vape marijuana cannabis
Is the vape industry in real trouble?

Like so many other U.S. industries, the U.S. vaping industry is now in the crosshairs of a 25% tariff on products imported from China. The first two waves of President Trump’s proposed tariffs against China covered about $50 billion worth of Chinese products but they did not include any vaping products. After China retaliated and proposed its own equivalent tariffs on an estimated $50 billion worth of U.S. products imported into China, President Trump proposed a much bigger third list of China products to cover an additional $200 billion in imports from China. This third list targets vaping devices, vaping parts, and batteries from China. Because our law firm’s marijuana business lawyers represent so many companies involved in various aspects of the vaping industry, we are hearing a earful about how these tariffs will “decimate” the nascent industry.

The U.S. vaping industry is indeed particularly exposed to these tariffs. Though much of the e-liquid used for vaping is made in the United States, almost all of the vaping hardware is imported from China. Just as Gillette makes the most money selling razor cartridges and not razors, many U.S. vaping companies chose to focus on the higher margin e-liquids, rather than lower margin vaping devices. Some have noted that there are no U.S. companies that produce any vaping hardware products. We are hearing of how many vape and cannabis retail shops will be unwilling or unable to pay the extra 25% tariffs because they do not believe they will be able to pass these extra costs on to their customers. If this does prove true, the vaping industry will indeed be decimated.

Fortunately, there is still time for vaping companies to seek a tariff exemption for certain vaping products. The U.S. Trade Representative will accept comments until September 6 on whether entire categories of products listed on the third wave of proposed tariffs — the $200 billion in imports from China — should be exempted. There likely will be yet another chance to make more product-specific exclusion requests later in the fall.

For an exclusion request to have any realistic chance at being granted, marijuana and related vaping companies should address the following factors:

  • A description of the physical characteristics (dimensions, material composition, etc.) of the particular vaping products and the 10 digit subheading of the HTSUS tariff category applicable to those products.
  • Whether the particular vaping product is available only from China. In addressing this factor, requesters should address specifically whether the particular vaping product and/or a comparable product is available from sources in the United States and/or in third countries.
  • Whether imposition of additional duties on the particular vaping product would cause severe economic harm to the requester or other U.S. interests.
  • Whether the particular vaping product is strategically important or related to “Made in China 2025” or other Chinese industrial programs.
  • Requesters must provide the annual quantity and value of the Chinese-origin product the requester purchased in each of the last three years. If precise annual quantity and value information are not available, USTR will accept an estimate with justification.
  • Requesters may also provide any other information or data they consider relevant to evaluating their request.

The process for reviewing and deciding on these exclusion requests will not result in any immediate decision but the hope is that a favorable decision eventually will allow for refunding the tariffs paid.

The goal is to have the USTR review the comments and grant exclusions, particularly for products that are not made in the United States and can only be sourced from China. The last time similar tariffs were applied on steel products back in the early 2000s, many exclusions were granted that helped ease the impact of the tariffs on downstream users.

There have already been many opposing comments and exclusion requests submitted for the first two waves of proposed China tariffs. Many of the opposing comments have noted how the proposed tariffs on the Chinese products have nothing to do with  Chinese practices of stealing or extorting intellectual property from U.S companies, which are the reasons claimed for invoking the China tariffs in the first place. Many have also objected to how these tariffs are not likely to change how China respects intellectual property  rights, but will have a catastrophic effect on certain American companies.  What was a booming U.S. vaping industry now faces going bust with the proposed tariffs. If you are in the vaping industry, now is the time to do what you can to prevent this.

Editor’s Note: A version of this post previously appeared on our law firm’s China Law Blog. It focuses on the vaping industry but much of it holds true for a host of other U.S. industries caught up in the tariffs as well. The bottom line is that the situation for products and companies that will be hurt by these tariffs is not good and the chances of overturning the tariffs are in most cases less than 50 percent. But in many cases the situation is not yet hopeless and it behooves you to try.

california marin county marijuana cannabis

California has 58 counties and 482 incorporated cities across the state, each with the option to create its own rules or ban marijuana altogether. In this California Cannabis Countdown series, we cover who is banning cannabis, who is embracing cannabis (and how), and everyone in between. For each city and county, we’ll discuss its location, history with cannabis, current law, and proposed law to give you a clearer picture of where to locate your California cannabis business, how to keep it legal, and what you will and won’t be allowed to do.

Our last California Cannabis Countdown post was on the City of San Jose, and before that the City of Cotati, the City of San Luis Obispo, the City of Redding, the City of San Rafael, the City of Hayward, Alameda County, OaklandSan FranciscoSonoma County, the City of Davis, the City of Santa RosaCounty and City of San BernardinoMarin CountyNevada County, the City of Lynwood, the City of CoachellaLos Angeles County, the City of Los Angeles, the City of Desert Hot SpringsSonoma County, the City of Sacramento, the City of BerkeleyCalaveras CountyMonterey County the City of Emeryville and the City of Antioch.

In addition to the above, we have previously written about commercial cannabis regulations in Marin County here, here, and here. Today’s post is an update on those regulations, as requested by one of our faithful readers.

Welcome to the California Cannabis Countdown.

What commercial cannabis activity is allowed in Marin County?

In unincorporated Marin County, medicinal cannabis delivery-only retailers (MCDORe) are allowed pursuant to a licensing ordinance approved on November 14, 2017. These locations must be closed to the public– only delivery is allowed.

How many retailers are allowed?

A maximum of four MCDORe locations are authorized in the C1 (Retail Business), CP (Planned Commercial), AP (Admin and Professional), OP (Planned Office) and IP (Industrial Planned) zoned districts. MCDORe locations must be located at least 600 ft from schools, day care centers, youth centers and playgrounds.

What about delivery?

Delivery of medicinal cannabis into unincorporated Marin County by licensed retailers located outside of unincorporated Marin County is also allowed. All other commercial cannabis activities are prohibited in unincorporated Marin County.

Is Marin County accepting MCDORe license applications?

The deadline for applications was July 12, 2018 and Marin County is not accepting additional MCDORe applications at this time. According to County staff, there may be an opportunity for additional licenses in the future if the program expands. After implementation of MCDORe licensing, Marin County will be evaluating program expansion into other potential licensing regulations.

What about non-medical?

Currently, Marin County does not allow any adult-use commercial cannabis activities, including cultivation, manufacturing, testing, distribution or retail sales. This is unfortunate, because in 2016, 69.6 percent of Marin voters supported Proposition 64. For this to change, citizens and industry should make it known to the County Board of Supervisors that an additional licensing ordinance is needed.

cannabis marijuana patent litigation

In previous posts, we’ve puzzled about why no one has filed a cannabis patent infringement case, despite the large number of patents granted for cannabis plants and compounds. See here, here, here, and here.

That all changed last week. United Cannabis Corporation (“UCANN”) has now filed what is believed to be the first cannabis patent infringement complaint. The case is United Cannabis Corporation v. Pure Hemp Collective, Inc., case no. 1:18-cv-01922-NYW, in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado.

The patent asserted is U.S.P. 9,730,911, “cannabis extracts and methods of preparing and using same.” The claims in the patent generally cover liquid cannabinol formulations using tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and various terpenes. See, for example, claim 10: “A liquid cannabinoid formulation, wherein at least 95% of the total cannabinoids is cannabidiol (CBD).”

Although the UCANN complaint does not specify which claims are being asserted, it appears that the plaintiff may focus on CBD-related claims, e.g., claims 10-15, rather than claims for THC. The complaint devotes several paragraphs to discussing FDA’s recent approval of Epidiolex, a CBD-based drug, as we discuss here and here. The complaint suggests that FDA will reclassify CBDs generally as Schedule II or Schedule III drugs. While it is clear that FDA will do a reclassification, it is not clear that it will reclassify all CBDs, rather than just the Epidiolex compound.

In any event, we expect to see more cannabis patent litigation soon, perhaps in Colorado, California, Oregon or elsewhere. Whether it will be a trickle or a flood remains to be seen, but we will be following the UCANN case closely and providing regular updates.

For more on cannabis patents, see our series here:

cannabis marijuana L.A. social equity
Looks good. Might get messy.

Phase II cannabis licensing in the City of Los Angeles (for only non-retail activity) kicked off on August 1 at 12 p.m. (and it will conclude on September 13th). To qualify for a City of Los Angeles cannabis license during this timeframe, an applicant must, among other things, be eligible for the City’s cannabis social equity program. This qualification factor has propelled a search for business partners who will make them eligible for Phase II cannabis licensing. Though this momentum is spurring business marriages all over the City many of these “partnerships” are little more than ruses for circumventing the social equity requirements.

It’s not unusual in the cannabis industry to see people rush into half-baked, hasty business marriages for fear that some grand opportunity will pass them by if they don’t. This is why the cannabis litigation lawyersat my firm spend so much time litigating cannabis business ownership disputes. LA’s social equity component has created a new breed of business “relationship” ripe forscamsand potential applicants on both sides of the social equity aisle need to be aware of the tricks being used to game this new system.

The below are some examples of what our Los Angeles cannabis lawyers have been seeing and are likely to see from social equity cannabis business unions in L.A.:

  1. The Tier 1 and Tier 2 Straw Men. To qualify for social equity in Los Angeles you need some combination of “low income” status, a “cannabis conviction,” or having lived in a “disproportionately impacted area” in the City for a certain amount of time. (For a detailed explanation of LA’s social equity qualification requirements go here.) Based on what you can prove as a social equity applicant, your cannabis business will be categorized as a Tier 1 or a Tier 2 business. To be Tier 1, the social equity applicant must have at least 51% of the equity in the cannabis business. To be Tier 2, the social equity applicant must have at least 33.3% of the equity in the cannabis business. Government rules that require sharing equity make even hardened business people nervous about losing voting control and search for ways around this rule. We expect to see Tier 1 and 2 cannabis businesses claim on paper (via operating agreements, bylaws, or subscription agreements) that they have the requisite equity spread while utilizing a “side letter” or a handshake to ensure that the actual social equity applicant has little to no real economic or control rights.
  2. The Incubator Terminator. L.A.’s social equity program has a Tier 3 cannabis business category that does not involve equity sharing. To qualify as a Tier 3, you must provide space, utilities, capital, business assistance, and licensing help to a Tier 1 or 2 business for no less than two years. Los Angeles is a very competitive cannabis market and I would not expect many will want to assist their competition and certainly not for free. This means we are bound to see Tier 3 businesses seek to sabotage their Tier 1 or 2 “roommates” so as to strengthen the competitive landscape for their own business. Oakland has shown what can happen when an incubator drags its feet during the entitlement process to the detriment of the social equity applicant, and unless Los Angeles mandates reporting requirements from Tier 1s and 2s to ensure Tier 3s are actually providing the help required by law, we can expect to see a Tier 3s working for the death of “their” Tier 1s and 2s during the mandatory assistance term.
  3. “Show Me the Money” Tier 1s and 2s. We have already seen Tier 1 and 2s essentially selling their status to multiple parties for a quick pay out without any actual plans to compete in the Los Angeles cannabis market. These sorts of deals go against the purpose of the social equity program, which wasto ensure those most negatively affected by The War on Drugs get a meaningful share of Los Angeles’s legal cannabis market.
  4. Is Your Partner Really a Tier 1 or 2?Many in Los Angeles wrongly believe one cannabis conviction is automatically enough to qualify for Tier 1 or 2 status. If you’re looking to partner with a Tier 1 or 2 be sure to do your due diligence to ensure they actually do meet the required criteria.
  5. Predatory Matchmakers. There aren’t many ways for legitimate Tier 1s and 2s to meet legitimate and willing Tier 3s, and our Los Angeles cannabis lawyers have been seeing more than a few questionable 11th hour brokered deals rushed to finish by the September 13th deadline. Many of  “brokerage” agreements we’ve seen have been inadequate and many deals are going through with little to no due diligence conducted by either party. These agreements are mostly boilerplate forms pulled down from the internet and badly re-purposed for social equity in L.A. Though satisfying L.A.’s requirements to qualify for Phase II is clearly important, you should not forget that these agreements will also serve as your legal foundation for a real business relationship with real obligations and liabilities and it is important thatt your agreement get the details right on things like company financing, leasing, voting, and managing day-to-day operations. Most of the “social equity brokers” putting these deals together care only about getting paid their percentage.
  6. Tier 3 Management Companies. There’s no such thing as a free lunch and many Tier 3s giving space, time, money, and assistance to Tier 1s and 2s will be expecting a lot back in return. We are already hearing of Tier 3s insisting they become management companies to the Tier 1s and 2s they plan to assist. L.A. is planning to address the issue of management companies generally in the City and that means we will likely see regulations aimed at preventing management companies from cannibalizing the opportunities intended for Tier 1s and 2s.

Los Angeles’s cannabis social equity program is a complicated undertaking and if just a handful of Tier 1 and Tier 2 cannabis businesses thrive in Los Angeles that will constitute a significant victory for the cannabis industry as a whole.

 

california cbd epidiolex

At the end of June, we wrote about the FDA’s approval of GW Pharmaceutical’s drug Epidiolex (containing cannabidiol), an oral solution for treatment of seizures. On July 9, 2018, California Jerry Brown signed legislation approving Epidiolex for use under California law.

California, like many states, has its own version of the Controlled Substances Act. Similar to federal law, the California CSA classifies controlled substances into five schedules, the most restrictive being Schedule I and the least restrictive being Schedule V. Under existing California law, cannabidiol (CBD) is Schedule I because it is a compound contained in cannabis, also a Schedule I drug.

Under Assembly Bill 710, the California Legislature made the following findings:

The Legislature finds and declares that both children and adults with epilepsy are in desperate need of new treatment options and that cannabidiol has shown potential as an effective treatment option. If federal laws prohibiting the prescription of medications composed of cannabidiol are repealed or if an exception from the general prohibition is enacted permitting the prescription of drugs composed of cannabidiol, patients should have rapid access to this treatment option. The availability of this new prescription medication is intended to augment, not to restrict or otherwise amend, other cannabinoid treatment modalities including, but not limited to, industrial hemp products and derivatives containing cannabidiol, currently available under state law.

Section 3 of A.B. 710 then adds statutory language that harmonizes federal and California state law on cannabidiol:

if cannabidiol is excluded from Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act and placed on a schedule of the act other than Schedule I, or if a product composed of cannabidiol is approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration and either placed on a schedule of the act other than Schedule I, or exempted from one or more provisions of the act, so as to permit a physician, pharmacist, or other authorized healing arts licensee acting within his or her scope of practice, to prescribe, furnish, or dispense that product, the physician, pharmacist, or other authorized healing arts licensee who prescribes, furnishes, or dispenses that product in accordance with federal law shall be deemed to be in compliance with state law governing those acts.

Essentially, this language provides that once CBD can legally be prescribed under federal law, any authorized health care professional who complies with federal law will be deemed to comply with California state law. A.B. 710 goes on to provide that this harmonization does not apply to a CBD-containing product that is made or derived from industrial hemp, as regulated by existing California law.

Finally, the Legislature provides that “in order to ensure that patients are able to obtain access to a new treatment modality as soon as federal law makes it available,” A.B. 710 is an “urgency statute necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety within the meaning of Article IV of the California Constitution and shall go into immediate effect.”

The story of A.B. 710 shows that federalism concerns will continue to arise even once cannabis is federally legal. Because the states are permitted to pass their own controlled substances acts and food and drug statutes, it is possible that federal legalization will not lead to universal availability, just as the repeal of prohibition did not prevent localities from opting out. But we expect that similar laws harmonizing state and federal policy on CBD will be forthcoming, at least in states where cannabis is legal for medical use.

california product recall marijuana cannabis

Now that the MAUCRSA transition period is over and full cannabis testing is in the works, we can fully expect California marijuana companies to start engaging in recalls of certain products for a variety of reasons. In fact, a voluntary recall has already been initiated by The Bloom Brand where an impermissible pesticide (Myclobutanil) was present in one of its product batches that made it to retailers. Recalls like this are going to continue to increase, and we have to applaud The Bloom Brand for being conservative when it comes to consumer protection. Hopefully, other companies will follow suit and not try to cut corners where the resulting consequence is undoubtedly litigation, reputational disaster, and even dissolution if not fixed and fixed immediately.

So, what do you do in California if you find yourself inching up towards a recall?

First, you start with the readopted emergency regulations, which lay the field for what has to go down in the event of a recall. The California Department of Public Health-Manufactured Cannabis Safety Branch oversees licensing and enforcement for all manufacturers, and recall protocol is found at section 40268 of the emergency regulations. CDPH is the only agency right now with recall protocol codified in the emergency rules. Specifically, as a condition of licensure, you have to have a recall plan in place. That plan has to include:

(a) Factors which necessitate a recall;
(b) Personnel responsible for implementing the recall procedures; and
(c) Notification protocols, including: (1) A mechanism to notify all customers that have, or could have, obtained the product, including communication and outreach via media, as necessary and appropriate; (2) A mechanism to notify any licensees that supplied or received the recalled product; (3) Instructions to the general public and/or other licensees for the return and/or destruction of recalled product.

Procedures for the collection and destruction of any recalled product also have to meet the following requirements:

(1) All recalled products that are intended to be destroyed must be quarantined for a minimum of 72 hours. The licensee must also affix to the recalled products any bills of lading, shipping manifests, or other similar documents with product information and weight; and

(2) Following the quarantine period, the licensee has to render all recalled cannabis product unusable and unrecognizable and dispose of it in accordance with the rules and law, and that destruction has to take place on video surveillance.

And there are additional waste, destruction, disposal, track and trace and reporting requirements for the recalled product.

MAUCRSA itself empowers CDPH to mandate a recall when:

“the [CDPH] has evidence that a cannabis product is adulterated or misbranded, the department shall notify the manufacturer. [CDPH] may order a manufacturer to immediately cease distribution of a cannabis product and recall the product if [CDPH] determines both of the following: (1) The manufacture, distribution, or sale of the cannabis product creates or poses an immediate and serious threat to human life or health.(2) Other procedures available to [CDPH] to remedy or prevent the occurrence of the situation would result in an unreasonable delay.”

“A peace officer,” including any peace officers from the Bureau of Cannabis Control or CDPH, can also seize product under recall “by any licensing authority” pursuant to MAUCRSA. However, at this point, California’s actual cannabis recall standards are paltry and they’re mostly on a voluntarily basis, which is downright scary given some of the operators in the field.

Every single licensee should, for its own sake and liability mitigation, have concrete standards for recall procedures where products liability means strict liability for everyone in the chain who passed on the dangerous or defective product. Here are some tips of what should go into any reliable recall plan:

1. Create an overall recall strategy that’s going to actually work for the company dependent upon resources and manpower.

2. As part of your recall plan, create definitions and standards for classes of recall and the depth and scope of any given recall. If your state or local laws do not provide basic recall standards for marijuana businesses, check out the FDA’s website under Guidance for Industry: Product Recalls, Including Removals and Corrections.

3. Appoint a recall committee within your company, to be led by experienced personnel capable of evaluating and investigating product complaints to determine if a recall is warranted. This also entails your developing a product complaint form that will be utilized by customers. It is better to learn about product problems early.

4. Develop a complaint receipt and evaluation method to ensure that your product complaint processing and investigations are logical, efficient, and comprehensive. There are few things worse than receiving product safety complaints and then ignoring them until the situation is out of control.

5. Truly ponder what your product complaint investigation will entail. What facts should the recall committee be seeking to determine if a complaint is valid or if a recall is warranted. What should your recall look like, as based on the facts and circumstances and the threat the product poses to consumers and vendors.

6. Create a distribution list so that your recall committee can quickly and easily identify all affected products and product lots for disposition and potentially destruction. The distribution list should also include the names of all affected consumers and vendors, their contact information, and the dates on which the products were sold to them or consumed by them, and it should also include any side effects, injuries, or illnesses resulting from product use. Time is of the essence here.

EXAMPLE: My law firm had a regional food client that inadvertently failed to issue a recall notice to one of many supermarket chains to which it sold its food. This supermarket chain was so angry about having been kept out of the loop that it refused ever to purchase our client’s product again. Then other supermarket chains learned of our client’s mistake and they too ceased all of their purchasing. Needless to say, our client company no longer exists. Don’t let this sort of thing happen to you.

7. Institute a method of stock recovery so all tainted product in inventory is effectively quarantined from sale and distribution.

8. Generate your recall notice and be very careful with your wording in how you alert vendors and consumers to the recall. You want to effectively communicate that a product has been affected and how to deal with that, but you also want to minimize whatever liability your product problems may create for the company. On a case by case basis, consideration should also be given to drafting a press release to help the company’s PR. Regular readers know that we seldom state that attorney help is required, but for this, attorney assistance is absolutely required!

9. Make sure to as quickly as possible (preferably in advance) to alert your outside advisors (your lawyers, your insurance broker, etc.) regarding your recall.

10. Set out in your recall plan your options for product disposition. Will you destroy a product? Cleanse and then repurpose it? Lay out your options in your plan now so that you are not scrambling to try to figure out your possible options later, when you have no time to do so.

11. Record everything you do. Document every effort you make and record all your communications with consumers and vendors. If there is a legal action later, you will want to be able to show the court that you took all reasonable steps to ensure consumer safety.

In addition to formulating a solid and reliable recall plan, you also might want to consider conducting a mock recall to ensure your recall systems will work when the real deal occurs. Compliance audits can also be a big help in shoring up loose ends on a recall.

In the world of cannabis product recall, especially in California, licensees need to be very proactive in order to protect themselves. Relying on the state’s thin recall standards isn’t likely enough to protect licensees against an overwhelming liability exposure.

wine cannabis marijuana california

Our own Hilary Bricken will have the great pleasure of speaking at the 2nd annual North Coast Wine & Weed Symposium (presented by the Wine Industry Network) on Thursday, August 2, in Santa Rosa. While the Symposium will focus on a variety of topics covering the cross section of the wine and cannabis industries, Hilary’s panel will specifically cover “Rules, Regulations, and Policy Updates” in regards to the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (“MAUCRSA”) and its corresponding readopted emergency rules and the current proposed permanent rules.

The breakdown of Hilary’s panel is as follows:

The rules & regulations around cannabis continue to evolve at a rapid pace and can be drastically different from one county, or town, to the next. This session, with Hezekiah Allen, Executive Director of Cal Growers Association, Hilary Bricken, Partner, Harris Bricken, and Erin Carlstrom, Senior Counsel of Dickenson, Peatman and Fogarty, will provide an update and overview of the latest changes in regulations at the state level and local level, along with any expected changes to take place in the upcoming year.

We expect a lively and interesting discussion at this symposium: Although the wine and cannabis industries don’t always get along, these two industries have a lot more in common than you might think, and knowing the current status of California’s cannabis rules and laws as well as ongoing policy debates surrounding MAUCRSA, will no doubt have an impact on both industries.

For all your questions about wine and cannabis, as well as specifics regarding the regulatory challenges under MAUCRSA, we sincerely hope you can make it to the Wine & Weed Symposium!

novato california marijuana cannabis
Local policy may be influenced by nearby metropolitan choices.

Do you live in a jurisdiction where commercial cannabis activities are prohibited? Under the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (“MAUCRSA”), local jurisdictions in California are free to decide whether they will regulate or prohibit commercial cannabis activities. As we have covered before, the City of Novato, located in the northern part of Marin County, currently falls in the prohibition camp.

Novato passed a moratorium banning all commercial cannabis activities except for two pre-existing laboratories. There is also a carve-out in the moratorium for medical cannabis deliveries from operators licensed outside of Novato. The City’s moratorium is scheduled to expire in November, leaving the City with two options: Either continue the prohibition, or decide to regulate and license the industry.

Last week I attended two meetings sponsored by the City and HdL Companies (a company that partners with local agencies to develop cannabis policies) that discussed the future of cannabis licensing in Novato. With reports that only one in three California cities authorize any type of cannabis businesses, it’s important for cannabis supporters to actively engage with local regulators when cannabis policies are on the legislative agenda. The cannabis meetings in Novato presented an inside look in how a small a city, in close proximity to metropolises with cannabis friendly policies (Novato is less than thirty minutes from San Francisco and Oakland if the traffic Gods are shining upon you), approaches the future of cannabis activities in their town. Here is some insight from the meetings:

  • There were a number of dispensary operators from nearby jurisdictions, all with different viewpoints on what Novato’s cannabis ordinance should look like, but there was unanimous consent on one particular point: A medical-only storefront retailer will not thrive with adult-use jurisdictions nearby (San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, and Vallejo just to name a few). Medical-only dispensaries will lose tourists and curious customers willing to try cannabis for the first time to their adult-use competitors.
  • The double-edged sword of commercial property values. If your town has a large number of decrepit and vacant buildings, then commercial cannabis businesses can be instrumental in revitalizing those neighborhoods. On the other hand, since landlords can extract a significant amount more in rent from cannabis businesses, long-time local businesses may see their rents increase or their leases not renewed. This problem is exacerbated if a city enacts restrictive zoning regulations, thereby further limiting where a cannabis business can operate.
  • There was a lot of support for an ordinance that includes a social equity component. Should a cannabis ordinance give priority to owners from disadvantaged groups? Should there be a requirement that a certain percentage of employees be local residents? For further context on social equity programs, we covered what Los Angeles is doing here, and what San Francisco and Oakland are doing, here.
  • Educating and informing the public is paramount to turning a prohibitionist jurisdiction green. Misinformation and scare tactics run rampant at many public hearings (see our coverage on Sonoma County, here), so cannabis supporters must be prepared to correct the record.

Right now, it’s too early in the process to tell which way Novato will go with its cannabis policy. The City is holding two more public meetings in August: One on August 8th and the other on August 16th (both will be from 6pm-8pm at City Hall). If Novato residents want to see the City lift its cannabis prohibition, they will need to study up and prepare their talking points: The first two meetings were cannabis friendly but trust me, there will be opposition. But most importantly, cannabis supporters must continue to show up and vocalize their support! Mark your August calendar, Novato.

cannabis lawCannabis has remained federally illegal at the same time states continue to legalize cannabis in one form or another. As a result of legalization, private parties enter and perform contracts, loan and borrow money, and convey leasehold property rights in ways that involve cannabis. These contracts affect and depend upon millions of dollars in assets, including real estate, thereby interweaving the cannabis industry into the economic systems that allow our free market economy to function. Courts, and especially federal district courts and courts of appeal, often must wrestle with whether and how to enforce such contracts where one body of law says they are void as illegal and another says they are perfectly valid.

Courts have generally been willing to enforce these contracts and have come up with some pretty creative arguments for doing so, perhaps because of the economic disruption that would occur if parties were suddenly permitted to walk away from contractual obligations and the consequences to city and county governments that have issued property entitlements and licenses to cannabis businesses. However, a recent appellate court decision illustrates how there are still limits on the ability to indulge, even when done in compliance with state law.

In U.S. v. Schostag, a defendant had pleaded guilty to felony possession of a firearm and attempted possession of methamphetamine and was sentenced to 120 months in prison and 5 years of supervised release. One of the conditions of his release set by a federal district court in Minnesota was that he not possess or use any controlled substance “except as prescribed by a physician.” Minnesota law allows physicians to prescribe certain forms of medical marijuana and the defendant notified his probation officer that his doctor had prescribed medical marijuana for chronic pain. The probation officer advised the defendant that, cannabis prescription or not, defendant’s consuming cannabis would violate the terms of his release because it was prohibited by federal law.

The defendant tested positive for marijuana and his probation officer reported the violation. Defendant argued he was simply following the terms of his release conditions, which allowed for him to use prescribed controlled substances. The district court, apparently acknowledging the awkwardness of the language, modified his release conditions to explicitly forbid defendant from using or even possessing marijuana with a medical marijuana prescription and gave defendant two weeks to find a legal form of pain management. Defendant appealed this decision, arguing that the court should have exercised its discretion in setting his release conditions and should have allowed him to use medical marijuana under Minnesota law.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected defendant’s argument, noting that under federal sentencing law, federal courts can modify release conditions but cannot do so in a way that violates federal law, including the CSA, which outlaws marijuana in all forms. The court also declined to engage in any nuanced discussion of the interplay between federal and state laws on cannabis, instead simply declaring, “the state’s law conflicts with federal law.” Though this decision seems harsh, consider the alternative: if the court had allowed the defendant to use marijuana while on federally supervised release — the conditions of which a federal court is itself responsible for setting — this would have amounted to a federal entity (the court) directly allowing for a violation of federal law. This wasn’t a contract between private parties; it was the federal government deciding whether to allow a releasee under its supervision to use a substance that is unquestionably prohibited by federal law.

Though the court in Schostag found Minnesota’s medical marijuana law to conflict with federal law, there is a colorable argument that this case is an outlier from the general trend of federal courts being unwilling to get in the way of state-legal cannabis. The federal government and its court system cannot be expected to ignore federal controlled substances law when applying federal sentencing law to those under federal custody or supervision simply because the court happens to be located in a state with contrary laws on cannabis.

An example of a similar approach occurred in Forest City Residential Management, Inc. v. Beasley where a federal district court in Michigan held that tenants in a federally subsidized housing project were not entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the federal Fair Housing Act to use medical marijuana at their rental units. Though closer to a private contract than federal sentencing guidelines, allowing marijuana use in federally subsidized housing as a legal accommodation is akin to the federal government sanctioning a clear violation of federal law within the confines of its own program.

Though the general trend is that federal courts are reluctant to interfere with state legal cannabis activity, that tolerance typically stops at the doorstep of federal programs operating under federal law. This is something Congress can and should change, not the judiciary. Unless and until cannabis becomes federally legal, we will continue to see courtroom manifestations of the cannabis federalism fight.

Los Angeles Cannabis AttorneysCannabis licensing in the City of Los Angeles has been a slow go. Though the City’s Department of Cannabis Regulation (“DCR”) has licensed 155 Existing Medical Marijuana Dispensaries (“EMMDs”) there is still an entire line of existing cultivators and manufacturers, social equity applicants, and general public applicants waiting their turn for cannabis entitlements. The City announced earlier this month that Phase II licensing would open on August 1 and run for 30 days. And the DCR will run its first Phase II work shop on July 24th from 6-8 p.m. (see here)–would-be Phase II applicants should attend this work shop where they’ll learn about the Phase II process and eligibility (and see here where the City finally released its guidelines for Phase II eligibility). Phase II applicants will ultimately need to prove a number of things, including that they were already operating in Los Angeles and supplying a valid EMMD prior to January 1, 2017. In addition, the City (and the world) is going to get its first look at initial social equity program entitlements in L.A.

Social equity in L.A. has been much debated and anticipated, namely because everyone knows that under local laws social equity applicants get a bevy of benefits and pretty much get to skip the line with priority license processing. Phase II is the first time we will get to see how social equity will work in practice since social equity eligibility is mandatory for Phase II licensees. Specifically, to qualify for Phase II temporary approval/licensing (which triggers priority licensing for existing “non-retailers” like growers and manufacturers — you will need to meet all of the following criteria:

  1. The Applicant was engaged prior to January 1, 2016, in the same Non-Retailer Commercial Cannabis Activity for which it now seeks a License;
  2. The Applicant provides evidence and attests under penalty of perjury that it was a supplier to an EMMD prior to January 1, 2017;
  3. The Business Premises meet all the land use and sensitive use requirements of Article 5 of Chapter X of this Code;
  4. The Applicant passes a pre­-license inspection;
  5. There are no fire or life safety violations on the Business Premises:
  6. The Applicant has paid all outstanding City business tax obligations;
  7. The Applicant indemnifies the City from any potential liability on a form approved by DCR;
  8. The Applicant provides a written agreement with a testing laboratory for testing all Cannabis and Cannabis products and attests to testing all its Cannabis and Cannabis products in accordance with state standards;
  9. The Applicant is not engaged in Retailer Commercial Cannabis Activity at the Business Premises;
  10. The Applicant attests that it will cease all operations if denied a State license or City License;
  11. The Applicant qualifies under the Social Equity Program; and
  12. The Applicant attests that it will comply with all operating requirements imposed by DCR and that DCR may immediately suspend or revoke the Temporary Approval if the Applicant fails to abide by any City operating requirement.

There’s a fundamental misunderstanding that social equity in Los Angeles means you’ve faced some kind of cannabis conviction, but it’s way more than that. There are three levels of social equity identified by tiers as follows:

  1. Tier 1: Low Income (which means “80 percent or below of Area Median Income for the City based on the 2016 American Community Survey and updated with each decennial census”) and a prior California Cannabis Conviction (which means “a cannabis-related crime that occurred prior to November 8, 2016, and could have been prosecuted as a misdemeanor or citation under current California law,” though this definition is going to change to “an arrest or conviction for any crime under the laws of the State of California relating to the sale, possession, use, manufacture, or cultivation of Cannabis that occurred prior to November 8, 2016”); or Low Income and a minimum of five years cumulative residency in a Disproportionately Impacted Area (which means residency in “eligible zip codes” as established by the City). Tier 1’s can’t own less than a 51 percent equity share of the licensed business.
  2. Tier 2: Low Income and a minimum of five years cumulative residency in a Disproportionately Impacted Area; or a minimum of 10 years cumulative residency in a Disproportionately Impacted Area. Tier 2’s can’t own less than a 33 1/3 percent equity share of the licensed business.
  3. Tier 3: Tier 3’s have to enter into a Social Equity Agreement with the City to provide very specific capital, leased space, business, licensing and compliance assistance to a Tier 1 or Tier 2. Most people shooting for Phase II licensure will likely try to go for Tier 3 status, but they still have to find those coveted Tier 1s or 2s to play ball.

There are also a slew of regulations that apply to social equity applicants including having to disclose to the DCR any proposal to take on debt, any proposal to sell any equity in the business after licensure, and forking over bylaws and other corporate control documents.

At a roundtable I spoke on last week at the Vision Theater, L.A.’s social equity program was the topic of discussion. Cat Packer, executive director of the DCR, made clear that if people want to see changes to the social equity program, they need to show up to meetings with city council to voice their positions and desires. Ms. Packer also stated that Tier 1 and 2 social equity applicants are going to get retail licenses on a 2:1 basis relative to the general public and EMMDs (and on a 1:1 basis for non-retail). This means social equity applicants will get at around 310 retail licenses (there are 155 EMMDs) even before a single general public license ever issues. Combine those ratios with mandatory undue concentration limitations, and there’s a solid chance city license caps may be triggered with social equity, giving those applicants major leverage in what could be the world’s largest cannabis market.

The social equity program in LA is going to evolve and hopefully lead the way for other cities and counties looking at various social equity models. As Phase II approaches, social equity applicants need to be wary of hawkish and predatory practices that seek to take advantage of their status and discard them after the fact (see here for California’s recent cannabis schemes and scams).