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Politically Motivated Investigations of Legitimate Cannabis Businesses: One More Reason for Cannabis Operators to Return to the Black Market?

By Tracy A. Gallegos
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In June 2020, John W. Elias, a prosecutor in the United States Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, testified to the U.S. House Committee Judiciary that investigations of cannabis mergers were pursued based on Attorney General William Barr’s personal dislike for the cannabis industry rather than legitimate antitrust issues. Specifically, Elias testified, among other things, that since March 2019, the Antitrust Division has conducted ten investigations of mergers in the cannabis industry. Further, Elias testified that, “While these were nominally antitrust investigations, and used antitrust investigative authorities, they were not bona fide antitrust investigations.” Elias went on to state that, with respect to a proposed $682 million merger between two cannabis companies, MedMen and PharmaCann, career staff in the Antitrust Division initially examined the transaction to determine whether there should be no investigation, a brief investigation or a full investigation. Upon conclusion of its review, career staff determined that “the cannabis industry appeared to be fragmented with many market participants in the states that had legalized the product.” Accordingly, staff concluded that the proposed combination between MedMen and PharmaCann was “unlikely to raise any significant competitive concerns.”

John W. Elias, DOJ whistleblower and acting Chief of Staff to the Assistant Attorney General

Notwithstanding the career staff’s determination, Attorney General Barr ordered the Antitrust Division to issue “Second Request” subpoenas. According to Elias’s testimony, a “Second Request” subpoena is a full investigation of a proposed merger. Moreover, Elias stated, “Across the entire American economy, the Antitrust Division performs the full Second Request investigation on around 1-2% of the thousands of mergers filed each year – ordinarily, only the most concerning deals.” Based on the foregoing, Elias testified that Attorney General Barr’s decision to pursue the MedMen/PharmaCann combination was based on his dislike for the cannabis industry rather than any legitimate antitrust concerns.

There are some immediate impacts to Attorney General Barr’s decision – not limited to the MedMen/PharmaCann merger but potentially reaching any cannabis companies considering a merger or similar transaction. For example, a politically motivated probe would more than likely result in a drop of stock prices for publicly trade cannabis companies. Moreover, non-bona fide antitrust investigations of cannabis businesses could result in proposed merger transactions eventually not coming to fruition.

However, Attorney General Barr’s decision could arguably have longer term and more widespread effects on the cannabis space, and could affect situations not involving mergers or other proposed business combinations. In particular, the fact that legitimate cannabis businesses that comply with all applicable laws are still subject to unwanted and unnecessary scrutiny conceivably could lead to something that regulators had hoped would be curbed through the legalization of cannabis for adult use: cannabis operators gravitating towards the omnipresent black market. Despite cannabis being legal in 33 jurisdictions for medicinal use and 11 jurisdictions for adult use, the black market continues to thrive for several reasons, one of them being that the cost of regulatory compliance is so significant. Attorney General Barr’s decision may have created another reason for cannabis operators to abandon their plans to continue operating as or become legitimate businesses and instead revert back to operating in the black market.

Indeed, Attorney General Barr’s decision is a concern for cannabis operators because it shows that, notwithstanding that any particular operator may be compliant with state and/or local regulations, it does not mean that such cannabis operator is going to be permitted to conduct “normal” business that a non-cannabis business would be able to conduct, simply because of the underlying nature of the business. Stated differently, following the rules does not mean that a cannabis business will be left alone by people in charge who simply do not like the cannabis space.

Attorney General William Barr

Cannabis operators are very mindful of being targeted because of the nature of their business, and having regulations in place with which they could and would comply provided them with some level of certainty that they would not be targeted, or so they thought. Particularly in states like California where the regulations are complex, current and aspiring cannabis operators tend to be very concerned about being compliant with cannabis regulations from the inception of their business operations, believing that being compliant will assist them in flying under the proverbial radar and not become targeted unnecessarily simply because they are in the cannabis space. Attorney General Barr’s decision may have taken away or, at the very least, significantly decreased, that level of certainty. His decision to investigate a proposed merger of two legitimate cannabis businesses sends the message that it does not matter if a cannabis business is being compliant, and that there are other, completely subjective reasons why its operations could be investigated. This makes it extremely difficult for current and aspiring cannabis operators to determine what actions they can take to avoid unwelcome investigations or other scrutiny. If a cannabis operator is unable to mitigate scrutiny by complying with rules, this raises the concern that cannabis businesses will go back to black market activity, not only because the cost of compliance is high, but because being compliant does not necessarily protect them.

Attorney General Barr’s decision is likely not the only instance of a decision regarding cannabis businesses that was made notwithstanding existing statutes or regulations that do not support such a decision. In fact, since adult use became legal in certain jurisdictions it is not uncommon to see news discussing applicants for cannabis licenses who were denied licenses, notwithstanding that those applicants complied with all applicable laws and regulations. When applicants were denied even after complying with all rules and regulations, and when no other legitimate reason was cited for the denial, there is an indication that the denial was based on political or other personal feelings concerning the cannabis space. This not only potentially calls into question the integrity of the cannabis space, but again could lead cannabis operators back to the black market.

There are many costs of regulatory compliance for a cannabis operator, including, without limitation, high application and license fees, development and mitigation fees and exorbitant taxes. Other than the fees and taxes assessed on cannabis businesses, there are other expenses, such as the cost to construct a facility, security costs and the general operational costs that all businesses must pay, such as rent or payroll. What incentive does a cannabis operator have to expend significant resources – time, money and otherwise – to become a legitimate, licensed cannabis business if doing so does not provide any type of protection against investigations that are politically motivated or otherwise based on negative personal feelings toward the cannabis space? It may be that Attorney General Barr’s decision has given cannabis operators one more reason to reconsider going back to black market activity.

DoJ Task Force Moves to Review Federal Cannabis Policy

By Aaron G. Biros
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In a memo sent throughout the Department of Justice on April 5th, attorney general Jeff Sessions outlines the establishment of the Department’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. That task force, largely focused on violent crime, is supposed to find ways that federal prosecutors can more effectively reduce illegal immigration, violent crimes and gun violence.

The task force is made up of subcommittees, according to the memo, and one of them is focused on reviewing federal cannabis policy. “Task Force subcommittees will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities,” the memo reads. “Another subcommittee will explore our use of asset forfeiture and make recommendations on any improvements needed to legal authorities, policies, and training to most effectively attack the financial infrastructure of criminal organizations.” Those existing policies that Sessions refers to in the memo could very well be the 2013 Cole Memorandum, an Obama administration decree that essentially set up a framework for states with legal cannabis laws to avoid federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.

In the past, Sessions has said he thinks the Cole Memo is valid, but remains skeptical of medical cannabis. In the last several months, comments made by Sessions and White House press secretary Sean Spicer have sparked outrage and growing fears among stakeholders in the cannabis industry, including major business players and state lawmakers. As a general feeling of uncertainty surrounding federal cannabis policy grows, many are looking for a safe haven, which could mean looking to markets outside of the U.S., like Canada, for example.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Washington State’s former Attorney General Rob McKenna, Washington State’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Moran, and Maryland’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Kay Winfree recently went on the record identifying the BioTrack THC traceability system as fully compliant with the Cole Memo. “The key to meeting the requirements of the Cole Memorandum is ‘both the existence of a strong and effective state regulatory system, and an operation’s compliance with that system’,” says the former attorney general and chief deputy attorneys general in a press release. “As described above, Washington State has a robust, comprehensive regulatory scheme that controls the entire marijuana supply chain.

The email sent to Colorado prosecutor Michael Melito

The flagship component of this regulatory scheme is the WSLCB’s seed to sale inventory system, the BioTrackTHC Traceability System.” Those commendations from a former attorney general could provide some solace to business operating with the seed-to-sale traceability software.

Still though, worries in the industry are fueled by speculation and a general lack of clarity from the Trump Administration and the Department of Justice. In an email obtained by an open records request and first reported by the International Business Times, a DEA supervisor asked a Colorado prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office about a number of cannabis-related prosecutions. The DEA supervisor asked for the state docket numbers of a handful of cases, including one involving cannabis being shipped out of state, according to The Denver Post. “Some of our intel people are trying to track down info regarding some of DEA’s better marijuana investigations for the new administration,” reads the email. “Hopefully it will lead to some positive changes.” So far, only speculations have emerged pertaining to its significance or lack thereof and what this could possibly mean for the future of federal cannabis policy.

Jeff Sessions’ Stance on Cannabis: Uphold Federal Law

By Aaron G. Biros
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President-elect Donald Trump nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for Attorney General back in November. For Sessions to become a member of the cabinet and head of the Department of Justice, the Senate must approve the nomination during a confirmation hearing, taking place today in Washington D.C.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

According to CNN’s coverage of the events, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) mentioned the Obama Administration’s tolerance of states with legal cannabis. “There are federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana, the sale of marijuana, the production of marijuana, that apply regardless of whether a state has independently criminalized the drug,” says Senator Lee. He then asks if Obama’s actions were indicative of a breach of “the understanding that we [Congress] are the lawmaking body.”

Sessions replied to that by saying that as federal law stands, cannabis is illegal. He says if keeping cannabis illegal is “not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.” He adds that it’s not the AG’s job to enforce or not enforce certain laws. “We should do our job and enforce laws as effectively as we’re able,” says Sessions.

In April of 2016 according to USA Today, Sen. Jeff Sessions was quoted saying “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Sessions has a history of making inflammatory remarks, including racist statements. He has also previously mentioned his proud support for the War on Drugs.

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Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

Sessions’ comments during the exchange today shed some much-needed light on his stance toward legal cannabis. National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) executive director Aaron Smith issued a statement on Sessions’ comments made today. In the statement, Smith sounds optimistic regarding Sessions’ comments. “In today’s hearing, Sen. Sessions indicated that the Justice Department’s current guidelines for marijuana policy enforcement are ‘truly valuable’ in setting departmental priorities,” says Smith. “That belief, along with the support for state sovereignty on cannabis policy expressed by President-elect Trump and his team, should lead Sen. Sessions to maintain the current federal policy of respect for state-legal, regulated cannabis programs if he is confirmed as Attorney General.”

“Sen. Sessions also highlighted the conflict created by a Congress that has failed to reflect the will of the voters on cannabis policy,” says Smith. “Voters in 28 states, representing approximately 60% of the nation’s population, have now chosen some form of legal, regulated cannabis program. National polling shows that 60% of Americans believe cannabis should be legalized. It’s time for federal lawmakers to represent the clear choices of their constituents.” Given the Republican support for state sovereignty and Sessions’ comments on Congressional lawmaking, Smith is hopeful that if Sessions becomes the new Attorney General, he will respect states with legal cannabis programs.