Photo of Robert McVay

Robert is a partner at Harris Bricken focusing on corporate, finance, and transactional matters for clients both inside and outside the cannabis industry.

Jeff Sessions Hates Cannabis
Finally, Sessions is a goner.

Jeff Sessions, the drug warrior that may or may not have liked the KKK until he found out they smoked pot, is out as U.S. Attorney General. After two years of being relentlessly bullied by President Trump, Sessions has apparently had enough. The Sessions resignation is of special interest to the marijuana industry because of just how much he hates marijuana. So it’s great news that Sessions is out, right?

While it’s certainly not bad news, the real story is that it doesn’t really matter. Looking back at the Sessions era, the only truly significant act that he took regarding marijuana was the withdrawal of prior federal guidance to U.S. Attorneys regarding marijuana enforcement in January 2018. At the time, we couldn’t tell whether this was the first step in an organized crackdown on marijuana or simply a shot across the bow. As a result of the withdrawal of the prior guidance memos, discretion on whether to prosecute marijuana crimes shifted from the Department of Justice to each of the 93 U.S. Attorneys assigned to the various federal judicial districts.

But lo and behold, nothing actually changed in federal enforcement. There were rumblings out of Oregon (whose U.S. Attorney was just picked to chair the Attorney General’s Marijuana Working Group), but those rumblings led to stakeholder meetings and the issuance of detailed enforcement guidance. This is a far cry from the raids, arrests, and seizures that doom and gloom types predicted when Sessions was named Attorney General. To date, since Washington and Colorado legalized in 2012, there has not been a single instance in the United States where law enforcement has acted against a marijuana business unless it has been able to demonstrate significant violations of state law and violation of prior-stated federal enforcement priorities.

The takeaway, then, is that the cake has already been baked. With another round of state liberalization of marijuana rules, the country has continued its unstoppable march toward federal legalization/decriminalization. If the politics and logistics of enforcing federal marijuana laws against state legal businesses proved unworkable for Jeff Sessions, they are unworkable for anyone.

So celebrate – the Sessions era is over and hopefully we don’t have to sit through any more scoldings from the Attorney General trying to tie marijuana to the opioid epidemic. But even though we may be wrong, we think the real story of the Sessions era is that the fear of widespread federal enforcement of drug laws against state-legal actors will never come to fruition.

marijuana business litigation damages

When people have been wronged, they naturally want to get justice and want the party that wronged them to pay enough money to make them whole. The law generally holds that when someone commits a tort or breaches a contract against you, they owe you an amount of money equal to the value of your damages suffered because of the tort or contract breach. Unfortunately, getting justice isn’t so simple. The general order of events is as follows. The defendant breaches its contract with you, and you make a personal demand to the defendant to either cure the breach or pay you for the breach. The defendant ignores you, so you hire an attorney to send a demand letter. The defendant either ignores the letter or has its attorney send a response back disclaiming liability. You then must decide whether to continue making demands or whether to pursue more aggressive action, including filing a lawsuit.

This is a challenging time, as emotions run high. In the cannabis industry, so many entrepreneurs are working on a shoe-string budget and have significant portions of their savings tied up in an already risky industry. Of course you don’t want to ignore the contract breach or tort and let the defendant get away with its actions. But you also don’t want to throw good money after bad money in a quest for vengeance. Just because you have been wronged doesn’t mean that you have a legally actionable claim, or that the defendant’s bad acts proximately caused your damages, or that the defendant doesn’t have counterclaims against you.

Instead, you have to remove yourself sufficiently from the emotions of the situation to determine what to do in an unbiased way. Here is a simplified formula that can help guide that decision-making process:

(W% * D * AP%) — ((DCW% * CD) + AF + IC)

Here’s how we break that down:

W%: Chance of winning litigation

D: Realistic damages estimate, based on provable verifiable damages

AP%: Percentage of award defendant could pay based on defendant’s cash holdings and other assets

DCW%: Chance of defendant winning a counterclaim

CD: Damages estimate of defendant’s counterclaim

AF: Your expected attorney fees, expert witness fees, and other costs related to litigation.

IC: Your indirect litigation costs (stress, time missed from your business, negative effect on business relationships, etc.)

If the equation equals a positive number, it probably makes sense to file a claim. If the equation equals a negative number, it is probably better to let the matter go, or seek alternative claim resolution.

The hard part, of course, is filling in the details. This is where it pays off to have good attorneys that have the experience necessary to come up with smart and reasonable answers for these variables, and the integrity to answer them honestly instead of in a way that leads to them generating fees with your losing case. If your lawyer tells you that you have a 100% chance of winning any case, fire that lawyer immediately. There are no guarantees in litigation. If your lawyer tells you that you have a 0% chance of winning the case, your attorney is either overly cautious, or your case is really that bad (suing a pedestrian that you ran over in a crosswalk for your tire damage bad). On the damages side, you really are looking for measurable, provable damages that have some basis in objectivity.

We often go through this process with our clients, and it doesn’t always feel good for the clients. You’re paying your attorney a lot of money for personal service, and it can feel like your attorney is doubting everything you say. If you’re going to make smart decisions about litigation, though, you have to go through the exercise. You want to see all the holes in your case before you file that first complaint. All cases are different, but even small cases that look relatively simple can generate well over six figure in legal fees and costs, and turn on a point of law that seemed insignificant at first. If your attorney is pushing you into litigation without communicating the inherent chance involved, be cautious.

Finally, for marijuana businesses specifically, the indirect litigation costs variable has to include any potential losses you can face from your dispute going public. This comes up all the time when we have ownership disputes. These disputes often stem from one or more owners causing the business to commit regulatory violations. Sometimes these regulatory violations have not been uncovered and could lead to large fines or license cancellation. In cases like that, you absolutely need to quantify your risk exposure before pulling the trigger.

For more on cannabis business litigation, see our archive here.

LCB washington marijuana cannabis
Some LCB policies make hurdles tough to clear.

Regulatory challenges can be substantive or procedural. Substantive challenges include things like Washington’s ban on out of state ownership and its view that licensee royalty payment constitute profit-sharing. These types of rules and interpretations are challenging because, as a policy matter, businesses aren’t allowed to pursue certain strategies that they otherwise would. Procedural challenges, on the other hand, are challenges that arise in dealing with a regulatory agency. The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) requires that it approve of retail packaging for infused products before that packaging can be used, and the LCB also requires that a person submit a signed criminal history statement before that person can be a true party of interest in a licensed marijuana business. These types of procedural hurdles exist for a reason – the LCB requires them to pursue its legitimate goals of enforcing its substantive regulations.

But there is another type of procedural hurdle that arises in dealing with regulatory agencies (specifically the Washington LCB). These procedural hurldes present challenges to regulated businesses, but they have no relationship with the LCB’s enforcement of its regulatory goals. Here’s one example that has been frustrating us to no end recently: the Washington LCB will not process a change of ownership and a change of location for a marijuana license at the same time. Let’s say that an entrepreneur in Tacoma finds a perfect location for a marijuana retail store and leases that space. The entrepreneur can’t apply for a new license because the state isn’t accepting applications, so the entrepreneur has to find a marijuana retail license allotted to Tacoma on the market. Once the entrepreneur finds that business and negotiates a purchase, the entrepreneur has to make some tough choices.

Because the LCB will not process a change in location and a change of ownership request at the same time, buyers have to determine the order of applications. Both orders have drawbacks. If you apply for a location change first, you will have a marijuana retail store at your location within, hopefully, a few months. However, you run the risk that, in the intervening period, the business’s sellers that still own and control the business do something to put the business at risk. They could commit regulatory violations that risk license cancellation. They could take on business debt, putting the businesses assets at risk. The buyer would be powerless to stop these actions, because the LCB does not want to see any party exert control over a licensed business until that party has been approved by the LCB to do so.

If you instead apply for the ownership change first, you are less at risk of the bad acts of the selling party. Instead, you have to deal with getting a lease that would be in place for the time between when the ownership change is approved and the time when the new location is approved. The LCB wants to see landlord consent, and landlords often try to gouge buyers in this situation because they understand how much leverage they have. You also have to go through a sham process with the LCB when you do the ownership change application. The LCB asks for operating plan information, but you aren’t allowed to say that you don’t really plan on operating in the existing space, even if that is your plan. Instead, you are in a situation where you are just saying what you need to in order to get approved so that you can move on to the next step. LCB investigators understand this, but they still require the minimums so that they can check all the boxes off their checklists.

This type of procedural challenge is so frustrating because it isn’t tied to any policy. The LCB allows location changes, and it allows ownership changes. There is no reason that it shouldn’t be able to run both changes at the same time. But somewhere within the LCB archives, someone wrote down a policy that says investigators can’t do two things at once, and so far no one there is willing to do what it takes to change that policy. That policy has wasted enormous amounts of time and money and created enormous amounts of stress for parties on all sides, and it is part of why Washington has a reputation for being a hard state to do business. It invites actual regulatory violations, where people exert control over businesses that they haven’t been approved for, because the alternative can feel ridiculous.

For those of you with regulatory lobbyists out there, we encourage you to push the LCB on issues like this, in addition to substantive lobbying. There can and should be legitimate debate on whether businesses are allowed to sell marijuana-infused gummy bears. But for procedural challenges that have no basis in enforcing substantive rules, it’s important to keep pushing back. We want to see regulatory compliance, and the more logistically challenging the state makes it for businesses to comply with regulations, the more likely that businesses will ignore those regulations.

lcb washington cannabis marijuana
Unfortunately, a lot of this stuff is not written anywhere.

To successfully work in Washington’s regulatory cannabis industry, you need to understand the overlapping levels of laws and rules that are in the state’s regulatory arsenal. State statutes in RCW 69.50 set forth the boundaries of the regulatory system. State regulations in WAC 314-55 fill in the details of that regulatory system. Then there are official Liquor and Cannabis Board guidance documents, administrative cases, and court cases that formally interpret those statutes and rules. But there is yet another tier of rulemaking that is harder to see. This tier houses all the unwritten, often changing policies and interpretations of the LCB. If you aren’t aware of these unwritten rules, you can get yourself into a lot of trouble, including potentially losing your license — even if you think you’ve done everything by the book.

For example, did you know that the LCB has two different enforcement policies with regard to its “minor frequenting” violation? If a marijuana retailer does not check ID at its door, here’s the order of events. The minor enters the retail store and attempts to make a purchase. The store employee checks ID and sees that the minor is underage and asks the minor to leave without completing a sale. There is no violation. However, take this same set of circumstances and add an additional security ID check at the front door, in addition to the ID check at point of sale. In that circumstance, if the ID check at the front door misses spotting the date on the ID card but the minor is still turned away at the secondary ID check at point of sale, the retailer has committed a violation. If a retail business is going to have an outside security check, it has a different, stricter standard for what constitutes a rules violation than if it doesn’t have that security check. Regardless of whether that policy is bad (it is), you can’t find it anywhere in the LCB’s rules or in case law interpreting those rules.

In another example, the LCB has generally held that a financial contribution to a licensed business creates a financier relationship the entails a full criminal background check on the financier and a disclosure by the financier to the LCB of all that financier’s assets, debts, etc., all under penalty of perjury. On the other hand, if that same financier wanted instead to invest just in real estate and equipment and lease that equipment to a licensed marijuana business, no LCB disclosure or background check is required. All of that is reasonably reflected in the rules as written. However, the LCB also has a twist on that policy. If a marijuana business owner also wants to co-own the real property that is leased to the marijuana business, any other financiers or owners of that real property are considered as financiers or owners of the underlying marijuana business. Even if a property were purchased a year before the marijuana license was issued, a lender that holds a deed of trust on property that is owned by an individual that leases it to that individual’s marijuana business is considered a financier. Again, this policy is not reflected at all in any statute or regulation.

We deal all the time with people who are unwittingly violating written regulations. As a layperson in a regulated industry, it is your responsibility to know those rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. When companies get into trouble because of violations of the unwritten rules, however, they don’t have real notice that what they are doing is contrary to LCB policy. And it allows the LCB to implement policies without being subject to the state’s mandatory notice and comment period for new rules. I don’t think that the LCB does this on purpose — the notice and comment period creates delays and can be taxing to work through. But there are enough tools in the LCB’s belt (emergency rules, interim policies, formal guidance documents, etc.), that any time we see the unwritten rules in practice, we need to push back. Lately, we’ve been doing that a lot around here.

washington residency marijuana constitutional
Could definitely be unconstitutional.

We think it is worth taking another look at whether Washington’s strict residency requirement is constitutional. Since Washington first licensed marijuana businesses in 2014, we have wondered if anyone would be willing to bear the expenses of that particular challenge. And to date, there are no Washington appellate or federal legal decisions determining the constitutionality of the residency requirement. If there were a challenge, Washington would have a tough time defending the constitutionality of the law.

There are two important constitutional concept here: the Dormant Commerce Clause (the DCC) and the Privileges and Immunities Clause (the PIC). We first wrote about one of these, the DCC, three years ago. The DCC is a body of law (all made by judges) that seeks to enforce free-trade rules among the states. The idea is that Congress has the sole authority to regulate interstate commerce, and state laws that blatantly interfere with interstate commerce are potentially unconstitutional. Our analysis of this issue is largely the same as it was in that blog post three years ago. To determine if a law violates the DCC, one first determines whether the law interferes with interstate commerce. Washington’s residency restriction likely does so because it stops out-of-state participants from engaging in commerce in Washington. If a state law discriminates against out of state residents, it is very likely unconstitutional. It can only survive if the state can show that the law is the least restrictive means by which it can achieve a non-protectionist purpose. In the case of Washington’s marijuana residency requirement, there are lots of other states without such a requirement, and they are doing fine.

It looks like the book could be open and shut with the DCC, but people are still hesitant to bring that case. The DCC is tough to understand in practice: It’s a constitutional restriction by inference and counterfactual. So if law by logical proof isn’t your thing, the PIC provides an alternative compelling constitutional argument that Washington’s residency restriction would lose a court battle. The PIC —  Article IV, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution — says: “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.” The PIC seeks to prevent discrimination by one state against another state’s residents. In addition to protecting civil liberties, the PIC also protects fundamental economic interests.

The weakness in the PIC arguments is that the right to own a marijuana business may not be considered a fundamental economic right that the PIC protects. In past cases, the PIC has successfully knocked out state residency requirements for attorney bar licensure and for employment, but the PIC has failed to stop a state from only giving hunting licenses to its residents. Cases seem to say that commercial activity, as opposed to recreational, is fundamental, but it would be reasonable for the discriminating state to argue that the right to own a federally illegal marijuana business cannot, by definition, be fundamental enough to get this constitutional protection.

The federal illegality of marijuana, of course, is the elephant in the room. There seems to be a misconception that federal courts would never protect a would-be marijuana business owner in a legal battle with the state. That fear, however, is a misreading of constitutional law. Marijuana’s illegality does get in the way of a lot of general legal enforcement. Contracts with an illegal subject matter can be found void as a matter of law. Federal bankruptcy courts will not process marijuana company filings because they cannot appoint a trustee to manage marijuana assets. And in cases where parties seek injunctive relief, courts can use the “clean hands” doctrine to say that they will not issue injunctions to help marijuana businesses because those businesses have not come to the court with sufficiently “clean hands” to receive the benefit of equitable rulings.

However, the Constitution is not a contract or an equitable ruling. The Constitution protects us from state and federal overreach in all circumstances, regardless of what we have done and regardless of what we are doing. To put it another way, let’s say that Washington had a law that said women not allowed to own a marijuana business. Does anyone think that a federal court would not overturn that law? Of course it would. It doesn’t matter that marijuana is federally illegal; the state cannot violate the Constitution with illegal preferences. Similarly, both the DCC and the PIC are constitutional protections. A litigant against the state of Washington seeking to overturn the residency requirement would win or lose on the merits. Even a federal court would not throw out a case simply because marijuana businesses were involved.

WSLCB washington cannabis
WSLCB seems to want it both ways on “residency.”

Despite lobbying efforts to the contrary, Washington has maintained its strict state residency requirement for Washington cannabis business owners. If a person wants to own 0.001% of a cannabis business, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) requires that person to be a Washington resident and to go through about 1,000 hoops before it authorizes the licensed cannabis business to issue that ownership interest. In general, cash-starved producer-processors looking for investment and out-of-state investors have pushed for the law to change, while more established retailers and certain producer-processors prefer the lack of out-of-state competition. The residency issue is resonating in Olympia, with many legislators openly discussing lifting or altering the state restriction on out-of-state ownership.

While the overall topic of the residency requirement is often discussed, one issue that doesn’t get as much attention is how the WSLCB is currently defining residency. And that’s because they don’t— at least not directly. The WSLCB’s marijuana regulations define the term “residence” as a place where a person physically resides, but that is only in the context of the rule that marijuana licenses cannot be issued to businesses whose location is at a personal residence. The section talking about the residency requirement, WAC 314-55-120(10) uses the terms “resided” and “residency requirement,” but the rules do not define those terms.

Neither does RCW 69.50, the section of Washington’s legislative code that contains its statutes related to regulated marijuana businesses. RCW 69.50.331(1)(b)(ii) contains the legislative requirement that someone must have “lawfully resided in the state for at least six months prior to applying” for a marijuana business license. Whether the drafters of that section meant “resided in Washington without breaking any laws” or “would be considered resident of Washington as a matter of law”, we cannot really say. The statute does not contain any significant guidance on what does and does not constitute residency.

When Washington first opened for licensing, the interpretation of these sections was key. Back then, in 2013 and 2014, the residency requirement was only three months, and entrepreneurs looking to take advantage of the market had been trying to figure out the least that they could do to establish residency in order to qualify for the new licenses. When people asked the WSLCB what constituted residency, they were deferred to other state agencies that had defined residency. I personally have been on multiple phone calls with WSLCB investigators where they deferred to the Department of Revenue’s (DOR) definition of residency.

The problem with deference to the Department of Revenue is that the WSLCB generally acts like it wants a narrow definition of residency, whereas DOR wants a broad definition of residency. DOR wants people to be considered residents because that means that they owe sales tax and/or use tax on their purchases. Even the WSLCB’s old rules FAQ still has a link (albeit a broken one) to this Access Washington webpage saying that there are many ways that one can show that he or she is a Washington resident, including registering to vote and obtaining a Washington driver’s license.

Although it provides resources that make it seem like it is easy to prove residency, the WSLCB’s enforcement officers and investigators continue to treat residency as a strict requirement that one physically inhabit Washington virtually every day of the year. We have an administrative case happening right now where the WSLCB claims that our client is not a Washington resident, even though that person owns residential property in Washington and gets all of his or her mail there, is registered to vote in Washington, and maintains a Washington drivers license (and no other state licenses or IDs). They can’t point to a single written definition of residency that this client violates, but they continue to fight on this point.

This isn’t all about one case, one client, or even one issue. The WSLCB is showing time and time again that it likes to live in the zone of vaguely written or non-existent regulations and stringent enforcement of the WSLCB’s interpretations of those vaguely written or non-existent rules. Unless you assume that the WSLCB has malicious intentions in drafting and enforcing its rules in this way (which we do not assume), it does not make sense that they would not adopt a stringent definition of residency if they want to enforce it that way. But until the WSLCB amends its rules by adopting an actual definition of residency, it will continue looking like it is speaking out of both sides of its mouth.

washington amnesty WSLCB
Coming soon to WSLCB.

We recently wrote about the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board’s consideration of a marijuana licensee amnesty program for licensees with undisclosed true parties of interest a couple of weeks ago. In that post, though we criticized the WSLCB for not doing more to put marijuana licensees in a position to succeed, we didn’t have much to say about the amnesty program itself. Other than the fact that the board was discussing offering leniency to companies with undisclosed true parties of interest, not many other details had emerged.

Since then, a few more details have emerged, including a draft notice to Washington marijuana stakeholders announcing the program. It is important to note that as of the writing of this post, the leniency/amnesty program has not yet been finalized, and details are subject to change. That said, here is what is proposed so far:

The program is targeted at licensees that have owners or financiers that have not been disclosed to or approved by the WSLCB. Applications for amnesty/leniency will be denied when:

  1. Owners do not reside in Washington;
  2. Financiers are not U.S. residents;
  3. Owners or financiers have disqualifying criminal history;
  4. Licensees are currently under investigation for hidden ownership;
  5. Entity and/or principal within entity exceeds marijuana licenses allowed; or
  6. Entity and/or principal has interest in cross-tiered marijuana licensee (can’t own both a retailer and a producer/processor).

Licensees will have one month, starting as early as August 1, to apply to the WSLCB on a form provided by the WSLCB for the leniency program. Once the WSLCB receives the form and contacts the licensee there will be a seven day period to complete the initial interview and another fourteen day period to provide all required documentation for all prior undisclosed true parties of interest or financiers.

The WSLCB defines ownership broadly. A legal owner of any shares or membership interest in a licensed business counts, but so do many other business relationships. The WSLCB currently mandates that spouses, even for marriages after initial licensing, be disclosed and vetted by the WSLCB. They also consider anyone who has the right to receive any percentage of the gross or net profits from a licensed business. The WSLCB still tells licensees that any payment of sales commissions to sales agents violates true party of interest rules, despite an administrative law judge ruling otherwise and the WSLCB signing off on that ruling a couple of years ago. Trademark licenses and consulting agreements can create ownership. The WSLCB has still not engaged in substantive rulemaking to implement RCW 69.50.395 that specifically allows for trademark licenses. Instead, they have developed an ad hoc approval process for trademark agreements, where non-attorneys at the WSLCB make judgment calls about whether standard trademark license provisions do or do not create the type of “control” that would render someone a true party of interest under WAC 314-55-035.

Our experience makes us think that there are a lot of marijuana businesses that have hidden ownership problems. The majority of them are not bad actors – they are simply people who either don’t understand that an agreement they signed technically creates an ownership interest as the WSLCB sees it or they have done things in the wrong order, transferring ownership before receiving WSLCB approval. So it is welcome that the WSLCB is moving along on potentially offering amnesty/leniency to the these businesses instead of shutting them down. While that doesn’t fix many of the underlying issues that we have been pointing out, it is still a band-aid that will prevent catastrophe for companies smart enough to take advantage of it.

We’ll post again as soon as we get word that this program is due to go live. In the meantime, check out the following for some recent thoughts on WSLCB program administration and enforcement.

Washington State Cannabis Lawyer
Talking with Washington State cannabis enforcement officers is like playing with fire

Many of my firm’s recent Washington State cannabis enforcement cases contain a commonality. During the investigation stage, Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) enforcement officers tell licensees that their main goal is to achieve compliance. They say they aren’t looking to get anyone’s licenses cancelled — they are just trying to get a full picture so they can help licensees come into compliance with the rules. As we have stated in prior posts, many seemingly benign actions can give rise to license cancellation. But despite these assurances, licensees often find themselves blindsided by cancellation notices after they thought they were participating in a project with their officers to achieve compliance. When the licensees press their enforcement officers, the officers blame “politics” at the WSCLB offices in Olympia. It’s as though the WSLCB enforcement officers are playing the role of the car salesman going upstairs to fight for a price reduction only to be rebuffed by faceless management.

What is really going on here? As with everything else in the cannabis industry, it’s complicated. One thing to remember is that there is a real split in the WSLCB between its licensing division and its enforcement division. “Licensing” people are your standard bureaucrats, throwing up a varying array of obstacles to opening a cannabis business while assessing whether a businessperson and his or her plans merit a license to produce, process, or sell marijuana. “Enforcement” people are, for lack of a better word, cannabis cops.

Being cops, they see their role as rooting out activity contrary to law, and they will portray themselves however they deem necessary to get as much information as possible. Their behavior can range from be-your-buddy good cops to intimidating and threatening bad cops. The same officer often finds himself or herself playing both roles in some circumstances all geared to getting licensees to reveal behavior that may violate the rules. Institutionally, police forces often pressure their officers to continuously find bad behavior and officers that aren’t reporting enough violations face consequences at work for falling behind. We would be naïve to think WSLCB officers don’t face these same internal pressures.

The status of WSLCB officers as regulatory enforcement police puts licensees in a tough position. Most of the public knows that if they are accused of a crime by a regular police force, they shouldn’t say anything and should ask to speak with an attorney. But there is a fundamental difference between criminal enforcement and regulatory enforcement. The right to remain silent and the right to speak with police only with an attorney present are criminal rights. Marijuana business licenses, however, are privilege licenses. If you don’t toe the line, regulators can take that license away. For example, WAC 314-55-050(7) says that the WSLCB can cancel a marijuana license if a licensee denies a WSLCB enforcement officer access to any place where licensed activity takes place or fails to produce any required record licensees are supposed to keep.

Licensees need to keep both of these fundamental facts in their minds when dealing with WSLCB enforcement officers. The licensee has to understand that regardless of what they say, the goal of the WSLCB officer is to find bad acts and either fine the licensee or shut them down. But the licensee cannot ignore or shut out information requests from enforcement officers. Strategically, walking this tight rope requires licensees answer every question from an enforcement officer honestly and never lie, while also avoiding answering more than is asked. It’s not always possible to have an attorney present when dealing with an enforcement officer, but lawyers — especially those experienced in dealing with the WSLCB do help in these situations. Primarily, they know how to consistently frame a business’s activities as compliant within the framework of the rules (assuming the activity really is arguably compliant). Licensees often get themselves into trouble when talking to enforcement officers without an attorney present because they forget the fundamental truth — WSLCB enforcement officers are looking for a reason to submit a violation notice.

If the WSLCB wanted, it could institute a more collaborative relationship between officers and cannabis licensees. At WSLCB meetings, the WSLCB’s enforcement and licensing directors often make it sound as though the goal of enforcement personnel is to achieve compliance more than to shut down cannabis businesses. Actions to date, however, don’t back that up. So long as it appears that issuing violation notices is the primary goal of WSLCB enforcement officers, cannabis licensees need to approach each interaction with an enforcement officer as potentially adversarial because to do otherwise is to put your cannabis license at risk.

WSLCB cannabis marijuana
The WSLCB approach is not working so well.

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) may finally be noticing that its current treatment of “true party of interest” violations is neither just nor sustainable. During an extended conversation at its monthly executive management team meeting in June, the WSLCB discussed potentially adopting a hidden ownership amnesty program. Basically, any existing businesses that had mistakenly created a true party of interest relationship would have a limited time to come forward and declare any owners or other true parties of interest in licensed marijuana businesses that had not been disclosed and vetted in the past. The licensee would then be able to get the person vetted, though some penalty other than license cancellation would potentially still be on the table.

The details are not set, and the WSLCB executive team is going to continue meeting and discussing the issue over the coming months. For those licensees in the middle of investigations or regulatory hearings with the WSLCB, there’s not much hope to pull from this. Even if the WSLCB moved with lightning speed to adopt something, the agency was clear that it would not avail anyone currently undergoing a formal investigation or violation hearing.

That the WSLCB is discussing the topic of leniency at all indicates that they are cognizant of problems with current regulations and enforcement, though their idea of an amnesty or leniency program won’t do anything to solve the underlying issues. The foremost issue right now is that the timing of getting financing approved doesn’t work. The WSLCB currently demands that all money contributed to a licensed business be approved prior to it being spent on behalf of the business. The approval process for capital can take months, even if the capital contributors have already been approved as owners or financiers of the business in the past. But the types of emergencies that require short-term capital infusions tend not to wait months for regulators to approve. Businesses are forced to violate a rule by either having current owners contribute new capital or having outsiders provide financing prior to getting WSLCB approval.

There are plenty of solutions to the financier predicament that the WSLCB could adopt. They could allow for after-the-fact vetting of certain types of loans. They could modernize and streamline their financial approval process. They could keep the exact same system and just hire more people so that new funds could get investigated and cleared immediately. Any move to temporarily allow for relaxed penalties for regulatory violators to come forward isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the same problem will continue again and again. Academically speaking, the WSLCB is applying an over-inclusive rule to business actions that range from willfully criminal to entirely benign. This over-inclusive application of the law “makes regulatory unreasonableness not an occasional weakness but a pervasive problem.”[1]

[1] Quote is from the first full paragraph on page 40 of this linked article — the WSLCB should read it and redesign their enforcement structure.

The WSLCB’s current investigative and enforcement strategy feels targeted at unlucky businesses that have made mistakes. This is part of why their trigger-happy nature regarding license cancellation is so frustrating. Two of the cancellation cases that my law firm is currently working on have come because of voluntary disclosure of information by a licensee. There certainly are bad actors in the marijuana industry that are intentionally defrauding the WSCLB and may well have ties to organized crime, but the WSLCB seems to leave those businesses alone. It is tough, challenging work to investigate illegal activity when the actors are working hard to cover up the illegal activity. It is much easier to go after the low-hanging fruit of licensees that are fully transparent about their activities.

Fundamentally, the WSLCB underestimates the deterrent effect of large monetary fines and underestimates the huge collateral damage that business shutdowns can create. If the WSLCB wants to create real compliance, it is going to need to make some more drastic changes than temporary amnesty/leniency programs.

washington cannabis LCB
More crucial than ever for Washington operators.

We have represented clients in regulatory violation cases inside and outside the cannabis industry for years. Of all the jurisdictions in which we work, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board in 2018 is unique in its eagerness shut down businesses. In case after case against licensed producers and processors, the WSLCB seems determined to seek violations that could lead to license cancellation and is generally refusing to offer alternative penalties. Because so many of these cases are still pending, it is hard to go into too much detail, but the WSLCB’s actions in these cases indicate a desire to cull the number of licensed producer/processors.

For those producer/processors in Washington that aren’t currently being investigated for regulatory violations, the WSLCB’s current policy generates mixed reactions. When licenses were available for application in November and December 2013, thousands of businesses applied for the right to cultivate and process marijuana. As the market as matured, wholesale prices of marijuana have continued to fall, and the ability of licensees to maximize production has continued to increase. There is so much marijuana available on the market right now that it is hard for producer/processors to compete. Just having a license isn’t enough to run a profitable business, and many of the top performing producer/processors in the state are not generating the profits that most outsiders would assume.

At the same time, the types of violations that can cause the WSLCB to cancel a license and shut down a business are surprisingly easy to commit, even for dedicated compliant businesses. For example, let’s say that a licensed producer/processor has an unexpected bad month and doesn’t have enough money in the bank to make payroll. There isn’t any way for a licensee to get expedited approval of a cash infusion from the business’s owners If those owners contribute more of their own money before getting that approval, though, the WSLCB will still cancel the licenses. Or let’s say that a licensee enters into a licensing deal to manufacture branded products developed by another company. If the contract for that deal includes any terms that the WSLCB determines allow the licensor to exert too much control, they will cancel the license.

License cancellation is not innocuous. Marijuana business regulations bar a company from using a licensed location for business other than marijuana operations. Therefore, any type of license cancellation is really a death penalty for the business itself. These businesses employ anywhere between a few individuals and more than fifty people. Many of the employees are not the most employable in other industries either; legal cannabis jobs are the only thing standing between them and poverty.

And this is where it is clear that the WSLCB’s primary goal in cancelling licenses has to be to reduce the number of active licenses overall. Even in cases where the owner that is the “cause” of the regulatory violation has offered to transfer ownership interest in the business to a third party, the WSLCB still seems determined to cancel the licenses. They don’t seem to consider the effect that license cancellation has on innocent employees, landlords, investors, and contracting parties.

If you’re a licensed producer/processor in Washington (retailers seem to get more leeway), there’s not much you can do about this in the short term other than to stay compliant. There are certainly strategic alternatives that could engender better compliance among licensees, but it isn’t clear that compliance is the WSLCB’s current primary goal. Until the WSLCB starts accepting alternative penalties for certain seemingly innocuous violations for which they are authorized to cancel licenses, though, licensees will not receive the benefit of the doubt from the WSLCB. The correct attitude to take is that the regulators do not want you to have a license to engage in marijuana business activities, and they will do everything in their power to take it away.