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Chris Lacy

The Story of Chris Lacy: Social Equity & Hope in Cannabis

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Chris Lacy

Christopher Lacy and The TGC Group recently won a Tier 3 conditional license under New Jersey’s social equity licensing program. Their story is one of misfortune, persistence, family and the dreadful effects that cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs has had on impoverished BIPOC communities.

Chris’s father was a sharecropper in Mississippi before he moved to Illinois and started a family. Growing up in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, Chris was surrounded by gangs and crime. He started selling drugs when he was 12 and went to prison for cannabis before he was old enough to drink. When he got out, he saw firsthand the effects that incarceration has on a person, their family and their community.

Back in 2020, Chris Lacy and his wife Taneeshia Thomas applied for a craft grow license under Illinois’s new social equity program. Taneeshia wrote an article for Cannabis Industry Journal highlighting their story.

When it was first announced, Illinois’s social equity program seemed revolutionary and one that other states soon followed, setting the stage for markets all over the country to establish social equity licensing programs. However, legal hurdles, red tape and intense litigation have bogged down the system, causing severe delays. Chris and Taneeshia are still waiting to hear back about approval of their license application, years later.

Good news came recently when they were notified that they were awarded a conditional license in New Jersey. With the help of his family, business partners and The Garden State, The TGC Group is moving forward with launching their business. We caught up with Chris, to check in on his business’s progress, hear his story and see if it might inspire others to take a similar path.

Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your story with cannabis

Christopher Lacy, Founder of The TGC Group

Christopher Lacy: I grew up on a dead-end block in a little town in Illinois on the far south side of Chicago called Robbins. It has a very high crime rate and a very impoverished community so as you could imagine we grew up pretty poor. I personally didn’t feel the effects of poverty until just before I turned 13. I guess that became more obvious as I started hanging out and seeing that most of my friends had more than 2 pairs of pants. I starting selling drugs when I was 12 years old.  When I was about 16-17 years old, I had started trying to grow cannabis. Like any task, it takes time to develop the skills produce a good product. Cannabis definitely has it challenges when it comes to cultivating a product that could be considered good.

It’s not like there was an abundance of information out there specific to cannabis cultivation to aid in the task so besides the basic book knowledge of horticulture, you had to grind it out. It took me a couple years to really get it figured out. Once I did get it going, I started expanding. At first it was basements in the suburbs. We’d grab really nice houses and fill the basements with plants. When that wasn’t enough, we started doing warehouses. There was no real limit, outside of capital and the desire to not draw attention via odor or traffic from workers, if you could produce it, the demand was there. I did go to prison for a short stint when I was 20 years old for delivery of a controlled substance. 0.8 grams. After I got out of prison, I had a very successful illegal operation growing and selling cannabis. Life was pretty good for a few years. I wasn’t rich or anything like that but I was able to be around my family and provide the things that I was denied when I grew up. I don’t blame my parents for what I went through growing up. Because of my father’s age, I’m generation 1 out of the sharecropping era. My parents believed in one thing and that was learning. I tried to instill that into my kids as well. Being a father feels really good to me. Unfortunately, that dream was ended when I was arrested in one of our warehouses in Illinois. I did 3.5 years, locked down 21 hours a day for growing weed.

While serving my time I was able to really take a look at myself and develop a new me. I established some new core principles that I would hold close to my heart. One of them being not going back to jail for the sake of a dollar. I was not going back to prison. I had kids when I was young so I missed out on a big part of their childhoods. I had three daughters and two sons at the time that were of an age where having a stable home plays a huge role on how the child will turn out in the future compared to a typical American lifestyle.  When I got out of jail, my kids came and lived with me during and after high school but some serious damage had already been inflicted.  I worked a job as a truck driver and did the best that I could to support my family, but I never really gave up on cannabis in the back of my mind. My older brother used to always tell me that I didn’t learn what I knew about weed for nothing and that one day it would all make sense.

Christopher with his wife, Taneeshia

For the next few years, we just grinded it out as a family. It wasn’t the ideal situation but we made it work. And when we couldn’t make it work, we lived with it! I just was glad to be there doing Chemistry homework with the kids. That shows what happens when a father is at home with his family. We get college grads.

When the message came out that Illinois was going to do craft grow licenses, I got really excited. I figured this was my chance to do what I love and to make a living doing it. I had no idea how I was going to get to where I wanted to be but I figured if I could just put one foot in front of the other, sooner or later I would get there. I caught a break when my nephew, Edward Lacy, introduced me to someone who understood the application process. She introduced me to some of the most wonderful/helpful people in the world. People who literally wanted to help true social equity applicants like myself. With the help of these new friends, we were able to drop our first application in Illinois. After we submitted that application, that is when the first story came out about us in Cannabis Industry Journal. This story helped me get into a conversation with Cresco labs and I was able to get into a situation that really changed how I saw cannabis production. I got to work around some of the smartest people in the industry for just under a year. I can’t thank Charlie, Barrington and the rest of the guys at Cresco enough for the opportunity. From there, I knew it had to be my destiny to grow cannabis for a living. I just kept beating up the phones and emails. Something was gone give.

CIJ: When we last spoke, you were trying to get a social equity license in Illinois, can you tell me about that? How did it go?

Chris: Ultimately, after 2 years of waiting, we were denied a license in Illinois. When I first got this news. it took me about a week to get out the bed. Lol. It took my wife to pull me through. I can only imagine the pain that all the other disappointed groups are feeling, Ultimately, we all couldn’t win in Illinois so it is what it is. But definitely a big shout out to all the successful applicants that did win. You all have a torch to carry that should ignite the black and brown communities.

From the political standpoint in Illinois, it’s just not conducive for social equity applicants to succeed due to all of the legal hurdles, courts, lawsuits, etc. Not to say that the Illinois process is truly different from other states going through similar processes, New Jersey and other states went through a similar process when social equity licenses were announced. The laws that helped me qualify are what came out of the legal battles in New Jersey. The issue is the resources available for legal fees, holding property, and the time required to see these things through; this all equals dollars and that’s just something lacking in most social equity groups.

CIJ: So, what made you look at New Jersey?

Chris: After I had submitted my application in Illinois, I began looking for financial support. I knew this would be my limiting factor because access to the type of capital required to get a grow facility off the ground is quite substantial. For the most part no one returned calls but I called one financial institution in particular, VenCanna Ventures, and for some miraculous reason, they returned my call. I’m not sure what made them; but we kept an open line of communication going all while we were dealing with Illinois. I knew these guys were good because they were behind an impressive project in Ohio that actually won LEED certification. When I look back on it, it felt like a one-year interview. Then one day this past winter David McGorman, the CEO, asked me to partner up with him in New Jersey. It was exactly what we both needed. He has the expertise in finance and I bring the operations side.

Christopher with his daughter, Janeace Lacy

Once we had that team together, we put together a strategy to try and apply in New Jersey. We built the application and New Jersey actually had some very unique laws. If you had a cannabis conviction, you could qualify. Also, my oldest daughter, Janeace, whom I think my prison time hurt the most, actually lives in New Jersey with my granddaughter. So, she’s our resident in the state that helped us win the application and now a part owner, which led us to where we are now. I just couldn’t be more excited about all of this. It just feels right

We won a tier 3 conditional license and now we’re working on finding a good facility and building the operation.

CIJ: How did you set up your social equity license application for NJ?

Chris: It was a process very similar to Illinois except that the process was split into two phases. A conditional license and an annual license. Phase one was winning the conditional license. This is a more condensed application compared to what I was used to. After filling out the application, we had to submit a bunch of documents and proof of incarceration. That was for the conditional license. We still have to convert the conditional to the annual. The conditional basically tells us that we qualify and we can move forward with the rest of the business plan, find some property and spend some money on a lease. We’re still in that process for converting to annual, but we have won the conditional.

CIJ: What is your plan now that you’ve received conditional approval?

Chris: Right now, we’re working on property and securing a space for our facility. We are pretty close to nailing down a couple good locations. One of the locations that I am really excited about is in Somerset County. If we can lock down the property, submit everything to the state as far as our SOPs, security plans, cultivation plan, design, etc. we can try get approval to convert to the annual license and then we can start the build out. The good thing about the two-step process is that it really helps when it comes to spending money. Basically, if you don’t win a conditional, don’t go out spending tons of cash trying to hold onto property.

CIJ: You’ve come a long way from being put in prison for cannabis, to now being close to establishing a business in New Jersey. What made you decide to stick with the business of cannabis?  

Chris: You know, I can’t really describe it very well. It was just one of those feelings, you know it felt good to me. It drew me in when I was a young kid, although, I actually didn’t try using cannabis until I was 21. That’s when I first used it and it really jelled with me. Also, I’ve always loved gardening.

Chris Lacy

My father was a sharecropper in Mississippi, when our family moved to the suburbs of Chicago the first thing he did was plant a huge garden. I grew up in the garden and around plants. He used to spend so much time in that garden and I loved being there with him. We grew everything out there year after year until he was too old to keep it up. I can’t imagine a more peaceful environment then out in the fields with the plants.

It was also therapeutic, not just the obvious therapeutic aspects of cannabis, but also how therapeutic gardening is. Working with cannabis plants can be a challenge. To try to achieve unique terpene and cannabinoid profiles has always been a lot of fun for me. I love the challenge. Pushing genetics as far as I can to really experience what different cultivars have to offer. It is just one of those things that has always stuck with me and I really enjoy it. Once it became legal, a world of opportunity opened up for me.

You know, people say if you do something you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. I was a truck driver after I got out of prison, and I really didn’t like it. I had to have neck surgery from the pounding my spine took. I had to work long hours, man I hated doing it. On the flip side, cannabis is something I love to do. And this is about me trying to control my own destiny, control my own life. I don’t have to struggle mentally and physically just to provide for my family. That’s what keeps me going – the drive to do what I love to do to provide for my family. I see cannabis cultivation as more of an art than I do anything else. The guy behind the growing at any facility in the country could share with people what he believes to be fire. I just love to provide an experience and there’s nothing more satisfying than a satisfied customer. Everything about this process seems to fit perfectly with my life.

CIJ: It’s a pretty inspiring story. How do you hope your story might inspire others to follow in your footsteps?

Chris: I don’t want someone to follow in my steps as far as breaking the law and going to prison. I had to learn this the hard way, you know I didn’t agree with the law, but it doesn’t matter. Whether you agree or disagree with the law, I don’t advise anyone to be a criminal.

On the other hand, I do believe that black and brown people have been impacted by the war on drugs the most. In whatever capacity they can, they should chase the opportunity in this country as the cannabis market evolves. It’s a new industry, it’s a way for people to build wealth, to maybe raise their families out of poverty. So in that sense, yes, I do hope people see my story and see that they could do this too. And if you still out there getting it the best way you know how, God Bless you! Lord knows it breaks my heart every time I see someone get arrested for cannabis. Hopefully that shit stops soon and we can get these mothers and fathers who are basically prisoners of a bogus war, reunited with their families and hopefully they get a chance to rebuild.

This a chance to build generational wealth if it’s done right. I would hope that anyone looking for an opportunity, look into the cannabis space. I know its evolving fast and the window might seem like its closing but that isn’t the case. This is more like the 2nd inning of a baseball game. There plenty of time to get going.

 I don’t think I’m the best role model. I just keeping fighting. And my advice for black and brown folks that might have gone to prison or might be put in a similar situation is this: Its never over. It’s never too late, no matter what somebody does. It’s not the end of the road. It’s just a bump at that moment. Just keep fighting. One step at a time. I do hope that people reach out to me.

I would love to work with anyone as long as they on a positive path, especially convicted felons. God Bless the felons! That’s my number one priority on my list. The guys that have been to prison, the non-violent drug offenders. Our society has a way of shunning those people. Some of the smartest people I’ve met in my life were in prison. It doesn’t speak to the character of an individual because they went to jail. If the system is supposed to work then why is it so hard for a convicted felon to get another chance? Of course, a few people have traversed this path successfully but there are so many more.

CIJ: I know your business is called The TGC Group. Out of curiosity, what does that acronym stand for?

Chris: We’re called TGC New Jersey under our license there and we applied in Illinois under the name, The TGC Group. TGC stands for a lot of things. It has a lot of meanings. I came up with it when I was in prison. I called it The Gathering Company. It was an idea I had because I was reading The Wall Street Journal every day in prison. I wanted to gather people under one umbrella.

But also, my name is Chris, my wife’s name is Taneeshia, (whom I am forever grateful for helping me pull my life together) and we have a son we named Grant. So, the first letter of each of our names also make TGC. It also stands for The Good Choice, because it is a good choice. The Ganja Connoisseur is another good one. I just hope that it grows to be known as a quality brand of cannabis that one can count on for consistent high-quality cannabis. Consistency and quality are what we’re striving for relentlessly.

I hope people read this article and feel inspired. We have a responsibility to give back to the community. We have a responsibility to rebuild what’s been destroyed in our communities. I am just trying to do my part. I was not a nice guy growing up, you know I was a gangbanger. But now, I want to rebuild and give back to my community the best way I can in Chicago. Not just my community, I want to give back to New Jersey communities, because we’re in their house now. I want to give back to Mississippi communities, where my family comes from. I’m not in this to get rich, I am in this to build communities. God willing, we will

One Month In: New Jersey Market Starts Growing

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Just over a month ago, a handful of dispensaries in New Jersey began selling cannabis to adults over the age of 21. The state issued licenses for adult use sales to seven alternative treatment centers (ATCs), otherwise known as medical cannabis businesses already established in the state. In total, thirteen dispensaries in the state started selling cannabis to adults over 21.

The seven companies awarded adult use licenses were Ascend, Curaleaf, GTI, Acreage, Verano, Columbia Care and TerrAscend. The state’s roll out created a lot of controversy over allowing already established, larger medical cannabis businesses and multi state operators to begin adult use sales before smaller businesses and social equity applicants get licensed.

Sales totals in the first month of New Jersey’s adult use market

Earlier this week, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) held a public meeting where regulators discussed progress, sales totals so far, conditional license applications and more. According to the meeting notes, between April 21 and May 21, retailers in New Jersey did $24,201,875 in cannabis sales with 212,433 transactions. During the meeting, regulators considered 46 conditional license applications and four testing lab license applications.

According to NJ.com, six new dispensaries were awarded licenses to begin adult use sales. Of the six new retail locations, Curaleaf opened their Edgewater location to adult use customers and Ayr Wellness received approval to begin adult use sales at all three of their medical locations in Eatontown, Union and Woodbridge. Ascend and TerrAscend also received approval to begin adult use sales act their locations in Montclair and Lodi, respectively.

About two weeks ago, the CRC testified before the state’s Senate Judiciary Meeting to share progress on the legal cannabis market, just over a year after the CRC was established. Jeff Brown, executive director of the CRC, discussed the agency’s goals and some challenges ahead of them. Brown says the CRC will be focusing on additional rules for adult use, modernizing the medical rules, enforcing regulatory compliance and information sharing in the near future. He also mentioned a couple challenges the industry is currently facing that they wish to address, including: expanding access to capital for entrepreneurs , removing impediments to finding real estate, educating municipalities to open up opportunities for applicants and ensuring medicinal cannabis access is unimpeded by recreational sales.

“We have made great strides in all of these efforts, and when we look at how New Jersey compares against other states, we fair pretty well,” Brown told lawmakers. “Beginning recreational sales on 4/21/22 was an important milestone. But it doesn’t mark the end of the process, it marks an important step in a multi-year effort to establish New Jersey as the premier cannabis market on the East Coast.”

New York Adds More Conditional Cultivation Licenses

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Regulators in New York are continuing their push forward in launching the adult use cannabis market. They have approved 58 conditional licenses for hemp growers to begin cultivating cannabis for the adult use market. In just the past few months, the state has already awarded 146 conditional licenses for cultivation.

The Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) in New York also announced their “Get Ready, Get Set” virtual workshop series, designed to help social equity applicants prepare for license applications and better understand the conditional licensing program.

Earlier this year, following an amendment to state law, the OCM launched the conditional licensing program to ensure that hemp farmers in the state with a desire to grow adult use cannabis could get started in the 2022 season.

Applications can be filed with the OCM for conditional licenses through June 30, 2022, with a $2,000 non-refundable application and licensing fee. The licenses are only for farms that have already grown hemp in New York State.

“New York is building the most inclusive cannabis industry in the country and including small farmers with an expertise is an essential component in accomplishing that goal,” says Chris Alexander, executive director at the OCM. “The growing season isn’t waiting for anyone and I’m grateful for the hard work of the CCB and my colleagues at OCM to ensure these licenses are being reviewed as quickly as possible so New York’s farmers can take full advantage of the growing season and cultivate the products that our equity entrepreneurs will be the first to sell when they open their dispensaries this year.”

New Jersey Launches Adult Use Sales

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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On Thursday, April 21, a handful of dispensaries in New Jersey begin selling cannabis to adults over the age of 21. The state has so far issued licenses for adult use sales to seven alternative treatment centers (ATCs), otherwise known as medical cannabis businesses already established in the state. In total, thirteen dispensaries in the state can sell cannabis to adults over 21.

The Capitol in Trenton, New Jersey

The reason why adult use sales could not start on April 20 is because of “unmanageable logistical challenges for patients and other buyers, surrounding communities, and for municipalities,” Toni-Anne Blake, communications director for the New Jersey (CRC) told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Regulators and industry representatives agreed it was not feasible.”

The seven ATCs awarded adult use licenses are Ascend, Curaleaf, GTI, Acreage, Verano, Columbia Care and TerrAscend. The state’s roll out created a lot of controversy over allowing already established, larger medical cannabis businesses and multi state operators to begin adult use sales before smaller businesses and social equity applicants get licensed.

According to The New York Times, the CRC gave condition approval to 102 companies for cultivation and manufacturing, but they need local approval and real estate before commencing operations. Another 320 organizations have applied for licenses for the New Jersey adult use cannabis market, but could wait up to a year or more before they begin operating.

Regulators in New Jersey say the seven companies commencing sales will need to follow social equity rules, including providing technical knowledge to social equity applicants. “We remain committed to social equity,” says CRC Chair Dianna Houenou. “We promised to build this market on the pillars of social equity and safety. Ultimately, we hope to see businesses and a workforce that reflect the diversity of the state, and local communities that are positively impacted by this new and growing industry.”

Jeff Brown, executive director of the CRC, says they anticipate long lines and crowds. “We expect 13 locations for the entire state will make for extremely busy stores,” said Jeff Brown, executive director of the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission. “The dispensaries have assured us that they are ready to meet the demand without disrupting patient access, and with minimal impact on the surrounding communities, but patience will be key to a good opening day.”

Adults in New Jersey can purchase up to one ounce of flower, up to five grams of concentrates or up to ten 100mg packages of edibles. Click here for a list of the locations opening their doors for business.

New York Launches Conditional Licensing Program

By Kristin Kowalski, CPA
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Progress and history are being made in New York for adult use cannabis. Recently, Governor Hochul signed an amendment to New York State Cannabis Law which permits the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) to award conditional licenses to certain adult use cultivators and processors, allowing hemp farmers in New York to grow cannabis in the 2022 growing season. And now, the application period to obtain a conditional license is officially open and available for qualified candidates. New York is moving full speed ahead in the hopes of creating one of the most inclusive adult-use cannabis industries in the nation.

What Does a Conditional License Mean?

With this legislation, New York State is creating a new conditional adult use cannabis cultivator license, allowing hemp farmers to grow cannabis in the 2022 growing season – helping to fast-track the state’s adult-use cannabis program. Under the law, conditionally licensed cannabis farmers must meet certain requirements, including safe, sustainable and environmentally friendly cultivation practices.

Highlights of the Bill & Legislation

Industrial Hemp First

To qualify for an adult use cannabis conditional cultivator license, only companies and individuals currently licensed with the state for cultivation or processing of industrial hemp can apply for the conditional licenses. Applicants must have been an authorized industrial hemp research partner for the Department of Agriculture and Markets, and industrial hemp cultivators must have grown and harvested the crop during at least two of the past four years.

Growing Locations

Licensed cultivators will be authorized to grow indoors, outdoors, or a combination of both, subject to space and lighting limitations in the law. With a conditional adult use cannabis cultivation license, farmers can grow outdoors or in a greenhouse for up to two years from the issuance of the license. It also allows them to manufacture and distribute cannabis flower products without holding an adult use processor or distributor license, until June 1, 2023.

Expanding Abilities with License

Conditional licensees will have temporary authority to conduct additional activities not included in their license. Cultivators are allowed to both minimally process and distribute flower, and processors can distribute their products.

Requirements of Conditional License

Hemp farmers in New York could be licensed to grow cannabis for the 2022 growing season.

As listed in the bill, conditional licensees must abide by all regulations, including those issued after receipt of the license. Applicants must also participate in a soon to-be-developed mentoring program for individuals interested in joining the industry through the social equity component of the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act, as well as actively participate in an environmental sustainability program. And lastly, applicants must begin operations within six months of receiving their license, and grant OCM employees’ access to the premises for inspections to ensure all rules are being followed.

Future Outlook on Cannabis Industry in New York

With the opening of the application portal for conditional licenses, this advances the Governor’s first-in-the-nation Seeding Opportunity Initiative, which positions individuals with prior cannabis-related criminal offenses to make the first adult use cannabis sales with products grown by New York hemp farmers. While this news is a positive step, there remain many unknowns about how the conditional licensing process will unfold. Applications can be filed with the OCM for Conditional Cultivator Licenses through June 30, 2022, with a $2,000 non-refundable application and licensing fee. For hopeful applicants, gathering a team of professional advisors to plan for the application process and operating an adult-use business is essential. Consulting with an accounting team or financial advisors from a tax standpoint, will be critical to establish systems and controls to maintain separate accounting records for your industrial hemp and adult use activities.

The Great Social Experiment: Social Equity in New York

By Abraham Finberg, Simon Menkes, Rachel Wright
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New York is embarking on a great social undertaking. In awarding its adult-use cannabis licenses, under the plan laid out by Gov. Kathy Hochul on March 10, the state is attempting to right generations of wrongs caused by the war on cannabis. The wrongs are numerous and include mass incarceration and complex generational trauma, prevention of access to housing and employment and the forming of an illicit market – all of which have had a disproportionate impact on African-American and Latinx communities.1

In addition to generating significant revenue for the state, New York hopes to make substantial investments in the communities and people most affected by cannabis criminalization and address the collateral consequences of that criminalization, reduce the illicit market for cannabis and illegal drugs, end the racially disparate impact of existing cannabis laws and strengthen New York’s agriculture sector.2

50% of All Licenses Will Be Social Equity

To accomplish these lofty aims, the state’s goal is to award 50% of adult-use cannabis licenses to social and economic equity applicants – and these licenses will be the first issued.3,4 The state’s entire focus is on this social equity licensing program; issues regarding non-social equity licenses are not being addressed at this time.

No one knows yet how many licenses will be issued. There are currently only 38 medical licenses in the state, although everyone expects the number of adult-use licenses to be significantly higher. (These medical licenses serve around 140,000 patients with sales in 2021 of around $300 million.)

The First 100 to 200 Licenses

Chris Alexander, executive director of the state’s Office of Cannabis Management, says he expected between 100 and 200 licenses to go first to people who were convicted of a cannabis-related offense before the drug was legalized, or those who have “a parent, guardian, child, spouse, or dependent” with a cannabis conviction. Alexander also said his office would evaluate applicants on their business plans and experience in retail.5

What’s the Timeline?

In a recent Q&A interview, Tremaine Wright, chair of New York’s newly-formed Cannabis Control Board (CCB), which will be overseeing the licensing process, stated: “We are setting up a system soup-to-nuts … [final] regulations for the state’s marijuana startups will be issued by the Cannabis Control Board this winter [2022] or early spring [2023] … recreational dispensaries should be licensed to operate by summer 2023.”6

Whom Is New York Looking For?

New York has defined social equity applicants as being:

  • Individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition
  • Minority-owned businesses
  • Women-owned businesses
  • Minority and women-owned businesses
  • Distressed farmers
  • Service-disabled veterans.7

Extra priority will be given to an applicant who:

  • Is a member of a community disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition
  • Has an income lower than 80% of the median income of the county in which the applicant resides
  • Was either: (a) convicted of a cannabis-related offense prior to the effective date of the N.Y. Cannabis Law; (b) or had a parent, guardian, child, spouse or dependent; or was a dependent of an individual who was convicted of a cannabis-related offence prior to the effective date of the N.Y. Cannabis Law.8

Social Equity Licenses Come With Strings Attached

Social equity licenses cannot be transferred or sold within the first three years of issue. An exception will be made if the license is transferred or sold to another qualified social and economic equity applicant, but this must first be approved in writing by the CCB.9

Types of Licenses

While most people appear to be interested in a cannabis dispensary or lounge license, there will be nine types of licenses available: cultivator, nursery, processor, distributor, retail-dispensary, delivery, on-site consumption, adult-use cooperative and microbusiness.

“I don’t hear many people [talking about] processing and manufacturing,” says CCB chair Wright. She noted that processor licenses cover the production of edibles like candy and baked goods, which create a good opportunity to establish a brand.10

CCB Priorities

Wright also noted delivery companies would likely be capped at 25 employees in order to prevent behemoths like Uber from entering the market. “We’re trying to focus on not creating a space where monopolies can take over and kill all our small businesses,” Wright says.11

License Application Costs

The cost for an adult-use cannabis license in New York is still unknown, so the experts are looking at the cost for a medical cannabis license as the baseline, with a greater cost likely for adult-use. Each applicant was required to submit two fees with its medicinal application: a non-refundable application fee in the amount of $10,000 and a registration fee in the amount of $200,000. The $200,000 registration fee was refunded to the applicant only if the applicant was not issued a registration.12

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) states, however, that fees may be waived for social equity applicants.13

Funding Assistance for License Applicants

Because of the requirement that each applicant be from one or more of the social equity classes, it is quite likely many of the applicants will lack the necessary funding to open a cannabis business currently.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul

On January 5, 2022, Gov. Hochul pledged to commit $200 million to support social equity applicants in building adult-use cannabis businesses. New York’s Office of Cannabis management expects that around $50 million of the fund will be raised from registered organizations licensed to operate medical cannabis businesses in NY and that $150 million will be raised from private investors.14

Wright commented, however, that those loans aren’t guaranteed to be available for the first round of licensing because the money to fund them will largely come from tax revenue generated by the industry. “[The Office of Cannabis Management] is not going to be able to right all the wrongs of the financial services industry,” she added.15

This lack of capital will offer opportunities to those who might want to invest with a social equity license applicant.

Requirements for Those Who Invest With Social Equity Applicants

Any person or entity investing with a social equity applicant must keep in mind the State’s following requirements:

  1. Any entity applying for a New York cannabis license will need to be owned at least 51% by a social equity class applicant.
  2. That ownership must be “real, substantial, and continuing.”
  3. The social equity applicant must have and exercise the authority to control independently the day-to-day business decisions of the enterprise.
  4. The individual or entity seeking the license must be authorized to do business in the state and be independently owned and operated.
  5. The individual or entity must be a small business.16

Business Experience & Labor Union Representation Needed

The state is also looking for applicants with previous successful business experience and competency, and preference will be given to those who can demonstrate such experience.17

Additionally, the state would like to see that the applicant “has entered into [an] … agreement with a bona-fide labor organization that is actively engaged in representing or attempting to represent the applicant’s employees, and the maintenance of such [an] agreement shall be an ongoing material condition of licensure.18

New York’s Careful Approach

New York has moved slowly and thoughtfully in getting into the recreational cannabis market. Its leaders have studied the experiences of other states, noting complications and pitfalls that have arisen in such states as California, where small cannabis operators have been squeezed out and a large illicit market has grown to dwarf the tax-paying legal sector.

By opening up New York’s initial adult-use licenses to small, social equity applicants and requiring they have solid business experience, New York is hoping to give awardees a foothold in the cannabis market, enabling them to flourish and build strong roots before the onslaught of sophisticated, multi-state cannabis operators enter the fray.

Additional Keys to a Successful Application

New York City
Image: Rodrigo Paredes, Flickr

Beyond fulfilling the ingredients of the social equity applicant “recipe” outlined above, the key to a successful application will come down to the perception it gives the Cannabis Control Board of the applicant’s commitment to the state’s mission. In other words, how committed is the applicant to using his or her license and business to attempt to right some of the social wrongs perpetrated by the state and federal war on cannabis?

In addition to having an owner-applicant from a social equity class, the MRTA gives other clues of steps applicants can take (and discuss in their application) which could put them ahead of the competition in obtaining licensure.

The MRTA suggests the applicant demonstrate that they will “contribute to communities and people disproportionately harmed by enforcement of cannabis laws … and report these contributions to the board.”19

The MRTA asks each applicant to submit documentation of the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of the applicant’s employees and owners. In addition, the MRTA suggests each applicant consult with the CCB’s Chief Equity Officer and Executive Director “to create a social responsibility framework agreement that fosters racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in their workplace.”20

New York is serious about its mission to use the legalization of cannabis to right some of the social wrongs of the past. An applicant’s dedication to this mission, as evidenced by a well-crafted application that emphasizes these values, may be the deciding factor on whether that applicant is rewarded with one of the state’s “Golden Tickets”. With a population of 20.2 million citizens, New York will be the second largest adult use cannabis marketplace behind California. Initial access to such a valuable and important market is worth the commitment of resources to creating not only a well-crafted application, but a well-crafted management team and business as well.


References

  1. New York Consolidated Laws, N.Y. Cannabis Law § 2, added by New York Laws 2021, ch. 92, Sec. 2 (eff. 3/31/2021) [hereinafter, N.Y. Cannabis Law].
  2. Ibid.
  3. N.Y. Cannabis Law § 87(2).
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/09/nyregion/marijuana-sellers-licenses-hochul.html, March 9, 2022
  5. Ibid.
  6. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022.
  7. “Distressed farmer” and “service-disabled veteran” are as defined by N.Y. Cannabis Law §§ 87(5)(e) and (f).
  8. N.Y. Cannabis Law § 87(3).
  9. N.Y. Cannabis Law § 87(7).
  10. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022
  11. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022
  12. https://cannabis.ny.gov/medical-marijuana-program-applications
  13. Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act, § 63-3
  14. See Hodgson Russ LLP, “New York Gov. Pledges $200M to Boost Social Equity Efforts as Part of Adult-Use Cannabis Legislation,” at https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/new-york-gov-pledges-200m-to-boost-9306262 (last accessed Mar. 2, 2022).
  15. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022.
  16. Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act, § 87
  17. Id. at § 97
  18. Id. at § 64
  19. Id. at § 64j
  20. Id. at § 66-2

Registering Trademarks in the Cannabis Space

By Mike R. Turner, Joseph Sherling
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As the legality and availability of hemp and non-hemp cannabis products continues to grow, having strong, recognizable brands will become increasingly important in order to stand out from the competition. Unfortunately, strong brands invite knock-offs and can require aggressive policing. Registering your trademarks makes policing much easier, but registration of marks used to sell hemp and non-hemp cannabis products requires strategy and forethought.

Why Register?

Trademark rights flow from use, so a registration is not required for enforcement. However, “common law” rights based on use alone must be proven in each instance, and you must show that your use of the mark has been sufficient such that consumers recognize and associate it with your goods or services. This can be difficult, expensive and time consuming. Also, common law rights are territorially limited. Even if you can prove such rights in Oregon (for example), you may have no right to prevent use of your mark in other states. State trademark registrations are similarly limited, but are presently all that is available for marks used exclusively to sell non-hemp cannabis products.

By contrast, a federal trademark registration provides the registrant a nationwide, exclusive and presumed right to use the mark in association with the designated goods and services. In addition, counterfeit use of a federally registered trademark can lead to statutory damages. That is, you don’t have to prove an amount of harm—a court may simply award damages based on statute. Yet another benefit is the ability to file based on an “intent to use.” You can thereby reserve a mark nationwide for up to three years before you must show use. Federal registration is available for marks used to sell hemp products, but with some strict limitations as discussed below.

Use in Commerce Requirement

Federal registrations are issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (the Office) once an application is approved and use in commerce is demonstrated. To satisfy the “use in commerce” requirement, an applicant must show that a mark is being used in association with the sale of goods or services that are legal to trade under federal law. Sale of products not legal under federal law simply does not count to establish trademark use for purposes of federal registration. This is where the vast majority of federal trademark applications for use with cannabis products get rejected. A search of the federal registry shows that, of over 8000 trademark applications for products containing cannabis extracts, only about 1,300 have resulted in registrations. But these 1,300 illustrate that there is a path to success.

Allowable Goods

The Office traditionally rejected all applications for use with products containing any cannabis extracts under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, commonly known as the Farm Bill, created an exception to the CSA for hemp, defined therein as cannabis extracts containing < 0.3% THC by dry weight. Based on this, the Office began allowing applications provided they designate only goods having 0.3% THC content or less. But even that limitation isn’t sufficient for some types of goods.

FDAlogoUnless specifically disclaimed, the Office will assume the presence of CBD in products containing cannabis extracts, regardless of THC quantity. On that basis it will reject applications for hemp products that are ingestible (food, drinks, nutritional supplements, etc.), or that claim a medical or therapeutic purpose, under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA). The FDCA requires Federal Drug Administration (FDA) endorsement to add “drugs” to such products, the FDA classifies CBD as a “drug,” and the FDA has authorized only a few products that include CBD. Thus, an allowable good that is ingestible or therapeutic must not only contain the low THC disclaimer, but must also state an absence of CBD. Notably, the Office has not been rejecting products on the basis that they contain CBG (cannabigerol) or other naturally occurring non-THC, non-drug cannabinoids.

Are the Goods Sold Really Allowable?

Of course this scheme of word-smithing designations to obtain allowance of federal trademark registrations invites error, if not fraud. Registrations are subject to cancellation if use of the mark with the designated goods is not maintained, or if it can be shown that the registration was fraudulently obtained. Thus, critical to a claim of use is that the applicant offers products that actually meet the designation description. The Office does not check for THC levels or CBD presence, and most purveyors of hemp products don’t either. Indeed, there is not even a standardized method for measuring these things. However, studies show that more than half of hemp products either purposefully or accidentally misrepresent their actual THC and CBD levels.i Though legally untested, this presents a potential problem for many existing federal registrations.

If a mark registered for use with goods having < 0.3% THC is found to be used only with products that actually have a greater amount of THC in them, the registration could be canceled. The same fate could befall a registration for goods claiming to have no CBD that, when tested, actually do contain more than trace levels. Even if non-hemp cannabis products are legalized under federal level, registrations obtained with THC and/or CBD limitations would still require the registrant to use the mark with products meeting such limitations.

Keeping Evidence for Insurance

So long as a registrant has maintained use of the registered mark “in commerce” in association with the designated goods, the registration is insulated from attack based on claims of non-use or fraud. The fact that the registrant also uses the mark for goods that are not legal on the federal level is of no consequence to the registration. Thus, it is wise to include in the product lineup under the brand to be protected at least some good that meets the present requirements for federal trademark registration.

One option is to include a product where the only cannabis extract is from hemp seed oil. Without even testing it, you can be reasonably assured that such a product will contain little or no CBD or THC. Another option short of testing is to obtain a certification or warrant from your supplier that particular ingredients truly are hemp, i.e., have < 0.3% THC by dry weight. This could be relied on as evidence should no original product be available for testing to show that use was legitimate at the time registration was obtained. If you can’t obtain such a certification, testing the occasional sample and keeping records over time would also work. Product samples can now be tested for THC content for around $100 per sample, with results back in about a week.ii

Zone of Natural Expansion

Though non-hemp cannabis products cannot be covered directly by federal registrations, a federal registration for CBD/hemp products can have spillover benefits. This is because the scope of a registration may expand to cover things similar to what is designated. The question comes down to likelihood of confusion. Imagine a company holds a registration covering LOOVELA for “nutritional supplements containing hemp seed oil having no CBD and < 0.3% THC by dry weight.” It would be logical for a consumer to assume that non-hemp cannabis products sold under the LOOVELA mark would likely be made by the same company. Thus, provided the company actually sold products complying with its designation, it could assert the CBD-based registration to prevent sale of LOOVELA branded non-hemp cannabis products. Also, should such products be legalized federally, the company would likely be the only applicant able to obtain an additional federal registration for LOOVELA for use with them, because any competing attempt would be confused with their pre-existing registration for CBD/hemp products.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the law in this space is evolving rapidly and is nuanced. Every situation is unique in some way, and there are many reasons an application may fail or a registration may be attacked that are not addressed above. But there is value in obtaining a federal registration for your hemp brands, and there is an overall strategy to be employed for brand protection in the cannabis space.


The content above is based on information current at the time of its publication and may not reflect the most recent developments or guidance. Neal Gerber Eisenberg LLP provides this content for general informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship. You should seek advice from professional advisers with respect to your particular circumstances.

References

  1. See, e.g., Bonn-Miller, Marcel O., et al., “Labeling Accuracy of Cannabidiol Extracts Sold Online,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 318, No. 17, pp. 1708-09 (Nov. 7, 2017); Freedman, Daniel A. and Dr. Anup Patel, “Inadequate Regulation Contributes to Mislabeled Online Cannabidiol Products,” Pediatric Neurology Briefs, Vol. 32 at 3 (2018).
  2. See, e.g., www.botanacor.com/potency/

Defining Hemp: Classifications, Policies & Markets, Part 2

By Darwin Millard
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In Part 1 of this series we answered the question: What is “hemp”; and addressed some of the consequences of defining “hemp” as a thing. In Part 2, I will explore this topic in more detail and provide some commonsense definitions for several traditional hemp products based on a classification approach rather than separating “cannabis” from “hemp”.

Classifications, Specifications, and Test Methods – Establishing Market Protections for Hemp Products Through Standardization

Does making a distinction between “hemp” and “cannabis” make it easier to protect the interests of the seed and fiber markets?

On the face of it, this question seems obvious. Yes, it does.

Up to this point in history, the bifurcation of the cannabis plant into resin types and non-resin types has served to provide protections for the seed and fiber markets by making it easier for producers to operate, since the resins (the scary cannabinoids, namely d9-THC) were not involved. Today, however, the line in the sand, has been washed away, and “hemp” no longer only refers to non-resin producing varieties of the cannabis plant.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

As more and more hemp marketplaces come online with varying limits for d9-THC the need for standardization becomes even more pressing. Without standardization, each marketplace will have its own requirements, forcing businesses looking to sell their products in multiple jurisdictions to comply with each region’s mandates and adds a significant level of burden to their operations.

Providing an internationally harmonized definition for hemp is an important first step but allowing the d9-THC limit to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction has some unintended (or intended) consequences (#NewReeferMadness). These discrepancies between legal marketplaces will inevitably lead to the establishment of global trade regions; where, if your product cannot meet the definition of “hemp” in that region, then you could effectively be barred from participating in it.

A process which has already started. Harmonizing around 0.3% is great for the US, Canada, and European Union, but what about other stakeholders outside of these markets?

And, at what point does the conflict of hemp from one region with a d9-THC content of 0.3% and hemp from another region with a d9-THC content of 1% being sold into the same market become a problem?

Perhaps a better long-term solution for protecting the market interests of “hemp product” stakeholders would be to establish specifications, such as identity metrics, total cannabinoid content, especially d9-THC, and other quality attributes which have to be verified using test methods for a product to be classified as “hemp”. This system of standards (classifications, specifications, and test methods) would allow for more innovation and make it significantly easier for cannabis raw materials that meet these specifications to find a use rather than being sent to the landfill. Bolstering advancements and opening the door for more market acceptance of the cannabis plant, its parts, and products.

An Alternative Approach to Defining Hemp

Below are some proposed definitions related to common terminology used in the hemp marketplace based on the concept that there are no hemp plants, there are only cannabis plants that can be classified as hemp, and hemp products are simply cannabis products that meet certain specifications to allow them to be classified and represented as hemp.

  • Hemp, n—commercial name given to a cannabis plant, its parts, and products derived therefrom with a total d9-THC content no more than the maximum allowable limit for the item in question. (Maybe not the best definition, but it makes it clear that not only does the limit for d9-THC vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction it varies from product type to product type as well.)
  • Hemp flower, n—commercial name for the inflorescence of a cannabis plant that can be classified as hemp.
  • Hemp seed, n—commercial name for the seeds of a cannabis plant which are intended to be used to grow another cannabis plant that can be classified as hemp.
  • Hempseed, n—commercial name for the seeds of a cannabis plant which are intended to be used as food or as an ingredient in food.
  • Hemp seed oil, n—commercial name for the oils expressed from the seeds of a cannabis plant.
  • Hemp seed cake, n—commercial name for the solid material byproduct generated during the expression of the oil from the seeds of a cannabis plant.
  • Hemp flour/meal/dietary-fiber, n—commercial name for the powdered seed cake of a cannabis plant intended to be used as a food or as an ingredient in food with a protein content no more than 35% by weight.
  • Hemp protein powder, n—commercial name for the powdered seed cake of a cannabis plant intended to be used as a food or as an ingredient in food with a protein content between 35% and 80% by weight.
  • Hemp protein isolate, n—commercial name for the powdered seed cake of a cannabis plant intended to be used as a food or as an ingredient in food with a protein content above 80% by weight.
  • Hemp fiber, n—commercial name for the cellulosic-based natural fibers of a cannabis plant.
  • Hemp shives, n—commercial name for the hurd of a cannabis plant which have been processed to defined specifications.
  • Hempcrete, n—commercial name for a solid amalgamation of various aggregates and binders, typically comprised of the hurd (shives) of a cannabis plant and lime.

The d9-THC limits for each product were purposefully omitted because these specifications still need to be defined for each product type. Leaving the d9-THC limit up to each authority having jurisdiction, however, is not the answer. It is fine if you comply with a lower d9-THC limit and want to sell into a market with a higher d9-THC limit, but what do you do if you are above the limit for the market you want to sell into? For now, you lose out on potential revenue.

Hemp-derived CBD extract

I am not advocating that everyone starts selling “hemp” as “cannabis,” or vice versa, far from it. I am advocating for a more commonsense and inclusive approach to the marketplace though. One that would allow for the commercialization of materials that would normally be going to waste.

To me it is simply logical. There are no hemp plants, there are only cannabis plants that can be classified as hemp. There are no hemp products, there are only cannabis products that can be classified as hemp. In order for a cannabis product to be marketed, labeled, and sold as a hemp product, i.e. to be classified as a hemp, it would need to meet a set of specifications and be verified using a set of test methods first. But fundamentally the product would be a cannabis product being certified as “hemp”. And that is the shift in thinking that I am trying to get across.

Exclusionary Actions – Disenfranchising Stakeholders

The cannabis plant is an amazing plant and to fully capitalize on the potential of this crop we have to start allowing for the commercialization of cannabis raw materials that are not controlled by the UN Single Conventions, i.e. the seeds, stalks, roots, and leaves when not accompanied by the fruiting tops or the resin glands. Not to do so disenfranchises a significant number of stakeholders from participating in established legal avenues of trade for these goods. A concept proposed and endorsed the ASTM D37 in the published standard D8245-19: Guide for Disposal of Resin-Containing Cannabis Raw Materials and Downstream Products.

If you are stakeholder in the hemp marketplace, you may feel threatened by the idea of the market getting flooded with material, but how are the demands of the so called “green economy” going to be met without access to more supply? Organic hemp seed for food production is scarce but there is plenty of conventional hemp seed for the current demand, but what happens when hempmilk is positioned to displace soymilk in every major grocery store? To feed the growth of the human population and allow for a transition to a truly “green economy,” we need to ensure that the policies that we are putting in place are not excluding those looking to participate in the industry and disenfranchising stakeholders from burgeoning marketplaces, nor alienating a segment of the marketplace simply because their plant cannot be classified as “hemp”.

Until next time…

Live long and process.

Defining Hemp: Classifications, Policies & Markets, Part 1

By Darwin Millard
2 Comments

What is “hemp”?

The word “hemp” has many meanings. Historically the term has been used as the common name for the Cannabis sativa L. plant. Just like other plants, the cannabis plant has two names, a common name, hemp, and a scientific name, Cannabis sativa L. After the ratification of the UN Single Conventions on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, in 1961 and 1972 respectively, the term started to be used to distinguish between resin producing varieties of the cannabis plant and non-resin producing varieties of the cannabis plant. Nowadays the term is generally used to refer to cannabis plants with a delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (d9-THC), a controlled substance, content equal to or less than the maximum allowable limit defined by each marketplace.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), just one of hundreds of cannabinoids found in cannabis.

In the United States and Canada, the limit is defined as 0.3% on a dry weight bases, and until November 2020, in the European Union, the limit was defined as 0.2%. After years of effort the “hemp” industry in Europe was successfully able to get the limit raised to 0.3% to be in line with the United States and Canada – creating the largest global trade region for hemp products. But there exist several marketplaces around the world where, either through the consequences of geographic location or more progressive regulations, the d9-THC content in the plant can be substantially higher than 0.3% and still considered “hemp” by the local authority.

To address these variances, ASTM International’s Technical Committee D37 on Cannabis has been working on a harmonized definition of hemp, or industrial hemp, depending on the authority having jurisdiction, through the efforts of its Subcommittee D37.07 on Industrial Hemp. The following is a proposed working definition:

hemp, n—a Cannabis sativa L. plant, or any part of that plant, in which the concentration of total delta-9 THC in the fruiting tops is equal to or less than the regulated maximum level as established by an authority having jurisdiction.

Discussion: The term “Industrial Hemp” is synonymous with “Hemp”.

Note: Total delta-9 THC is calculated as Δ⁹-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9 THC) + (0.877 x Δ⁹-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid).

This definition goes a long way to harmonize the various definitions of hemp from around the world, but it also defines “hemp” as a thing rather than as a classification for a type of cannabis plant or cannabis product. This is a concept rooted in the regulatory consequences of the UN Single Conventions, and one I strongly disagree with.

The definition also leaves the total d9-THC limit open-ended rather than establishing a specified limit. An issue I will address further in this series.

Can “hemp products” only come from “hemp plants”?

If you are an invested stakeholder in the traditional “hemp” marketplace, you would say, yes.

But are there such things as “hemp plants” or are there only cannabis plants that can be classified as “hemp”? (The definition for hemp clearly states that it is a cannabis plant…)

A field of hemp plants, (Cannabis sativa L.)

There is no distinction between the cannabinoids, seeds, and fibers derived from a cannabis plant that can be classified as “hemp” and those derived from a cannabis plant that cannot. The only difference is the word: “cannabis,” and the slew of negative connotations that come along with it. (Negative connotations that continue to be propagated subconsciously, or consciously, whenever someone says the “hemp plant” has 50,000+ uses, and counting, and will save the world because it’s so green and awesome, but not the “cannabis plant”, no that’s evil and bad, stay away! #NewReeferMadness)

The declaration that “hemp products” only come from “hemp plants” has some major implications. “Hemp seeds” can only come from “hemp plants”. “Hemp seed oils” can only come from “hemp seeds”. “Hemp fibers” can only come from “hemp plants”. Etc.

What does that really mean? What are the real-world impacts of this line of thinking?

Flat out it means that if you are growing a cannabis plant with a d9-THC content above the limit for that plant or its parts to be classified as “hemp”, then the entire crop is subjected to the same rules as d9-THC itself and considered a controlled substance. This means that literal tons of usable material with no resin content whatsoever are destroyed annually rather than being utilized in a commercial application simply because a part or parts of the plant they came from did not meet the d9-THC limit.

Some of the many products on the market today derived from hemp

It is well known that d9-THC content is concentrated in the glandular trichomes (resin glands) which are themselves concentrated to the fruiting tops of the plant. Once the leaves, seeds, stalks, stems, roots, etc. have been separated from the fruiting tops and/or the resin glands, then as long as these materials meet the authority having jurisdiction’s specifications for “hemp” there should be no reason why these materials could not be marketed and sold as “hemp”.

There are several reasons why a classification approach to “hemp plants” and “hemp products” makes more long-term sense than a bifurcation of the “cannabis” and “hemp” marketplaces, namely from a sustainability aspect, but also to aid in eliminating the frankly unwarranted stigma associated with the cannabis plant. #NewReeferMadness

That said, say you are a producer making shives from the stalks of cannabis plants that can be classified as “hemp” and then all of a sudden, the market opens up and tons of material from cannabis plants that cannot be classified as “hemp,” that was being sent to the landfill, become available for making shives. Would you be happy about this development? Or would you fight tooth and nail to prevent it from happening?

In this segment, we looked at the history of the term “hemp” and some of the consequences from drawing a line in the sand between “cannabis” and “hemp”. I dive deeper into this topic and provide some commonsense definitions for several traditional hemp products in Part 2 of Defining Hemp: Classifications, Policies & Markets.

First in the South – Virginia’s Legalization Focuses on Public Safety, Health and Social Justice

By Gregory S. Kaufman, Jessica R. Rodgers
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With the signing of the Cannabis Control Act (the Act) on April 21, 2021, Virginia became the first southern state to legalize adult use cannabis and just the fourth state to do so through the legislature. Legalizing adult use cannabis through the legislature, as opposed to through the ballot box, is not the typical route states have followed up to now. Eleven of the sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use cannabis through the use of ballot measures. Virginia joins Vermont, Illinois, New York and New Mexico (which legalized after Virginia) as one of the few states that have gone the legislative route. Under Governor Northam’s administration, the path to legalization was swift, taking less than four months from introduction to passage.

Governor Northam added amendments to the already passed Senate Bill 1406 and the General Assembly voted to approve those amendments, with the Lieutenant Governor breaking the tie in the Senate’s vote. Upon signing, Governor Northam called the law a step towards “building a more equitable and just Virginia and reforming our criminal justice system to make it more fair.” This message and the opportunities to promote social equity through a legal cannabis industry have been consistent points of advocacy made by supporters as the bill advanced to becoming law.

Prior to the Governor’s amendments, the Act under consideration set July 1, 2024 as the date on which both legal possession and adult use sales would begin. The Governor decided to accelerate the date for legal possession to July 1 of this year, a decision believed to have been influenced by data showing that Black Virginians were more than three times as likely to be cited for possession, even after simple possession was decriminalized in the state a year prior. The regulated adult use market is still set to begin making sales on July 1, 2024; however, it remains possible that this date could be advanced through the legislature in the meantime. Nevertheless, Virginia is on track to becoming the first southern state with an operating regulated commercial cannabis market.

Creating an Administrative Structure for the Adult Use Program

Virginia became the first state in the South to legalize adult use cannabis

This sweeping fifty-page law creates the Cannabis Control Authority to regulate the cultivation, manufacture, wholesale and retail sale of cannabis and cannabis product. The Act further lays the groundwork for licensing market participants and regulating appropriate use of cannabis; defining local control; testing, labeling, packaging and advertising of cannabis and cannabis products; and taxation. The Act also contains changes to the criminal laws of the Commonwealth. Companion to the Act are new laws addressing the testing, labeling and packaging of smokable hemp products and manufacturing of edible cannabis products. Additionally, the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board was created to address the impact of economic divestment, violence and criminal justice responses to community and individual needs through scholarships and grants.

While persons 21 years or older may possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use per household beginning on July 1, 2021, there are a host of regulations to be written in order to regulate the adult use market. These regulations will be the devil in the details of how the regulated market will work. Regardless, the Cannabis Control Act does establish the framework for adult use cannabis that is unique to Virginia and designed to promote and encourage participation from people and communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition and enforcement.

The Cannabis Control Authority (CCA) will consist of a Board of Directors, the Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council, the Chief Executive Officer and employees. The Board will have five members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the legislature, each with the possibility of serving two consecutive five-year terms. The Board is tasked with creating and enforcing regulations under which retail cannabis and cannabis products are possessed, sold, transported, distributed, and delivered. It is expected that the Board will begin discussing regulations next year and that applications for licenses for cannabis cultivation facilities, manufacturing facilities, cannabis testing facilities, wholesalers, and retail stores will begin to be accepted in 2023. Importantly, a Business Equity and Diversity Support Team, led by a Social Equity Liaison, and the Equity Reinvestment Board, led by the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, are to contribute to a plan to promote and encourage participation in the industry by people from disproportionately impacted communities.

Regulating Participation in the Market

The Act empowers the Board to establish a robust and diverse marketplace with many entry opportunities for market participants. Up to 450 cultivation licenses, 60 manufacturing licenses for the production of retail cannabis products, 25 wholesaler licenses and 400 licenses for retail stores can be granted. These numbers do not include the four permits granted to pharmaceutical processors (entities that cultivate and dispense medical cannabis) under the Commonwealth’s medical program.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam
Image: Craig, Flickr

In addition to the sheer number of licenses that can be granted, the Act devises a unique approach to addressing concerns of a concentration of licenses in too few hands and a market dominated by large multi-state operators. At the same time, it sets up a mechanism to capitalize two cannabis equity funds intended to benefit persons, families and communities historically and disproportionately targeted and affected by drug enforcement through grants, scholarships and loans. Over-concentration and market dominance concerns are addressed by limiting a person to holding an equity interest in no more than one cultivation, manufacturing, wholesaler, retail or testing facility license. This eliminates the ability of companies to be vertically integrated from cultivation through retail sales operations. However, there are two exceptions to the impediment to vertical integration. First, the Board is authorized to develop regulations that permit small businesses to be vertically integrated and ensure that all licensees have an equal and meaningful opportunity to participate in the market. These regulations will be closely scrutinized by those looking to enter Virginia’s regulated market once they are proposed. Qualifying small businesses could benefit substantially from the economic advantages commensurate with being vertically integrated, assuming they have the access to the capital needed to achieve integration and operate successfully. The second exception allows permitted pharmaceutical processors and registered industrial hemp processors to hold multiple licenses if they pay $1 million to the Board (to be allocated to job training, the equity loan fund or equity reinvestment fund) and submit a diversity, equity and inclusion plan for approval and implementation. Consequently, Virginia is attempting to fund, in part, its ambitious social equity programs by monetizing the opportunity for these processors to participate vertically in the adult use market.

Those devilish details of how this market will function, and how onerous compliance obligations will be, will emanate from those yet to be proposed regulations covering many areas and subject matters including:

  • Outdoor cultivation by cultivation facilities;
  • Security requirements;
  • Sanitary standards;
  • A testing program;
  • An application process;
  • Packaging and labeling requirements;
  • Maximum THC level for retail products (not to exceed 5 mg per serving or 50 mg per package for edible products);
  • Record retention requirements;
  • Criteria for evaluating social equity license applications based on certain ownership standards;
  • Licensing preferences for qualified social equity applicants;
  • Low interest loan program standards;
  • Personal cultivation guidelines; and
  • Outdoor advertising restrictions.

Needless to say, the CCA Board has a lot work ahead in order to issue reasonable regulations that will carry out the dictates in the Act and encourage the development of a well-functioning marketplace delivering meaningful social equity opportunities.

Much work needs to be done before July 1, 2024 to prepare for its debutThe application process for the five categories of licenses will be developed by the Board, along with application fee and annual license fee amounts. It is not clear how substantial these fees will be and what effect they will have on the ability of less-well-capitalized companies and individuals to compete in the market. The Act dictates that licenses are deemed nontransferable from person to person or location to location. However, it is not entirely clear that changes in ownership will be prohibited. The Act contemplates that changes in ownership will be permitted, at least as to retail store licensees, through a reapplication process. Perhaps the forthcoming regulations will add clarity to the transferability of licenses and address the use of management services agreements as a potential workaround to the limitations in license ownership.

Certain requirements particular to certain license-types are worthy of highlighting. For example, there are two classes of cultivation licenses. Class A cultivation licenses authorize cultivation of a certain number of plants within a certain number of square feet to be determined by the Board. Interestingly, Class B licenses are for cultivation of low total THC (no more than 1%) cannabis. Several requirements specific to retail stores are noteworthy. Stores cannot exceed 1,500 square feet, or make sales through drive-through windows, internet-based sales platforms or delivery services. Prohibitive local ordinances are not allowed; however, localities can petition for a referendum on the question of whether retail stores should be prohibited in their locality. Retail stores are allowed to sell immature plants and seek to support the home growers, an allowance that is fairly unique among the existing legal adult-use states.

Taxing Cannabis Sales

Given the perception that regulated cannabis markets add to state coffers, it is little surprise that Virginia’s retail market will be subject to significant taxes. The taxing system is straightforward and not complicated by a taxing regime related to product weight or THC content, for example. There is a 21% tax on retail sales by stores, in addition to the current sales tax rates. In addition, localities may, by ordinance, impose a 3% tax on retail sales. These taxes could result in a retail tax of approximately 30%.

Changes to Criminal Laws

Changes to the criminality of cannabis will have long lasting effects for many Virginians. These changes include:

  • Fines of no more than $25 and participation in substance abuse or education programs for illegal purchases by juveniles or persons 18 years or older;
  • Prohibition of warrantless searches based solely on the odor of cannabis;
  • Automatic expungement of records for certain former cannabis offenses;
  • Prohibition of “gifting” cannabis in exchange for nominal purchases of some other product;
  • Prohibition of consuming cannabis or cannabis products in public; and
  • Prohibition of consumption by drivers or passengers in a motor vehicle being driven, with consumption being presumed if cannabis in the passenger compartment is not in the original sealed manufacturer’s container.

These changes, and others, represent a balancing of public safety with lessons learned from the effects of the war on drugs.

Potpourri

The Act contains myriad other noteworthy provisions. For example, the Board must develop, implement and maintain a seed-to-sale tracking system for the industry. Plants being grown at home must be tagged with the grower’s name and driver’s license or state ID number. Licenses may be stripped from businesses that do not remain neutral while workers attempt to unionize. However, this provision will not become effective unless approved again by the legislature next year. Banks and credit unions are protected under state law for providing financial services to licensed businesses or for investing any income derived from the providing of such services. This provision is intended to address the lack of access to banking for cannabis businesses due to the federal illegality of cannabis by removing any perceived state law barriers for banks and credit unions to do business with licensed cannabis companies.

The adult use cannabis industry is coming to Virginia. Much work needs to be done before July 1, 2024 to prepare for its debut. However, the criminal justice reforms and commitment to repairing harms related to past prohibition of cannabis are soon to be a present-day reality. Virginia is the first Southern state to take the path towards legal adult use cannabis. It is unlikely to be the last.