Regulatory challenges can be substantive or procedural. Substantive challenges include things like Washington’s ban on out of state ownership and its view that licensee royalty payment constitute profit-sharing. These types of rules and interpretations are challenging because, as a policy matter, businesses aren’t allowed to pursue certain strategies that they otherwise would. Procedural challenges, on the other hand, are challenges that arise in dealing with a regulatory agency. The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) requires that it approve of retail packaging for infused products before that packaging can be used, and the LCB also requires that a person submit a signed criminal history statement before that person can be a true party of interest in a licensed marijuana business. These types of procedural hurdles exist for a reason – the LCB requires them to pursue its legitimate goals of enforcing its substantive regulations.
But there is another type of procedural hurdle that arises in dealing with regulatory agencies (specifically the Washington LCB). These procedural hurldes present challenges to regulated businesses, but they have no relationship with the LCB’s enforcement of its regulatory goals. Here’s one example that has been frustrating us to no end recently: the Washington LCB will not process a change of ownership and a change of location for a marijuana license at the same time. Let’s say that an entrepreneur in Tacoma finds a perfect location for a marijuana retail store and leases that space. The entrepreneur can’t apply for a new license because the state isn’t accepting applications, so the entrepreneur has to find a marijuana retail license allotted to Tacoma on the market. Once the entrepreneur finds that business and negotiates a purchase, the entrepreneur has to make some tough choices.
Because the LCB will not process a change in location and a change of ownership request at the same time, buyers have to determine the order of applications. Both orders have drawbacks. If you apply for a location change first, you will have a marijuana retail store at your location within, hopefully, a few months. However, you run the risk that, in the intervening period, the business’s sellers that still own and control the business do something to put the business at risk. They could commit regulatory violations that risk license cancellation. They could take on business debt, putting the businesses assets at risk. The buyer would be powerless to stop these actions, because the LCB does not want to see any party exert control over a licensed business until that party has been approved by the LCB to do so.
If you instead apply for the ownership change first, you are less at risk of the bad acts of the selling party. Instead, you have to deal with getting a lease that would be in place for the time between when the ownership change is approved and the time when the new location is approved. The LCB wants to see landlord consent, and landlords often try to gouge buyers in this situation because they understand how much leverage they have. You also have to go through a sham process with the LCB when you do the ownership change application. The LCB asks for operating plan information, but you aren’t allowed to say that you don’t really plan on operating in the existing space, even if that is your plan. Instead, you are in a situation where you are just saying what you need to in order to get approved so that you can move on to the next step. LCB investigators understand this, but they still require the minimums so that they can check all the boxes off their checklists.
This type of procedural challenge is so frustrating because it isn’t tied to any policy. The LCB allows location changes, and it allows ownership changes. There is no reason that it shouldn’t be able to run both changes at the same time. But somewhere within the LCB archives, someone wrote down a policy that says investigators can’t do two things at once, and so far no one there is willing to do what it takes to change that policy. That policy has wasted enormous amounts of time and money and created enormous amounts of stress for parties on all sides, and it is part of why Washington has a reputation for being a hard state to do business. It invites actual regulatory violations, where people exert control over businesses that they haven’t been approved for, because the alternative can feel ridiculous.
For those of you with regulatory lobbyists out there, we encourage you to push the LCB on issues like this, in addition to substantive lobbying. There can and should be legitimate debate on whether businesses are allowed to sell marijuana-infused gummy bears. But for procedural challenges that have no basis in enforcing substantive rules, it’s important to keep pushing back. We want to see regulatory compliance, and the more logistically challenging the state makes it for businesses to comply with regulations, the more likely that businesses will ignore those regulations.