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.
As we enter the new year, the cannabis industry is struggling to transition from a previously-unregulated network of collectives in constant fear of criminal prosecution to a highly taxed and regulated system involving numerous state and local agencies. The rollout of the licensing system has been plagued with problems, with most of the state being extremely slow to issue commercial cannabis licenses, and many business owners losing substantial sums of money attempting to comply with burdensome regulations and taxes. Recent events in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara have brought to light common frustrations with the new licensing system, and have taught lessons that can be applied to future public policies to improve the outlook for cannabis businesses, consumers, and the state. In both Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, many operators have become disillusioned by the local licensing process and how difficult it is to obtain and keep licenses to operate their businesses. Policy makers should look at what is happening in these places, and take steps to fix the problems that have developed which are driving people toward illicit markets and away from the regulated market.
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.
On September 12th, M&L partner Raza Lawrence participated in a roundtable discussion with a group of attorneys in Downtown LA regarding alternative dispute resolution in cannabis law. This is a growing field becoming more and more important for people operating or starting a cannabis business. Starting a new cannabis business can be complicated, lengthy, and expensive, often including multiple investors, loans, licenses, employees, asset purchases, and phases of construction. As people adapt to the new licensed and regulated system, they are forming new companies and making large investments, and want to have ways to make sure their investment is protected and any disputes are resolved efficiently and fairly.
Now, commercial cannabis operators in California need both local and state licenses, and to comply with detailed local and state regulations. In Los Angeles, the structure and procedure of licensing is complicated further by the social equity program requiring many dispensary licenses to be majority-owned by social equity candidates who meet certain qualifications based on their history of living in certain parts of the city, being arrested for cannabis crimes, and being low income. In addition, cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution licenses in Los Angeles remain tied to “priority” applicants who can show a history of operating in the City, further complicating the business structures.
Disputes and problems inevitably arise when starting any business, even with the most careful plans. This is especially true with California’s complicated and changing cannabis laws, and the continued conflict with federal law. Until recently, California did not regulate or license commercial cannabis businesses. Instead, there was an affirmative defense to the criminal laws to people who operated as nonprofit medical marijuana collectives, jointly owned by all members. Collectives and medical marijuana operators were frequently arrested and prosecuted even when they tried to do things the right way, and laws were vague and unpredictably enforced. People tended to keep few if any records, because they did not want to keep evidence of criminal activity. Many cannabis businesses today are continuations or offshoots of these earlier, unregulated businesses, and have some disputes and growing pains when trying to adapt to the new laws.
People in the cannabis industry have traditionally shied away from courts , preferring to resolve disputes through informal means. That is because what happens in court becomes public record, and testimony and evidence presented in court could incriminate people for violating state or federal criminal laws, or even lead to asset forfeiture. For licensed operators, testifying in court continues to incriminate them under federal law. Distributing cannabis remains illegal under federal law, a felony with potential long jail sentences and asset forfeiture. While there are legal protections against prosecutions for state-licensed medical cannabis operators, the federal law complicates the legal landscape, making court results unpredictable. It can be difficult to even enforce a cannabis-related contract in court, given the federal illegality. Under the US constitution, federal law controls over state law when there is any conflict in the laws, including in the area of cannabis. In addition, many judges and courts start out biased against cannabis, having prosecuted and convicted cannabis defendants with felony charges for years.
Today, as people try to get their companies off the ground and adapt to the new legal regime, they need efficient and effective ways to resolve their inevitable problems and challenges. Court cases are expensive and take a long time. Arbitration and mediation can be much faster and cheaper, and a way to avoid potentially biased and uninformed judges. For all these reasons, we recommend that parties include alternative dispute resolutions in their contracts, requiring the parties to submit any disputes to mediation or arbitration and bypass the traditional court system. This way, parties can select someone they trust to resolve their dispute, using a transparent process agreed to by everyone.
Our law firm has helped numerous people and businesses resolve disputes relating to commercial cannabis. If you have a dispute involving your business, or are looking for ways to avoid them, you can contact our firm for help you find a solution.
(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.