Our California cannabis lawyers are seeing a major spike in mergers and acquisitions (M & A), and it’s time to discuss what’s on the horizon for changes of ownership for some California cannabis businesses. In every cannabis state, M & A is no breeze because the regulators almost always require pre-approval of the transaction or of the new buyer(s). In California, it’s going to be more of the same in the red tape department in the future, as per the proposed permanent rules that will (likely) take effect at the middle of this month.
As you all know, multiple agencies in California run point on licensing. The Bureau of Cannabis Control (“BCC”) is the lead agency though when it comes to the implementation of the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (“MAUCRSA”). Under the BCC’s proposed permanent rules (which are still under review by the Office of Administrative Law), we now have a revised change of ownership process for distributors, labs, and retailers. (The California Department of Public Health the California Department of Food and Agriculture both have new change of ownership rules that significantly differ from the BCC in certain ways.)
First, and most importantly for all licensees, state licenses are not transferable. What this means then is that buyers have to purchase the companies that hold those licenses. Second, to accomplish a change of ownership under the new rules, would-be sellers of BCC-licensed businesses will need to submit a “Notification and Request Form” and check the box entitled “Change in Ownership” or “Change in Financial Interest Holder.” Specifically, for changes of “owners,” under the proposed permanent rules at section 5023(c),
If one or more of the owners of a license change, the new owners shall submit the information required for . . . each new owner be submitted to the [BCC] within 14 calendar days of the effective date of the ownership change.”
This timeline is almost the same as what was set forth under the emergency rules–it’s no surprise that the state has a deadline on disclosure for changes in ownership, as it affects licensure. However, this is the new curve ball for the M & A crowd pursuant to section 5023:
The business may continue to operate under the active license while the [BCC] reviews the qualifications of the new owner(s) in accordance with [MAUCRSA] and these regulations to determine whether the change would constitute grounds for denial of the license, if at least one existing owner is not transferring his or her ownership interest and will remain as an owner under the new ownership structure. If all owners will be transferring their ownership interest, the business shall not operate under the new ownership structure until a new license application has been submitted to and approved by the [BCC], and all application and license fees for the new application have been paid . . . In cases where one or more owners leave the business by transferring their ownership interest to the other existing owner(s), the owner or owners that are transferring their interest shall provide a signed statement to the [BCC] confirming that they have transferred their interest.”
In my experience, most business buyers in cannabis are looking for a full buy-out. And your typical cannabis M & A deal will (hopefully) have as a condition to closing that the state and/or local government(s) approve of the transaction/new buyer(s) prior to closing. However, in California, retailers, labs, and distributors will not be able to operate during a complete buy-out while the state is processing not only all of the new owners (including their background checks) but also an entirely new license application, which could take weeks or months to complete. Without a doubt, buyers will want the business to keep operating during the transaction so this is going to be problematic for a complete buy-out, and it’s pretty much unprecedented that the business shuts down during the transition.
What we’re now very likely to see then is that at least one of the original selling owners will always stay on the licensed entity as part of the transaction and only after the state clears the new license application will that person finally be able to transfer all of their equity (once they provide that written statement to the BCC). What this means is that buy-outs of cannabis businesses in California just got that much tougher and risk-laden for buyers as these transactions will now certainly drag out and become even more complicated.
And if you’re not looking at a full buy-out, life is somewhat easier in that “[a] change in ownership does not occur when one or more owners leave the business by transferring their ownership interest to the other existing owner(s),” and changes to financial interest holders (i.e., anyone who holds less than 20% of the business’s equity) don’t constitute a change of ownership that warrants a new application, etc.
You may be thinking that there’s a silver lining here in that these new rules may only apply specifically to annual licenses. However, regulators ensured that the change of ownership standards apply to those who hold a “License,” which is defined statutorily as “a state license issued under this division, and includes both an A-license and an M-license, as well as a testing laboratory license.” In turn, these standards should apply to those companies that hold temporary, provisional, and annual licenses.
California has certainly set itself apart as a very mixed place when it comes to cannabis business friendliness. And these recent BCC-imposed changes of ownership, at least in my opinion, help bring the state closer to more arbitrary barriers to entry than necessary.