asset forfeiture fine cannabis marijuana

We have handled a number of excessive fines cases on behalf of clients who’ve had their property seized, or threatened to be seized by the government. For some background on this, see our blog posts here and here.

The United States Constitution provides that excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. U.S. Const., Amdt. 8. The Excessive Fines Clause “limits the government’s power to extract payments, whether in cash or in kind, ‘as punishment for some offense.’” Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602, 609-10 (1993). That constitutional protection applies in cannabis cases, just like everywhere else.

On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Timbs v. Indiana regarding whether the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment. The case involves the forfeiture of petitioner’s land rover as punishment for selling heroin. The Indiana Court of Appeal held that the forfeiture of the land rover was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed and concluded that because states are not subject to the Excessive Fines Clause, the forfeiture was not unconstitutional.

The predicted outcome is that the United States Supreme Court will apply the Excessive Fines Clause against the states. The Timbs decision will have nationwide impacts for those accused of drug crimes and other offenses, and will be an important check on the government’s power to interfere with private property. That would be great news for the cannabis industry.

As stated in the petitioner’s opening brief:

“The right to be free from excessive fines is fundamental and applies to the States. The power to fine is—and has always been—a formidable one. And unlike every other form of punishment, fines and forfeitures are a source of revenue for the government, making them uniquely prone to abuse. The accompanying risk to life, liberty, and property is very real. “[I]n a free government,” after all, “almost all other rights would become utterly worthless, if the government possessed an uncontrollable power over the private fortune of every citizen.” 3 Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States § 1784, 661 (1833).”

It’s a compelling argument, and you can read the full brief here.

We will be monitoring this case and will provide an update once the decision is published.

california cannabis intellectual property licensing BCC
These proposed BCC regulations would be a mistake.

As we’ve been blogging about for the last couple of weeks, the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) recently released modifications to the proposed regulations for cannabis licensees, one of which effectively prohibits all licensing, white labeling and manufacturing agreements between two parties where one of those parties is not a licensed cannabis business. In our post on this modification, we urged stakeholders to submit written comments to the BCC expressing their opposition to the rule change. We also noted that we would be submitting formal comments as a firm on behalf of our clients and are publishing those comments here. Our hope is that the BCC understands the damaging implications this rule change will have on the industry here in California, and we will be following the rule adoption process closely to see how this shakes out.

Below is the full text of our November 2 letter to BCC, minus the letterhead and signatures. We will continue to dialogue with affected parties and regulators on this crucial issue as opportunities permit. Please continue to join us in making your voices heard!


Lori Ajax, Chief
Bureau of Cannabis Control
P.O. Box 419106
Rancho Cordova, CA 95741

Re:       Comments Regarding Modifications to Text of Proposed Regulations for All Bureau Licensees §5032-Commercial Cannabis Activity

Dear Ms. Ajax,

On behalf of Harris Bricken McVay Sliwoski, LLP and our clients participating in California’s cannabis industry, we submit our comments to the Bureau of Cannabis Control’s Modifications to the Text of the Proposed Regulations for All Bureau Licensees.

Our comments are limited to Section 5032 pertaining to “commercial cannabis activity.” This section proposes to expand the definition of “commercial cannabis activity,” which may be conducted only between licensees, as follows:

  • 5032. Commercial Cannabis Activity

(a) All commercial cannabis activity shall be conducted between licensees. Retail licensees, licensed retailers and licensed microbusinesses authorized to engage in retail sales may conduct commercial cannabis activity with customers in accordance with Chapter 3 of this division.

(b) Licensees shall not conduct commercial cannabis activities on behalf of, at the request of, or pursuant to a contract with any person that is not licensed under the Act. Such prohibited commercial cannabis activities include, but are not limited to, the following:

(1) Procuring or purchasing cannabis goods from a licensed cultivator or licensed manufacturer.

(2) Manufacturing cannabis goods according to the specifications of a non-licensee.

(3) Packaging and labeling cannabis goods under a non-licensee’s brand or according to the specifications of a non-licensee.

(4) Distributing cannabis goods for a non-licensee.

In particular, we take issue with the expansion of the definition of “commercial cannabis activity” to include “Manufacturing cannabis goods according to the specifications of a non-licensee” and “Packaging and labeling cannabis goods under a non-licensee’s brand or according to the specifications of a non-licensee,” as this modification will effectively prohibit all intellectual property licensing agreements between licensees and non-licensees. We have not encountered such a prohibition in any other state in which cannabis is legalized and regulated, and we believe that this modification would stifle the industry and eliminate many, if not most, of the brands currently on dispensary shelves in California.

Intellectual property licensing agreements are utilized widely throughout virtually every industry. We have assisted clients with many licensing deals throughout the state, none of which were intended to circumvent cannabis regulations or hide ownership or financial interests. In fact, our interpretation of the “financial interest holder” rule has been that the licensor in each of these licensing deals including a royalty component where the licensor receives a share of profits or revenue from the licensee must already be disclosed to the appropriate state regulatory agency as a “financial interest holder” in a licensee.

There are many reasons why intellectual property licensing agreements make sense for a licensed operator, and why access to intellectual property beyond that owned by licensed operators benefits consumers:

  • Many licensed operators do not have the resources to develop new technologies, products, or brand identities and intellectual property licensing can provide a mechanism for expanding and improving their product offerings.
  • Many companies and individuals that own intellectual property, such as recipes, techniques, processes, and brand identities do not have the resources to obtain local and state permits or are based in jurisdictions that do not allow commercial cannabis activity. Intellectual property licensing can provide a mechanism for these companies to provide their intellectual property to licensed operators and become fully disclosed financial interest holders in those licensed operators by taking a royalty based on product sales.
  • For entities that own multiple operations, it often also makes legal sense to utilize an IP holding company (that is not a licensed entity) to hold and manage the group’s IP portfolio for the avoidance of IP ownership disputes and liabilities, among other reasons.
  • Licensed intellectual property expands the ability of licensed operators to provide a greater variety of brands and products to consumers.

Eliminating the ability of licensees to enter into intellectual property licensing deals with non-licensees harms both licensees and consumers by restricting the number of brands and products available. It also seems that the Bureau’s goals may not be well-served by this proposed rule modification due to overbreadth of its scope. The intent of Sections 5032(b)(1) and (b)(2) appears to be preventing licensed entities from conducting cannabis business operations at the behest or at the direction of unlicensed entities. The main purpose of intellectual property licensing deals is not to direct an entity how to conduct its business, but to restrict the ways in which the intellectual property may be used, and to ensure compensation to the owner for those limited uses. The proposed modification to Section 5032 casts an unnecessarily wide net that would prohibit all manufacturing, packaging, and labeling operations by a licensed operator that happen to use intellectual property owned by a non-licensed entity—a result that does not serve consumers, licensed entities, or public safety. Just as a landlord should not have to be licensed in order to lease its property to a licensed cannabis operator in exchange for rent, an owner of a brand or a recipe should not have to be licensed in order to license its intellectual property to a licensed operator in exchange for compensation.

Rather than becoming the first state to prohibit IP licensing in its cannabis regulations, we recommend that the Bureau instead amend the following rule pertaining to financial interest holder disclosure requirements to explicitly include intellectual property and manufacturing agreements where the licensor receives a royalty as disclosable to the state (proposed language emphasized):

  • 5004. Financial Interest in a Commercial Cannabis Business

(a) A financial interest means an agreement to receive a portion of the profits of a commercial cannabis business, an investment into a commercial cannabis business, a loan provided to a commercial cannabis business, or any other equity interest in a commercial cannabis business except as provided in subsection (c) (d) of this section. For the purpose of this section, an interest in a diversified mutual fund, blind trust, or similar instrument is not a financial interest. For purposes of this division, an agreement to receive a portion of the profits includes, but is not limited to, the following individuals:

(1) An employee who has entered into a profit share plan with the commercial cannabis business.

(2) A landlord who has entered into a lease agreement with the commercial cannabis business for a share of the profits.

(3) A consultant who is providing services to the commercial cannabis business for a share of the profits.

(4) A person acting as an agent, such as an accountant or attorney, for the commercial cannabis business for a share of the profits.

(5) A broker who is engaging in activities for the commercial cannabis business for a share of the profits.

(6) A salesperson who earns a commission.

(7) A non-licensed entity that has entered into an intellectual property licensing agreement or manufacturing agreement with a commercial cannabis business for a share of the profits.

From an ownership and financial interest holder perspective, intellectual property and manufacturing agreements are no different than any of the arrangements already referenced in Section 5004 where a non-licensee receives a share of profits from a licensed entity. Intellectual property and manufacturing agreements that stipulate that all commercial cannabis activity shall be carried out solely by a licensed operator and that the non-licensee shall have no control over the licensed entity should not be treated any differently than leases, consulting agreements or any other agreement in which a non-licensee receives a royalty.

If the Bureau is instead concerned with the contents of these intellectual property licensing and manufacturing agreements, we recommend requiring disclosure of the agreements to the state, rather than prohibiting them altogether or requiring the licensor to secure onerous local approval and eventual state licensing for a commercial cannabis license they never intend to actually use. Washington State, for example, which has some of the strictest regulations pertaining to ownership and financial interests in cannabis businesses in the country, requires that licensors entitled to a royalty in a licensing agreement be disclosed to and vetted by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB), and that the licensing agreement itself be disclosed to and reviewed by the WSLCB.[1]

We appreciate the opportunity to provide these comments to the Bureau’s proposed modifications to the text of the proposed regulations for all Bureau licensees and would be happy to engage in a dialogue to identify a means for regulating these types of business deals without causing significant harm to the industry and to consumers. If you have any questions, please contact Alison Malsbury at alison@harrisbricken.com or Hilary Bricken at hilary@harrisbricken.com.

[1]RCW 69.50.395.


Let’s hope that the Bureau considers these and other comments thoughtfully and seriously as California continues to build out its cannabis program architecture. We will keep you posted.

This is the second post in a series on various aspects of cannabis litigation. The title is admittedly a bit misleading, as arbitration isn’t really the same thing as litigation. That said, the two can intersect, and so understanding what arbitration is and is not, is important for cannabis businesses. After all, many contracts in the cannabis industry can include arbitration clauses.

Arbitration is, essentially, a trial before a private entity (this post only describes private arbitration and not judicial arbitration, which is different). Typically, arbitration cannot occur unless the parties have agreed to it in a contract; for example, an LLC operating agreement, sales contract, distributor agreement, intellectual property license, or any other kind of contract. The parties can use this contract to dictate the terms of the arbitration and how it will proceed. That said, below are a few of the features that are common to almost any arbitration:

cannabis litigation arbitration marijuana

Who Presides: In private arbitration, there are no juries. Instead, the parties pay a private arbitrator or arbitration company. Arbitrations are presided over by at least one arbitrator, who is generally a former judge or attorney. In some cases, there can be a panel of arbitrators who decide a dispute. Arbitrators are almost always neutral, meaning that the parties cannot communicate with them outside the presence of the other parties (there are some cases in which some of the arbitrators can be “party” arbitrators).

Anyone who has spent significant time in a court room knows that judges have intense caseloads—sometimes hundreds of active cases at any given time. On the other hand, arbitrators typically have less-intensive caseloads. This means both that arbitration can proceed more quickly and that the arbitrator(s) can devote more time to and gain more understanding of each case.

Arbitration Setting: In private arbitration, there is no court room. Instead, arbitration hearings take place in private facilities provided by the arbitrator or arbitration company. It’s not uncommon for an arbitration to occur in something that looks more like a classroom or board room than a court room. While an arbitration can feel a bit less formal, it is key to remember that arbitration is still an adjudicative and adversarial proceeding.

Private Nature: Arbitration is, again, private. This is very different from litigation, where almost every facet of a case is published or can be made public unless there is an order of the court to “seal” certain records. Parties to arbitrations don’t necessarily need to keep things confidential—it’s just that way by design. That said, they certainly can agree to strict confidentiality provisions above and beyond the non-public nature of arbitration.

Procedural and Evidentiary Rules: In court litigation, there are rules of procedure and evidence set forth in a number of different places. For example, in federal litigation, the process is governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a district court’s local rules, and rules set forth by the individual judge. Evidence is received according to the Federal Rules of Evidence. In state court, there are typically a number of different evidentiary and procedural rules that will govern any proceeding.

Unlike in court proceedings, the procedural rules and rules of evidence are slimmer. Arbitration forums often have their own rules, which will generally apply by default unless the parties elect to follow the federal or state rules in their arbitration contract. Arbitration rules are generally much more compact than federal or state rules, and based on the private nature of arbitration, there are usually no cases discussing how those rules are to be applied. The result of this process is that arbitration proceedings can seem less formal.

Arbitration is not Mediation: One common misconception is that arbitration is or is similar to mediation, when the two are in fact very different. Mediation is a typically non-binding process in which parties come together in front of a third-party neutral (the mediator) to discuss their case with the intention of settling it. Arbitration is similar to a trial, and if it proceeds to the end, will result in an award to one party (which can be filed in court), rather than a settlement. The only important similarities are the presence of a neutral, and the fact that many arbitration companies employ arbitrators and mediators (often, the same people do both kinds of work).

This all sounds great, right? You may be asking why would someone would ever want to litigate, when they could just arbitrate faster, with less-intense rules, in front of a focused neutral who could devote more time to the dispute? It may come as a surprise that parties in a dispute often seek to avoid arbitration. One of the chief concerns is cost—because arbitration is private, parties need to pay the arbitrators, on top of their attorneys. This additional cost can be overly burdensome for some private litigants and is likely a major concern for smaller businesses. Another concern may be the private nature of arbitration. There may be a host of reasons why one party to an arbitration wants the dispute to not be kept private. And finally, there are generally no options for appealing an unfavorable arbitration decision. These are just a few of the reasons that parties may want to avoid arbitration.

As mentioned in the beginning of this post, arbitration and litigation can overlap. Parties to disputes sometimes file cases in court in spite of arbitration provisions. In such circumstances, the other party may file what’s called a “motion to compel arbitration”, and the other party could resist arbitration by arguing that the arbitration agreement is void, or that the dispute at issue is outside the scope of the arbitration clause. In California, for example, we have an additional law that permits a court to delay or even avoid arbitration if there are parties to a court case and a separate arbitration, if there would be a risk of an inconsistent outcome or factual finding. This is a very powerful tool for a party who wants to resist arbitration in multi-party disputes and, in many cases, it is available unless disclaimed in the arbitration clause.

In sum, what an arbitration clause says is powerful and will dictate how any dispute is resolved. When negotiating any contract, the dispute resolution procedures may be an afterthought for some, which can end up costing the parties later down the road. That’s why its critical to put serious thought into arbitration clauses and engage counsel who is experienced in drafting and reviewing such clauses.

For more on cannabis litigation, see our series 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.

california cannabis marijuana
Get your comments in by Nov. 5 and help us fix this.

On Friday, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control, California Department of Public Health, and California Department of Food and Agriculture issued 15-day notices of modification to the texts of their respective proposed regulations. The California Cannabis Portal has published links to each notice and the modified texts of the proposed regulations. For each set, the respective Department will accept written comments submitted by November 5, 2018.

And to all parties currently engaging in intellectual property (IP) licensing or manufacturing deals as or with a non-licensee, you should most definitely submit your written comments if you want to be able to keep those deals alive. The modifications to the text of the proposed regulations include the following:

5032. Designated M and A Commercial Cannabis Activity

(a) All commercial cannabis activity shall be conducted between licensees. Retail licensees, licensed retailers and licensed microbusinesses authorized to engage in retail sales may conduct commercial cannabis activity with customers in accordance with Chapter 3 of this division.

(b) Licensees shall not conduct commercial cannabis activities on behalf of, at the request of, or pursuant to a contract with any person that is not licensed under the Act. Such prohibited commercial cannabis activities include, but are not limited to, the following:

(1) Procuring or purchasing cannabis goods from a licensed cultivator or licensed manufacturer.

(2) Manufacturing cannabis goods according to the specifications of a non-licensee.

(3) Packaging and labeling cannabis goods under a non-licensee’s brand or according to the specifications of a non-licensee.

(4) Distributing cannabis goods for a non-licensee.

These regulations would seemingly prohibit most, if not all, IP licensing agreements where the licensor is not licensed by the state, given that such licensing deals call for the licensee’s use of the licensed IP to manufacture particular goods, often utilizing the licensor’s proprietary techniques, recipes or trade secrets. Section (b)(3) above describes exactly what a licensee does under a trademark licensing agreement where the licensor does not possess its own manufacturing license from the state: “packaging and labeling cannabis goods under a non-licensee’s brand or according to the specifications of a non-licensee.”

Until Friday, there was nothing in the proposed regulations prohibiting a non-licensed third-party from engaging in these types of licensing deals, which we have written about extensively. Under those proposed regulations, a non-licensed entity entering into a licensing or manufacturing deal and taking a royalty from a licensed entity would need to be disclosed to the state as a party with a financial interest in a licensee but would not need to obtain a manufacturing license of their own. These kinds of deals are extremely prevalent throughout the industry, and are allowed to varying degrees in the other states in which my law firm’s cannabis business lawyers work (Washington and Oregon). For California to prohibit licensing deals involving non-licensed entities would be a major departure from what we’ve seen in other jurisdictions and would be incredibly disruptive to the cannabis industry as it currently operates.

This change would have far-reaching and unfortunate implications. Here are some examples of deals and structures that would not be allowed if this modification is ultimately adopted:

  • Licensed operators that have set up separate IP-holding companies to hold and license their intellectual property back to the operator;
  • Out-of-state cannabis companies that wish to license their existing cannabis brand to California manufacturers, but do not wish to directly engage in manufacturing in California;
  • Non-licensed third-parties that have developed technology to manufacture a cannabis product or a brand identity and wish to license that technology or brand identity to a licensed manufacturer.

The list goes on. If you have any type of licensing or manufacturing deal in place that involves both a licensed entity and a non-licensed entity, you should talk to your attorney as soon as possible to determine what the implications of this modification would be. And most importantly, you should provide written feedback immediately to the Bureau of Cannabis Control during the very short 15-day comment period expressing opposition to this modification.

If you have purchased marijuana in Washington State, you’ve probably noticed the packaging can be difficult to open and is adorned with warnings, bar codes, and lots of other information that appears in tiny font. This is by design, as the state has created robust regulations intended to protect the public from contaminated cannabis and to limit access by children. Though these regulations are important, one has to ask what impact these packaging requirements have on the environment.

Washington’s packaging and labeling requirements can be found in WAC 314-55-105. Note that this section of the Washington Administrative Code was recently amended meaning that there are two separate packaging standards. Licensees can abide by the old rules until January 1, 2019 when the new version of WAC 314-55-105 go into full effect. Until that date, licensees have the option to comply with the new rules. This post will focus on the newer version of WAC 314-55-105.

All containers that carry marijuana must protect the substance from contamination and harmful substances. Marijuana-infused products, such as edibles, and marijuana concentrates must come in child-resistant packaging. For packages containing more than one serving (a serving is capped at 10 milligrams of THC) of a solid edible product, each serving must come in child resistant packaging. For liquid products, the packaging must include a measuring device such as a cap that you would find accompanying a bottle of NyQuil. Hash marks on the side of a package are not enough.

In addition, Washington imposes substantial labeling requirements. All products must clearly show the following warning:

Warning – May be habit forming. Unlawful outside Washington State. It is illegal to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of marijuana.

Per the recent rule change, all marijuana products must also include Washington’s marijuana universal symbol (pictured below). In addition, the label must include the business or trade name and UBI number of the licensed producer and processor, the traceability identifying number, the number of servings (if applicable), the net weight, and THC and CBD concentrations.

Washington’s universal marijuana symbol.

The state also requires the following labeling on specific products:

  • Useable marijuana flower must include the additional warning, “smoking is hazardous to your health.”
  • Marijuana concentrates or infused products intended for inhalation must list the solvents used to create product, state the method of extraction, and disclose whether any other chemicals or compounds were used.
  • Marijuana infused products intended for consumption must also list information about extraction methods and solvents, in addition to listing food allergens and the following sentence: “CAUTION: intoxicating effects may be delayed by 2+ hours.” Additionally, edible marijuana products must include the “Not for Kids” logo, shown to the right.
  • Marijuana topical products must contain the statement: “DO NOT EAT” in bold, capitol letters.

All of this means that products come with a significant amount of packaging. Even small,

Required on edibles in Washington State.

single-serving edibles must come with enough packaging to include the two logos, written warning, and information on the licensees and product. In addition, businesses making the product also want to include their branding and marketing material, which also takes up space. That branded packaging is important for producers and processors who are trying to stand-out and earn valuable shelf-space in retail stores. Unfortunately, all of that packaging has to go somewhere and it often ends up on the street or sitting in a dump.

Last month, journalist Kristen Millares Young wrote about the waste generated by Washington’s cannabis market in an article for the Washington Post. Young highlighted that environmental groups are increasingly finding cannabis packaging on the streets, something I can personally attest to living here in Seattle. The article also highlights the problem with “doob” (as in doobie) tubes, the plastic tubes used to package pre-rolled joints. These tubes cannot be recycled, even when made of recyclable plastic, because they fall through the grates of recycling machines.

Washington’s waste problem doesn’t have a simple solution. As Young points out, a potential “fix” would for Washington to require that producers and processors use recyclable material for the purpose of packaging. However, that would add increase costs to producers and processors who are already struggling to operate in a fiercely competitive market where the number of producers and processors far outweighs the number of retailers.

Perhaps it’s time to reconfigure Washington’s labeling requirements. The newest version of WAC 314-55-105 allows producers and processors to provide some information that used to be required on the physical package online. This may allow for more streamlined packaging, putting less of a burden on Washington landfills. After all, a QAR code can provide a vast amount of information without taking up much space.

If you’re a consumer you have some options. First, you can contact the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board about its rules, either online or during their monthly board meetings; and you can call your state representative to voice your concerns. Second, you can purchase products that have less packaging, such as marijuana flower rather than pre-rolls packaged in tubes, and you can reward companies that do use recyclable materials by purchasing their products. Third, you can make an increased effort to recycle your discarded packages and reuse non-recyclable packages. For example, maybe save the doob tube and use it to transport your hand-rolled joint in the future.

oregon marijuana cannabis subsidyRecently, there has been some talk here in Oregon that the state is not doing enough to support licensed cannabis businesses economically. These businesses generated more than $70 million in state tax revenue in FY 2017, after all. Although that revenue does not yet approach the combined $373 million in average annual revenue for beer, wine and spirits (combined), it appears to be closing the gap quickly, despite no option for interstate sales.

Comparing marijuana and alcohol receipts in Oregon is an awkward proposition, given the fact that Oregon marijuana revenues are collected through sales tax, whereas beer and wine vendors pay the state an excise tax, and liquor is distributed and sold by the state itself. At the end of the day, though, the economic impact of regulated cannabis will continue to gain on–and eat into–the alcohol economy, both in Oregon and nationwide. That is especially true if we factor in industrial hemp.

So what is the state doing to subsidize cannabis businesses in Oregon? Not much. The state did pass House Bill 4014 a few years back, which allows cannabis establishments to deduct business expenses allowable under the federal tax code when filing state returns; but that modest gesture pales in comparison to the institutional support given to craft beer and wine. Specifically, here are a few of the ways the wine industry is supported and subsidized by the state of Oregon:

  • The state created the Oregon Wine Board (OWB) to promote development of the wine industry within the state, and coordinate both domestic and report marketing efforts for the industry. OWB receives administrative support from the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, and spends around $2.2 million annually on promoting the Oregon industry.
  • The state created the Oregon Wine Research Institute, housed at Oregon State University, to support Oregon grape growing and wine production.
  • Oregon statutes offer a tax exemption for the first 40,000 gallons, or 151,000 liters, of wine sold annually by any producer in Oregon, which effectively exempts 90% of them from paying any state excise tax.
  • The state offers grants for vineyards in an effort to increase tourism, as well as OWB grants related to viticulture and enology.
  • Oregon winery license fees are paltry compared to cannabis license fees. (Both licenses are issued and billed through the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.)

The above list is not exhaustive: It represents about five minutes of Google research. And at first glance, the favoritism shown to alcohol by the state feels unfair: As with the local wine industry, the Oregon cannabis industry has a world-renowned product, crowned with distinctive appellations. So why doesn’t the state do much for cannabis, aside from fulfilling its democratic mandate to roll out the program, and defending that program from the feds?

There are probably several factors at play:

  • “Marijuana” remains a Schedule I controlled substance at the federal level. While states may see a path forward to licensing cannabis businesses under the Tenth Amendment (see here and here), actually using public dollars to support specific businesses may feel like a bridge too far.
  • More people oppose the cannabis industry than the alcohol industry, so subsidies would likely face strong pushback from a vocal segment of the population.
  • Many of the Oregon wine subsidies listed above were enacted in periods of greater budget stability for the state, back when timber revenues and related federal subsidies were a real thing, and the state pension system was not $22 billion in the hole. Today, those alcohol subsidies are entrenched (although recent efforts at further subsidies have failed.)
  • The Oregon cannabis lobbies are smaller than alcohol lobbies.
  • The creation of a cannabis regulatory regime has been a heavy legislative lift over the past few years here in Oregon, crowding out other conversations related to cannabis.

With all of that said, Oregon could probably do more for the cannabis industry, and it could be more creative. California has at least explored the idea of a state-chartered bank. Along those lines, Washington has helped its legal businesses to open bank accounts, and Hawaii has announced a cashless system for buying medical marijuana. None of these actions are subsidies, but they do make business operations easier and they ultimately contribute to economic efficiency.

Other jurisdictions have gone even further. Colorado, for example, has had a research grant program going back to 2014. And certain cities, like Oakland and San Francisco, have offered bona fide, traditional subsidies like free rent and incubator programs for select marijuana entrepreneurs. So it is possible to funnel public funding into cannabis businesses — at least certain types of businesses, in certain cases.

Oregon will kick off another legislative session in early 2019. Most likely, the state will discuss important regulatory issues, like our U.S. Attorney’s concern with oversupply, alongside the usual re-tread items, like social consumption and event permits. Although these new business permissions would be marginally helpful, hopefully there is also room for discussion on how the state can support its regulated cannabis industry more directly, as it does with alcohol. Then, when federal prohibition ends in a couple of years, we will want it looking something like this.

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.

marijuana cannabis oregon initiative
The goal of your ballot initiative is to get to a vote.

Oregon successfully legalized the use, sale, processing, and production of recreational marijuana in 2014 through the initiative process. The initiative process is a method of direct democracy that allows people to propose laws outside of the normal legislative process. Oregon’s marijuana statute (ORS 475B) allows cities and counties to “opt-out” of commercial recreational marijuana. In other words, cities and counties do not have to allow for the sale, processing, or producing of marijuana within their jurisdictional borders. ORS 475B, as originally written, allowed cities and counties to automatically opt-out if registered voters in the jurisdiction voted at least 55% against the legalization. All other cities or counties could either create reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions for marijuana businesses or could put up an opt-out vote to the public at the next general election.

Many cities and counties chose to opt-out from legalized recreational marijuana. In these jurisdictions, citizens can still use and possess marijuana, but licensed recreational businesses are not allowed to operate in jurisdictions that opted-out. Still, citizens can use the initiative process to change these local laws. The initiative process allows for citizens to propose a city or county ordinance allowing Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) licensed marijuana businesses within the jurisdiction. We have expertise in navigating this process and we are, in fact, running one initiative in an “opt out” jurisdiction right now.

The initiative process, much like many forms of our government, is overly complicated with a host of rules and technical requirements. It requires a lot of steps, careful planning, patience, and organization. Once an entrepreneur decides he or she wants to change the laws, the initiative process starts by filing a prospective petition with the local elections official. The prospective petition includes the language of the proposed ordinance. The language is an opportunity to develop a local ordinance that fulfills your goals and the citizens goals for licensed marijuana businesses.

After the prospective petition is submitted, the city or county will approve it for circulation. This is when the real work starts. Initiative petitions are not automatically guaranteed a spot on the ballot. Instead, initiative petitions must gather the support of the public to be included on the next election’s ballot. Almost all of us have been accosted by a circulator on the MAX or downtown in Portland asking if we are a registered voter and if we’ll sign the petition sheet to get a measure on the ballot. City initiative petitions require valid signatures from 15% of the registered voters in the city and County initiative petitions require 8% of registered voters.

If the local elections official determines enough valid signatures were received, the initiative will be referred to the local governing body. The local governing body has the option to adopt the petition without sending it to the ballot. They can also choose to allow the petition to be voted on in the next election. If it makes it onto the ballot, the initiative must receive a majority of approval from the voters to pass. If it receives a majority of votes, the initiative will be enacted as law.

Initiative petitions are one way to attempt to change local laws surrounding marijuana businesses. These petitions can be drafted in favor of their drafters, who may attempt to set themselves up for success once an initiative passes. Over the past few years, some citizens in Oregon have attempted and failed, while others have successfully changed local law to allow for recreational marijuana licensees. The process is long and complex, but the upside can be tremendous.