Cannabis Trademark AttorneuyWe’ve gone over the obstacles to obtaining federal trademark protection at length, but given recent inquiries our cannabis trademark attorneys have been receiving lately, it seemed high time to revisit what exactly makes a trademark “strong” or “weak.”

I regularly have clients come to me with catchy marks they or their brand consultants have developed, but are not eligible for trademark protection. There is a spectrum of strength when it comes to trademarks. The distinctiveness, or strength, of a mark will determine both how well the mark performs from a marketing and branding perspective, as well as the level of legal protection to which it is entitled. When a mark is highly distinctive, identifying the owner of the mark as the source of the goods sold, the mark is strong. And when a mark is not inherently distinctive, or when a mark is the same or very similar to one already used by others, the mark is weak. Here are the types of marks on the spectrum, from strongest to weakest:

  • Fanciful Marks: These marks are inherently distinctive and consist of a combination of letters with no meaning; they are invented words. Some examples of famous fanciful marks are EXXON and KODAK. These marks can be more difficult from a marketing perspective initially, because the public must be educated through advertising before they will associate the owner’s goods or services with the mark.
  • Arbitrary Marks: These marks are composed of a word or words that have a common meaning, but have no relation to the goods or services to which the mark is applied. Perhaps the most famous example of an arbitrary mark is APPLE, used on computers. As with fanciful marks, these marks are highly distinctive.
  • Suggestive Marks: Suggestive marks hint at or suggest the nature of a product without specifically describing the product. An example of this type of mark is AIRBUS for airplanes. These marks can be appealing from a marketing perspective, because they require less education of consumers than arbitrary or fanciful marks, but they are also typically entitled to less extensive legal protection.
  • Descriptive Marks: These marks are comprised of words that actually describe the goods or services provided; descriptive marks are too weak to function as a trademark and cannot be registered. Note that it is possible to register a descriptive mark if it has obtained secondary meaning due to use in commerce for some years – in the nascent cannabis industry, however, it is unlikely many marks would meet these requirements.
  • Generic Words: These words and phrases are so inherently descriptive of a product or service as to be incapable of functioning as a trademark; they are the common names of the product or service in question, and cannot be registered.

One of the most common grounds for rejecting a trademark application is that the proposed mark is “merely descriptive.” For example, “World’s Best Cannabis” would be merely descriptive for cannabis and cannot be registered. Trademarks that are merely the name of an individual, for example, are also ineligible for federal trademark protection. So, a name like “Alison’s Cannabis” wouldn’t fly. Similarly (and this is one we see often in the cannabis industry), marks that are primarily geographically descriptive will be refused registration by the USPTO. For example, “Seattle Cannabis Company” and “Washington Grown” are primarily geographically descriptive and thus not eligible for federal trademark protection.

And on the flip-side, marks can be rejected for being deceptively misdescriptive as well. Interestingly, the USPTO, in its online guidance and resources, gives the following example of a deceptively misdescriptive mark: “[T]he mark ‘THC Tea’ would be deceptively misdescriptive of tea-based beverages not containing THC.” So if you are registering your mark for ancillary goods or services, as we’ve previously suggested, be mindful that including a reference to cannabis in your mark will not render the mark deceptively misdescriptive of those goods or services.

If you’re starting from scratch in branding your company or products, it’s a great idea to run any proposed marks by your trademark attorney before you invest too heavily in brand development. An experienced cannabis trademark attorney will be able to quickly identify marks that are merely descriptive, and can advise whether you run the risk of adopting a mark that is deceptively misdescriptive. And remember, if you don’t intend to obtain a federal trademark registration of your brand, that is still not a reason to adopt a descriptive or weak mark. If your name is a no-brainer, chances are that someone else has already thought of it and used it as well. Or if they haven’t adopted it yet, they likely will down the road. When the market becomes flooded with similar names, it becomes difficult for consumers to tell them apart. Putting in the initial work to develop a strong brand is always worth the effort, especially in a rapidly growing legal cannabis industry.

california cannabis lease
…with your California cannabis lease.

The current state of enforcement in California tends to be dominated by headlines about the Department of Justice, Jeff Sessions, the DEA, and the Controlled Substances Act. And for good reason—under the constitution, federal law is the law of the land, and commercial landlords and tenant alike should study federal enforcement guidelines closely. Lease agreements should account for those guidelines by mandating clear tenant compliance obligations as well as providing for appropriate remedial measures in the event those obligations are not followed.

But California’s commercial cannabis legal regime does not exist under or because of federal law—rather, it is a creature wholly of state and local law. California statutes, state agency regulations, and city and county ordinances, zoning plans, and land use restrictions are what form the flesh and bones of California cannabis law. As a result, most risks affecting commercial tenancies materialize not from threatened federal action, but from issues surrounding compliance with state and local law, and related enforcement actions. Commercial cannabis leases in California should therefore primarily account for and address these risks. Following are examples of some specific issues that should be addressed in the marijuana business leasing process.

     1.     State and local enforcement actions. 

After twenty years of a mostly hands-off approach to the medicinal cannabis industry, it has proven difficult for the state to properly incentivize cannabis businesses to apply for licenses and comply with California’s new cannabis regulatory regime. And the ones that have done so are currently at a relative disadvantage in that they cannot deduct business expenses for tax purposes, must pay the costs of acquiring permits and licenses, and must maintain compliance with all applicable laws (which continue to change not infrequently). With the exception of a legislative budget dispute on how to fund it, the state is set to ramp up enforcement efforts against unlicensed entities. What this means for cannabis tenancies is that leases should include, among other things: strict compliance obligations that track the status of local and state regulation; a clear licensing and permitting timeline with built-in contingencies for failure to acquire, maintain, or comply with any relevant government approvals; and early termination contingencies for enforcement actions brought by local or state agencies. While these are similar to federal enforcement contingencies, they can go further by tailoring to locality-specific requirements, and referencing specific provisions of tenant permits when available. Whereas the industry is rife with speculation about federal enforcement priorities, there is a voluminous amount of information about state and local laws applicable to the cannabis industry in California, and tenancies should take advantage of that knowledge to minimize risk of adverse enforcement actions.

     2.     Change in local law rendering tenant’s operation a nonconforming use.

Interestingly, this is often something that I have had to convince clients is actually a real risk to consider: a locality passing a commercial cannabis ordinance, and then following it with a ban, but not before issuing cannabis permits and happily accepting the fees. This first became an issue in states such as Washington where legalization occurred early on, and it’s now becoming an issue in California, inevitably leading to enforcement of those post-hoc bans and ensuing criminal charges and civil litigation. Whether or not a ban is ultimately upheld in court, it creates uncertainty and immediate enforcement concerns for landlords and tenants. Leases should account for this risk by building in early termination contingencies for changes in local law, or, depending on what the parties negotiate, indemnification and attorney’s fees provisions in the event one of the parties decides to challenge the change in law.

     3.     Zoning, land use, and water rights.

No matter what the federal government might say or do in the future, every locality will always have laws that govern how land within its borders may be used, and how water may be used on that land. While such laws are not unique to commercial cannabis, laws that apply to cannabis in California are, and they vary between every city and county. Of course, there are also private land use restrictions such as CC&Rs and easements that may affect a cannabis use. In every commercial tenancy there are risks that such laws and restrictions would prevent the tenant from performing the permitted use, perhaps due to an overlooked setback requirement, or a property that’s zoned for one cannabis use but not another, or a conservation easement on farmland whose terms require compliance with “all laws” (including federal), or an inability for the tenant to divert enough water or property discharge waste. These issues should be part of a tenant’s due diligence process prior to singing the lease, and responsibility should be allocated accordingly in the lease. But it doesn’t hurt for the landlord to conduct its own analysis during the tenancy vetting process, and the lease can also be structured to allow for early termination if any such unanticipated issues arise, including in the event that any such laws or restrictions change during the tenancy.

What is unique about state and local laws is that they will likely remain active concerns for commercial cannabis leasing no matter what the federal government does in the future. More so than typical commercial tenancies, cannabis landlord and tenants alike will have to continue to account for state and local issues that present risks to the tenancy, and all parties will have to stay abreast of laws and regulations as they continue to change.

For more on California cannabis leasing, check out the following:

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 gay
Be inclusive with your business — cake or cannabis.

What do cake and cannabis have to do with each other? Besides the obvious late-night munchies or a great recipe for an edible, a recent Supreme Court decision involving cake impacts cannabis businesses across the nation.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case garnered a lot of media attention—and for good reason. Not only are the facts enticing but the outcome is even more surprising.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop owner, Jack Phillips, refused to create a cake for David Mullins and Charlie Craig’s same-sex wedding. He said he would not use his talents to convey a message of support for same-sex marriage at odds with his religious beliefs. Colorado, like most states, prohibits businesses from discriminating against individuals on the bases of sex or sexual orientation. This means that Colorado businesses who are open to the public cannot refuse to serve someone because of their sexual orientation.

Mr. Mullins filed a complaint with Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission contending Masterpiece Cakeshop discriminated against him and his partner based on their sexual orientation. Mr. Mullins prevailed in front of the Commission and in state courts. Masterpiece Cakeshop appealed to the United States Supreme Court and argued Mr. Philips’ right to free speech would be violated if he were required to create a cake for the couple. Somewhat shockingly, the Supreme Court agreed with him.

The Supreme Court focused on the Civil Rights Commission treatment of Mr. Phillips and determined that the Commission had ignored and dismissed his religious freedom and freedom of speech rights. Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, determined that “the neutral and respectful consideration to which Mr. Phillips was entitled was compromised here….The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of [this] case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.”

What’s does Justice Kennedy’s opinion mean for cannabis businesses? The decision should not be read as a license to discriminate against patrons or employees based on sexual orientation (or any other protected class). The Supreme Court’s decision was very narrow and likely only applies to the facts of this case. What that means is that although Mr. Phillips’ free speech rights may have been violated, not all cases will turn out this way.

Cannabis businesses that are open to the public are prohibited from discriminating against patrons on the basis of a protected class. The Supreme Court’s ruling did not change that. Cannabis businesses, like other businesses, must provide the same services to all individuals regardless of their race, color, national origin, age, sex, or sexual orientation. Refusing to serve a customer or to provide the same services could result in hefty fines from your state’s civil right enforcement agency, lawsuits by customers, and customer boycotts.

The bottom line is to treat each customer with respect and dignity—a requirement by state governments and a good way to run a business.

california marijuana cannabis

The year 2018 has been confusing so far for California’s commercial cannabis industry in terms of the conflict between federal and state legal regimes. It began with California formally opening its doors for licensed cannabis activity. That was soon followed by the U.S. Department of Justice rescinding its 2013 Cole Memo that deprioritized enforcement against state-legal cannabis operations — a move that sparked considerable concern among operators who had invested substantial resources to become legitimate, licensed cannabis businesses. Then we discovered that the former Republican speaker of the House, previously having been “unalterably opposed” to cannabis, had now become a board member of a cannabis investment company.

Next, we heard about a massive enforcement effort against cannabis grow operations in Sacramento involving one of the largest residential civil asset forfeiture efforts in U.S. history. Meantime, California continued to struggle with its persistent black market problem, as the vast majority of operators have declined to come into regulatory compliance, due in no small part to the enormous market advantage of not paying licensing fees or the extremely high taxes levied on legitimate cannabis businesses.

The uncertainty and apparent inconsistency begs the question, what are the current state and federal policies on cannabis enforcement in California? We don’t have a crystal ball, but we can glean some information based on what the state and federal government are saying and doing as of late. It’s good news.

We’ve previously observed how state and federal enforcement incentives have started to converge based on common interests. That convergence has continued and has actually become somewhat solidified through public statements of federal and state law enforcement officials. Recently, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, McGregor Scott, issued informal guidance on his office’s cannabis enforcement goals: “The reality of the situation is there is so much black market marijuana in California that we could use all of our resources going after just the black market and never get there … So for right now, our priorities are to focus on what have been historically our federal law enforcement priorities: interstate trafficking, organized crime and the federal public lands.” To that end, the federal government will allocate $2.5 million towards enforcement against illegal grows on public land, a concern arising largely due to an increase in the use of banned pesticides on federal land in California.

It has not been lost on careful observers that Mr. Scott’s announced enforcement priorities align closely with those of the 2013 Cole Memo. Mr. Scott also appeared to distinguish the illegal operations he seeks to target from the legal cannabis regime that California is working to implement: “[California’s black market] is of biblical proportions and what we’re talking about here today is a classic example of that market—people who have no intent of ever entering the legal system that has been created and California has attempted to establish.” In other words, a top federal law enforcement authority in California seems to be conveying that the federal government will not prioritize licensed commercial cannabis operations that comply with California laws and regulations.

On the state side of things, the Bureau of Cannabis Control is working on finalizing its regulations and is continuing to process state licenses, and Governor Brown has sought to put teeth behind those regulations, requesting $14 million “to crack down on tax evasion, conspiracy and other financial crimes by the black market cannabis industry as well as stem the flow of illegal cannabis in the mail and parcel delivery systems.” At the same time, licensed cannabis businesses have started to speak out more forcefully against illegal operators, and rightfully so: black market businesses have an enormous market advantage in that they don’t pay taxes or licensing fees, and follow no advertising or distribution restrictions. While the cannabis industry was largely united behind Prop 64, which legalized cannabis in 2016, those alliances have diverged as some businesses have taken the legal route while others have remained in the shadows. In fact, we’ve now reached a point where licensees are filing formal complaints against illegal operators and local prosecutors are encouraging them to do so.

Given the federal government’s desire to protect public lands, eliminate organized criminal operations, and prevent interstate trafficking of cannabis, and given California’s desire to give meaning to its regulatory regime and prop up those operators that have spent the time, effort, and resources to become licensed citizens of the California cannabis industry, it’s no wonder that the previously unthinkable is now materializing: the federal government is now teaming up with the State of California to crack down on unlicensed cannabis operations. What comes next is uncertain, but one thing is clearer now than ever: commercial cannabis businesses in California are now exponentially better off from an enforcement standpoint if they can demonstrate compliance with California laws and regulation. That includes spending the time and effort to obtain a state license.

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.