What is white labeling, and how might the proposed white labeling ban affect commercial cannabis deal structures?
Both established and nascent players in the cannabis industry have turned to white labeling – rebranding an existing product under a different producer's name – as a means to carve out their niche. For instance, some manufacturers in the process of obtaining proper local and state licenses have entered into contractual arrangements whereby they source product from licensed cultivators or manufacturers before branding and distributing the product as their own. Other deals see established brands, traditionally unassociated with cannabis, staking their industry claim by offering their intellectual property (branding) and promotional efforts in joint ventures with licensed manufacturers looking to find brand awareness for their product.
Despite the fact that white labeling is standard operating procedure in product manufacturing at large, the current version of the California Bureau of Cannabis Control’s proposed regulations have been interpreted by industry stakeholders who are disturbed at what is being called an outright ban on intellectual property licensing. While §5032 seems to be taking aim at arrangements whereby non-licensees are purchasing, packaging and selling cannabis without a license, the language has been interpreted to reach as far as to ban licensees from entering into trademark licensing agreements with brand owners. Such interpretation could even prohibit a parent company from holding its licensed cannabis manufacturing operations in one entity and its unlicensed brand in another – suggesting the need for license options to facilitate trademark licensing in the cannabis space:
If §5032 is promulgated as currently drafted, the strictest interpretation would force parties currently engaged in white labeling to re-structure their deals or get proper licensing. Established brands may need to sell rather than license trademarks – effectively forcing or keeping brand owners out of the cannabis industry and companies holding their brands in separate entities may need to obtain additional licenses – an expensive and time consuming endeavor.
Other types of arrangements may or may not meet regulatory requirements. For instance, would it be OK for a cannabis brand to operate as an unlicensed subsidiary of a licensed manufacturer? What if the unlicensed cannabis brand acquires an ownership interest in the licensed manufacturer, but remains unlicensed itself? At the moment, the answers to these questions are unclear.
Until the industry is provided with some official guidance from the BCC or the regulations are tested, many licensees and non-licensees operating in cannabis will need to examine and possibly modify their business relationships or look into licensing options in attempt to stay compliant.
Fun fact: Wine industry folks who purchase bulk wine before bottling/branding/selling it as their own combine two licenses (17/20) to achieve ABC compliance. A type 17 is a beer/wine wholesaler license and a type 20 is an off-premise beer/wine retailer license.
For more information on cannabis business and licensing, reach out to our California cannabis attorneys at firstname.lastname@example.org.