California Cannabis laws: Yuba CountyCalifornia has 58 counties and 482 incorporated cities across the state, each with the option to create its own rules or ban marijuana altogether. In this California Cannabis Countdown series, we plan to cover who is banning, who is waiting, and who is embracing California’s change to legalize marijuana — permits, regulations, taxes and all. For each city and county, we’ll discuss its location, history with cannabis, current law, and proposed law to give you a clearer picture of where to locate your cannabis business, how to keep it legal, and what you will and won’t be allowed to do.

Our last California Cannabis Countdown post was on Marin County, and before that, Nevada County, the City of Lynwood, the City of Coachella, Los Angeles County, the City of Los Angeles, the City of Desert Hot SpringsSonoma County, the City of Sacramento, the City of BerkeleyCalaveras CountyMonterey County and the City of Emeryville.

Welcome to the California Cannabis Countdown.

Yuba County has a very strict cannabis ordinance and a very active Sheriff’s department. Though at one point the County allowed up to 99 cannabis plants, after an influx of large-scale grows and complaints from locals about the “negative” impacts of cultivation on the community, their current regulations allow a maximum plant count of 12, regardless of acreage, and cultivation is limited to indoor, accessory structures. Attempts to change the ordinance through lawsuits and ballot measures have all failed so far.

LocationYuba County is located in California’s Central Valley along the Feather River. It was one of the original counties of California formed when California became a state. It borders Nevada, Placer, and Butte Counties, which are all popular cannabis cultivation areas. The County lies along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada and a lot of agriculture businesses are located west of the mountains and include fruit orchards, rice fields, and cattle grazing.

History with CannabisOn May 1, 2012, Yuba County adopted its first marijuana regulations under Ordinance No. 1518, which was later amended on December 18, 2012 by Ordinance No. 1522. The County’s first Marijuana Cultivation Ordinance allowed for both indoor and outdoor cultivation with maximum a plant count based on parcel size. No more than 18 plants were allowed on parcels less than one acre with up to 99 plants allowed on parcels 20 acres or more.

In 2014, following concerns from local citizens regarding the effects of marijuana cultivation and other factors, the Yuba County Board of Supervisors initiated a full review of its Marijuana Cultivation Ordinance.

On April 28, 2015, the Board passed Urgency Ordinance No. 1542, which repealed and reenacted the County’s Marijuana Cultivation Ordinance, establishing a complete ban on outdoor cultivation and allowing only limited indoor cultivation.

On June 7, 2016, voters in Yuba County voted to defeat two marijuana ballot measures. Measure A would have increased the number of medical marijuana plants that could be cultivated on parcels of land greater than one acre and allowed for cultivation of medical marijuana outdoors and within residences. Measure B would have established regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries and authorized the licensing of at least one dispensary per 20,000 residents to operate within the County, allowing four or five dispensaries based on the County’s 2015 population.

On November 8, 2016, voters in Yuba County voted to defeat Measure E, which would have allowed for commercial medical cannabis activity and established regulations for cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, and transportation of medical cannabis within the County.

Current Cannabis Laws.

 Under Section 7.40.300 of the Yuba County Ordinance Code:

  1. Outdoor cultivation on any parcel is prohibited.
  2. Cultivation within a dwelling or any other structure used or intended for human habitation is prohibited.
  3. Cultivation of more than twelve (12) marijuana plants on any parcel is prohibited. This plant limitation applies regardless of the number of qualified patients or primary caregivers residing on the parcel or participating directly or indirectly in the cultivation. Further, this limitation applies notwithstanding any assertion that the person(s) cultivating marijuana are the primary caregiver(s) for qualified patients or that such person(s) are collectively or cooperatively cultivating marijuana.

Section 7.40.310 of the Code states that cannabis cultivation in unincorporated areas of the County may only occur on parcels with an occupied, legally established dwelling and shall be contained within the defined area of cultivation in one, single residential accessory structure affixed to the real property that: (1) meets the definition of “indoor;” (2) is located on the same parcel as the dwelling of a qualified patient or primary caregiver; and (3) complies with all provisions of the County code relating to accessory structures.

An “accessory structure” is defined under the County code as a separate and permitted building located on the same parcel as the residence and must meet several criteria listed under Section 7.40.320. Certain accessory structures may also be required to be surrounded by a solid fence that complies with Section 7.40.330 of the County code.

Marijuana cultivators in Yuba County must also register with the County. The cultivation of marijuana in any quantity upon any premises in unincorporated areas of Yuba County without first registering the cultivation and paying the required fee is declared unlawful and a public nuisance under Section 7.40.340.

In addition, under Section 7.40.140, it is the duty of every real property owner, whether or not he or she is in actual possession of the property, to prevent a public nuisance from arising on, or existing upon, his or her real property.

Proposed Cannabis Laws.

There are currently no proposed laws to change the cannabis ordinance in Yuba County. Attempts last year to repeal the County’s Marijuana Cultivation Ordinance through ballot measures were all defeated by the voters.

Current Cannabis Enforcement.

Efforts to fight against the Marijuana Cultivation Ordinance in Yuba County have so far been unsuccessful. In 2016, the Yuba Patient Coalition filed a lawsuit against the County arguing the County’s ordinance is unconstitutional and discriminatory, however the judge ruled in favor the County.

Though there is a ban on all outdoor cultivation and a 12 plant cap for indoor cultivation in accessory structures, cannabis cultivation still occurs in unincorporated areas of the County in violation of current laws. In response, the County has taken enforcement actions against marijuana cultivators and their landlords. On March 16, 2017, the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department raided several indoor marijuana grows seizing over 3,600 marijuana plants. Property owners who lease property to marijuana growers in Yuba County also face penalties of $100 per plant per day until the plant is removed, which in some cases has resulted in fines of over $200,000, as well as the risk of felony convictions.

Unless and until Yuba County changes its cannabis regulations, it is not a good place for a cannabis business.

Georgia CannabisGeorgia lawmakers agreed to a compromise bill Thursday to expand the state’s medical marijuana program. The deal comes after competing bills in the Georgia State House and Senate clashed over the direction of the program. If passed, the legislation would open the door for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, autism, epidermolysis bullosa, peripheral neuropathy, and Tourette’s syndrome to receive medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation.

We ranked Georgia at number 34 among the states for cannabis. If this bill passes, Georgia would likely leap up around ten spots in our next state ranking go-round.

Background. The Georgia legislature approved medical marijuana with the passage of HB1 in late 2015. In its original form, Georgia’s medical marijuana law allowed patients with eight specific conditions to possess up to twenty ounces of cannabis oil with a doctor’s recommendation. The law also permitted only low-THC cannabis oils capped at 5% THC concentration. The combination of these factors has contributed to significant access issues for patients in the state. A 2016 bill failed to solve the problem.

Divergent legislative responses. This session, the Georgia House and Senate each took up efforts to reform the state’s medical marijuana program. The House proposed and passed a bill to expand the program to include the diseases found in the compromise bill. In contrast, the Senate put forth a bill that only added one of these conditions (autism) to the list. The Senate bill would also have lowered the maximum allowable THC concentration to 3%.

The compromise bill looks to include nearly all the House provisions with respect to adding additional qualifying conditions. The 5% THC concentration limit also looks to be safe.

What else is in the bill? In addition to augmenting the list of qualifying conditions and maintaining status quo concentration limits, the final bill could also mold the legal framework for Georgia’s medical marijuana program in other ways. The extent to which many of these provisions – all from the House bill – will survive in the final legislation is uncertain but they are illustrative of Georgia lawmakers’ sentiments and the ways in which medical marijuana programs can be iteratively refined.

  • Delineating qualifying conditions
    • The House legislation would strike the requirement that cancer be in its “end stage” to qualify absent particular symptoms like vomiting. The bill would also strike language that would require patients with Parkinson’s or sickle cell to be in the “severe or end stage” of the disease before being eligible to receive medical marijuana treatment.
  • Removing barriers to access
    • The House legislation would also remove the residency requirement that limits access to medical marijuana for patients who are new to the state. The bill would additionally provide reciprocity for medical marijuana patients with proper documentation from other medical marijuana states qualifying them as such.

Next steps? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the bill would reach committee late Thursday. The bill is, of course, tentative until a final version is passed by both houses and signed into law, but indications are that the bill has significant support from both chambers and is likely to be signed by the governor.

 

 

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.

Government cannabis lawyersYesterday, the Washington Post ran an illuminating and sad little story on government marijuana, which is pot grown under the oversight of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The government marijuana photographed and featured in the story is a sample distributed to a researcher for use in ongoing clinical studies for treatment of military veterans suffering from PTSD. The marijuana in question looks a lot like green tea: it is blanched and dry, stems and leaves. It does not resemble cannabis.

We have written before about the embarrassment that is our federal system for cannabis research. When the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which oversees NIDA, says things like “[r]esearch is the bedrock of science, and we… support and promote legitimate research regarding marijuana and its constituent parts,” you must forgive the industry for rolling its eyes. The DEA clearly has no interest in studying anything that resembles the plant anyone actually ingests.

In addition to the dismal aesthetics of the government weed (reported to also lack smell), the WaPo story reports that the strain at issue tested out at 8% THC, which is less than half the average concentration found in commercial grade marijuana. The government weed also tests high in common contaminants, like yeast and mold, which would mandate its destruction in states with cannabis consumer safety laws (like Oregon, Washington or Colorado). In all respects, it would be difficult to mistake government cannabis for actual cannabis.

According to researchers, the quality of the NIDA cannabis makes highly controlled medical experiments next to impossible. One example of such an experiment includes the very experiment for which the cannabis was provided. After wending through a labyrinthian 7.5 year approval process and amassing a budget of $2,156,000 (based on a grant from the State of Colorado), it seems like a shameful waste of time and resources to test this “cannabis” on military veterans suffering from PTSD. If the government cannot grow real marijuana, it should at least know where to acquire it.

We have written before that given the lay of the land, it is up to states and private actors to take the lead on cannabis research – just as they have in all other aspects of ending prohibition. Constituent parts of the cannabis plant have real medical value, but they must be investigated properly to explore these promising features. Journalism like the WaPo piece, showing the NIDA shake, is helpful in pushing back on DEA claims that the law enforcement agency is a champion of science that “promotes legitimate research.” It does not. Really, the pictures say it all.

 

Cannabis due diligence
Know the red flags and find them.

Our marijuana business attorneys handle lots of purchase transactions for marijuana businesses. These deals often involve two sides rushing to complete a transaction handled by a business broker who doesn’t know or care about the applicable marijuana laws. The worst case scenario is when a company asks us to review a purchase agreement drafted by the seller without having done any due diligence on the potential purchase. Buyers of businesses (like investors) take the lion’s share of risk, which is why buyer due diligence is key. Before buying a cannabis business you should know exactly what assets and liabilities you will be taking on.

The below are the top 5 due diligence items you need to protect yourself and your money (for sellers, check out Preparing to Sell Your Marijuana Business):

  1. State and local law compliance. This is by the number one due diligence item for buyers. State and local law compliance varies greatly by state and by county and by city and you have to know what state and local licensing or permitting is required for a given marijuana business before you purchase it. I cannot tell you how many times we have had buyers come to us thinking they are buying a licensed marijuana business only to find out that the license is only pending and has not actually been issued or that the cannabis business is facing license revocation for rule violations, or that the municipal law has changed and the business must re-locate to continue operating. Before buying a cannabis business you should, at minimum, confirm that the company you will be buying is in good standing with the Secretary of State and the regulators and you should review its proof of licensing and permitting and its history of administrative violations, including any written warnings. If you fail to do this, you may find yourself with a cannabis business without a license to legally operate or that is about to lose it.
  2. State law procedures for ownership changes. Marijuana businesses are heavily regulated and there are onerous state law procedures in place for changes in ownership. Generally, the seller must disclose the buyer to the state and the buyer must be successfully vetted by the relevant regulators. Buyers and sellers of cannabis business cannot undertake these sales like any other business. No matter what any seller or broker may tell you as the buyer about the ease of the transaction, you as the buyer should ensure that the sale can comply with applicable state law requirements for changes in ownership and that the purchase and sale agreement accounts for the timing of performance obligations set forth in that purchase and sale agreement. We have had company’s come to us after the fact that have lost their earnest money for not closing quickly enough on deals where the closing date was impossible to meet from day one.
  3. Corporate authority. Ownership disputes are common in the marijuana industry because many marijuana operators still neglect (to their detriment) to put their corporate and contractual relationships in writing. We often see cannabis business buyers who (based on the word of a single seller in a multi-owner entity), believe they are free and clear to purchase all the stock in a corporation or all of the membership units in an LLC when they actually are not. Purchasers must get copies of all bylaws and subscription agreements when contemplating buying a corporation and they must get a copy of the current operating agreement for an LLC to know whether the seller has authority to sell their (or all of the) membership interests in the business. Failing to secure this authority will violate the seller’s corporate obligations and the sale can likely be undone. If all of the existing owners do not agree to the buy-out or transfer or there is a right of first refusal on sales or transfers, the buyer (and the seller) are going to have serious issues enforcing the purchase agreement.
  4. Real property. When you buy a business, you typically buy all of its assets, including any real estate it owns or has an interest in. Buyers therefore need to get a list of all real property owned and leased by the business that is to be sold. Most importantly, you want to know if the company you are seeking to buy is locked into a long-term lease or whether you’ll be able to re-locate it upon buying it. Many buyers have their own property on which they want to run the cannabis business and for these buyers, the ability to move the business can be key. If there is a lease, you want to know its terms and whether you can or want to comply with it. And because boilerplate leases don’t cut it in this industry, you need to make sure that lease sufficiently covers your issues when it comes to state and local law compliance and the federal law conflict.
  5. Financial liabilities. Again, because too many marijuana business owners don’t memorialize their business and corporate relationships in writing, you as the buyer must thoroughly vet the business’s financial liabilities. You want an agreement that requires the seller to have disclosed every handshake deal with every consultant, investor, and service provider so you know what you’re getting and to whom you’re financially obligated and so that if an undisclosed problem arises, it is the seller’s financial problem, not yours. This should include any instrument that grants a security interest from the cannabis business you are buying to a third party.

To mitigate against anything your due diligence investigation might miss, you need comprehensive and solid seller representations and warranties in the purchase and sale documents. But even skillfully crafted representations and warranties may not be enough to capture all of the liabilities that fall through the cracks, especially if your seller lacks the financial wherewithal to pay for them. So, do your due diligence or buyer beware.

Los Angeles Cannabis LawsCity of Los Angeles Voters Approve Measure M. The City of Los Angeles is making moves to change its current marijuana policies, which have so far made it impossible to start and operate a new cannabis business in the City. Yesterday, voters in the City were asked to decide between two ballot measures to repeal and replace Proposition D with one of two new cannabis ordinances that both regulate and permit marijuana businesses. Both ballot measures also opened up the opportunity for the City to permit activities besides retail sales by dispensaries, including cultivation, manufacturing, transportation, testing, as well as distribution. As of last night, Measure M was officially passed by voters, making the City of Los Angeles the largest municipal cannabis market to regulate cannabis businesses. The City Council hopes to have comprehensive regulation set up by September 30, 2017, and the existing 135 dispensaries operating in compliance under Prop D will be be first in line to receive city approval under the new regime. These 135 dispensaries just became even more valuable, and the “buying and selling” of those dispensaries will no doubt continue apace. For more on that, see How to “Sell” Your California Medical Marijuana Collective.

Los Angeles County May Lift Its Cannabis Ban Today. Today the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will hold a regular meeting to consider a plan for closing all unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries within unincorporated areas of the County. The details of the proposed plan have not yet been ironed out, but the Board will be reviewing a yet to be submitted report from the Sheriff, District Attorney and County Counsel. If this plan is passed, the Los Angeles County Sheriff will be tasked with shutting down about 70 medical marijuana dispensaries currently operating in the County without a license. Since passage of Proposition 64, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Narcotics Bureau been cracking down on illegal marijuana dispensaries popping up throughout the County.

Los Angeles County currently has a ban on almost all marijuana activities. Since 2011, the County has banned marijuana dispensaries, and in 2016, the County extended the ban to include cultivation, manufacturing, testing, and distribution activities. For more on Los Angeles County’s cannabis laws and enforcement measures, check out The California Cannabis Countdown: Los Angeles County.

On February 7, 2017, the County Board voted ahead of time to extend its current ban on medical marijuana activities as well as implement a new ban on all recreational marijuana activities. During this meeting, the Board also requested the plan to close all unlicensed dispensaries that is being considered today and requested $25 million to fund the shut-down plan.

However, during this same meeting, the Board also voted unanimously to consider allowing marijuana businesses within the County, stating they “support moving from a ban to permitting and regulating the use.” The apparent softening of marijuana policies followed by the proposed plan to shut down all unlicensed businesses has left marijuana advocates in the County confused and concerned. They recommend that instead of punishing the unlicensed businesses, the County provide clear regulations and create a pathway for current operators to obtain a license and establish legitimacy.

Based on comments made by the Board, it is unlikely Los Angeles County will keep its ban in place, though they raised concerns about the state’s ability to meet the January 1, 2018 deadline to issue recreational licenses, the concentration of dispensaries in low-income communities, and increased access to marijuana by young people.

The shift in policies in both Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles is a welcome change in an area where there is a great demand from cannabis patients and consumers but a long history of unfriendly cannabis laws and enforcement. Though the County may ultimately shut down its current unlicensed businesses, it does at least look as though it will at the same time begin paving the way towards a regulated and legitimate local market.

What are your thoughts?

Cannabis laws on public eventsI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–more state regulation of marijuana is going to lead to fewer and fewer cannabis cups and similar marijuana events and this in turn will force the purveyors of such events to get creative. Case in point: the 2017 High Times Cannabis Cup on the Moapa Band of Paiutes reservation in Nevada near Las Vegas. The most recent update on this particular Cup is that despite receiving two warning letters from U.S. Attorney David Bogden, the Tribe is moving forward this Saturday with the Cup as planned.

The High Times Cannabis Cup, and others like it, revolve around events that assess the cannabis and cannabis products submitted to them by local competitors. At their core, these cups are commercial boons for the sponsors who use them to increase their brand recognition and for the local marijuana businesses that perform well and can use their good performances to tout their products for months and years down the road. Having the right to label your cannabis products as a “High Times Best In (fill in the blank)” is not an honor to be taken lightly in the marijuana industry where such accolades can and do influence cannabis buying decisions.

Even cannabis-friendly states have myriad prohibitions against selling or even gifting cannabis without specific state operational licenses. And virtually all states prohibit consuming cannabis in public and even quasi-private spaces. For example, High Times had to cancel its cannabis cup in Seattle in 2015 because such an event would have violated Washington State’s “sampling” laws that allow only state-licensed marijuana businesses and not consumers to “sample” cannabis products. High Times also had to cancel its Cup in both Denver and Pueblo, Colorado last year because Colorado restricts public cannabis consumption. I assume High Times chose to host this upcoming event on Moapa tribal lands because Nevada’s medical marijuana laws would not allow for such an event and because the Tribe can enact its own ordinances allowing for such Cups.

Given the Wilkinson statement regarding Tribal cannabis from and the Cole Memo regarding federal enforcement of its cannabis laws, it’s easy to see why the Moapa Indians are trying their hand at hosting this Cup. Nonetheless, tribes that have tried to legalize or “medicalize” marijuana on their lands have been met with mixed reactions and enforcement by the federal government (see here, here, here, here, and here). The Moapa are no exception.

On February 16th and 23rd, U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden sent “warning letters” to the Tribe concerning this upcoming cannabis cup, reiterating that marijuana remains federally illegal and that the Tribe has an “incorrect interpretation” of the Cole Memo and Wilkinson statement. Bogden’s letters also reminded the Tribe that neither the Cole Memo nor the Wilkinson statement alter the power of the federal government to enforce federal laws on tribal lands. At no point in his February 16th letter did Bogden threaten to shut down the Cup. But Bogden’s February 23rd letter states that his office communicated with tribal officials and his understanding is that no cannabis or cannabis products will be present at the Cup. He also writes that High Times’ promotion of this event mentions nothing about the prohibition on cannabis and he asks the Tribe to confirm their understanding on this prohibition matches his. Given that the heart of these High Times Cannabis Cups are the competitions for best cannabis products, one has to wonder if there’s any advantage to High Times having the Cup on tribal lands at this point.

Since Bogden’s warning letters come on the heels of White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s comments about the likelihood for increased federal enforcement in states with recreational marijuana programs, many are wondering if Bogden’s actions are the beginning of what “increased enforcement” may look like. We do not believe so; we think this federal intervention is just another example of the Department of Justice’s continued unpredictable treatment of tribes and cannabis and its varying regional positions on cannabis.

Time will surely tell…

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.

Medical Marijuana ArkansasThe Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission issued draft rules this week that outline the process and particulars for obtaining a cultivation or dispensary license. The rules dictate the number of licenses of each type issued and set the criteria for obtaining a license.

What are the new rules?  Arkansas’ medical marijuana program is just starting to get off the ground and, accordingly, many of the draft rules issued this week are familiar variations on the basic rules that underpin other states’ mature medical and recreational cannabis markets. Some features of the AMMC’s proposed rules do stand out, however.

License Cap. The draft rules mandate that a minimum of four cultivation licenses be approved, but limit the initial total number of cultivation licenses to eight. For dispensaries, the minimum number of license approvals is 20, not to exceed 40.

Dispensary licenses are to be allocated across eight geographic zones within the state, per the draft rules. This distribution, according to the AMMC, is to ensure patient access in regions throughout the state.

Transfer, Board, and Management Restrictions. The draft rules include tight restrictions on transfers of ownership interest in medical marijuana businesses. Licensees will be required to obtain permission from the AMMC before any transfer of ownership interest. Even more constraining is that licensees must get AMMC approval before making changes to their board of directors or to their officers. Together these aspects of the draft rules represent an extraordinary limitation on a medical marijuana business’s business judgment and corporate governance.

Ownership Restrictions. No one may have an ownership interest in more than one cultivation and one dispensary medical marijuana license. This rule precludes much horizontal expansion for medical marijuana businesses, but leaves open the possibility of at least some vertical integration.

What happens next?  The AMMC’s proposed rules remain draft rules, and they will be open to a public comment period before anything becomes final. There is slated to be a public hearing on March 31 at the University of Arkansas – Little Rock law school campus where stakeholders and other members of the community can share their input. Then the rules, pending any modifications, go to the state legislature for ultimate approval.

What else is going on with medical marijuana in Arkansas?  While the AMMC is busy with its rulemaking process, other Arkansas state agencies are formulating rules of their own to govern other aspects of the state’s new medical marijuana program. Medical marijuana also remains a hot topic in the state legislature. Medical marijuana-related legislation on the docket includes, among other bills, the following:

  • House Bill 1392, which would prohibit edibles as part of the medical marijuana program.
  • Senate Bill 238, which would delay implementation of the medical marijuana amendment to the Arkansas constitution until medical marijuana is federally legal.
  • Senate Bill 357, which prohibits smoking medical marijuana – a bill in slight tension with HB 1392 should both pass.
  • Other bills are also in the hopper that would increase license fees, force medical marijuana facilities farther away from schools, churches, and other designated locations, as well as impose a smattering of other restrictions on the fledgling program.

For more on medical marijuana in Arkansas, see the following:

 

Recreational marijuanaWhite House Press Secretary Sean Spicer spoke today at a press conference on how he expects the Department of Justice to handle state-legal marijuana in America. In response to a question on how the Trump Administration will handle recreational marijuana, Spicer had this to say:

Well I think that’s a question for the Department of Justice . . . I do believe you’ll see greater enforcement of it. Because again there’s a big difference between the medical use … that’s very different than the recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice will be further looking into.”

There’s a big difference between [medical marijuana] and recreational marijuana, and I think when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people. There is still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana.”

Regardless of Spicer’s factually wrong take on the relationship between marijuana and opioid use, marijuana industry folks should not fret just yet.  Out of everything Spicer had to say, the key point is that marijuana enforcement falls on the Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The job of the Press Secretary is “to act as spokesperson for the executive branch of the United States government administration, especially with regard to the President, senior executives, and policies” and the fate of the marijuana industry is not going to be decided in one White House press conference by the White House Press Secretary. The Department of Justice has so far declined to comment on Spicer’s briefing. It also bears mentioning that the Cole Memo setting out how the Department of Justice will treat state-legal marijuana (both medical and recreational) is still alive and well.

The bottom line. Though it is certainly unsettling to listen to Spicer predict increased enforcement of recreational marijuana businesses and to use stupid opium trope to boot, it is not time to lose heart or cash out. Will the jobs-focused Trump Administration really want to shut down cannabis businesses in multiple states and add a slew of hard-working people to the unemployment rolls? I don’t think so, but of course only time will tell.