In Joe Hemp’s First Hemp Bank and Distribution Network v. City of Oakland, a 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.