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Surety

The Buzz Over Bonds

Bonding requirements in the weed business are wildly inconsistent and sometimes seem biased against the industry.
By: | May 2, 2017 • 6 min read

Now that medical and/or recreational use of marijuana is legal in nearly a quarter of U.S. states, several are now requiring marijuana dispensaries and growers to obtain surety bonds to make sure the businesses are viable and upstanding.

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But some are questioning the high bond amounts required by states like Arkansas, Florida and Connecticut, claiming it’s “cannabigotry” in a drive to stamp out the controversial businesses. Colorado last year relaxed its surety bond requirements after too many mom and pop firms went out of business due to the tightening of the surety bond market there.

Some marijuana bonds guarantee compliance with a state license, but most often the bonds guarantee payment of tax revenue on the sale of marijuana, said Victor J. Lance, president and owner of Lance Surety Bond Associates Inc. in Doylestown, Pa.

“These bonds are currently very difficult to place, and most bond companies avoid writing them for primarily two reasons — federal law still makes possession and use of marijuana illegal, and the threat of RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization] lawsuits,” Lance said.

In 2015, an anti-marijuana group sued several Colorado dispensaries and companies doing business with them, including Merchants Bonding Co., claiming they violated the federal RICO act. The surety bond firm settled and immediately exited the marijuana bonding business, and most other bond companies followed suit.

“However, there are still some bond companies willing to write these bonds for qualified applicants,” Lance said. “If federal law changes, which some think is only a matter of time, this will most certainly change as more and more bond companies re-enter the industry.”

Different Approaches

Regardless of federal law, state regulators “need to be thoughtful” in setting appropriate penal sums and determining bond language, he said. Some states like Florida and Connecticut require surety bonds for $1 million or more, but it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for most new businesses to qualify for a bond of that size.

Victor J. Lance, president and owner, Lance Surety Bond Associates Inc.

“If a state decides to require a bond that no bond company is comfortable writing, the requirement becomes unattainable for most businesses and can be detrimental to the growth of the marijuana industry in their state,” Lance said. “It’s important for state regulators to consult with the surety industry, such as the legal counsel at the Surety & Fidelity Association of America, before deciding on new bonding requirements.”

Colorado last year removed the surety bond requirements for marijuana firms. Other RICO lawsuits against marijuana firms and those that do business with them have since been dismissed by federal judges or turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission proposed surety bond requirements for marijuana businesses wishing to obtain licenses, which must be approved by the Arkansas Legislature. The state will initially award 32 dispensary licenses on a lottery basis and five cultivation facility licenses based on the firms’ merits.

To qualify for a cultivation license, applicants must provide proof of assets or a surety bond in the amount of $1 million, an initial $500,000 performance bond, and proof of at least $500,000 in liquid assets.

For dispensary licenses, applicants electing to cultivate medical marijuana on the premises must provide proof of assets or a surety bond in the amount of $200,000 and proof of at least $100,000 in liquid assets.

Keith Mansur, publisher of the Oregon Cannabis Connection’s OCC Newspaper in Grants Pass, Ore., said that the Arkansas bond requirements for dispensaries are not overly odious, but the requirements for growers are.

“I think what’s really driving this is ‘cannabigotry,’ ” Mansur said. “They are afraid of the unknown and the Feds perpetrate the myth that cannabis is bad because they still classify is as a Schedule I controlled substance. But all of that ridiculous scheduling causes fear.”

Still, he’s not sure that having no bond requirement is a good thing.

Companies need to know “that there’s more risk involved than just opening their doors,” said Mansur.

Keith Mansur, publisher, Oregon Cannabis Connection newspaper

For smaller firms, a $10,000 license and/or tax bond runs between $300 and $1,500, said Gary Eastman, president of Swiftbonds in Leawood, Kan.

To get any type of surety bond, companies need to show three years’ worth of financials or the applicant needs to have great credit, Eastman said. For small firms, Swiftbonds typically asks for a basic profit and loss statement, but also encourages a balance sheet statement. As most dispensaries do not have a lot of assets, the firm looks for strong cash flow and sometimes a letter of credit or some other type of collateral.

“We tell companies that even if they can’t get a bond today, continue to work with the surety company, sending updates and financial statements,” he said. “If the company shows continuous progress and that they’re taking all the right steps — instead of trying to grow too aggressively, cutting costs so they can’t service customers — then they can ultimately get a bond.”

Some states, like Washington, don’t require surety bonds, but they do require dispensaries and growers to have commercial general liability insurance or commercial umbrella insurance, with limits of not less than a million dollars, said Susan Coakley, insurance specialist at New Growth Insurance in Alameda, Calif.

“Marijuana firms typically are cash-only businesses, so if they ever had an insurance claim, the insurer could not pay them $5,000 in cash to resolve the claim,” Coakley said. They’d need to use lawyers as intermediaries.

There are some brokers who are selling GL policies to marijuana firms so they can meet the regulatory requirements, but if the firms ever had a claim they wouldn’t be covered, she said. The red flag to watch for is verbiage in the policy that excludes the cannabis business.

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T.J. Frost, commercial and surety insurance adviser at HUB International in Seattle, said that in Washington, local utilities sometimes require marijuana firms to put money upfront, just in case they ever miss a utility payment. That amount could be in the range of $150,000, or around $8,000 for a startup. The fee for such a bond is 20 percent.

HUB’s risk services team also inspects properties and helps clients seeking insurance prepare by discussing potential fire hazards, sprinkler systems, light wire exposure, exit requirements and the need for cameras, safes and vaults.

“One thing we pride ourselves [on] is that we can help companies with risk mitigation, because there were companies that started out in people’s houses that were catching fire because they were doing it indoors,” Frost said.

HUB also brings in attorneys knowledgeable about the marijuana industry to work with clients on accounting, taxes and other issues.

“We want our clients to be successful; we want them to pave the way for others,” Frost said. “We try to be an advocate for them, not just their insurance broker.” &

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Cyber Resilience

No, Seriously. You Need a Comprehensive Cyber Incident Response Plan Before It’s Too Late.

Awareness of cyber risk is increasing, but some companies may be neglecting to prepare adequate response plans that could save them millions. 
By: | June 1, 2018 • 7 min read

To minimize the financial and reputational damage from a cyber attack, it is absolutely critical that businesses have a cyber incident response plan.

“Sadly, not all yet do,” said David Legassick, head of life sciences, tech and cyber, CNA Hardy.

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In the event of a breach, a company must be able to quickly identify and contain the problem, assess the level of impact, communicate internally and externally, recover where possible any lost data or functionality needed to resume business operations and act quickly to manage potential reputational risk.

This can only be achieved with help from the right external experts and the design and practice of a well-honed internal response.

The first step a company must take, said Legassick, is to understand its cyber exposures through asset identification, classification, risk assessment and protection measures, both technological and human.

According to Raf Sanchez, international breach response manager, Beazley, cyber-response plans should be flexible and applicable to a wide range of incidents, “not just a list of consecutive steps.”

They also should bring together key stakeholders and specify end goals.

Jason J. Hogg, CEO, Aon Cyber Solutions

With bad actors becoming increasingly sophisticated and often acting in groups, attack vectors can hit companies from multiple angles simultaneously, meaning a holistic approach is essential, agreed Jason J. Hogg, CEO, Aon Cyber Solutions.

“Collaboration is key — you have to take silos down and work in a cross-functional manner.”

This means assembling a response team including individuals from IT, legal, operations, risk management, HR, finance and the board — each of whom must be well drilled in their responsibilities in the event of a breach.

“You can’t pick your players on the day of the game,” said Hogg. “Response times are critical, so speed and timing are of the essence. You should also have a very clear communication plan to keep the CEO and board of directors informed of recommended courses of action and timing expectations.”

People on the incident response team must have sufficient technical skills and access to critical third parties to be able to make decisions and move to contain incidents fast. Knowledge of the company’s data and network topology is also key, said Legassick.

“Perhaps most important of all,” he added, “is to capture in detail how, when, where and why an incident occurred so there is a feedback loop that ensures each threat makes the cyber defense stronger.”

Cyber insurance can play a key role by providing a range of experts such as forensic analysts to help manage a cyber breach quickly and effectively (as well as PR and legal help). However, the learning process should begin before a breach occurs.

Practice Makes Perfect

“Any incident response plan is only as strong as the practice that goes into it,” explained Mike Peters, vice president, IT, RIMS — who also conducts stress testing through his firm Sentinel Cyber Defense Advisors.

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Unless companies have an ethical hacker or certified information security officer on board who can conduct sophisticated simulated attacks, Peters recommended they hire third-party experts to test their networks for weaknesses, remediate these issues and retest again for vulnerabilities that haven’t been patched or have newly appeared.

“You need to plan for every type of threat that’s out there,” he added.

Hogg agreed that bringing third parties in to conduct tests brings “fresh thinking, best practice and cross-pollination of learnings from testing plans across a multitude of industries and enterprises.”

“Collaboration is key — you have to take silos down and work in a cross-functional manner.” — Jason J. Hogg, CEO, Aon Cyber Solutions

Legassick added that companies should test their plans at least annually, updating procedures whenever there is a significant change in business activity, technology or location.

“As companies expand, cyber security is not always front of mind, but new operations and territories all expose a company to new risks.”

For smaller companies that might not have the resources or the expertise to develop an internal cyber response plan from whole cloth, some carriers offer their own cyber risk resources online.

Evan Fenaroli, an underwriting product manager with the Philadelphia Insurance Companies (PHLY), said his company hosts an eRiskHub, which gives PHLY clients a place to start looking for cyber event response answers.

That includes access to a pool of attorneys who can guide company executives in creating a plan.

“It’s something at the highest level that needs to be a priority,” Fenaroli said. For those just getting started, Fenaroli provided a checklist for consideration:

  • Purchase cyber insurance, read the policy and understand its notice requirements.
  • Work with an attorney to develop a cyber event response plan that you can customize to your business.
  • Identify stakeholders within the company who will own the plan and its execution.
  • Find outside forensics experts that the company can call in an emergency.
  • Identify a public relations expert who can be called in the case of an event that could be leaked to the press or otherwise become newsworthy.

“When all of these things fall into place, the outcome is far better in that there isn’t a panic,” said Fenaroli, who, like others, recommends the plan be tested at least annually.

Cyber’s Physical Threat

With the digital and physical worlds converging due to the rise of the Internet of Things, Hogg reminded companies: “You can’t just test in the virtual world — testing physical end-point security is critical too.”

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How that testing is communicated to underwriters should also be a key focus, said Rich DePiero, head of cyber, North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions.

Don’t just report on what went well; it’s far more believable for an underwriter to hear what didn’t go well, he said.

“If I hear a client say it is perfect and then I look at some of the results of the responses to breaches last year, there is a disconnect. Help us understand what you learned and what you worked out. You want things to fail during these incident response tests, because that is how we learn,” he explained.

“Bringing in these outside firms, detailing what they learned and defining roles and responsibilities in the event of an incident is really the best practice, and we are seeing more and more companies do that.”

Support from the Board

Good cyber protection is built around a combination of process, technology, learning and people. While not every cyber incident needs to be reported to the boardroom, senior management has a key role in creating a culture of planning and risk awareness.

David Legassick, head of life sciences, tech and cyber, CNA Hardy

“Cyber is a boardroom risk. If it is not taken seriously at boardroom level, you are more than likely to suffer a network breach,” Legassick said.

However, getting board buy-in or buy-in from the C-suite is not always easy.

“C-suite executives often put off testing crisis plans as they get in the way of the day job. The irony here is obvious given how disruptive an incident can be,” said Sanchez.

“The C-suite must demonstrate its support for incident response planning and that it expects staff at all levels of the organization to play their part in recovering from serious incidents.”

“What these people need from the board is support,” said Jill Salmon, New York-based vice president, head of cyber/tech/MPL, Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance.

“I don’t know that the information security folks are looking for direction from the board as much as they are looking for support from a resources standpoint and a visibility standpoint.

“They’ve got to be aware of what they need and they need to have the money to be able to build it up to that level,” she said.

Without that support, according to Legassick, failure to empower and encourage the IT team to manage cyber threats holistically through integration with the rest of the organization, particularly risk managers, becomes a common mistake.

He also warned that “blame culture” can prevent staff from escalating problems to management in a timely manner.

Collaboration and Communication

Given that cyber incident response truly is a team effort, it is therefore essential that a culture of collaboration, preparation and practice is embedded from the top down.

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One of the biggest tripping points for companies — and an area that has done the most damage from a reputational perspective — is in how quickly and effectively the company communicates to the public in the aftermath of a cyber event.

Salmon said of all the cyber incident response plans she has seen, the companies that have impressed her most are those that have written mock press releases and rehearsed how they are going to respond to the media in the aftermath of an event.

“We have seen so many companies trip up in that regard,” she said. “There have been examples of companies taking too long and then not explaining why it took them so long. It’s like any other crisis — the way that you are communicating it to the public is really important.” &

Antony Ireland is a London-based financial journalist. He can be reached at [email protected] Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]