In September of 2019, Charles Wilcoxen fell seriously ill after vaping cannabis oil from a cartridge. Just days after he began experiencing symptoms he was hospitalized and later diagnosed with lipoid pneumonia, the mysterious lung illness now known as EVALI associated with the 2019 vape crisis.
Wilcoxen spent three days in the hospital and ever since he was diagnosed, he has been unable to exercise, return to work full time or even play with his daughter. Attorneys for Herrmann Law Group representing Wilcoxen filed a product liability lawsuit, Wilcoxen v. Canna Brand Solutions, LLC, et al., in Washington State Court, naming six cannabis companies as defendants: Canna Brand Solutions, Conscious Cannabis, Rainbow’s Aloft, Leafwerx, MFused and Janes Garden.
Canna Brand Solutions, the primary defendant named in the complaint, is a packaging supplier and distributor for CCELL vaping products (heating elements, pens and batteries) in the state of Washington. The complaint alleges that Wilcoxen believes he used a CCELL vape. CCELL is a Chinese company, which makes it notoriously difficult to pursue legal action against them, hence why Canna Brand Solutions was listed as a defendant instead.
On August 31, 2020, Judge Michael Schwartz dismissed all claims against Canna Brand Solutions. “All claims asserted by Plaintiff against Canna Brand in the above-mentioned matter shall be voluntarily dismissed without prejudice and without costs or fees to any of the parties to this litigation,” Judge Schwartz says in the dismissal. Judge Schwartz dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning it could be brought to the court again should the plaintiff’s attorneys decide to do so.
With the allegations against Canna Brand Solutions focusing on CCELL products, it seems that the case was dismissed largely due to a lack of evidence connecting exactly which product resulted in the illness, as well as the lack of culpability for a distributor of products they did not manufacture.
Daniel Allen, founder and president of Canna Brands Solutions, claims that the product mentioned in the complaint did not come from his company. “We stand by our high quality and customizable CCELL vaporization products,” says Allen. “We feel vindicated in this case by the judge’s decision, which shows the claims against our company and products were completely unfounded from the beginning.”
He also added that the quality and safety of the products they distribute is their highest priority. “The product in question involved in this case did not come from Canna Brand Solutions,” says Allen.
Wilcoxen’s illness and subsequent long-term lung injury is extremely unfortunate. Thousands of people have been hospitalized and 68 deaths have been confirmed by the CDC. The CDC is still calling the illness EVALI (e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury). According to the CDC, there is no real known cause of EVALI, but they have found that vitamin E acetate is “strongly linked” to the outbreak. Knowing that, it is entirely possible that Mr. Wilcoxen’s illness was a result of one of the cannabis products he consumed, just most likely not anything that came from Canna Brand Solutions. A closer look at the contents with an independent lab test of the THC oil he consumed could shed some more light on what exactly caused the illness.
I would venture to guess that one of the products he consumed did have vitamin E acetate. Because the case was dismissed without prejudice, it could be brought to the court again if, say, Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys were to obtain more evidence, such as an independent lab report showing vitamin E acetate in the contents of one of the products he consumed. If Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys can figure out which product actually contained vitamin E acetate, perhaps the lawsuit could get a second shot and Mr. Wilcoxen could have a greater chance at getting some long-overdue and much-deserved restitution.
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.”
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.
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.
By David J. Apfel, Nilda M. Isidro, Brendan Radke, Emily Notini, Zoe Bellars No Comments
Consumer demand for products containing cannabidiol (CBD) is on the rise across the country, with industry experts estimating that the market for CBD products will reach $20 billion by 2024. This boom in consumer demand has outpaced the regulatory framework surrounding these products. While the 2018 Farm Bill decriminalized hemp, it left much up to individual states and preserved the FDA’s jurisdiction over dietary supplements, foods and cosmetics. The FDA has not yet issued any specific rulemaking for CBD products.
Against this background, it is not surprising that consumer class actions regarding hemp-derived CBD products are flourishing. Over the past year alone, the plaintiffs’ bar has filed approximately twenty putative class action lawsuits against manufacturers of hemp-derived CBD products. The cases are primarily in federal court in California and Florida, with additional cases in Illinois and Massachusetts. Plaintiffs challenge the marketing and advertising of a variety of CBD products, including oils, gummies, capsules, creams, pet products and more.
The cases so far follow a familiar pattern seen in prior consumer class actions, especially in the food and beverage industry. Read on to learn what plaintiffs have claimed in the CBD lawsuits, how companies are defending their products, and how best to position your hemp-derived CBD products in light of lessons learned from past litigation.
What These Lawsuits Are Claiming, and How Companies Are Defending Their Products
In most of the recent CBD lawsuits, plaintiffs claim either that: 1) product labels over- or understate the amount of CBD in the products; and/or 2) the sale of CBD products is inherently misleading to consumers because the products are purportedly illegal under federal law. Regardless of which theory underlies the claims, plaintiffs typically frame their claims as consumer fraud, false advertising, breach of warranty, unjust enrichment, and/or deceptive trade practices.
In most cases, defendants have filed motions to dismiss seeking to have the cases thrown out. In these motions, defendants argue that plaintiffs’ claims are “preempted” by the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), and that only the federal government can enforce the FDCA. Some defendants have additionally argued that if the court is not prepared to dismiss the claims as preempted, the doctrine of “primary jurisdiction” applies. This means that the issues raised regarding CBD are for the FDA to decide, and the cases should be stayed until the FDA finalizes and issues rules on products containing hemp-derived CBD. Many defendants have also advanced dismissal arguments for lack of standing, claiming that the individuals bringing the lawsuits are trying to sue for conduct that never harmed them personally (e.g., because they never purchased a particular product), or will not harm them in the future (e.g., because plaintiffs have stated they will not buy the product again). The standing arguments often apply to particular claims or products within the lawsuit, rather than to the lawsuit as a whole.
Current Status of the Cases
Of the approximately twenty consumer class actions filed over the last year, about half remain pending:
Five have been stayed pursuant to motions filed by defendants;
Two have motions to dismiss pending;
One has a pending motion to vacate a default judgment against defendants;
One was filed earlier this month, and defendant’s deadline to respond has not yet elapsed.
To date, none of the cases (currently pending or otherwise) has proceeded to discovery, and no class has yet been certified. That means that no court has yet determined that these cases are appropriate to bring as class action lawsuits, rather than as separate claims on behalf of each individual member of the putative class. This is significant, because plaintiffs’ ability to achieve class certification will likely influence whether these CBD lawsuits will continue to be filed. Consumer fraud cases like these typically do not claim any physical injury, and the monetary damages per individual plaintiff are relatively low. As such, the cases often are not worth pursuing if they cannot proceed as class actions.
Of the cases that are no longer pending, all but two were voluntarily dismissed by plaintiffs. While the motivation behind these dismissals is not always announced, approximately half of the voluntary dismissals came after defendants filed a motion to dismiss, but before the court had ruled on it. One Florida case was mediated and settled after the court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss.1 A California court spontaneously dismissed one matter (without the defendant having filed any motion) due to a procedural defect in the complaint, which plaintiffs failed to correct by the court-imposed deadline.2
Early Outcomes on Motions to Dismiss
Of the thirteen motions to dismiss filed to date, only five have been decided. So far:
No court has dismissed a case based on federal preemption grounds. Courts have either deferred ruling on preemption, or denied it without prejudice to re-raising it at a later time.
Four courts have stayed cases based on primary jurisdiction.3
Only one court has denied the primary jurisdiction argument.4
Standing arguments have been successful in three cases,5 and deferred or denied without prejudice to later re-raising in the other two cases.6 However, the standing arguments applied only to certain products/claims, and were not dispositive of all claims in any case.
These rulings show a clear trend towards staying the cases pursuant to primary jurisdiction. In granting these stays, courts have noted that regulatory oversight of CBD ingestible products, including labeling, is currently the subject of FDA rulemaking, and that FDA is “under considerable pressure from Congress” to expedite the publication of regulations and guidance.7
Plaintiffs may be recognizing the trend towards primary jurisdiction as well, since there is now at least one case where plaintiffs agreed to a stay after defendant filed a motion to dismiss asserting, among other things, primary jurisdiction.8 But some plaintiffs are still resisting. For example, in the first case to have been stayed plaintiffs have since filed a motion to lift the stay. The motion—which was filed after the case was reassigned to a different judge—argues that primary jurisdiction does not apply, and that the FDA’s recent report to Congress suggests no CBD-specific rulemaking is forthcoming.9 The motion is pending.
Lessons Learned From Food Industry Consumer Class Actions
The motions to dismiss that have been filed to date in CBD-related class actions follow a tried and true playbook that has been developed by defense counsel in other food and beverage industry class actions. For example, the primary jurisdiction arguments that have been gaining traction in the CBD consumer class actions are very similar to primary jurisdiction arguments that were successful years earlier in cases involving the term “natural” and other food labeling matters.10
Similarly, the standing arguments that have succeeded in the early motions to dismiss CBD consumer class actions followed similar standing arguments made years earlier in food and beverage class actions.11
The preemption arguments that have largely been deferred in CBD consumer class actions to date could become a powerful argument if and when the FDA completes its CBD rulemaking. The preemption defense has been particularly effective when the preemption arguments focus on state law claims that require defendants to omit or add language to their federally approved or mandated product labeling, or where plaintiffs otherwise seek to require something different from what federal standards mandate.12 These arguments could be particularly compelling once the FDA issues its long-anticipated rulemaking with respect to CBD products.
Until then, primary jurisdiction will likely continue to gain traction. The FDA’s comprehensive regulatory scheme over food, dietary supplement, drug, and cosmetic products, combined with the FDA’s frequently-expressed intention to issue rulemaking with respect to CBD-products, and a need for national uniformity in how such rulemaking will interface with state requirements, converge to make primary jurisdiction especially appropriate for CBD-related class actions.13
How to Best Position Your Products
Until the FDA issues its long-awaited rulemaking regarding CBD products, companies can take the following steps to best position their products to avoid litigation and/or succeed in the event litigation arises:
Work with reputable labs to ensure the amount of CBD stated on product labeling and advertising is accurate;
Ensure that the product is manufactured according to appropriate current Good Manufacturing Processes (cGMPs);
Ensure that any claims made on product labeling and/or in advertising are consistent with FDCA requirements and applicable FDA guidance to date – for example, if the product is a dietary supplement, avoid making express or implied claims that it can cure or prevent disease;
Maintain a file with appropriate substantiation to support any claims stated in product labeling and advertising;
Work with legal counsel to stay abreast of developments in federal and state laws applicable to hemp-derived CBD products, and how any changes might impact potential class action defenses; and
If a lawsuit arises, work with legal counsel to develop a strategy that not only resolves the current litigation as efficiently as possible, but also positions the company strategically for any future consumer claims that may arise.
Final Mediation Report, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. July 30, 2020).
Court Order, Davis v. Redwood Wellness, LLC, 2:20-cv-03273-PA-JEM (C.D. Cal. Apr. 10, 2020).
Electronic Order, Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, 1:19-cv-12005-ADB (D. Mass. Aug, 11, 2020); Memorandum and Order, Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, 2:19-cv-01906-MCE-KJN (E.D. Cal. June 15, 2020); Order Granting in Part Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and Staying Remaining Causes of Action, Colette et al. v. CV Sciences Inc., 2:19-cv-10227-VAP-JEM (C.D. Cal. May 22, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
Order on Motion to Dismiss, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020).
Order Granting in Part Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and Staying Remaining Causes of Action, Colette et al. v. CV Sciences Inc., 2:19-cv-10227-VAP-JEM (C.D. Cal. May 22, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
Electronic Order, Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, 1:19-cv-12005-ADB (D. Mass. Aug, 11, 2020); Memorandum and Order, Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, 2:19-cv-01906-MCE-KJN (E.D. Cal. June 15, 2020).
Order on Motion to Dismiss at 12, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
Minute Entry, Pfister v. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, Inc., 1:20-cv-00418 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 11, 2020).
Plaintiff’s Motion to Lift Stay, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. July 13, 2020).
See, e.g., Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012), rev’d on other grounds, 783 F.3d 753 (9th Cir. 2015); Taradejna v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 909 F. Supp. 2d 1128 (D. Minn. 2012).
See Miller v. Ghirardelli, 912 F. Supp. 2d 861, 869 (N.D. Cal. 2012) (holding that the named plaintiff lacked standing where the products purchased by the putative class members were not “substantially similar” enough to those purchased by the named plaintiff); Colucci v. ZonePerfect Nutrition Co., No. 12-2907-SC, 2012 WL 6737800 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 28, 2012) (finding one of two named plaintiffs lacked standing because, even though the other named plaintiff (his fiancée) purchased the nutrition bars for him, he himself did not purchase any of the bars); Veal v. Citrus World, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-801-IPJ, 2013 WL 120761 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 8, 2013); Robinson v. Hornell Brewing Co., No. 11-2183 (JBS-JS), 2012 WL 6213777 (D.N.J. Dec. 13, 2012) (holding that there was no Article III standing because the named plaintiff had testified and stated in written discovery that he would not purchase the product in the future).
See, e.g., Turek v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 662 F.3d 423 (7th Cir. 2011); Lam v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 859 F. Supp. 2d 1097 (N.D. Cal. 2012); Veal v. Citrus World, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-801-IPJ, 2013 WL 120761, at *9-10 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 8, 2013).
See, e.g., Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012), rev’d on other grounds, 783 F.3d 753 (9th Cir. 2015); Taradejna v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 909 F. Supp. 2d 1128 (D. Minn. 2012).
Even though it’s valued at more than $15 billion, the burgeoning global cannabis industry has experienced recent layoffs. By the end of 2019, more than 600 cannabis employees got pink slips. Industry experts expect more of the same in 2020 as investigations, lawsuits and slumping valuations plague the industry.
Unfortunately for employers, layoffs are where the issues begin – not end. Especially for those without established policies and procedures. Without rules and regulations governing employment practices, business owners and operators are at considerable risk.
The 11 states where cannabis is legal for recreational use and the 33 where it’s medically legal tend to have more onerous employment practices liability (EPL) laws, where liability is often assumed by the employer for mistakes like poorly handled layoffs. This is further compounded by the fact that HR departments at fledgling cannabis companies tend to be small or non-existent and often ill prepared to deal with the legalities that come with termination.
Ensuring the right practices are in place prior to any layoffs is critical. Is your company facing employee terminations? Are you knowledgeable of how to handle it? Consider the following best practices:
Document problematic employees. Create a folder for each employee and document the details when problematic situations escalate to the point they need to be addressed. Should employees of a protected class engage in an EEOC, class action or personal lawsuit after they’re terminated, you’ll need this documentation to support your actions.
Create a formal termination procedure. Make sure the procedure includes well-thought-out details of your review process, including how employee performance is evaluated and what happens when those standards aren’t met. Spell out which behaviors are grounds for dismissal. When talking to the employee about a termination, have another employee or manager in the room to avoid claims of mishandling later on, typically their direct manager, someone from HR or your in-house attorney. Determine how the distribution of final compensation such as medical insurance or PTO will be handled so you’re prepared to answer those questions. These procedures should be spelled out in an employee handbook given to all at onboarding so there are no surprises.
Retain a qualified EPL attorney. Create a relationship with a qualified EPL attorney (not your cousin who does divorce law) to help you set policies and procedures initially and to consult with when a unique or particularly difficult situation arises.
Get the right EPL coverage. An EPL policy will defend a business from claims of breach of employment contraction, negligent evaluation, failure to employ or promote, wrongful termination, deprivation of career opportunity and mismanagement of employee benefits plans. Your EPL coverage will be determined by your location, clientele, employee profile and what you see as your biggest risks. When discussing the policy with your broker, weigh the following considerations to EPL coverage:
Reimbursement coverage versus pay on behalf. Should the policy pay your defense costs directly, or will you lay out the money and they’ll reimburse?
The definition of a claim and wrongful act will be different for each EPL policy.
EPL policy’s limit structure. Do you want defense limits to be outside or inside the coverage?
Having to lay off employees is never an easy choice for an employer. Make sure you and your business do everything right before and during the process so that the aftermath isn’t even more difficult, filled with lawsuits and liability claims.
By Aaron L. Hammer, David S. Ruskin, Nathan E. Delman No Comments
Two thirds of all states and the District of Columbia have, to varying degrees, legalized cannabis. With the recent addition of Illinois, eleven states now allow adult recreational use. But cannabis entrepreneurs’ rush of excitement and dreams of cashing in is met with fierce competition and economic risks that makes the dreams, which look so dank at first, end up going dark, or in other words, out of business.
This article discusses the available options for a cannabis business that finds itself on hard times and in need of reorganizing its debts or liquidating altogether. With the federal status of cannabis remaining illegal, cannabis businesses must clear significant hurdles to achieve success. Among the many other pitfalls traditional business owners experience, a cannabis business must navigate limited access to financial institutions and its related security concerns of keeping large amounts of cash on location. Also, they cannot deduct ordinary and necessary business expenses for federal income tax purposes. Turning a profit in legal cannabis can be a big challenge.
The first thought for a business facing insolvency is bankruptcy. However, bankruptcy courts have not been welcoming to cannabis businesses. Bankruptcy courts are courts of federal jurisdiction, and the federal government is represented by the United States Trustee Program (UST), which is the division of the Department of Justice responsible for oversight of Bankruptcy Courts. Since cannabis remains illegal under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) as a Schedule I controlled substance, it is unsurprising that the UST creates roadblocks for those seeking relief. In fact, the UST currently and steadfastly seeks dismissal of cases against cannabis businesses, cannabis employees and landlords of cannabis businesses.
But all hope is not lost. First, a change at the head of the DOJ could have a significant effect on how these cases are handled, even without a reclassification of cannabis. Second, recent caselaw shows a willingness by the courts to forge a path allowing cannabis cases to survive. Finally, if federal bankruptcy protection is not an option, other state remedies may be available to unsuccessful cannabis ventures.
The UST’s prosecutorial discretion has a strong influence in how a bankruptcy case can develop. While still very difficult to predict, a compelling analogy for cannabis cases can be seen in how the UST dealt with same-sex marriages in 2011. Nine years ago, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) governed, and Section 3 of DOMA1 defined marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” In In re Gene Douglas Balas and Carlos A. Morales, a same sex couple filed a Chapter 13 petition in California, and the UST filed a motion to have the case dismissed. The UST sought dismissal of the joint bankruptcy case, arguing the couple did not qualify for a joint petition under 11 USC § 302(a) because they were in a same-sex marriage. The bankruptcy court denied the UST’s motion. The bankruptcy court in Balas based its opinion partially on a letter from then United States Attorney General Eric Holder, with President Obama’s support, reasoning that Section 3 was unconstitutional as it applied to legally married same-sex couples. The UST appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, the UST did an abrupt about-face and dismissed its appeal. In fact, the UST took a further step by publicly stating it would not seek dismissal of any joint bankruptcy filed by a legally married same-sex couple. Similarly, if today’s executive branch decides not to enforce the CSA in bankruptcy court, cannabis businesses in compliance with state law would have access to bankruptcy courts.
Many businesses have pushed the bankruptcy courts to use a similar public policy approach to allowing cannabis businesses to seek debt relief, but it is proving to be a far stickier issue. Bankruptcy Courts have routinely dismissed cases with both direct and indirect relationships to the cannabis industry. The UST has taken a stance firmly against affording relief with any type of connection to cannabis. In an April 2017 letter to Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 trustees, the Director of the UST put it bluntly: “[i]t is the policy of the United States Trustee Program that United States Trustees shall move to dismiss or object in all cases involving marijuana assets on grounds that such assets may not be administered under the Bankruptcy Code even if trustees or other parties object on the same or different grounds.”
Indeed, one can fairly point out a significant difference between allowing a same-sex couple to file a joint bankruptcy. The practical significance of allowing same-sex couples to file jointly is the loss of a filing fee to the bankruptcy court, whereas a cannabis company’s liquidation creates a situation where a Chapter 7 trustee would have a fiduciary duty to liquidate a controlled substance, effectively violating federal law.
However, the UST shows equal hostility to cases involving downstream cannabis businesses such as landlords and even certain gardening suppliers, where there is no risk of cannabis itself becoming property of a bankruptcy estate. A Colorado District Court affirmed a bankruptcy court’s dismissal of a holding company for purported CSA violations.2 The Court reasoned that since the company owned stock for a large hydroponic gardening company, it willfully aided and abetted criminal activities.
While the federal executive branch is decidedly opposed to the cannabis debtor, one hope for reform lies with the judicial branch. To this end, the Ninth Circuit handed the biggest victory to date to a downstream cannabis business in Garvin v. Cook. Based on a microscopically close reading of the Bankruptcy Code, the Ninth Circuit held that a reorganization plan which relies partially on money from cannabis does not equate to a plan being “proposed by means forbidden by law” because the statutory text of one section cannot mean “all applicable law” or else the language in a closely related section that “the plan complies with the applicable provisions of this title” would be surplusage.
But this victory has not created much daylight for cannabis ventures seeking to utilize bankruptcy courts. Notably, Garvin could have gone a different direction if the UST had revived a motion to dismiss for gross mismanagement of the estate, which is how most Chapter 11 cannabis cases are dismissed. Indeed, in the weeks following the Garvin decision, two lower courts declined to blaze a new trail, and instead distinguished its cases from Garvin, dismissing debtors with equally indirect ties to cannabis.
Bankruptcy courts have shown significantly more latitude for legal hemp companies. In a promising decision, In re Royalty Properties, LLC, a Northern District of Illinois Bankruptcy Court took no issue with the legality of a debtor growing hemp seeds. The court took pains to distinguish hemp from its psychoactive relative marijuana and based its ruling on the 2018 Farm Bill which effectively legalized hemp. The court even denied as unnecessary an order to approve contracts to grow hemp, stating its approval was not necessary. Ultimately, the reorganization failed for reasons unrelated to growing hemp. Nevertheless, the case does show a step toward tolerance. Now that CBD giant GenCanna Global has filed a Chapter 11 in Kentucky, the UST’s tolerance will be put on full display.
Also, it is worth noting that the unwillingness of bankruptcy courts to take on cannabis cases cuts both ways. Creditors of cannabis businesses, already taking on a certain amount of risk for dealing with borrowers who cannot use depository institutions in a traditional way, also have been prevented from banding together and filing an involuntary bankruptcy against cannabis businesses.
Fortunately, legal cannabis businesses facing insolvency have options aside from federal bankruptcy to deal with debt issues.
An assignment for the benefit of creditors proceeding (ABC) presents one very workable option. In an ABC, a distressed company selects an “assignee” to liquidate the debtor’s assets via state law and distribute the proceeds to the creditor’s benefit. Depending on whether the assets include cannabis, the assignee will likely have to comply with applicable state law to be able to legally liquidate the asset. Nevertheless, an ABC might be the best solution currently available for cannabis companies seeking debt relief.
Another option is a corporate receivership where a disinterested third party, typically an attorney, is appointed to take control of an ailing business. The receiver takes over management of the company and can liquidate the company’s assets. Receiverships present certain advantages over bankruptcy proceedings. They allow for greater flexibility in decision making because the receiver is not bound by the confines of the Bankruptcy Code. Receiverships can be more cost effective, due to less court involvement and administrative expenses. For creditors, there is the advantage of potentially deciding on the receiver. Also, the receiver, unlike a Chapter 7 trustee, does not bear the imprimatur of any government, and is not a public officer within the meaning of a constitutional or statutory provision relating to public officers. Oregon and Washington have both amended their receivership statutes to ensure that cannabis businesses can effectively manage debt without receivers running the risk of violating the law. Ideally, other legal states will follow suit to ensure this remedy is available to cannabis businesses.
Finally, another bankruptcy alternative would be a friendly foreclosure under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). Unlike the Bankruptcy Code, the UCC is not federal law, but is adopted individually by each state. Again, considering the secured lender is required to comply with state law, this is another instance where amending state statutes could provide great assistance to a struggling cannabis business and its secured creditors.
Legal options for insolvent cannabis businesses is a new challenge. Society is trending in the direction of a more permissive attitude toward cannabis, so it should follow that the legislatures and courts accept this shift and afford distressed cannabis businesses the same opportunities to reorganize or orderly liquidate just like other legal business entities.
DOMA was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 US v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013).
See In re Way to Grow, Civil Action No. 18-cv-3245-WJM, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 207846 (D. Colo. Sep. 18, 2019)
By Jonathan C. Sandler, Alissa Gardenswartz No Comments
By now, cannabis companies have heard that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a slew of warning letters to sellers of CBD products for selling unapproved and mislabeled drugs and illegally adulterated food, as prohibited by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. However, companies marketing CBD products should know that making any health-related claims about their products also exposes them to liability under state and federal consumer protection laws. These laws additionally prevent CBD sellers from misrepresenting how much CBD is contained in their products, and even govern how companies communicate with their customers via text message. As the former head of consumer protection enforcement in Colorado and a lawyer routinely defending consumer protection class actions in California, we have seen firsthand how not considering these laws when developing a sales and marketing strategy can result in protracted and expensive litigation.
Consumer Protection Laws – Federal and State
Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act provides that “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce . . . are declared unlawful.”1 The FTC enforces this law, and has clarified that “deceptive” practices involve a material representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead a reasonable consumer under the circumstances.2 In other words, a claim is deceptive if an average consumer would believe and rely on the misleading claim to buy something. With the rise of social media marketing, the FTC has also issued disclosure guidelines for companies and influencers promoting products online.3 Every state has some form of consumer protection statute that similarly prevents deceptive marketing, and is typically enforced by the state’s attorney general. Many state laws also allow for consumers to bring actions themselves.
Both the FTC and state attorneys general have used these laws for decades against companies making scientifically unsupported health claims about their products. Just this month, the FTC and the Maine attorney general filed a lawsuit against two dietary supplement companies who were claiming that their products were a “miraculous natural solution” for life-threatening diseases. According to the lawsuit, the companies violated a 2018 settlement that required them to not make any health claims about their products without first conducting at least one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to support the claims.4 While much of the enforcement around dietary supplements has focused on unsubstantiated health claims, other actions have been brought for improper “expert” endorsements as well as misrepresenting the amount of active ingredient contained in the supplement.5 In other words, these laws are used to police all manner of labelling and marketing of products, including those containing CBD. The FTC has already issued warning letters to CBD companies several times this year, and has stated that CBD sellers could be subject to enforcement for making unsubstantiated health claims.6
While consumer protection laws are largely focused on the content of advertisements, there are also laws that address how sellers can communicate with consumers. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) restricts telemarketing and the use of automated systems to contact consumers, and applies to both voice calls and text messaging. Both the FTC and state attorneys general can enforce the TCPA, and consumers can bring private TCPA actions as well. Because the TCPA allows for courts to award $500 per violation—that is, per illegal call or text—companies can face judgments into the millions of dollars.
Recent Consumer Protection Lawsuits in the Cannabis Industry
Cannabis is proving to be an attractive target for consumer protection litigation.All companies need to navigate consumer protection laws when they market their products, but class action lawyers may be pursuing cannabis companies in particular because of the products’ legal uncertainty, and because they provide opportunities for unique claims of deception. For example, a nationwide class of consumers recently filed a lawsuit in California against a CBD company that had received a warning letter from the FDA in November of this year, alleging that they would not have purchased the company’s CBD products if they knew selling the items was illegal.7 The consumers claimed violations of a variety of California and Arizona consumer protection laws, including those related to breach of warranty and unfair competition. Other lawsuits have been brought because products did not contain the amount of CBD as represented on the label, or because the product claimed to not contain THC when it did.8
Cannabis companies have been subject to TCPA class actions as well. Florida’s largest medical marijuana company has been accused of spamming customers with unwanted texts in violation of the TCPA.9 A dispensary with multiple locations in Colorado was also the subject of a TCPA class action complaint in Florida alleging that it did not obtain prior consent from consumers prior to texting them.10
Cannabis is proving to be an attractive target for consumer protection litigation. However, companies can head off lawsuits by thoroughly vetting their marketing strategies with experienced consumer protection lawyers before going to market.
15 U.S.C. Sec. 45(a)(1).
See FTC Policy Statement on Deception, October 14, 1983.
Global counterfeiting is expected to reach $1.82 trillion by 2020.1 Counterfeiting includes, but goes way beyond, fake watches or bogus polo shirts. In fact, no product is safe, including cannabis.
Counterfeiting is insidious; it supports child labor, human trafficking, organized crime, and has been linked to terrorist groups.2 “[C]ounterfeit good sales have been linked to al-Qaeda, FARC, Colombia’s rebel army and paramilitary groups in Northern Island.” 3 The FBI believes that counterfeit goods financed the World Trade Center bombing and the attack on September 11, 2001.4
Counterfeiters and their fake merchandise are typically difficult to locate and remove from the marketplace. Currently, we are seeing a proliferation of counterfeiting in the cannabis industry. Cannabis companies must consider the impact that counterfeit products have on their brand and goodwill. It is vital for cannabis companies to implement strategies to combat counterfeiting.
Typically, companies use trademark laws to combat counterfeiters. However, brand protection for cannabis companies is difficult because trademark laws do not provide the breadth of protection needed to successfully protect and enforce a cannabis company’s brand. Currently, U.S. trademark laws prohibit the registration of cannabis trademarks because selling cannabis violates federal law.5 While the 2018 Farm Bill amended this steadfast rule slightly, it only applies in limited circumstances, i.e., when the cannabis product contains less than 0.3% THC.6 As a result, cannabis companies are forced to seek protection through indirect registration, namely filing for goods and services that are not cannabis-related, such as clothing, publications or medical services. Indirect registrations are not enough to combat counterfeiters successfully.
Fortunately, there is another avenue that cannabis companies should be using to protect and enforce their brands against counterfeiters — obtaining copyright registrations for the company’s logo, product packaging and, if appropriate, company name. Copyright protection extends to a protectable work regardless of whether the copyright is in an illegal work or the copyright owner uses its copyright for an illegal purpose.7 Moreover, if there is pending or prospective litigation, a brand owner may request special handling of a copyright application to obtain expedited processing.8 If the application meets all the requirements for registration, special handling will result in the brand owner obtaining a copyright registration in about a week.9 Trademark registrations, on the other hand, typically take at least five months to obtain.
Once a company receives a copyright registration, the Copyright Act provides unique and important avenues for relief against counterfeiters.10 For example, a brand owner may obtain an ex parte seizure order, which allows the company to enter the counterfeiter’s premises, without notice, and seize the counterfeit products, business records, financial information relating to the counterfeit operation, customer and vendor lists, and bank account information.11 A brand owner may also obtain injunctive relief — a court order prohibiting the counterfeiter from buying, selling, and advertising counterfeit products — and freeze the counterfeiter’s bank accounts.12
People often say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, in the counterfeiting context, imitation can be lethal to your company.A cannabidiol (CBD) company recently used its copyright registrations to stop counterfeiters from advertising and selling counterfeit CBD gummies and oils. The CBD company obtained an ex parte seizure order, injunction and asset freeze, and obtained a $5 million judgment against the counterfeiters.13
Litigation is a valuable and effective tool in fighting counterfeiting. It helps protect the company’s goodwill, enhances consumer confidence and increases the company’s revenues. There are other tools that should be used to combat counterfeiting.
Companies must diligently watch their vendors, distributors, and customers for bad actors. Your vendor agreements should include provisions allowing regular audits and inspections. Your distribution agreements should prohibit distributors from selling outside their territory and engaging in price arbitrage. Your customers should be prevented from selling your products in smaller units. Having unique packaging with holograms will also assist in reducing counterfeits as the packaging is harder to replicate. An effective public relations campaign that includes educating your customers and the industry on the harmful effects of buying counterfeit cannabis products is also a very effective tool.
People often say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, in the counterfeiting context, imitation can be lethal to your company. Counterfeit cannabis products can be subpotent, superpotent or contaminated. Having these dangerous products advertised under your brand in identical packaging can have dire consequences.
If you are not currently experiencing a counterfeiting problem, you likely will. It is important to be proactive and find attorneys that have experience combatting counterfeiters in the cannabis industry to help protect your brand and company.
Global Brand Counterfeiting Report 2018-2020 – ResearchAndMarkets.com, AP News (May 15, 2018), https://www.apnews.com/ef15478fa38649b5ba29b434c8e87c94.
Colleen Jordan Orscheln, Bad News Birkins: Counterfeit in Luxury Brands, 14 J. Marshall Rev. Intell. Prop. L. 249, 259 (2015).
See, e.g., Flava Works, Inc. v. Gunter, 689 F.3d 754, 756 (7th Cir. 2012); Dream Games of Ariz., Inc. v. PC Onsite, 561 F.3d 983 (9th Cir. 2009); Mitchell Bros. Film Grp. v. Cinema Adult Theater, 604 F.2d 852, 855 (5th Cir. 1979); Big Daddy Games, LLC v. Reel Spin Studios, LLC, No. 3:12-cv-00449, 2013 WL 12233949, at *16–17 (W.D. Wis. Apr. 10, 2013).
Cannabis manufacturers and consumers are currently in a honeymoon phase. Consumers love their CBD gummies and believe wholeheartedly in the benefits of cannabis-related products. But it is only a matter of time before industrious plaintiffs’ lawyers take a close look at ways to attack manufacturers. We know from other industries that product labels tend to be the entry point for plaintiff lawyers eyeing manufacturers and looking for easy targets. Any company in the business of manufacturing cannabis-related products needs to devote significant time and resources to developing labels that minimize the risk of bet-the-company litigation down the road. Most notably, manufacturers need to think through whether there are any adverse effects associated with their products of which consumers should be aware. Also, manufacturers must scrutinize any “all natural” or “organic” claims on their labels to ensure that they are not misleading consumers.
Failure to Warn of Potential Detrimental Effects
Most manufacturers are well aware of state mandated labels for cannabis products. And, based on the recent FDA public hearing on cannabis, the industry will likely see FDA labeling requirements in the near future. However, simply complying with these requirements does not insulate a manufacturer from litigation, particularly failure to warn claims. One example, dating back to the 1970s, relates to OSHA’s regulation of asbestos-containing products as it became more and more clear that certain types of asbestos could cause a rare form of cancer, mesothelioma. Among other things, OSHA required manufacturers of asbestos-containing products to add a warning to all packaging. The mandated warning included very specific language. Manufacturers largely complied and added the OSHA-mandated label to their product packaging.
Fast-forward 40 years and today, several of those manufacturers are now bankrupt due to litigation based on their alleged failure to warn consumers that asbestos can cause cancer. Plaintiffs have been successful in bringing these claims because the OSHA label only warned that asbestos could cause harm, but it did not mention the word cancer. Some juries have found that the language in the warning was not sufficient to caution end users of the increased risk of developing cancer. While there have also been numerous defense verdicts in asbestos litigation and many asbestos-related cases lack merit – especially against certain defendants – the plaintiffs’ verdicts and legal fees to defend these cases are staggering. Recent plaintiffs’ verdicts have ranged from $20 to $70 million.
While there are risks involved with failing to warn consumers of possible adverse effects of a product, manufacturers should not try to mention every alleged adverse effect on its labels. Rather, manufacturers must do their due diligence and investigate whether claimed adverse effects are legitimate, then warn of those that appear to be based on valid scientific studies. Each manufacturer’s research department should assess the credibility of any study linking cannabis use to an adverse health effect and have a candid discussion with their attorneys on whether a warning is warranted. Do not fear lawsuits, they are unavoidable. Rather, work toward ensuring that the company and product(s) have a strong, defensible warning in the event litigation arises.
Questionable “All Natural” and “Organic” Claims
It seems like every CBD product on the market has an “all natural” or “organic” claim on the label. If the product is truly organic, fantastic. Flaunt that organic label. But several food companies have landed in hot water with these labels when there is a hidden ingredient that is not natural. What’s more, manufacturers have been sued when their product contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. These lawsuits come in the form of class actions at the state and federal level. Class action litigation is very expensive to defend. And they typically result in settlements for beaucoup bucks – typically multi-million-dollar settlements. Plaintiffs lawyers love these claims because their fees typically also end up in the millions. One example of this kind of class action is a case involving the well-known Kashi brand. Kashi was accused of misleading consumers by including the words “All Natural” on some of its products. Plaintiffs asserted that the products contained bio-engineered, artificial and synthetic ingredients. The class action was settled for $3.9 million.
How can all natural or organic claims lead to millions of dollars in damages? Here is an example of how these cases usually work: A group of consumers determine that an “all natural” product is not “all natural.” Let’s call this Product A and assume it sells for $5 per unit. The consumers then find a similar product that is not labeled “all natural.” That product is $2 per unit. The consumers argue that they overpaid for Product A by $3 per unit because they thought the product was all natural. Three dollars may not sound too bad, but if the class consists of two-million consumers, each entitled to $3, that’s a $6 million damages claim against a company. That does not count the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will be spent on legal fees defending the class action.
Cannabis manufacturers should not use all natural labels loosely and should consult with an attorney experienced in product labeling class actions to determine whether they should forgo these labels. The same is true for any labels that claim a product provides unique health benefits.
When manufacturers are excited about introducing a product to the market, trying to compete with other manufacturers and already dealing with miles of regulatory red tape, it may be tempting to avoid self-imposed labeling requirements. But to ensure their businesses are sustainable over the long-term, manufacturers need to take necessary steps now that will limit future litigation risk. The cost of taking preventative measures to develop a meaningful label is considerably less than the types of product labeling verdicts and settlements affecting other industries. Focus on warnings and the use of all natural labels as a starting point. Then speak with an attorney about the unique aspects of your product, potential adverse effects and the adequacy of your warning. We are here to help.
While 280E is the most influential code section for the cannabis industry, structuring never happens in a vacuum. There are many open questions that each business must answer for themselves without court adjudication. We believe that among the riskiest of questions is whether a cannabis business can claim research and development credits.
There is no clear legal authority that either allows these credits or disallows them but certainly utilizing such credits comes at great risk. At the beginning of this article we talked about Congress and the purpose of 280E. Congress’s intention was to make sure that only the minimum required tax deductions were available to Schedule 1 and 2 sellers. A cannabis business receiving a research and development credit would not be with the intension of Congress. While the credits would be computed based on COGS expenditures, at this time we do not believe that a cannabis business should take this credit. Disallowance of COGS would create a constitutional challenge which is why Congress allowed the COGS deduction. Disallowance of Research and Development Credits does not open up the same constitutional issue since the credit is not part of COGS although calculated based on COGS expenditures. 280E states very clearly that credits arising from other code sections are disallowed in the entirety.
More recently the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) opened up new issues for cannabis companies that are still unfolding. Two of the most publicized are Qualified Opportunity Funds and Section 199A, the 20% deduction (Qualified Business Deduction).
The 199A deduction allows eligible pass-through entities to claim an additional deduction of 20% of the income (subject to certain limitations) at the individual level potentially lowering the tax rate from 37% to 29.6%. While the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and others have asked the IRS to clarify if 280E would make a cannabis business ineligible, the final regulations on the subject did not address this issue. There are other significant limitations and hurdles in 199A regulations that any business would have to first pass to be considered for the rate deduction. If a cannabis business meets all other eligibility and limitation criteria, should the pass-through income to their investors be qualified income under 199A? The answer will depend on whether the courts will treat this “deduction” as falling under the general prohibition of 280E.
We believe that there is a reasonable chance that the courts will allow the 199A deduction for cannabis companies. That does not mean, however, that we advise cannabis companies to claim this on their pass-through returns as Qualified Business Income. Much like everything else, it depends on the particular business and the risk profile that management is willing to tolerate. This is one area of tax law that is sure to be challenged in court. The more risk-averse business should pass on claiming this deduction on their returns, but monitor development with an eye to amending at a later date if favorable precedent emerges. If the amounts are large enough, consideration should be given to applying for a Private Letter Ruling, but that also has its own tax risks.
Another new tax incentive that was in the TCJA was Section 1400Z or Qualified Opportunity Zones (QOZ). The incentive allows for the deferral of capital gains until December of 2026. The use of 1400Z also results in up to a 15% decrease in capital gains tax- and tax-free appreciation if all requirements are met. While the IRS has only released proposed regulations and we anticipate significant changes to them when they are released as final, there was nothing in the proposed regulations limiting cannabis businesses from using Qualified Opportunity Funds (QOF) in their structure. It is interesting to note that the TCJA and proposed regulations did list other types of businesses that could not make investments under 1400Z along with all its benefits. Liquor stores, golf courses and sun tan parlors were among those listed but cannabis growers and dispensaries were not.
As the industry continues to mature, new issues and precedents will require CPAs and attorneys to find new solutions to best serve the industry.Using Opportunity Zones to entice investors sounds like a great opportunity, but there are significant risks. The first risk is that the proposed regulations, while currently proposed, may not be final. There is always a chance that the IRS will take a different position when the final regulations are released and add cannabis to the type of businesses that do not qualify. Another risk, and one that was previously mentioned as part of 199A and other areas of structuring, is that the IRS and the courts can always disagree with the taxpayer’s position. This is a new area of tax law and will eventually be litigated. The loss of the Opportunity Zone benefits can significantly change the return to the investors and lead to other issues.
All of these issues come into play when structuring businesses in this industry. These issues must be evaluated as they pertain to the business needs. This can be very complex and requires a great deal of research for each business opportunity. We have found that professionals operating in this industry like to know about all of their options. The most important thing we can do for the industry is to continue to educate the professionals working in it.
Accountants should be available to assist their clients and their clients’ attorneys with structuring techniques aimed at asset protection and minimizing 280E disallowances. Accountants should also be ready to speak to the questions outlined above and be prepared to explain the risks associated with each choice. As the industry continues to mature, new issues and precedents will require CPAs and attorneys to find new solutions to best serve the industry.
Editor’s Note: This is the first piece in a two-part series delving into tax issues. Part one discusses tax code 280E as it pertains to cannabis businesses. Part two will go into research and development credits, 199A and a discussion of risk as it relates to Qualified Opportunity Zones. Stay tuned for Part two coming next week!
When building a knowledge base in the cannabis industry as a CPA, one’s tax research typically starts with Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 280E. For those that are unfamiliar, 280E is only three lines long. With this in mind, we at Janover realized that we needed to understand the context for this highly influential tax section.
The genesis of 280E dates back to 1981 with a Tax Court case: Jeffrey Edmonson v. Commissioner. The decision in this case was that a seller of cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis could deduct most business expenses, cost of goods sold, packaging, home, phone and automobile expenses relating to the seller’s illegal business.
In 1982, 280E was enacted to reverse the Edmonson decision and deny sellers of Schedule 1 or 2 controlled substances the right to deduct business expenses. Under the Controlled Substances Act, the federal government defined Schedule 1 drugs as drugs that have no currently acceptable medical use and a high potential for abuse. Since cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, cannabis businesses were unable to deduct most business expenses.
To get a better understanding of what the legislators were trying to accomplish, House and Senate reports provided insight into what their goals might have been. Under the Explanation of Provision, the Senate Report reads:
All deductions and credits for amounts paid or incurred in the illegal trafficking in drugs listed in the Controlled Substances Act are disallowed. To preclude possible challenges on constitutional grounds, the adjustment to gross receipts with respect to effective costs of goods sold is not affected by this provision of the bill.
As the Senate Report explanation provides, 280E specifically excluded cost of goods sold (COGS) from the disallowance of deductions. This treatment was affirmed by the Tax Court in 2012 in Olive v. Commissioner (139 T.C. 19 2012).
To date, there are not many cases that have dealt with the tax issues of 280E. In a 2007 decision involving Californians Helping to Alleviate Medical Problems (CHAMP), the Tax Court ruled that a taxpayer may deduct expenses allocable to an affiliated business that was separate from the entity “trafficking in a controlled substance.” In CHAMP, the legal caregiving business, which was a separate business, was able to deduct the allocated portion of shared expenses. This set a legal precedent that allowed a taxpayer engaged in the selling of a Schedule 1 or 2 controlled substance to distinguish expenses incurred on behalf of other non-prohibited business lines and deduct these expenses.
In addition to these court cases, tax professionals can rely on IRS Chief Counsel Memorandum CCA 201504011. The IRS Chief Counsel released this memorandum in January 2015 in order to respond to questions the IRS was receiving from practitioners.
Although Chief Counsel Memoranda, in general, may not be cited by taxpayers as precedent, this memorandum is the current and best authority outlining the IRS’s position with respect to the extent to which a cannabis business may deduct business expenses. The memorandum also refers to IRC Section 162, ordinary and necessary business expenses that would be disallowed, as well as separately identifying certain direct and indirect business expenses that would be allowed. Citing methods in Treas. Reg. 1.471, the memorandum states that a cannabis producer may allocate to inventory and COGS direct production costs, including direct material costs (Cannabis seeds or plants), direct labor costs (e.g., planting, cultivating, harvesting, sorting, etc.), and transportation or other costs to acquire of the cannabis. It also indicates certain indirect costs that may be taken as COGS.
As the industry continues to mature, more cases are finding their way to the Tax Court. On June 13, 2018, the Tax Court issued a ruling in Alterman v. Commissioner that specifically disallowed the use of 263A under 280E and applied only Section 471 to determine COGS. While we need to follow the facts and circumstances of each case, the broad language used might very well disallow capitalizing of inventoriable costs for companies subject to 280E.
IRC Section 471 is the general rule for inventory accounting for tax. IRC Section 263A is the uniform capitalization rules for tax. Most businesses need to utilize both 471 and 263A when accounting for inventory and to properly capitalize costs into COGS.This opinion may have lasting effects on the part of the industry trying to create brands associated with their cannabis products.
Many resellers and retailers of cannabis thought they could use 263A to capitalize more costs into inventory decreasing their tax burden. The Chief Counsel Memorandum disagreed and more recently the Tax Court in Patients Mutual Assistance Collective Corp v Commissioner sided with the IRS and upheld some of the precedents set in Alterman v. Commissioner. In siding with the IRS, the judge concluded that a taxpayer who is subject to 280E can only deduct costs of goods sold under 471 as the IRC existed when 280E was enacted (in 1982). The taxpayer in the case used two arguments that were not new to the cannabis industry, but to no avail. The first argument was that the business was not trafficking in a controlled substance because the government had abandoned a civil forfeiture action. The second argument that was rejected was that a portion of the business involved branding, marketing and the sales of other non-illegal products. The claimant tried to convince the court that deductions related to these operations should not be subject to the same disallowance of deduction as outlined in 280E.
This second argument is very important for structuring purposes. The court used a significant portion of its opinion to address why the entire business is integrated and completely subjected to 280E. This opinion may have lasting effects on the part of the industry trying to create brands associated with their cannabis products.
This case has even more implications given part of the ruling in which the courts stated that being state licensed in no way effected the Schedule 1 determination at the federal level and, therefore, subjected them to 280E. The judge went so far as to separate the Department of Justice, which enforces the Schedule 1 status of cannabis, and the Department of the Treasury, which has full authority and enforcement rights to treat cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug subject to 280E for income tax purposes. This ruling made it clear that even if the Department of Justice is not pursing criminal charges against state-licensed cannabis businesses the IRS is not precluded from fully enforcing the Internal Revenue Code.
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