Photo of Vince Sliwoski

Vince manages Harris Bricken’s Portland office and is a professor of Cannabis Law and Policy at Lewis & Clark Law School. He is a well-rounded attorney with expertise in a wide range of transactional law.

oregon cannabis license marijuanaRunning a cannabis business is difficult and many people fail. There are a myriad of reasons why these ventures bottom out, although owners tend to blame federal law issues first of all. It’s true that federal law creates a tough environment for cannabis businesses (banking issues, tax issues, branding issues, etc.), but federal prohibition also kept big money sidelined at first, giving small business a real head start. My personal view, after seeing many spectacular business failures and slow motion crashes over the past several years, is that most are some combination of the following: 1) a challenging legal and regulatory environment, 2) saturated markets, and 3) operator error.

A start-up cannabis business cannot control the first two items listed above, but should be able to navigate them. The third item is a different animal. Margin of error tends to be slim for most new ventures, and self-inflicted wounds are difficult to overcome. This blog post covers the five biggest mistakes we continue to see in early stage Oregon cannabis business, and gives suggestions to avoid them.

  1. Failure to properly estimate license transition timelines

Because the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) “paused” review of applications submitted after June 15, 2018, most new market entrants are buying their way in through asset or stock sales from existing licensees. The OLCC has a small and overtasked team of change-in-ownership investigators who work with both buyers and sellers on these transactions. Recently, agency higher-ups have advised us that these changes can still happen in as quickly as four to six weeks. However, that almost never occurs. Four to six months seems more common.

Even a non-cannabis business sale can be delayed by many things, from diligence issues to lease negotiations to ironing out terms in final agreements. In the Oregon cannabis industry, administrative vetting and disclosure requirements must be added to that list. Delays are almost always on the buyer side, stemming from initial business structuring, filling out OLCC business structure and individual history forms, submitting fingerprints, etc. Buyers should create realistic timelines to avoid hemorrhaging cash during this phase, and should strongly consider working with someone who has navigated the change-in-ownership process before. It’s a singular process and there is definitely some art to it.

  1. Paying lawyers to expedite your OLCC application

This is a bad idea, but many people do it. Whether for new applications (pretty straightforward) or change-in-ownership (harder) many new businesses spend significant money on lawyers to guide them through the application process. Our Portland office philosophy has always been not to blow through client retainers on ministerial work: We want people to succeed so we can work with them for years. For that reason, we have trained licensing paralegals who push these applications through efficiently and expertly. Attorneys only come in for unusual situations. The bottom line here is that new businesses should save their legal budgets for work that cannot be done by non-lawyers.

  1. Starry-eyed forecasting

You are not going to sell your marijuana for $2,000 a pound in Oregon. Forget it. You also do not have a strain of marijuana that you will patent and license one day to big pharma. You are not the only person trying to run down hemp for distillate, and, closer to home, you should not budget a six-figure salary for yourself or anyone else in the early stage. Although the market challenges have been well publicized, too many people believe that an OLCC marijuana license is tantamount to a license to print money. It’s not. All of this means that it is crucial to dial in your research and expectations before starting out – especially if you are taking on investment and the legal risk attached to that.

  1. Employment issues

For whatever reason, employment practices are often subpar with cannabis businesses. There are a couple of important things to note here. The first is that employee actions, even if unauthorized, can lead to license revocation in Oregon. This means you must ensure your employees are well versed in compliance, and you have to watch them. The second thing to note is employment law is complex and seems to change as often as cannabis licensing rules. We have a host of new employer requirements coming online January 1, 2019 in Oregon, for example. Whenever there is a dispute, courts and administrative bodies tend to favor employees, so it’s important to keep your team in order.

  1. Bad (or no) business agreements

You do not need a tall stack of complex documents to start a cannabis business. You do need the basics, though, and those agreements should be solid. If you are renting property, get a tailored industry lease. If you are organizing an LLC, get an operating agreement that covers matters important to your business, such as management, distributions, protocol for when someone jeopardizes the OLCC license, etc. Or, if you have a white label agreement, ensure that all processes and intellectual property ownership are delineated. The list goes on.

Starting a business can be expensive, and people tend to skim on legal. But nearly all of the cannabis litigation matters my firm is currently handling stem from defective contracts, and from people operating informally in that sense. Reasonably tailored contracts should be a part of any new business plan, and they should not break the bank. These contracts will set both guidelines and expectations for the business, and they operate like insurance when things go wrong.

Oregon psilocybin psychedelic mushrooms

Back in August, I covered the landmark Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drug trial approval for psilocybin, the naturally occurring, psychedelic ingredient found in around 200 species of mushrooms. I speculated that if everything goes well, we could see an approved psilocybin drug hit the market sometime in the next 5 to 10 years. I also mentioned that it’s possible that psilocybin could be legalized in certain states before that, including Oregon. Last month that came one step closer to happening, when Oregon Attorney General approved ballot measure language to legalize psilocybin statewide.

Initiative Petition 2020-12 (the “Initiative”) can be found here, and a link to the Official PSI 2020 Campaign Website can be found here. If you just want to see a summary of the Initiative ballot title as it would appear in 2020, though, we’ve got you covered:

Currently, federal/state law prohibits the manufacture, delivery, and possession of psilocybin (hallucinogen from fungus). Initiative amends state law to reduce most criminal penalties for unlawful/unlicensed psilocybin manufacture, delivery, possession to violations or misdemeanors; retains felonies for large weight of psilocybin and/or some convicted felons. Initiative amends state law to require Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to establish Oregon Psilocybin Services Program to allow licensed/regulated production, processing, delivery, possession of psilocybin, and administration of “psilocybin service” (defined) by licensed “facilitator” (defined) to “qualified client” (defined). Grants OHA authority to implement, administer, and enforce program. Establishes fund for program administration and OHA appointed advisory board to advise OHA director. Preempts local laws inconsistent with program except “reasonable regulations” (defined). Other provisions.

That’s a fair bit to digest, but if you’ve been around this stuff for a while you might observe that the Initiative offers a structure similar to Oregon’s early-stage medical marijuana program. That program also: 1) was borne of an initiative back in 1998; 2) was solely administered by OHA (through its predecessor); 3) reduced criminal penalties, and 4) created a doctor-patient-caregiver program similar to the facilitator-client concept on offer for psilocybin. It appears that the Initiative’s chief petitioners are wisely working off the model.

The steep and imminent challenge for the petitioners is the requirement to gather 140,000 signatures over the next 18 months in order to get the Initiative onto the ballot. If that somehow happens, an even steeper challenge will be convincing 51% of everybody to vote “Yes” to legalizing psilocybin. All in all, it feels like a bit much, even for Oregon. Our guess is that the signatures hurdle will sink the initiative, as recently occurred with a similar effort in California.

Still, you never know. Oregon can boast a history of progressive action on controlled substances, dating back to 1973 when it became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis. That action was taken against the strong headwinds of the recently enacted federal Controlled Substances Act. Today, the zeitgeist is quite a bit different.

If you want to get involved in legalizing psilocybin in Oregon, the landing page for volunteers is here. Otherwise, we will keep you posted on any major developments as they arise.

oregon marijuana cannabis clackamas deschutes We always talk about the cannabis industry being dynamic. That’s true from a markets perspective and it’s true from a regulatory point of view. When it comes to regulations in particular, industry observers tend to focus on the big picture developments: e.g., whether marijuana will finally be re- or de-scheduled at the federal level, whether we will get a farm bill legalizing industrial hemp nationwide, or which new states have legalized cannabis. Those broad issues deservedly get a lot of press. However, marijuana business owners are often more concerned about what is going on locally, at the city or county level. In fact, most cannabis business owners get more passionate about proposed changes to local regulations than proposed state- or even federal law developments.

My law firm has worked with regulated cannabis business in Oregon, Washington and California since 2010. I suspect that none of our cannabis business lawyers support extensive local regulation of marijuana (let alone local licensing programs). Because states tend to promulgate extensive regulatory structures, local rules tend to be duplicative and controversial once you get beyond basic land use concepts. That said, cities and counties are often pressed by their citizens to regulate cannabis businesses, and state governments give ample regulatory authority to local jurisdictions– often including the choice to “opt out” of industry participation altogether.

When localities do regulate cannabis, the process is often iterative, meaning rules are adopted and amended over time. Sometimes the changes accrue in response to changes in state law; sometimes they are in response to litigation; sometimes they are needed when current rules are failing; and sometimes the local population just changes its opinion about cannabis businesses altogether (usually, for the better).

We continue to see cities and counties modify their rules in Oregon. Below is a brief encapsulation of what is going on around the state today, based on client projects. This list is probably not exhaustive, so if you have updates on what is going on in your area, we’d love to hear from you.

Clackamas County

Clackamas County is home to 220 cannabis licenses by our count, making it home to over 10% of OLCC licensees and the fourth largest cannabis county statewide. We have been a part of most rulemaking processes on offer at the County, from the original implementation of Measure 91 to the reversal of the ban on cannabis processing. Recently, Clackamas County proposed to modify its rules yet again, by limiting the availability of production on certain lots. The relevant Planning Commission hearing was held last night, and the Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed license limits on January 16. The amendments, if approved, would limit continguous lots of record under the same ownership to one OLCC producer license, or one medical marijuana (OHA) grow site. The change would apply only to lots zoned as Ag/Forest, Exclusive Farm Use, and Timber. Current OLCC producer licenses existing on contiguous lots in these zones would be grandfathered. The proposed revised regulations are here, and an FAQ is here. There is still plenty of time to submit comments.

Josephine County

Anyone familiar with the Oregon marijuana industry knows that Josephine County has had a rough time in its efforts to regulate cannabis. The County has suffered several consecutive legal setbacks, but apparently is pushing forward with a new effort to limit OLCC marijuana activities on “rural residential” zoned properties. The Board of Commissioners most recently held a land use hearing on November 7, with a first reading of the proposed new ordinance. No word yet on next steps, but it appears that the County is going through the proper public notice requirements this time, and fortunately the current ordinance draft includes grandfathering rights for current licensees (“non-conforming use” application options).

Deschutes County

Deschutes County Ordinance 2018-012 took effect on Friday. The new regulations reduced the available County acreage for cannabis by 17%, mostly by prohibiting marijuana production and processing in the multiple use agricultural (MUA) zone. The ordinance contains many other provisions as well, from new setback requirements to noise and odor mitigation rules. Although Ordinance 2018-012 is now in effect, we are including Deschutes County here because an appeal of this ordinance was filed with the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals a few weeks back. The appeal means that these regulations are in flux to some extent, and will not be affirmed or rejected for several months.

New Oregon cities 

Last month, we covered the industry-friendly reversals of Ontario, Klamath Falls, Clatskanie and Sumpter, a quartet of cities scattered about the state which initially prohibited cannabis but are now opening their borders to OLCC licensed businesses. It now appears that the cities of Gates and Joseph may have “legalized” as well. For information on Ontario rulemaking, go here. For information on the Klamath Falls process, go here. We do not yet have information on the remaining four cities, but interested parties should reach out to those City Councils to gauge plans for rulemaking in the newly green jurisdictions.

cannabis business contractsYou can spend a lot of money on lawyers, accountants and consultants when starting a cannabis business. There is so much ground to cover from concept to execution– especially in a complex and highly regulated industry. Related to this issue, we have written on this blog about finding a team, and we have talked about the importance of things like operating formally, staying away from generic agreements and avoiding the seemingly bottomless pit of industry scams and schemes.

Today’s blog post will cover which documents are really necessary when structuring a cannabis business, and what you may be able to do without— at least in the beginning. Note that these are general guidelines. They are not intended to serve as legal advice and every business should use its best judgment and consult with counsel on these items.

  1. Stuff you cannot do without

Articles of Incorporation or Organization

This is very basic, but you cannot have a company unless the entity has been duly registered with the relevant Secretary of State. These days, most filings in most states can be done online, although there are situations where online filings are a bad idea, like when you want to do anything nonstandard with your Articles of Incorporation (for a corporation) or Articles of Organization (for an LLC). Those situations arise somewhat frequently. For example, you may want specific indemnity provisions for your board of directors beyond what the statutes contemplate. Or you may need to outline the attributes of preferred stock your corporation plans to issue. Many state registration portals do not allow “check the box” options for this type of tailored structuring. Get a solid cannabis business lawyer to help.

Internal Governance Agreements

If you have registered a multi-member LLC, it is a bad idea to proceed without an operating agreement and without an initial set of consent resolutions. The operating agreement in particular is going to define the spectrum of voting and economic rights each member has in the company, as well as crucial operational concepts. These concepts include non-industry specific matters (what happens when the company requires more capital?) to cannabis-specific matters (what happens when a member endangers the company’s state-issued license?).

In a corporation, you are going to have a few more agreements to start. Of these, bylaws and initial consent resolutions cannot be skipped. You will also need a shareholder agreement in most instances, and you will need to issue shares to owners (certificated or uncertificated). Other items, like a voting agreement, proxy agreements, etc., may be less important for some companies and you can often skip these to start.

Lease Agreement

Even if one of the cannabis business owners also owns the real estate at issue, you are going to need an industry-specific lease. A well drafted lease will insulate the property and its owners from liability if the cannabis business fails, or finds itself in litigation. When your business is leasing from a perfect stranger, the lease becomes even more important to outline the basic terms of the landlord-tenant relationship, on everything from your rights to occupy the property, to your rights to make modifications required to obtain a license.

Employee Handbook

If you have even one employee in your new business, get a handbook together. These internal business documents serve as a key communication tool between a business and its employees. A good handbook will set forth guidelines and expectations for workers, and perhaps most importantly, it can give a broad array of legal protections to business owners, as we previously explained here.

Third-Party Agreements

If your brand new cannabis business is doing a business transaction with a third party (some frequent, early examples include loans and services agreements) make sure you have adequately papered those items. Not memorializing a business or financial relationship in writing is asking for trouble.

  1. Stuff you can probably skip (for now)

Employment Agreements

Today, all states recognize at-will employment, with various limitations. This means that a written employment agreement is not needed (or even desirable) for many types of employees. An exception may be where the employee is occupying a highly specialized or highly compensated position, or has rights to vest in ownership. But if all you are worried about is an employee having access to proprietary information, you can generally cover this in an employee handbook, or through a simple non-disclosure agreement.

Stock Purchase Agreement

Lots of cannabis businesses try to raise capital shortly after formation, or as they approach licensure. They do this by selling stock or another form of ownership in the company. In our experience, though, it’s often best to wait until the business understands exactly how much money it needs to raise, and from whom, before drafting a stock purchase agreement. In many cases funds are raised from just one or two targets, and it does not make sense to draft purchase agreements until terms have been negotiated, or even memorialized in a letter of intent or other term sheet with prospective purchasers.

Business Plan

It’s a great idea to have a business plan, but not to pay a lawyer or consultant thousands of dollars to draft this for you. There is enough publicly available information out there for anyone to put together his or her own marijuana business plan these days; and you will know more than anyone you could hire about your goals. Even if you are unsure about some of the concepts at first, doing the research needed to put this document together will go a long way in educating and setting yourself up for success.


It’s easy to get lost when starting a business, and to rack up costs on unnecessary items, or items that are less important in the near term. Focus on the basics to start, and enlist a knowledgeable cannabis business attorney to get you off the ground. The lawyer should be able to provide you estimates for basic services, and allow you to focus mostly on what matters most– running a successful cannabis industry business.

 2018 marijuana cannabis midterms michigan utah missouri

Today was a stellar day for marijuana advocates around the country. Not only did a handful of states authorize legalization of medical and recreational marijuana at the polls, but the Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives, and one very problematic Congressman, Pete Sessions, was sent packing down in Texas.

Below is a summary of the big changes nationwide, with many of these results still firming up at the time of writing. Note that this post does not detail some of the “smaller” local developments, such as decriminalization in certain Ohio cities, enthusiasm for cannabis by Wisconsin voters, or many other positive developments ushered in by this evening’s voting.

Michigan

Congratulations to the Wolverine State, which voted to legalize adult use (recreational) marijuana statewide. Individuals who are at least 21 years of age will be permitted to possess and use marijuana and marijuana-infused edibles, and grow up to 12 marijuana plants for personal consumption (that’s quite a bit). Permitted retail sales will be subject to a relatively modest 10% tax. Per state law, ballot initiatives take effect 10 days after results are certified, which can take up to three weeks from yesterday. So, legalization should take effect by the end of the year. Michigan is the tenth most populous state in the nation, and the first Midwestern state to legalize cannabis– which is a big deal. (Yes, Michigan is a part of the Midwest.)

Missouri

Missouri is another Midwestern state to make giant strides on cannabis, legalizing medical marijuana statewide. Missourians reviewed three medical cannabis legalization measures on the ballot: the one that passed is known as Amendment 2. Amendment 2 is an impressive entrée into legalization for a couple of reasons: first, it actually amends the state constitution to allow medical cannabis; and second, it contemplates a licensing program extending far beyond decriminalization, to state licensure for cultivators, manufacturers, testing labs and dispensaries. Under the new regime, qualified patients with physician approval will be allowed to receive cards for any condition the physician sees fit. There will be a 4% tax on retail transactions. Of the three initiatives on Missouri’s ballot, this one was the best.

North Dakota

Alas, North Dakota failed to move beyond the confines of its medical marijuana program. Measure 3 would have allowed people 21 and older to possess, use, grow, buy and sell marijuana for recreational purposes, and it would have expunged previous cannabis convictions from criminal records. Stepping back, Measure 3 was an odd initiative in that it failed to include any language regarding regulation or taxes. Apparently, the idea was to let the legislature figure that part out, but Measure 3 advisers may be kicking themselves for that strategy today.

Utah

Like North Dakota, Utah is a fairly conservative state. In keeping with that ethos, Utah passed a fairly conservative ballot measure last night to legalize medical marijuana – but passed it nonetheless. Proposition 2 allows qualified patients with physician approval to a purchase two ounces of medical marijuana in any two week period, or products containing 10 grams of CBD or THC. Curiously, smoking medical marijuana isn’t allowed. To the good, patients who live more than 100 miles from a dispensary will be able to cultivate 6 plants at home, and there will be a caregiver program. The state will issue licenses for cultivation, processing, testing and dispensaries.

In all, Proposition 2 had a very interesting backstory, such that today’s legalization of medical marijuana in Utah was something of a fait accompli. You can read about that here.

Congress

Democrats took back the House of Representatives last night, which is great news for federal legislation prospects. Although cannabis is not a distinctly partisan issue these days, most progressive cannabis legislation tends to come from the House, and the prospects of moving marijuana legislation are far superior today than yesterday. The fact that the Senate is still solidly Republican is not ideal for federal legalization, but the prospect of compromise legislation on everything from decriminalization to banking to taxes — to say nothing of issues like industrial hemp — is better than ever.

Pete Sessions (“Prohibition Pete”)

This one could probably fall under the “Congress” paragraph above, but it’s a significant enough development to merit special mention. Back in March, I had fun writing about how Pete Sessions was almost single-handedly blocking cannabis reform, including bipartisan proposals, from his perch as Chair of the House Rules Committee. Well, Pete lost yesterday. This means that the undemocratic nonsense of blocking floor votes on issues that both parties want to vote on, is likely over. This development will probably be under-reported given everything else that occurred today, but it’s huge.

All in all, voters across the U.S. once again expressed their desire to do away with prohibition on November 6. This morning, 33 states and the District of Columbia have laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form. The President may be open to reform, and we expect industrial hemp to be legalized within a couple of months. Interestingly, the U.S. has also found itself in a marijuana sandwich of sorts, between Canada’s recent federal legalization and Mexico’s imminent legalization. But that’s a story for another day.

For now, cannabis reform advocates should rejoice: Voters rejected prohibition in many places, nationwide.

cannabis marijuana RICO litigation
Time for some of these plaintiffs’ lawyers to pack it up.

We’ve been writing about RICO lawsuits on this blog for a while. These lawsuits are typically brought by neighbors of state-licensed cannabis farms, who allege they are bothered by noise and smells associated with cannabis production, and that their property values have been damaged by extension. Generally speaking, these plaintiffs tend to have strong prohibitionist beliefs. Filing RICO lawsuits has also become a cottage industry for certain lawyers, and there are even educational courses for attorneys who want to spend their time on this sort of thing.

As a reminder, RICO is a federal statute that provides for a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization (in addition to criminal penalties). Because RICO complaints sound in federal law and implicate supply chain and vendor defendants, these cases differ from your ordinary nuisance-and-trespass actions, which pursue only the marijuana grower itself, and are also occasionally brought against cannabis farms.

The first RICO lawsuits started popping up a few years ago, and some of them are backed by prohibitionist groups attempting to rattle the industry. One common strategy of RICO plaintiffs, particularly in the early litigations, was to name every vendor doing business with the cannabis farm, including those that never touched the plant itself: e.g., banks, insurance vendors and equipment providers. The RICO plaintiffs would then dismiss these defendants one by one, as each defendant cut ties with the defendant farm— which seems like a racket if there ever was one.

Although pot-neighbor litigation is probably not what Congress had in mind back when it wrote the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, RICO litigants have found some success with their approach, most notably in a 10th Circuit case called Safe Streets v. Hickenlooper, which allowed a RICO lawsuit to proceed in Colorado. More recently, however, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon dismissed a RICO lawsuit brought by a different marijuana farm neighbor for “failure to state a claim.” That case is known as Ainsworth v. Owenby and Judge McShane’s well-reasoned decision tees up a potential circuit split.

Like most leading business law firms who specialize in the cannabis industry, we have had quite a few clients ensnared in RICO lawsuits. These client defendants have included everyone from the property owners themselves, to far-off dispensaries that were unaware the cannabis they sold came from a defendant farm. Fortunately, these lawsuits aren’t really panning out for plaintiffs and we expect to see the RICO trend wind down. Recent case law developments in both Oregon and Colorado show why.

Oregon

Last month, a case known as Rice v. Ambrocio settled relatively quickly, having been filed only five months before. Rice was a waste of time and money, and it’s a good example of why people don’t like lawyers. The 56-page complaint named almost 50 defendants, although not all of them “appeared” in the case and a few were never served. The parties ultimately settled for a $60,000 collective payment to the plaintiffs (a guy who runs an anti-cannabis website, and his partner), which pencils out to a measly $1,200 per defendant on average. Most importantly for defendants, the settlement agreement is non-confidential.

This unimpressive plaintiffs’ outcome should make potential RICO litigants think twice about filing a lawsuit—especially one where it appears that the marijuana activity has all but ended on the defendant property before papers are even filed. Ultimately, if you want to file a complaint in federal court and take on 50 defendants, you are going to burn a LOT of cash just getting the thing filed and served. And, even if you battle your way through months or even years of motion practice, counterclaims, appeals, etc., the likelihood of success may not be great. Which brings us to Colorado.

Colorado

Earlier this week, we had what may have been the first jury verdict in a cannabis RICO case, and it came down in favor of the cannabis grower defendant. The plaintiffs were represented by a Washington, D.C. law firm with ties to Jeff Sessions, and apparently backed by a national anti-cannabis group known as Safe Streets Alliance. For all of that firepower, however, the plaintiffs could not prove their property value had been damaged by the cannabis grow they despised. The jury believed the defendants’ real estate expert, and reached a verdict relatively quickly in favor of the cannabis business. This case had been going for three years or so, and the plaintiffs had previously had the larger portion of their lawsuit—which sought to invalidate Colorado’s marijuana program entirely—thrown out.

The “no damages” finding by this jury is an extraordinary end to a protracted piece of litigation. When my law firm has potential clients come to us who are interested in filing litigation, we always look at a couple of things right away in addition to whether the claims seem viable. One of those is whether the potential plaintiff has been damaged. If the answer is “yes” (and the possibility of collection seems reasonable) we can usually proceed. But if the answer is “no”, bringing a lawsuit is probably a bad idea, regardless of whether the other side has breached a contract, done something “illegal”, etc.

If juries in cannabis RICO cases are going to find that cannabis production does not diminish the value of nearby properties, and that grower activity does not damage neighbor plaintiffs, these wasteful lawsuits may finally disappear altogether.

For more on RICO marijuana litigation, check out the following posts in our series:

Today let’s talk about Matthew Price, the Oregon marijuana businessman headed to jail for tax crimes. This story got a lot of coverage when it broke last month, partly because it was the first known tax-related prosecution for a licensed pot business owner, and partly because Price was fairly well known in Oregon. He once sat on an Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) rules advisory committee for cannabis retail, and he owned three dispensaries. Seems like he was off to a pretty good start.

Well, not any longer. In addition to the seven-month lockup, Price was ordered to pay the I.R.S. $262,776 in restitution on the nearly $1 million in taxable income he raked in from 2011 to 2014. He will probably never be allowed to participate in the OLCC program again, given the agency’s recent tightening of the screws, and its authority to bar anyone with a federal conviction “substantially related to the fitness and ability of the applicant” to obtain a license.

cannabis marijuana tax IRS

Generally speaking, marijuana businesses are liable for lots of tax under IRC 280E. As cannabis business lawyers, we work with CPAs and others to attempt to mitigate our clients’ tax liability, but at the end of the day, that liability is always there. Tax obligations do not end at the federal level, of course: Most states have income tax programs, and all states with legal cannabis programs seem to collect additional taxes on the sale of marijuana. In Oregon, for example, that sales tax must be escrowed by OLCC retailers and paid to the state Department of Revenue. As to Matthew Price, the news reporting was silent on whether he was also shirking those payments.

Having advised state-legal cannabis businesses since 2010, we have seen a lot of monkey business when it comes to tax. We have seen bad lawyers advise clients not to pay taxes, on the theory that tax programs violate business owners’ rights against self-incrimination. We have seen businesses attempt to claim “non-profit” status and avoid taxes in that manner, despite the impossibility of receiving an I.R.S. exemption. And we’ve seen lots of “management company” schemes, most of which are nonsense. At the end of the day, a baseline level of tax is unavoidable.

Interestingly and appropriately, the judge in this case didn’t seem to treat Price differently because his income derived from cannabis sales. It was reported that federal prosecutors petitioned the judge to go hard on Price, in order to send a message to the marijuana industry. The judge wasn’t having that:

The fact that the product involved here is marijuana is utterly meaningless to me in passing a sentence,” the judge said. “It’s a tax case to me.”

That didn’t stop the Justice Department from bragging a bit, but it’s encouraging to see cannabis entrepreneurs being treated like everyone else — in theory, anyway — and for better or worse. On that point, we have often said on this blog that just because someone is violating one federal law by trading in cannabis, that doesn’t make it a good idea to violate all the others. And we always advise entrepreneurs to run their cannabis business like real businesses. That includes paying taxes.

City cannabis licensing in action.

Recently, the City of Portland announced that it would lower cannabis business licensing fees. Most notably, retail license fees have been reduced from $4,975 to $3,500, in line with other license types. That is still too steep (especially considering the state licensing fees), and although the City has cleaned up its process over the past few years, it’s still redundant, unnecessary and something of a cluster. Like all cities, Portland should stop licensing cannabis businesses.

It’s been over three years since Portland adopted its poorly written Code Chapter 14B.130, which sets forth license procedures and requirements for marijuana businesses. The oppressive fee schedule adopted at that time placed an outsized burden on retailers to cover the cost of administering the Portland Marijuana Policy Program. In the early days, the program was staffed by functionaries at the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) who shall go unnamed and mostly seemed to follow each other in circles, sometimes passing applicants back and forth with the Bureau of Development Services (BDS). Most of those folks have moved on.

ONI has since been rebranded as the Office of Community & Civic Life (people still call it ONI) and slotted under a different Commissioner. All of this followed from campaign promises made by Portland’s new mayor, who acknowledged that the City’s relationship with marijuana was a mess. For further reading on how bad it got — from credible estimates that local red tape was costing the industry $22 million per month, to disapproving letters penned by Congressional reps — go here, here, here, here, here, here and here. The City’s actions also caused one of my all-time favorite Oregon cannabis rumors: A class action suit would be filed “any day now” by private industry against the City. It’s been a trip.

Three years later, the Marijuana Policy Program is better run, and the lawyers and paralegals in my office get along with everyone there and push licenses through on the regular. But the question remains: What exactly is the point of having a local regulatory program for cannabis businesses? Everything is redundant to what the state is doing, and when it’s not, it’s usually worse. So why do cities think this is a good idea?

Those are complex and provocative discussions, but the motivation by cities may be some combination of the following: 1) licensing cannabis generates revenues; 2) licensing cannabis generates jobs; 3) licensing cannabis is novel; 4) licensing cannabis may appease people who dislike pot businesses; 5) cities may already be licensing alcohol (although to a lesser extent, invariably); 6) other cities are licensing cannabis; and 7) it’s hard for regulators not to regulate things. All in all, it’s a dismal mix.

Unfortunately, there is not much that industry can do when a city decides it wants to license cannabis. In states where legal marijuana markets exist, cities (and counties) have significant leeway in dealing with cannabis businesses. Some cities opt out entirely; others choose to license. Still others take a middle path, charging a variety of fees and taxes to hapless pot businesses but stopping short of licensure. Although fees and taxes are burdensome, those cities tend to avoid the logjams that prevent many businesses from even getting off the ground.

In all, the Portland experience is not unique. Hilary Bricken has been writing on this blog for some time about City of Los Angeles’ convoluted three-phase licensing protocol, for example, and the unintended consequences that come with it. Others have taken a broader survey, chronicling “extortionate” application, permit and license fees from municipalities nationwide. In comparison to some locales, cities like Portland and Los Angeles don’t seem so bad.

It’s also important to remember that cities can do a lot of good for cannabis, if they skip the licensing step and focus on other things. In August, Portland directed $350,000 in funds toward record-clearing and workforce efforts for communities that prohibition has impacted disproportionately. It also dropped another $150,000 to support equitable cannabis initiatives. Both announcements were met with general approval.

Most recently, Portland rolled out a “Social Equity Program”, which modestly reduces licensing fees to qualifying businesses. Before you get too impressed, though, consider: The better move would be dropping the licensing structure altogether.

We recently wrote about the new Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) rules for marijuana businesses, and observed that those rules were issued with the stated intent to stave off diversion of cannabis. In addition to its public-facing actions, we have seen an apparent shift in internal OLCC review policies and procedures. A few weeks ago, we covered the apparent adoption of new settlement policies. Today, we cover what appears to be increased scrutiny for each of the following: new license applications (those submitted prior to June 15th), license renewal applications, change in business structure applications, and change-in-ownership applications. OLCC investigators are looking at all of these submissions more carefully than ever.

It was never easy to get an OLCC license. It only felt that way, given the stricter and more tedious requirements faced by cannabis program applicants in other states. In Oregon, the application process was somewhat cumbersome initially (remember the narrative-based forms, released in 2015?), but the state quickly progressed to “check the box” paperwork in combination with its online data entry system. Today, there are a few interesting quirks in that protocol, but it’s navigable and sensible and clean overall.

So what changed? Generally, the administrative environment is different these days. Licensing has existed for a couple of years, OLCC has refined its processes, and investigators are better trained than before. Specifically, investigators have raised the bar for the content of application submissions, and they are looking under rocks that previously would have been left unturned. In many cases, they are finding things.

OLCC marijuana cannabis license
OLCC investigators are taking a harder look.

Gone are the days when an applicant could submit a business document in the belief that, regardless of that document’s contents, the inspector would summarily tuck it into her file essentially unread, and pass the application along to “final review.” OLCC investigators are now actively requesting and reviewing legal documents, and doing a really good job of it. Here is a sampling of investigator questions we have seen in the past month or so, that never would have surfaced even a year ago:

  • “Does this lease’s rent reconciliation provision mean that the landlord is entitled to a percentage of profits? Explain that.”
  • “Was this asset purchase agreement ‘deposit’ escrowed? Or have these funds used in the business operations already?”
  • “Why does this business structure form contain an LLC member who is not listed on the state business registry?”
  • “At what point did the seller transfer these utility bills into the buyer’s name?”

Etcetera. We have seen businesses tripped up (badly) in the both the change-in-ownership and renewal processes by questions like these. In the worst case, these inquiries can result in proposed license cancellation and/or non-renewal by OLCC. Those situations can be incredibly frustrating and stressful for a business, especially one with sunk costs and accumulating obligations. They should be avoided if legitimately possible.

In all, the new licensing paradigm leaves us with a couple of key takeaways going forward. The first is really simple: Run your business like a real business and ensure you have everything in place prior to OLCC submission. This means writing things down, to start, and using appropriate forms to do so. The second takeaway is to enlist help when needed. That doesn’t mean you need to pay an attorney or a consultant thousands of dollars to process your application. In our Portland office, for example, we have experienced marijuana licensing paralegals who process OLCC applications literally all day every day, and who talk with OLCC investigators on the regular. Our cannabis business lawyers only enter the picture to draft documents, or deal with nuanced or delicate matters.

Going forward, we expect OLCC to continue to ratchet up standards for both applicants and licensees on everything from rulemaking to license review to site inspections. That’s a good thing for compliant operators and for businesses that want to do things correctly. Really, it’s exactly how it should be.

Josephine County marijuana cannabis litigation
…another Josephine County setback.

Poor Josephine County.

We have been writing on this blog about the southern Oregon county’s mounting frustrations with cannabis, its successive losses in litigation, and its most recent attempt in federal district court to submarine Oregon’s cannabis programs. We immediately identified this lawsuit as a “stunning overreach” and we predicted the county would lose. To that end, and just before the holiday weekend, a U.S. magistrate judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“Report”) that Josephine county’s case should be dismissed. That will almost certainly occur.

By way of background, we explained back in April that Josephine County wanted the federal court to:

  1. Declare that cannabis production cannot qualify as a pre-existing “lawful use” because of federal prohibition;
  2. Declare that counties can place any restrictions they want, including a full ban, on cannabis businesses because state legal regimes are pre-empted by federal law;
  3. Declare that Oregon’s medical and recreational regimes unlawfully restrict the county’s police powers in light of federal prohibition; and
  4. Enjoin the State from bringing official misconduct charges against any local or county official that ignores their duties under state law.

Well, none of that is happening. The magistrate judge issued a thoughtful, eight-page opinion (no public link available– email me if you want a copy) which rested on two points of law: 1) Josephine County, as a political subdivision of the State of Oregon, lacks standing to sue the state in Federal District Court; and 2) no justiciable case or controversy exists between the parties. Let’s take a quick look at each finding.

Standing. For one party to sue another, it must convince a court of a sufficient connection to, and harm from, the law or action challenged. Here, the Report cited a mountain of Ninth Circuit precedent to the effect that a state cannot be sued by its political subdivisions. In apparent anticipation of this, Josephine County had argued that its “home rule” status creates an exception, but the Report swatted that argument away in two brisk paragraphs. When a party has no standing, the merits of its claims don’t matter.

No Justiciable Case or Controversy. The Report covered this argument almost as an afterthought. The judge found that even if the court could find an exception to the fatal standing issue, the case should be dismissed because Oregon has not prohibited Josephine County from enacting the regulations it wants to enact (restricting marijuana grows on rural residential land). Instead, the county erred by not providing landowners required notice, and that deficiency (rather than any substantive deficiency) was the sole reason a lower court iced the county’s restrictive ordinance. The judge had fun in this section of this Report. He notes that:

On a practical rather than legal note, the Court is unpersuaded by Josephine County’s argument that the State is ‘requiring’ it to ‘aid and abet a federal felony.’ The County has provided no evidence to the Court that it has attempted to ban any and all marijuana use and production, as would be theoretically required by full compliance with the [Controlled Substances Act]. Instead, the County merely seeks to limit the use and production in rural residential zones, while continuing to allow marijuana use and production in other instances. Apparently the County is only worried about aiding and abetting federal felonies on certain kinds of land and not others.”

Indeed! So what happens next? The Report will be referred to a district court judge. The county’s objections, if any, are due within 14 days. After that, the state would have 14 days to respond. Once those windows close, the judge will issue a final opinion, which is almost certain to agree with the Report. Theoretically that ruling could be appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court. In our opinion, though, it’s unlikely either of those courts would take up the case. We also believe that Josephine County should stop wasting taxpayer funds on ill-conceived litigation and bad press. Who knows if that will actually happen, though.

For more on the Josephine County saga, check out the following posts: