Washington State continues to regulate intra-industry cannabis transactions more than just about any other state. When Washington voters passed I-502, they did so based on a campaign that said we should regulate cannabis like we do alcohol. It turns out that certain legacy alcohol-style regulations can be extremely onerous and simple business transactions that most people wouldn’t imagine could violate any rules can get marijuana licensees into hot water.
The term “tied-house” refers to a statutory scheme implemented for alcohol in the wake of prohibition to regulate both the marketing and cross-ownership of licensed operations. The goal of a tied house regime is to prohibit vertical integration or dominance by a single producer within the marketplace. These rules were also intended to discourage bribery and certain predatory marketing practices and overconsumption of alcohol. The whole idea was that if things were sufficiently difficult for the businesses involved, it would somehow lead to less alcohol use by the populace. It’s like a reverse version of trickle-down economics.
The Washington State’s Liquor and Cannabis Board’s most recent update newsletter specifically brings up Washington’s implementation of tied-house rules in the marijuana marketplace under both RCW 69.50.328 and WAC 314-55-018. We’ll focus on the WAC — the rules issued directly by the WSLCB. In terms of my Washington State cannabis regulatory practice, this rule is the one that comes up the most often by far. WAC 314-55-018 broadly prohibits various practices, including:
- Any agreements that would cause one industry member to have “undue influence” over another industry member;
- Any advances, discounts, gifts, loans, etc. from a producer/processor to a retailer;
- Any contract for the sale of marijuana tied to or contingent upon the sale of something else, including other marijuana.
These prohibitions can be extremely broad in scope. They prohibit any type of agreement for the sale of more than one shipment of product, so a cannabis retailer and a cannabis producer/processor cannot enter an agreement where the retailer agrees to be bound to purchase regular monthly shipments of product. Every transaction must stand alone pursuant to its own purchase order. Recently, and as repeated in its newsletter, the WSLCB has focused on producer/processors that want to provide display equipment to retailers. The WSLCB’s position is that, under WAC 314-55-018, even a lease of a branded display case would constitute a “loan” in violation of this section. This type of arrangement — the leasing of branded display coolers from manufacturers to retailers — is common in other industries.
Confusingly, section (1) of WAC 314-55-018 contains a caveat that states, “This rule shall not be construed as prohibiting the placing and accepting of orders for the purchase and delivery of marijuana that are made in accordance with usual and common business practices and that are otherwise in compliance with the rules.” However, that caveat only applies to agreements that would otherwise create “undue influence” in Section 1 — it doesn’t mean that contracts that violate the LCB’s interpretation of the other sections are okay so long as they are part of usual and common business practices.
Regulations like WAC 314-55-018 have a few different effects. They are vague enough that it is difficult to tell whether an activity is or is not prohibited, which drastically increases compliance costs for cannabis businesses that either pay their attorneys to review transactions or try to get an answer from an LCB enforcement officer — a process that can take an extremely long time and often leads to inconsistent answers given by different LCB officers. To give you an idea of the scope of these issues, we have roughly an equal number of cannabis clients in the three states in which we mostly practice (California, Oregon and Washington) and we probably see double the compliance problems in Washington as in the other two states combined). The risks to these companies range from fines to a termination of their cannabis license.
These complicated compliance issues also create a situation lawyers dread — what to do when your clients want to follow the lead of market participants that openly violate the rules. Many cannabis industry members are willing to ignore the rules and enter into sales agreements or other agreements that technically violate WAC 314-55-018. This, in turn, disadvantages those that seek to remain compliant. When the LCB then doesn’t consistently enforce those rules, it maintains the disadvantage for the compliant industry members.
Tied-house rules are always going to be annoying to industry participants — that is the point. They are purposeful wrenches thrown into the works of the open market because government believes an open cannabis market would lead to intemperance. These same rules don’t exist for apples because the government doesn’t care if you eat too many apples, but it doesn’t want you to smoke too much marijuana or drink too much. There isn’t a clear logical line between tied-house rules and a reduction in either intemperance or corruption, but the rules do seem to be here to stay and this means industry members should stay on top of current interpretations to make sure that their deals are not running afoul of Washington rules.