The Irish poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde once said, “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.” There were no cannabis companies in those times, but the idea that a little formality never hurt anyone holds true today. In the context of running a pot venture, Wilde’s aphorism remains particularly useful as a matter of policy. So, this is a post about cannabis companies doing things right.
We represent a large number of marijuana companies up and down the west coast. Though they are all eager to comply with state and local laws, some of our clients are dangerously informal regarding company structure and documents. These companies may suffer from inexperience, budgetary constraints, practical hurdles (i.e. lack of banking services), or lack of discipline. In nearly every interaction we have with informal businesses, we admonish them to get some basic paperwork in order. Today.
Marijuana companies are similar to other companies in that a lack of formality can be fatal. Take your standard C-corporation, for example. At a minimum, this type of company should have bylaws, a shareholder agreement, stock certificates, subscription agreements and articles of incorporation that comport with state statutes. When key company decisions are made, they should be documented through consent resolutions. Company funds should be kept separate from personal funds, and actions by directors and officers should be taken in their official capacities. Failure to follow these touchstones will expose shareholders to both legal and tax liability (through “piercing the corporate veil”). Often, lack of basic documents defeats the purpose of having a company altogether.
Long-time marijuana entrepreneurs are accustomed to informality. Historically, these individuals come from black and gray markets, and are used to operating underground. New market entrants tend to be more cautious, but as a general matter, they too have a belly for risk, given the status of federal law. But, although federal illegality is a difficult risk to mitigate, running an unstructured and improperly documented business is wholly unnecessary. It is taking risk for risk’s sake, and it is unwise.
In seven years of representing cannabis businesses, our firm’s cannabis lawyers have yet to see a client shuttered by federal agents. We have, however, seen plenty of them buckle under from disputes or tax headaches that were foreseeable, preventable and directly attributable to either a lack of basic documentation, or a lack of adherence to protocol. Often, we meet these clients for the first time mid-stream: sometimes the situation is salvageable; other times, not.
Even a company with the tightest, most polished documents possible may stumble if its owners or agents fail to follow formalities. Having an exquisitely tailored operating agreement, for example, will not avail an LLC member if he commingles business and personal funds. Similarly, if a corporation’s president ignores her company’s bylaws for an end-run around the board, she could find herself in peril. It is not enough to have good paper: good governance is also needed.
Getting appropriate documents in place should not be terribly challenging for a cannabis venture. It is something that should be done thoughtfully at the outset with guidance from an experienced corporate cannabis attorney, and it should not break the bank. As the business grows, existing documents will be amended or restated from time to time, and new documents will be generated. And if company owners and agents keep it formal enough — as Oscar Wilde would have it — things are likely to work out fine.