In our previous post, we touched on the fact that state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses (including indirect cannabis businesses) could not receive federal financial assistance due to the continued Schedule I status of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). While state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses have been adversely affected due to government imposed shelter-in-place restrictions across the United States, they are unable to take advantage of the multi-trillion dollar stimulus packages that are designed to help small businesses because they are engaged in “federally illegal” activities. As described below, applicants applying for federal loans must certify, under penalty of perjury, that they are not engaged in “illegal” activity.
While it is our view that state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses should be entitled to assistance as they are hurting like every other business, we explain why such businesses cannot receive financial assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program and the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program due to the facts that these businesses do not comply with federal law.
As previously discussed, Section 1102 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act or the “Act”) directed $349 billion to the Small Business Administration (SBA) to administer to small businesses harmed by COVID-19. As a result, businesses can apply for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and other SBA financial assistance, including Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs), traditional 7(a) loans, 504 loans, and microloans, and can also receive investment capital from the Small Business Investment Company program.
Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)
Generally, the following businesses are eligible to receive loans under the PPP:
- Any business, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, 501(c)(19) veterans organization or Tribal business with not more than 500 employees whose principal place of residence is in the United States;
- Any business that meets the SBA employee-based size standards for the industry in which it operates (if applicable);
- Any business that is a “small business concern” as defined in Section 3 of the Small Business Act, 15 U.S.C. 632, and meets the SBA employee-based or revenue-based size standards corresponding to its primary industry; or
- Any business that is a “small business concern” under the SBA’s “alternative size standard” as of March 27, 2020, which standard is met if the business has not more than:
- (i) maximum tangible net worth of $15 million, and
- (ii) an average net income of $5 million (after Federal income taxes, excluding any carry-over losses) for 2 full fiscal years before the date of application.
Importantly, to apply for PPP, an applicant must make a good faith certification that the applicant is eligible to receive a PPP loan. An applicant must certify, under penalty of perjury, that it “is not engaged in any activity that is illegal under federal, state or local law.” (Borrower Application Form, page 2).
Consequently, because state-legal marijuana businesses (including indirect marijuana businesses) are operating in violation of federal law, applicants cannot make such certification, they remain ineligible to participate in the PPP.
Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs)
The CARES Act also provided a slew of changes to the SBA’s pre-existing EIDL program, which provides small businesses with working capital loans of up to $2 million to assist to help overcome the temporary loss of revenue as the result of a declared disaster.
The Act set out new rules making it easier for small businesses harmed by COVID-19 to receive loans quickly and efficiently; the Act added $30 billion to the EIDL loan fund, with an additional $10 billion added for the EIDL Grants connected to the EIDL loans.
The CARES Act also expanded eligibility to include businesses with no more than 500 employees, any individual operating as a sole proprietor or an independent contractor, and tribal businesses, cooperatives and ESOPs with no more than 500 employees. Small business concerns and small agricultural cooperatives who meet the SBA’s applicable size standards are also eligible, as well as most nonprofits.
However, to receive an EIDL loan, applicants must make a good faith certification that the applicant is eligible to receive an EIDL. An applicant must certify, under penalty of perjury, that it “is not engaged in any illegal activity (as defined by Federal guidelines).” (COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan Application).
The SBA has clarified that the limitation on applicants “engaged in any illegal activity” (13 CFR § 120.110 (h)) refers to all applicants engaged in “illegal activity under federal, state, or local law.”
In a Statement of Position issued on April 1, 2019 (the SOP), the SBA clarified that “illegal activity” includes “[a]pplicants that make, sell, service, or distribute products or services used in connection with illegal activity, unless such use can be shown to be completely outside of the Applicant’s intended market.” (SOP 50 10 5(K))
The SOP indicated that both (i) Direct Marijuana Businesses1 and (ii) Indirect Marijuana Businesses2 cannot receive SBA assistance due to the limitation on applicants “engaged in any illegal activity.”
It is the SBA’s position that, “because federal law prohibits the distribution and sale of marijuana, financial transactions involving a marijuana-related business would generally involve funds derived from illegal activity.”
Consequently, because state-legal cannabis businesses (including indirect marijuana businesses) are operating in violation of federal law, applicants cannot certify that they are “not engaged in any illegal activity,” they are not eligible to receive EIDLs.
- “Direct Marijuana Business” mean “a business that grows, produces, processes, distributes, or sells marijuana or marijuana products, edibles, or derivatives, regardless of the amount of such activity. This applies to recreational use and medical use even if the business is legal under local or state law where the applicant business is or will be located.”
- “Indirect Marijuana Business” means “a business that derived any of its gross revenue for the previous year (or, if a start-up, projects to derive any of its gross revenue for the next year) from sales to Direct Marijuana Businesses of products or services that could reasonably be determined to aid in the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Examples of Indirect Marijuana Businesses include businesses that provide testing services, or sell or install grow lights, hydroponic or other specialized equipment, to one or more Direct Marijuana Businesses; and businesses that advise or counsel Direct Marijuana Businesses on the specific legal, financial/ accounting, policy, regulatory or other issues associated with establishing, promoting, or operating a Direct Marijuana Business. However … [the] SBA does not consider a plumber who fixes a sink for a Direct Marijuana Business or a tech support company that repairs a laptop for such a business to be aiding in the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Indirect Marijuana Businesses also include businesses that sell smoking devices, pipes, bongs, inhalants, or other products if the products are primarily intended or designed for marijuana use or if the business markets the products for such use.”
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The legalized cannabis industry remains a budding market in the United States. As the legislative dominoes started to cascade from state-to-state across the country, entrants of all categories—operators, investors, lenders, and retailers—were willing to stand in line for their tickets. However, signs of fatigue, caused largely by the continuing murkiness of regulatory guidance and investors’ waning appetite for reading the legislative crystal ball, were already surfacing towards the end of 2018 and continued its slide downward into 2019. From March 2019, market capitalization for the 33 biggest cannabis stocks was down 45% by the end of 2019, falling from $54 billion to $30 billion and projected revenues dropped a whopping 17% as well.
Has COVID Made Things Worse?
Against this backdrop, COVID-19 arrived on the scene. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), cannabis seemed to be somewhat insulated from unprecedented disruptions to supply chains and artificial nose dives in demand. Many operators noted a sharp uptick in sales as states implemented shelter-in-place orders. Ironically, the supply chain hurdles created by the lack of federal legalization rendered operators—even multistate operators (MSOs)—uniquely equipped to handle the supply chain woes that others were struggling to contain. Meanwhile, as more and more states slapped the essential label onto both medical and adult use cannabis, operators were permitted to run business as usual (under the circumstances) and legalized cannabis started to look a little more “normal” in the most abnormal of times.
Thus, for a moment, cannabis looked like it might be a counter indicator (or recession-resilient)—while others were going down, cannabis was going up. But, after this brief surge, sales settled down and states began reporting decreases from this time last year and the outlook for the cannabis industry remains unclear.
Is This An Opportunity?
Declining demand, coupled with the issues described above, spells cash-flow problems for cannabis companies – many of which are still relative “infants” compared to their consumer goods counterparts and thus may have yet to create a “rainy day fund.” However, liquidity issues can create opportunities for those who still have cash to inject. In the last year, 13 special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) have listed on exchanges with an eye towards “cheap cannabis assets.”Cheap cannabis assets (or distressed cannabis assets) can offer a lowered barrier to entry into what many still believe to be a bull market. However, investors should proceed with caution. While the assets themselves may bear bargain basement price tags as the world grapples with the current recession, the cost of entry is more onerous than many realize. It is thus critical for potential investors to do their pre-due diligence on the who, what, when, where and how of acquiring distressed cannabis assets.
Where Do Distressed Cannabis Companies Go?
Ordinarily, distressed companies requiring capital restructuring look towards the US Bankruptcy Code. Deploying the broad injunctive relief afforded by the automatic stay as both a sword and shield, ailing companies can focus on lining up debtor-in-possession financing while they prospect feasible long-term exit strategies (through a reorganization, asset sale, or some combination of the two). The other major advantage of a chapter 11 is, of course, the “free and clear” order—the veritable clean slate provided by a federal court to good faith purchasers of the distressed assets that allow buyers to proceed with very few strings attached.
These federal benefits are not available to adult use and medical cannabis companies (hemp companies can file for chapter 11). Indeed, some bankruptcy courts have shut the door on not just the operators themselves, but companies that have even tangential dealings with cannabis companies. With federal legalization, that will likely change; however in the meantime, distressed cannabis companies must look to pseudo-bankruptcy proceedings that offer some of the benefits that a federal bankruptcy can.
Is A State Receivership A Good Restructuring Vehicle For Distressed Cannabis Companies?
The number one option for many distressed cannabis companies will be state receivership. Much like a chapter 11 bankruptcy, the receivership provides for a stay against actions against the company’s assets, i.e., the breathing space it needs to hatch a plan for rehabilitation or exit the game as painlessly as possible. The receiver will be empowered to run the business while ironing out its operational/cash issues or conduct an orderly sale of the assets, usually through an auction process, during which the secured lender will be afforded the right to credit bid. The costs associated with that sale may be charged to the sale proceeds. Thus, in many ways, the state receivership acts like a federal bankruptcy.
How Is A State Receivership Different From A Federal Bankruptcy?
There are two main differences that investors should be aware of between a federal bankruptcy and a state receivership.
As with anything else that’s up for sale, where there’s a will, there’s a way.First, the court appointed receiver (often handpicked by the company’s primary secured lender) will be calling most of the shots from an operational, transactional, and financial perspective. That receiver may not have the kind of operational know-how of running a cannabis company that a typical debtor-in-possession might, making any major transaction more challenging. Even if the receiver has some background in the cannabis industry, he or she will still have a steep learning curve when it comes to the company’s specific business.
Second, the laws vary from state to state on whether a receiver can sell assets free and clear of any and all liens, claims, and encumbrances without the consent or satisfaction of those claims. Accordingly, buyers of distressed cannabis assets will want to take a close look at potential successor liability risks on a state-by-state basis.
Can Anyone Buy Or Invest In Distressed Cannabis Assets?
While many industries offer pay to play options for investors and lenders, the cannabis industry may not be as welcoming. Many lenders eyeing potentially lucrative refinancing possibilities that include an “equity kicker” (e.g., warrants) should be aware that states and municipalities often require investors aiming to own or control a substantial portion of the company’s business to satisfy most, if not all, of the regulatory requirements for holding the various licenses for operating in the cannabis space. For those interested in MSOs, a deep dive into each applicable state or city’s licensing requirements will be necessary. Similarly, many states have onerous disclosure requirements for owners or financial interest holders of cannabis companies. Failures to disclose can lead to license suspensions or even forfeitures.
These are just some of the hurdles potential investors and lenders may need to scale. But as with anything else that’s up for sale, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
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