Photo of Daniel Shortt

With a foundation in advocacy for cannabis legalization built through involvement on University of Washington's campus and with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, Daniel has positioned himself as a fearless advocate for the cannabis industry.

Unlike other states with recreational cannabis, Washington does not allow for home cultivation of recreational cannabis. However, that could change soon as SB 5131 requires the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) to study the viability of home cultivation. The LCB will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, October 4, 2017, at 10:00 AM on whether the State should allow home grows of recreational marijuana.  Written public comments may be submitted through October 11 at rules@lcb.wa.gov or hard copy at PO Box 43080, Olympia, WA 98504.

The LCB will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, October 4, 2017, at 10:00 AM on whether the State should allow home grows of recreational marijuana.  Written public comments may be submitted through October 11 at rules@lcb.wa.gov or hard copy at PO Box 43080, Olympia, WA 98504.

The LCB must consider home cultivation in light of the Cole Memorandum, the Obama-era policy statement from the Department of Justice that tacitly permits states to legalize marijuana so long as those states enact strong and effective regulations. The Cole Memo outlines eight enforcement priorities:

  1. Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
  2. Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels;
  3. Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
  4. Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
  5. Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;
  6. Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
  7. Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
  8. Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

The LCB has opposed home cultivation in the past. In 2015, Washington lawmakers considered a bill that would have allowed cultivation of up to six cannabis plants. In response, the LCB sent a letter outlining the Board’s concern that unregulated home grows would increase the occurrence of all eight enforcement priorities outlined in the Cole Memo.

The LCB worries that home cultivation will lead to diversion. Washington producer, processors, transporters, researchers, and retailers must all use “seed-to-sale” traceability software. As the name suggests, a cannabis plant is monitored throughout its life to prevent cannabis from being diverted to other states, to minors, or to the black market.

The LCB is seeking public input on three proposed options:

  1. Tightly Regulated Recreational Marijuana Home Grows. This option would impose a strict regulatory framework. Home cultivators would need a permit to grow legally. Permit holders could then purchase plants from licensed producers. Each household would be allowed four plants and all plants would be tracked in the same traceability system used to monitor commercially grown cannabis.  The LCB would impose requirements to ensure security, preventing youth access, and preventing diversion. Both the LCB and local authorities would monitor home grows. Cannabis processing would be subject to the same restrictions as apply to medical cannabis (e.g., no combustible processing).
  2. Local Control of Recreational Marijuana Home Grows. Like Option One, this option would require a permit, require safeguards to prevent diversion, limit each household to four plants, and allow permit holders to purchase plants from producers. Option Two would not require home cultivators to use the State’s traceability system. It also would give greater authority to local jurisdictions to create more restrictions and to authorize, control, and enforce the home grown program.
  3. Recreational Home Grows are Prohibited. The third option is to maintain the status quo and prohibit home cultivation.

The LCB must report its findings to Washington’s legislature by December 1, 2017. Lawmakers provided the LCB with no additional funds, meaning the Board must conduct its study without expanding its budget. There is no guarantee that anything changes but this is could be the beginning of recreational home cultivation in Washington.

Over the weekend, I attended CanEx Jamaica in Montego Bay. The event focused on the business and policy of cannabis in Jamaica and abroad. Jamaica decriminalized cannabis in 2015, imposing a fine for possession of less than two ounces of cannabis rather than possible jail time. Jamaica also has legalized cannabis for medical use, but is still in the process of implementing a regulated program.

Jamaica is facing challenges in regulating a plant that has long been celebrated in Jamaican culture despite legal prohibition. Ganja, as it is known on the Island, has deep cultural and religious significance. It is a sacred herb in the Rastafarian religion. Its religious and recreational use on the island has been widespread for years. As a result, many Jamaicans are not excited about it being regulated. I went to this event for two reasons. One, because Hilary Bricken, our lead cannabis lawyer out of our Los Angeles office would be speaking there. And two, because our cannabis practice has always been an international one, and that has been accelerating in the last few months as Barcelona, Spain, (where we have an office) continues to liberalize.

Dr. Jalani Adwin Niaah, a professor at the University of the West Indies at Mona and Rastafarian, gave a presentation on Rastafarian Dispensing and Advocacy. He noted an increased interest in ganja from local business leaders after it was decriminalized. He fears though that commercialization of Jamaica’s medical cannabis will leave Rastafarians behind and cannabis as a sacrament will become marginalized. Dr. Niaah suggested Rastafarian’s hosting “herb camps” where they could grow and dispense ganja for religious purposes while also providing guidance to Jamaicans and visitors who want to use ganja for healing and wellness. Dr. Niaah proposed these camps would give Rastafarians a place in Jamaica’s regulated cannabis market. Jamaican law allows cannabis for religious purposes, but it is not clear these sorts of camps would qualify under this exemption.

Hilary Bricken hosts a panel on Cannabis Policy in Jamaica.

Hilary Bricken from our office moderated a panel on cannabis policy that included Florida attorney Michael Minardi, entrepreneur Sidney Himmel, Dr. Lorenzo Gordon of Jamaica’s Ministry of Health, and Greg Douglas, CEO of Jamaica’s Cannabis Licensing Authority.

Dr. Gordon and Mr. Douglas provided insight into the challenges Jamaica faces as two of its regulatory bodies work together to establish Jamaica’s medical cannabis scheme. The Ministry of Health regulates cannabis processing, strains, and products. It looks at the scientific side of cannabis, studying the percentage of CBD and THC in each strain. This Ministry also requires a microbiological analysis of each product and provides training for physicians who wish to recommend cannabis. The Cannabis Licensing Authority focuses on location, security, and cultivation. As the title suggests, it also will eventually provide licenses to cultivators and dispensaries.

Mr. Douglas expressed the need for the two agencies to work together to send a unified message and provide a consistent process for applicants hoping to obtain a cannabis license. He also acknowledged the importance of cannabis in Jamaica saying “in Jamaica, ganja is cultural, not just a matter of money.” Mr. Douglas maintains that the emotional impact of ganja in Jamaica must be taken into account in creating a regulated industry.

The elephant in the room was the impact United States Government policy has had and will continue to have on Jamaica’s cannabis regime, especially considering the Trump administration has been hostile to cannabis. Both Jamaica and the US have entered into treaties prohibiting the manufacture and distribution of cannabis and other drugs. The US wields significant influence over international trade and could force its will on a small nation like Jamaica. At one point in the panel discussions, Hilary asked whether Jamaican government officials see the US as a bully. Both Jamaican officials gave diplomatic answers, acknowledging they are aware of the United State’s position on the subject and how it is necessary to “consider” the international environment when implementing Jamaica’s regulatory regime.

Though over half the states in the US have legalized medical cannabis and eights states (plus Washington DC) allow cannabis for recreational use, the United States is still viewed internationally as somewhat of a drug law dinosaur with sharp teeth. Many of the speakers and attendees talked of how Canada and Israel (and to a lesser extent Uruguay and Spain) are model nations for cannabis research and policy. Dr. Gordon stated he hoped Jamaica could be an international leader in cannabis as well. See Marijuana Legalization: The International Edition

 In addition to Hilary’s panel, CanEx hosted Montel Williams for a keynote address, held a job fair for individuals interested in working in cannabis and hosted a number of other panel discussions on topics like “Women in Cannabis”, “Finance and Trade”, and “Arts and Entertainment.” The event was well attended and very informative. If you regret missing it this year, I highly recommend attending in 2018.
Great locale and great speakers. What more could you want?
Daniel Shortt and Hilary Bricken at CanEx Jamaica.

On September 1st, I’ll be joining Hilary Bricken in Montego Bay for the CanEx Jamaica Business Conference and Expo. This two-day event features a conference on day one and a job expo on day two. Hilary will speak at the conference alongside cannabis entrepreneurs, doctors, and fellow cannabis industry leaders, including Montel Williams, an outspoken advocate for medical cannabis. CanEx will connect professionals across the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and North America interested in opportunities and developments in the cannabis industry.

Jamaica is a fitting locale as cannabis has played a significant role in its history and culture. Starting in 1655, Jamaicans were subject to slavery under British rule until an abolitionist uprising ended the practice in 1838. The end of slavery created a demand for labor on the island. Workers from India traveled to Jamaica and brought the cannabis plant with them. Linguistic scholars determined that the term “ganja” is rooted in Hindi. Cannabis quickly spread around the Island as the Jamaican climate is ideal for cannabis growth, allowing multiple harvests in a given year. Cannabis use became a tenet of the Rastafarian religion which emerged in the 1930s and rose to prominence in Jamaica.

Despite cultural associations with cannabis, Jamaica outlawed cannabis by passing the Ganja Law of 1913. Jamaica’s government pushed back against its international reputation as a pot-friendly nation by strictly enforcing cannabis prohibition until recently. But Jamaica’s attitude changed in 2015 when Jamaica decriminalized marijuana. Jamaica then legalized medical cannabis the following year.

CanEx Jamaica reflects an emerging interest in cannabis on a global scale. America has taken much of the media spotlight when it comes to cannabis reform, but it is important to realize that the push for legalization extends far beyond US borders. It is truly a global movement and my firm’s international attorneys are constantly answering inquiries from business people from around the world interested in cannabis across the globe. Our lawyers in our Spain office often represent foreign businesses that want to expand to Spain and Spanish and Catalon businesses that want to expand beyond Spain. Countries like Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Germany, India, Israel, Jamaica, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Uruguay have all legalized cannabis to some degree. Israel has long been a leader in researching medical cannabis and has its own robust medical program. Canada has begun the process of legalizing recreational cannabis across the country and Uruguay has already done just that. An international cannabis marketplace is quickly developing as more cannabis businesses look to take their expertise beyond their own borders. CanEx is a great opportunity for entrepreneurs from across the world to meet and connect the emerging market and we hope to see you there.

You can find more information on international cannabis on the following post.

 

Washington State Cannabis LawyersThe Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) yesterday rescinded its interim policy prohibiting a business or individual from owning multiple cannabis producer licenses. Now, a business and its principals can own up to three cannabis production licenses, which is up from just one license.

Though the LCB’s own rules (WAC 314-55-075) state that “any entity and/or principals within any entity are limited to no more than three marijuana producer licenses,” as of 2014, it restricted cannabis producers to no more than one producer license. Our Washington State cannabis lawyers never liked that restriction as we thought it encouraged illegal grows and bad behavior. See Washington LCB Producer License Roll-Back May Encourage Black Market Growers

The LCB announced its decision to rescind its one producer license policy at yesterday’s LCB meeting and noting how Washington State cannabis producers had been pushing to be able to expand and how the LCB’s own rules (WAC 314-55-075) allow ownership of up to three producer licenses. The LCB said it was time for the Board to “get out of the way” of Washington State cannabis producers.
We wholeheartedly agree.

To be clear, this shift in LCB policy towards producer licenses does not mean the LCB will be accepting new producer applications or expanding canopy space for existing producers; the LCB will not issue producer licenses to any new applicants nor will its policies on canopy space change. What this announcement does mean though — and this is a big deal — is that anyone who already holds a Washington State producer’s license will now be free to expand its cannabis production capabilities and canopy by purchasing other licensed producer businesses (up to two more). We know there is a massive pent-up demand for such purchases and sales because hardly a week goes by without one of our Washington State cannabis producer clients telling us of their desire to expand their production operations (mostly to better achieve economies of scale), and we also get frequent calls from companies (and clients) wanting to sell their production operations.

What we predict will happen in the market is a massive consolidation of smaller and/or struggling cultivators who will sell their businesses to larger-scale producers that are well organized and well capitalized. For years we have suspected this market consolidation of cannabis producers would occur in Washington and we see it likely to happen in other states as well.

If you are contemplating buying or selling a Washington cannabis production business/license you should be sure to check out the following:

 

 

Washington State New Cannabis lawsIn 2015, Washington passed Senate Bill 5052, which allowed medical marijuana patients and their designated providers to grow cannabis plants for personal medical use and band together to form medical marijuana cooperatives. That bill did not provide a legal pathway for cooperatives, medical marijuana patients, or designated providers to acquire plants. It also did not allow retail sales of plants directly to consumers. In 2016, the Washington Legislature passed legislation allowing cooperatives to purchase plants from licensed marijuana producers, but failed to address the ability of other patients to acquire plants.

Washington lawmakers recently addressed this issue with Senate Bill 5131, which allows qualifying patients and designated caregivers to purchase cannabis plants directly from licensed marijuana producers. A “qualifying patient” is a person who has been recommended medical marijuana by a healthcare professional and a “designated caregiver” is a person the qualifying patient designates in writing as authorized to procure medical cannabis. Qualifying patients can enter into a medical marijuana authorization database and receive a recognition card from the state. Not all qualifying patients enter the database and so some qualifying patients do not hold recognition cards. Carrying a recognition card brings advantages, such as tax discounts and the right to purchase larger quantities of marijuana in a single transaction.

All Washington marijuana patients can grow marijuana for their personal use, unlike recreational users, but qualifying patient cardholders can grow more. Cardholders may cultivate six cannabis plants at home (up to fifteen plants if their physician recommends it) which can yield a maximum of eight ounces of useable marijuana. Cardholders can also join state-registered medical marijuana cooperatives to cultivate marijuana with four other patients. Patients who are not cardholders may grow up to four cannabis plants and possess up to six ounces of useable marijuana produced from those plants, but cannot join a cooperative.

SB 5131 also allows qualifying patient cardholders to purchase immature plants and clones:

Qualifying patients and designated providers, who hold a recognition card and have been entered into the medical marijuana authorization database, may purchase immature plants or clones from a licensed marijuana producer as defined in RCW 69.50.101.

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) recently issued an interim policy statement that describes how members of cooperatives, cardholder, and cardholder’s designated providers can purchase cannabis plants and seeds but makes no mention of how patients without qualifying patient cards can purchase seeds. The LCB is mandating that Washington State cannabis producers receive documentation before selling plants or seeds. Members of a cooperative must show a valid recognition card and a copy of the letter from the LCB confirming the person is part of a registered cooperative. Qualifying patients must show a valid recognition card. It appears that there still is no means for patients who do not enter the database and receive a recognition card to legally obtain seeds to grow their own medical cannabis.

The LCB’s policy statement provides additional guidance on the sale of plants and seeds. Immature plants or clones are defined as plants that have no flower, are less than 12 inches in height and less than 12 inches in diameter. Producers must abide by security and traceability requirements including a 24-hour waiting period imposed on all cannabis transfers. Patients and providers must notify a producer 24 hours before picking up plants or seeds. All transfers must occur on the producer’s licensed property and deliveries are prohibited. Cooperatives, patients, and caregivers are not permitted to purchase more plants than they were authorized to grow by a physician or under Washington law. The patient or caregiver must buy the plant in person and producers cannot sell to anyone other than those who called in on a product. Sales tax applies to the sale of plants or seeds, but the state’s marijuana excise tax does not.

You can find more on SB 5131 at the following links:

Cannabis attorneysIn Joe Hemp’s First Hemp Bank and Distribution Network v. City of Oaklanda federal judge ruled against a cannabis business that had sued the city of Oakland for putting it out of business for having failed to obtain proper permits.

The plaintiffs in this lawsuit were Joe’s Hemp and its founder David Clancy. The plaintiffs claimed they operated a “warehouse” to store medical marijuana for members using a “closed distribution network.” According to plaintiffs, members could pay a fee to store marijuana in the warehouse and then remove it from the warehouse when necessary.

Oakland requires any dispensary operating within the city have a cannabis dispensary permit and pay necessary fees and it deemed Joe’s Hemp to be a dispensary.  When Joe’s Hemp refused to apply for the required Oakland city dispensary permit, Oakland imposed fines against Joe’s Hemp and mandated Joe’s Hemp vacate the premises. Joe’s Hemp then sued the City of Oakland in federal court claiming it was not operating a dispensary, but rather a warehouse.

Joe’s Hemp contended that it was operating legally under federal law under the “warehousemen exemption” to the Federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) which exempts common carriers and warehousemen from criminal liability for possessing Schedule I substances. Joe’s Hemp also claimed this exemption removed it from Oakland’s cannabis dispensary permit scheme. The court was not impressed, calling the alleged warehouse arrangement “a sham” that involved nothing more than its purported members paying fee to get marijuana. The court found this transaction to be a sale of cannabis and held that Joe’s Hemp sat squarely outside any purported warehouseman exemption.

Joe’s Hemp argued the CSA preempted Oakland’s cannabis permitting scheme. The court held the CSA did not preempt Oakland’s ability to permit marijuana business because there was no “positive conflict” between the City of Oakland’s cannabis permit scheme and federal law. The CSA did not preempt Oakland’s permitting scheme “because the permit scheme itself does not violate the Controlled Substances Act, but rather regulates certain entities that do.” The court also ruled that Oakland’s cannabis permitting scheme did not create obstacles to CSA execution because the federal government was free to enforce federal law and the permitting scheme did nothing to prevent that.

Plaintiffs also claimed Oakland’s permitting scheme required they forfeit their Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination by requiring those running Joe’s Hemp to admit they operate a cannabis dispensary, pushing them outside the warehouseman exemption. The court ruled that even if Joe’s Hemp was only storing cannabis, it would fit Oakland’s definition of a dispensary because the city defines an entity that “stores” or “makes available” marijuana as a dispensary. In other words, an Oakland “dispensary” could — in theory — be a warehouse. The court also found that the permit itself did not require that the business actually admit to cultivating or selling marijuana.

In considering the self incrimination issues the court concluded as follows:

In any case, plaintiffs can simply stop their activity and avoid having to admit anything, i.e., get out of the [cannabis] business and avoid any penalties and admissions. If they choose to continue in an activity that is on the borderline of illegal under federal law, then they cannot escape compliance with local police regulation by saying compliance would constitute an admission under the Fifth Amendment.

The court granted the City of Oakland a motion to dismiss and terminated the case. However, Clancy and Joe’s Hemp have appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and we will provide an update if and when the Ninth Circuit issues an opinion on appeal.

 

NOTE: The above is part of our plan to summarize all cannabis civil cases with a published court decision. By civil case, we mean any case that involves cannabis or the cannabis industry that is not a strictly criminal law matter. These cannabis case summaries are intended both to keep you up to date on cannabis laws as interpreted by the courts and also to serve as a resource for anyone conducting cannabis law research. We also will seek to provide key unpublished cannabis law decisions as well, when available.

Cannabis legalization Washington Oregon California

Today is America’s 241st Birthday where we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and our country’s creation. In honor of Independence Day, we’d like to take a moment to celebrate American federalism, which has permitted states to legalize marijuana in light of the federal government’s prohibition.

For the first 161 years after our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, cannabis was legal. That changed in 1937 when the Marihuana Tax Act was signed into law. This Act served as the precursor for including cannabis in the Controlled Substance Act which makes cannabis illegal on the federal level to this day.

In the last twenty years, states have started to push back on the federal government’s prohibition on cannabis. It started when California became the first state to permit the medical use of cannabis in 1996. Now, 29 states and Washington DC permit medical marijuana. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational cannabis. Alaska, California, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Washington DC have all since followed suit, to one degree or another

Federalism allows these states to pass laws that conflict with the federal government’s prohibition. In America, both the federal government and state governments have powers to create laws. This system is fundamental to American government and is rooted in our Constitution. Federalism allows states to experiment with laws without making the entire country subject to the effects of those laws. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to states as “laboratories of democracy” in his dissenting opinion in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann (1932):

To stay experimentation in things social and economic is a grave responsibility. Denial of the right to experiment may be fraught with serious consequences to the nation. It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.

This Fourth of July Americans should celebrate that states are free to enact laws they deem fit, even when those laws are at odds with federal law. We should also celebrate those states like California, Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon that have truly been in the forefront on cannabis legalization.

Our federal system has allowed states to chip away at federal cannabis prohibition and our “courageous States” that have legalized cannabis are laying the groundwork to end federal cannabis prohibition by proving legalization can and does work. States with legal cannabis are models for how the Federal Government can and should legalize and regulate cannabis. For now, we can take a moment on our Independence Day to celebrate cannabis’s progress and to look forward to ending cannabis prohibition at the federal level soon.

 

Cannabis prohibition and stigmaOn July 6, 2016, Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Minnesota. On June 16, 2017, Officer Yanez was acquitted of all charges in the killing of Castile. In the days after the acquittal, authorities released investigative reports, including Officer Yanez’s interview with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BSA) where he stated the following:

 I thought, I was gonna die. And I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five year old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me. And, I let off the rounds and then after the rounds were off, the little girl was screaming.

Before I deal with the cannabis policy issues related to Castile’s death, I have to parse through what Officer Yanez says below as I am truly dumbfounded by it. Officer Yanez essentially says that anyone who smokes cannabis in front of their kid does not care about the life of their kid or about anyone else’s life either. Ponder that for a moment and then realize that if Yanez was telling the truth here (rather than simply mouthing an excuse he concocted after the fact) how ingrained in our society the idea is that people who smoke cannabis are flat out bad people.

Officer Yanez’s interview was released to the public within days of a Stanford Open Policing Project study showing that in Colorado and Washington State, highway patrol searches plummeted significantly after these two states legalized recreational cannabis in 2012. The type of traffic stop that resulted in Castile’s death occurs less frequently in states with legal cannabis.

In both Colorado and Washington, it is still illegal to drive under the influence of cannabis. However, in both states, individuals over the age of twenty-one are permitted to drive with cannabis stored in their cars. In states where cannabis is not legal recreationally, officers performing routine traffic stops may search a car if they suspect it contains cannabis. The decline in traffic stops in Colorado and Washington since 2012 is due in part to the fact that officers can no longer use possession of cannabis as a pretext to stop and search drivers.

The Stanford findings show that police are much more likely to stop African American and Hispanic drivers while driving. This is true in Washington and Colorado as well, though the overall number of stops have decreased substantially. Marijuana use has long been used as a pretext for targeting minority communities. Marijuana was first made illegal at the urging of Harry J. Anslinger, the nation’s first Drug Czar. Anslinger successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which outlawed possessing or selling cannabis. Anslinger used all sorts of racially charged (and wildly inaccurate) testimony as scare tactics to ram through his harshly anti-cannabis agenda. In the years since, minority communities have been targeted by law enforcement for cannabis crimes. A major study by the ACLU in 2010 found African Americans were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people, though data shows that both groups use cannabis at the same rate.

Castile’s death shows how the danger of cannabis can stem from its legal status. Cannabis consumers face no risk of overdose and repeated use does not lead to physical addiction. Compared to other drugs like alcohol and opioids, cannabis is relatively safe. But Castile’s death shows how cannabis use can be deadly so long as it remains illegal.

What happened to Philando Castile was a tragedy and legalizing cannabis will not solve the complicated problems with policing in America. However, at a time when Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to renew the war on drugs, Castile’s killing is a chilling reminder of the human cost of cannabis prohibition and stigma.

Washington State cannabis lawsAs Washington’s cannabis industry continues to develop, marijuana businesses continue to face new challenges. And with an ever growing number of consumers buying and using marijuana the risk of lawsuits against those who produce or sell cannabis keeps growing as well. Under what is called product liability law, manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, retailers, and others who make products available to the public can relatively easily be held liable for any injuries those products cause. Cannabis business owners must be mindful of product liability lawsuits arising from the cannabis products they make or sell.

In Washington State, product liability law is codified in the Washington Product Liability Act (WPLA), which broadly applies to virtually any injury claim resulting from a product covered under this act. The WPLA distinguishes between product manufacturers and non-manufacturer sellers. Washington’s marijuana market is divided between businesses who grow and process cannabis and businesses that sell the product to consumers. Manufacturers, for WPLA purposes, are the licensed producers that grow cannabis and turn that cannabis into edibles, extracts, concentrates, and other marijuana products. Non-manufacturer sellers are retailers that sell marijuana to consumers. A business can hold a license to produce and process marijuana but it cannot also have any ownership interest in a retail business. In turn, a retailer may have not an ownership interest in a cannabis producer or processor.

A product manufacturer is subject to liability under the WPLA if it was negligent or failed to provide proper warnings or instructions or if the product was not designed as reasonably safe. A plaintiff can show negligence by proving the manufacturer owed a duty to the plaintiff, the defendant breached that duty, and the breach caused the plaintiff damages. A plaintiff can prove a manufacturer failed to provide an adequate warning by showing that a product’s warning or instructions were not likely to notify the consumer of the potential harm and the manufacturer could have provided instructions or warnings that would have been adequate. A plaintiff can show that a product was defectively constructed by establishing that “when the product left the control of the manufacturer, the product deviated in some material way from the design specifications or performance standards of the manufacturer, or deviated in some material way from otherwise identical units of the same product line.” Finally, a plaintiff can prove that a product lacked adequate warning and was designed defectively if the product “was unsafe to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer.”

Washington’s robust marijuana regulations may provide producers and processors with some safeguards against claims brought under the WPLA.  Producers and processors may present evidence of compliance with Washington’s extensive cannabis laws and regulations as a defense to a product liability lawsuit. However, compliance with these state law cannabis standards does not automatically bar products liability claims as it is still possible the state required warnings or acceptable standards for growing and processing are inadequate.

Under the WPLA, non-manufacturer sellers can be liable in some scenarios, but simply selling a product that eventually leads to injury does not by itself establish liability. This means that retailers have a lower risk of being subject to product liability than a manufacturer because they do not manufacture the products they sell. However, a retailer may be liable to an injured consumer if the consumer’s harm was caused by the seller’s own negligence by the breach of a warranty made by the seller, or by a seller’s intentional misrepresentation of facts about the product it is selling. A seller may also be liable if there is no financially solvent manufacturer. Because many producers and processors do not have the funds or the insurance to pay off on large (or even not so large) product liability lawsuits, even cannabis retailers in Washington State need to be wary of product liability lawsuits.

Marijuana businesses operators can reduce their product liability risks by doing the following:

  1. Set up your cannabis business so as to protect yourself from personal liability. See Cannabis Businesses And Corporate Separateness and Cannabis Business and Corporate Separateness, Part II
  2. Vet the businesses with which you conduct business and, in particular, seek to ensure they are complying with applicable regulations and industry standards. See Buying a Cannabis Business: The Top Five Due Diligence Items or Buyer Beware.
  3. Draft your contracts so that vendors must indemnify you for any damages arising from their defective product.
  4. Use appropriate packaging and warning labels on the products you sell. See Cannabis Products and Dosing: Educate, Educate, Educate and Label, Label, Label and Pot Puppies? Let’s Talk Labeling and Packaging. NOW.
  5. Get good insurance for your business. The LCB requires cannabis licensees carry and maintain commercial general liability insurance, but you should also consider adding additional insurance to cover potential product liability lawsuits.

1600px-Flag_of_Washington.svgI previously wrote how “change would be coming” to Washington State’s cannabis law were Governor Inslee to sign SB 5131 into law. Governor Inslee has signed SB 5131 and is now set to go into effect on July 23, 2017.

If you hold a license to produce, process, or sell marijuana in Washington, you need to prepare for the legal changes stemming from SB 5131. This post summarizes some key of the key changes you should expect from SB 5131.

Requires disclosure of IP licensing deals. We previously wrote how the passage of SB 5131 would impact cannabis branding and intellectual property transactions and rights because it requires licensed cannabis businesses to disclose their IP licensing deals to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (the LCB).

Restricts advertising by licensees. SB 5131 focuses heavily on advertising. Since passage of Initiative 502, cannabis licensees have been banned from advertising marijuana or marijuana products within 1,000 feet of a school or other sensitive area where children regularly populate. This largely prevented advertising cannabis products by radio, TV, or in publications likely to be heard or distributed in or near schools. This is why you mostly see marijuana advertisements only in publications geared towards adults. SB 5131 extends this cannabis advertising prohibition to include not only cannabis products but cannabis businesses. In other words, cannabis licensees now need to be cautious about advertising their cannabis business in any medium where their ad could end up within 1,000 feet of a sensitive area.

SB 5131 also makes the following changes to advertising:

  • No advertising on cars.  The use of “transit advertisements,” which includes any cannabis advertisement on public or private vehicles, is prohibited.
  • No targeting tourists. Advertisements and marketing practices may not target “persons residing outside of the state of Washington.”
  • 21 plus. All advertising must contain text stating that marijuana products can only be purchased by persons 21 and older.
  • No marketing to kids. Cannabis licensees cannot market to kids and cannot “use objects such as toys or inflatables, movie or cartoon characters, or any other depiction or image likely to be appealing to youth.”
  • No mascots. Cannabis licensees cannot use commercial mascots outside of or near a licensed marijuana business. “Commercial mascots” include humans, animals, or mechanical devices used to draw attention to a business, and specifically includes inflatable tube displays, persons in costumes, and sign spinners.
  • Limited outdoor advertisements. Outdoor advertisements are limited to only text that identifies the “retail outlet by the licensee’s business or trade name, states the location of the business, and identifies the type or nature of the business.”
  • Limited indoor advertisements. Indoor advertisements are only permitted in facilities where minors are not permitted, such as bars. Under SB 5131, cannabis advertising is explicitly prohibited in arenas, stadiums, shopping malls, state fairs, farmers markets, and arcades.
  • No billboard advertising, except by retailers. Retailers will be the only cannabis licensees permitted to use billboards, but like all outdoor advertising, they too may only include text identifying the name, location, and the nature of their business on these billboards.

Allows ownership of five retail stores.  SB 5131 will allow individuals to possess an ownership interest in five retail stores. up from three under current law. Existing retailers may (and no doubt will) be able to purchase other licensed retailers and rebrand them with their own name and open new storefronts under their already established name.

Changes for producers & processors. Though medical marijuana patients in Washington are already permitted to grow cannabis in their homes for personal use and may form a collective to grow medical cannabis together there has been no legal means for medical patients to buy cannabis plants because cannabis producers were prohibited from selling cannabis to individuals who did not hold a license to produce, process, or sell marijuana. SB 5131 changes this by allowing “qualified medical marijuana patients and designated providers to purchase immature plants, clones, or seeds from a licensed producer.” This means cannabis producers can now legally sell immature plants, clones, and seeds to medical marijuana patients. However, “to purchase plants or clones, the patients and providers must hold a recognition card and be entered in the medical marijuana authorization database.” Patients that choose not to enter Washington State’s medical marijuana database cannot obtain a recognition card and may only purchase seeds. Though SB 5131 goes into place July 23, the LCB will likely need time to create rules and implement this program.

SB 5131 requires the LCB to adopt regulations for designating cannabis as organic similar to the federal the “organic” classification granted pursuant to federal regulations. Since cannabis is illegal under federal law, it cannot qualify under federal standards for organic certification. Cannabis producers and processors who choose to comply with Washington State organic standards can market their cannabis products as compliant with the LCB’s organic-style regulations.

SB 5131 also tasks the LCB with studying the viability of allowing processors to process industrial hemp. Under current Washington State law, processors may only process cannabis material grown by a producer. SB 5131 will not change this. However, depending on the results of the LCB’s study, processors could eventually be allowed to process hemp products grown by Washington farmers with permits to grow industrial hemp.

Washington marijuana businesses for years have faced a very robust set of rules and laws. SB 5131 only adds to the Evergreen State’s complex regulatory framework. Though businesses may view these regulations as overly burdensome, compliance is not optional and come July 23, SB 5131 will be the law of the land. Washington marijuana businesses should do all they can now to avoid pitfalls after July 23.