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PE Firm Hopes Pot Investment Fund Will Pan Out

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It may not be your cup of tea, but marijuana could become a potent alternative for certain high-net-worth investors looking for an industry with strong growth potential.

Last week Microsoft announced a software partnership to help state governments track marijuana sales, and, come Election Day, at least four states, including California, will host ballot initiatives to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Four states already have — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — and those states plus some 21 more have legalized cannabis use for medical purposes.

Also last week, MedMen, a management company serving North America’s legal cannabis industry, announced the launch of the MedMen Opportunity Fund, a private equity fund seeking $100 million to “pursue strategic investments” in the domestic marijuana market.

MedMen CEO Adam Bierman says “there’s a world of investor capital just dying to invest in cannabis,” which he contends is “the fastest growing industry in the U.S.” and one that holds the promise of “tech-like returns” as an “industry at the end of prohibition.”

Legal marijuana sales in the U.S. totaled $5.4 billion last year and could grow to $7.1 billion this year, according to private equity firm The ArcView Group, a private equity and venture capital firm, projecting a $22.8 billion market by 2020.

The Medmen Opportunity Fund will invest in projects in “supply-constrained” states such as New York and Illinois, which have a low number of licensed facilities and offer an opportunity to capture a large market share, said Bierman. It won’t invest in states in states like Colorado and Washington, which don’t provide that opportunity.

The fund is currently invested in Illinois, California and Nevada and is interested in New York, Arizona and Massachusetts – large potential markets with a low number of total licenses, or what Bierman calls “merit-based oligopoly systems.” California and Nevada, as well as Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts will all have initiatives on the November ballot to legalize recreational use of marijuana.

The fund is “agnostic as to medical or recreational” marijuana use but stands to benefit if it’s already invested in a market that subsequently receives approval for recreational use, says Bierman.

Despite the growing legalization of marijuana by states, the drug is still illegal under federal law, but the Justice Department did issue guidance in late August 2013 that prosecuting state legal medical marijuana cases under the Controlled Substance Act is not a priority.

When asked about the legal limbo that can affect the cannabis industry because of differences in state and federal law, Bierman said the Medmen Opportunity Fund essentially sidesteps the impact by investing “at the project level,” in land, buildings and equipment used by operators in the industry, such as growers and dispensaries. If a project fails the fund still has the collateral, which could potentially be repurposed. The fund will diversify investments by types of assets and geography.

The fund, which has partnered with Wicklow Capital in Chicago, is open to accredited investors only. They include institutional investors as well as  individuals with financial assets worth more than $1 million before taxes but net of liabilities or with net assets of at least $5 million or net income before taxes above $200,000 for each of the last two years (above $300,000 if including the income of a spouse) or was once was a registered advisor or dealer.

Bierman says the fund, which hopes to reach its $100 million target by the first quarter of 2017, is an investment opportunity for high-net-worth individuals and family offices — investors who could be “at the forefront of this next wave” of growth for the industry.

The Medmen Opportunity Fund is not the only investment that could potentially profit from the growing cannabis industry. Others include Privateer Holdings, a private-equity firm focused on legal weed, U.K. biotech company GW Pharmaceuticals (GWPH), which is licensed to grow marijuana plants by the British government and whose shares are up 26% year-to-date based on positive results from U.S. FDA trials on its cannabis-based epilepsy drug, and Poseidon Asset Management, a hedge fund that invests in companies involved in the cannabis industry.