Battle Royale? Phase 3 Cannabis Licensing in City of Los Angeles

Something has gotta give in Phase 3.

The City of Los Angeles has long endured questions surrounding its elusive Phase 3 licensing process for cannabis businesses. The City completed Phase 1 and 2 licensing without too much crazy change, but Phase 3 is very likely going to be a different story, and will affect a lot of stakeholders for better or worse.

On February 8, 2019, the Department of Cannabis Regulation (“DCR“) wrote to the Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations Committee (“Committee”), proposing total reform for Phase 3 licensing in the face of multiple regulatory issues caused by undue concentration, the promotion of social equity businesses, and the overall economic interests of various stakeholders who are waiting for Phase 3 to open. DCR wrote to the Committee that it wants to make certain strategic amendments to the licensing process in Phase 3 that “would make our licensing process more efficient, transparent, and, most important, equitable.”

DCR’s obvious concern in its letter to Committee is that Phase 3 successfully hoist up social equity applicants and be as efficient as possible at the same time. In particular, the letter states that:

DCR recognizes that the existing licensing process provided in the Cannabis Procedures ordinance and regulations will take significant time to implement and that many Phase 3 storefront retail applicants will have to make significant investments in the application process before knowing for certain whether they might be denied because another applicant within 700 feet of them gets licensed first or the Community Plan in which they are located reaches undue concentration before they obtain a license.

Based on its letter, DCR looks to be seeking to award those stakeholders that are patiently sitting on eligible commercial cannabis properties (bleeding rent and other costs while waiting for Phase 3 to commence) through swift and efficient licensing. The bottom line is that the current proposed licensing process potentially harms everyone, including social equity applicants who have either already made the investment in the unsettled program or that don’t have the resources to invest ahead of time to their detriment (since the City hasn’t yet established the assistance programs necessary to aid social equity applicants, but is finalizing a draft RFP “to identify vendors who can provide a suite of business and licensing support to Tier 1 and Tier 2 social equity applicants”).

Combine the foregoing with the fact the City “expects approximately 200 storefront retail licenses will be available through Phase 3 before undue concentration is reached in most or all of the City’s Community Plans,” and DCR has taken the position that Phase 3 licensing procedures must change, and fast. DCR therefore proposes in its letter that Phase 3 licensing for the remaining estimated 200 retail licenses (probably all of which will go only to social equity applicants per existing laws) take place as follows:

First come, first serve for verified Tier 1 and Tier 2 applicants (that also have locations ready to go) for the first 100 licenses OR a lottery system to issue the first 100 licenses (with various barriers to entry, including having a location on lock). And for the second 100 licenses, the DCR wants a merit-based system with various qualification criteria.

There were other pretty important recommendations made in the letter to Committee regarding other amendments to current LA cannabis licensing laws, but the change-up on the Phase 3 licensing process is, by far, the most impactful.

Even though the DCR has studied the foregoing issues for months, the City Council was not yet ready to act on the DCR’s recommendations. On Friday, February 15, after a hearing with Committee and then a hearing with Council regarding the DCR’s recommendations, Council instructed DCR “to report back at the next Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations Committee meeting with a further analysis of the recommendations for Phase 3 Storefront Retail processing and Non-storefront Retail processing, including consideration of a social equity applicant registry platform similar to the City of San Francisco” and to “suspend any Phase 3 processing until the enhanced Social Equity analysis for the San Fernando Valley, Boyle Heights, and Downtown Los Angeles is completed.”

What does all of this mean? Basically, we’re back to square 1 in L.A., and original Phase 3 processing remains in place despite the DCR’s attempt at an overhaul. Without question though, Phase 3 licensing should change. The current timing alone on issuance of Phase 3 licenses will bankrupt or scare off the vast majority of people. First come, first serve likely appeals to most people, but it’s just as imperfect and arbitrary as a lottery system. So long as the right barriers to entry and restrictions are implemented, either system can work to effectuate quick and efficient licensing (just ask Washington State whose biggest problem with a lotto system was actually movement of winners after-the-fact).

Lotto likely edges out first come, first serve if we’re talking maximum efficiency, because it eliminates the timing pressure and order of applicants at the outset when they file with DCR. With either proposal though, ambiguities would hinge around what a “complete” application really means and/or the ability of people to game the system by paying off family members (or whomever) to act as straw applicants to increase their chances of success. Merit-based also poses its own challenges regarding what qualities should net you the most points, especially when dealing with social equity applicants who remain the most popular form of licensing capital in L.A. and therefore the most vulnerable when it comes to scams and hawkish investor behavior.

Interestingly enough at Friday’s hearing, Council did instruct the City Attorney to draft an ordinance (with input from DCR) to, among other things:

  • grant temporary approval to phase 3 retailers (which would allow them to instantly open their doors upon securing state licensure),
  • exempt non-storefront retailers from hearing before the Cannabis Regulation Commission prior to full licensure,
  • force Tier 1s or 2s to give a right of first refusal on ownership transfers to their existing partners to purchase their ownership interests at market rate (after expiration of the applicable Social Equity Agreement term),
  • bar from Phase 3 retail or delivery licensure applicants or landowners with “evidence” against them for illegal cannabis activity at any time since January 1, 2018.

So, we know change is coming to Phase 3 licensing albeit at a glacial pace. For now though, it appears that the DCR will really have to persuade Council on adopting its Phase 3 recommendations for the licensing process, or all Phase 3 stakeholders will invariably suffer licensing by a thousand cuts.

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Author: Hilary Bricken
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