Dank Until Gone Dark: The State of Corporate Insolvency for Cannabis Businesses

Two thirds of all states and the District of Columbia have, to varying degrees, legalized cannabis. With the recent addition of Illinois, eleven states now allow adult recreational use. But cannabis entrepreneurs’ rush of excitement and dreams of cashing in is met with fierce competition and economic risks that makes the dreams, which look so dank at first, end up going dark, or in other words, out of business.

This article discusses the available options for a cannabis business that finds itself on hard times and in need of reorganizing its debts or liquidating altogether. With the federal status of cannabis remaining illegal, cannabis businesses must clear significant hurdles to achieve success. Among the many other pitfalls traditional business owners experience, a cannabis business must navigate limited access to financial institutions and its related security concerns of keeping large amounts of cash on location. Also, they cannot deduct ordinary and necessary business expenses for federal income tax purposes. Turning a profit in legal cannabis can be a big challenge.

The first thought for a business facing insolvency is bankruptcy. However, bankruptcy courts have not been welcoming to cannabis businesses. Bankruptcy courts are courts of federal jurisdiction, and the federal government is represented by the United States Trustee Program (UST), which is the division of the Department of Justice responsible for oversight of Bankruptcy Courts. Since cannabis remains illegal under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) as a Schedule I controlled substance, it is unsurprising that the UST creates roadblocks for those seeking relief. In fact, the UST currently and steadfastly seeks dismissal of cases against cannabis businesses, cannabis employees and landlords of cannabis businesses.

But all hope is not lost. First, a change at the head of the DOJ could have a significant effect on how these cases are handled, even without a reclassification of cannabis. Second, recent caselaw shows a willingness by the courts to forge a path allowing cannabis cases to survive. Finally, if federal bankruptcy protection is not an option, other state remedies may be available to unsuccessful cannabis ventures.

The UST’s prosecutorial discretion has a strong influence in how a bankruptcy case can develop. While still very difficult to predict, a compelling analogy for cannabis cases can be seen in how the UST dealt with same-sex marriages in 2011. Nine years ago, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) governed, and Section 3 of DOMA1 defined marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” In In re Gene Douglas Balas and Carlos A. Morales, a same sex couple filed a Chapter 13 petition in California, and the UST filed a motion to have the case dismissed. The UST sought dismissal of the joint bankruptcy case, arguing the couple did not qualify for a joint petition under 11 USC § 302(a) because they were in a same-sex marriage. The bankruptcy court denied the UST’s motion. The bankruptcy court in Balas based its opinion partially on a letter from then United States Attorney General Eric Holder, with President Obama’s support, reasoning that Section 3 was unconstitutional as it applied to legally married same-sex couples. The UST appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, the UST did an abrupt about-face and dismissed its appeal. In fact, the UST took a further step by publicly stating it would not seek dismissal of any joint bankruptcy filed by a legally married same-sex couple. Similarly, if today’s executive branch decides not to enforce the CSA in bankruptcy court, cannabis businesses in compliance with state law would have access to bankruptcy courts.

Many businesses have pushed the bankruptcy courts to use a similar public policy approach to allowing cannabis businesses to seek debt relief, but it is proving to be a far stickier issue. Bankruptcy Courts have routinely dismissed cases with both direct and indirect relationships to the cannabis industry. The UST has taken a stance firmly against affording relief with any type of connection to cannabis. In an April 2017 letter to Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 trustees, the Director of the UST put it bluntly: “[i]t is the policy of the United States Trustee Program that United States Trustees shall move to dismiss or object in all cases involving marijuana assets on grounds that such assets may not be administered under the Bankruptcy Code even if trustees or other parties object on the same or different grounds.”

Indeed, one can fairly point out a significant difference between allowing a same-sex couple to file a joint bankruptcy. The practical significance of allowing same-sex couples to file jointly is the loss of a filing fee to the bankruptcy court, whereas a cannabis company’s liquidation creates a situation where a Chapter 7 trustee would have a fiduciary duty to liquidate a controlled substance, effectively violating federal law.

However, the UST shows equal hostility to cases involving downstream cannabis businesses such as landlords and even certain gardening suppliers, where there is no risk of cannabis itself becoming property of a bankruptcy estate. A Colorado District Court affirmed a bankruptcy court’s dismissal of a holding company for purported CSA violations.2 The Court reasoned that since the company owned stock for a large hydroponic gardening company, it willfully aided and abetted criminal activities.

San Francisco’s United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Photo: Ken Lund, Flickr

While the federal executive branch is decidedly opposed to the cannabis debtor, one hope for reform lies with the judicial branch. To this end, the Ninth Circuit handed the biggest victory to date to a downstream cannabis business in Garvin v. Cook. Based on a microscopically close reading of the Bankruptcy Code, the Ninth Circuit held that a reorganization plan which relies partially on money from cannabis does not equate to a plan being “proposed by means forbidden by law” because the statutory text of one section cannot mean “all applicable law” or else the language in a closely related section that “the plan complies with the applicable provisions of this title” would be surplusage.

But this victory has not created much daylight for cannabis ventures seeking to utilize bankruptcy courts. Notably, Garvin could have gone a different direction if the UST had revived a motion to dismiss for gross mismanagement of the estate, which is how most Chapter 11 cannabis cases are dismissed. Indeed, in the weeks following the Garvin decision, two lower courts declined to blaze a new trail, and instead distinguished its cases from Garvin, dismissing debtors with equally indirect ties to cannabis.

Bankruptcy courts have shown significantly more latitude for legal hemp companies. In a promising decision, In re Royalty Properties, LLC, a Northern District of Illinois Bankruptcy Court took no issue with the legality of a debtor growing hemp seeds. The court took pains to distinguish hemp from its psychoactive relative marijuana and based its ruling on the 2018 Farm Bill which effectively legalized hemp. The court even denied as unnecessary an order to approve contracts to grow hemp, stating its approval was not necessary. Ultimately, the reorganization failed for reasons unrelated to growing hemp.  Nevertheless, the case does show a step toward tolerance. Now that CBD giant GenCanna Global has filed a Chapter 11 in Kentucky, the UST’s tolerance will be put on full display.

The United States Trustee Program is a part of the United States Department of Justice

Also, it is worth noting that the unwillingness of bankruptcy courts to take on cannabis cases cuts both ways. Creditors of cannabis businesses, already taking on a certain amount of risk for dealing with borrowers who cannot use depository institutions in a traditional way, also have been prevented from banding together and filing an involuntary bankruptcy against cannabis businesses.

Fortunately, legal cannabis businesses facing insolvency have options aside from federal bankruptcy to deal with debt issues.

An assignment for the benefit of creditors proceeding (ABC) presents one very workable option. In an ABC, a distressed company selects an “assignee” to liquidate the debtor’s assets via state law and distribute the proceeds to the creditor’s benefit. Depending on whether the assets include cannabis, the assignee will likely have to comply with applicable state law to be able to legally liquidate the asset. Nevertheless, an ABC might be the best solution currently available for cannabis companies seeking debt relief.

Another option is a corporate receivership where a disinterested third party, typically an attorney, is appointed to take control of an ailing business. The receiver takes over management of the company and can liquidate the company’s assets. Receiverships present certain advantages over bankruptcy proceedings. They allow for greater flexibility in decision making because the receiver is not bound by the confines of the Bankruptcy Code. Receiverships can be more cost effective, due to less court involvement and administrative expenses. For creditors, there is the advantage of potentially deciding on the receiver. Also, the receiver, unlike a Chapter 7 trustee, does not bear the imprimatur of any government, and is not a public officer within the meaning of a constitutional or statutory provision relating to public officers. Oregon and Washington have both amended their receivership statutes to ensure that cannabis businesses can effectively manage debt without receivers running the risk of violating the law. Ideally, other legal states will follow suit to ensure this remedy is available to cannabis businesses.

Finally, another bankruptcy alternative would be a friendly foreclosure under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). Unlike the Bankruptcy Code, the UCC is not federal law, but is adopted individually by each state. Again, considering the secured lender is required to comply with state law, this is another instance where amending state statutes could provide great assistance to a struggling cannabis business and its secured creditors.

Legal options for insolvent cannabis businesses is a new challenge. Society is trending in the direction of a more permissive attitude toward cannabis, so it should follow that the legislatures and courts accept this shift and afford distressed cannabis businesses the same opportunities to reorganize or orderly liquidate just like other legal business entities.


References

  1. DOMA was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 US v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013).
  2. See In re Way to Grow, Civil Action No. 18-cv-3245-WJM, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 207846 (D. Colo. Sep. 18, 2019)

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