Cannabis Case Summaries

federal court cannabis marijuana
Federal courts are finding ways to enforce cannabis contracts nationwide.

We’ve written previously about how courts, especially U.S. District Courts charged with applying and interpreting federal law, are wrestling with inconsistencies between state and federal law when it comes to state-legal cannabis. A little over a year ago, the emerging solution when it comes to enforceability of contracts involving cannabis was to apply the legal principle that “even where contracts concern illegal objects, where it is possible for a court to enforce a contract in a way that does not require illegal conduct, the court is not barred from according such relief.” Mann v. Gullickson (N.D. Cal. 2016). Fast forward to today, almost a year after California’s new cannabis regulations have been percolating into the world’s fifth largest economy, and that permissive, mostly hands-off approach to state cannabis contracts seems to have not only solidified, but appears to have been applied in other states that have recently legalized cannabis.

In an Oregon case, the plaintiff sought to recover economic damages in a personal injury case stemming the future earnings of a cannabis company. The defendant argued that because cannabis is federally illegal, the court cannot award future earnings from what amounts to an illegal business. In denying the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the court found that “Marijuana’s legal status is unique. It is neither fully legal nor illegal. Because [plaintiff’s] family cannabis business is allegedly legal under Washington law, I conclude that . . . Plaintiff may recover economic damages based on projected profits from that business.” Tarr v. USF Reddaway, Inc. (D. Or. 2018). In so doing, the court also favorably cited a 2017 Oregon federal case holding that an employee of a marijuana testing laboratory could bring a claim under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act despite the federal illegality of marijuana. Id., citing Greenwood v. Green Leaf Lab LLC (D. Or. 2017). Key to both decisions was that in order to grant the requested remedies (allowance of future economic damages for personal injury; allowing a claim to proceed for violation of labor standards), the court did not need to order either party to directly violate the federal controlled substances laws that otherwise prohibit cannabis. Rather, the remedies were ancillary to the fact that the parties happened to be engaged in cannabis business activity.

In Nevada, a state that legalized cannabis in 2016, a plaintiff wanted to enforce certain promissory notes against a cannabis cultivation business. Some terms of the notes required defendants to use the loan money to pay off debtors and purchase certain real estate in Nevada—both things the court found to be lawful objects of a contract. Other terms of the notes, however, required the defendants to use some of the funds as operating capital in their cannabis business, and to grant the plaintiff a right of first refusal to purchase part of defendants’ business, both things the court found to be unenforceable because they would require defendants to violate federal law. The court, citing favorably to the Mann principle, found in favor of the plaintiff and denied the motion to dismiss, and noted that Nevada law allows courts to interpret contracts so as to sever unlawful or unenforceable provisions while retaining and enforcing the lawful parts. Bart Street III, Inc. v. ACC Enterprises, LLC, et al. (D. Nev. 2018). The significance of Bart Street is that the court expanded the use of the Mann decision, which merely dealt with nonpayment of promissory notes, and narrowly interpreted cannabis contracts so as to allow plaintiff to proceed in its suit to enforce the lawful terms, even where other terms clearly violated federal law and the contracts as a whole involved a federally illegal business purpose.

Finally, in a Texas case applying the law of Illinois, a state that recently legalized medicinal cannabis, a plaintiff sought payment for certain promissory notes involving cannabis businesses, similar to the situations in Mann and Bart Street. The defendant raised the defense of illegality of the contracts as justification for not performing. The court, collecting cases from all over the country in support, found that the defense of illegality under federal contract law was more equitable than remedial, and more presumptive than absolute, instead requiring a balancing of factors such as “the avoidance of windfalls or forfeitures, deterrence of illegal conduct, and relative moral culpability.” Ginsburg v. ICC Holdings, LLC (N.D. Tex. 2017). The court also noted the importance of “creating stability in contract relations and preserving reasonable expectations” as counterbalances to the “costs in forgoing the additional deterrence of behavior forbidden by the statute” that renders the contract illegal. The court concluded that the defendant had not met the standard for a motion to dismiss if its sole argument was for illegality of purpose in the contracts. Ginsberg is remarkable in that the court continued the whittling down of federal law as an invalidating presence upon state contracts involving state-legal cannabis activity, and did so in a way that frames the decision as a culmination of established principles of contract law.

It remains to be seen what will become of the absolute federal illegality in cannabis, but in the meantime, federal courts continue to find ways around invalidating contracts simply because they happen to involve cannabis, and sometimes even when they include terms that require parties to violate federal law, so long as those provisions are severable.

marijuana cannabis employment discrimination
Nice job by the court.

As a general rule of thumb, employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees with disabilities. Both federal and state laws provide this protection. This means that an employer cannot take an adverse employment action against an employee because of the employee’s disability. Again, this is a “general” rule of thumb: In the cannabis context, things are always a bit different.

Some states have passed legislation protecting medical marijuana users off work marijuana use. Employers in those states cannot terminate an employee or refuse to hire an applicant because of their off-work medical marijuana use. Historically, however, the big problem with these laws is that state and federal courts have readily determined the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) preempts state law, and that employers may terminate medical marijuana patients for off-work use. Recently, for the first time, a federal court sided with an employee who brought a claim against her employer for termination for off-work use of marijuana.

According to the lawsuit filed in Connecticut, Katelin Noffsinger is a registered medical marijuana user. In 2016, Noffsinger applied for a job with Bride Brook Nursing & Rehabilitation (“Bride Brook”). Bride Brook offered her the job contingent on passing a pre-employment drug test. Noffsinger informed her potential employer that she was a medical marijuana patient and likely would not pass the drug test. Noffsinger took the drug test which confirmed the presence of THC. Bride Brook rescinded its job-offer. Noffsinger brought a claim against Bride Brook alleging Bridge Brook had violated the anti-discrimination provision of the Connecticut Palliative use of Marijuana Act (PUMA). Bride Brook attempted to dismiss the case, asserting the claim was preempted by the CSA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA).

The federal court first addressed the CSA preemption claim. The Court held that the CSA did not prohibit employers from employing marijuana users. Meaning, if state law prohibited employers from discriminating against medical marijuana users, it would control.

The Court next determined that the ADA did not preempt PUMA because the ADA explicitly allows employers to prohibit illegal drug use at the workplace but does not authorize employers to take adverse employment action based on drug use outside of the workplace. Finally, the Court determined the FDCA does not regulate employment and therefore was inapplicable in the current case.

The Court did not rule on the substance of Noffsinger’s claim–meaning it has not determined if Noffsinger was discriminated under PUMA. That decision is still pending a jury trial.

The Noffsinger case is important. It’s the first case of its kind to determine that marijuana’s illegality under federal law does not bar an employment claim based on state law. State courts, such as the Oregon Supreme Court, have expressly held that the CSA preempts state medical marijuana laws—meaning employers in the State of Oregon, for example, may still terminate an employee for off-work marijuana use.

The decision in the Noffsinger case is not binding in other jurisdictions, but it could indicate a significant shift in federal courts’ view on medical marijuana. Perhaps this court’s sound reasoning will influence other federal judges to provide equal protections to medical marijuana patients until marijuana is de- or rescheduled under the CSA.

oregon hemp nuisance litigation
Nuisance pollination can cause a row.

In recent posts, we’ve discussed cases where a neighbor to a cannabis grow sued the grower for nuisance, claiming that growing cannabis interfered with the neighbor’s use of their land. See here, here, here, here, here, and here. These lawsuits relied on the non-cannabis landowner’s claims that the federally illegal cannabis business caused harm because of odor, disruptive activity, and diminution of property values.

As of last week, we have another variation on the nuisance theme. On August 31, 2018, Jack Hempicine LLC (“Hempicine”), a Polk County hemp grower, sued fellow hemp farmers for nuisance and other torts. Unlike the previous cases, this case claims that the harm to the property was caused when the other farms cross-pollinated the Hempicine farms and ruined its crops. Jack Hempicine LLC v. Leo Mulkey Inc., Case No. 18CV38712, Polk Cty. Sup. Ct.

In this case, Hempicine alleges:

Cross-pollination is a significant risk in the hemp growing industry. There are two specific risks. First, male plants that contain higher THC levels can pollinate female hemp plants that originally contain low THC levels. The resulting seeds produce plants with highest levels than the original female plant, which means the resulting plants also have lower amounts of CBD and CBG. Second, pollinated female plants may produce both male and female seeds. Female seeds are more desirable because female plants are grown to full maturity and harvested at the end of the season, whereas male plants die off shortly after pollination… The risk associated with cross-pollination is well known in the hemp and cannabis growing industries.”

According to the complaint, Hempicine began producing hemp and hemp seed in Polk County in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, Hempicine allegedly told defendants that Hempicine only produced feminized seed, warning the defendants of the risks from cross-pollination from male plants. Hempicine says that after this meeting, the defendants grew male hemp plants that cross-pollinated Hempicine’s female plants, giving them high levels of THC and making them unmarketable. The Hempicine complaint calculates its damages for loss to the 2016 and 2017 crops to exceed $8 million, and says that it will amend its complaint to include damages from the lost 2018 crop later.

Hempicine’s complaint seeks recovery under four separate legal theories. First, it alleges that the defendants breached a duty of care to Hempicine and was thus negligent. Second and third, it alleges that the defendants acted negligently or recklessly in growing male hemp plants on their property, and thus are liable for trespass or nuisance. Fourth, the complaint alleges that defendants grew male plants in the vicinity of the Hempicine farms that they knew would likely result in cross-pollination, and thus have intentionally interfered with Hempicine’s economic relations.

This is not the first time this issue has arisen. During the Oregon Legislature’s efforts to pass hemp legislation, cannabis producers noted the risk of cross pollination between cannabis and hemp, which of course are just two varietals of the cannabis sativa plant. Among other things, some cannabis producers urged the legislature to create separate agricultural zones for hemp and cannabis (which didn’t happen). There are also a number of lawsuits involving similar claims of cross-pollination by GMO crops. Hopefully this industry can find a way for hemp and marijuana farms alike to be neighbors.

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:

Arizona marijuana cannabis
Flower is fine right now; oil and hash, not so much.

A recent Arizona court of appeals decision has sent the state’s medical marijuana market into a frenzied state. In 2010, Arizona enacted the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (“AMMA”), which grants licensed dispensaries and registered qualified immunity from criminal prosecution for selling or possessing marijuana. Despite this, in March 2013, registered patient Rodney Jones was arrested for possessing .05 ounce of cannabis oil. Jones moved to have the charges dismissed, arguing that he was immune from prosecution under the AMMA by way of registering as a medical patient. The trial court denied the motion and Jones was convicted for possession of a narcotic drug. Jones appealed to the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division 1 (the “Court”).

In State v. Jones (“Jones“), the Court upheld Jones’ conviction by ruling that the AMMA did not extend protections to hashish. The AMMA protects registered patients from arrest, prosecution, or penalty so long as the patient does not possess more than the allowable amount (2.5 oz.) of “useable marijuana.” “Useable marijuana” is defined as “the dried flowers of the marijuana plant, and any mixture or preparations thereof, but does not include the seeds, stalks and roots of the plant.” According to the Court,  the language of the AMMA did not provide immunity for the possession of “hashish” which was defined decades before the AMMA was enacted by the Arizona Supreme Court in State v. Bollander, 110 Ariz. 84, 87, 515 P. 2d 329 (1973). Bollander defined hashish as “the resin extracted from the marijuana plant.”  The AMMA did not mention “hashish” or reference oil extracted from marijuana, which the court interpreted to mean that the AMMA did not provide protection for hashish.

One judge dissented claiming that the Court read the definition of “marijuana” too narrowly and that the AMMA was intended to encompass hashish and other oil products. The dissent pointed to regulations from the Arizona Department of Health Services (“ADHS”), the body that oversees Arizona’s medical marijuana program, that support the conclusion that the AMMA does encompass cannabis oils. For one, an applicant for a dispensary must provide its bylaws to ADHS and those bylaws must indicate whether the dispensary intends to “prepare, sell, or dispense marijuana-infused non-edible products.” Additionally, ADHS’s dispensary handbook states that non-edible products include “any non-edible items, such as concentrates, sold that contain medical marijuana” and must be labeled with the amount of marijuana they contain.

Despite the dissent and ADHS regulations, as it currently stands, Jones is now valid law. Still, news reports indicate that some dispensaries will continue to sell cannabis oils. ADHS has not yet provided guidance on the matter. We are thinking the department definitely should, and fast.

Given the holding in Jones, distributing marijuana vape or oil products in Arizona comes with significant risk. Jones has put Arizona in a state of uncertainty, which could be resolved if the case is reviewed by the Arizona Supreme Court or it could be “fixed” by legislative action by Arizona’s state lawmakers. We’ll be watching for any updates and if you are a patient or dispensary owner, you should do the same. 

*Disclaimer: Our law firm is comprised of cannabis business lawyers in Washington, Oregon and California, with offices in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. We have clients participating in the Arizona marijuana market, but we refer those clients to local counsel. We also monitor industry developments nationwide and are publishing the Jones decision as a conversation piece and public service announcement.

cannabis 280E marijuana taxOn June 13, the U.S. Tax Court issued an opinion regarding the application of IRC §280E. In Alterman v Commissioner of Internal Revenue (“Alterman“) the Court held, yet again, that IRC §280E operates to disallow a cannabis businesses’ tax deductions. A few days later, the Court also issued Loughman vs. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (“Loughman“). In that case, the Court held that IRC §280E disallowed the deduction of wages paid to S Corporation shareholders. The disappointing but predictable outcomes in these cases highlight the need for Congress to repeal or modify IRC §280E.

By now, the destructive force of IRC §280E is well known. IRC §280E disallows deductions and credits to a business trafficking in a controlled substance. One exception is cost of goods sold (“COGS”). Other than a 2015 IRS General Counsel memorandum, the IRS has not offered much guidance regarding the application of IRC §280E. With this gap in IRS guidance, it is the courts that have outlined the (fairly narrow) parameters of IRC §280E.

Reading the IRS guidance and court rulings together, it is clear that selling or growing cannabis is always considered trafficking and expenses related to such activity are disallowed. A cannabis business can deduct all expenses related to a separate trade or business. A court is more likely to accept a separate business activity if that business can operate independently of a cannabis business.

Alterman

Alterman does not offer broad guidance regarding IRC §280E. In part, this is because the Court issued a Memoranda opinion.  A Memoranda opinion does not set a precedent for taxpayers; however, they are useful to illustrate how the Court may analyze the law.

Laurel Alterman and William Gibson operated a Colorado medical marijuana grow and dispensary. These taxpayers also sold cannabis paraphernalia, hats and shirts. The Court held that the sale of paraphernalia, hats and shirts was not a separate trade or business primarily due to the lack of records. Accordingly, costs associated with these activities were not deductible under IRC §280E.

In addition, the Court determined that certain costs were not allowable as COGS because of insufficient records, which should be a lesson to any cannabis business owner: It’s not enough to have potentially deductible costs, if you don’t keep records! Interestingly, the opinion uncharacteristically discusses, in detail, the records available, only to hold that those records were insufficient. (Court cases that disallow deductions because of poor recordkeeping typically do not discuss in detail, the records examined.)

Because of the fact-specific nature of this case, Alterman offers little guidance to cannabis businesses other than recordkeeping must be sufficient to support deductions.

Loughman

In Loughman, the Court did not address the issue of record keeping or substantiation. Instead, the Court addressed the issue of double taxation of income because of IRC §280E. And the Court concluded that double taxation is allowed.

Jesse and Desa Loughman were licensed in Colorado to grow and sell cannabis through a Colorado corporation, Colorado Alternative Health Care (“CAHC”). The Loughmans were the sole shareholders of CAHC and elected to be treated as an S Corporation for federal tax purposes.

An S corporation is not subject to tax; instead shareholders are taxed on S Corporation income at the individual level. Special rules treat S Corporation shareholder/officers as employees and require the S Corporation to pay them a reasonable wage. Under ordinary circumstances, an S Corporation deducts shareholder/officer wages; the shareholder/officer then pays income tax on the wages. The S Corporation’s deduction of wages prevents double taxation.

In this case, the IRS applied IRC §280E and disallowed CAHC’s deduction for wages paid to the Loughmans. Consequently, the amount of S Corporation income passed through to the Loughmans increased. The result is that the Loughmans wages are taxed twice — first as an employee and then as S Corporation shareholders.

The Court rejected the argument that IRC§280E discriminates against S Corporation shareholders operating a cannabis business. The Court reasoned that wage payments to a third-party performing the same services as the Loughmans would not be deductible under IRC §280E. Accordingly, the amount of pass through income to the Loughmans would not change: IRC §280E applies equally to increase S Corporation income, regardless of who receives wages. Furthermore, the Court noted that the taxpayer did not have to, but chose to, elect S Corporation status for their cannabis business.

As in Alterman, the Court issued a memorandum opinion. Accordingly, the Court’s determination only applies to the Loughmans and does not set precedent. Nonetheless, the Court highlighted a serious disadvantage to operating a cannabis business through an S Corporation– namely, double taxation.

The STATES Act

So where does that leave us? These cases highlight the dire need for a legislative fix of IRC §280E. On June 7, 2018, Senators Gardner and Warren introduced the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (The “STATES Act”). The STATES Act exempts persons from the Controlled Substances Act, so long as they are acting in compliance with a state’s cannabis law. Specifically, under the STATES Act, the production or sale of cannabis in a cannabis legal state “shall not constitute trafficking”. Because IRC §280E applies to a trade or business that consists of trafficking, the STATES Act would effectively eliminate the impact of IRC §280E.

As more cannabis businesses are audited, expect more cases like Loughman and Alterman to move through the system. In addition, expect similar results on similar facts, unless Congress finally takes action. The STATES Act would do a lot of good for the industry, and eliminating the oppressive impact of IRC §280E is high on the list.

We’ve written (and talked) extensively about the dos and don’ts of filing cannabis-related state and federal trademarks, and we all know by now that you cannot obtain a federal trademark registration for goods or services that are not lawful pursuant to federal law. But I’ve heard a lot of creative arguments in this space, and have had many clients indicate an interest in challenging the status quo at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board (TTAB) has handed down numerous opinions of precedent that lay forth the USPTO’s position on the “lawful use in commerce” requirement in detail. In this post, I thought it would be useful to breakdown the TTAB’s analysis on this issue via their In re PharmaCann LLC opinion, which was issued in June of 2017.

marijuana cannabis trademark
No lawful use in commerce = no trademark.

In the PharmaCann case, the Applicant sought registration of two trademarks: PHARMACANN and PHARMACANNIS, both for “retail store services featuring medical marijuana,” in International Class 35, and “dispensing of pharmaceuticals featuring medical marijuana,” in International Class 44. The Examining Attorney refused registration of both marks pursuant to Sections 1 and 45 of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1051 and 1127, on the ground that Applicant could not allege a bona fide intent to make lawful use of the marks in commerce because the services identified involved the distribution and dispensing of cannabis, which is a controlled substance whose distribution and dispensing are illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 21 U.S.C. §§ 801 et seq..

In its opinion, the TTAB pointed out that it has “consistently held that, to qualify for a federal … registration, the use of a mark in commerce must be ‘lawful’.” In re JJ206, LLC, 120 USPQ2d 1568, 1569 (TTAB 2016) (affirming refusal to register POWERED BY JUJU and JUJU JOINTS for cannabis vaporizing and delivery services for lack of lawful use in commerce). The TTAB further elaborated that for a mark to be eligible for federal registration, “any goods or services for which the mark is used must not be illegal under federal law.” In re Brown, 119 USPQ2d 1350, 1351 (TTAB 2016). And even if an Applicant files on an intent-to-use basis (meaning they intend to use the mark in commerce in the near future but have not done so yet), if the identified goods or services with which the mark is intended to be used are illegal under federal law, “the applicant cannot use its mark in lawful commerce, as it is a legal impossibility for the applicant to have the requisite bona fide intent to use the mark.” JJ206, 120 USPQ2d at 1569.

In general, registration will not be refused for lack of lawful use in commerce unless either “(1) a violation of federal law is indicated by the application or other evidence …, or (2) when the applicant’s application-related activities involve a per se violation of a federal law.” Brown, 119 USPQ2d at 1351. In the case at hand, the TTAB deemed the Applicant’s marijuana distribution and dispensing activities to be a per se violation of the CSA. The analysis here was pretty straightforward, where the CSA prohibits, among other things, manufacturing, distributing, or dispensing controlled substances (21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1)), and where marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance under the CSA. 21 U.S.C. § 812(c) Schedule I (c)(10).

The Applicant here made two arguments in opposition to the TTAB’s position. The first argument was that “[s]ince 2009 the Department of Justice has consistently refused to treat medical marijuana as an illegal drug by consistently refusing to enforce the Controlled Substances Act against it.” In making its argument regarding the federal government’s lack of enforcement against medical marijuana businesses operating in compliance with state law, the Applicant relied on the (now rescinded) Cole Memorandum. But the TTAB clarified that it had previously decided in JJ206 that the Cole Memorandum “provides no support for the registration of a trademark used on goods whose sale is illegal under federal law,” and that this determination applied with equal force to the Applicant in this case’s intended use of its marks for distributing and dispensing medical marijuana.

The Applicant’s second, and more novel, argument was that “Congress has taken the same position as the Department of Justice,” because in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015 (as renewed in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, subsequent continuing resolutions, and in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017), Congress has prohibited the Department of Justice from utilizing funds to prevent states that have legalized medical marijuana from implementing their own state laws authorizing the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana. The Applicant’s argument was that Congress’ decision not to fund the DOJ to enforce the CSA against medical marijuana, “it would make no sense and serve no purpose for the Board to take a different position…”.

The TTAB, however, found this second argument equally lacking, and relied on United States v. McIntosh (833 F.3d 1163, 1169-70 (9th Cir. 2016)) for its analysis. In that case, the court concluded that the Appropriations Acts and the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment did not make medical marijuana legal under the CSA. The TTAB applied that conclusion to the case at hand and rejected the Applicant’s argument.

These TTAB opinions are instructive in that they give us a clear view into how the USPTO is lawful use in commerce requirement; although the legal status of cannabis and particularly the federal government’s enforcement efforts remain murky, so long as marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance, federal trademark protection will not be available.

For other posts on cannabis trademarks, check out the following:

marijuana cannabis supreme court
Nice work by the Court.

Back in December, we wrote about Murphy v. NCAA (“Murphy”), a case where the State of New Jersey challenged a federal law that bans states from allowing sports gambling. We explained that this case has important implications for state-legal marijuana programs, because it asks whether the Constitution’s anti-commandeering doctrine prevents the federal government from forcing states to ban certain activities. The case took a long and winding path, but on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by an impressive 7-2 margin that federal prohibition did not preempt the state’s gambling laws. This is great news for cannabis.

We have argued on this blog that applicable law prohibits the feds from shutting down state cannabis programs. In support of this argument, we have observed that the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution (the source of the anti-commandeering doctrine), coupled with the express, anti-preemption language of the federal Controlled Substances Act, grants the states ample authority to run cannabis programs. Given the precedent established in Murphy on Monday, it is hard to imagine any other outcome if the feds were attempt to enjoin (shut down) a state licensing program for marijuana.

In reaching its opinion, the majority acknowledged that the question of whether to legalize sports gambling “is a controversial one” that “requires an important policy choice.” But that choice, the majority continued, “is not ours to make. Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own.” It is hard not to see parallels with marijuana legislation there. Along those lines, the Court also observed that:

“The legalization of sports gambling is a controversial subject. Supporters argue that legalization will produce revenue for the States and critically weaken illegal sports betting operations, which are often run by organized crime. Opponents contend that legalizing sports gambling will hook the young on gambling, encourage people of modest means to squander their savings and earnings…”

Substitute “marijuana” for “sports gambling” and you have an almost perfect distillation of the broad policy arguments made by pro- and anti-cannabis prohibition camps. Because of these striking parallels, supporters of cannabis filed an amicus brief in support of the State of New Jersey. In addition, litigants in the Supreme Court’s most notable marijuana case to date, Gonzales v. Raich, were quick to opine that Murphy is easily distinguished from the former case, which dealt only with the federal government’s ability to enforce federal laws within state borders, and not with the feds’ ability to require states to pull state laws off the books.

For cannabis advocates, Murphy is an especially fun case, because it originally was brought by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and the case was known as Christie v. NCAA before Phil Murphy became the state’s governor. Christie, of course, is known for his repeated attacks against state legalization of marijuana, and his disregard of states’ rights in that context. Today, however, he is applauding the Murphy decision and the “rights of states and their people to make their own decisions.” Go figure!

In any case, anyone in favor of states’ rights, including the right to ignore retrograde federal laws around marijuana prohibition, should be excited about the Supreme Court’s decision in Murphy. It stands as the latest in a string of promising federal developments signaling the end of cannabis prohibition. Hopefully, the end is finally near.

employment cannabis marijuana
Equal pay is not only the right thing to do, it’s required by the law.

Equal pay legislation is sweeping the country. Oregon, Washington, and California all have equal pay legislation on the books that directly affects cannabis businesses. These equal pay laws require employers to pay employees the same amount for substantially similar work and prohibit employers from basing salaries on employee’s sex. Oregon and California’s laws, in specific, prohibit employers from asking applicants about their past salaries. With the cannabis industry growing so quickly, it is only a matter of time before employers start tripping on these new laws.

Following the trend of these state laws, a recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision similarly expanded the federal Equal Pay Act to prohibit employers from basing an employee’s pay on past salaries and likely prohibit employers from asking about past salaries.  This decision applies to businesses, included, licensed cannabis businesses, in California, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, and Montana. The ruling is especially significant in California and Oregon because employers can now be in violation of both the state law prohibiting questions about past salary and the federal Equal Pay Act.

The 9th Circuit’s decision comes from a case called Rizo v. Yovino. The plaintiff, Aileen Rizo, was hired by Fresno County office of Education in 2009. The County set Rizo’s salary at 5% more than she had been receiving at her previous positions. The County did not consider Rizo’s qualifications when setting her salary. A few years later Rizo learned she was making less money than her male colleague who was performing similar work. Rizo brought an Equal Pay Act violation against the County.

In a lengthy decision, the 9th Circuit held that:

“prior salary alone or in combination with other factors cannot justify a wage differential. To hold otherwise—to allow employers to capitalize on the persistence of the wage gap and perpetuate that gap ad infinitum—would be contrary to the text and history of the Equal Pay Act, and would vitiate the very purpose for which the Act stands.”

The court also stated the decision did not bar an employer learning of a past salary:

“we do not decide whether or under what circumstances past salary may play a role in the course of an individualized salary negotiation. We prefer to reserve all questions relating to individualized negotiations for decision in subsequent cases.”

What does this cryptic language mean? It means that it is probably okay for employers to ask applicants what those applicants expect to be paid, and it likely allows the employer to negotiate a salary based on the applicant’s prior salary if the employee has volunteered this information.

So in light of this ruling, what should employers do? Employers should carefully examine their pay practices. Specifically, employers should work with counsel and conduct a pay audit to determine if there are compensation gaps, the reason for the gaps, and if the gaps are not justifiable under the state and federal equal pay acts, adjust the employees’ wages accordingly. Note that under the federal Equal Pay Act and in light of the 9th Circuit’s Ruling, if you have current employees whose wages are based on previous salaries, you could be found in violation of the Equal Pay Act.

Employers should also carefully review job applications and interview procedures. The safest way to move forward is to eliminate application questions requesting past salary or wage history. Employers should also avoid questions during interviews regarding past salary history. It is okay to ask applicants what they expect to be paid, but avoid questions surrounding their past wages.

Cannabis businesses are in a unique position to get this right. Recreational cannabis is still new, and practices are still being established and refined. For cannabis start-ups, now is the time to ensure the practices you have in place comply with the law. Consult with counsel to provide a plan to pay employees or to review your current practices. For well-established cannabis businesses, it’s never too late to have an audit done or to reevaluate your practices. The more employees you employ, the more important it is to ensure compliance to avoid expensive litigation down the road.

CBD hemp extract
The law on CBD is still a maze.

If you were hoping for some clarity as to the legality of industrial hemp and cannabidiol (CBD) derived from industrial hemp, I have some (mostly) bad news.

On Monday, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied a lawsuit challenging the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) controversial Marihuana Extracts Rule. In Hemp Industries Assoc. v. DEA, the petitioners and other industry groups challenged the DEA’s rule creating a new drug code number for “”Marihuana Extracts” which is defined to include any extract “containing one or more cannabinoids that has been derived from any plant of the genus Cannabis.” This rule is so broadly drafted that it seems to prohibit extracts from parts of the cannabis plant that are legal or at least unregulated under federal law. Petitioners requested the Court clarify or strike down the DEA’s land-grab rule.

The Court denied both requests. Rather than diving into the substance of the petitioners’ complaint, the Court dismissed the action on largely procedural grounds, as we recently predicted it would. First, the court pointed to the fact that the petitioners failed to make an argument to the DEA while it was accepting comments on the Marihuana Extract Rule and are therefore barred from raising those issues before the Court. The petitioners claimed that another commenter raised their concerns by submitting a question as to whether the rule would cover “100% pure Cannabidiol by itself with nothing else?” But the Court determined the DEA considered this comment and altered the rule to clarify that it covered all cannabinoids. The Court also determined that several of the petitioners’ other arguments were waived for failure to raise the issue during the DEA’s notice and comment period.

The Court did determine that the petitioners’ argument that the Marihuana Extract Rule conflicted with 7606 of the 2014 US Farm Bill (the “Farm Bill”) was not waived, because Congress passed that law after the notice and comment period ended. The Farm Bill allows states to grow “Industrial Hemp” defined as having less than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis in states that have implement agricultural pilot hemp programs. However, the Court determined that the argument failed on the merits. The Court found that the Farm Bill “contemplates potential conflict between the Controlled Substances Act [CSA] and preempts it. The Final Rule therefore, does not violate the [Farm Bill].” To the positive, the Court is stating that when the Industrial Hemp portions of the Farm Bill conflict with the CSA, the Farm Bill prevails.

This decision makes it clear that the Marihuana Extract Rule is unfortunately still valid, meaning that any products extracted from marijuana is still illegal under federal law, which has long been the case according to the DEA. The great unknown is how this ruling will be interpreted. It’s possible that the ruling could have a chilling effect on the growing CBD industry, by emboldening the DEA to actively pursue products that contain CBD. On this point, it’s important to note that Congress has limited the DEA’s ability to use federal funds “to prohibit the transportation, processing, sale, or use of industrial hemp” grown in accordance with the 2014 Farm Bill. However, it can be difficult to prove where a product containing CBD was derived and the DEA may try to push its boundaries in light of the decision. Therefore, it’s important that companies who are distributing CBD verify that it was derived from a legal source and are prepared to prove it.

State law enforcement agencies could also interpret this decision to crack down on CBD, especially in states that have not implemented Farm Bill hemp programs. These agencies are not limited by the budget provision that restricts the DEA enforcement activities. Although we have not heard any instances of state law enforcement cracking down on these sales, it is certainly possible that some will do so.

The Ninth Circuit could have used this as an opportunity to state explicitly that CBD derived from a legal source is also legal. Unfortunately, it did not. Because the Court did explicitly state that the Farm Bill preempts the CSA, though, the silver lining here is that Industrial Hemp, grown pursuant to the Farm Bill, is not illegal under the CSA according to the Ninth Circuit. In addition, shortly after the HIA filed its petition, the DEA made the following helpful clarifications: 

  • The “marihuana extract” definition does not include materials or products excluded from the definition of marijuana set forth in the CSA.
  • The rule includes only those extracts that fall within the CSA definition of marijuana.
  • If a product consists solely of parts of the cannabis plant excluded from the CSA definition of marijuana, such product is not considered “marihuana” or a “marihuana extract.”

Consistent with the Court’s ruling, this appears to exempt extracts that are derived from lawfully grown Industrial Hemp. It also exempts extracts derived from portions of the cannabis plant that are not included in the CSA’s definition of “marihuana”, which include the mature stalks and seeds incapable of germination.

All in all, this convoluted mess of marijuana, hemp, and CBD law could soon become much clearer if Mitch McConnell’s Hemp Farming Act of 2018 is passed. Stay tuned for more information on the ongoing saga of legal hemp and its derivatives.