california marijuana cannabis

Welcome back to “California Cannabis: Scams and Schemes of the Week.” We are publishing this series to shed light on the unscrupulousness of certain attorneys, consultants, and operators in the California cannabis industry, with the goal of establishing a more ethical and regulated industry in the state. You can view Part 1 of this series here and Part 2 here.

Last week, I received many emails from readers regarding the scams and schemes they’ve experienced. It is frustrating, heartbreaking, and infuriating. I am hopeful that we will begin to see in California what we’ve seen in Oregon and Washington: Soon after robust regulations are implemented, many of the roaches and rodents scatter back to the dark corners from whence they came.

Scam # 1: Criminal Attorneys Advising Clients to Engage in Criminal Activity

I am not talking about criminal law attorneys. I mean attorneys who are criminals. Over the past two weeks, I’ve had some mind-blowing conversations with self-proclaimed “cannabis expert” attorneys. These attorneys are advising their clients to engage in blatantly criminal behavior, often resulting in irreparable disaster for all involved. MAUCRSA provides a regulatory regime under which all operators are licensed and regulated businesses; this is dramatically different from the previous regime where collectives and individuals were provided limited criminal immunities under the Compassionate Use Act. If your attorney’s recommended strategy involves breaking the law and preparing to assert defenses under the Compassionate Use Act, rather than leading you into a legitimate, licensed, regulated space, you need to find a new attorney.

Scam #2: Ship Your Cannabis Cash to a Caribbean Bank

Two new banking scams came to my attention this week. One involves a company claiming to run a Bahamian bank that is safe from government seizure. All you have to do is ship your cash to an address in the Bahamas! The company’s mass emails and website use all the right banking buzzwords and acronyms (FinCEN! KYC! AML! Due Diligence!), but if you read the fine print terms and conditions, the true nature of this scam reveals itself. Common sense should tell you that shipping bags of cash offshore is not a good idea.

Scam #3: Buy this Turnkey Dispensary (which is actually worthless and illegal)

We’ve already discussed the inability to purchase a nonprofit, and how most cannabis licenses are non-transferable. But we’ve seen another common scam by dispensary peddlers. Some folks are selling “turnkey” dispensaries that are operating in violation of local zoning codes and have received multiple citations, without disclosing as much to the buyer. In fact, these scammers often try to exclude zoning compliance from the representations and warranties in the deal. The unwitting buyer pays hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars for a worthless “dispensary,” and by the time the buyer discovers that the dispensary is unauthorized and the subject of a code enforcement action, the seller has absconded with the money. The buyer is left with a closed dispensary, fines, outstanding debts to vendors, and tax liabilities. Unsurprisingly, we are seeing the same bad attorneys working both sides of these deals, taking commissions, and completely bailing on the buyers once the truth is revealed. In every deal, DUE DILIGENCE IS KEY. Always verify zoning and outstanding code enforcement actions with the City before you close. Each party needs to retain their own, non-conflicted attorney.

We will be back with more next week. If you’ve come across a California cannabis industry scam, we would like to hear from you! Leave a comment below, or email us at firm@harrisbricken.com.

california cannabis marijuana
California and the Feds are an odd couple in canna law enforcement.

When the Cole Memo was rescinded in January, uncertainty was rife on all sides of the state-regulated cannabis industry. Neither the regulators, the regulated, nor the unregulated knew what to expect from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Justice told each of its 93 United States Attorneys to exercise his or her own discretion when it comes to enforcing the federal prohibition on cannabis. While some indicated that they would more or less continue to follow the Cole Memo, the nature and status of enforcement priorities suddenly became an open question. Through the recent budget bill, thankfully, we learned that Congress would continue to prohibit the DOJ from enforcing against state-legal medicinal cannabis operators, but case law interpreting that law is relatively undeveloped.

On the other side of the equation, California regulators continue to struggle with the still-unlicensed operators who have decided that it’s better to continue operating unregulated and unlicensed—and tolerate the ongoing risk of a crackdown—than it is to incur the costs of compliance. That calculus depends largely on the robustness of the state’s enforcement efforts, which, like the federal government’s priorities, has also been somewhat of an open question. Two recent developments in California suggest what direction the Department of Justice may be headed on the question of cannabis enforcement. Perhaps even more interesting, however, is how the interests of the federal government and the state of California have apparently converged—if only for a moment—on the issue of cannabis enforcement.

Recently, hundreds of federal agents and local law enforcement officers conducted raids at 74 houses in and around Sacramento, in the Eastern District of California, and filed more than 100 civil asset forfeiture actions against residential properties. The houses, many gutted to make room for indoor grow rooms, were reportedly part of a Chinese organized crime operation for the secret cultivation and export of cannabis, and may have been purchased with funds of dubious origin. But the U.S. Attorney in charge of the enforcement action made clear that it had nothing to do with California’s cannabis regulatory regime, as the authorities weren’t conducting actions interfering with state cannabis laws, and that the alleged actions would be “illegal under anybody’s law.” Needless to say, the suspects did not have state or local licenses to conduct any cannabis activity.

In United State v. Gilmore, a case on appeal from the Eastern District of California, the court held that the operators of an El Dorado County cannabis garden on federal land were not entitled to the protections of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, which restricts DOJ funds from being used to prosecute medicinal cannabis in states where it is legal. The court reasoned that nothing in federal or California law purports to allow anyone to grow cannabis on federal lands: In other words, there is no set of circumstances under which this operation would be compliant with state law. (Of particular note was the court’s rejection of the appellants’ claim that they were unaware they were growing on federal land—a good plug for the value of due diligence in a real estate transaction).

In both the Sacramento and El Dorado County cases, the federal government carried out or continued enforcement actions against operators who were neither licensed nor in compliance with state law. Also in both cases, the exit of unlawful operators from the marketplace furthered the state of California’s regulatory priorities; local law enforcement even assisted with the Sacramento raids. It is not clear what DOJ’s cannabis enforcement priorities will be going forward, but it cannot be ignored that at least in these two cases, the interests of both governing bodies were served, and under circumstances consistent with Cole Memo priorities to boot. It begs the question of what might result from future alignments of priorities, but the reality is that California has an unregulated black market cannabis problem, and at least in these two cases, that problem was alleviated to some degree.

california cannabis marijuana

Welcome back to “California Cannabis: Scams and Schemes of the Week.” We are publishing this series to shed light on the unscrupulousness of certain attorneys, consultants, and operators in the California cannabis industry, with the goal of establishing a more ethical and regulated industry in the state. You can find last week’s post here.

Scam #1: Attorneys Representing Buyer and Seller and Taking Commission

We continue to see attorneys representing cannabis entities on both sides of mergers and acquisitions, and in addition to taking an hourly rate, they’re taking a commission on the deal (from both parties)! We are seeing the same attorneys appoint themselves as counsel for the purchased corporation. We’ve seen some shocking deals that harm both parties and benefit only the attorney. Most often, troubling information about a business or property is concealed for the benefit of the seller and the attorney, to the detriment of the buyer. We often see good, trusting people get taken for a ride by attorneys with unethical motivations. The incentive to close a deal as quickly as possible to get a commission is at odds with the incentive to conduct careful due diligence. Make sure your agents and attorneys have your best interests at heart, and if a lawyer tells you he or she can represent “both sides” in a transaction, run!

Scam # 2: The $10 Million Plot of Empty Desert Land

We’ve seen some outrageous land deals in California. There are a number desert parcels without any improvements or utilities, in the middle of nowhere, being offered for millions of dollars. Due diligence is key in real estate transactions, especially in the speculative cannabis market. Just because cannabis activity is possible in a certain jurisdiction does not mean an empty plot of desert land there is worth $10 million. Supplying that land with water, electricity, and building out the structure is no small feat. Many remote desert areas lack the infrastructure to supply these parcels with necessary utilities, and the installation of such infrastructure takes many years and substantial cost. Beware.

Scam #3: Work for Equity in My Nonprofit! 

In California, no one “owns” a nonprofit. One cannot buy or sell a nonprofit corporation, and no stock can be issued or authorized by a nonprofit. We’ve discussed this before on the blog.

Still, we have people asking us to review equity agreements where their nonprofit employer is offering stock instead of salary. In some cases, the company offering these fake stock deals may not know any better because they’re being advised by incompetent attorneys. In other cases, however, these companies are knowingly taking advantage of employees who are blinded by the excitement of being part of a bourgeoning industry. Walk away.

Scam #4: Buy My License!

Under MAUCRSA, state licenses are non-transferable. According to 16 CCR 5023(c), if one or more of the owners of a state license change, a new license application and fee must be submitted to the BCC within 10 business days of the ownership change.

Most local cannabis permits are similarly non-transferable. And if they are transferable, most jurisdictions require you to obtain written approval from the local government prior to transfer. Keep this in mind if you’re looking to buy or lease a “cannabis approved” property, There is simply no guarantee you will be able to get a license to operate there.

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If you’ve come across a California cannabis industry scam, we would like to hear from you! Leave a comment below, or email us at firm@harrisbricken.com.

cannabis cryptocurrency bitcoin
Not just yet.

Two of the biggest buzzwords of 2018 have been cyrptocurrency and cannabis. Both industries have seen an tremendous influx of investment from people trying to capitalize on these new business ideas. Almost every week, I see a new event pop up for people who are interested in finding the synergies between these different industries. Everyone knows that banking is a huge problem for the cannabis industry (as we’ve discussed here, here, and here), and many see the obvious connection for how cryptocurrency could help resolve that. However, that connection will not likely occur anytime soon (at least not before the cannabis banking issue is resolved).

The cannabis industry is a highly-regulated industry at the state level, and marijuana remains a strictly controlled substance under federal law. In order to prevent theft, product diversion, and other criminal activity, states have required businesses to use state-run track-and-trace systems. This system also tracks the amount of money businesses are making and where that money is coming from.

Cryptocurrencies are peer-to-peer networks of decentralized currencies that are traded on a public ledger by using blockchain technology. A cryptocurrency platform could allow cannabis businesses to transact with digital currency instead of cash, making the business safer for all players, and bypassing the need for banks in many cases. It sounds like a natural fit. So, why won’t it work for now?

Combining cryptocurrency and the cannabis industry would join two extraordinary and rapidly changing industries. Although the federal government decided it would proscribe marijuana long ago, it has not decided how to manage cryptocurrencies. The underlying blockchain technology is also largely unregulated, and is overseen only by other users on the blockchain (see our articles on blockchain and cannabis here, here, and here). Both cryptocurrency and blockchain have been used by people for money laundering and evading taxes.

A growing number of recreational marijuana states have implemented stringent licensing and control programs to demonstrate the legitimacy of their respective industries to federal government. Bringing in a technology and a payment protocol that has been used for money laundering and tax evasion could delegitimize the progress that the cannabis industry has made. At the very least, if cannabis businesses start running transactions on cryptocurrency platforms, their businesses will see more government oversight from other federal bodies, like the SEC and IRS.

It will be interesting to see if a real crypto/cannabis relationship can emerge to help resolve the banking issue, but for now we have more faith in the underlying technology, blockchain. We will continue to monitor the possible synergies between cryptocurrency and cannabis and update on any developments.

california cannabis scam

I’ve had it with the scams and schemes in the cannabis industry. I’ve never seen so much dangerously ignorant and downright criminal behavior. Since beginning work in the cannabis industry, I have yet to go a day without encountering some sort of scam. The unscrupulousness of some attorneys, consultants, and operators in this industry needs to be called out and eliminated so we can establish an ethical, regulated industry in California. Towards that end, I’ll be posting a weekly list of scams and schemes to help unsuspecting victims avoid getting taken for a ride.

Scam #1: We Turn Your Cash into a Check Through Real Estate Investment!

There is a group pitching a scheme to turn dispensary cash into checks that can be deposited in the bank. The method: fork your cash over to this group. They toss your cash in with other “investors” and buy real estate with it. They flip the property, and send the proceeds to you in a check. Folks, this is textbook money laundering. The pitcher of this scam is exhibiting at industry conferences across the country and handing out “attorney-approved” contracts. Brazen, stupid, and dangerous for all involved.

Scam #2: Cannabis Cryptocurrency

If you want a lesson on what the government thinks about combining anonymous cryptocurrency with a federally prohibited substance, look no further than the life sentence handed down to Ross Ulbricht, creator of the Silk Road. Ulbricht was convicted of money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. Those are the exact same charges that could be brought against any cannabis cryptocurrency company. Don’t get me started on the value of cannabis cryptocurrency on the secondary market. It’s complete b.s.

Scam #3: You Must Cultivate Before Obtaining a Permit

Most people laugh out loud when they hear this. Unfortunately, there are a few attorneys who provide their clients with downright criminal advice, trying to convince would-be business partners or landlords to engage in unlawful behavior. The days of collectives and “creative” lawyering to get around the laws are over. We now have a robust regulatory system under MAUCRSA that makes it clear that you cannot engage in any sort of commercial cannabis activity before obtaining all local approvals and a state license.

Scam #4: Your DUI Attorney Can Handle Your Tax Audit

Just say no. You are a legitimate business, and you need to retain a legitimate and experienced lawyer to handle your legal matters See Seven Keys to Choosing Your Cannabis Business Law Firm.

marijuana cannabis FDA
Can GW Pharma get there with Epidiolex?

In previous posts we’ve discussed the process for FDA approval of cannabis drugs. Today’s topic is GW Pharmaceuticals, a British biotech company focusing on prescription cannabinoid medicines, including developing and commercializing pharmaceutical products which address clear unmet needs.

GW Pharmaceuticals was founded in the UK in 1998 by two British biotech entrepreneurs, Dr. Geoffrey Guy and Dr. Brian Whittle. The Company is well known to many in the cannabis industry, because it was able to obtain UK licensing for broad pharmaceutical research and development into cannabis and its active compounds, including delivery methods other than smoking.

One of GW Pharmaceuticals’ first products was Sativex, an oral mucosal spray containing the cannabinoids CBD and THC, indicated as a treatment for spasticity due to multiple sclerosis. Sativex is available by prescription in the UK, EU, Canada, New Zealand and Israel. It is not approved in the United States.

GW Pharmaceuticals is now focusing on FDA approval of its liquid formulation of pure plant-derived CBD, called Epidiolex. Conditions for which Epidiolex is initially being tested are severe epilepsy syndromes including Dravet syndrome, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, Tuberous Sclerosis Complex, and Infantile Spasms. GW Pharmaceuticals has obtained Orphan Drug and Fast Track designations from the FDA for research on Dravet syndrome. Phase 3 trials for efficacy and monitoring of adverse reactions have already shown positive effects in reducing certain seizure types from patients taking Epidiolex.

As part of its rulemaking process, FDA’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee will hold a public meeting on April 19, 2018 to consider the New Drug Application (“NDA”) submitted by GW for Epidiolex. This will include oral presentations from the public, and will be webcast. We encourage any aspiring FDA applicants in the CBD space to watch the presentations.

GW Pharmaceuticals has also recently received Notices of Allowance for five new Epidiolex patent applications that will be listed in the Approved Drug Products with Therapeutic Equivalence Evaluations (the “Orange Book”) if the NDA for Epidiolex is approved. These patent claims cover methods of treatment of treatment-resistant epilepsy with CBD oil, sometimes in combination with other compounds.

Besides Epidiolex and Sativex, GW Pharmaceuticals continues research and development on cannabidivarin, known as CBDV. Currently, Phase 2 trials for efficacy and side effects are underway for CBDV as a treatment for epilepsy, and Phase 1 trials for safety and dosage are underway using CBDV for autism spectrum disorders. Also in GW Pharmaceuticals’ R & D pipeline are Phase 1 and 2 cannabinoid studies for neonatal hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, glioblastoma, and schizophrenia.

Without a doubt, GW is in the vanguard of cannabis biotech companies. It now employs over 500 researchers, who have conducted over 50 Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials on cannabis-based compounds. GW has shown that it can develop and acquire regulatory approval for a cannabis pharmaceutical (Sativex) outside of the U.S., and develop a commercial market for this product.

GW Pharmaceuticals has also had great success so far with the FDA, taking its Epidiolex drug from Investigational New Drug Application to New Drug Application in less than four years. Interestingly, GW Pharmaceuticals has stated that if and when the FDA approves the NDA, it will seek to have it categorized as a Schedule IV drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule IV is defined as drugs with a low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence. Currently, the lowest schedule designation of a cannabis drug is for Marinol, which is Schedule III. (A synthetic THC drug, Syndros, was recently moved to Schedule II).

Regardless of how Epidiolex might be scheduled, its potential approval by the FDA would be a major step forward for cannabis pharmaceuticals. Be sure to tune in on April 18 for further developments.

cannabis business marijuana
If only it were so easy.

There is a direct correlation between the complexity of a state marijuana business licensing system and the complexity of financial deals that industry participants undertake. Washington, Oregon and most of all, California, provide fertile grounds for increasingly complex deals. Outside of cannabis, my firm sees similarly complex transactions proposed in our international business practice, especially in our China law practice which is another body of law requiring specialized knowledge. Regardless of circumstance, though, it is vitally important that parties to a deal firmly understand how the deal shifts and manages risk.

Complex transactions can feel like a game of hot potato. Here is a relatively simple example that demonstrates some of the complexity I’m talking about: Sally signs a supply contract with a large processor to provide bulk raw material. Sally realizes that she can’t service this herself, so she asks Henry, who has a background in servicing large orders like this, to use his experience in coordinating and managing production to service the contract. Henry realizes that he needs significant capital to expand capacity and turns to outside investors. Those outside investors want security before they invest, so they ask for, among other things, a pledge from Sally of her contract rights to receive payment from the processor as collateral.

In a perfect world, Henry gets the investment and uses it to provide the raw material. Sally and Henry provide them to the processor and split the contract fees they receive, some of which go to pay back the investors. Everybody wins.

Sometimes deals like this do work for everyone. But there are so many different ways that they can go wrong. None of the parties should enter into the deal without understanding what the consequences would be of various potential failure risks. In the example deal, there are plenty of potential failure points:

  • Can Sally coordinate production to service the contract?
  • Can Henry actually produce?
  • If Sally and Henry can produce, can the processor actually pay?
  • What if state regulations change and disallow contracts like this midway through the production cycle after money has been spent?

All of the parties in the deal need to understand their exposure at each stage of the deal from beginning to end, in order to negotiate the arrangement but also to perform under the contracts. We have seen deals like this look like they are on a good path until, at the last possible moment, the processor decides that they can’t pay for the product.

But that’s the crux of almost any business arrangement. There is a moment where a party spends money with the anticipation of receiving that back with a return. Whether or not the return comes is a function of risk. Businesses that do best are those that can understand and quantify risks and that understand how best to shift risk and hedge against downside. Whether the hedging/shifting mechanism is through security agreements, outside insurance, or reliance on lawsuits, parties need to understand the costs and benefits of each in order to properly manage their risk position.

Risk isn’t necessarily bad. But if a party is taking on a significant portion of the risk in a deal and that risk isn’t properly hedged, that party should receive the lion’s share of the potential upside.

california cannabis labeling
It’s not optional for California packaging and labeling.

California is just starting to get its cannabis packaging and labeling regulations right under MAUCRSA.  As part of this multi-part series on these regulations, I covered transition period product packaging and labeling in a previous post, and I analyzed the packaging and labeling for “New Products” in another post. Today’s post will cover Proposition 65 labeling issues for California’s cannabis businesses. Note that MAUCRSA makes no specific mention of Prop. 65 compliance, so marijuana business owners are on their own in identifying whether or not they must adhere to that law.

The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (a/k/a Prop. 65), requires theOffice of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other types of reproductive harm. The list now includes more than 850 chemicals. Given this fact, there is hardly a manufacturing business in California that won’t find itself subject to Prop 65 warning requirements at some point.

Prop. 65 requires businesses to provide their customers with notice of these chemicals when present in the products they purchase, in their homes or workplaces, or that are released into the environment. The ultimate intent is to allow consumers to make informed decisions with respect to chemical exposure (though there have been allegations of abusive lawsuits against businesses by “bounty hunters” almost from the outset of the passage of Prop. 65).

Effective June 19, 2009, marijuana smoke was added to the Prop. 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. The Carcinogen Identification Committee of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment  “determined that marijuana smoke was clearly shown, through scientifically valid testing according to generally accepted principles, to cause cancer.” And back in 2015, a “citizen enforcer” served the first five 60-day notices on medical cannabis dispensaries around the state.

As MAUCRSA licensing and regulation steadily comes online, you can bet that we will see a smattering of Prop. 65 attacks on cannabis business owners who fail to properly label their products. So, what do you need to look out for as a cannabis business? The first thing is to realize that, yes, Prop. 65 likely applies to you where any of the products you’re selling may contain Prop. 65 chemicals above safe harbor levels that warrant the mandated labeling warnings: Prop. 65 applies to everyone in the chain of distribution, not just retailers. Also, just because your products do not contain “marijuana smoke” doesn’t mean you don’t have to adjust your label: If your products contain any of the other ~849 chemicals, you have to disclose accordingly under Prop. 65. For example, any carcinogens or toxins that go into any oil inserted into a vapor pen cartridge are likely going to warrant a Prop. 65 warning.

There have also been updates to Prop. 65, the latest of which passed in 2016 and will be fully effective on August 30, 2018 of this year. These updates to the law affect how you must label your products to secure the safe harbor. The typical warning that’s out there right now in the cannabis community is some iteration of:

WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer.

With the new laws coming into play on August 30, the foregoing will no longer be good enough. Instead, unless you meet one of the few exceptions (one of which is that your product was manufactured prior to August 30, 2018 and contains the September 2008 safe harbor warnings), you’ll need to follow the new regulations. One of the most important changes with the new regulations is that you now need to actually identify at least one triggering chemical depending on the type of harm caused by that chemical. Specifically, OEHHA mandates that:

If, for example, there are five possible chemical exposures from a given product, and all five chemicals are listed only as carcinogens, then the business would only be required to name one of those five chemicals in the warning. . . If there are exposures to both carcinogens and reproductive toxicants, a business would be required to name one of the chemicals that is a carcinogen and one of the chemicals that is a reproductive toxicant, but the business could choose to identify more chemicals in the warning.

In turn, your new Prop. 65 warning labels will look like one of the following:

For carcinogens: “This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause cancer. For more information go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”

For  reproductive toxicants: “This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”

For exposures to both listed carcinogens and reproductive toxicants: “This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause cancer, and [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”
For exposures to a chemical that is listed as both a carcinogen and a reproductive toxicant: “This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”
If you’re starting to worry, you can also use a short-form label under certain circumstances. Finally, the look of the label has also changed with the new regulations:

“A symbol consisting of a black exclamation point in a yellow equilateral triangle with a bold black outline. Where the sign, label or shelf tag for the product is not printed using the color yellow, the symbol may be printed in black and white. The symbol shall be placed to the left of the text of the warning, in a size no smaller than the height of the word ‘WARNING'”.

You can download the symbol here.

There are a slew of other mandates under Prop. 65, but the bottom line is that if you fail to comply with this law, you’re going to be facing costly legal challenges and/or settlements, none of which will have to do with your MAUCRSA compliance. So double check your labels now to ensure that you’re prepared and in compliance for August 30, 2018.

Did San Mateo’s new ordinance moot the CEQA issue?

Last month, we blogged about the writ petition brought against the County of San Mateo by petitioners who alleged non-compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).

CEQA requires environmental review of discretionary projects to inform the public and government decision makers of the environmental consequences of their decisions. The law must be interpreted in such manner to afford the fullest possible protection to the environment within the reasonable scope of the statutory language. Unless exempted, all discretionary projects must receive environmental review pursuant to CEQA.

Under CEQA, the “lead agency”—the public agency principally responsible for approving a proposed project—is responsible for preparing the environmental documents for a project, including any negative declaration or environmental impact report (EIR). If a project is not exempt from CEQA, the lead agency must prepare an initial study to determine whether the project will have a significant impact on the environment, or skip the initial study and conduct an EIR if it is obvious that an EIR is required.

The County of San Mateo’s challenged ordinance allowed cannabis cultivation subject to ministerial approval of license applications. This means there was no deliberation or discretion involved, and the County could issue licenses over the counter, if an applicant checked all applicable boxes.

As we explained in our last post, the County issued a negative declaration with the challenged ordinance following an initial study, determining that there was not substantial evidence that the ordinance would have a significant effect on the environment. Petitioners disagreed, claiming the record contained substantial evidence supporting myriad arguments that the ordinance would adversely impact hydrology and water quality, sensitive species and habitat, air and light pollution, climate change, and other effects.

Further, as ministerial licenses, each cannabis cultivation project under the challenged ordinance would have been exempt from CEQA and none would require their own environmental analysis. That fact alone seems like an end-run around the law.

At the end of February, petitioners and the County held a settlement conference. Shortly thereafter, the County repealed and replaced their cultivation ordinance with one that subjects each cultivation project to discretionary approval. Now, each cultivation project will be subject to CEQA unless otherwise exempt.

MAUCRSA provides a temporary exemption to CEQA to cities and counties adopting a cannabis ordinance subject to specific conditions.  So long as a city or county ordinance requires discretionary review and approval of permits, licenses, or other authorizations to engage in commercial cannabis activity, and includes any applicable environmental review pursuant to Division 13 of the Public Resources Code, the adoption of the ordinance itself is exempt from CEQA. Bus. & Prof. Code, § 26055(h). This exemption expires July 1, 2019.

Arguably, the County of San Mateo’s new ordinance is exempt from CEQA pursuant to Business and Professions Code section 26055(h), and the petition is moot. There are no future hearings on calendar, but the writ petition is still pending. We will keep you posted on any developments: The viability of San Mateo’s approach could have a significant impact on the approach taken by other local jurisdictions with respect to California marijuana licenses.

marijuana bankruptcy lease
Bankruptcy cases have been hard, when cannabis is involved.

A recent unpublished decision out of the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel presents an interesting set of facts and a decision that may leave one questioning which direction the bankruptcy courts might be headed in the era of legalized cannabis. An elderly Nevada resident owned some commercial property at a shopping mall in South Lake Tahoe, and had been leasing it for several years to a medicinal cannabis dispensary (the lease specifically authorized the tenant to operate a “dispensary”). After several years of state-legal operations, an argument arose over an alleged option agreement to purchase the property, and the tenant sued to force a sale of the property. The bank holding the mortgage recorded a default shortly thereafter and began foreclosure proceedings.

The owner then filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which is a form of debt reorganization that allows a debtor to pay creditors on a court-approved payment plan. Her proposed plan called for her to sell off the commercial property occupied by the dispensary but continue renting it in the meantime, so she filed a motion to reject the lease and the option agreement, and proposed a payment plan that included giving the bank rental income from the dispensary. The city also joined in, asking the court to reject the lease on the grounds that the tenant’s permit to operate the dispensary had expired due to the owner’s failure to provide written consent (a good plug for including a landlord cooperation clause in commercial cannabis leases).

The tenant fired back with an interesting approach: he moved to dismiss the bankruptcy petition altogether on the grounds that the owner’s acceptance of his cannabis dispensary’s rent payments violated the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). None of the motions were heard, though, because the lower bankruptcy court decided to dismiss the petition on its own, declaring that the owner had “committed a crime” by accepting rent from the dispensary while the bankruptcy case was pending.

On appeal, the bankruptcy appellate panel vacated the lower court’s decision and remanded, because the court had failed to articulate any findings or legal basis justifying the conclusion that the owner was violating the CSA and that violation was grounds for dismissal. The appellate panel in its opinion discussed the importance of establishing knowledge and intent to lease the property for marijuana cultivation in order to prove a CSA violation by an owner, and in turn to use that violation as a basis for rejecting a bankruptcy petition. In sum, the appellate panel highlighted the high bar that a court must clear to be able to use accepting cannabis rents as a reason to deny a property owner’s bankruptcy petition, even were the rents are accepted after the petition was filed.

While the owner’s bankruptcy case may have lived to fight another day, nothing about the case invalidates the CSA or even precludes using it as grounds for dismissing a bankruptcy petition. But the case highlights the ongoing conflict that federal courts are confronting due to the status of state-legal cannabis as being federally illegal. The lesson of the case is nicely framed in the concurring opinion: “With over twenty-five states allowing the medical or recreational use of marijuana, courts increasingly need to address the needs of litigants who are in compliance with state law while not excusing activity that violates federal law.”