Overview of Private Fund Investment in the Marijuana Industry
After the elections of 2016, eight states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing for the recreational use of marijuana. Many other states have decriminalized the use of marijuana and most allow the use of medical marijuana. From the standpoint of the investment management industry, the expansion of the market for cannabis has created a new category of potential investments. Private investment funds that focus on this industry (so called marijuana or cannabis hedge funds) are still relatively rare but we anticipate that they are in the early stages of developing into a strong sector strategy moving forward. This post is designed to provide an overview of the structure and regulatory considerations for these vehicles.
In general, the structure of a cannabis hedge fund will be substantially the same as a standard hedge fund, with some minor items to keep in mind. Structurally, managers will focus on the type of strategy they will deploy, the investment terms for that strategy and whether to use offshore structures.
• Hedge Funds or Private Equity Strategy. Each manager in the space will have their own idea of what would make an attractive investment in this space. If a manager is planning to make investments in companies that are publicly traded, then the fund structure will be the same as a traditional hedge fund (more liquidity, annual performance allocation). If a manager is interested in making investments directly into companies that are not publicly traded, then the fund structure will likely be private equity style (no liquidity, distributions only on disposition events). Many managers will find that their industry expertise will help them find attractive opportunities in both spaces and so these managers will most likely do some sort of combination structure—essentially a hedge fund with side pockets.
• Fund Terms. Whichever structure is used, the terms are going to be substantially similar to other hedge funds and managers will need to determine what contribution schedule, redemption schedule, leverage amount, if any, and what other investment terms will work for their fund. Because of the industry focus, we’ve seen some groups form advisory boards. We’ve also seen groups who have decided to create SPV structures under the fund to facilitate direct investments, to navigate the regulatory landscape, or to create greater shields from liability.
• Onshore / Offshore Structures. Whether to use an offshore structure will be determined mostly by the jurisdiction of investors in the fund. Like a normal private fund, if there are no offshore investors, then a standard domestic fund will usually be sufficient; if there will be offshore investors or if manager intends to use leverage and have IRA or 401k investors, an offshore structure will normally be utilized. If an offshore structure is used, the choice will generally be between the mini-master structure and the master-feeder structure. In general, the manager will not want to create a standalone offshore structure if they are doing PE-style investments because of the likelihood that such investment would be deemed to be involved in a US trade or business, subject to additional tax planning. In addition to structure, managers will need to decide on offshore counsel and many managers will engage independent directors. These items will be discussed with counsel during the formation process.
Regulatory and Other Considerations for Marijuana Fund Managers
While structuring of the fund and drafting of the fund documents will be fairly straightforward, there are some other operational issues for cannabis fund managers to keep in mind.
• Regulation of Management Company. Like a normal hedge or PE fund manager, the management company to a cannabis fund would be deemed to be an investment adviser because the manager would receive compensation for providing advice regarding investment in securities. As any normal investment adviser, the manager would need to determine whether to register under the state or SEC regimes or whether the manager could utilize an exemption from registration.
• Federal Legal Issues. There are two federal laws that impact investment managers in the cannabis industry:
Controlled Substances Act (CSA) – Notwithstanding minor federal action to the contrary (i.e. the “Cole Memos”), marijuana is still deemed to be a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law. While unlikely, it is possible that marijuana businesses abiding by state law could be subject to federal action with respect to the manufacturing and dispensing of the product. [Note: the above was accurate during the Obama administration; the Trump administration has indicated that federal action may occur.] Federal sanctions under the CSA are harsh and include jail time and fines.
Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) – Perhaps a bigger issue for the cannabis industry are the issues that arise under the BSA. The BSA provides a framework that banks must follow with respect to certain suspicious activity. Because marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, banks are technically required to report the activity of their clients in the cannabis industry to the U.S. Treasury. This sort of red tape, and the potential for liability to the bank for helping to facilitate this activity, makes banks less likely to deal with groups in this space. Although fund managers are a step removed from any growing or selling operations, we have generally found that managers will need to spend time finding a bank that is comfortable with the potential risks of holding the fund’s cash. Ultimately as the industry grows and federal law loosens (if they do), we believe the banking industry will come around. We have recently heard of groups who are trying to work on a bitcoin-type payment system for the cannabis industry.
• State Laws. For states that now allow the recreational use of marijuana, there generally are a number of laws and regulations that both operating companies and fund managers must keep in mind. The laws and regulations will generally be implemented by a state regulatory body that will have the power to determine the manner in which leaf-based products (including seeds) are brought to market. Non-leaf based products (such as paraphernalia) generally will be subject to lesser or no scrutiny under state law.
• Investment Size. Many private companies in the industry are new and subject to the same kinds of operational risks that apply to businesses in other industries. Additionally, these private companies are small and not yet able to deploy capital from large equity investments. In this way, fund projects tend to be on the smaller side because of capital constraints.
• Service Providers. Some groups, especially audit firms, may be reticent to provide services to groups who focus on investments into this sector. As mentioned above, banking may be also be an issue for managers in this space. Some groups also may decide that there are specific issues they need to discuss with cannabis legal counsel.
• Valuation. As with any private investment fund that deals with investments into non-publicly traded securities, a cannabis fund with investments in private companies may have to deal with valuation issues of the investments. To a certain degree, many issues can be side-stepped if the manager institutes side pockets, but this will be an area where the manager will want to discuss options with fund counsel as well as fund accountants and auditors.
The marijuana/cannabis industry undoubtedly will become huge over time as more states allow recreational use of marijuana. Although currently still in its infancy, the cannabis industry is poised for significant growth and eventually capital will flow towards managers who focus on this space. While we would have predicted that there would be significantly more private funds focused on this area by now, we anticipate that this will be a strong and growing sector over the coming years as more states legalize the recreational use of the drug and the infrastructure around both companies and assets managers in this space becomes more institutionalized.
Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP and helped establish one of the first cannabis-focused hedge funds. For more information on this topic, please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345.