Cannabis and Crypto-Currency-The Blind Leading the Blind

A few weeks back I wrote a blog article where I stated that I was not interested in preparing the legal paperwork for any company that was raising funds for a cannabis related company. In the same article I said that I would also decline the opportunity to prepare the paperwork for an initial coin offering (ICO).  Either would be lucrative for me but in both cases I saw significant problems for the investors.

I might have predicted that people would start sending me the paperwork for ICOs that were looking to fund cannabis businesses seeking my thoughts and comments. Two stick out as examples of how not to raise money for your cannabis business.

In July, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a report on ICOs. Crypto-currency is all the rage this year with some offerings raising millions of dollars in a matter of minutes and coins when issued quickly appreciating in price. Bitcoins for example have been appreciated significantly this year and some people think that Bitcoins are a legitimate investment, an assertion that is questionable at best.

The SEC correctly concluded that most crypto-currency offerings would fall within the definition of a security and thus its jurisdiction.  There was really no surprise as the SEC initiated about a dozen enforcement actions against crypto-currency issuers before it wrote its report.

Because an ICO is the offering of securities it is required by law to either 1) register with the SEC or 2) be exempt from registration assuming that an exemption is available. In either case, the issuer of the coins is required to give potential investors all the facts that would be material to making an investment decision.

If investors who purchased the coins got a discount on an ounce or two of marijuana the coins might not be securities. These two cannabis ICO offerings are clearly offering securities.  In both of these cases, investors profit if the underlying business profits which is more than enough for these to be securities and the SEC to have jurisdiction.

There are some facts which the SEC and any securities lawyer would consider to be material. This would include who is running the company; how much money is being raised and what will it be used for; the basic structure of the company’s ownership; how investors get paid and how much they might expect; an idea of the size of the market in which the company intends to compete and the names of the companies that are its major competitors.

Nothing really earth shattering,but the SEC has been reviewing offerings and ruling on how these facts are disclosed for decades. Making the disclosures correctly requires a fairly good idea of what the SEC expects and an equally good idea of the operation of the business offering the securities which is why securities lawyers who prepare offerings really have to know what we are doing.

The first cannabis ICO I looked at was for a company called Growers International.  Like all ICOs it uses a “White Paper” (which it prefers to call a “Green Paper”) instead of a traditional prospectus.  I doubt that it was prepared by a securities attorney. (I would suggest that you might add the words “Like, cool” or Yeah, man” between the sentences and it would read like the script of an old Cheech and Chong movie but I do not want to insult Cheech or Chong.)

From the Green Paper: “Q: Why should I trust the team? How do I know this isn’t a Pump & Dump situation?  A: We ask that all investors do their research on the people behind Growers International. Our lead developer has found success in both the cryptocurrency arena as well as in the cannabis industry. If there is any question regarding the legitimacy of the project, we encourage investors to reach out to Ryan (Lead Dev) personally on slack.”

It is always a good idea to research the people who are running any company into which you are making an investment.  In this case the “Green Paper” discloses the management to be: “Lead Developer: Ryan Wright (34, California / Taipei); Blockchain Programmer: Eddie E. (48, New Zealand); Web / API Developer: Michael J. (32, Maidenhead, England); Social Media Director: Devvie @Devnullius (40, Sweden); Community Coordinator: Jeremy Toman @MadHatt (37, Canada) who prefers the name ‘Tyler Dirden’ or ‘MadHatt’;Graphic Designer & Cryptocurrency Consultant: Chris S. @Elypse (26, Detroit); Community Manager: @DayVidd and Bitcointalk Manager & Financial Consultant: Dr. Charles @drcharles (26, USA).”

I suspect that if you contact Mr.Wright as suggested he will vouch for them all if he bothered to ask their last names. Do not bother to ask about Members of the Board of Directors as they have apparently not yet been appointed, so one Director might turn out to be Pablo@Escobar.

The other cannabis related ICO I reviewed is prepared more professionally but still, in my opinion, misses the mark by a good country mile. The company is called Paragon Coin, Inc. It is in the process of raising $100 million through the ICO. Just to be clear Paragon supports the cannabis industry, it does not appear that it intends to grow or distribute cannabis itself.

Paragon intends to bring block chain to the cannabis industry.  It intends to use a distributed ledger to bring order to this fragmented industry. According to the White Paper the company intends to “offer payment for industry related services and supplies through ParagonCoin; establish niche co-working spaces via ParagonSpace; organize and unite global legalization efforts through ParagonOnline; bring standardization of licensing, lab testing, transactions, supply chain and ID verification through apps built in ParagonAccelerator.”

All that is fair enough and the names and pictures of the operating personnel are included. Their education and work histories going back 10 years which I would have expected to see are not present.

The White Paper clearly notes that cannabis is not legal at the federal level and asserts that it will only operate in states where it is legal. This is the prime oxymoron of the cannabis industry.  Illegal at the federal level is illegal everywhere. Marijuana is a Schedule I drug and possession or sale is a felony in all 50 states. That is a fact about which that the cannabis industry does not want to think and largely ignores.

The Paragon White Paper describes one of the Risks of investing in its coin offering as follows:

CERTAIN ACTIVITIES INVOLVING MARIJUANA REMAIN ILLEGAL UNDER US FEDERAL

LAWS. SUCH ACTIVITIES INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO: (A) DISTRIBUTION OF MARIJUANA TO MINORS, (B) TRANSPORTING MARIJUANA FROM STATES WHERE IT IS LEGAL TO OTHER STATES, (C) DRUGGED DRIVING AND OTHER ADVERSE PUBLIC HEALTH CONSEQUENCES, (D) GROWING MARIJUANA ON PUBLIC LANDS, (E) MARIJUANA POSSESSION OR USE ON FEDERAL PROPERTY, AND

(F) OTHER CRIMINAL ACTIVITY OR VIOLENCE ASSOCIATED WITH THE SALE OF MARIJUANA. TO THE EXTENT THE COMPANY AND/OR PARAGON COIN, INC. MAY NOT PREVENT CERTAIN OF ITS USERS FROM USING PRG TOKENS IN VIOLATION OF US FEDERAL LAW, IT MAY SUBJECT THE COMPANY AND/OR PARAGON COIN, INC. TO CIVIL AND/OR CRIMINAL LIABILITY AND THE UTILITY, LIQUIDITY, AND/OR TRADING PRICE OF PRG TOKENS WILL BE ADVERSELY AFFECTED OR PRG TOKENS MAY CEASE TO BE TRADED.

This derives verbatim from the Cole Memorandum which was written in 2013 as a direction from the US Department of Justice to Federal prosecutors as to how they should allocate their resources when they decide who to prosecute and for what. It never made cannabis legal anywhere.

More importantly, the Cole Memo it is not an Act of Congress or Federal regulation and not binding on the current administration in any way. Any suggestion that it will continue to be followed under the current administration is wishful thinking given the Attorney General has repeatedly stated that it will not.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California for more than a decade. That did not stop the federal government from raiding and closing down a large medical dispensary in Oakland, CA in 2012. Parenthetically, Paragon’s initial co-working space is slated to open in Oakland, California.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this offering is that it intends to fund the use of block chain, a relatively unsecure distributed ledger to link the many growers and suppliers in the cannabis industry. If successful it may well deal a serious blow to the cannabis industry it is trying to support.

One of the leading ICO platforms, Coinbase, has been engaged in a two year battle with the Internal Revenue Service which wants a list of all the people who use its platform to trade Bitcoins. The IRS alleges that people are trading the coins profitably and not reporting the gains and paying the taxes. The US government has also alleged that drug cartels and other bad actors use crypto-currency to launder money.

If you are in the cannabis industry you have certainly heard stories of how the DEA would obtain the customer lists of hardware stores that sold supplies for hydroponic growing. Everyone who was a customer did not use these supplies to grow cannabis but the government used those lists to identify and prosecute people who did.

If you have a “decentralized” list of a large group of people who are on the list only because they are affirmatively in the cannabis business as Paragon wants to create, how long do you think it will take for the US Government to obtain it? Think that will be difficult because Paragon never touches any marijuana or sells it?

The CEO of Paragon, Jessica VerSteeg, is also CEO of AuBox which the White Paper describes as “an upscale marijuana delivery service in the SF Bay area”. That is more than enough “probable cause”for the DOJ to get its hands on Paragon’s distributed ledger and the names of every company that uses it. The icing on the cake will be when they tell the judge that the cannabis industry is full of drug cartels and money launders which, of course, it is.

When you write the risk factors for a securities offering, it is important to disclose all of the things that might reasonably occur.  Assuming that this ICO raises the $100 million that it seeks, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that the Attorney General might just seize that money under the federal asset forfeiture provisions. The people behind this offering somehow refuse to accept that there was an election last November and that there is a new sheriff in town.

What I took away from these two offerings was a sense that they were prepared by amateurs who were attempting to do something that was way over their head. In this current administration, raising money for a cannabis company waves a red flag in front of the US government. Compounding that fact by raising money through an ICO just increases the size of that red flag, exponentially.

I personally do not think that there is any hope for Green International but Paragon did not demonstrate that it needed $100 million and could have certainly raised a lesser, more reasonable amount in a more traditional fashion which is what I would have advised them to do if they had asked me.

 

 

Classifying Crypto-Currency

Is a Bitcoin a currency or a security?

This is a question that may interest only a small number of geeks and lawyers, but there is a lot of money already in the crypto-currency market and a lot more on the sidelines waiting to jump in if this question is answered satisfactorily.

The key concern is regulation especially if crypto-currencies are ruled to be securities. The securities markets are regulated in virtually every country and the penalties for issuing securities without following those regulations can be severe.

The history of crypto-currencies traces back to Bitcoins which were introduced in Japan in 2009. The coder who introduced them wanted Bitcoins to be considered to be a currency and used as such, hence the name “coins”.  Had he called them “Bitcode” many of the questions about what they are might never have been asked. At the same time much the market for Bitcoins might not have developed.

Part of the allure of crypto-currencies is the fact that some people see them as part of an alternative financial universe. These people seem to believe that crypto-currencies are part of a trend to replace traditional banks and banking.

Bitcoins store value and are a medium to exchange value,which are two prime attributes of currencies.  But having attributes of currencies does not make them currencies.  That point seems lost on many of the people who are insistent that Bitcoins and similar crypto-currencies are currencies. They are not.

Historically, most people who hated fiat currency preferred to use precious metals such as gold or silver for trade, although other commodities, most notably salt have been used over the centuries. But the simple fact is that fiat currencies work because they are almost universally accepted.

Proponents of crypto-currencies argue that they are becoming more and more accepted and that acceptance will increase.  But accepting crypto-currencies as an exchange of value will not make them currencies in the strictest sense. Salt, after all is just salt, no matter how it is used.

If we accept the fact that Bitcoins were mislabeled to give them the appearance that they were currency that is “mined” and kept in electronic “wallets” strictly is a marketing ploy we can free our thoughts for the real issue; are crypto-currencies a security?

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has issued several Investor Alerts warning people to avoid investments and especially Ponzi Schemes that are funded by or which purchase Bitcoins and other crypto-currencies.  But the SEC has not come out and said the coins themselves are securities and that is significant.

The SEC has statutory jurisdiction over securities and the securities markets but not all investments are securities. Your home, for example, or other real estate can be a good investment, but is not a security. The same is true of gold bars or bullion; works of art or collectables and all commodities that trade on commodity exchanges.  All are investments, just not securities or the SEC’s problem.

I wrote a blog article about Bitcoins a few weeks back that got a lot more views than most of my articles because crypto-currency is a very hot topic. Several people forwarded legal opinions to me that specifically addressed the issue of whether or not crypto-currencies were a security.  Several of those legal opinions were written by excellent lawyers at excellent law firms. I was not really surprised to see that they reached opposite conclusions; some thought the coins were securities; some thought they were not.

Each of the opinions was interpreting one US Supreme Court case, SEC v. Howey, which basically defines a security as the “investment of money in a common enterprise with an expectation of profits predominantly from the efforts of others.” Law school students studying securities law spend a considerable amount of time with this case and later cases that applied it.  Any legal opinion asking the question “is this a security” will certainly review Howey and apply its reasoning to the facts at hand.

Personally, I do not think that the Howey test applies to crypto-currencies at all.

Let me take a step back and re-frame the question. If a crypto-currency is not a security, what is it?  I think that if a crypto-currency is clearly something other than a security, especially if it is something already regulated under different statutes, it should go a long way to settling the question. So what, exactly, are we dealing with?

Any crypto-currency is nothing more or less than multiple lines of computer code; a long string of ones and zeros.  Computer code is recognized by law as intellectual property which can be copyrighted and is covered by a substantial body of law both in the US and internationally. No one classifies computer code as a security.

The shares of Microsoft Corp. are a security, not the operating system that it sells. That distinction is why I believe that the coins themselves are not a security.

The last time that I heard so many securities lawyers asking the question “is this investment a security” was in the late 1970s.   At that time the marginal tax rate on the highest earners in the US was 50%-70%. If you earned over a certain amount you would pay one-half of the overage to the IRS.  Perhaps not surprisingly, there seemed to be a lot of doctors, business owners and entertainers with this problem.

An industry grew up to provide this group with a series of “tax sheltered” investments.  These transactions were intended to take advantage of IRS rules that provided tax credits and accelerated depreciation when certain physical items were purchased in a business context.  To qualify for the favorable tax treatment, the item purchased had to have a business purpose, be placed in service during the calendar year and not be a security.

In many cases leverage was employed. A doctor would put down $20,000 and sign an $80,000 non-recourse note for the item.  If the tax credit was 50% of the purchase price, then the doctor would save $50,000 from his tax bill for his $20,000 investment; more in subsequent years when he depreciated the value of his $100,000 item over time.

One of the more famous of these tax shelters was a company that sold lithographic masters of artwork from famous artists.  If you bought the master that had been created by an artist such as Andy Warhol, you might make 500 prints from the master before it wore out. If you could sell the lithographs for $200 a piece you could pay back your note, recoup your $20,000 down payment and still save $50,000 on your taxes.

If you sold those lithographs over a period of years, the price might fluctuate. A Warhol lithograph would likely at least retain its value and it could be exchanged for other works of art if you dealt with the right gallery or broker. That did not make the lithographs into a currency even though they had these key attributes of a currency.

Most of these investment programs came with an opinion letter written by a securities attorney that attested to the fact that selling a physical “item” did not involve the sale of securities because the sale did not satisfy the Howey test.  I wrote a few of those opinion letters back in the day because the law was pretty clear that a “thing” was not a security. As far as I can remember the SEC never brought a regulatory action against one of these investment programs taking the position that the items were securities.

The IRS did, however, take issue with a number of these tax sheltered investment programs. They disallowed the credits and deductions that the programs offered and ultimately changed its rules to close the loopholes.  The IRS is not bound to legal opinions and frequently judges the tax treatment of any investment long after the investment is made.

A key issue was whether you were buying a thing or a business. The same is true today. A coin offering might be a security if the coin owner receives a portion of the profits of that company when they purchase the coin.

The SEC is not bound by a legal opinion on the question “is this a security “.  As I said I read several opinions regarding crypto-currencies that went both ways, albeit on slightly different facts. What I did find surprising is that none of the opinion letters that I read, mentioned the fact that the IRS categorized crypto-currency tokens as “property”, not a “security” back in 2014.

The IRS’s classification is also not binding on the SEC.  But given the fact that the IRS had made this determination that the sale of a crypto-currency would be treated as property for tax purposes and the US Copyright Office will issue a copyright on computer code (but not on a stock certificate) I think any legal opinion regarding the classification of a crypto-currency under securities law should mention both.

Several of these opinions were rendered in connection with specific Initial Coin Offerings (ICO). Again this term is intended to create the look and feel of an initial public stock offering (IPO).  This is marketing and it is intended to create the impression (falsely) that an ICO is just like the offering of a security. Of course, if the SEC should assert that these ICOs were actually selling securities because they had the look and feel of securities and attempt to sanction the people behind them, these same people would be screaming that they did no such thing.

In most of the offerings that I reviewed, buying a coin in the ICO neither conferred ownership of the project nor did it promise any payments, so it would not be difficult to opine that all you were getting was a digital coin, not a security. If coin purchasers receive anything other than just the digital coin, then the issue gets murky.  Given that there have already been close to 1000 coin offerings, some very different from others, it can get very murky.

Just to be clear, this article is my opinion of a fairly new legal issue. It is not intended to be specific legal advice as regards one coin offering or another.

If someone came to me with a proposed ICO and sought my opinion I would probably counsel them as follows, just to keep them out of potential legal difficulty.

1) If you intend to use the proceeds of your coin offering to fund your new business then call the coins what they are: “Great New Tech Company Start-up Commemorative Digital Medallions”. This is just truth in packaging. Why call them coins or currency when they are not?

2) Account for the sale proceeds on your books as if you were selling any intellectual property.  If you wrote and sold a book about writing computer code and used the proceeds to fund your code writing business, you would not enter the sale proceeds on your books as an investment.

3) Go about your business and stay under the radar. There are certainly regulators who believe that the whole idea of crypto-currency is a scam.  At the same time, it does not seem to be difficult to raise money using these digital coins. There are multiple reports of multi-million dollar raises being accomplished within hours.  I can see no reason why anyone trying to raise money in this market would write numerous articles or give interviews bashing banks or Wall Street firms or proclaiming crypto-currencies as the new form of unregulated capitalism.  The best way to attract regulators is often to publicize how much money you are making in an “unregulated” business.

If you do want a formal legal opinion letter that your ICO is not the offering of securities, I would be happy to review the facts and prepare one for you. I probably charge a little less than the big Wall Street law firms.  I know that you will understand that I will need to be paid in US dollars not whatever coin you are issuing.  I cannot use your coins at the market, gas station or movies and it is probably going to be a long, long time before I can.