By Charles Alovisetti, Senior Associate at Vicente Sederberg, LLC.
This is article is the second in a series, which will provide a general overview of the laws that impact raising money in the cannabis industry.
Colorado currently has the strictest residency requirements for ownership of marijuana establishments in the United States, imposing a two-year residency requirement for any owner of a licensed business. In addition to the constraints imposed by such a lengthy residency requirement, the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division (the “MED”), which is the regulatory body concerned with the marijuana industry, takes a broad view of what constitutes ownership (e.g., guarantying the debt of a licensed entity can constitute ownership). Earlier this year, on May 11, 2016, in order to address the funding difficulties created by the strict residency requirements (note that because the changes to the residency requirements apply to both medical and retail marijuana businesses, this article will not distinguish between the two when discussing the legislative changes and will simply refer to licensed entities, which shall mean both medical and retail licensed entities), the Colorado Senate passed Senate Bill 16-040, as amended by the House, commonly referred to as the “Residency Bill” (the “Bill”). The Bill was subsequently signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper on June 10, 2016. The Bill, which goes into effect on January 1, 2017, will radically change the residency requirements imposed on licensed businesses. These changes are addressed in detail below. This article, with limited exceptions, only addresses the changes explicitly described in the Bill and does not address the further complexities raised by draft rules promulgated by the MED regarding the Bill since these rules are not yet final.
Current State of Colorado Law
As noted above, in addition to requiring that all owners of a licensed business be at least two-year Colorado residents (and must also meet certain background requirements), Colorado takes the view that a person or entity that has a beneficial interest in a marijuana business and/or substantial control over a marijuana business is considered an “owner.” A beneficial interest has been informally defined as being paid based on profits (whether gross or net). In determining if a person or entity has an ownership interest in a marijuana business, the state considers a non-exhaustive list of factors, including whether a person or entity 1) bears risk of loss and opportunity for profit; 2) is entitled to possession of the licensed premises; 3) has final operational decision-making authority over business; 4) guarantees the businesses’ debts or production levels; 5) is a beneficiary of the business’s insurance policies; 6) acknowledges tax liability for the business; 7) acts as an officer or director of the business; 8) is contracted to manage the overall operation of the business; 9) has a licensing agreement with the business (note that it is possible to structure licensing agreements so as to avoid triggering the determination of ownership, but this can be complicated); 10) has ownership of shares or other equity interests of the licensed business; 11) has a secured interest in furniture or fixtures directly used in the manufacture or cultivation of marijuana; or 12) has a secured loan with the business. In addition, any security interest in the furniture, equipment, or fixtures used directly in the manufacture or cultivation of marijuana or marijuana product may be considered ownership depending on the circumstances. Given the thoroughness of the foregoing list, it’s not difficult to understand why licensed entities have had difficulty raising capital from out-of-state investors.
However, Colorado laws do allow for out-of-state residents to invest in marijuana businesses through a permitted economic interest (“PEI”). A PEI is a financial interest in the form of an unsecured debt instrument, option agreement, warrant, or any other right to obtain ownership interest in a marijuana business, provided the conversion or transfer right is contingent on the holder qualifying as an owner and obtaining licensure as an owner by the MED – this could be upon the occurrence of either the holder meeting the two-year residency requirement or a change in law (which the Bill represents). A PEI may only be held by a natural person who is a U.S. resident. Holders of PEIs are subject to fingerprinting and criminal history background checks and must disclose financial and personal information with the MED in their applications. As of today, PEIs remain useful to licensed businesses since they allow them to accept out-of-state investment in advance of the Bill going into effect. On January 1, 2017, PEI holders will become eligible to have their interests converted into equity holdings in licensed businesses. After the Bill goes into effect, any kind of option, warrant, or similar convertible instrument will still be required to take the form of a PEI.
New Residency Bill
Before delving into the specifics of the Bill, it is worth noting that the summary attached to the Bill contradicts the actual law, as it was written prior to the passage of the final version of the Bill, and it should be ignored.
The Bill adds a number of new defined terms. Understanding these new terms is the key to understanding the Bill:
Direct Beneficial Interest Owner: Prior to the Bill, there was only a defined term for “Owner”; that concept has now been split in two – Direct Beneficial Interest Owner and Indirect Beneficial Interest Owner. Under the existing system, any level of control that the MED, using the 12-factor test outlined above, determined rose to the level of ownership resulted in the entity or individual being listed as a zero percent Owner (e.g., an individual who guaranteed the debts of a licensed entity might be considered as a zero percent Owner of that business, despite owning no equity in that entity). The term Direct Beneficial Interest Owner is meant to cover existing Owners who directly hold equity in a licensed entity. Direct Beneficial Interest Owners are subject to residency requirements and full background checks (except for Qualified Limited Passive Investors, a type of Direct Beneficial Interest Owner described in detail below). A Direct Beneficial Interest Owner must be either a resident of Colorado for at least one year or a US citizen. Publicly traded companies are explicitly barred from holding licenses.
Indirect Beneficial Interest Owner: The second new category that was previously included in Owner is Indirect Beneficial Interest Owner. No residency requirement exists for an Indirect Beneficial Owner. An Indirect Beneficial Interest Owner includes the following individuals and entities: (a) a holder of a PEI, (b) a recipient of a commercially reasonable royalty associated with the use of intellectual property by a licensee, (c) a licensed employee who receives a share of the profits from an employee benefit plan, (d) a qualified Institutional Investor (defined below), or another similarly situated person or entity as determined by the state licensing authority. The Bill does not explicitly state what kind of background check will be required for an Indirect Beneficial Interest Owner. Currently, the draft rules set forth an identical set of criteria to determine suitability to those for Direct Beneficial Interest Owners, but this may change in the final rules.
Institutional Investor: Up to 30% of a licensed business can be held by an Institutional Investor, and the Bill does not contemplate any residency requirement for an Institutional Investor since an Institutional Investor will be considered an Indirect Beneficial Interest Owner and residency requirements only apply to Direct Beneficial Interest Owners. The Bill sets out a list of entities that meet the definition: banks, registered investment companies, ERISA funds, and any other entities to be identified during the rule-making process. The current draft rules do not list any types of entities not specifically identified in the Bill. While not discussed in the Bill, the draft rules and legislative history make it clear that an Institutional Investor must be passive and may not have any control over a licensed company beyond voting its shares (meaning that the minority protections present in a typical non-control transaction cannot be present).
Qualified Limited Passive Investor: This is defined as a natural person who is a U.S. citizen and is a passive investor owning five percent or less of the equity of a licensed business.
New Residency Rule
In place of the existing rule that requires all Owners to be at least two-year residents of Colorado, the Bill now allows an entity to be either (i) held by an unlimited number of Direct Beneficial Interest Owners, each of whom must meet the one-year Colorado residency requirement, or (ii) if one or more Direct Beneficial Interest Owners do not meet the one-year residency, then the following conditions must be observed: (a) At least one officer of the licensed entity must be a Colorado resident of at least one year, (b) all officers with day-to-day operational control over the business must be Colorado residents of at least one year, and (c) there must be no more than 15 Direct Beneficial Interest Owners (this limitation is measured by natural persons on a look-through basis). A licensed business, whether wholly held by Coloradoans meeting the residency requirement or held by one or more Direct Beneficial Interest Owners who do not meet the residency requirement, may also have up to 30% of its equity held by qualified Institutional Investors.
Reasonable Royalties Now Allowed
One additional major change in the Bill is the allowance for commercially reasonable royalties to be paid to Indirect Beneficial Interest Owners. As the law currently stands, a royalty would be considered a form of ownership by the MED (as the royalty would likely be based on the profit of the licensed entity) and would thus make the recipient of the royalty subject to residency and other ownership requirements. In addition, the current system requires all of the Owners to be present at MED meetings—which presents a major obstacle to the operator of a licensed business who wants to enter into multiple licensing agreements since any licensor could potentially put a license at risk by refusing to attend a meeting or by committing a bad act. However, Indirect Beneficial Interest Owners, while still subject to background checks, are not subject to residency requirements or the limitation of 15 natural persons (as is the case for Direct Beneficial Interest Owners when one or more equity holders does not meet the one-year Colorado residency requirement). It may also be the case, though we will need to wait for the final rules, that removing an Indirect Beneficial Interest Owner is easier than removing a Direct Beneficial Interest Owner from a license.
As noted above, the MED is granted authority to promulgate rules pursuant to the Bill, and final analysis of the Bill will require careful study of these new rules. The MED is currently accepting written comments to the draft-proposed rules in advance of a formal, public hearing regarding the permanent rules on Friday, September 2, 2016. In addition, as with any other change in a regulatory regime, we will need to pay close attention to how the Bill plays out when actually put into practice.
This information is educational only and shall not be construed as legal advice. Please consult your attorney prior to relying on any information in this article.
Charlie Alovisetti is a senior associate and co-chair of the corporate department at Vicente Sederberg LLC. Prior to joining Vicente Sederberg, Charlie worked as an associate in the New York offices of Latham & Watkins and Goodwin where his practice focused on representing private equity sponsors and their portfolio companies, as well as public companies, in a range of corporate transactions, including mergers, stock and asset acquisitions and divestitures, growth equity investments, venture capital investments, and debt financings. In addition, Charlie has experience counseling portfolio and emerging growth companies with respect to general corporate and commercial matters and all aspects of compensation arrangements, including executive employment and consulting agreements, stock option plans, restricted stock plans, bonus plans, and other management incentive arrangements. Charlie has experience in both U.S. and cross-border transactions, and has advised clients across a range of industries including cannabis, technology, manufacturing, software, digital media, energy and clean tech, healthcare, and biotech. He holds a Bachelor of Arts, with honors, from McGill University and a law degree from Columbia Law School, where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar. Charlie is admitted to practice in both Colorado and New York.