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.
The first thing to understand about the significance of the British barristers now challenging the EU’s classification of hemp extracts as a novel food is that this is like jumping into the middle of an action adventure by coming in at the second act. In other words, you miss the introduction and the first couple of car chases.
That said, this action movie also features a cannabis-flavored plot. Those used to the maddening hair splitting now going on just about everywhere as the industry gains legitimacy, in other words, are familiar with the larger story line.
Here are the “CBD Cliff’s Notes.”
It is highly significant that a major British cannabis trade organization, the Cannabis Trades Association, hired a leading law firm in London to go sue the EU over its recent decision to lump all CBD extracts into the same “novel” distinction. Up until now, only CBD sourced from cannabis had fallen prey to this strange regulation. Thus, the lawsuit. No Brexit themes involved. Yet. Although that too will play a role in all of this.
What Is This Really About?
If those in the CBD business are honest with themselves, the real reason for this segmented part of the cannabis industry to even exist in the first place is the race, desire and need to actually be allowed to operate in relative regulatory peace. No matter what the battles are on the THC front. CBD has been seen as a result, pretty much since the beginning of the new age of legalization, as the “safer” political and market entry choice by those in regions such as U.S. southern states and the burgeoning, can’t-wait-to-be-off-to-the-races, market in Europe. See the new federal hemp legalization bill in the United States as Exhibit A.
However, in Europe this has run into more than a few problems since the Swiss put “low THC” or “Cannabis Lite” on the map more locally. Starting with the whole discussion about licensing in general. And then, even more confusingly, about what to actually classify the plant. Especially when it is used in food and cosmetics as opposed to “medicine.”
Specifically, where does the cannabis plant in general, let alone its individual components, really fall when it comes to regulated human consumption?
For the time being- read last year when the industry in Spain was facing police busts over CBD cookies on the shelves at health stores- the conventional industry wisdom was that this whole furore was “just” over the use of concentrates, tinctures and other products made from cannabis-sourced CBD. However, given the noise that Austria managed to make over Christmas about the entire “licensing” issue (namely who has the right to produce, sell and package even CBD as a cannabinoid no matter where it is sourced), the EU also moved all CBD products and tinctures- even those made from good old hemp- into the novel food category.
This means in effect, that even CBD extracts produced from the hemp plant (which is actually the majority of such product in Europe) must now be regulated as a “novel food” too. Even though in poor old hemp’s case, it is certainly the case that health food nuts have been consuming the same in Europe long before (and certainly after) standing EU “novel food” regulations were put into place back in the late 90’s.
Thus, the lawsuit, launched from a country unsure of whether it will even be in the EU post-May (either the month or the current PM).
According to the EU at least for now, CBD itself is a “novel food” no matter from where it is sourced. And that, according to not only science but food history is an absolute fallacy.consumer safety, from factory to pharmacy or farm to table, is never far from the discussion
Those who were hoping that CBD would remain unregulated in the EU should think again. It is highly likely that what will happen is that CBD production licensing is in the cards and just about everywhere. Think GMPs but with a consumer-food twist.
While indie producers might groan at the prospect of fees and licensing procedures, remember this is Europe. And consumer safety, from factory to pharmacy or farm to table, is never far from the discussion.
While this lawsuit, in other words, is likely to make the EU think more closely about regulating CBD in general, what is most likely to happen is that entire enchilada will be lumped under a regime to insure that high quality production, particularly of crops bound for consumption, is also extended to anything that ends up in either a food or cosmetic product.
CBD Producers Have To Keep Current On Regs
Given the current murkiness that exists, in other words at this point across Europe, in every country and for every CBD product, exports here from other places are still not a great idea.
There are labeling, licensing and of course, ultimately legislative issues that are all still in flux. And while the outcome of the lawsuit might eventually regulate and standardize things, the idea that a license-free CBD production industry is clearly now dead in the water.
What do you get when you combine a Schedule 1 federally controlled substance with a plethora of food, beverage and cosmetic entrepreneurs marketing new products to inexperienced users and then place that combustible combination into California’s plaintiff-friendly legal environment?
A lot of rich plaintiffs’ attorneys.
California continues to be a favored plaintiffs’ lawyers’ venue for filing consumer-related lawsuits against food and cosmetic companies. These lawsuits result in tens of millions in settlements each year and hundreds of millions in judgments. Staying current on statutes and trends is critical to doing business in California and cannabis companies are no exception.
While the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) has provided very little guidance on how cannabis products should be labeled, a lack of specific regulations does not mean that there are no applicable labeling requirements for cannabis. This is particularly true in states like California that have a multitude of statutes designed to protect consumers from false or misleading advertising and labeling. Below includes a brief list to help guide companies’ labelling processes:
Look to available guidance for the relevant industries. For example, food labeling of cannabis products still requires compliance with other nutritional labeling statutes. The same goes for supplements and cosmetics. The Fair Packaging and Label Act (“FPLA”) regulates labeling of all “consumer commodities” as to net contents, product identity, and manufacturer’s, packer’s or distributor’s name and location.
Consider the intended use of the product as well as the directions. For example, is the product meant to be consumed all at once or should it be consumed over a period of time? Depending upon the product, this question can affect whether compliance with the FDA dietary supplements guidance is required or whether the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act applies.
Consider your supply chains. This can be one of the most difficult aspects for cannabis companies that are looking to expand, but need more supply. However, keeping track of ingredients is a critical aspect to being able to defend against lawsuits. In the past, cannabis companies have been sued because they have expanded their suppliers without assuring consistency in the products and then combining inconsistent ingredients into one common product that is now mislabeled. While the Bureau of Cannabis Control testing requirements should help with some of the cannabis information, all ingredients need to be tracked and the final products tested.
Prop. 65 is a statewide initiative that regulates companies that make or sell their products in California in two ways: (1) it requires companies whose products contain certain levels of chemicals to provide clear and reasonable warnings. Prop. 65 does not ban or restrict the sale of chemicals on the list or their inclusion in products, but it requires warnings if the listed chemicals are included; and (2) It prevents companies from discharging these chemicals into the state’s water supply.
All companies doing business in California and all products manufactured or sold in California are subject to Prop. 65 with three exceptions: (1) the company has fewer than 10 employees, (2) government agencies, or (3) the products contain less than a threshold amount of the chemicals.
Penalties for violations can be staggering. Prop. 65 is enforced both by the California Attorney General and private lawsuits on behalf of the California Attorney General. The potential penalties for violations of Prop. 65 include a fine of up to $2,500 per day. Additionally, one of the largest drivers of litigation is that the private enforcers (plaintiffs’ bar) can recover their attorneys’ fees. The total amount paid in settlements in 2017 was over $25 million and of the more than $18 million in judgments, $13 million was attributed to attorneys’ fees.
The California Consumers Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”) is another California statute that is intended to protect consumers from false advertising and other unfair business practices. The CLRA allows consumers to bring individual or California class action lawsuits to recover damages and enjoin the prohibited practices. The statute also allows a prevailing consumer to recover attorneys’ fees and costs. Cannabis companies need to be mindful of their representations related to their products. California courts are filled with cases involving terms like “natural” or “healthy” or “high performing.”
Product labeling, mottos and advertisements may seem straightforward, but they form the basis for hundreds of lawsuits filed every year throughout the country, and especially in California. At this stage of trying to get one’s product out the door and to the consumer, it is tempting to move quickly. However, the importance of sound research, strategy and consulting an experienced team to ensure compliance and avoid costly mistakes is critical.
A clean, reliable water supply lies at the heart of every successful cannabis farm. It’s no surprise that the stakes for finding land with ideal growing conditions, including adequate water, are high. But new buyers (and lessees) caught up in the green rush often gloss over water rights or are unaware of California’s byzantine rules governing the irrigation of cannabis.
Water rights are complex. Water regulations applicable to cannabis cultivation are even more complex. And our new climate reality convolutes things further. Longer droughts, more volatile weather, political uncertainties, increased groundwater regulation and water quality concerns are exacerbating tensions over local and statewide water supplies. In many areas of California, landowners can no longer rely on local water districts to meet their needs.
A robust investigation of the property must consider water supplies. Because a property’s water supply is dependent on water rights, local ordinances, state regulations, politics and hydrology, it’s important to consult a water lawyer (and in some instances a hydrologist) before closing. A bit of foresight can prevent a grower from being left high and dry.
The following checklist provides a roadmap to conduct water rights’ due diligence. While many of these details are California-specific, this type of due diligence applies throughout the West.
Step 1: Identify Available Water Supplies and Consider Potential Limitations On Irrigation, Including Potential Future Changes
Conduct a site visit to identify existing water infrastructure, natural water features and existing or potential water service options. Next, determine if the property is served by a public water supplier. If that’s the case, the California State Water Resources Control Board (“State Water Board”) does not require any specific documentation to irrigate cannabis, but the water supply must be disclosed in the CalCannabis license application.
Groundwater is generally the best supply for cannabis, but the era of unregulated groundwater pumping is over. Many groundwater basins in California are now governed by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (“SGMA”), which requires water agencies to halt overdraft and restore balanced levels of groundwater pumping from certain basins. As a result, SGMA may result in future pumping cutbacks or pumping assessments. It’s imperative to identify the local groundwater basin via the Department of Water Resources’ Bulletin 118, and determine whether the groundwater basin is adjudicated or governed by a groundwater sustainability agency. Growers should also test the local water supply’s pH and salt levels because cannabis plants are finicky and water treatment can be cost prohibitive. If a new well is needed, growers should consult with their local county before drilling a new well. In some areas, moratoriums and restrictions on drilling new wells are on the rise.
As a rule of thumb, cannabis cultivators should avoid using surface water to irrigate cannabis. Surface diversions are subject to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s permitting authority. And under the interim State Water Board Cannabis Policy, commercial cannabis cultivators cannot divert anysurface water during the dry season (April 1 through Oct. 31), even if they have a riparian right that can be used to irrigate other crops. During the dry season, cultivators may only irrigate using water that has been stored off-stream. And even during the wet season, cannabis cultivators must comply with instream flow requirements and check in with the state daily to ensure adequate water supplies are available. Cannabis cultivators are also required to install measuring devices and track surface water diversions daily. And buyer beware, a groundwater well that extracts water from a subterranean stream may be considered a surface-water diversion. So be especially cautious if the well is located close to a creek or river.Develop a water use plan to optimize water efficiency
Step 2: Identify Water Supplies Used On the Property, Including the Basis of Right, and Quantify Historical Use
Review information on historic and existing water use. This may include past water bills and assessments. If there is a well on the property, the seller or lessor may have metering data, electrical records and crop data that can establish historic groundwater use. Cultivators must submit a well log to CalCannabis as part of the cannabis cultivation application. If surface water is available, the purchaser should review the State Water Board eWRIMs database for water rights permits, licenses, stock pond registrations and certificates, decisions and orders. The purchaser should also identify surface water diversion structures and review annual filings to determine compliance with all terms and conditions of the water right. Lastly, the purchaser should request all documents and contracts pertaining to water rights.
Realistically estimate water demand for irrigation and other on-site purposes.Step 3: Confirm Ownership of Right and Assess Any Limitations On Water Right
Determine whether the right has been abandoned, lost to prescription or forfeited. Evaluate the seniority of the water right, availability of the right, adequacy of place of use, purpose of use (must include irrigation), season of use, and quantity of any permitted or licensed post-1914 right. Determine whether historical diversions pursuant to an appropriative right support the full amount of the claimed right, and whether any changes to the water right are needed to support the proposed new use. Cultivators in California who plan to utilize surface water also need to file for a “Cannabis Small Irrigation Use Registration” to store water during the wet season for use during the dry season.
Step 4: Reconcile Water Demand With Available Supply
Realistically estimate water demand for irrigation and other on-site purposes. Develop a water use plan to optimize water efficiency (drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting, water monitoring, hoop structures) regardless of supply sufficiency. Many counties, such as Santa Barbara County, require that cannabis growers meet certain irrigation efficiency standards. Determine whether available supplies can meet all proposed demands, including plans for full buildout. If not, consider whether additional supplies are available for use on the property.
Step 5: Determine Water Supply Compliance Obligations
The rights associated with water supplies are defined by their source, the time frame during which supplies can be taken, the quantity of water to which the right attaches, and any limitations on the purpose of use of the water supply. There may also be reporting requirements associated with taking and using the supply—these can include requirements to report the quantity of water used as well as information regarding the end use of the water. Failure to timely report can have serious consequences. Cannabis cultivators are also subject to additional water quality regulations and restrictions, including waste discharge requirements pursuant to the State Water Board’s Cannabis General Order.
Step 6: Negotiate Deal and Draft Conveyance Documents
After obtaining an understanding of the water supply associated with the property, the property conveyance documents may be drafted to incorporate the transfer of rights associated with the property’s water supplies. These may include the assignment of contracts pursuant to which water supplies are obtained, the transfer of permits or licenses as to the water supplies, or the transfer of water rights arising out of a judgment or decree.
Step 7: Consider Unused Water Supply Assets That Could Be Monetized
To the extent the water supply rights associated with the property exceed the cannabis plants’ water demand, it may be possible to monetize unused or excess water supply assets through transfer of the rights to a third party.
If you have any questions about water rights related to cannabis cultivation it’s always in your best interest to contact an experienced water attorney early on in the process.
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