On April 20, my colleague Hilary Bricken wrote a post entitled, “Cannabis Collections Headaches and What to Do.” In it, she discussed a problem that’s been plaguing California cannabis businesses throughout: distributors and retailers that don’t pay their bills. Towards the end of the article, she mentioned a piece of proposed legislation to address the problem, AB 766, which would allow – and even require – the state to police cannabis contracts. While I’m in favor of coming up with ways to fix the status quo, this isn’t it. If passed, AB 766 would in my view lead to massive problems, both for licensees and the state. Let’s unpack.
What AB 766 would do
AB 766 would apply only to sales made after January 1, 2024. It would require any licensee to pay for goods and services from another licensee within 15 calendar days after the date of the final invoice. The date set forth on the invoice could not be more than 30 days after the date goods or services are transferred. So hypothetically, if a cannabis contract has net 30 payment terms and is paid 46 days after delivery, problems begin.
Licensees that sell goods with a value of at least $5,000 and don’t receive payment on time must report the unpaid invoice to the Department of Cannabis Control (DCC). At that time, the DCC is forced to intervene in the cannabis contract breach. DCC must then notify the non-paying licensee. If they don’t pay within 30 days, the DCC can issue a notice of warning or citation. If this happens multiple times, the DCC must commence a disciplinary action.
Notably, if a licensee is reported, it cannot buy goods on credit from another licensee until it pays the initial unpaid invoice.
AB 766 also does not apply to excise tax collection.
Why AB 766 is a bad idea
I want to start this section out by noting, in no uncertain terms, that violations of cannabis contracts are bad. There are lots of licensees that simply skip town on invoices for no good reason. It goes without saying that not paying undisputed invoices is a bad thing. But I do not think that AB 766 will make a huge dent in the problem and instead could create even more problems.
First off, AB 766 does much more than tell licensees to pay on time – it instead sets the requirement for what “on time” can even mean. I have seen plenty of cannabis contracts with fully negotiated payment terms that might violate AB 766. If AB 766 becomes law, it will mean that the government dictates commercial contact payment terms.
AB 766 would also force licensees to report other licensees that have not fully paid outstanding invoices. Reporting would be mandatory. It would apply even if the other party was just a few hundred dollars short. It is inevitable that licensees will not report every violation. Would they then be subject to potential discipline? It sure seems like it. I can’t tell you how much harder it will be to settle payment disputes once one side has reported the other to the state. I can entertain an argument that licensees should be free to report each other, but requiring reporting of contract breaches is totally indefensible.
Most egregiously, licensees who are reported would be legally prohibited from buying goods or services on credit from other licensees until they pay the invoices for which they were reported in full. All that has to happen is that a licensee is reported. The person making the report has to give the DCC almost no information in order to make the report. There is no hearing. There does not even seem to be an opportunity to contest the report. The second a report is made, the other side loses its rights to buy goods on credit – presumably even under preexisting contractual arrangements with third parties. This seems like an obvious due process concern and ripe for abuse.
Along those lines, AB 766 doesn’t even really address what happens in the event of a disputed invoice. What if XYZ retailer doesn’t pay ABC because the goods XYZ bought were moldy? Well, it looks like ABC would still have to report it. Again, this makes no sense.
How to fix AB 766
I do not think AB 766 will solve the problem at hand. Instead, it is likely to lead to bigger problems. It seems inevitable that people will be punished for things like failure to report, that licensees will be subject to penalties when they have legitimate grounds to dispute payment, and so on. The bill would also likely bog down the DCC with reports. And given the state’s spotty history with cannabis enforcement, it’s entirely possible that many of those reports would not even be timely addressed.
Rather than create an overly complicated and mandatory reporting system, it would be much simpler if the state could create a statutory right to recover attorneys’ fees in actions between licensees. Many licensees still do “handshake” contracts (still a bad idea!) with limited or no rights to recover attorneys’ fees. Add fees into the mix and you give unpaid licensees a major tool to fight back.
If the state decides to implement a reporting system anyways, then AB 766 should be overhauled so that (1) reporting is optional, (2) licensees can set their own payment terms without the state’s input, and (3) non-paying licensees do not get stripped of any rights until they have an opportunity for some kind of hearing. If the state won’t do that, then there will be problems. Stay tuned to the Canna Law Blog for more updates.