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Adams Lee has more than twenty years’ experience providing strategic advice and legal guidance on complex international trade and administrative regulatory matters to US and foreign companies, trade associations, and foreign governments. He advises companies in a broad range of industries on international trade remedy and trade policy issues.

international trade cannabis marijuana

Recently, we’ve been getting tons of questions from clients regarding the international import and export of cannabis around the globe. 2018 was a historic year for the cannabis industry not just in the United States, but also internationally. Canada legalized recreational marijuana for the entire country. Many countries (e.g., Thailand, New Zealand, Mexico, Lithuania, U.K.) took significant steps to decriminalize or legalize medical or recreational marijuana. In December, Israel became the fifth country to pass legislation legalizing the export of medical marijuana (after the Netherlands, Canada, Uruguay, and Australia).

Despite these advances, international trade in legal marijuana currently is limited. Under a 1961 international treaty (Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs), cannabis is classified as a controlled substance with no medicinal use or value (we explored this recently here). Most countries are signatories to this and other international treaties that set forth the ground rules for the international drug control regime for controlled substances. Individual countries, however, can and have begun to make their own determinations on whether cannabis should be treated as a narcotic substance. Countries that have legalized marijuana can agree to allow trade in marijuana between those countries. Dutch and Canadian companies have gotten a head start in the global marijuana trade with medical marijuana being exported to Germany, Italy, Croatia, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and Chile. Currently, Israel, Australia, Uruguay, and others are also pushing to get into the medical marijuana export game.

While other countries have begun to legalize cannabis, the United States federal government still classifies “marijuana” as a Schedule I controlled substance with no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Thus, federal law effectively prohibits importation of marijuana into the United States. In September 2018, however, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) granted permission for a Canadian marijuana company (Tilray) to export medicinal cannabis to University of California San Diego for clinical trial. Although DEA’s approval of this importation may be just a one-off, this one approval could signal an eventual broader opening of the U.S. market to imported marijuana.

If (or when) the U.S. finally allows the importation of cannabis products from other countries, it seems likely that some type of trade dispute will likely occur. Legalization of marijuana has often resulted in supply and demand imbalances that result in prices rising or falling sharply. In Oregon, prices for licensed marijuana plummeted with overproduction, and nearly 70 percent of the legal recreational marijuana grown has gone unsold. In Canada, medical marijuana dispensaries faced shortages as licensed producers shifted to selling to the much larger legalized recreational marijuana market. Italy faced consistent shortages of medicinal marijuana and ultimately permitted imports from Canadian companies to ease the supply shortages.

Trade disputes often result when producers in one country complain that imports from another country are being sold at unfairly low or subsidized prices and harming the domestic industry. Domestic producers can petition their government to investigate imported products and often antidumping or countervailing duties are imposed. If imported cannabis products are allowed into the U.S., it would not be surprising if U.S. marijuana producers resort to U.S. trade laws in order to fend off import competition. Which countries might be likely targets of a cannabis trade dispute?

  • Canada –Given the head start that Canadian cannabis companies already have in developing international distribution networks in a number of countries, bigger and better funded Canadian companies could swoop in and aggressively price their product to overwhelm U.S. competitors and take over a dominant market share in the United States. U.S. cannabis companies could try to seek trade protection from Canadian imports by filing antidumping or countervailing duty petitions like those filed against Canadian softwood lumber in multiple rounds going back to the 1980s.
  • Mexico – Mexico’s new President Lopez Obrador has proposed legislation to legalize marijuana. If Mexico ever legalizes exports of licensed marijuana, Mexico’s relatively lower farm labor rates could provide significant cost advantages over U.S. or Canadian licensed suppliers.
  • China – Although marijuana is illegal in China, China is nevertheless the world’s leading producer of industrial hemp cultivation. China likely will have a significant advantage in producing more cost-effective hemp fabric and medicinal products than any other country. As of 2017, Chinese companies hold more than half of the 606 patents filed around the world that relate to cannabis. These patents could trigger plenty of litigation as companies try to attack or defend the intellectual property rights of their hemp products.

It’s hard to think of international trade disputes involving cannabis when it is still illegal for marijuana to cross U.S. state borders, let alone international borders.  But as the trend of marijuana legalization continues globally, it is likely a matter of time before licensed marijuana products become treated like any other commodity subject to competitive market forces and resulting litigation over fair and unfair competition. Once imported marijuana products are allowed, it is not difficult to foresee the day when import competition in the legal marijuana markets may trigger some type of international trade dispute either in the form of an antidumping or countervailing duty petition or a patent infringement action.

vape marijuana cannabis
Is the vape industry in real trouble?

Like so many other U.S. industries, the U.S. vaping industry is now in the crosshairs of a 25% tariff on products imported from China. The first two waves of President Trump’s proposed tariffs against China covered about $50 billion worth of Chinese products but they did not include any vaping products. After China retaliated and proposed its own equivalent tariffs on an estimated $50 billion worth of U.S. products imported into China, President Trump proposed a much bigger third list of China products to cover an additional $200 billion in imports from China. This third list targets vaping devices, vaping parts, and batteries from China. Because our law firm’s marijuana business lawyers represent so many companies involved in various aspects of the vaping industry, we are hearing a earful about how these tariffs will “decimate” the nascent industry.

The U.S. vaping industry is indeed particularly exposed to these tariffs. Though much of the e-liquid used for vaping is made in the United States, almost all of the vaping hardware is imported from China. Just as Gillette makes the most money selling razor cartridges and not razors, many U.S. vaping companies chose to focus on the higher margin e-liquids, rather than lower margin vaping devices. Some have noted that there are no U.S. companies that produce any vaping hardware products. We are hearing of how many vape and cannabis retail shops will be unwilling or unable to pay the extra 25% tariffs because they do not believe they will be able to pass these extra costs on to their customers. If this does prove true, the vaping industry will indeed be decimated.

Fortunately, there is still time for vaping companies to seek a tariff exemption for certain vaping products. The U.S. Trade Representative will accept comments until September 6 on whether entire categories of products listed on the third wave of proposed tariffs — the $200 billion in imports from China — should be exempted. There likely will be yet another chance to make more product-specific exclusion requests later in the fall.

For an exclusion request to have any realistic chance at being granted, marijuana and related vaping companies should address the following factors:

  • A description of the physical characteristics (dimensions, material composition, etc.) of the particular vaping products and the 10 digit subheading of the HTSUS tariff category applicable to those products.
  • Whether the particular vaping product is available only from China. In addressing this factor, requesters should address specifically whether the particular vaping product and/or a comparable product is available from sources in the United States and/or in third countries.
  • Whether imposition of additional duties on the particular vaping product would cause severe economic harm to the requester or other U.S. interests.
  • Whether the particular vaping product is strategically important or related to “Made in China 2025” or other Chinese industrial programs.
  • Requesters must provide the annual quantity and value of the Chinese-origin product the requester purchased in each of the last three years. If precise annual quantity and value information are not available, USTR will accept an estimate with justification.
  • Requesters may also provide any other information or data they consider relevant to evaluating their request.

The process for reviewing and deciding on these exclusion requests will not result in any immediate decision but the hope is that a favorable decision eventually will allow for refunding the tariffs paid.

The goal is to have the USTR review the comments and grant exclusions, particularly for products that are not made in the United States and can only be sourced from China. The last time similar tariffs were applied on steel products back in the early 2000s, many exclusions were granted that helped ease the impact of the tariffs on downstream users.

There have already been many opposing comments and exclusion requests submitted for the first two waves of proposed China tariffs. Many of the opposing comments have noted how the proposed tariffs on the Chinese products have nothing to do with  Chinese practices of stealing or extorting intellectual property from U.S companies, which are the reasons claimed for invoking the China tariffs in the first place. Many have also objected to how these tariffs are not likely to change how China respects intellectual property  rights, but will have a catastrophic effect on certain American companies.  What was a booming U.S. vaping industry now faces going bust with the proposed tariffs. If you are in the vaping industry, now is the time to do what you can to prevent this.

Editor’s Note: A version of this post previously appeared on our law firm’s China Law Blog. It focuses on the vaping industry but much of it holds true for a host of other U.S. industries caught up in the tariffs as well. The bottom line is that the situation for products and companies that will be hurt by these tariffs is not good and the chances of overturning the tariffs are in most cases less than 50 percent. But in many cases the situation is not yet hopeless and it behooves you to try.

Marijuana and cannabis safety standards ASTMASTM International recently announced plans to launch a new committee on creating technical standards and guidance materials for the full life cycle of cannabis products. The new ASTM cannabis committee initially plans to focus on developing voluntary consensus standards related to cannabis in the following six technical areas:

  • Indoor and outdoor horticulture and agriculture
  • quality management systems
  • laboratory
  • processing and handling
  • security and transportation
  • personnel training, assessment, and credentialing

The development of uniform standards for cannabis related products, systems and services is critical to the cannabis industry because there is no currently no consensus on how cannabis products should be produced and processed to ensure product quality and safety. Because cannabis and its derivatives are still illegal under federal law, federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not enacted anything that resembles the regulations it has implemented for tobacco products or medications or food. Some states, such as Colorado and Washington, have some quality control and assurance rules, especially regarding the safety of edibles and the use of pesticides. However, many aspects of cannabis remain wholly unregulated at the state level, and the patchwork of state regulations introduced thus far by various states have been inconsistently drafted and implemented.

ASTM International is one of the world’s largest voluntary standards developing organizations and it has helped develop over 12,000 industry standards for materials and products ranging from aluminum to zippers. ASTM International draws input for proposed standards from volunteer members from around the world that represent a broad range of industry stakeholders such as producers, users, consumers, government and academia. ASTM standards are voluntary, but many government regulators cite to them in their laws, regulations and codes, thus giving them the force of law. They also are commonly referred to in court cases.

The process of drafting, reviewing, and approving ASTM standards for the cannabis industry will take time. Once a technical committee for cannabis is established, ASTM will establish subcommittees to address individual technical areas. Each subcommittee will establish a task group responsible for researching and drafting a proposed standard. The draft standard will then be reviewed and voted upon by the technical committee and then it will go to the full ASTM membership. Depending on the committee and subject matters, ASTM standards can be drafted, reviewed, and approved in as little as nine months, or can take more than a year.

This process of developing industry standards for cannabis presents an opportunity for a data-driven conversation on how the cannabis industry should evolve and mature. Identifying objective standards for best-practices in the processes of growing, producing, processing, transporting, and packaging cannabis products will be a necessary step if the cannabis industry is going to mature and sustain itself on a broader (and potentially international) scale. When railroads were first introduced in the United States, locomotives and railroad tracks used different gauges in different parts of the country because the railways initially were built only to serve local needs. The cannabis industry is in a similar early stage of development, with individual states drafting and implementing cannabis regulations that are inconsistent with others in other states. Ultimately, the development of industry standards is a necessary step that will help the cannabis industry grow beyond its current state limits and speed up the day when our country sees cannabis as just another legal product.

Cannabis importsImporting cannabis into the United States is illegal since cannabis is a Schedule I controlled substance. But it’s not necessarily illegal to import smoking accessories into the United States, such as (pipes, grinders, rolling papers, etc.) so long as you’re not violating federal paraphernalia laws. Even though marijuana legalization is sweeping the U.S. and people are consuming cannabis in all shapes and forms, importers of smokers accessories still have to abide by all federal importation laws. Based on the large number of calls and emails we get from such importers with products being held up by U.S. Customs at the border, far too many do not realize this. For this reason, I asked Adams Lee, one of our firm’s international trade and customs lawyers, to write the below post with me.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently initiated an action before the U.S. Court of International Trade (“CIT”) to recover approximately $500,000 in civil penalties and unpaid taxes from two companies that imported cigarette rolling papers, mini hookahs, smoking pipes, and pipe screens from China. U.S. Customs alleged that Green Planet, Inc. and Token Group, LLC, both at the same address in Riverside, California, had imported various smoking products from China without including the correct amount of duties owed on the import entry declarations filed with Customs.

According to Customs, between June 2010 through February 2013, Green Planet made four entries (with an entered value of $407,308.71) and Token Group made five entries (with an entered value of $1,412,456.73) of imported products from China, but failed to pay Customs over $200,000 in applicable duties that should have been declared at the time of entry. U.S. Customs alleged that Green Planet and Token Group filed import entry declarations that contained material false statements and/or omissions and that their failure to exercise reasonable care in submitting information to Customs constituted negligence in violation of 19 U.S.C §1592(a).

After the entries had been made, Green Planet and Token Group (or their surety companies) paid Customs almost all of the outstanding duties that should have been paid. Though Green Planet and Token Group together now owed less than $30,000 in outstanding duties, Customs still decided to seek penalties of $432,975.86 against them for their having negligently filed material false statements on their Customs entry declarations. For negligent filing of entry declarations, Customs is entitled to collect civil penalties equal to twice the lawful duty amount that should have been collected at the time of entry.

It is not clear why Green Planet and Token Group did not pay the duties owed on their imported Chinese rolling papers and smoking products. Perhaps they sought to cheat Customs and purposefully tried to avoid paying lawful duties. Or perhaps they had a legitimate basis to claim the products should have been declared under a duty free tariff heading. Numerous cannabis related products have ambiguous or uncertain classification, particularly as new products are developing. Regardless of their intent, Green Planet’s and Token Group’s failure to properly file true and accurate Customs entry declarations was deemed to be negligence warranting the initiation of a Customs penalty action.

This case demonstrates how Customs will pursue penalty actions regardless of how small the amount of duties owed. We mention this because we often hear otherwise from our customs clients, many of whom wrongly believe there is some sort of minimum safe haven amount Customs will ignore. If you are an importer that makes any material false statement or omission on your entry declaration, you are at risk of a substantial Customs penalty action. Because the penalty for negligent Customs declarations is double the amount that should have been collected at the time of entry, under-reporting can have costly consequences.

If you catch your mistake on your customs entry declaration before Customs initiates a penalty action, you can make a prior disclosure to Customs of your error. This will help mitigate potential penalty actions, and could limit your exposure just to the amount of outstanding duties owed.

Importers need to take care to ensure that their import declarations are filed accurately. Although customs brokers file Customs entry documents on behalf of importers, they are only agents of the importers who bear ultimate responsibility for any Customs entry declaration. In fast developing industries (like cannabis), importers need to be especially mindful of the Customs reporting challenges to make sure their imported products are correctly declared to Customs so as to avoid potentially penalties.

Bottom Line: Let’s get real here. New President. New Republican Administration. Not China friendly. Not import friendly. Not cannabis friendly. If you do not realize that customs is going to be cracking down doubly hard on cannabis-related imports going forward, you are living in an alternate universe. What this means in this universe is that you need to handle everything related to customs right the first time and if you don’t you need to fix it quickly and appropriately.