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A high bar for cannabis businesses eligible for COVID-19 relief funding

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When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $40 billion in relief funding through the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) for entrepreneurs financially burdened by the COVID-19 outbreak, not everyone celebrated. More than 300 legal cannabis businesses, for example, fell under one of the many industry exemptions the BDC has traditionally refused to cover—and for a few weeks it didn’t seem any change to the exclusion was being made in light of the pandemic. That has changed today, or at least somewhat changed.

A statement made by the bank’s CEO on Sunday (April 5) to the Canadian Press broke the news that some cannabis businesses will now have access to the new credit being made available to supplement salaries during the COVID-19 shutdown.

“Any legal business is eligible to be part of the program — that was what I think some industry groups were concerned about,” Denham told a CP reporter, indicating a formal announcement would follow today (April 6).

And it did.

The statement reads: “Given the unprecedented economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, all legal businesses will be eligible for the Business Credit Availability Program (BCAP), for the duration of the program. This includes both the Canada Emergency Business Account and [Small and Medium-sized Enterprise] SME Loan and Guarantee program. For example, businesses in the cannabis sector and those in the hospitality sector operating bars and lounges will now be eligible.”

The programs offer a range of funding options, from up to $40,000 in temporary interest-free loans for emerging businesses, to up to $6.25 million through the BDC-backed SME Loan and Guarantee program and respective financial institutions.

While that sounds promising, loans are only available to federally licensed companies that can prove payroll expense in the 2019 calendar year ranging between $50,000 and $1 million. And to apply for funding through the SME, an eligible business must first show that it had loan repayment capabilities prior to the pandemic. In itself, that limitation begins to eliminate small businesses. Furthermore, considering some of these businesses were only granted licences in the last year, and the industry as a whole has weathered some major economic growing pains, it’s a high bar to set in the grand scheme of things.

Another hurdle arises when applicants are asked to apply for funding through their own banks to access the program. Many cannabis companies, even those federally licensed, have struggled to obtain support as banks slowly reevaluate prohibitive policies.

Nonetheless, industry leaders are commending the move as an important first step in a larger policy shift.

The inclusion comes after dozens of cannabis entrepreneurs called on the federal government for equal and fair access to financial support during the crisis.