Hawaii, Utah, Nebraska, and Nevada, just to name a few. Our years of experience trying marijuana cases in front of juries has trained us for the battleground that is city politics.
Their experience fighting the war on drugs and fighting for drug and marijuana defendants, specifically, gives them the credibility to discuss the Social Equity program and their clients' willingness to re-enfranchise those who have been systematically excluded. Our firm was founded on the same core values as those of the Los Angeles Social Equity program. Allison and Raza have demonstrated a passion for drug legalization and criminal justice reform throughout (and even before) their careers.
Allison began her drug law reform efforts at age 12 when she discovered the insanity of the drug war while writing her sixth grade DARE essay on the Medellín Cartel. Her parents' careers as criminal defense attorneys and advocacy for drug law reform gave her an early and rare insight into the traumas inflicted on people, by the criminal justice system. During her time as a Harvard law student, she published her thesis On the Right to Get High where she argues for the decriminalization of all drugs and states that current state and federal laws are unconstitutional.
Before working with Allison in 2009, Raza worked at the CATO Institute, the ACLU, and the Center for Individual Rights fighting on behalf of individuals who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. He was also a federal clerk for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Together, Allison and Raza founded their 501c4-registered lobbying firm, Advocates for Healing America, in order to advocate for drug policy reform and provide support to political candidates with a like-minded agenda.
Margolin & Lawrence remains committed to our founding values and will continue to do everything in our power to ensure we help individuals who have been who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. Our current efforts are aimed towards ensuring that victims of this war have the access they deserve to reparative government programs such as the Los Angeles Phase 3 Social Equity licensing process.
If you have applied for a Round 1 retail license or if you are seeking to apply for a license via PCN or Round 2, we invite you to contact a member of our team immediately to discuss how we may be able to advocate on your behalf. We cannot take clients with retail properties that are within 700 feet of our current clients and are accepting new clients on a first-come-first-serve basis. Therefore, we recommend contacting a member of our team sooner than later to minimize the chances of conflict.
(Picture of DCR building in Los Angeles)
On August 6, 2019, M&L partner J. Raza Lawrence attended the Phase 3 Round 1 Licensing and Social Equity Workshop hosted by the Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR). The DCR provided an update on Phase 2 applications, the Social Equity Program, and the application process for Phase 3.
Requirements for Phase 3 Application
Recently, rumors and misinformation have circulated surrounding LA’s “undue concentration” rules for commercial cannabis licensing. The undue concentration rules have not been eliminated, as some have falsely claimed. LA has recently changed details about the policy, in a way that will allow more retail dispensary licenses to be issued sooner. Some have feared, however, that the latest changes may introduce an element of unfairness to the licensing process.
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.
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).
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.
An Important Step Forward for Los Angeles Cannabis Licensing – DCR Prepares to Open Phase 3 Applications, Starting with Retail for Social Equity Applicants
Cannabis licensing has been on the lips of hundreds of interested Los Angeles retailers and users for months. Important steps were taken to move the process forward at yesterday’s meeting of the Los Angeles Budget and Finance Committee at City Hall. During the meeting on April 1, City reps discussed delays in the licensing due to the delayed funding for the social equity program. It was also revealed that many people in LA have been holding properties for months waiting for the license application process to open up.
In order to continue with the licensing process, based on the specifics of the LA ordinance, the City of Los Angeles needs to issue a set number of retail dispensary licenses to social equity applicants (defined so that people may qualify based on low-income status, having a prior cannabis arrest, and/or living in specified zip codes within the City for at least 5 or 10 years that have had the most cannabis arrests).
For several months, interested parties have been awaiting the opening of “Phase 3” of Los Angeles’s cannabis licensing program, which is the first opportunity for members the general public to apply for cannabis licenses in the City. The previous two phases awarded licenses to certain qualified “priority” retail and non-retail businesses who had been operating in the City since before 2016.
The City is required to issue retail dispensary licenses to social equity applicants on a 2:1 ratio as compared to non-social equity applicants. To date, the City has issued 178 Phase 1 retail (non-social equity) applications, meaning that it needs to issue 356 social equity licenses in order to catch up with the required ratio. To start reaching these numbers, the City has proposed issuing 200 licenses (in two batches of 100) to social equity applicants.
This process has been delayed because, under the City’s law, social equity applicants are entitled to receive certain business licensing and compliance assistance, but so far there have been no funds allotted to provide this assistance. At yesterday’s meeting, the Budget and Finance Committee finally approved funding for the social equity program, meaning the whole licensing process can now move forward.
DEPARTMENT OF CANNABIS REGULATION’S NEW INTERACTIVE MAP
The Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR), the governing agency regulating commercial cannabis activities for the City of Los Angeles, released a new interactive map this week which highlights the number of retail licenses available for applications in each of the 35 Community Plan Areas in the City. The map shows the maximum number of retail licenses approved (i.e., “license capacity”) for each Community Plan Area as well as how many of those licenses are available or otherwise occupied by retailers currently in operation.
The interactive map will be particularly useful for prospective applicants who want to pursue a dispensary license during the next and final round of licensing for the City and need to identify eligible properties for a potential retail location. Many retail licenses have already been distributed which has greatly limited the number of remaining licenses available for application in each Community Plan Area. The limited number of vacant licenses has further complicated the property search process for prospective applicants -- a process already restricted by distance and sensitive use requirements defined by the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC). LAMC mandates that all retail locations be at least 700’ away from other licensed cannabis retailers and other “sensitive use” properties (e.g., public parks, public libraries). Further, it restricts the location of potential retail establishments to nine zones as defined by the City’s planning website through Zimas.
Eligible Zones for Cannabis Retail Locations as Defined by The LA Department of City Planning:
C1 Limited Commercial Zone
C1.5 Limited Commercial Zone
C2 Commercial Zone
C4 Commercial Zone
C5 Commercial Zone
CM Commercial Manufacturing Zone
M1 Limited Industrial Zone
M2 Light Industrial Zone
M3 Heavy Industrial Zone
STATE TO ISSUE PROVISIONAL LICENSES BEFORE EXPIRATION OF TEMPORARY LICENSES
Today, the Bureau of Cannabis Control, California Department of Public Health, and California Department of Food and Agriculture announced a plan to prevent lapses in licensure for retailers who have active temporary commercial cannabis licenses that will soon expire. The three licensing agencies are tracking the expiration dates of all active temporary licenses and intend to issue a provisional license to eligible retailers who currently have a temporary license prior to its expiration. To qualify for a provisional license, applicants must:
(1) Hold or have held a temporary license for the same premises and the same commercial cannabis activity for which the provisional license will be issued; and
(2) Have submitted a completed license application to the licensing authority, which must include a document or statement indicating that California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance is underway.
In today’s announcement, the three licensing agencies urged that any temporary license holders who are contacted by their state licensing authority reply promptly in order to avoid a lapse in licensure.
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.