As noted before in this blogHemp Industries Assoc. v. DEA, pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, appeals the DEA’s final administrative rule creating a new drug code number for “marihuana [sic] extract,” defined as “containing one or more cannabinoids that has been derived from any plant of the genus Cannabis.”  Petitioners, a cannabis industry trade group and other industry participants, argue that DEA’s rule effectively reschedules CBD as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), in violation of the Farm Act of 2014, which allows the states to set up pilot hemp programs. The DEA counters that this rule does not restrict substances that were not previously controlled, but simply adjusts DEA’s methods for tracking substances that Congress put in Schedule 1.

On February 15, 2018, a Ninth Circuit panel of three judges heard oral argument. You can watch the argument here. Because federal appellate courts never issue decisions at oral argument, we won’t know how the court decides for several months. But watching the argument gives some clues to how the judges are thinking about this case.

Before you watch, consider first that this case is a challenge to a rule made by the DEA, a federal administrative agency exercising rule-making power expressly delegated to it by Congress. Under established law, the court must defer to the DEA’s exercise of this power. The court may set aside DEA’s rule only if it is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.” The court’s review is narrow: it must simply determine whether the DEA articulated a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made. As long as the DEA’s decision was “based on a consideration of relevant factors and there is no clear error of judgment,” the agency’s action is not arbitrary and capricious.

Second, consider that there are many administrative procedures that must be followed before a petitioner can even ask for review of an agency rule. All rulemaking is open to public comment by any interested party. If you fail to weigh in at the rulemaking procedure, you may not get to complain in court. Also, the petitioner has to show particular identified harm that it will suffer because of the rule.

Third, keep in mind that lower appellate courts such as the Ninth Circuit will often (though not always) try to decide a case on the narrowest grounds possible. This means that these judges may choose to decide on a technicality or procedural issue, rather than reaching the merits of the claim. That could very well happen here.

Keeping these points in mind, observe that the judges ask the lawyers: isn’t this rule just a change in the numbering system used by DEA made in order to facilitate record-keeping and reporting activities? Of course, the DEA lawyer agrees, while the cannabis industry lawyer strongly disagrees. Also notice that the judges continue to press the cannabis lawyer about whether evidence supporting harm claimed to be suffered is found “in the record.” This is an important point, because courts of appeal are not allowed to refer to facts that were not brought up in the original proceeding– in this case, the rulemaking process. Finally, there is no discussion about whether de-scheduling CBDs is a good or a bad policy. That is not an issue raised by this case, and the panel will almost certainly not address this in its opinion.

It is also worth reading a brief filed not by the parties to this case, but by several members of Congress who are appearing as amici, that is, friends of the court, Their brief supports the cannabis industry group, broadly arguing that DEA had no authority to issue its rule. The amicus brief also broadly urges that the Farm Act of 2014 allows states to effectively legalize CBD sales. Although many of the amici were among those who voted for the Farm Act, this brief is unlikely to sway the judges, who will likely say nothing about what the Farm Act does or doesn’t cover.

Check back in a few months, when we will discuss the opinion of the panel. My guess is that the opinion will narrowly decide the case, perhaps on procedural grounds, but that there will be no controlling ruling on scheduling of CBDs, keeping this area of law as confusing as ever. Stay tuned.

Courts often invalidate unfair spot zoning ordinances.

We recently discussed the California Environmental Quality Act as a limitation on local zoning authority through environmental regulation. Another important limitation on local authority when it comes to cannabis ordinances is spot zoning, which is the act of singling out specific parcels of land to benefit specific owners at the expense of others in the surrounding areas. Spot zoning can exist in the form of restricting activities from occurring on specific parcels, or by providing exclusive use benefits to specific parcels—such as allowing licensed marijuana operations in select places. It is essentially the practice of creating zoning “islands” that are decidedly dissimilar to their surrounding areas, and is often the subject of legal challenges.

Recently, a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge invalidated Measure O, a voter-approved ballot initiative that eliminated a city-wide ban on medicinal cannabis and required the City of San Bernardino to allow commercial cannabis operations in certain parts of the city. The court found that although Measure O provided a variety of areas in which cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, testing, transportation, and distribution could occur, it limited the possible dispensary sites to just two addresses, one of which was the Flesh Showgirls strip club.

The court noted that not all spot zoning is invalid per se, but spot zoning is impermissible if there is no rational basis for it—i.e. if it is arbitrary or capricious. An example of potentially permissible spot zoning would be restricting a portion of land within a commercial development to residential use, because doing so might benefit the public interest by maintaining dedicated housing. Similarly, a city might allow an island of land within a residential neighborhood to obtain commercial licenses for retail and light manufacturing, in order to preserve a neighborhood commercial district for the benefit of the local community.

In the San Bernardino County case, however, the court found no such rational basis. The court opined that no justification was provided for why two particular parcels were singled out as the only locations in the city that could have dispensary use. According to the court’s ruling, “these two addresses are separated from each other by several miles and are surrounded on all sides by similarly situated yet non-qualifying properties,” and that there was no rational basis for doing so, nor was there any discernible public interest served. The court determined that Measure O effectively created a zoning duopoly in the two dispensary addresses “with the owners of these two locations the sole beneficiaries.” Accordingly, the court concluded that unlawful spot zoning had occurred, and held that because it was not feasible to sever the dispensary zoning from the overall initiative, Measure O was invalid in its entirety.

We have heard rumblings of special interest groups organizing to pass initiatives in California jurisdictions that currently prohibit commercial cannabis activity. Any groups pursuing such a path should be mindful of the Measure O case and the invalidity of spot zoning without rational basis. While the idea of eliminating competition by drafting a ballot measure favoring select parcels of land may seem like an attractive business proposition, even if an initiative passes with support of the voters, it can still be overturned by a court of law if it is legally defective.

While San Bernardino County may have to go back to the drawing board on its cannabis zoning, the lesson is clear: if you’re going to limit the places where cannabis businesses can operate, there has to be a rational basis for doing so that serves a legitimate public interest, and it cannot create an unfair monopoly over the market for select participants. Otherwise, you risk a court invalidating the ordinance altogether.

marijuana lgbtq employmentThe Trump administration is known for its hostility to marijuana. It’s also known for its hostility to the LGBT community. In a huge blow to the Trump administration, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last Monday that employers cannot discriminate against employees based on sexual orientation.  Many states, including Oregon, Washington, and California have statutes explicitly prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation. The Federal Civil Rights Act (“the Act”) does not explicitly protect employees based on sexual orientation: instead, it only protects employees based on sex. Circuit courts across the country are taking up the issue of whether employees should be protected based on sexual orientation, and reaching different conclusions.

In 2010, Donald Zarda sued his employer, Altitude Express, Inc. alleging they had terminated him because he was gay. The federal district court ruled in favor of the employer, holding the Act did not protect employees based on sexual orientation. The case pitted the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the federal department of justice. The EEOC submitted a brief in support of Mr. Zarda, arguing the Act protects employees based on sexual orientation. The Federal Department of Justice (headed by our good friend, Mr. Sessions) submitted a brief supporting the employer, and arguing the Act did not extend to sexual orientation.

The Second Circuit overruled the lower court. Siding with Mr. Zarda in a lengthy, 69-page opinion, with multiple concurrences and 80 pages of dissents, it ultimately held that “sexual orientation is doubly delineated by sex because it is a function of both a person’s sex and the sex of those to whom he or she is attracted. Logically because sexual orientation is a function of sex and sex is a protected characteristic under [the Act] it follows that sexual orientation is also protected.” Makes sense to us.

Two other federal appeals courts recently have heard similar cases. The Seventh circuit determined discrimination based on sexual orientation was discrimination based on sex under the Act, while the Eleventh Circuit held the Act’s reference to sex did not encompass discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Supreme Court declined to hear the Seventh Circuit’s case, but now, with multiple circuits offering opinions on the issue, the Supreme Court may be persuaded to hear the Second Circuit’s case. If they do, let’s hope they get it right.

So why does this matter to cannabis businesses? Cannabis businesses are subject to both state and federal employment laws. If a cannabis business discriminates against an employee because of sexual orientation, the business could be in violation of both state and federal law. As we all know, Attorney General Sessions ripped up the Cole memorandum earlier this year. Without the memorandum, there is little guidance about when and where federal district attorneys will choose to enforce the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) against cannabis companies. Thus, compliance with state and federal regulations is more important than ever during this time. It is best to stay under the radar rather than drawing federal attention to your business by arguably violating federal laws—other than the CSA that is.

If you ever have questions about terminating an employee it is always best to consult an employment law expert first to ensure all basis are covered and no violations arise from the termination. If your company is not terminating an employee on the basis of sexual orientation, but you believe that the employee could make such a claim, it is crucial to consider and attempt to mitigate possible claims. Both state and federal laws tend to be very detailed when it comes to protection of employees. In unsettled areas of law, such as the employees and sexual orientation, prudence is advised.

Cannabis lawyers on social media
Please check out our cannabis posts!

Our cannabis business lawyers are always getting emails from blog readers asking them where they can be found on social media. This post is our response to all those emails and to let everyone else know that if you cannot get enough of Canna Law Blog, you can find more of us in the following places:

Facebook. We have an exceedingly popular and perpetually growing Facebook page here with more than 180,000 likes/followers. We use that site to disseminate information and to initiate discussion on a wide range of uber-topical cannabis issues. That site is meant to be a less serious than this one and the range of cannabis topics we address there is considerably wider than here. We allow for a wide range of views on our Facebook page and we delete only those comments hateful of others or that involve anyone trying to sell anything.

Twitter/Publications.  Our blog and a number of our cannabis lawyers have the following twitter accounts, with posting frequencies all over the map:

  1. @cannalawblog We use this account to tweet 2-4 times a day, mostly on important cannabis issues of general interest. This is a go-to account for current events.
  2. @cannabizlawyer. This is Hilary Bricken’s account. Hilary tweets pretty regularly and as head of our Los Angeles cannabis practice, many of her tweets have a California/Los Angeles flavor. Hilary also authors a once-a-week column for Above the Law on all things cannabis law and policy across the United States. Hilary also writes the occasional piece for Culture Magazine, too.
  3. @vince-sliwoski. This is Vince Sliwoski’s account. Vince heads up our Portland cannabis business practice and he tweets regularly on general interest and Oregon cannabis issues. Vince also writes a bi-weekly column for the Portland Mercury called Ask a Pot Lawyer, which is syndicated in the Seattle Stranger.
  4. @alison-malsbury. This is Alison Malsbury’s account. Alison focuses on cannabis intellectual property law and she splits her time between our Seattle and our San Francisco offices (with a bit of Los Angeles also). Her tweets reflect this, as they usually are on California or Washington or IP issues.
  5. @dshortt90. This is Daniel Shortt’s account. Daniel is based in Seattle and he tweets regularly about general interest and Washington State cannabis issues. Daniel Shortt also frequently contributes to The Fresh Toast, writing about cannabis legal issues.
  6. @jghunthb. This is Jim Hunt’s account. Jim focuses on federal and state taxation as they relate to cannabis businesses and his posts often relate to cannabis taxation issues.
  7. Will Patterson. This is Will Patterson’s account. Will is an attorney in our Portland office and he too writes bi-weekly for the Portland Mercury’s Ask a Pot Lawyer column, which is syndicated in the Seattle Stranger.
  8. @Hbentaleb09. This is Habib Bentalab’s account. Habib is a business and regulatory attorney in our San Francisco’s office. Habib is one of the most up to date people on the constantly evolving city and local laws throughout California.

The rest of our cannabis lawyers either do not post on cannabis for social media, or post so seldom as to not be worthy of mention above, at least not yet.

Please follow us and enjoy!


As we’ve discussed before on this blog, cannabis can be and is being patented. It is important to remember that patents are a balance between competing social values. In classical legal theory, patents exist to encourage innovation by offering innovators a limited monopoly in return for making inventions, and eventually releasing them to the public. Although the common law disfavors restraints on trade such as patents, the prevailing theory is that granting a partial monopoly is justified by the social benefit of innovation. This is known as the contract model of patents. Whether this model really produces net social utility in particular cases, or ever, is hotly debated.

What isn’t debated is that the contract model fails if what is patented is not new. One of the biggest challenges of our patent system is determining what is “new enough” to reward with a patent. In general, the patent system examines novelty by comparing a claimed invention to existing products (known as the “prior art”) that are in the same or related fields. (In some patents, an invention must also be “non-obvious” in light of prior art. I don’t address obviousness here.) The practical problem is searching the historical haystack for the needle of relevant prior art. Searching the text of patents is relatively easy. But most of the world is not patented, and is more difficult to search; e.g., plants and other living things are not text-searchable. So how do we keep living prior art, such as cannabis strains, available to the public and not covered by the patent monopoly?

This question is being addressed by an Oregon non-profit, the Open Cannabis Project (“OCP”) (full disclosure: I am a legal advisor to the OCP). According to the OCP:

Cannabis is in danger of going the way the rest of agriculture has gone: toward monoculture, centralization, and restrictive patenting…The growing wave of legalization – and the intellectual property competition that comes with it – may have the unintended consequence of narrowing and restricting [cannabis] diversity….Open Cannabis Project (OCP) was established by industry leaders to resist these forces and to protect the genetic diversity of the Cannabis plant as well as the economic diversity of the cannabis industry….

To keep existing cannabis strains freely available to the public, the OCP is building an open-source repository of genetic and chemotypic data. This repository will serve as a source of prior art, useful to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“Patent Office”) and to the cannabis industry. Several labs have already pledged to contribute existing data to the repository, which is now being stored at the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The OCP’s aim is to have a comprehensive set of genetic data for all cannabis varieties that are either naturally occurring or which have been previously available to the public. Either one of these conditions renders such varieties unpatentable.

The OCP holds great promise in its goal of keeping existing cannabis strains from coming under the control of one commercial entity or another. Some questions remain, however. For example, there is sometimes a mismatch between what the Patent Office considers when it reviews plant novelty, and what is available in genetic data. Hopefully the OCP and other cannabis industry players will be able to work with the Patent Office and perhaps Congress to address this and other concerns. Given the availability of cannabis patents and the size of the industry, there is a lot at stake.

California marijuana banking
A public marijuana bank is a red herring.

It seems like every state in its own way has tried to grapple with a state-legislated solution to the notorious banking issue across the cannabis industry. And now California is going to study its own banking solution that, in all reality, probably isn’t going to go anywhere.

California is predicted to take in $7 billion by 2020 because of adult-use legalization. Its licensed operators have nowhere reliable to put all of that cash, and you can be sure that the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration doesn’t want those operators trucking hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to Sacramento. Additionally, the cash epidemic was complicated by the fact that Attorney General Sessions’s rescission of the 2014 Department of Justice (DOJ) Financial Crimes memo, which allowed financial institutions to bank marijuana businesses in states with “robust regulation”, in concert with the 2014 FinCEN guidelines. Thankfully, those guidelines still exist, but the Department of Treasury is currently looking at them in the wake of Sessions’s decision.

Back to California.

This month, Treasurer John Chiang announced that his office (along with the California State Attorney General’s office) would undertake a two-part feasibility study around forming a state-backed bank to serve California cannabis businesses. In his office’s November 2017 report, Chiang admitted that creating and supporting a state cannabis bank would be a “formidable” task and that the “definitive solution” is for the federal government to either legalize cannabis or for Congress to create some kind of legal safe harbor for financial institutions that bank the industry. Nonetheless, Chiang’s report proposed two options for a state cannabis bank:

  • “A public institution that would either (1) finance public infrastructure and expand banking for underserved groups, including the cannabis industry; or (2) take deposits, make loans, and provide other services primarily to cannabis producers, distributors, retailers, and related businesses.” Or,
  • “A privately owned bankers’ bank, supported by the state, which would not take retail or small business deposits, but instead provide financial services, compliance services, and technical assistance to financial institutions serving the cannabis industry.”

Chiang’s report goes into great detail about the pros and cons of choosing either a public financial institution or the banker’s bank model. The report runs the gamut of concerns over federal asset forfeiture risks, industry volatility, special problems with closed loop banking and the Federal Reserve, public costs, profitability, capitalization, federal and state regulatory issues, the inability to secure federal depository insurance, and various and complicated ownership structures over either model. Overall though, both models sound nearly impossible to create, capitalize, and sustain due to exiting federal regulations that are insurmountable in every way, because “marijuana” is still a Schedule I controlled substance.

While we appreciate the state’s desire to find a banking solution for cannabis operators, a state-owned, operated, and financially backed bank would have a gargantuan task just to get started–just ask Massachusetts and Colorado. Federal deposit insurers want nothing to do with a bank that is focused on marijuana businesses, regardless of whether it is state-owned. The Federal Reserve also seems unlikely to grant a master account to any newly chartered financial institution whose reason for being is to serve marijuana businesses. Without that master account, the bank wouldn’t have access to the federal money transfer system, a key aspect of banking.

California would be wise to examine state-legal marijuana banking in the Northwest. Washington and Oregon boast a small but stable number of banks and credit unions that provide services to state-licensed marijuana businesses. Private banking in those jurisdictions grew slowly as those states developed their regulations, and the vast majority of rules are promulgated by state government.

California has only just started, and banks that would serve marijuana businesses there would only now be in a position to start working with California cannabis operators. Additionally, with the level of control that California regulators allow local authorities, marijuana businesses in different, local jurisdictions still face significantly different hurdles from one another. It is more challenging for institutions in California to keep up with the myriad of state and local rules that have been promulgated, most of which are still untested and with new ambiguities being found daily.

Now that the 2014 DOJ Financial Crimes enforcement memo is gone, it’s anyone’s guess as to what Treasury will do going forward and whether increased MAUCRSA regulation will matter to banks and credit unions in California. If banks are going to participate, regulations need to be significant enough that banks believe that they are as “robust” as the Treasury guidance requires, but simple enough that a bank can feel confident about its ability to judge whether or not one of its account holders is complying with state law.

Ultimately, a public bank of any kind is a red herring for the cannabis industry. Instead, existing financial institutions need to be sufficiently supported by the states so that they feel comfortable taking on the risk of servicing cannabis accounts.

Editor’s Note: A version of this post previously ran in the author’s Above the Law column.

california cannabis marijuana
State v. small growers: Who ya got?

The California Growers Association, which advocates for small and independent cannabis cultivators, recently sued the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state agency charged with crafting and implementing cannabis cultivation regulations. The lawsuit stems from one of the biggest controversies in the state’s 2017 emergency regulations: a loophole in the licensing scheme that would effectively allow cultivators to set up mega farms by “stacking” unlimited small grow licenses. We discussed this precise issue at length at the end of 2017, and the matter is now the subject of legal challenge.

The gist of the lawsuit is that the CDFA’s failure to include a cap on small (5,001-10,000 square feet of canopy) cultivation licenses is inconsistent with MAUCRSA, the statute authorizing the CDFA to promulgate cultivation regulations. MAUCRSA generally prohibits large cultivation licenses (over 22,000 sq. ft. of indoor canopy or over 1 acre of outdoor canopy) until 2023, and limits medium cultivation licenses (10,001-22,000 sq. ft. of indoor canopy or up to 1 acre of outdoor canopy) to one per person for five years. The CDFA regulations contain no such cap on small cultivation licenses. Because the lack of a cap would essentially allow growers to do what they would otherwise be prohibited by statute from doing until 2023—i.e. cultivating more than 1 acre per person—the plaintiffs contend that the regulations are inconsistent with the statute, and that judicial intervention is needed to make them consistent by limiting total license issuance to one acre per applicant. It also bears mentioning that the state’s own environmental report recommended allowing no larger than one acre of cultivation per licensee.

Under California’s Administrative Procedure Act, one basis for challenging agency rules—and the grounds utilized by the plaintiffs here—is consistency, which is defined by the statute as “being in harmony with, and not in conflict with or contradictory to, existing statutes, court decisions, or other provisions of law.” If the CDFA regulations conflict with or contradict MAUCRSA, they are subject to challenge. However, the plaintiffs are not asking the court to invalidate the regulations altogether—only to limit small cultivation licenses to an aggregate of one acre per applicant.

Supporters of the CDFA’s approach would argue that MAUCRSA’s notable absence of a cap on small licenses, alongside explicit caps on other types of licenses, would suggest that the regulations’ reflection of that same approach is actually consistent with the statute and with legislative intent, and not the other way around. And in any event, it’s not clear what effect, if any, a short-term limitation on small grow licenses would have on market prices and competition. It remains to be seen how stringently the state will enforce regulations such as the track-and-trace program aimed in part at excluding illicit supply from entering the market (California already had an oversupply problem even before Prop 64 was passed). It’s also an open question as to how discerning consumers will be for variations in quality and speciality strains (i.e. how fungible farmed cannabis will be). It’s also unclear what effect excessive taxation might have on demand for licensed cannabis and whether consumers may be drawn to the illegal market (which is already rife with illicit mega farms).

Whichever way the CGA’s lawsuit goes, the outcome is sure to impact cultivation licensing in California and business planning for growers, but it’s not clear how much of an effect it will have on overall market demand for cannabis one way or the other. Regardless, this case is an interesting one to keep an eye on as the first substantial legal challenge to the state’s new cannabis regulations.

california marijuana legislation
Quite a bit, in California.

Ever since Californians voted in favor of the Adult-Use of Marijuana Act (a/k/a Prop 64), everyone has been looking to see how the regulated cannabis industry will develop in California. Last April, California’s state cannabis regulatory agencies (the Bureau of Cannabis Control, Department of Food and Agriculture, and Department of Public Health) released their medical regulations. Those regulations, issued under the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA), were in place for a little over two months before they were withdrawn when the state legislature passed the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation Safety Act (MAUCRSA) in June of 2017. In November, California released its emergency regulations under MAUCRSA, which set out the rules for cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, distributors, laboratories, and retailers under the same regulatory regime.

Finally, on January 1st, 2018, California opened up its market to commercial cannabis businesses. So where does that leave us today? Last week I attended a meeting for members of the California Cannabis Industry Association in Sacramento where a lot of time was focused discussing the legislative landscape and priorities for California in 2018. There are a number of cannabis bills on the legislative agenda in 2018. Here are four to keep your eye on:

  • Assembly Bill 1578: Introduced by Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, this bill would prohibit a state or local agency from taking certain actions without a federal agent obtaining a court order signed by a judge and presenting that order to the state or local agency. The controlled actions include: using agency money, facilities, property, equipment, or personnel to assist a federal agency to investigate, detain, detect, report, obtain information, or arrest a person for commercial or noncommercial cannabis activity that is authorized or allowed under state and local law; transferring an individual to federal law enforcement; detaining an individual at the request of federal law enforcement or federal authorities for cannabis-related activity that is legal under state and local law, etc. Basically, this bill is a way of telling the federal government to mind its own business.
  • Assembly Bill 1793: Introduced by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, this bill would state the intent of the Legislature to enact legislation to allow automatic expungement or reduction of a prior cannabis conviction. The rationale here is that a cannabis conviction should no longer be a scarlett letter, and should not preclude affected individuals from full participation in society.
  • Assembly Bill 1863: Another bill introduced by Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer, this bill attempts to alleviate the unfair and unjust tax burden placed on cannabis businesses by the Internal Revenue Service. This bill would allow for the deduction of business expenses for a cannabis trade or business under California’s Personal Income Tax Law.
  • Senate Bill 930: Introduced by State Senator Robert Hertzberg, this bill would address one of the biggest issues facing the cannabis industry: banking. The bill would state that it is California’s intent to enact legislation to create a state-chartered bank to service cannabis businesses.

When considering the evolving California regulatory scheme, it is important to note that aside from any pending legislation, the emergency administrative regulations currently in place are temporary. The state will have to issue permanent cannabis regulations this year, which will include a 45-day public comment period. On this point, we have been informed that the state plans on holding a number of forums throughout the year to garner public input.

If you have concerns about California cannabis regulation, whether it’s the cultivation acreage cap, the definition an “owner” of a cannabis licensee, or perhaps the disclosure requirements for financial interest holders, there is still time to contact your legislators and appropriate cannabis agencies. Now is not the time to rest: this year will be pivotal in the California cannabis story, and, by extension, in the cannabis industry throughout the United States.

sessions marijuana cannabis
The worst.

If your New Year’s resolution was to stop paying attention to the news you may have missed that last Thursday U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally rescinded the Cole Memo – which we covered here and here. By rescinding the Cole Memo, Sessions, whose outdated and prohibitionist stance on cannabis is well documented, has sown uncertainty in the states that have legalized cannabis use. This is especially true for the states that have legalized and are regulating adult-use cannabis businesses and individual rights.

To some extent, cannabis businesses are already feeling the effect of this new and uncertain landscape. But in following up on his antiquated stance on cannabis, did Sessions overplay his hand? Will this be a Pyrrhic victory for the prohibitionist crowd? With recent polls showing that 64% of Americans support legalizing cannabis (even 51% of Republicans support legalization) Sessions might have done cannabis proponents a favor by bringing the federal government’s stance into the national spotlight. So the next question everyone’s got to be asking themselves is “what do we do now?”

The most pressing thing that we can do is get Congress to extend the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment (“RBA”) and include adult-use cannabis into its provisions. We covered the RBA a couple of weeks ago but in case you missed it, here’s the Cliffs Notes version: the RBA is a federal budgetary provision that prohibits the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with the implementation of a state’s medical cannabis laws. The RBA has proven to be a valuable protection for medical cannabis businesses as evidenced by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in U.S. v McIntosh. In McIntosh, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the DOJ could not use funds to go after medical cannabis businesses that were operating in compliance with their medical cannabis state laws.

The RBA provides medical cannabis businesses with some protective certainty (at least for those states under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction), but moving forward there are two glaring concerns: 1) the RBA only applies to medical cannabis businesses; and 2) since the RBA is a budgetary provision it needs to be included in the federal budget and that budget is set to expire on January 19! The likelihood of a Republican led congress including adult-use cannabis into the RBA prior to January 19th is pretty slim, but if Republican Senators like Corey Gardner and Lisa Murkowski are serious about protecting their respective states’ residents, they will need to hold Trump and Sessions’ feet to the fire.

Legally compliant cannabis businesses have always had to deal with a level on uncertainty and risk when it comes to federal government but there’s been one industry that’s remained afraid to openly engage with cannabis businesses: the banking industry. Many observers feel that Sessions’ main goal is to slow the growth and investment in the cannabis industry by keeping cannabis businesses from obtaining bank accounts. If you want to know what a cannabis business owner has to do find proper banking, take a look at this recent piece in the New York Times Magazine where my colleague in our Seattle office, Robert McVay, was interviewed. Cannabis businesses had a difficult enough time finding banking options when the Cole Memo was in place and that won’t get easier any time soon.

To be sure, Sessions has taken an odd and extremely hypocritical stance. He fancies himself a states right guy (when convenient) and a law and order guy (always), but he would rather have cannabis businesses dealing in cash, placing everyone at greater risk. It’s time that our elected officials make access to banking for the billion dollar state-legal cannabis industry a priority. Making sure cannabis businesses have access to banking services will only increase compliance, since cannabis business that continued to operate in cash-only would immediately be flagged by regulators as suspicious. To that end, we all need to press our regulators to support the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (“SAFE Banking Act”). The SAFE Banking Act would prohibit a federal banking regulator from penalizing a banking instituting from providing services to a cannabis business. The SAFE Banking Act was introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and currently has twelve co-sponsors (8 Democrats, 3 Republicans, and Bernie).

In the House of Representatives there’s the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act (“RSMA”) that was introduced by Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) which would amend the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) so that its provisions would not apply to a person acting in compliance with a state’s cannabis laws. The RSMA is basically an attempt to codify the Cole Memo it had twenty-four sponsors prior to Sessions revocation of the Cole Memo -it now has thirty-seven!

It’s also time to gather support for the Marijuana Justice Act (“MJA”) that was introduced in the Senate by Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) on August 01, 2017. The goal of Mr. Booker’s bill is to remove marijuana from the CSA and end the federal government’s criminalization of cannabis. As of this writing only one other Senator has co-sponsored the MJA, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). While the Cole Memo was still in place a number of senators probably didn’t fell the necessity to co-sponsor the MJA, so it will be interesting to see if that calculus will change under the new landscape.

Those of us that live in California can expect that our state government will push back against this federal encroachment against the will of Californians – as California hasn’t been afraid to take the Trump administration head on. Other states have also sued the Trump administration and although states exerting their rights are a good thing, cannabis rights (personal and commercial) will ultimately be decided on the federal level. Sessions has made his position on cannabis clear, it’s now up to Congress to speak for the people.

Jeff Sessions wants U.S. Attorneys to “Just Say No” to Marijuana Legal Reform.

Yesterday proved to be a wild day, featuring Jeff Sessions single-handedly demolishing the federal government’s former cannabis enforcement framework. Now that 24 hours have passed since the news came out, we have had a chance to refine our analysis of the Department of Justice’s move.

Reactions in the media have ranged from treating the Sessions announcement as nothing more than an attempt to frighten the cannabis industry to claiming that it was the first step in an organized crackdown of the marijuana industry that could affect cannabis businesses and users. For now, we must treat both of those possibilities as plausible futures. Trump and Sessions may be gearing up for a wave of arrests, prosecutions, and asset forfeitures related to marijuana businesses —or Sessions may just be trying to put a fright into marijuana business owners and investors. Only time will tell.

The “Sessions Memo” was short on specifics. It didn’t contain an outright directive ordering U.S. Attorneys to go after marijuana businesses. Instead, it simply withdrew the earlier marijuana-specific guidance memoranda and directed U.S. attorneys to treat marijuana sales like any other federal crime. The withdrawn memos include, among others, the August 2013 Cole Memo that has underpinned federal marijuana policy for the past four and a half years; the February 2014 Cole Memo that extended low enforcement priority status to apply to banking activities; and the 2014 Wilkinson Memo that was a sort of Cole Memo for tribal lands.

So now, U.S. attorneys have full discretion to determine to what extent they can/should enforce federal law in the context of marijuana crimes in states with legalization and medicalization. Sessions referred to the principles of enforcement in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, but that document reinforces the level of discretion and authority that each U.S. attorney has already. The Cole Memo was useful in providing a consistent nationwide federal policy. Under the new Sessions Memo, we are back to the days of having potentially 93 different enforcement policies — one for each U.S. Attorney. Here’s what we know already about a selection of the U.S. Attorneys that will be making these decisions:

Robert Troyer, District of Colorado: Bob Troyer issued a statement yesterday saying that his office “has already been guided by [the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual’s] principles in marijuana prosecutions.” This statement implies that Troyer doesn’t see any difference in Colorado between prior policy and today’s policy.

Annette Hayes, Western District of Washington: Annette Hayes, who has served as either the Acting U.S. Attorney or an interim U.S. Attorney since October 1, 2014, also put out at statement, but it was significantly denser than Troyer’s statement. It wasn’t overtly negative, but it also wasn’t as direct as Troyer’s regarding enforcement policies remaining the same.

Joseph Harrington, Eastern District of Washington: Joseph Harrington is another Acting U.S. Attorney that is a holdover from the Obama administration. Harrington did not issue any specific statement in response to the Sessions Memo. When media outlets asked Harrington about his position, he responded by referring media requests to the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. Harrington, for now, is something of a black box on this.

Billy Williams, District of Oregon: Billy Williams was also appointed during the Obama administration, but Trump did nominate him to stay on as U.S. Attorney in December. Williams prosecuted two Oregonians for federal cannabis crimes in 2016, but there were Cole Memo priorities implicated, including sales to minors. More recently, Williams invited Sessions to visit Oregon to discuss Oregon’s cannabis market in September 2017. In response to the Sessions Memo, Williams issued a press release saying: “We will continue working with our federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partners to pursue shared public safety objectives, with an emphasis on stemming the overproduction of marijuana and the diversion of marijuana out of state, dismantling criminal organizations and thwarting violent crime in our communities.” Again, this statement doesn’t read too poorly, but it is sufficiently vague enough to still be worrisome.

California: California is a bit of a mess in all of this. Oregon and Colorado only have one U.S. Attorney each. Washington has two, but they are neatly separated into eastern Washington and western Washington, which often feel like two different states anyway. California, on the other hand, has four U.S. Districts.  And none of those four has or will have a U.S. Attorney with more than two months on the job.

  • Northern District: The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, Brian Stretch, resigned yesterday to join a private firm. No replacement has been named.
  • Central District: The Central District is a populous jurisdiction that includes Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernadino, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo. Two days ago, Sessions appointed a new U.S. Attorney for the Central District, Nicola Hanna. Hanna doesn’t seem to have much written history regarding his views on marijuana, but the fact that Sessions picked him and specifically called him out for “taking on drug traffickers” isn’t the most positive sign.
  • Eastern District: McGregor Scott, also a recently-named U.S. Attorney, has actually been a U.S. Attorney in the past, having prior experience in the Northern District of California. He did not earn positive marks from the cannabis community, as he did pursue aggressive marijuana prosecutions in the mid-2000s.
  • Southern District: Finally, Adam Braverman was named U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California a couple of months ago in November. He is most well-known for international cartel work as well as other types of organized crime. Braverman made a statement in support of the Sessions Memo, saying: “The Attorney General’s memorandum today returns trust and local control to federal prosecutors in each district when it comes to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act.”

If we are reading the tea leaves to see what is going to happen next (and they are indeed tea leaves), Colorado appears to be in the safest position, but California could turn into a real mess with different enforcement standards in different counties depending on which judicial district a business is in. Banking will be a major unknown for some time as well. FinCEN’s 2014 Guidance heavily referenced the Cole Memo, which is now rescinded. If FinCEN withdraws that guidance, what kind of ripple effect will it have on other bank regulators?

It also remains unclear how all of this policy will work out. Cory Gardner, a republican senator from Colorado, appeared furious when he responded to the initial announcement of the Sessions Memo (video below). He went so far as to threaten to hold up DOJ nominations, which would include those newly appointed California U.S. Attorneys. Sessions’s actions, as well as those of the U.S. Attorneys, are not yet set in stone. Ultimately, political pressure from Congress may still have an effect on the final outcome.