On September 21, 2018 David Rible, the Director of the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, issued a Special Ruling applicable to NJ Craft Beer Brewery Licensees. The growth of the craft beer industry in NJ (88 limited brewery licenses have been issued and 23 applications are pending) and the manner in which they have expanded their business activities has caused the state to clarify and limit the number and types of activities that can be conducted on the brewery premises.

In 2012, an amendment to New Jersey’s alcoholic beverage control laws was enacted to promote the craft beer industry with the intention that it would help to generate the sale of craft beers at licensed bar/restaurants and retail stores. Under the 2012 law microbreweries were only permitted to serve beer on site in connection with a “tour” however no guidance was provided as to what type of tour was required or the type of events that could occur at the brewery. Although no food was permitted under the law to be served by the brewery, some breweries filled the void by supplying take out menus of nearby restaurants and allowing on site food deliveries.

As stated in the Special Ruling, the 2012 amendment was not intended to permit a brewery with the same privileges as a sports bar, restaurant, catering hall or liquor store. Nonetheless, many breweries have in many respects been acting as if they possess these full licensed privileges, without limitation, hosting trivia nights, live performances, sporting events, special events and private parties.

The Special Ruling now clarifies what activities are permitted and prohibited on the licensed brewery premises, clarifies the provision of the required tour, further clarifies the prohibition of food service, and limits the number and types of activities.  For example, no more than 25 on premises  public/ special  events  a year, 12 off premises events such as festivals, fairs or athletic events, and 52 private parties including trade and civic associations.  Additionally, a simplified E- Notification permit system is being instituted. The new rules are to take effect immediately and are actually a precursor to new regulations to be implemented by the State affecting the craft brewery industry.

Unfortunately, with upcoming Octoberfest events and already booked holiday parties these new regulations may have a stinging effect on many microbreweries’ bottom line.

New Jersey’s liquor license laws have generally remained unchanged for decades and have been a sore spot for municipalities seeking to fuel economic growth and small businesses hoping to open in town centers across the State.  Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Raj Mukherji have heard those concerns and others, and recently sponsored a bill in the New Jersey Assembly, A3494, which proposes reforms to the NJ liquor license system.

Under the current liquor license laws, the State of New Jersey limits the number of maximum liquor licenses within a municipality based on population.  Critics of the existing framework argue that the municipalities are beholden to census numbers that are updated every 10 years and with many of the issued licenses pocketed and not in use, many business owners that are ready and willing to serve cannot because of population density issues and pocketed licenses.  Proponents of reform also note that liquor licenses tend to be very expensive, even topping $1,000,000 in some particularly hot markets, which may give established restaurant groups with deeper pockets an advantage over start-ups.

The bill, in its proposed form, would allow municipalities to issue two new types of liquor licenses to smaller businesses.  One proposed license would permit service at tables, but not at a bar, and another proposed license would allow for only beer and wine service.  The new licenses would have a significantly lower price than the existing liquor licenses.  However, existing liquor license owners oppose the bill because new purchasers would be able to obtain a liquor license at a much lower cost which, in turn, may devalue existing liquor licenses obtained at a high price tag.  To address this concern, the bill contemplates a tax credit to those existing businesses that have paid market value for their licenses, with a portion of the initial fee and renewal fees for new licenses paid to the State to help offset the cost of tax credits that would be issued to existing license holders.

The bill was released from the Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee on May 17, 2018 and subsequently referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.  As Assemblyman John Burzichelli has said, the bill is a work in progress.  For now, supporters of the bill will need to wait and see if the traction persists and in the meantime, continue to BYOB.

 

On June 14, 2018, the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance Director, William Hinman, gave a speech titled “Digital Asset Transactions: When Howey Met Gary (Plastic).”  This speech provides additional insight into the SEC’s view as to whether cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) are securities.  Here is a summary:

In his speech, Hinman explains that ICOs typically involve passive investors who purchase tokens in hopes that a promoter builds a successful network.  He posits that the networks involved are rarely functional, and that the token purchase “looks a lot more like a bet on the success of the enterprise and not a purchase of something used to exchange for goods or services on the network.”  These circumstances, combined with token marketing efforts that “are rarely narrowly targeted to token users,” are indicators that an ICO is a securities transaction.

ICO issuers have recently tried to avoid their tokens being classified as securities by labeling them “utility tokens” and arguing that the tokens are for consumptive use.  Hinman directly addresses this practice, stating that labeling something a “utility token” does not prevent it from being a security. While he conceded that tokens by themselves and tokens purchased for consumption only are likely not securities, he emphasized that the “economic substance of the transaction” determines whether a token sale is a securities transaction.  Specifically, the speech focused on the “investment strategy” used, and states that “virtually any assets” can be securities “provided the investor is reasonably expecting profits from the promoter’s efforts.”

To support the above concept that securities can be broadly defined to include an “investment strategy,”  Hinman explains that, as outlined in Gary Plastic Packaging Corp. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., the Howey test “is not static and does not strictly inhere to the instrument.”  The non-static interpretation of Howey is critical because it indicates that tokens which start as securities can lose that designation over time as a token’s network becomes “sufficiently decentralized.”  Hinman clarified that a security-token loses its status as a security when it becomes decentralized enough that purchasers “no longer reasonably expect a person or group to carry out essential managerial or entrepreneurial efforts,”  noting that, as a system becomes increasingly decentralized, “material information asymmetries recede” and the “ability to identity an issuer or promoter to make the requisite disclosure [required in securities offerings] becomes difficult, and less meaningful.”  This interpretation rewards systems that prioritize decentralization with a shield from securities laws, but creates ambiguity regarding the requirements for a network to become “sufficiently decentralized.”

In light of the above, Hinman finds that Bitcoin and Ethereum’s native token, Ether, are not securities because they are decentralized enough that the efforts of others are not a “key determining factor” in whether an investment in Bitcoin or Ether is successful.  The speech adds that applying the disclosure regime of the federal securities laws to Bitcoin and Ethereum transactions would “add little value”, and that, “[o]ver time, there may be other sufficiently decentralized networks and systems where regulating the tokens or coins that function on them as securities may not be required.”

As the State of New Jersey continues to evaluate the expansion of current legislation related to medicinal use cannabis and the legalization of recreational cannabis, proposed legislation advancing in the New Jersey legislature has set its sights on marijuana’s less psychotropic relative – industrial hemp.

If passed, Assembly Bill No. 1330 (the “Bill”), introduced in February of 2018 and sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, would enable licensed businesses to plant, grow, harvest, possess, process, distribute, buy and sell industrial hemp for commercial purposes. The Bill defines industrial hemp as an agricultural product that is part of the plant of any variety of Cannabis sativa L. with a delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (“THC”) concentration of 0.3% or less on a dry weight basis. This threshold of THC is intended to ensure that legally harvested industrial hemp maintains no more than a small percentage of THC, the psychoactive, “high-producing” ingredient in marijuana. To ensure compliance, the Bill requires that licensees submit, on an annual basis, documentation confirming that such industrial hemp is of a permissible type and THC concentration.

Pursuant to the Bill, prospective growers and distributors must apply to the Secretary of Agriculture (the “Secretary”) for an industrial hemp license, which must include specific documentation with respect to, and a legal description of, the land to be used for growth and production of the crop. Applicants are also required to submit to fingerprinting and both a nationwide and statewide criminal history and background check by the Department of Law and Public Safety and/or the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All issued licenses will be valid only for the site or sites specified in the license, and for a period of one (1) year from the date of issuance, unless otherwise adjusted by the Department of Agriculture to align with the normal growing season and to facilitate reasonable harvesting, processing and sale or distribution timing.

The Bill also tasks the Secretary, in consultation with the Attorney General, to adopt certain rules and regulations facilitating administration and enforcement. These regulations include (1) the establishment of approved varieties of industrial hemp and methods to distinguish it from other types of marijuana, (2) testing protocol for THC levels, (3) licensing requirements, fees and renewal procedures, and (4) penalties for administration and enforcement. Finally, the Bill requires that licensees notify the Secretary and the Attorney General of all sales or distributions of industrial hemp during the calendar year, and identify by name and address each distributee of industrial hemp for such calendar year.

Beyond the Bill, industrial hemp would be subject to the protections of the Right to Farm Act, and the land used for its cultivation may be eligible for valuation and taxation benefits provided by the New Jersey Farmland Assessment Act of 1964 – an Act permitting land actively devoted to agricultural use to be assessed at its productivity value, which is often less than the property tax assessment value of the property.

The enactment of the Bill is poised to offer a substantial boost to New Jersey’s agricultural industry, introducing what some view as a new “cash crop” to New Jersey’s repertoire and would afford New Jersey farmers the opportunity to diversify their products and compete in a nearly $500 million industry, catalyzing manufacturing and economic opportunity across the State. The Bill now also finds federal legislative support, following introduction of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 in late April, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY). The federal bill, among other things, would remove industrial hemp from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, and would empower the states to be the primary regulators of the industry.

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.