Starting a Cannabis Business: What Contracts Do You Really Need?
You can spend a lot of money on lawyers, accountants and consultants when starting a cannabis business. There is so much ground to cover from concept to execution– especially in a complex and highly regulated industry. Related to this issue, we have written on this blog about finding a team, and we have talked about the importance of things like operating formally, staying away from generic agreements and avoiding the seemingly bottomless pit of industry scams and schemes.
Today’s blog post will cover which documents are really necessary when structuring a cannabis business, and what you may be able to do without— at least in the beginning. Note that these are general guidelines. They are not intended to serve as legal advice and every business should use its best judgment and consult with counsel on these items.
- Stuff you cannot do without
Articles of Incorporation or Organization
This is very basic, but you cannot have a company unless the entity has been duly registered with the relevant Secretary of State. These days, most filings in most states can be done online, although there are situations where online filings are a bad idea, like when you want to do anything nonstandard with your Articles of Incorporation (for a corporation) or Articles of Organization (for an LLC). Those situations arise somewhat frequently. For example, you may want specific indemnity provisions for your board of directors beyond what the statutes contemplate. Or you may need to outline the attributes of preferred stock your corporation plans to issue. Many state registration portals do not allow “check the box” options for this type of tailored structuring. Get a solid cannabis business lawyer to help.
Internal Governance Agreements
If you have registered a multi-member LLC, it is a bad idea to proceed without an operating agreement and without an initial set of consent resolutions. The operating agreement in particular is going to define the spectrum of voting and economic rights each member has in the company, as well as crucial operational concepts. These concepts include non-industry specific matters (what happens when the company requires more capital?) to cannabis-specific matters (what happens when a member endangers the company’s state-issued license?).
In a corporation, you are going to have a few more agreements to start. Of these, bylaws and initial consent resolutions cannot be skipped. You will also need a shareholder agreement in most instances, and you will need to issue shares to owners (certificated or uncertificated). Other items, like a voting agreement, proxy agreements, etc., may be less important for some companies and you can often skip these to start.
Even if one of the cannabis business owners also owns the real estate at issue, you are going to need an industry-specific lease. A well drafted lease will insulate the property and its owners from liability if the cannabis business fails, or finds itself in litigation. When your business is leasing from a perfect stranger, the lease becomes even more important to outline the basic terms of the landlord-tenant relationship, on everything from your rights to occupy the property, to your rights to make modifications required to obtain a license.
If you have even one employee in your new business, get a handbook together. These internal business documents serve as a key communication tool between a business and its employees. A good handbook will set forth guidelines and expectations for workers, and perhaps most importantly, it can give a broad array of legal protections to business owners, as we previously explained here.
If your brand new cannabis business is doing a business transaction with a third party (some frequent, early examples include loans and services agreements) make sure you have adequately papered those items. Not memorializing a business or financial relationship in writing is asking for trouble.
- Stuff you can probably skip (for now)
Today, all states recognize at-will employment, with various limitations. This means that a written employment agreement is not needed (or even desirable) for many types of employees. An exception may be where the employee is occupying a highly specialized or highly compensated position, or has rights to vest in ownership. But if all you are worried about an employee having access to proprietary information, you can generally cover this in an employee handbook, or through a simple non-disclosure agreement.
Stock Purchase Agreement
Lots of cannabis businesses try to raise capital shortly after formation, or as they approach licensure. They do this by selling stock or another form of ownership in the company. In our experience, though, it’s often best to wait until the business understands exactly how much money it needs to raise, and from whom, before drafting a stock purchase agreement. In many cases funds are raised from just one or two targets, and it does not make sense to draft purchase agreements until terms have been negotiated, or even memorialized in a letter of intent or other term sheet with prospective purchasers.
It’s a great idea to have a business plan, but not to pay a lawyer or consultant thousands of dollars to draft this for you. There is enough publicly available information out there for anyone to put together his or her own marijuana business plan these days; and you will know more than anyone you could hire about your goals. Even if you are unsure about some of the concepts at first, doing the research needed to put this document together will go a long way in educating and setting yourself up for success.
It’s easy to get lost when starting a business, and to rack up costs on unnecessary items, or items that are less important in the near term. Focus on the basics to start, and enlist a knowledgeable cannabis business attorney to get you off the ground. The lawyer should be able to provide you estimates for basic services, and allow you to focus mostly on what matters most– running a successful cannabis industry business.