Washington State marijuana businesses face heavy regulations regarding business financing. One of the unique aspects of Washington’s cannabis business regulations is its level of control over every dollar contributed to a licensed cannabis company. Prior to receiving a license, a marijuana company must declare all capital it will receive, whether in the form of equity or in the form of debt. There is no de minimis exception, so if someone is putting a thousand dollars into a million dollar company, that thousand dollars and whomever contributed it must go through the state’s pre-clearance process. Once a company is licensed as a Washington cannabis business, any additional contributions or loans to that business must be approved by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) before they can be paid to the company, including additional loans or contributions from individuals who were previously approved. The one exception to this rule is that loans from chartered financial institutions do not need LCB approval.
This creates a major problem when cannabis licensees get into financial danger, which can happen for any business. Sometimes, money problems arise with very little notice. Whether due to a failed crop, unexpected bills, an employee emergency, or something else, cash crunches happen. Even for cannabis businesses with access to banking, it is rare for them to have access to an unsecured line of credit similar to what other non-cannabis businesses can get. When a cannabis business runs into a cash crunch, it has to figure out how to keep things afloat while figuring out how to infuse capital without violating Washington regulations. If a business is lucky, its current owners have sufficient personal capital to make additional contributions, because the LCB clearance process is shorter for individuals already in the system. If a business is unlucky and it has to bring in outside capital, it is looking at what can be a months long approval process before any of that capital can be paid in. Those months can mean the death of a business.
All of this leads to a common outcome — cash contributions to businesses without LCB clearance in violation of LCB regulations. When the worst thing the LCB can do is cancel a business’s license, you can understand why someone would be willing to violate those regulations when the alternative is worse. Many marijuana business owners have more tied up in their business than just the business assets — they signed personal guarantees with landlords and other vendors that will survive business failure. If you are in that scenario, it is hardly illogical to bring on an outside financier outside the rules and hope you don’t get caught.
But regulations that put business owners into this type of quandary are the type that should be revisited and revised. There are plenty of simple fixes to avoid or at least mitigate the current challenges struggling cannabis businesses face. For example, the LCB could change the structure of approval for interest rate lending to make it more of a notice requirement — save the hard approval process for equity owners and profit-sharers.
Unless and until the LCB takes another look at this issue, the best advice we can give is to shore up your capital reserves. If you are just starting out in the cannabis industry, contribute more capital than you need to your cannabis business and let your unused capital sit in the bank as a rainy day fund. If you are making sales, put a portion of that money to the side and don’t use it for either reinvestment or profit distributions. The more cash you have on hand to deal with unexpected challenges, the greater your chances of surviving those challenges long enough to go through the LCB’s regulatory process of getting new lending or capital contributions approved.