After months of uncertainty surrounding the enforceability of state marijuana legislation in light of federal prohibitions, President Trump may have offered the legal cannabis industry some solace.

Late last week, President Trump promised to abandon Justice Department efforts to target recreational marijuana in states that have legalized adult use. The threat of increased federal enforcement came in early January, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s rescission of the Obama-era “Cole Memorandum”. The issuance of the Attorney General’s competing memo garnered opposition from Senator Cory Gardner – a top Senate Republican from the State of Colorado, who immediately blocked nearly twenty Justice Department nominees in retaliation. After a months-long stalemate, President Trump assured Senator Gardner that rescission of the Cole Memo would not adversely impact the legal cannabis industry in Colorado, and committed to supporting a “federalism-based legislative solution to this states’ rights issue”.

For many, including Senator Gardner, this proclamation by the President assuages concerns about a cannabis industry stifled by federal regulation and fear of prosecution.  At a minimum, many feel that this demonstrates a shift in the federal narrative toward looser regulation, governed on a state-by-state basis. On the other hand, many remain cautious in light of mixed signals from the administration, fearing that the President’s commitment applied only to Colorado under these narrow circumstances.

With this backdrop, lawmakers continue to pursue a bi-partisan legislative solution, aimed at prohibiting the use of federal funds and resources to target recreational marijuana businesses operating legally under state law. If successful, these measures would provide much needed comfort to the legal cannabis industry, likely fostering rapid growth and increased investment opportunities.

On March 23, 2018,  in response to Governor Murphy’s Executive Order 6 which directed the New Jersey Department of Health (“Department”) to review New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Program (the “Medical Marijuana Program” or “Program”), the Department issued  its report  focusing on how to expand the Program’s scope and patient access to medical marijuana (the “Report”).

The Report focused on the following four principal areas:

  • The rules for siting of dispensaries and cultivation facilities and the number of alternative treatment center (“ATC”);
  • The conditions for physicians participating in the Program and prescribing medical marijuana;
  • The number of medical conditions which qualify for the Program; and
  • The maximum monthly product limit, THC dosage limits and the types of medical marijuana products available for patient use.

Certain aspects of these recommendations may be affected by Department regulatory action, while others will require amendment of the existing New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (the “Act”).

In order to service the growing population of patients with conditions treatable by medical marijuana, the Department plans to amend the existing regulations to permit ATCs to dispense medical marijuana at satellite locations and permit more than one cultivation site per ATC, subject to Department approval. The Department also plans to create an endorsement system to allow ATCs to engage in some combination of production (including edibles), cultivation, and dispensing designed to increase the supply and availability of medical marijuana.  As stated in the Report, the goals of these amendments are to increase the supply and access to medical marijuana for qualifying patients. The Report also makes the statutory recommendation to amend the Act to permit the existing six (6) licensed ATCs, which are statutorily required to be non-profits, to operate as for-profit companies.

The current regulations require that a physician interested in providing care to patients who qualify for medicinal marijuana to first register with the Department, creating a limited number of doctors who can prescribe and treat qualifying patients. The Report indicates that the Department plans to eliminate the physician registry in Spring of 2018 to ensure that any and all New Jersey doctors meeting the good standing  requirements set forth in N.J.A.C. 8:64-2.5 may prescribe medicinal marijuana for patients meeting Program requirements.

Prior to March 22, 2018, the conditions that qualified for treatment by medicinal marijuana under the  Act  were limited to (i) seizer disorders, intractable skeletal muscular spasticity or glaucoma (provided that  such conditions were resistant to conventional medical therapy), (ii) HIV, acquired immune deficiency syndrome or cancer (provided that  sever or chronic pain, nausea, vomiting, cachexia or wasting syndrome resulted from such condition or treatment thereof), (iii) amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, muscular dystrophy or inflammatory bowel disease, (iv) a terminal illness (provided that a physician determined a prognosis of less than 12 months of life), or (v) other medical conditions approved by the Department by way regulation. As outlined in the Report, a final agency decision was made to effectuate the addition of the following categories to conditions qualifying for treatment by medical marijuana: chronic pain related to musculoskeletal disorders, migraines, anxiety, chronic pain of visceral origin, and Tourette’s syndrome. The Report also recommends an amendment to the Act permitting medical marijuana to be used as a first-line treatment rather than a last resort for the illnesses described in section (i) above.

Under the current Program, physicians are limited to prescribing two ounces of medicinal marijuana to patients within a 30 day time period. According to the Department’s findings set forth in the Report, physicians should have discretion to authorize more than the Program’s current two ounce limit. As a result, the Department is recommending that the statutory limit be increased to four ounces, which aligns more with our neighboring states such as New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The Act presently restricts use of edible marijuana products to qualifying patients who are minors. As stated in the Report, the ingestion of medical marijuana is healthier than smoking, the Report, therefore, also recommends amending the Act to permit the manufacture of edible and topical products and their use by patients.  The Report also provides that the Department will eliminate the regulatory dosage limit of 10% THC limit to allow for more effective treatment of the debilitating medical conditions covered under the Program.

The Report and recommended expansions to New Jersey’s Program  set forth above evidence both the Governor’s and the Department’s goal of growing all aspects of the Program related to the production of and access to medicinal marijuana.

The first two weeks in March 2018 have seen a number of developments with respect to the regulation of cryptocurrencies in the United States.

Regulation of Online Cryptocurrency Trading Platforms

On March 7, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a release addressing the regulation of online trading platforms (or exchanges) on which investors have bought and sold digital assets, including coins or tokens sold in initial coin offerings (“ICOs”).  Consistent with prior SEC articulated positions, the SEC stated that many of these tokens sold in an ICO meet the definition of a “security” and accordingly these trading platforms on which ICO tokens trade should register with the SEC as a national securities exchange or alternative trading system unless exempt from registration.  In its release, the SEC expressed its concern that many of these trading platforms may appear to investors as SEC-regulated exchanges, but are not and do not meet the regulatory and listing standards of a registered exchange. In light of this, in its release, the SEC listed a series of questions that investors should ask before trading assets on an online trading platform.  These include, but are not limited to, asking if:  (i) is the platform registered as a national securities exchange or an ATS with the SEC?; (ii) is there information in FINRA’s BrokerCheck ® about any individuals or firms operating the platform?; (iii) how does the platform select digital assets for trading?; (iv) what are the trading protocols?; (v) how are prices set on the platform?; (vi) how does the platform safeguard users’ trading and personal identifying information?; (vii) what are the platform’s protections against cybersecurity threats, such as hacking or intrusions?; and (viii) does the platform hold users’ assets?  If so, how are these assets safeguarded?  For a complete list of these questions and a copy of this SEC release see SEC Release.

Money Transmitter Rules Apply to Initial Coin Offerings

In a letter published March 6, 2018 by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), which had previously been sent on February 13, 2018 to Senator Ron Wyden of the Senate Committee on Finance, FinCEN reiterated that in combatting the financing of terrorism (“CFT”) and illicit financing of criminal activity, the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and anti-money laundering (“AML”) laws and regulations applied to virtual currency exchanges and administrators that are based in the United States or that do business in whole or substantial part in the United States. These would include “a developer that sells convertible virtual currency, including in the form of … ICO coins or tokens, in exchange for another type of value that substitutes for currency….” FinCEN indicated that these exchanges and administrators would be considered a money transmitter who would have to be register with FinCEN as a money service business (“MSB”) with an established written AML compliance program designed to mitigate money laundering risks. These AML/CFT compliance programs would include filing of BSA suspicious activity and currency reports, maintaining records for certain transactions over some monetary threshold and obtaining customer identification information. The letter also clarified that in the case of an ICO that is structured as a sale of a security or derivative, the participants in the ICO could be subject to regulation by the SEC or the Commodity Futures and Trading Commission (“CFTC”).  In such cases, the SEC or CFTC AML/CFT requirements would apply.  Companies and exchanges involved in ICOs should consult legal counsel to clarify and satisfy their respective AML/CFT obligations.

U.S. District Court  Rules that the CFTC has Authority to Regulate Cryptocurrencies Not Involving Derivatives

In a Memorandum and Decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, issued on March 8, 2018, Judge Jack Weinstein issued a ruling as to the authority of the CFTC to prosecute a fraud case that it had brought against Patrick Kerry McDonnell, the operator of a cryptocurrency business.  Defendant McDonnell was alleged to have “operated a deceptive and fraudulent virtual currency scheme” whereby his company solicited investments from investors to assist them in purchasing and trading Bitcoin and Litecoin, but instead misappropriated their funds.  In his ruling, Judge Weinstein, after discussing the definition of a commodity under the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”) and relying, in part, on a 2015 CFTC administrative ruling that cryptocurrencies were commodities, held that “virtual currencies can be regulated by CFTC as a commodity,” and that, in the absence of federal rules, the CEA permitted the CFTC in a fraud case to exercise its jurisdiction over cryptocurrencies that did not directly involve the sale of futures or derivative contracts.

Judge Weinstein ruled that the CFTC could proceed prosecuting the case against the defendant and granted a preliminary injunction barring the defendant from further engagement in cryptocurrency investments as the case continues. For a copy of the case, see CFTC v. McDonnell.

As a result of the well-publicized scandals involving LIBOR rate manipulation, British regulators announced plans in July 2017 to phase-out LIBOR by 2021 and replace it with a more reliable benchmark.  In addition to other markets, the LIBOR phase-out will have a broad impact on the $4 trillion syndicated loan market, including currently existing loan documents that extend past 2021.  Specifically, in the case of loan documents that reference a LIBOR rate and automatically fall back to prime or base rate if LIBOR is unavailable, the permanent phase-out of LIBOR will likely lead to the imposition of a higher interest rate if this fallback language is not amended.  However, because LIBOR’s replacement has not yet been determined and the phase-out is at least three years away, it is probably premature at this time for borrowers to proactively seek amendments to their credit agreements.  That being said, there are a few steps that borrowers can take now to be prepared.

BACKGROUND

The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) has been the global borrowing interest rate benchmark for nearly 50 years.  Many borrowers pay interest under their credit agreements based upon a LIBOR interest rate, which is typically defined first by reference to the screen rate published by ICE Benchmark Administration Limited (IBA), and then to an alternative reference source if the screen rate is unavailable.  Although the LIBOR rate is intended to represent the rate of interest at which major banks in London actually loan funds to each other, the financial crisis liquidity in the LIBOR market has dropped significantly to the point where more than 70% of 3-month LIBOR submissions are based on the judgment of the submitting bank as opposed to actual transactions.  Due to this lack of liquidity and the negative publicity surrounding the LIBOR scandal, the United Kingdom Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which has regulated LIBOR since April 2013, urged the phase-out of LIBOR by the end of 2021 and a transition to an alternative reference rate based on market transactions.

The uncertainty surrounding LIBOR’s fate is twofold.  First, although the FCA has encouraged the phase-out of LIBOR, it has stressed that the phase-out is not mandatory and, further, that the IBA may continue to produce LIBOR rates after 2021 if it chooses to do so.  Because of this, some commentators believe that LIBOR may continue to be quoted well beyond 2021 side-by-side with LIBOR’s replacement.  Second, the FCA has put the burden of finding LIBOR’s replacement primarily on market participants, who have not yet settled on an alternative rate.  The front runners at this point appear to be the Broad Treasury Financing Rate (BTFR) in the U.S., and the Sterling Overnight Index Average (SONIA) in the U.K., each of which is being considered as a replacement rate in the derivatives market.  However, neither of these rates are ready replacements for LIBOR in the lending market because (i) each is an overnight rate as opposed to LIBOR, which is quoted for seven borrowing periods ranging from overnight to one year, and (ii) each is based on past transactions (i.e., each is “backward looking”) as opposed to LIBOR, which is a stated rate for a forward-looking term.

WHAT BORROWERS CAN DO TO PREPARE

The first thing borrowers can do is review their existing credit agreements to see how the interest rate is determined if LIBOR no longer exists.  Although some credit agreements, such as the LSTA and LMA models, contain provisions that fall back to a waterfall of alternative reference rates if LIBOR is unavailable, such as a reference bank rate (i.e., an average of quotes of rates in the wholesale markets), the lenders’ cost of funds, or an alternative rate, many do not contain any fallback other than to simply default to base or prime rate loans.  As these rates are historically higher than the LIBOR rate, they can lead to the borrower incurring a significantly higher interest expense than it anticipated at the time the borrower entered into the loan.  However, even if a borrower is faced with a potential rate increase, given the uncertainty of both the timing of LIBOR’s phase-out and the replacement for the LIBOR rate, it is probably premature for it to approach its lender seeking an amendment.

If a borrower sees a potential issue with its LIBOR fallback language, it should closely monitor the marketplace to determine when and if it needs to take action.  Given the magnitude that LIBOR’s phase-out will have on the loan market, it is highly unlikely that the market will not do all that it can well in advance of the phase-out to effectuate a smooth transition to an alternative standard.  In particular, it is likely that LIBOR’s replacement will be determined well in advance of 2021 so borrowers can assess the impact on their credit agreements and be prepared to take appropriate action (e.g., seeking an amendment or prepaying the loan).  Further, it is also likely that the FCA will have signaled whether it will continue to quote LIBOR after the phase-out and, if so, for how long.  Depending on the length of time FCA continues to do so, borrowers with loans that mature past 2021 may be able to avoid amending their agreements entirely.  Finally, by the time the phase-out is implemented, the market will have likely settled on a standard for appropriate LIBOR fallback language, which should then be much easier to incorporate into existing loan documents than starting from scratch.  In short, although the temptation as a borrower may be to get ahead of the potential problem by proactively seeking an amendment, the best course of action is to monitor the situation and take a wait-and-see approach. One caveat to this is the situation where a borrower is already in the process of amending its credit agreement for other reasons, in which case it may as well amend the LIBOR fallback provision since the marginal cost of doing so is minimal.

 

Not too long ago, technology was considered a “vertical” market filled with companies that met the needs of the “technology” industry (think Microsoft, Dell, Cisco, Intel, and IBM).  However, technological products and services have evolved to the point of serving a “horizontal” market, having become an important aspect of many different types of businesses across a wide variety of industries and sectors (think fintech, healthtech, cleantech, autotech, edtech, etc.) and, by extension, M&A transactions.

For example, deals in the media industry increasingly are focused on the digital media aspects, particularly given the decline in demand for print media.  Likewise, parties to acquisitions in the financial services industry often pay close attention to the protection of proprietary investment strategies, data protection, trade names, and customized software.  Even manufacturers and other traditionally “non-tech” companies are leaning on technology more and more in order to streamline their business processes, manage and analyze data better, and to protect themselves from cyber-attacks.

This trend towards a “horizontal” market only looks to accelerate as technology becomes more and more embedded in businesses of all stripes, as presaged by the $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods by Amazon.com Inc. this year.  Similarly, private equity interest in tech and tech-enabled businesses has grown in recent years, particularly for more “stable” businesses such as software companies that generate recurring revenue or that serve other businesses.

Given the growing proportion of M&A deals that are considered to be “tech” deals (even where non-technology companies are involved), middle market businesses of all kinds that are evaluating the possibility of a sale or, conversely, looking for potential targets to acquire cannot afford to overlook the importance of technology as a key asset.

High-level legal concerns often revolve around the target’s ownership or right to use key technological assets, as well as the level of protection and ability to transfer the same.  This includes making sure that all owned intellectual property of the business is properly registered with the USPTO or copyright office in the name of the appropriate entity, and that all renewals and maintenance fees have been paid.  Additionally, acquirers should check that employees and, particularly, key independent contractors of the target have assigned their rights in and to all key intellectual properties to the target.  Inbound licenses that are material to the business, as well as revenue generating outbound licenses, should be reviewed to determine assignability.  It goes without saying that it is critical to ascertain whether the target has any existing or suspected infringement claims, as well as any security interests or encumbrances affecting its key technology assets.

Further, to the extent key technologies are held within a joint venture between the target and a third party, an acquirer should consider whether its business model would allow it to “step into the shoes” of the target vis a vis the joint venture versus the extent to which the acquirer could readily extract the technological assets and/or wind-down the joint venture.

The takeaway here is when engaging in M&A transactions – whether in the middle market or otherwise – ignore technology at your peril.  Those companies (even “non-tech” ones) that can demonstrate a strong command of their technological assets should increase their attractiveness as targets as we move into the future.  Conversely, acquirers that understand their own technology “gaps,” can quickly assess the target’s key technological assets and grasp how such assets will improve the integrated business post-closing will be better positioned to focus their due diligence efforts, minimize indemnification risks, and ultimately achieve the intended synergies.