Buyer Beware: Buying and Selling Los Angeles Marijuana Dispensaries Under Proposition M

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Be careful! It’s easy to slip up under Proposition M.

I’ve written in the past about the precarious business of buying and selling existing dispensaries in Los Angeles, but that was under the now repealed Proposition D. In March of 2017, Angelenos voted in favor of Proposition M, which is a licensing and regulatory piece of legislation implemented and overseen by the City’s Department of Cannabis Regulation (“DCR”) and the Cannabis Regulation Commission. Under Prop. M, the City is licensing cannabis businesses in three phases, the first of which was exclusively for “Existing Medical Marijuana Dispensaries” (EMMDs). EMMDs are basically grandfathered Prop. D/Pre-ICO operators that met certain compliance criteria set forth by the City under Prop. M. As of the writing of this post, there are only 163 EMMDs in the entire City. This low number of dispensaries in potentially the largest cannabis market in the world makes the secondary market for these storefronts incredibly hot. So much so that our Los Angeles cannabis lawyers are receiving term sheets for the purchase of EMMDs on an almost bi-weekly basis. And based on that experience, it’s time to update readers on what to look for when contemplating the purchase of an EMMD, which is no small task under the City’s new laws.

Running due diligence on dispensaries in Los Angeles is massively important. The reason being (in addition to normal M & A due diligence) is that the City still has many, many illegal operators (though the City Attorney is doing his best to shut down those operations as fast as possible). Therefore, it’s not a stretch that an “LA dispensary” would try to take a buyer for a ride on a sale when, in reality, that dispensary is 100% illegal, making the purchaser a sitting duck.

In turn, here are the major bases to cover when buying an EMMD in the City of LA under Prop. M:

  1. Is the dispensary even on the City’s EMMD list? The DCR has done a fantastic job of continually updating its EMMD list on its website. Checking that list is the very first step for any reliable due diligence. If the dispensary is not listed, ask the sellers why that’s the case. At this point, with the window for EMMD licensing closed, failure to appear is going to be a huge and fatal red flag that’s fatal unless the selling dispensary can provide viable proof that they are in valid pursuit of EMMD status from the DCR or appealing a DCR denial of EMMD status,
  1. Licenses are not transferable. Many people don’t realize that commercial cannabis licenses are not transferable under California State law. The same goes for commercial cannabis licenses in the City of L.A.—they cannot be bought and sold as individual assets; only the entity that holds them can change owners (meaning, you’re looking at purchasing the company that holds the license). Therefore, any EMMD that’s trying to sell you one of its licenses (or one of its future licenses) is not recognizing that it can only sell its membership interests or stock, and not the licenses themselves, under state and L.A. laws and regulations.
  1. What entity type is the EMMD? Assuming your target EMMD is on the City’s EMMD list and the EMMD understands that it can only engage in an entity purchase and sale, the next question is whether the EMMD is organized as a non-profit or a for profit company. If the EMMD was in compliance with Prop. D, it’s most likely some form of a non-profit corporation (most often a non-profit mutual benefit corporation (“NPMBC”), stemming from 2008 State Attorney General guidelines regarding compliance with the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 under which the sale of medical cannabis for profit is not permitted). This obviously creates an issue where a non-profit has no equity that can be legally bought and sold, and individual NPMBC directors taking buyer purchase money undoubtedly violates the California corporations code in a multitude of ways. In turn, part of the EMMD purchase will entail some form of “conversion” to a for profit entity to ensure that future membership interests or stock can be sold off. Luckily, NPMBCs and non-profits in general in California can “convert” to for profit corporations and, from there, into whatever other for profit entity the controlling interests so decide. To “convert” though, unless the NPMBC’s bylaws specify otherwise, a vote of the entire “membership” (i.e., potentially all of the medical cannabis patient members) of the non-profit may be required in order to convert. And do not forget that a lot of dispensaries in L.A. may have made significant mistakes when putting together their bylaws so that a “conversion” vote may not even be possible without exposing the purchaser to significant successor liability from the NPMBC’s “members”. Also, don’t forget that the old corporate and tax sins of the NPMBC may haunt the new entity, so secure the appropriate representations, warranties, and indemnities accordingly.
  2. EMMD conversion is permitted outright in LA with a catch. Once you have the general conversion plan sorted in your term sheet, you have to deal with conversion under local law. In L.A., “. . . a change from non-profit status to for-profit status by an EMMD is exempt from [having to seek DCR approval] if no other ownership change is made in accordance with Proposition D’s ownership rulesand notice is provided to DCR within five business days. This exemption is not available after a License is issued.” This means that while EMMDs maintain a temporary license from the DCR to operate, EMMDs can convert from non-profits to for-profits without having to secure DCR approval so long as: 1) The original directors remain the “owners” and 2) The DCR gets 5 business days’ notice of the corporate change over. In turn, even if the entity can be converted, purchasers cannot immediately take over the EMMD unless the EMMD and the new owners are ready to complete all of the steps at point 6 below.
  1. EMMD status stopped in Phase 1. A lot of our clients have been pitched by several EMMDs on the alleged fact that EMMDs will get special treatment for the receipt of additional retail licenses in L.A.. This is not correct. All retailers in L.A. can receive and run up to three retail licenses total (including Type 9 delivery only retail). In phase 1 licensing, which was for EMMDs only and which has come and gone forever, if an EMMD only applied for a single retail license in that “Priority Processing” phase, they must wait until phase 3 for additional retail license application (which is the general public licensing phase). Regarding phase 3, the City has never said when it will open and it’s anyone’s guess as to when that window will commence, but it’s unlikely to happen in 2018 given the slower pace of licensing in LA. In any event, if EMMDs want more retail licenses (for which they did not apply when phase 1 was open), they’ll have to get in line like everyone else in phase 3.
  2. Phase 3 may be a dead end. Per point 5 above, if part of your purchase agreement is that the EMMD status will help you secure additional retail licenses in phase 3, you really need to be careful with that performance obligation. In phase 3, the City is already obligated under Prop. M to issue retail licenses to social equity applicants on a 2-to-1 basis relative to other general public (non-social equity) applicants. Since over 160 EMMDs already exist in L.A., this means that before even a single retail license issues to a general public (non-social equity) applicant, the City must first issue over 300 retail licenses to social equity applicants. Couple that with the fact that Los Angeles has undue concentration caps for retail licenses and the writing is on the wall that retail licensure may not be possible for non-social equity general public applicants in phase 3, and that includes for non-social equity EMMDs seeking additional retail licenses.
  1. This ain’t your daddy’s M & A. Mergers and acquisitions in regulated industries are a different animal because the transaction has to fit with regulatory vetting and approval before anything really becomes effective between the parties. Cannabis M & A is no different and, in fact, is probably worse since it’s an emerging industry and because commercial cannabis activity remains federally illegal. Once a California cannabis business has its annual license, if it wants to sell its membership interests or stock to bring in a disclosable “owner” (i.e., among other things, anyone or any entity that owns 20% or more in equity), it will first need to seek approval from the state agency that issued it its licenses. That’s not uncommon in states with robust cannabis regulations. What people may not know, though, is that the DCR also wants to know about changes in ownership and has full authority to reject the change request based on its scrutiny of the incoming owners. Specifically, in LA:

“A License is not transferable unless the change to the Licensee’s organizational structure or ownership is submitted to and approved by DCR. The Licensee shall complete a change of ownership application, pay all applicable fees and obtain the written approval of the change of ownership by DCR, pursuant to the Rules and Regulations . . .”

There are also specific increased requirements for changes of ownership for a social equity business set forth in the City’s Cannabis Procedures at section 104.20.

In any M & A term sheet and/or definitive purchase agreement for an EMMD in L.A., the parties have to take into account the requirement of first going through the DCR to have the transaction approved and they also need to address what happens in the event the new owners are, or the change of ownership request is, rejected by the DCR. The timeline for state and local government approval on these things is also both important and unpredictable, but should nonetheless be agreed to by the parties at the outset of the transaction to ensure success.

  1. Relocation is no picnic. In addition to their grandfathering, the EMMDs are not subject to undue concentration limits, and so long as they meet certain requirements they don’t have to comply with the Prop. M zoning and buffer requirements until 2022. However, if the EMMD relocates (which the DCR currently allows) or if it moves any of its other licenses from its original premises, it will lose the zoning and buffer exemptions. A good amount of the M & A we’re seeing includes a component that an EMMD with other licenses will either re-locate itself or some or all of its other licenses as part of the transaction. And a lot of that M & A completely fails to address the fact that upon such relocation the zoning and buffer grandfathering is lost. Be sure to address this grandfathering and/or the loss thereof if it’s part of your dispensary M & A goals in LA.

It’s not a stretch to say that selling and buying EMMDs in LA is not for the faint of heart. There are many important details that must be considered in any due diligence period and that must also be reflected in any viable purchase and sale agreement. So, do your homework and proceed with extreme caution.

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