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Product Labeling Law: A Primer and a Warning for California Cannabis Executives

By Jonathan C. Sandler
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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Cannabis companies must label their products with applicable state laws. For example, the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, better known as Proposition 65 (“Prop. 65”)is being used by the plaintiffs’ bar as a basis to sue cannabis companies.
    • 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.
  5. 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.

Seven Steps To Avoid the Green Rush Blues: Investigate Water Supplies Before Planting Cannabis

By Amy M. Steinfeld
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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.

David Kluft headshot

How to Protect Your Trademarks When You Can’t Protect Your Trademarks

By David Kluft
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David Kluft headshot

Federal trademark registrations are invaluable tools for emerging businesses. They put the world on notice of a company’s name; they can secure nationwide priority over others using similar names; they distinguish a product in the marketplace; they provide crucial advantages in trademark infringement lawsuits; and they are instrumental in building goodwill. But if you sell cannabis, a federal trademark registration will not do any of those things for you … because you can’t get one.

Someday, the USPTO policy may change and there could be a gold rush for federal cannabis trademark registrations.The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) continues to refuse to register federal trademarks for cannabis businesses, even if the sale of cannabis is legal in the state where the businesses are located. The USPTO’s reasoning goes something like this: federal trademark law allows for the registration of trademarks associated with goods in “lawful” commerce, which means that the goods are not illegal under federal law. Cannabis, and its psychoactive component, THC, remain Schedule I substances under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Therefore, irrespective of state laws to the contrary, and irrespective of whether the federal law is actually enforced, the manufacture and sale of cannabis is not “lawful” commerce.

This reasoning is of fairly recent vintage. In 2009, by which time about fifteen states had legalized medical cannabis, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Drug Enforcement Administration would cease raids on state-sanctioned medical cannabis facilities. The USPTO followed Holder’s lead in 2010 and created a new category of acceptable goods and services for marks related to “medical marijuana.” Within months, however, the USPTO had retreated from this “mistake” and changed its practice manual expressly to preclude such registrations.

David Kluft headshot
David Kluft, partner in the Boston office of Foley Hoag, LLP

Many argue that the USPTO’s position is unjustifiable as a matter of public policy. Making it easier to infringe the trademarks of state-sanctioned businesses does not advance the purposes of the CSA, and it directly undermines a key goal of trademark law, which is to prevent the proliferation of confusingly similar trademarks. But the merits of these arguments have been lost on the USPTO, which continues to refuse to register marks for anything it perceives to be prohibited by the CSA.

So if you own a cannabis business, what can you do to protect your goodwill while the federal government maintains its current policy? Below are some ideas. Admittedly, none of them– individually or collectively – is a substitute for federal registration. But each of them is better than nothing, and all of them may help to establish your ownership and priority when and if the USPTO changes its policy.

  1. State Trademark Registrations. Each state has its own trademark registration system. State registration may offer protection from infringers within the state, or at least within the parts of the state where the registrant operates, and for that reason alone it is probably worth the small cost involved. However, state registration will have little to no efficacy outside the state. You cannot use a State A registration to file a lawsuit in State B, or to stop infringement in State B, or even to prevent conflicting registrations in State B. Additionally, most state trademark registrants, unlike federal registrants, do not benefit from presumptions of validity and ownership in the litigation context.
  2. Related Federal Registrations. Many cannabis businesses also pursue federal registrations for whatever aspects of their business are not prohibited by the CSA. For example, even though the USPTO refused the POWERED BY JUJU mark for cannabis vaporizers (because it was CSA-prohibited “paraphernalia”), it allowed the same company to register the same mark for “vaporizers for smoking purposes not for use with cannabis.” The USPTO has also allowed registrations for cannabis-related business consulting (e.g., CANNACARD; PRAIRIEJUANA); investment analysis (e.g., FORTUNE420); clothing (e.g., CANNABIS COUTURE, THE MARIJUANA COMPANY); and for CBD – as opposed to THC – derivatives (e.g., CBD LIQUID GOLD). Once the USPTO permits federal registrations for cannabis marks and the inevitable disputes over ownership arise, such federal registrations for these related products and services are likely to be highly persuasive evidence in the registrants’ favor. Moreover, even in the current legal climate, federal registrations (especially when cited in a demand letter) are of great practical use in convincing others not to use confusingly similar marks.
  3. Common Law Unfair Competition. Unfair competition is a state common law cause of action that was a precursor to modern trademark law, and it is still available to protect commercial goodwill even in the absence of a state or federal trademark registration. However, unfair competition law has similar territorial restrictions as state registration. In some cases, the protected territory may be even narrower, limited only to the area within which the plaintiff can prove consumer recognition of the mark.
  4. Other Intellectual Property Protection. Copyright law, unlike federal trademark law, has no “lawful” commerce requirement, and the U.S. Copyright Office regularly issues registrations for cannabis-related copyrights. While copyright will not protect a short phrase such as a business name, it will protect a creative logo design or original packaging, and can be very effective when it comes to getting infringing uses taken down from the internet. Note also that the USPTO does not appear to have the same qualms about legality when it comes to patents, and it often grants patent protection to useful, new and non-obvious inventions related to the cannabis industry.
  5. Save stuff. Finally, if you do nothing else, save stuff. Document that first sale; keep a copy of that first shipping invoice; and save that file containing your original packaging design. Someday, the USPTO policy may change and there could be a gold rush for federal cannabis trademark registrations. Your lawyer is going to ask you for proof of your first uses of the mark, and you don’t want your response to be a glassy stare. So keep your eyes on the eventual prize and stay ready.

Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Program Blossoms

By Aaron G. Biros
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Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis program may be young, but the industry in that state is off to a burgeoning start. Back in 2016, the state legalized medical cannabis. In 2017, the PA Department of Health began accepting applications for licenses and announced the first 12 winning applications. On February 15th, 2018, medical cannabis became available for more than 17,000 patients that registered in the program.

In March of this year, Governor Tom Wolf announced two more dispensaries were approved to operate as well as another grower/processor licensee. At that time, the press release indicated more than 21,000 patients have registered to participate in the medical cannabis program.

Then in April, Governor Wolf announced Phase Two of their medical cannabis program, allowing the industry to grow even more. That allowed for 13 new grower/processor permits and 23 new primary dispensary permits, according to a press release, which moved the total up to 25 grower/processors licensees and 50 dispensary licensees.

Just weeks later after that announcement, the PA Department of Health adjusted their program to allow patients access to whole plant, dried flower and opened up more qualifying conditions. The qualifying conditions added to the list now include cancer remission therapy as well as opioid-addiction therapy, which are two very notable additions. According to an April 6threport, 28,508 patients and 2495 caregivers registered with the program.

On May 15th, Governor Wolf approved eight universities to participate in a groundbreaking program, allowing Pennsylvania to take the first steps towards clinical research for medical cannabis. This research program would be the first of its kind in the country, allowing research institutions to explore the drug. The excitement was put on hold, however, when a Pennsylvania judge halted the program with an injunction. A handful of growers and dispensary owners in PA filed suit to stop the program on grounds that it violated the original intent of the law. State Representative Kathy Watson from Bucks County, the author of the research program, called the suit “pathetic because it’s all about the money.” We’ll follow closely with any new developments as they come.

Steve Schain, Esq. practicing at the Hoban law Group

Steven Schain, Esq., senior attorney at Hoban Law Group, a global cannabis law firm, represents multiple cannabis-related businesses in Pennsylvania. He says the program’s roll out has been fast with solid growth. “Within two years of the legislation’s enactment, Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program has exceeded expectations with controlled, sustainable and quality growth,” says Schain. “The Pennsylvania Department of Health established ambitious goals, which they met timely and created a statewide program servicing over 10,000 patients in record time. Looming ahead is New Jersey’s adult use program, the anticipated robustness of which could undermine vigorous sales in southeastern Pennsylvania’s marijuana-related businesses.”

On May 30th, Philadelphia welcomed their first medical cannabis dispensary, with a location opening up their doors to patients in Fishtown. Now reports are coming in that say more than 37,000 patients have registered to date, with over 16,000 who have received their ID cards and medical cannabis at a dispensary.

Even though the research program might be on hold for now, Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis program is growing at a fast pace. The market there has blossomed in just a few short months to a whopping 37,000-registered patients, according to a press release form Governor Wolf’s office. Some say an additional 200,000 patients could qualify. With the second phase in sight, it seems Pennsylvania is on track to become a hotbed for business and research, developing into a massive medical cannabis marketplace soon. Stay tuned for more updates.

extraction equipment

The Ever-Growing Importance of Protecting Cannabis Extraction Innovations

By Alison J. Baldwin, Brittany R. Butler, Ph.D., Nicole E. Grimm
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extraction equipment

With legalization of cannabis for medicinal and adult use occurring rapidly at the state level, the industry is seeing a sharp increase in innovative technologies, particularly in the area of cannabis extraction. Companies are developing novel extraction methods that are capable of not only separating and recovering high yields of specific cannabinoids, but also removing harmful chemicals (such as pesticides) from the concentrate. While some extraction methods utilize solvents, such as hydrocarbons, the industry is starting to see a shift to completely non-solvent based techniques or environmentally friendly solvents that rely on, for example, CO2, heat and pressure to create a concentrate. The resulting cannabis concentrate can then be consumed directly, or infused in edibles, vape pens, topicals and other non-plant based consumption products. With companies continually seeking to improve existing extraction equipment, methods and products, it is critical for companies working in this area to secure their niche in the industry by protecting their intellectual property (IP).

extraction equipment
Extraction can be an effective form of remediating contaminated cannabis

Comprehensive IP protection for a business can include obtaining patents for innovations, trademarks to establish brand protection of goods and services, copyrights to protect logos and original works, trade dress to protect product packaging, as well as a combination of trade secret and confidentiality agreements to protect proprietary information and company “know-how” from leaking into the hands of competitors. IP protection in the cannabis space presents unique challenges due to conflicting state and federal law, but for the most part is available to cannabis companies like any other company.

Federal trademark protection is currently one of the biggest challenges facing cannabis companies in the United States. A trademark or service mark is a word, phrase, symbol or design that distinguishes the source of goods or services of one company from another company. Registering a mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provides companies with nationwide protection against another company operating in the same space from also using the mark.

As many in the industry have come to discover, the USPTO currently will not grant a trademark or service mark on cannabis goods or services. According to the USPTO, since cannabis is illegal federally, marks on cannabis goods and services cannot satisfy the lawful use in commerce requirement of the Lanham Act, the statute governing federal trademark rights. Extraction companies that only manufacture cannabis-specific equipment or use cannabis-exclusive processes will likely be unable to obtain a federal trademark registration and will need to rely on state trademark registration, which provides protection only at the state-level. However, extractors may be able to obtain a federal trademark on their extraction machines and processes that can legitimately be applied to non-cannabis plants. Likewise, companies that sell cannabis-infused edibles may be able to obtain a federal trademark on a mark for non-cannabis containing edibles if that company has such a product line.

Some extraction companies may benefit from keeping their innovations a trade secretSince the USPTO will not grant marks on cannabis goods and services, a common misconception in the industry is that the USPTO will also not grant patents on cannabis inventions. But, in fact, the USPTO will grant patents on a seemingly endless range of new and nonobvious cannabis inventions, including the plant itself. (For more information on how breeders can patent their strains, see Alison J. Baldwin et al., Protecting Cannabis – Are Plant Patents Cool Now? Snippets, Vol. 15, Issue 4, Fall 2017, at 6). Unlike the Lanham Act, the patent statute does not prohibit illegal activity and states at 35 U.S.C. § 101 that a patent may be obtained for “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.”

For inventions related to extraction equipment, extraction processes, infused products and even methods of treatment with concentrated formulations, utility patents are available to companies. Utility patents offer broad protection because all aspects related to cannabis extraction could potentially be described and claimed in the same patent. Indeed, there are already a number of granted patents and published patent applications related to cannabis extraction. Recently, U.S. Patent No. 9,730,911 (the ‘911 patent), entitled “Cannabis extracts and methods of preparing and using same” that granted to United Cannabis Corp. covers various liquid cannabinoid formulations containing very high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), THCa and cannabidiolic acid, THC and CBD, and CBD, cannabinol (CBN), and THC. For example, claim 1 of the ‘911 patent recites:

A liquid cannabinoid formulation, wherein at least 95% of the total cannabinoids is tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa).Properly crafted non-disclosure agreements can help further ensure that trade secrets remain a secret indefinitely.

Although the ‘911 patent only covers the formulations, United Cannabis Corp. has filed a continuation application that published as US2017/0360745 on methods for relieving symptoms associated with a variety of illnesses by administering one or more of the cannabinoid formulations claimed in the ‘911 patent. This continuation application contains the exact same information as the ‘911 patent and is an example of how the same information can be used to seek complete protection of an invention via multiple patents.

An example of a patent application directed to solvent-based extraction methods and equipment is found in US20130079531, entitled “Process for the Rapid Extraction of Active Ingredients from Herbal Materials.” Claim 1 of the originally filed application recites:

A method for the extraction of active ingredients from herbal material comprising: (i) introducing the herbal material to a non-polar or mildly polar solvent at or below a temperature of 10 degrees centigrade and (ii) rapidly separating the herbal material from the solvent after a latency period not to exceed 15 minutes.

Claim 12, covered any equipment designed to utilize the process defined in claim 1.

Although now abandoned, the claims of this application were not necessarily limited to cannabis, as the claims were directed to extracting active ingredients from “herbal materials.”

Other patents involve non-toxic extraction methods utilizing CO2, such as Bionorica Ethics GMBH’s U.S. Patent No. 8,895,078, entitled “Method for producing an extract from cannabis plant matter, containing a tetrahydrocannabinol and a cannabidiol and cannabis extracts.” This patent covers processes for producing cannabidiol from a primary extract from industrial hemp plant material.

There have also been patents granted to cannabis-infused products, such as U.S. Patent No. 9,888,703, entitled “Method for making coffee products containing cannabis ingredients.” Claim 1 of this patent recites:

A coffee pod consisting essentially of carbon dioxide extracted THC oil from cannabis, coffee beans and maltodextrin.

Despite the USPTO’s willingness to grant cannabis patents, there is an open question currently regarding whether they can be enforced in a federal court (the only courts that have jurisdiction to hear patent cases). However, since utility patents have a 20-year term, extractors are still wise to seek patent protection of the innovations now.

Another consideration in seeking patent protection for novel extraction methods and formulations is that the information becomes public knowledge once the patent application publishes. As this space becomes increasingly crowded, the ability to obtain broader patents will decline. Therefore, some extraction companies may benefit from keeping their innovations a trade secret, which means that the secret is not known to the public, properly maintained and creates economic value by way of being a secret. Properly crafted non-disclosure agreements can help further ensure that trade secrets remain a secret indefinitely.

Regardless of the IP strategy extractors choose, IP protection should be a primary consideration for companies in the cannabis industry to ensure the strongest protection possible both now and in the future.

Laura Bianchi
Soapbox

Jeff Sessions’ Latest Moves Should be a Wake-Up Call for the Cannabis Industry

By Laura A. Bianchi
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Laura Bianchi

The legal cannabis industry was recently rocked to its core by the announcement that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be rescinding the so-called “Cole memo” and several other Obama-era legal directives suggesting the federal government would leave state-by-state cannabis reforms more or less alone. Suddenly, it seemed the entire cannabis movement was in jeopardy. Laws legalizing medical and recreational cannabis could be at risk. A booming industry predicted to be worth $50 billion annually by 2026 could instead be going down in flames.

Here’s the good news: As a business transactions attorney who’s been working in the cannabis industry for eight years, I don’t see any cause for panic. The Cole memo and the other directives the Justice Department are rescinding were not laws, orders or even legal precedents – they were simply legal guidance, and murky at that. The memos provided guidance to federal prosecutors regarding cannabis enforcement under federal law, suggesting that federal prosecutors not focus resources on state-legal cannabis operations that weren’t interfering with other federal priorities, such as preventing the distribution of cannabis to minors and preventing revenue from the sales from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels. Yes, federal prosecutors could take Sessions’ recent moves to mean it’s open season on medical and recreational cannabis businesses. But with medical cannabis programs of one form or another up and running in 29 states and Washington D.C., and recreational cannabis now legal in eight states and Washington D.C., dismantling the entire legal cannabis industry would require a Herculean federal effort that would come at the expense of a cornerstone of the Republican Party now in power: The vital importance of states’ rights.The best way to stay on top of those rules? Form relationships with your state program regulators

In other words, I don’t see the termination of the Cole memos as the end of the nascent cannabis industry. But I do think the development should be a wake-up call for all those people in the cannabis industry who have been playing fast and loose with their business operations. After all, if federal prosecutors do decide to make examples of certain cannabis operations, they’re going start with those who are not operating within the confines of the applicable state rules and regulations.  Any business that smells even slightly of tax evasion, interstate trafficking or the allocation of cannabis-derived revenue to benefit a criminal enterprise will end up at the top of that target list.

So how should well-meaning cannabis operators stay off the feds’ radar? Simple: Follow all the rules.

Unless you want orange to be your new black, you can’t afford to be sloppy with your business structure and financial records.For starters, you need a CPA who’s not just at the top of their game, but who also understands the very specific – and potentially debilitating – nuances of cannabis-specific tax liabilities. That’s because thanks to a quirk in the tax code called IRS section 280E, cannabis companies are utterly unique in that they are not allowed to deduct expenses from their business income, save for the costs of goods sold. You want an accountant who thoroughly grasps this issue, so they can help you plan for and (to the extent possible) minimize your tax liability. And you want to address such matters before you start to realize positive revenue, so you’re ready to handle an effective tax rate that can be upwards of 70 percent. Last I checked, the IRS doesn’t consider “But I can’t afford to pay my taxes!” a valid excuse.

Along the same lines, you need a business corporate attorney who’s well-versed in the world of cannabis. That’s because while it might seem exciting to jump headlong into the cannabis green rush, you’re not going to get very far if you don’t deal with the boring stuff first. I’m talking about start-up financing strategies, business contracts and agreements, profit and loss forecasts, cash-flow analysis, and long-term financial plans. Properly structuring your business from the get-go isn’t just important if you ever plan to seek capital or sell your business. It’s also necessary if you want to keep the feds happy. In other industries, regulators might cut first-time business owners some slack. Not so in cannabis. Unless you want orange to be your new black, you can’t afford to be sloppy with your business structure and financial records.

Jeff Sessions and Eric Holder
AG Jeff Sessions (left), the man responsible for the recent uptick in worries

Finally, make sure you’re playing by all the cannabis rules, regulations and requirements of your state and jurisdiction. While this suggestion might seem like a no-brainer, far too often cannabis brands hire hotshots from Fortune 500 companies who don’t know anything about cannabis regulations and how they apply to their business.

The best way to stay on top of those rules? Form relationships with your state program regulators. Here in Arizona, I am in constant contact with our regulators discussing nuances and new business concepts for which the rules are unclear, convoluted or simply silent. Working with the enforcers might not come naturally to many folks in the cannabis business, but we’re dealing with a new and evolving industry where there’s little or no business, regulatory or judicial precedent. We’re all in this together.

It’s exciting to be at the bleeding edge of a bold and booming new industry like cannabis, but to do so safely and legally, cannabis industry pioneers need to make sure they’re striking the right balance between daring innovation and sensible business security.

We shouldn’t expect Jeff Sessions to launch a new army of prohibition agents around the country to kick down doors of cannabis businesses. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea for cannabis entrepreneurs to start acting like he might.

Jeff Sessions and Eric Holder

Jeff Sessions Rescinds Cole Memo

By Aaron G. Biros
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Jeff Sessions and Eric Holder

According to The Associated Press, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo today, an Obama-era policy barring Department of Justice officials from going after state-legal cannabis businesses. This move comes just after California, the nation’s most populous state, legalized adult use sales of cannabis. Previously, the Cole Memo has served as a kind of stopgap for states to conduct legal cannabis markets, giving them peace of mind that the federal government wouldn’t interfere.

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

Ushering in 2018 with a bang, California’s cannabis businesses finally celebrated their new market launch on New Year’s Day. Even CNN rang in the New Year with copious amounts of cannabis, sending journalist Randi Kaye to Denver where she was passed joints and even donned a gas mask bong.

One fifth of the entire United States population now live in states where adult use cannabis sales are legal. A majority of states in the country have some form of cannabis legalization law on the books.

According to The Associated Press, AG Sessions’ new policy will leave it up to federal prosecutors to determine how they wish to enforce federal law and the controlled substances act. Sessions has been historically conflicted with federal policy surrounding legal cannabis and has repeatedly expressed his disdain for the drug.

But his back and forth on policy directives has been largely symbolic until now. In January last year, Sessions said he would uphold federal law but expressed openness to ending the conflict between state and federal laws. In February of last year, he tied legal cannabis to violence in a press conference where he alluded to greater enforcement. But flip-flopping again in March of last year, he said the Cole Memo is valid and appropriate after a speech.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO)
Image: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

The Trump Administration’s confusing and often-unclear stance on cannabis has only fueled more speculation, worries and fear that cannabis businesses are no longer safe from federal prosecution.

The cannabis industry and politicians around the country were quick to respond to the AG’s new policy shift. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said he would be holding up DoJ nominees, “until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.” The Cannabis Control Commission of Massachusetts, the regulatory body tasked with overseeing the state’s legal cannabis industry, says “nothing has changed” and that it will continue their work to legalize and regulate the cannabis industry.

Steve Schain, Esq. practicing at the Hoban law Group

Steve Schain, Esq., an attorney with Hoban Law Group, a prominent cannabis law firm, says this only fuels the confusion. “With Jeff Sessions threatening to singlehandedly crush $7.2 billion legalized marijuana industry spanning 30 states, generating millions in taxes and providing tens of thousands of jobs, much confusion abounds,” says Schain. “While unclear if merely a ‘knee jerk reaction’ to California program’s launch breadth of coverage, unless and until the United States Department of Justice provides an official statement, publication, or other specific information, neither legalized marijuana’s current status – nor the Federal Government lack of Congressional mandate or funds to derail state programs – has changed.”

Omar Figueroa, a well-known California cannabis attorney, urges clients and friends to start getting informed. “Which district is your ‘commercial cannabis activity’ operation(s) located? Who is the US Attorney for that district? What is that US Attorney’s cannabis policy? The answers to these questions just became extremely important. Please contact us for legal advice and representation.”

Advocates and activists were also very quick to condemn Sessions’ move, including Matthew Schweich, interim executive director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). “This extremely misguided action will enable a federal crackdown on states’ rights with regard to marijuana policy,” says Schweich. “Attorney General Sessions has decided to use the power of the federal government to attack the ability of states to decide their own laws. A majority of Americans support legalization, and Sessions has simply decided to ignore their views. In the states where marijuana is legal, voters approved those legalization policies at the ballot box. This is a direct attack on the will of the people.”

National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Executive Director Aaron Smith gave the following statement in a press release:

“This news from the Department of Justice is disturbing, especially in light of the fact that 73% of voters oppose federal interference with state cannabis laws. But, the rescinding of this memo does not necessarily mean that any major change in enforcement policy is on the horizon. This has been, and still will be, a matter of prosecutorial discretion. We therefore hope that Department of Justice officials, including U.S. Attorneys, will continue to uphold President Trump’s campaign promise to not interfere with state cannabis programs, which have been overwhelmingly successful in undercutting the criminal market.

In addition to safely regulating the production and sale of cannabis, state-based cannabis programs have created tens of thousands of jobs and generated more than a billion dollars in state and local tax revenue to date. Any significant change in federal enforcement policy will result in higher unemployment and will take funds away from education and other beneficial programs. Those revenues will instead go back to drug cartels and other criminal actors.”

Could this move be a genuine policy shift that will cause a crackdown on the legal cannabis industry? One action that could prevent the DoJ’s ability to target cannabis businesses relies on a Senate vote passing the Leahy Amendment as part of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill. That amendment would prevent the DoJ from using resources to go after state-legal medical cannabis laws, but does not exactly protect companies operating under adult use and recreational laws.

Is it possible that this is just the Trump Administration moving public eyes away from the bombshell revelations in Michael Wolff’s book and Trump’s feud with Steve Bannon? The current administration has a history of creating headlines amidst unrelated controversy, deflecting a public relations crisis from the public eye.

Hoban Law Group Expands Internationally

By Aaron G. Biros
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Last week, Hoban Law Group announced a major international expansion, with new offices in Latin America and the European Union. The Denver-based law firm said they will have four new offices across the EU by late fall and two new offices in Latin America by spring of 2018.

BobHobanAttorney
Bob Hoban, managing partner

Bob Hoban, managing partner and co-founder of Hoban Law Group, says they have already been working internationally for years. “HLG steps in to global markets quickly as our direct work with government officials on policy and regulation has kept us in this important global curve,” says Hoban. “We have accepted the challenge of being global cannabis industry leaders & experts and will work with strategic industry-leading partners, such as New Frontier Data, to move the industry forward across six countries.”

The press release says the law firm has been advising governments around the world on cannabis policy for several years, as well as working on a handful of international business transactions in the past. These new offices will work mainly with structured finance, mergers and acquisitions, worldwide trade, regulatory law and equity placement in the cannabis (including industrial hemp) industry. “Combining the firm’s corporate practice, with our intellectual property and tax practice groups will position our firm’s client’s to succeed at the highest levels in this international marketplace,” says Hoban.

The press release also announced they have added Andrew Telsey, an experienced securities attorney, to their firm. He has helped take more cannabis businesses public in the U.S. than any other attorney.

Hoban Law Group, founded in 2009, is the nation’s largest cannabis business law firm. They have attorneys in every state that has legalized cannabis in the United States.

Soapbox

Why are Business Professionals Hesitant to Enter the Cannabis Industry?

By Tyler Dautrich
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I recently had a discussion with a colleague of mine on how the cannabis industry lacks business sophistication. There are not many MBA level, or proven business professionals, that have made a living and name for themselves in another industry, entering the cannabis space. At first glance, you would think there should be, primarily because they can leverage their previous expertise and success into a new, multi-billion dollar space. Instead, those professionals are watching from afar and eying a move to enter the industry five to ten years down the line.

It just so happens that the individual I was speaking to is in the situation described above, so I asked why? Why not leverage your success and make a name for yourself in this industry where there is clearly an opportunity? This individual is coming from a legal background so this piece will focus on that area primarily. However, the story is the same for many others that come from different professional backgrounds.

They informed me that entering the cannabis industry could risk them potentially losing their license to practice law. They practice law in a state that does not have any form of cannabis legalization. So even if this person wanted to actively pursue working in the cannabis industry (where legal), they run the risk of potentially losing their license and not being able to practice law again. This creates a difficult decision for someone considering an emerging industry that still has an uncertain future.

Beyond putting professional careers and relationships in jeopardy, the cannabis stigma affects personal lives. It amazes me that there is still an extremely negative stigma that surrounds this industry. No matter the level of professionalism the industry demonstrates, many still think working with cannabis could be considered unprofessional.

I know from first hand experience in talking with a handful of professionals that are working in the industry, they do not tell everyone what their job is. Or they use their job title from their other current, or previous, job outside of the industry. They do not want certain individuals to know they are in the industry because they know it will damage their current reputation in certain groups.

This is one of the recurring issues with startups not only going through Greenhouse Ventures accelerator program, but throughout the industry. Many lack that level of business sophistication to have the know-how and ability to scale and grow their startup. Yes, they are the founding team and they have the idea and the vision, but they are not the team that investors put their faith and capital in.

My question is, what needs to happen to start attracting these business professionals into the cannabis space? We have already seen a few of the more risk averse professionals jump ship, but a majority are still hiding in the shadows or watching from the sidelines.