Consumers continue to drive an ever expanding marijuana industry and new opportunities appear at every turn.  While the market is involving, there is still opportunities to make money and start a successful business.  Public opinion is pro-legalization and it is just a matter of time before the government reschedules driving more growth. If you are considering it, here is the best advice for starting a cannabis business.

Lonnie Rosenwald is a partner in Zuber Lawler’s cannabis practice group and shares some valuable insight into starting a business. In the rapidly growing cannabis industry, small business owners face a myriad of challenges, ranging from the typical complexities of business structures and investment to navigating the particular nuances of cannabis contracts, banking, and real estate. Establishing a successful cannabis business requires careful consideration of these areas of law to ensure compliance, mitigate risks, and foster growth. Here’s a brief guide for small cannabis business owners on five key areas for your focus: legal entities, investments, contracts, banking, and real estate. 

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Photo by Luis Llerena via Unsplash
  1. Legal Entities

Choosing the right legal entity is crucial for cannabis businesses. Each state’s cannabis program differs from all other states, and the legal entity you need may be required by your state’s program. Additionally, each structure has advantages and disadvantages. Sole proprietorships, partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs), and corporations all offer distinct benefits. For example, LLCs are popular structures for new cannabis businesses due to the liability protection they provide their owners (called “members”) while maintaining flexibility in management and favorable tax treatment. Some sophisticated investors prefer corporations. A sole proprietorship is not an entity, but it is simpler than the other business structures in that you, and only you, control the business, but you do not have liability protection.  Partnerships are just that:  a number of partners work or invest together in the business. A joint venture is a type of partnership whereby the partners are committed to a common goal; general partners may not be protected from liability; limited partners typically are.  Corporations have limited liability for the shareholders and employees. A decision on your business entity structure should be made with advice from your attorneys and tax professionals familiar with cannabis other applicable laws and regulations. Your business may also be required to comply with the U.S. Corporate Transparency Act with respect to reporting to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) certain information regarding the beneficial ownership of your entity (effective as of January 1, 2024).   Whether you are required to report should be a topic of conversation with your attorney.  

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  1. Investments:

Securing funding by private capital raises, financial institution lending and/or friends and family commitments is often a crucial step in the growth journey of a small cannabis business because of the significant costs of real estate, equipment, and employees. Investors, whether individuals or venture capital firms, are attracted to businesses with a solid legal foundation, clear growth strategies, and compliance with laws and industry regulations. Business owners should be prepared to present potential investors and lenders comprehensive business plans, showcasing not only the financial viability of the venture, but also a deep understanding of the legal and regulatory landscape. The U.S. and state securities laws typically apply to offerings of securities in cannabis entities notwithstanding that your state may have a cannabis program and that cannabis is illegal at the federal level.  These laws are particularly complex, so before issuing shares or member or partner interests in your cannabis business, please seek legal advice from securities-competent counsel.   Businesses should have an attorney review all investor materials to avoid problems down the road. 

Lonnie Rosenwald, attorney, Zuber Lawler
Lonnie Rosenwald, attorney, Zuber Lawler
  1. Contracts:

Clear and comprehensive contracts are the foundation of any successful business. In the cannabis industry, contracts play a vital role in clarifying and documenting relationships with suppliers, distributors, employees, investors, lenders, and partners. Ensuring contracts comply with state cannabis regulations (as well as other applicable laws and regulations) is critical to avoiding the potential that the contract is unenforceable or worse, illegal. We frequently see clients desiring to buy or sell a cannabis business, obtain loans or investments, and those entering into complex contracts regarding real estate or equipment leases, cultivation, manufacturing, transport, marketing services agreements, and partnership agreements.  Many of these contracts are lengthy, and of course, use legalese that you may not understand.  Some include complex rights and responsibilities, as well as how the parties will calculate various fees and expenses relating to the contract. Seeking legal advice during the contract drafting and negotiation stages is a prudent step. 

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  1. Banking:

Accessing banking services remains a significant challenge for many cannabis businesses as the sale and consumption of cannabis remains illegal under federal law, and most financial institutions (banks) are regulated by the U.S. and are required to follow certain regulations applicable to their operations. While some banks are cannabis-friendly, business owners must establish relationships with banks that have experience in the cannabis industry and that understand and comply with state-specific cannabis regulations. It is imperative to maintain meticulous financial records. Exploring alternative financial service providers, such as credit unions or specialized cannabis banking services, can help businesses navigate the financial landscape. Financial institutions such as banks will want to see what collateral your business has, such as ownership of real estate (a lease typically won’t work here), to secure your promises to repay a loan. Most banks will not lend to plant-touching cannabis businesses (even those with real estate assets), nor will they even process your deposits, debits or credits.  Ask cannabis leaders in your state for cannabis bank referrals; caution, most banks doing business with cannabis businesses don’t publicize that fact!   

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  1. Real Estate:

Cannabis businesses must carefully consider real estate issues, including zoning, building, health and safety and other applicable laws and regulations, lease and lending agreements, and compliance with state, county, and municipal property laws, as well as owners associations’ regulations. Zoning regulations can significantly impact the location of cannabis operations, making it crucial to choose properties where cannabis activities are permitted under local ordinances. Often, the cannabis business’ compliance with local zoning codes requires a lengthy and time-consuming review process with a substantial amount of documents, plans, specifications and other costly information, as well as public hearings and numerous conferences with planning staff. Leases should address cannabis-related activities explicitly by including cannabis use (for cultivation, extraction, retail, etc.) in the permitted use provision, permitting limited access to the facility by landlord (and its lenders), allowing early termination in the event of a change in cannabis law prohibiting a cannabis use, and the like, also ensuring alignment with both state and local regulations. Engaging with real estate professionals and attorneys familiar with the intricacies of the cannabis industry can streamline the process of finding and using suitable properties. 

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Small cannabis business owners must be thoughtful and proactive in choosing suitable legal entities, negotiating enforceable contracts, accessing banking and investment and acquiring real estate. Navigating the complex regulatory landscape requires collaboration with legal and financial professionals who specialize in the cannabis industry. By establishing a solid foundation in these five key areas, small cannabis businesses can position themselves for sustainable growth and success in this dynamic and challenging industry. 

Lonnie Rosenwald is a partner in Zuber Lawler’s cannabis practice group. Ms. Rosenwald  is located in Seattle, WA. These comments are general and not specific to your particular business or business situation; these comments are not intended to be legal advice, nor is Ms. Rosenwald or her firm representing you.  We encourage you to seek qualified legal counsel to represent you or your business especially with respect to a cannabis (touching or not) business.  

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