washington amnesty WSLCB
Coming soon to WSLCB.

We recently wrote about the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board’s consideration of a marijuana licensee amnesty program for licensees with undisclosed true parties of interest a couple of weeks ago. In that post, though we criticized the WSLCB for not doing more to put marijuana licensees in a position to succeed, we didn’t have much to say about the amnesty program itself. Other than the fact that the board was discussing offering leniency to companies with undisclosed true parties of interest, not many other details had emerged.

Since then, a few more details have emerged, including a draft notice to Washington marijuana stakeholders announcing the program. It is important to note that as of the writing of this post, the leniency/amnesty program has not yet been finalized, and details are subject to change. That said, here is what is proposed so far:

The program is targeted at licensees that have owners or financiers that have not been disclosed to or approved by the WSLCB. Applications for amnesty/leniency will be denied when:

  1. Owners do not reside in Washington;
  2. Financiers are not U.S. residents;
  3. Owners or financiers have disqualifying criminal history;
  4. Licensees are currently under investigation for hidden ownership;
  5. Entity and/or principal within entity exceeds marijuana licenses allowed; or
  6. Entity and/or principal has interest in cross-tiered marijuana licensee (can’t own both a retailer and a producer/processor).

Licensees will have one month, starting as early as August 1, to apply to the WSLCB on a form provided by the WSLCB for the leniency program. Once the WSLCB receives the form and contacts the licensee there will be a seven day period to complete the initial interview and another fourteen day period to provide all required documentation for all prior undisclosed true parties of interest or financiers.

The WSLCB defines ownership broadly. A legal owner of any shares or membership interest in a licensed business counts, but so do many other business relationships. The WSLCB currently mandates that spouses, even for marriages after initial licensing, be disclosed and vetted by the WSLCB. They also consider anyone who has the right to receive any percentage of the gross or net profits from a licensed business. The WSLCB still tells licensees that any payment of sales commissions to sales agents violates true party of interest rules, despite an administrative law judge ruling otherwise and the WSLCB signing off on that ruling a couple of years ago. Trademark licenses and consulting agreements can create ownership. The WSLCB has still not engaged in substantive rulemaking to implement RCW 69.50.395 that specifically allows for trademark licenses. Instead, they have developed an ad hoc approval process for trademark agreements, where non-attorneys at the WSLCB make judgment calls about whether standard trademark license provisions do or do not create the type of “control” that would render someone a true party of interest under WAC 314-55-035.

Our experience makes us think that there are a lot of marijuana businesses that have hidden ownership problems. The majority of them are not bad actors – they are simply people who either don’t understand that an agreement they signed technically creates an ownership interest as the WSLCB sees it or they have done things in the wrong order, transferring ownership before receiving WSLCB approval. So it is welcome that the WSLCB is moving along on potentially offering amnesty/leniency to the these businesses instead of shutting them down. While that doesn’t fix many of the underlying issues that we have been pointing out, it is still a band-aid that will prevent catastrophe for companies smart enough to take advantage of it.

We’ll post again as soon as we get word that this program is due to go live. In the meantime, check out the following for some recent thoughts on WSLCB program administration and enforcement.

Washington State Cannabis Lawyer
Talking with Washington State cannabis enforcement officers is like playing with fire

Many of my firm’s recent Washington State cannabis enforcement cases contain a commonality. During the investigation stage, Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) enforcement officers tell licensees that their main goal is to achieve compliance. They say they aren’t looking to get anyone’s licenses cancelled — they are just trying to get a full picture so they can help licensees come into compliance with the rules. As we have stated in prior posts, many seemingly benign actions can give rise to license cancellation. But despite these assurances, licensees often find themselves blindsided by cancellation notices after they thought they were participating in a project with their officers to achieve compliance. When the licensees press their enforcement officers, the officers blame “politics” at the WSCLB offices in Olympia. It’s as though the WSLCB enforcement officers are playing the role of the car salesman going upstairs to fight for a price reduction only to be rebuffed by faceless management.

What is really going on here? As with everything else in the cannabis industry, it’s complicated. One thing to remember is that there is a real split in the WSLCB between its licensing division and its enforcement division. “Licensing” people are your standard bureaucrats, throwing up a varying array of obstacles to opening a cannabis business while assessing whether a businessperson and his or her plans merit a license to produce, process, or sell marijuana. “Enforcement” people are, for lack of a better word, cannabis cops.

Being cops, they see their role as rooting out activity contrary to law, and they will portray themselves however they deem necessary to get as much information as possible. Their behavior can range from be-your-buddy good cops to intimidating and threatening bad cops. The same officer often finds himself or herself playing both roles in some circumstances all geared to getting licensees to reveal behavior that may violate the rules. Institutionally, police forces often pressure their officers to continuously find bad behavior and officers that aren’t reporting enough violations face consequences at work for falling behind. We would be naïve to think WSLCB officers don’t face these same internal pressures.

The status of WSLCB officers as regulatory enforcement police puts licensees in a tough position. Most of the public knows that if they are accused of a crime by a regular police force, they shouldn’t say anything and should ask to speak with an attorney. But there is a fundamental difference between criminal enforcement and regulatory enforcement. The right to remain silent and the right to speak with police only with an attorney present are criminal rights. Marijuana business licenses, however, are privilege licenses. If you don’t toe the line, regulators can take that license away. For example, WAC 314-55-050(7) says that the WSLCB can cancel a marijuana license if a licensee denies a WSLCB enforcement officer access to any place where licensed activity takes place or fails to produce any required record licensees are supposed to keep.

Licensees need to keep both of these fundamental facts in their minds when dealing with WSLCB enforcement officers. The licensee has to understand that regardless of what they say, the goal of the WSLCB officer is to find bad acts and either fine the licensee or shut them down. But the licensee cannot ignore or shut out information requests from enforcement officers. Strategically, walking this tight rope requires licensees answer every question from an enforcement officer honestly and never lie, while also avoiding answering more than is asked. It’s not always possible to have an attorney present when dealing with an enforcement officer, but lawyers — especially those experienced in dealing with the WSLCB do help in these situations. Primarily, they know how to consistently frame a business’s activities as compliant within the framework of the rules (assuming the activity really is arguably compliant). Licensees often get themselves into trouble when talking to enforcement officers without an attorney present because they forget the fundamental truth — WSLCB enforcement officers are looking for a reason to submit a violation notice.

If the WSLCB wanted, it could institute a more collaborative relationship between officers and cannabis licensees. At WSLCB meetings, the WSLCB’s enforcement and licensing directors often make it sound as though the goal of enforcement personnel is to achieve compliance more than to shut down cannabis businesses. Actions to date, however, don’t back that up. So long as it appears that issuing violation notices is the primary goal of WSLCB enforcement officers, cannabis licensees need to approach each interaction with an enforcement officer as potentially adversarial because to do otherwise is to put your cannabis license at risk.

WSLCB cannabis marijuana
The WSLCB approach is not working so well.

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) may finally be noticing that its current treatment of “true party of interest” violations is neither just nor sustainable. During an extended conversation at its monthly executive management team meeting in June, the WSLCB discussed potentially adopting a hidden ownership amnesty program. Basically, any existing businesses that had mistakenly created a true party of interest relationship would have a limited time to come forward and declare any owners or other true parties of interest in licensed marijuana businesses that had not been disclosed and vetted in the past. The licensee would then be able to get the person vetted, though some penalty other than license cancellation would potentially still be on the table.

The details are not set, and the WSLCB executive team is going to continue meeting and discussing the issue over the coming months. For those licensees in the middle of investigations or regulatory hearings with the WSLCB, there’s not much hope to pull from this. Even if the WSLCB moved with lightning speed to adopt something, the agency was clear that it would not avail anyone currently undergoing a formal investigation or violation hearing.

That the WSLCB is discussing the topic of leniency at all indicates that they are cognizant of problems with current regulations and enforcement, though their idea of an amnesty or leniency program won’t do anything to solve the underlying issues. The foremost issue right now is that the timing of getting financing approved doesn’t work. The WSLCB currently demands that all money contributed to a licensed business be approved prior to it being spent on behalf of the business. The approval process for capital can take months, even if the capital contributors have already been approved as owners or financiers of the business in the past. But the types of emergencies that require short-term capital infusions tend not to wait months for regulators to approve. Businesses are forced to violate a rule by either having current owners contribute new capital or having outsiders provide financing prior to getting WSLCB approval.

There are plenty of solutions to the financier predicament that the WSLCB could adopt. They could allow for after-the-fact vetting of certain types of loans. They could modernize and streamline their financial approval process. They could keep the exact same system and just hire more people so that new funds could get investigated and cleared immediately. Any move to temporarily allow for relaxed penalties for regulatory violators to come forward isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the same problem will continue again and again. Academically speaking, the WSLCB is applying an over-inclusive rule to business actions that range from willfully criminal to entirely benign. This over-inclusive application of the law “makes regulatory unreasonableness not an occasional weakness but a pervasive problem.”[1]

[1] Quote is from the first full paragraph on page 40 of this linked article — the WSLCB should read it and redesign their enforcement structure.

The WSLCB’s current investigative and enforcement strategy feels targeted at unlucky businesses that have made mistakes. This is part of why their trigger-happy nature regarding license cancellation is so frustrating. Two of the cancellation cases that my law firm is currently working on have come because of voluntary disclosure of information by a licensee. There certainly are bad actors in the marijuana industry that are intentionally defrauding the WSCLB and may well have ties to organized crime, but the WSLCB seems to leave those businesses alone. It is tough, challenging work to investigate illegal activity when the actors are working hard to cover up the illegal activity. It is much easier to go after the low-hanging fruit of licensees that are fully transparent about their activities.

Fundamentally, the WSLCB underestimates the deterrent effect of large monetary fines and underestimates the huge collateral damage that business shutdowns can create. If the WSLCB wants to create real compliance, it is going to need to make some more drastic changes than temporary amnesty/leniency programs.

washington cannabis LCB
More crucial than ever for Washington operators.

We have represented clients in regulatory violation cases inside and outside the cannabis industry for years. Of all the jurisdictions in which we work, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board in 2018 is unique in its eagerness shut down businesses. In case after case against licensed producers and processors, the WSLCB seems determined to seek violations that could lead to license cancellation and is generally refusing to offer alternative penalties. Because so many of these cases are still pending, it is hard to go into too much detail, but the WSLCB’s actions in these cases indicate a desire to cull the number of licensed producer/processors.

For those producer/processors in Washington that aren’t currently being investigated for regulatory violations, the WSLCB’s current policy generates mixed reactions. When licenses were available for application in November and December 2013, thousands of businesses applied for the right to cultivate and process marijuana. As the market as matured, wholesale prices of marijuana have continued to fall, and the ability of licensees to maximize production has continued to increase. There is so much marijuana available on the market right now that it is hard for producer/processors to compete. Just having a license isn’t enough to run a profitable business, and many of the top performing producer/processors in the state are not generating the profits that most outsiders would assume.

At the same time, the types of violations that can cause the WSLCB to cancel a license and shut down a business are surprisingly easy to commit, even for dedicated compliant businesses. For example, let’s say that a licensed producer/processor has an unexpected bad month and doesn’t have enough money in the bank to make payroll. There isn’t any way for a licensee to get expedited approval of a cash infusion from the business’s owners If those owners contribute more of their own money before getting that approval, though, the WSLCB will still cancel the licenses. Or let’s say that a licensee enters into a licensing deal to manufacture branded products developed by another company. If the contract for that deal includes any terms that the WSLCB determines allow the licensor to exert too much control, they will cancel the license.

License cancellation is not innocuous. Marijuana business regulations bar a company from using a licensed location for business other than marijuana operations. Therefore, any type of license cancellation is really a death penalty for the business itself. These businesses employ anywhere between a few individuals and more than fifty people. Many of the employees are not the most employable in other industries either; legal cannabis jobs are the only thing standing between them and poverty.

And this is where it is clear that the WSLCB’s primary goal in cancelling licenses has to be to reduce the number of active licenses overall. Even in cases where the owner that is the “cause” of the regulatory violation has offered to transfer ownership interest in the business to a third party, the WSLCB still seems determined to cancel the licenses. They don’t seem to consider the effect that license cancellation has on innocent employees, landlords, investors, and contracting parties.

If you’re a licensed producer/processor in Washington (retailers seem to get more leeway), there’s not much you can do about this in the short term other than to stay compliant. There are certainly strategic alternatives that could engender better compliance among licensees, but it isn’t clear that compliance is the WSLCB’s current primary goal. Until the WSLCB starts accepting alternative penalties for certain seemingly innocuous violations for which they are authorized to cancel licenses, though, licensees will not receive the benefit of the doubt from the WSLCB. The correct attitude to take is that the regulators do not want you to have a license to engage in marijuana business activities, and they will do everything in their power to take it away.

industrial hemp CBD legal

As CBD and hemp continue to grow in popularity we are receiving an increasing number of calls and emails from companies that want to distribute hemp across the country. We have written about the legality of hemp and CBD under federal law:

This post focuses on another topic: state law on CBD and Industrial Hemp.

The 2014 Farm Bill grants states the authority to regulate Industrial Hemp, which contains less than .3%  THC on a dry weight basis, through an Agricultural Pilot Program. The Farm Bill also requires that Industrial Hemp is overseen by a state’s department of agriculture. The Farm Bill is light on additional details and states have taken different approaches to regulating Industrial Hemp and CBD derived from Industrial Hemp.

Colorado cemented its place in history as a cannabis pioneer by legalizing marijuana in 2012 along with Washington. Colorado’s hemp credentials are also solid as it has dedicated more acreage to the cultivation of hemp than any other state. Cultivators are permitted to sell hemp to the public. Colorado does not oversee the processing of hemp though which makes the extraction process largely unregulated.

Unlike Colorado, Oregon regulates both the production and processing of Industrial Hemp. Oregon’s Department of Agriculture (ODA) oversees the state’s industrial hemp program. “Growers” must register with the ODA in order to produce Industrial Hemp and “Handlers” must register to process Industrial Hemp. Oregon differs from Colorado in that it does not permit its Growers to sell Industrial Hemp directly to the public. Conversely, Handlers are permitted to sell Industrial Hemp to any person. Growers and Handlers may also sell their products to licensed recreational marijuana businesses giving them access the state’s recreational marijuana market. Growers and Handlers can apply to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) for an Industrial Hemp certificate to transfer hemp to recreational processors. OLCC retailers can then turn around and sell these hemp-based products to Oregon consumers.

Washington recently passed a law that sets up a similar structure. You can read about this law here, as we covered it a few months ago when it was still a proposed  bill. Washington’s licensed processors will soon be allowed to use additives derived from hemp-based products that were grown outside of its licensed marijuana system. These additives may come from Washington’s own Industrial Hemp program, which has been stalled for the last few years due to budget issues, or from Industrial Hemp sourced from other sources.

California has followed a similar path to Washington in that its hemp program has failed to launch in a meaningful way. Part of the hold up has been that California requires that Industrial Hemp only be grown by those on the list of approved hemp seed cultivars. That list includes only hemp seed cultivars certified on or before January 1, 2013. Industrial hemp may only be grown as a densely planted fiber or oilseed crop, or both, in minimum acreages. Growers of industrial hemp and seed breeders must register with the county agricultural commissioner and pay a registration and/or renewal fee. We wrote about proposed changes to California’s program here.

Michigan‘s office of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) recently issued an Advisory Bulletin that only permits the sale of CBD in licensed medical marijuana dispensaries. The Bulletin first states that CBD cannot be found in portions of the cannabis plant that fall outside the state’s definition of “marihuana” (i.e., the mature stalks, seeds incapable of germination, fiber from stalks, oil or cake made from seeds or other derivatives of the mature stalks) other than in trace amounts. The Bulletin goes onto state that Michigan’s Industrial Hemp program does not authorize the “sale or transfer” of Industrial Hemp.

This is significant as it means that CBD derived from Industrial Hemp cannot be sold and that CBD derived from marijuana can only be sold in dispensaries. The Bulletin also seems to include Industrial Hemp from other states as it concludes with the following:

Any possession or transfer of industrial hemp – or any product claimed to be “hemp”-related – must be done in compliance with Michigan’s Industrial Hemp Research Act.

The bottom line in Michigan is that to sell CBD in that state, whether from marijuana or hemp, you need to go through a dispensary.

Also keep in mind that some states do not regulate Industrial Hemp at all. This should not be interpreted to mean that they will turn a blind eye to hemp products distributed within their borders. Other states, regulate CBD specifically, which can be found in Industrial Hemp, and those states limit the use of CBD to patients who have received an authorization from a physician for its medical use.

If you want to distribute Industrial Hemp across the country it is not as simple as making sure that you have a licensed cultivator. Sure, you need to know the laws of the state in which you are sourcing hemp, but that’s not enough. You need to also consider the legal landscape of the places you intend to ship and sell Industrial Hemp products.

washington cannabis license

As of April 1, 2018, Washington marijuana processors are required to hold a special endorsement from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) to make marijuana-infused edibles (MIEs). This requirement follows from the WSDA’s appointment to share regulatory authority over MIEs with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB). The WSDA’s Food Safety Program regulates, inspects and provides technical assistance to food processors generally, regarding product safety issues. Now, the WSDA will conduct similar activities with MIE processors including carrying out enforcement and recalls when necessary.

The endorsement costs $895 initially and $895 for each annual renewal. Applications must be submitted to the Washington State Department of Revenue Business Licensing Service website. Technically, processors are required to hold the endorsements as of April 1, but WSDA is providing a 30-day grace period. Therefore, the clock is ticking on any processors who have not yet acquired this mandatory endorsement.

Note that the endorsement is only available to businesses that already hold a processor license. The LCB is not currently accepting applications for new processor licenses. To add an MIE endorsement, a business or individual must currently have a processor license and only produce MIE products at a single facility. A business or individual cannot add MIE products under a Food Processor license, process MIE products at a facility that processes non-marijuana food products, or process non-marijuana food products at a facility that produces MIE products.

Prior to April 1, the WSDA had contracted with the LCB to inspect the facilities of processors making MIEs, so in some ways, not much is changing. Other than the new $895 fee, processors shouldn’t feel the impact of this regulatory change immediately. The LCB will maintain authority over marijuana activities such as processor license requirements, packaging, and labeling. Processors that are currently in compliance with food-related regulations for MIEs will not need to re-submit food safety information (e.g., floor plan, sanitation procedures) when applying for the MIE endorsement. If there are no changes to ownership, location, or products, WSDA will not require an inspection. Processors that have not produced MIEs before will have to submit additional information to WSDA and LCB. In 2015, the WSDA provided an outline of the basic requirements for processing MIEs and that document is available here.

Looking forward, processors can expect to deal with the WSDA more frequently. The WSDA now has authority to undertake enforcement action and implement recalls. On March 19, the WSDA issued a letter to stakeholders, stating that processors “may experience more frequent inspections, as well as more outreach efforts and industry engagement.” WSDA intends to inspect MIE-producing facilities within 12 months of the endorsement and may collect additional information during those inspections. Processors who make ownership, location, or product changes must submit materials to both WSDA and LCB.

If you hold a processor license that currently produces MIEs, you need to apply for this special endorsement this month to continue operating. This firm is very familiar with licensing procedures and can assist your business throughout the process of applying for this new endorsement. Feel free to contact us with any questions and stay tuned for additional updates.

marijuana washington employment
Washington’s new employment legislation hopes to close the pay gap.

More and more states are recognizing there is a pay gap between the genders. Washington is the latest state to address the gap through legislation. The near-final law, HB 1506, is commonly referred to as the Equal Pay Act. It is currently awaiting the Governor’s signature, which we can expect any day now.

Equal pay laws are complicated and understanding your obligation as an employer is critical to avoiding hefty civil penalties and  liability. Washington’s Equal Pay Act specifically notes the difficulties women can face in obtaining equal pay and moving up in companies. The Washington law attempts to address these issues by prohibiting employers from discriminating against similarly situated employees based on gender.

So what constitutes discrimination in this context? Discrimination occurs when an employer pays similarly situated employees different wages because of the employee’s gender, or when the employer fails to promote or advance an employee because of their gender. Employees are “similarly employed” if the performance of their job requires similar skills, efforts, responsibility, and if the jobs are performed under similar working conditions. Job title alone is not determinative.

Employers can pay similarly situated employees different if: 1) the difference is based on a bona-fide job factor that is consistent with business necessity; 2) is not based on a gender based differential, and 3) accounts for the difference. Bona-fide factors include: education, training, or experience; a seniority system; a merit system; a system that measures earning by quantity or quality of production; or a bona-fide regional difference in compensation levels. Employers bear the burden to prove there was a bona-fide factor for the difference in pay, which means that businesses had better get it right. Note that employers may use the same bona fide factors in determining whether to promote or advance employees.

Cannabis companies are not sheltered from the new law. Although cannabis companies boast a higher percentage of female founders and executives than other industries, women still face unique challenges in the industry. Studies suggest that while women have success starting cannabis businesses, they do not retain that success. As the cannabis industry has grown, female ownership and executive percentages has also dropped. Finally, as individual companies grow, they tend to adopt more traditional business structures that results in a high percentage of males in senior roles.

Every Washington cannabis company should have a plan in place to ensure its business practices meet the requirements of the new Equal Pay Act. A good place to start is to have an expert audit your payment practices and assist in drafting a policy identifying the factors that are considered in setting wages and offering promotions. Cannabis companies in other states should also follow suit: Equal pay promotes employee retention, creates positive brand capital, and–most importantly of all–it’s the right thing to do.

An appeals court in Washington ruled last week that Clark County has the authority to ban the retail sale of recreational marijuana, settling any remaining dispute as to whether local governments in Washington can ban marijuana activities. The ruling was a long time coming, and not unexpected.

Washington law and rules promulgated by the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB or the Board) give local authorities the option to object to whether the LCB will grant a license. However, the LCB gets to make the final decision. In 2014, Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a General Opinion that opined that state law had not preempted local jurisdictions from banning marijuana. Shortly after the Attorney General’s opinion, Clark County passed its prohibition ordinance.

The dispute in Emerald Enterprises LLC v. Clark County stems from Clark County’s ordinance prohibiting the retail sale of recreational marijuana in unincorporated Clark County. In spite of the ordinance, Emerald Enterprises applied for a retail marijuana license at a location in Clark County. The Board granted the license but Clark County revoked Emerald’s business permit for violating the ordinance by selling recreational cannabis.

Emerald challenged the ordinance in court, claiming that state law preempted Clark County’s ordinance and the County could not ban all retail sales. The trial court ruled in favor of the County and Emerald appealed, arguing that state law preempts local law with respect to permitted sales of cannabis.

“Preemption” occurs in situations when a higher authority takes precedence over a law passed by a lower authority. This comes up when state and federal law conflict but also applies to state and local law. Preemption is limited to laws that are actually in conflict. The Court of Appeals summarized when preemption occurs under Washington law:

A local law must yield to a state statute on the same subject matter if a conflict exists such that the two cannot be harmonized. The focus of the inquiry is on the substantive conduct proscribed by the two laws. For example, . .  an ordinance may punish littering more harshly than state law because both prohibit the same underlying conduct. No conflict exists if the provisions can be harmonized.  Here,the County’s local ban on retail marijuana stores can be harmonized with state law.

(Citations and quotations omitted.)

According to the Court, nothing in Washington law either expressly or implicitly preempted Clark County from passing its ordinance. Initiative 502 (I-502) and related statutes grant the LCB the authority to issue marijuana retail licenses but do not grant an affirmative right to sell cannabis. In other words, the law does not require the Board to issue licenses. The court stated that the fact that an activity can be licensed does not mean that the activity must be allowed under local law.  The Court also ruled that Clark County’s ban did not thwart the intent of I-502 because the purpose of legalization was to regulate and tax marijuana, not encourage the sale of cannabis.

Additionally, the Court determined that the State legislature considered the possibility that local governments would prohibit marijuana sales because it created a system where local governments that allow the sale of marijuana could share in the tax revenue derived from cannabis sales and cities and counties that prohibit retail sales can not. In 2015, when the state legislature created this tax program, we wrote that this settled the question of whether or not local authorities could prohibit marijuana activity.

Shortly after the Court of Appeals published its opinion, the Washington Attorney General issued a press release reiterating the fact that Bob Ferguson has long held the opinion that local governments have the authority to prohibit marijuana businesses and highlighting that his office intervened in the case. The press release also argued that allowing local governments to prohibit cannabis could help keep marijuana legal in Washington despite a hostile federal administration:

Local governments like Clark County that have banned marijuana businesses have indicated that if I-502 requires them to allow marijuana businesses, then they will challenge I-502 and argue that it is preempted by federal law. If courts agree with this argument, it could potentially threaten I-502 and Washington’s regulated marijuana system. But if courts continue to agree with the AGO opinion that Washington’s marijuana law does not require local governments to allow marijuana businesses, this threat will be avoided, because courts will not need to rule on the question of federal preemption. This allows legalized marijuana to continue in Washington, in accordance with voters’ wishes.

This result is not surprising and for the most part, marijuana businesses are not trying to operate in areas where cities or counties have banned marijuana activity. Cannabis businesses in Washington need to be aware of local rules and regulations in addition to the state’s robust regulations. For individuals living in Clark County (or any other jurisdiction that bans retail sales) who don’t like this result, this decision makes it clear that you’ll need to take it up with the County Commissioner, not the courts.

washington employment marijuana
Careful!

The Washington Legislature concluded its 2018 Session last week, and joined Oregon and California in “banning the box” when it comes to employment applications. Specifically, Washington’s new law, dubbed the “Fair Chance Act” (the “Act”),  prohibits employers from looking into any criminal history of potential employees at the point an applicant first applies for a job. The Act is less stringent than California’s legislation and tends to mirror Oregon’s legislation.

The Act passed through both houses of the Washington legislature on March 3, and Governor Jay Inslee wasted no time signing it into law. At this point, the only thing that would prevent the Act from taking effect is a provision which states that funding must be appropriated “by June 30, 2018, through the omnibus appropriations act.” The likelihood of that not happening is very slim. For this reason, we are advising all of our cannabis businesses clients to treat HB 2198 as the law of the land in Washington, starting now.

It is important to note that the Act does not bar employers from inquiring as to criminal history at all points in the application process. Once an employer has determined the applicant is “otherwise qualified” for the position, the inquiry may begin. “Otherwise qualified” means that the applicant meets the basic criteria for the position as set out in the job advertisement or job description. In most cases, whether the applicant is otherwise qualified can be determined from the application materials. Thus, employers in Washington may be able to ask about criminal history during interviews, but not before.

In addition to the initial screening rules, it is important to note that the Act also prohibits employers from advertising open positions in any way that excludes people with a criminal record from applying. Job advertisements that state “felons need not apply” or “no criminal background”, or that convey similar messages are prohibited. Finally, employers that are required by either federal or state law to perform criminal background checks are exempt from the law. This exemption does not apply to Washington cannabis businesses.

Ban the box legislation is trending nationwide: today, 31 states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted a ban-the-box law regulating either public or private employers. These laws are especially important for cannabis businesses, which may, anecdotally, have a higher incidence of applicants with colorful backgrounds. Some states seem to care more about this than others: Oregon, for example, runs a background check while individually permitting cannabis employees; Washington does not.

The big take-aways here are: 1) do not ask about past criminal history on applications; and 2) consider seriously whether asking this question is necessary at all during interviews. By turning over too many rocks, you may find that an applicant has a past conviction for something like marijuana possession or distribution, and you may unintentionally violate one of Washington’s newest laws. Above all, and when in doubt, have an experienced employment attorney review your hiring techniques.

The Washington State House of Representatives is considering  House Bill 2334, which would allow licensed marijuana producers and processors to use cannabidiol (CBD) from a source not licensed by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB). The bill defines a “CBD product” as “any product containing or consisting of cannabidiol” and would permit the use of CBD products from unlicensed sources so long as the CBD product has a THC level of 0.3 percent or less on a dry weight basis and has been lab tested.

Washington’s regulated cannabis market is a closed loop that works on the principle that no marijuana comes in and none goes out. Everything sold in a licensed retail store is grown by licensed producer and processed into products like oils and edible by a licensed processor. If a licensee is caught bringing in marijuana from an outside source, the LCB will cancel the license.

HB 2234 would have the most impact on processors who could add CBD to products such as marijuana oils, candies, capsules, and other infused products. Though HB 2334 is still far from being law, processors in Washington have flirted with the idea of using unlicensed CBD to create products with higher CBD concentrations. Processors who choose to enrich products with unlicensed CBD do so at their own risk.

The legal basis for claiming that using CBD from cannabis outside of Washington’s regulated market is based on the idea that not all cannabis is in fact “marijuana” and that products containing CBD derived from “Industrial Hemp” or from portions of the cannabis plant that are excluded from the federal Controlled Substances Act’s (CSA) definition of “marijuana” are legal under federal law.

Section 7606 of the 2014 US Farm Bill  (the Farm Bill) creates the framework for the legal the cultivation of “Industrial Hemp”, which is defined as cannabis with a THC concentration of less than 0.3% on a dry weight basis. The Farm Bill allows states to enact pilot programs for hemp research purposes. Washington has such a program, though it is underfunded. Hemp that is cultivated in compliance with a state’s pilot program is legal pursuant to the Farm Bill, although the sale of any products derived from this research is not explicitly allowed.

Last year, the state legislature required that the LCB study the viability of allowing processors to use hemp cultivated by licensed hemp farmers. See RCW 15.120.060. It’s also possible that a processor could use CBD derived from a hemp cultivator in another state that has implemented an Industrial Hemp program under the Farm Bill, but the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has issued a Statement of Principle claiming that the interstate transfer of Industrial Hemp is outside the scope of the Farm Bill and therefore unlawful.

Processors may also claim that if CBD is derived from the mature stalks of the cannabis plant, it is not prohibited by the CSA. The CSA’s definition of marijuana “does not include the mature stalks of such plant, fiber produced from such stalks, oil or cake made from the seeds of such plant, any other compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such mature stalks (except the resin extracted therefrom), fiber, oil, or cake, or the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination.” 21 USC §802(16). In the early 2000’s, two cases out of the Ninth Circuit, Hemp Indus. Ass’n v. DEA, 357 F.3d 1012 (9th Cir. Cal. 2004) and Hemp Indus. Ass’n v. DEA, 333 F.3d 1082 (9th Cir. 2003) clarified that the DEA could not regulate hemp products merely because they contained trace amounts of THC. According to these rulings, some portions of the cannabis plant are explicitly outside the scope of the CSA. Thus, the court ruled that the DEA was not permitted to expand the scope of the CSA to encompass all parts the cannabis plant.

Because it was illegal to grow hemp in the United States until 2014, the Ninth Circuit decisions only applied to hemp imported from other countries. For CBD sourced from domestically grown hemp, today’s processors would need to know for certain from which part of the cannabis plant the CBD was derived to have a credible argument. If the CBD were sourced from any portion other than the mature stalks or seeds incapable of germination, then the product would be derived from marijuana and the processor could lose its license. There is also a question of whether a meaningful amount of CBD can even be extracted from mature stalks and seeds incapable of germination.

Processors who are using CBD additives do so at their own peril. Neither of the above legal theories provides much security as the licensee is counting on the fact that the LCB will accept this complex legal analysis and determine that the licensee is not using unlicensed cannabis. HB 2334 would provide some clarity and create a legitimate method to use unlicensed CBD. HB 2334 could also create an incentive for more farmers to participate in Washington’s fledgling hemp market. Finally, the bill would likely result in an increase in high-CBD products that some consumers–especially medical cannabis users–feel Washington’s market lacks.

For the bill to become law, it would have to pass the House, pass the Senate, and be signed by the Governor. It’s still too early to tell with HB 2334 will make it, but it’s worth keeping an eye on for now.