Oakland cannabis regulationsTuesday night, in a continuation of more than ten months of contentious debate and revisions, the Oakland City Council revisited and reargued the terms of its yet-to-be-implemented Equity Permit program for cannabis businesses. The program aims to address inequity in the local cannabis industry by prioritizing permit issuance to those with roots in certain identified Oakland neighborhoods that have been historically impacted by disproportionate drug law enforcement, and to members of the Oakland community that have been arrested and convicted of cannabis crimes in Oakland in the last 20 years. The law moves qualifying Equity Applicants to the front of the cannabis permitting line, and it also creates access to approximately $3.4 million in earmarked interest-free business loans and other assistance.

The law was first introduced in May 2016, but in response to community concern about how it might affect the local economy, the City Council commissioned an extensive race and equity analysis of medical cannabis regulations and scheduled another vote for early 2017. Among the most jarring of the City Council’s findings was that over the past 20 years, African Americans, particularly those living within certain Oakland police beats, have been dramatically and consistently overrepresented in cannabis-related arrests, reaching as high as 90% of all cannabis arrests in the late nineties.

Two weeks ago, the Oakland City Council approved a last-minute amendment to the program mandating that any general (non-Equity) applicant must have lived in Oakland for at least three years to get a cannabis business permit. Because Equity Applicants must already demonstrate residency and a past connection with Oakland, this amendment would have effectively placed a residency restriction on all new or existing cannabis businesses. After a motion passed 6-2 Tuesday night removing the residency requirement for general applicants, the current version (which still requires another Council vote to become law) provides that, when issuing permits for any kind of cannabis business, the City must give half (i.e. maintain a 1-to-1 ratio) of all permits issued in its initial issuance phase to “Equity Applicants,” defined as Oakland residents with an annual income at or less than 80% of the City average and who either lived in certain defined Oakland police beats for 10 of the last 20 years, or who have been convicted of a cannabis crime committed in Oakland within the last 20 years. Tuesday night’s motion also requires dispensary staff be at least 50% Oakland residents with at least half of those residents from areas identified as having high unemployment or low household incomes.

Though Oakland’s Equity Permit program has garnered praise for its stated policies and goals, it also has generated controversy—as illustrated by the lively hearing Tuesday night—particularly due to its now-withdrawn general residency requirement. Some questioned its efficacy in achieving the City’s goals, while others argued that it would benefit the City by requiring that Oakland cannabis business permits go only to those living in Oakland. The proposed residency requirement would have jeopardized any existing cannabis businesses that could not meet the residency requirement, regardless of how many jobs or how much tax revenue those entities were contributing to the local economy.

Though it is unclear what the ordinance will look like in its final form, and though the residency requirements were relaxed by Tuesday night’s revision, a residency requirement remains for Equity Applicants and dispensary staff. Because the City of Oakland intends to issue only eight cannabis dispensary licenses per year (excluding delivery-only operations), an aggrieved party may challenge the ordinance for favoring longtime residents of certain Oakland neighborhoods at the expense of newer Oakland residents and those living in other neighborhoods, or even for favoring Oaklanders over out-of-towners. Some who spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting explained how, despite having lived all of their lives in Oakland, but not in one of the identified neighborhoods or having lived in a historically disadvantaged neighborhood but not for long enough or having been forced to move out of Oakland after many years because of gentrification, they would not qualify as Equity Applicants. It is these sorts of presumably unintended consequences of the residency requirements that could lead to the program getting bogged down in legal challenges.

The Equity Permit Program’s express preference for Oakland residents over out-of-towners, as an element of its greater approach to addressing longstanding systemic racial disparity in cannabis enforcement, raises some important legal issues. We have previously touched on the constitutionality of residency requirements and the potential difficulties presented by California’s own residency requirement in Proposition 64, such as access to funding from out-of-state investors—a challenge that has been somewhat ameliorated by Oakland withdrawing its requirement that majority ownership and control of cannabis permittees must be strictly City residents.

The Privileges and Immunities Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Dormant Commerce Clause generally prevent states from discriminating against residents of other states. When a state or local government enacts legislation that facially discriminates against nonresidents, reviewing courts will ask whether the government has a “substantial reason” for the difference in treatment, and whether the law is “closely related” to that rationale. But because cannabis is federally illegal, constitutional claims would likely be a stretch.

As California rolls out its new regulations under the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), it will be important to watch how those laws address a state licensee’s right to do business within the state, and how local regulations interact with state law. Though the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA) requires local government approval before a state license can issue, the AUMA does not, but the AUMA does allow localities to enact their own regulations so long as they do not conflict with state law. It remains uncertain how the AUMA will apply to a state-licensed cannabis entity seeking to conduct business in Oakland if that entity is unable to obtain a business license from Oakland because of its residency requirements. We will be tracking the rollout of California’s new regulations and how the interplay between the state and localities like Oakland will affect cannabis businesses and the state’s soon-to-be massive regulated cannabis economy.

Editor’s Note: Daniel recently joined our firm as an attorney in our San Francisco office, where he will be focusing on mostly California cannabis real estate and dispute resolution issues.

Oregon cannabis lawyersOregon lawmakers are considering legislation to protect Oregon cannabis consumers and patients against potential federal government enforcement actions. Proposed legislation, Senate Bill 863, would require marijuana retailers to purge patients’ personally identifiable information and would prohibit dispensaries from “record[ing] and retain[ing]” such information. This bill seeks to shield individual cannabis patients and consumers from federal authorities by eliminating a potentially damning piece of evidence. Oregon dispensaries currently keep much of this information, in contrast to other states where purges are commonplace by law or custom.

SB 863 defines “information that may be used to identify a consumer” to include information found on a consumer’s passport, driver’s license, or other identification document.” The information is protected whether it is on a physical copy of the identifying document or stored otherwise, such as in a customer database. Though dispensaries may collect aggregate non-identifying information, the bill would make it unlawful for dispensaries to “record or “retain” individual customer data. The legislation would further limit the spread of personally identifiable information by prohibiting dispensaries from requiring customers to produce any other form of identification.

In addition to preventing the recording of personally identifying information, the bill would also prohibit transferring any personally identifying information in the dispensary’s possession. On its face, this would appear to prevent dispensaries from cooperating with federal enforcement against customers, though it remains to be seen whether a state law requiring something like this would hold up in a federal court.

What personally identifying information does the bill not cover? The bill does not cover other forms of record-keeping that could contain personally identifying information. For instance, the bill would not prevent dispensaries from retaining recorded security footage that could include recognizable images of its customers or from capturing license plate numbers of cars coming and going from the parking lot. The bill also would not cover information received incident to credit and debit card-based transactions.

What about data retained for marketing purposes? A dispensary may record and retain the name and contact information of a consumer for the purpose of notifying them of products, services, discounts, etc. if the consumers gives informed consent. Even then, however, the dispensary may not transfer the information to another person — good news for those wary of their personal data being sold to third party marketers.

Will the bill pass? It seems likely some form of the bill will succeed and our Oregon cannabis lawyers are predicting passage. SB 863 enjoys bipartisan support and lawmakers are moving quickly to consider the proposal. Of course, the bill may change significantly as it gets through committee.

The next action on the bill should come this week of March 20, so keep an eye on this fast-moving issue.

Cannabis tax lawyer 280EWhen folks in the medical and adult use marijuana industries hear “280E,” they tent to shudder since they know it means a large protion of their revenues will be going to the IRS without the usual deductions. However, just this week, Grover Norquist, a GOP political advocate and the well-known president of Americans for Tax Reform (which favors repealing 280E), opined that our GOP-led Congress may enact sweeping tax reform this year that would reduce the stress of 280E on state-legal marijuana businesses by lowering corporate income tax rates.

In case you missed it, 280E is the provision of the Internal Revenue Code creates such an onerous tax burden for cannabis businesses because it provides as follows:

“No deduction or credit shall be allowed for any amount paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business if such trade or business (or the activities which comprise such trade or business) consists of trafficking in controlled substances (within the meaning of schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act) which is prohibited by Federal law or the law of any State in which such trade or business is conducted.”

Congress passed 280E in 1982 in response to a Tax Court ruling that a taxpayer could deduct expenses relating to his sales of cocaine, amphetamine, and marijuana. Deductible expenses included the costs of packaging, travel, and even scales used to weigh the illegal substances. This is no longer possible in the world of 280E.

Since cannabis is a Schedule I controlled substance, the IRS uses 280E to disallow marijuana businesses from deducting their ordinary and necessary business expenses. The result is that marijuana companies — regardless of their legality under state law –face higher federal tax rates than similar companies in other industries. There are differing opinions on the level of tax rates imposed on marijuana companies – from 40% to 70% to as high as 90% – all of which are higher than the 35% corporate tax rate paid by most other businesses in the United States.

But if Norquist’s predictions are accurate, there may be a bit of light at the end of the 280E tunnel for cannabis businesses. though if Norquist’s predictions are accurate. In an interview with MJ Business Daily, Norquist stated:

There’s a big tax bill this year – the tax reform package that takes corporate rates to 20% – which solves some of the problem for marijuana producers because now you’re paying 20% on all your sales instead of 35%. But we still need to get normal and reasonable and legal deductions made legal and normal for the marijuana industry, as well as for all other industries. Marijuana could get into that package if some of the libertarian Republicans made that a condition of voting for the whole package.

*  *  *  *

So, as we build support for a fix, we need to build support state by state, where we say, “Look, you don’t want federal tax law used to gut the effectiveness of federalism. Because you could say something can be legal at the state level, but if the federal government is going to tax it into oblivion, you really haven’t allowed federalism at all.

Norquist then went on to predict these tax law changes will occur within the “next few years.” Though our cannabis tax lawyers do see cannabis tax changes coming, they are less confident than Norquist on timing. There has been no successful standalone 280E fix bill in Congress and the current presidential administration’s back and forth policies on marijuana legalization make predicting such federal action difficult. But with legalization in California and marijuana reform in 28 other states and more coming soon, the odds of Congress rectifying this tax situation are increasing. We cannot and should not expect favorable 280E changes from either the Tax Court or the IRS unless and until Congress mandates such changes. It is therefore good to know that such changes are at least on the table.

Cannabis lawyersJust about whenever Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks, the cannabis industry panics. Stop it people.

This week Jeff Sessions gave an interview where he was asked about possibly using the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to tackle legal marijuana. The media (the cannabis media in particular) have covered that interview as though it sets forth a roadmap for federal cannabis policy. And since that interview, probably every single cannabis lawyer at my law firm (in California, Washington and Oregon) has received at least one client call seeking an opinion on it.

Stop it everyone. Just stop it. Really. Sessions didn’t do anything in this interview but muse about a seldom used federal statute.

In this interview, Sessions hinted that he might be open to using RICO to pursue cannabis businesses in cannabis legal states:

INTERVIEWER: One RICO prosecution against one marijuana retailer in one state that has so-called legalization ends this façade and this flaunting of the Supremacy Clause. Will you be bringing such a case?

SESSIONS: We will, marijuana is against federal law, and that applies in states where they may have repealed their own anti-marijuana laws. So yes, we will enforce law in an appropriate way nationwide. It’s not possible for the federal government, of course, to take over everything the local police used to do in a state that’s legalized it. And I’m not in favor of legalization of marijuana. I think it’s a more dangerous drug than a lot of people realize. I don’t think we’re going to be a better community if marijuana is sold in every corner grocery store.

Of course he might be open to using RICO to pursue federal criminal law violations by cannabis businesses. I actually do not believe Attorney Generals Holder and Lynch, who were the Attorney Generals during the Obama Administration) would have answered this question substantively much differently. You are not going to get an Attorney General to say, “yes, we have this really important law on the books, but nobody worry because we will never enforce it. Just go ahead and violate it.” Really?

And if you listen to the entire interview here, you will hear Sessions poo-poo the benefits of bringing a RICO action against state-legal cannabis businesses:

INTERVIEWER: [I]t would literally take one racketeering influence corrupt organization prosecution to take all the money from one retailer, and the message would be sent. I mean, if you want to send that message, you can send it. Do you think you’re going to send it?

SESSIONS: Well, we’ll be evaluating how we want to handle that. I think it’s a little more complicated than one RICO case, I’ve got to tell you. This — places like Colorado — it’s just sprung up a lot of different independent entities that are moving marijuana. And it’s also being moved interstate, not just in the home state.

RICO was designed to pursue the mafia and other organized crime groups. RICO provides powerful criminal and civil penalties against people who engage in a “pattern of racketeering activity” and have a relationship to an “enterprise.” “Racketeering activity” includes roughly a hundred different offenses, including violations of the Controlled Substances Act. A “pattern” is established when an offense occurs more than one time in a given statutorily defined time period. An “enterprise” includes any individual, partnership, corporation, association, or other legal entity, and any group of individuals associated together even if they are not in a formal business relationship.

The broad interpretation of “enterprise” means that on a technical legal basis, RICO could pose a significant risk to cannabis businesses. The production and sale of cannabis is prohibited by the CSA and, therefore, regular sales of cannabis could serve as the predicate offense for a RICO charge and all those involved with legal cannabis sales, including vendors, contractors, landlords, lawyers, accountants, and even state officials could arguably be in an enterprise engaging in illegal activity.

But nobody should panic about this, not even close. RICO is a powerful but seldom used tool and that is because both prosecutors and judges view it as a very powerful weapon that should only be used in limited circumstances. The RICO statute has been around since 1970 and I cannot recall a single cannabis case having been brought under it. I am not saying there has never been such a case, but I am saying that it has been used sparingly in dealing with cannabis, if at all, including during Nixon’s “War on Drugs” and Reagan’s “Just Say No” administrations. In this same interview Sessions noted that the federal government has limited resources and it cannot simply commandeer local police forces to pursue RICO charges against cannabis users. RICO cases take a massive amount of effort to prosecute criminally and apparently not even Jeff (“good people don’t smoke cannabis“) Sessions deems this would be money and time well spent.

It also bears mentioning that a few years ago, some private citizens brought RICO claims against marijuana businesses and non-cannabis businesses alleged to have been operating in concert to sell cannabis. As we wrote here, the federal court dismissed those claims.

There is though one important thing cannabis businesses should take from this interview. Sessions is concerned about cannabis businesses that move marijuana from state to state. Note how he brings this up when he says: “it’s also being moved interstate, not just in the home state.” This IS important. The states are mostly in charge of prosecuting criminal activities that happen entirely within their own state borders. A robber in Portland or Seattle or San Francisco will almost certainly be prosecuted by state-city prosecutors; but a robber who brings stolen goods from Seattle to San Francisco could very well be prosecuted federally. The same has always been true of illegal drugs, including cannabis. If you are caught with weed in Newton, Iowa, you risk city or state prosecution. But if you are caught transporting cannabis from Iowa to Illinois, you risk federal prosecution.

So if you want to panic based on this Jeff Sessions interview, you should if you are planning to transport cannabis across state lines. The federal government has never liked interstate cannabis transport and it has always made this clear, as have we, in the following posts:

In Marijuana Law Myths. Not Everything Changes With Legalization, in Myth #2, we explain why it is so dangerous to fall for the myth that you can legally transport cannabis from one legal state to another and why this myth is so dangerous:

2. Now that marijuana is legal in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, it is legal to sell Washington-grown marijuana in all three states. We hear this one ALL the time, mostly from marijuana businesses that intend to do this, believing it to be legal. It isn’t and please, please do not do this, unless you want to go to federal prison. The same holds true for Washington D.C., where marijuana was just legalized. You cannot just take your “legal” marijuana there and start selling it.

Taking legal pot across ANY state borders by boat or by car or by air is a big deal as it amounts to unlawful interstate drug trafficking.

More importantly, taking marijuana from one marijuana legal state to another is a federal crime. Marijuana is still a Schedule I Controlled Substance. The U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the authority to regulate interstate commerce. This means that it can (and does) prosecute people for transporting marijuana across state lines, even if the transport is from one marijuana legal state jurisdiction to another.

We are not saying that you should expect FBI agents to be sitting at the borders waiting to arrest people for going from one state to another with marijuana, but this is to say that traveling from state to state with marijuana is not advised, particularly by boat or by airplane. More importantly, a business plan that assumes this is legal is a business plan that will set you up to fail, especially if you publicly reveal that your business does this.

This is also a good time to remind you that if you are going to drive from state to state, clear out your cars, your boats, your airplanes, your clothes and your luggage before going from a cannabis legal state to one that is not. State troopers in states like Nebraska, Kansas, and Idaho (and even Nevada where cannabis is legal for medical us but not recreational) love making easy money by arresting and fining people entering with marijuana from Colorado and Washington.

Transporting a Schedule I Controlled Substance, including marijuana, across any state line is a federal felony. This is the case even if your medical marijuana patient card is honored in the next state over, and even if you are moving between jurisdictions that have legalized recreational marijuana. Keep and consume your cannabis in the state where you purchased it, or you run the risk of federal criminal charges for transporting a controlled substance.

So yeah, moving cannabis across state lines (yes, even from one cannabis legal state to another) is a really bad idea.

Oh, and one more thing, many (even some in the cannabis industry) are acting as though one RICO case would do what this interviewer says and “send the message” to all those in the cannabis industry to terminate all their employees and shut down their state-legal cannabis businesses. In other words, many are acting as though one RICO claim would be “lights out” for legalized cannabis all across the country.

This is absurd. The federal government has been trying to shut down cannabis for more than one hundred years, and for much of that time, it had overwhelming popular support for doing so. Today though, the majority of Americans favor legalization and those numbers keep getting better. Were the federal government to pursue “just one” RICO claim, it would likely be against a really large cannabis business that transported cannabis across state lines and I do not believe such a lawsuit would lead to a single state-legal cannabis business shutting down. If anything, it would be more likely to galvanize our country to legalize cannabis once and for all.

So please, nobody panic.

Oregon cannabis lawyersOur Oregon office forms three or four cannabis companies per week. Our Washington office has formed hundreds of these businesses in the past four or five years, and our California office has seen a major uptick in company formation work since AUMA passed last fall. Though every state brings unique considerations for entity choice and structuring, most of these businesses (outside California) end up registering as either LLCs or C-corps. And most of them involve owners who bring different things to the table.

The most common example of differing contributions comes when one person brings skill and labor to the table, while another brings cash. The “sweat equity” partner may have expertise and relationships related to production or processing of cannabis, for example, while the traditional equity partner has the ability to immediately fund the marijuana business. In a classic scenario, these two individuals come to one of our cannabis business lawyers and say they would like to own the business “50/50”, or thereabouts. This raises some serious tax implications for the sweat equity partner.

The Internal Revenue Code values capital over labor, especially when that labor constitutes future services a person will contribute to a business in exchange for ownership. From the IRS’ perspective, if Party A contributes $100,000 in cash to an LLC or corporation, and gives a 50% interest to Party B (for a sweat equity contribution), the IRS will also value Party B’s interest at $100,000. Unfortunately, Party B will have to pay tax on that income, which is sometimes referred to as “phantom income.”

The following are a few of the more common ways to deal with phantom income in a situation where one member of a cannabis business provides the capital, and the other provides services:

Vesting. It is possible to have the sweat equity partner’s interest vest over time, through options allocated to that partner under a shareholder or operating agreement. The sweat equity partner will purchase and pay for his or her equity through distributions or dividends earned as an owner of the company. The vesting schedule here is very important. If the schedule is too long, the value of the membership (and the amount payable) may increase. If the schedule is too short, repayment may not be viable.

Company Loan. Often, the partner without cash at the onset will issue a promissory note to the company. Here, the sweat equity partner is acknowledging having received a valuable interest in the company, for which he or she owes a debt. The promissory note can be made with a commercially reasonable repayment period and interest rate, and the member can pay down the note with income received from the company. It is important to remember, though, that the note payments will be made from taxable income. This is simply a way to extend the tax hit over time.

Owner Loan. Sometimes, neither partner will contribute a sizable amount of cash up front. Instead, both partners will contribute a nominal amount, like $1,000, and the partner with cash will make a loan to the LLC. This option should be considered carefully, for a couple of reasons. First, from a tax liability perspective, the IRS may consider a company with a debt to equity ratio over 3:1 or 4:1 to be “thinly capitalized” and subject to scrutiny. From a legal liability perspective, an undercapitalized company may leave its owners open to vicarious liability on a “piercing the corporate veil” theory.

The above are simplified, high-level summaries of common methods lawyers and CPAs use to deal with phantom income in cannabis start-ups. It is important to note that each situation is unique and depends on a variety of factors. It is also important to note that sweat equity is not the only way phantom income is created in cannabis companies. Almost all pot companies have some amount of phantom income due to IRC 280, for example. That rule alone is a crucial business planning consideration for every marijuana entrepreneur.

Legal and tax structuring are critical decisions that can determine whether a marijuana venture succeeds or fails. Learning to look out for phantom income is key part of this analysis. That’s true for both sweat equity and cash investors — especially in this unique and highly dynamic industry.

tenth-amendmentYesterday, we wrote about the various ways that enforcement of federal cannabis laws could ensue, if the current administration were bullheaded enough to attempt such a thing. The day before, we wrote about the Washington State Attorney General’s promise to fight any potential enforcement action. Today, we offer a brief primer on what rights the states may have to uphold their medical and recreational marijuana programs in the face of federal enforcement action. The answers may surprise you.

As a baseline matter, it is imperative to note that Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution declares that federal law is “the supreme law of the land,” preempting conflicting state laws. This means—and courts have confirmed—that if the federal government wants to enforce its draconian marijuana laws by targeting specific actors, it can, and states cannot stand in the way. However, if the federal government wants to force states to shut down their marijuana programs, or to use state resources to enforce federal law, it probably cannot.

The constitutional question that will determine the outcome of any lawsuit to invalidate state cannabis laws, whether for medical or recreational marijuana programs, is whether those state laws impermissibly conflict with the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Another way of asking this would be: “Does the federal CSA ‘preempt’ state cannabis programs?” Given the plain language of the CSA, we think the answer is “no.”

Section 903 of the CSA includes express anti-preemption language:

No provision of this subchapter shall be construed as indicating an intent on the part of Congress to occupy the field in which that provision operates, including criminal penalties, to the exclusion of any State law on the same subject matter which would otherwise be within the authority of the State, unless there is a positive conflict between that provision of this subchapter and the State law so that the two cannot consistently stand together. (Our bold emphasis.)

What would a “positive conflict” with state law be? It may sound funny, but a positive conflict might consist of a state law requiring a citizen or state official to possess or distribute marijuana. Such a law would almost certainly violate the CSA. But, state marijuana programs that only permit individuals to traffic in federally controlled substances—because states do not proscribe them—make no such requirement. Think about it: anyone in Oregon, Washington, California, or any other state with a cannabis program, is free to ignore these state programs and follow federal law.

This begs the question as to whether the federal government could require states to shut down their programs, and assist in enforcing its horrible laws. Again, we think the answer is “no.” The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution serves as a constitutional check to the Supremacy Clause. The Tenth Amendment provides that the federal government cannot “commandeer” states by forcing them to enact laws in the federal interest, or to enforce federal laws whatsoever. In the context of cannabis, this means that neither Congress nor any federal actor can require states to enact or maintain laws prohibiting the cultivation, distribution or intra-state sale of pot.

The upshot here is that the Tenth Amendment, coupled with the express, anti-preemption language of the federal CSA, grants the states authority to run cannabis programs. This paradigm gives the states a strong argument in any potential lawsuit by the feds seeking to shutter those programs. Thus, the extremely tall and unpopular task of chasing state-approved pot merchants, would be left to the resource-poor federal government. And if the federal government really wants to go there, well, we’re in for another kind of fight.

California cannabis lawyerLast week, California lawmakers introduced a new bill to increase protections for California cannabis businesses from federal persecution. The timing couldn’t be better as a new president and incoming federal administration have many in the cannabis industry concerned about the future of legal marijuana in the United States.

California Assembly Bill 1578 would prohibit California state and local agencies from taking certain actions and assisting federal agencies in enforcing federal law against marijuana businesses for medical or recreational cannabis activities authorized under California law.

The prohibited activities would include:

  1. Using agency money, facilities, property, equipment, or personnel to assist a federal agency to investigate, detain, detect, report, or arrest a person for commercial or noncommercial marijuana or medical cannabis activity authorized by law in the State of California.
  2. Responding to a request made by a federal agency for personal information about an individual who is authorized to possess, cultivate, transport, manufacture, sell, or possess for sale marijuana or marijuana products or medical cannabis or medical cannabis products, if that request is made for the purpose of investigating or enforcing federal marijuana law.
  3. Providing information about a person who has applied for or received a license to engage in commercial marijuana or commercial medical cannabis activity pursuant to MCRSA or AUMA.
  4. Transferring an individual to federal law enforcement authorities for purposes of marijuana enforcement or detain an individual at the request of federal law enforcement for conduct legal under state law.

State and local agencies would only be allowed to take these actions if they receive a court order signed by a judge. Thus, AB 1578 would protect California cannabis businesses that are operating legally in the state from being handed over to federal law enforcement unless a judicial exception is made.

The bill is similar to other legislation proposed by California lawmakers and signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown in September of last year. In Assembly Bill 2679, California lawmakers provided guidance for cannabis manufacturers currently operating in the state to increase their protection against misguided raids by local law enforcement. Then, under Senate Bill 443, California lawmakers revised the state’s asset forfeiture laws to reduce the risk of unfair property seizure by state and local law enforcement. SB 443 prohibits state and local law enforcement from transferring property seized under state law to a federal agency and also requires state agencies obtain a criminal conviction to receive a share of federally seized property or to recover their expenses.

If approved and signed into law, AB 1578 would be a good step to ensuring California cannabis businesses and consumers that the state of California is behind them and that it will not allow the federal government to interfere with their licensed and compliant cannabis businesses, at least not by providing the help of any state or local agencies.

Marijuana Cannabis and the DEA

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has made many a dubious claim about cannabis over the years. For this reason and countless others, our cannabis lawyers have consistently called to disband the DEA, believing it past the point where it can be redeemed. The good news it that the DEA took a hit last week for having posted false claims about cannabis.

In December 2016, the nonprofit medical marijuana advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) formally requested the DEA either remove or correct misinformation regarding cannabis on the DEA’s website. ASA made its claims under the federal Information Quality Act, which ensures “the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by Federal agencies.” ASA contends that the DEA failed to meet the Information Act’s and the ASA’s executive director explained why it was challenging the DEA on its inaccurate marijuana claims:

For years, the DEA has published scientifically inaccurate information about the health effects of medical cannabis, directly influencing the action —and inaction— of Congress. We are simply taking the DEA’s own statements, which confirm scientific facts about medical cannabis, and analysis that has long been accepted by a majority of the scientific community. Our request is simple: the DEA must change its public information to better comport with its own expressed views, so that Congress has access to the appropriate tools to make informed decisions about public health. Alternatively, ASA requests that the DEA simply remove the inaccurate statements or the documents in their entirety.

ASA’s take-down request focused on “The Dangers and Consequences of Marijuana Abuse,” an article available on the DEA’s website that contained 25 allegedly inaccurate statements, including the following:

  • “Marijuana use can worsen depression and lead to more serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, anxiety, and even suicide.”
  •  “Marijuana takes the risks of tobacco and raises them. Marijuana smoke contains more than 400 chemicals and increases the risk of serious health consequences, including lung damage.”
  • “Teens who experiment with marijuana may be making themselves more vulnerable to heroin addiction later in life, if the findings from experiments with rats are any indication.”

The ASA pointed out that the DEA itself had contradicted many of these 25 claims in a DEA report from August 2016 on its decision not to initiate proceedings to reschedule marijuana, including the following:

  • “At present, the available data do not suggest a causative link between marijuana use and the development of psychosis.”
  • “The HHS concluded that new evidence suggests that the effects of smoking marijuana on respiratory function and cancer are different from the effects of smoking tobacco.”
  • “The HHS cited several studies where marijuana use did not lead to other illicit drug use. Two separate longitudinal studies with adolescents using marijuana did not demonstrate an association with use of other illicit drugs.”

By using the DEA’s own research against it, ASA forced the DEA into a corner where it had to either disavow its August 2016 report or admit that its website was incorrect. By removing the offending page, the DEA chose the latter.

Count one for the good guys.

 

Cannabis regulatory lawyersOur cannabis regulatory lawyers are in the midst of a few different administrative cases right now dealing with violations of marijuana regulations. In Washington State, the Liquor and Cannabis Board treats its regulatory mandates as “strict liability” rules. This means the onus is on the cannabis business to comply, and a business that violates a regulatory mandate is liable even if it did absolutely everything it could have done to prevent the violation. This sort of strict liability for violating cannabis-focused regulations is fairly common across the country and is just another example of how cannabis businesses even in cannabis-legal states are treated differently from other businesses.

The theory behind strict liability for regulatory violations is that businesses are best positioned to make sure violations do not occur. Businesses need to pony up as many resources as it takes to prevent violations. This strict liability is opposed to a negligence standard, where if the business is found to have acted with reasonable care to comply with the rules, it would not be found liable.

The problem with strict liability, however, is that it can be unfair to businesses that try to have reasonable compliance programs but still slip up. There is no way to prevent employees from flouting the rules from time to time. It happens at every regulated business throughout the country. Employees often see compliance measures as a hindrance to getting their jobs done, and they look for workarounds. But in a strict liability system, a business whose employee violates a compliance program is treated the same as a business that didn’t have any compliance program at all. There is a certain unfairness to that.

The goal of any regulatory agency should be for businesses to have maximum compliance, and the best way to do that is to encourage self-policing. This is why most federal agencies have dedicated programs for regulatory compliance, self-policing, and self-reporting, where penalties against businesses are greatly reduced or even waived if the business follows certain compliance steps.

Washington State voters mandated the State implement this sort of favoritism for liquor merchants “that try” when it passed Initiative 1183, privatizing liquor sales. Under that program, Washington liquor sellers that implement specific best practices to avoid selling liquor to minors will face reduced and deferred penalties if they accidentally make such a sale. Regulatory partnerships like this benefit businesses by giving them guidelines on how to operate and they also benefit the public as a whole as they will lead to fewer overall sales to minors because businesses are so incentivized to implement effective programs.

For marijuana in Washington, the best that cannabis businesses can rely on are that the regulations allow the Liquor and Cannabis Board to reduce penalties if a cannabis business with violations can demonstrate that its business policies and/or practices will reduce the risk of future violations. And though mitigation like this is helpful, it is not the same as a standardized compliance program responsible companies can join to get across the board penalty mitigation.

Marijuana businesses should band together to demand such a “voluntary” compliance program. As everyone knows, regulatory costs for cannabis businesses are high, and even the most compliant cannabis company will have employee slip-ups or regulatory misunderstandings from time to time. The competitive aspect is also key; so long as cannabis compliance program guidelines are not set across the board, businesses will try to comply with the rules at the lowest cost, to the detriment of the compliance programs. Setting up minimum compliance guidelines will allow participating cannabis businesses to know their competitors are either on the same playing field as they are, or that they are risking harsher penalties for not being part of the voluntary compliance program. It’s a win-win for compliant cannabis businesses and for the state. Yet no matter what sort of state-law program to which your cannabis business is subject, it pays to constantly self-audit your company to work towards full compliance. See Understanding and Managing Cannabis Legal Compliance and Cannabis Compliance Audits.

What are you seeing out there? What are your thoughts on all of this?

Cannabis regulatory lawyersIn December 2016, the DEA issued a rule defining “Marihuana Extracts” to include extracts “containing one or more cannabinoids from any plant of the genus Cannabis.” This rule went into effect on January 13, 2017. That same day, The Hemp Industry Association, Centuria Natural Foods Inc., and RMH Holdings LLC filed a petition with the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit challenging that DEA rule.

The Controlled Substances Act is a federal law that determines what substances are illegal drugs. Congress authorized the Department of Justice to add and remove substances to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and the DOJ has delegated that authority to the DEA. The DEA promulgated the “Marihuana Extract” rule pursuant to that grant of authority, meaning that products the DEA defines as fitting the “Marihuana Extract” definition are illegal substances.

Rules can have a similar effect as laws but if a rule conflicts with a law, the law will prevail. In other words, Congressional laws that conflict with a DEA rule should outweigh the DEA rules. The Petitioners who are appealing the DEA rule are arguing that the “Marihuana Extract” rule outlaws parts of the cannabis plant that Congress specifically made legal in the CSA and in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Congress placed marijuana on Schedule I of the CSA and defined it to include all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., except the mature stalks of the plant and seeds incapable of germination. Stalks and products derived from those stalks are not illegal because they are not marijuana. This distinction allowed for legal production of hemp products even though marijuana remains federally illegal. The 2014 Farm Bill also allows states to implement programs to legally grow industrial hemp. “Industrial hemp” is defined to mean “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

Prior to the “Marihuana Extract” rule, only one cannabinoid was explicitly named in Schedule I of the CSA: THC which is known for causing marijuana’s euphoric “high.” Other cannabinoids, like CBD, were not specifically prohibited. This meant products derived from mature stalks of cannabis that did not contain THC were arguably legal as no part of that product was prohibited by the CSA. Now those same products are illegal because they contain other cannabinoids that are now defined as controlled substances according to the “Marihuana Extract” definition. The definition also applies to industrial hemp grown pursuant to the Farm Bill. The Petitioners who are appealing to the Ninth Circuit argue that the DEA’s rule is inconsistent with the CSA and the Farm Bill and that the court should therefore find the rule invalid.

Petitioners also argue that the DEA failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act in creating this rule. In addition to complying with the CSA, the DEA must also follow the Administrative Procedure Act, which essentially sets forth the procedures governmental bodies must follow in enacting new rules. The Petitioners argue that under the APA the “Marihuana Extract” rule invalid as it:

  • Is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with other law (such as the Farm Bill and the CSA);
  • Is unconstitutional;
  • Exceeds the DEA’s statutory authority; and
  • Was created without following necessary procedures.

This is not the first time the DEA has faced legal challenges for interfering with legal hemp. In 2001-2003 the DEA attempted to treat hemp food products as Schedule I substances because they contained trace amounts of THC. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the presence of THC does not alone make a product a controlled substance. Petitioners plan to use this ruling to assert that cannabinoids that occur in legal portions of the cannabis plant are not controlled by the CSA and may not be regulated as marijuana by the DEA.

Since the DEA issued this rule my firm’s cannabis regulatory lawyers have received a daily stream of calls from businesses wanting to know whether the CBD products they are producing, selling or buying are now illegal. Specifically, most of these callers want to know whether products containing CBD that are derived from hemp and do not contain THC are still legal. At this point, the jury (or really the judge) is still out and we — like everyone else — will be waiting to see how the courts rule.