The hemp industry has experienced and continues to see a surge of growth and awareness nationwide. Following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, permanently legalizing the crop and removing hemp from its classification as a controlled substance, consumer demand for hemp and hemp products like CBD have skyrocketed.
Unfortunately, there remain many challenges. Confusion about hemp’s legal status – and the differences between hemp and its intoxicating cousin, marijuana – has too often stymied commerce in the industry, particularly with traditional banking products and merchant services being limited in their availability to those trying to grow their businesses.
This month, we witnessed a breakthrough development. Upon the bipartisan urging of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Ron Wyden, four federal banking regulatory agencies – Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network – joined by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors – issued joint guidance confirming the legal status of hemp and the requirements for banks providing financial services to businesses.
The new guidance achieves many necessary benchmarks integrating hemp and banking, such as no longer requiring banks to file suspicious activity reports for customers solely because they are engaged in the growth or cultivation of hemp in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. Further, the guidance clarifies the difference between hemp businesses and marijuana businesses – adding yet another point of relief to banks concerned with national and state legality.
The hope is that the joint guidance should alleviate any fear of audits or regulatory crackdowns that have slowed financial institution integration with the hemp industry. However, this does not require banks or financial entities to participate in business with hemp companies. Nor does this guidance directly address the legality of hemp-derived CBD commerce.
With all of this in mind, there is still work to be done. Priority #1 is passage of the SAFE Banking Act. This bipartisan legislation, initially focused on providing a green light to marijuana banking in states where pot is legal, was amended to ensure a separate safe harbor for hemp, with far fewer hoops since it is not a controlled substance. It also directs federal financial agencies to provide clear guidance to both banks and other financial institutions – such as credit card companies – that hemp and CBD commerce are legal. The bill was passed overwhelmingly by the House in September and we are hopeful to see full Senate consideration soon.
Banking is one of the key targets that the hemp industry is aiming to secure, as this will allow for an increase in legal hemp business growth and practices. The goal of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable is to provide consumers with safe and legal hemp products along with the knowledge that the companies are meeting the highest standards and complying with national and state law.
The year 2020 may become a pivotal year for cannabis operators and service providers, including increased access to financial services, and increased exposure to product liability lawsuits. On a positive note, if enacted, the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (SAFE Banking Act) promises to enable cannabis businesses to gain access to financial services previously unavailable to them, including banking and insurance services. The House of Representatives passed the SAFE Banking Act of 2019 on September 25th, 2019. Skopos Labs, an automated predictive intelligence service, predicts there is a 52% chance of the SAFE Banking Act of 2019 becoming law. A recent discovery that vitamin E acetate is likely the culprit in the vaping-related illness epidemic may increase the exposure to costly litigation that cannabis businesses face.
An uptick in litigation like that currently affecting the vaping industry may soon affect cannabis businesses. More litigation affecting the vaping industry is due in large part to the growing number of lung injuries and deaths linked to vaping. As of November 13th, 2019, the CDC reported 2,172 cases of lung injury, and 42 deaths linked to vaping. The cases of lung injury and death have predictably resulted in an increase in litigation facing the vaping industry. Most of the plaintiffs in these cases allege they became addicted to vaping but at least two lawsuits go further. In one, a Connecticut man alleges that he suffered a massive, debilitating stroke as a result of vaping, while in another the parents of a teenage girl allege in a proposed class action suit that their daughter has suffered seizures linked to vaping. On November 14th, 2019, the CDC identified vitamin E acetate as a chemical of concern among people with vaping use associated lung injury. Vitamin E acetate is an additive commonly used as a cutting agent in vape cartridges. About 86% of individuals who have either vaping-related lung injuries, or died due to vaping had used a product containing THC.
The increase in perceived exposure cannabis businesses face has increased their interest in obtaining insurance, but unfortunately insurers are not always interested in insuring them. There are at least two reasons that getting insurance can be difficult for cannabis businesses: (1) insurance industry appetite for cannabis risk is very low due to its status under federal law and (2) express coverage exclusions or limitations of cannabis exposures from standard-form coverage are becoming more common. However, even if cannabis businesses are able to obtain insurance, their insurance may cover them for far less than they believe.
The product liability coverage (which is increasingly crucial for both growers and manufacturers given the mounting litigation facing the vaping industry) may cover far less than it at first appears. The interplay of exclusions and limited coverages in many cannabis-specific policies may leave a cannabis business uninsured.
It is vital now more than ever to ensure you are properly protected against loss.Crucial for cannabis businesses to appreciate is the distinction between “occurrence” and “claims-made” coverage triggers as it relates to both the premises on which cannabis businesses operate their business, and the products they sell.
Many cannabis businesses have an occurrence-based general liability insurance that might actually exclude: (1) product-liability risks; (2) any tobacco-related risks; and (3) any risk associated with governmental investigation or enforcement. These exclusions oftentimes concern cannabis businesses because there is a high likelihood one of these risks could manifest itself as an uninsured loss. Still, the costs of eliminating these exclusions in an occurrence-based general liability insurance policy is often large, assuming an insurer is willing to eliminate the exclusions on an occurrence basis at all. Therefore, cannabis businesses often pair their general liability insurance policy with a “claims-made” coverage trigger for products liability. Navigating the waters of managing the differences between “occurrence” and “claims-made” forms are best left to a qualified and experienced insurance professional.
Consult a local insurance professional that understands how to help your business become properly protected in what would be considered a tumultuous market for this burgeoning industry.
It is vital now more than ever to ensure you are properly protected against loss. As a first step, you must determine what your current insurance policy does and does not cover. After a loss, it is too late to change policies. Rely upon someone that knows the market of insuring this industry and has deep experience in managing both occurrence and claims-made policies.
Folks from around the country and the world tuned into the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) website as they held a public hearing on Friday, May 31. Manufacturers and suppliers asked the FDA to regulate CBD like food or dietary supplements, while the FDA seemed to want more evidence on the safety of CBD products before giving the greenlight.
Background On The Hearing
For the uninitiated, after President Trump signed the Farm Bill into law back in December 2018, Scott Gottlieb, now former director of the FDA, issued a statement the same day the Farm Bill passed, clarifying the FDA’s regulatory authority. In the statement, Gottlieb explained that Congress preserved the FDA’s authority to regulate products containing cannabis and its constituents under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act).
In April 2019, around the same time he resigned from the FDA, Gottlieb issued another statement, acknowledging the quickly growing industry throughout the country and total lack of federal regulatory guidance. This time around, Gottlieb laid out a handful of steps that the FDA plans on taking to address regulations around hemp and cannabidiol (CBD). Those included scheduling the public hearing for May 31, where written and oral public comments were submitted by stakeholders, sharing “their experiences and challenges with these products [hemp and CBD products], including information and views related to product safety.”
That statement also announced the formation of an internal agency working group to “explore potential pathways for dietary supplements and/or conventional foods containing CBD to be lawfully marketed; including a consideration of what statutory or regulatory changes might be needed and what the impact of such marketing would be on the public health.”
Fast-forward to May 31, the day of the public hearing, and all eyes in the industry focused on what all these stakeholders had to say to the FDA about CBD. The day started off with about two hours of oral comments, each speaker had roughly two minutes to deliver their thoughts.
Industry stakeholders representing cannabis businesses sang much of the same tune, clamoring for wise regulations on safety, testing, banking and interstate commerce, among other standards. NCIA Policy Director Andrew Kline’s comments included running through five major positions of the industry trade organization representing CBD companies. Those included recommending the FDA act quickly in setting up regulations, stressing the massive economic impact of the industry, saying that CBD products are generally safe, clamoring for voluntary, consensus-based standards and informing consumers of any potential risks. “The bottom line is this – an overwhelming preponderance of evidence indicates that cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds present minimal health and safety concerns,” Kline told the folks at the FDA. “Time is of the essence. Hemp-derived CBD products are in very high consumer demand and the industry is eagerly awaiting FDA’s regulatory framework for these products. We strongly recommend that FDA act quickly to clarify the regulatory environment because there is significant confusion in the market.”
Anna Williams, representing the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), stressed the importance of testing for contaminants and adulterants as well as advocating for national standards on lab testing, instead of the state-by-state network of different standards.
Patients & Public Safety
After industry stakeholders had their chance to speak, the FDA allowed a group of advocacy organizations representing patients time to speak. That included representatives for the Alzheimer’s Association and the American Epilepsy Society, both of which were hesitant to throw their full support behind CBD as medicine. Kevin Chapman with the American Epilepsy Society said he wants to see clear warning labels, testing standards, more clinical trials and more studies before the group is ready to form a position on using CBD as medicine. Keith Fargo with the Alzheimer’s Association supports clinical trials to study it more, but thinks CBD is risky for patients without serious evidence of efficacy. A representative from the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance also echoed similar concerns. They want to see labeling of drug interactions on labels of CBD products.
After those comments, some organizations had the chance to speak followed by comments from retailers and distributors. Patrick Bird, owner of PMB BioTek Consulting, spoke on behalf of AOAC International, where he primarily discussed public safety. He said they want cannabis products to be regulated with food safety in mind, asking for FSMA to apply to hemp products. They want to adequately ensure product safety with things like mandating HACCP plans, recall readiness, saying hemp products should be treated just like food products.
Retailers & Distributors
Peter Matz, representing the Food Marketing Institute, the trade association for the supermarket industry, said that regulatory ambiguity is a serious issue that needs addressing. “There is mass confusion in the marketplace for the public, suppliers, retailers and state regulators,” says Matz. “Demand for CBD products in human and animal use is growing rapidly. ¼ of American have already tried it. We are fielding questions from companies seeking clarity regarding the current federal regulatory framework.” He added, what many others also mentioned, that the FDA needs to move swiftly to provide a pathway to regulation.
Next on the docket came presentations from state government entities, including state departments of agriculture, followed by healthcare professionals. The state regulators that spoke mentioned a lot about food safety, standards, testing regulations, GMPs and things like that to protect consumer safety. “Currently states are struggling with the lack of sound scientific research available in CBD and long-term health impacts,” said Pam Miles, representing the Virginia Department of Agriculture.
One interesting aspect on their talks however was telling the FDA just how large their markets have gotten already and how they need guidance on how to regulate markets in their own states. Joseph Reardon, with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, said they already have about 600 farmers growing hemp and thousands of processors working with the product in their state. “We urge the FDA to resolve the statutory issues improperly establish a legal pathway for CBD products to enter the market place,” Reardon commented. He also asked that the FDA extend the written comment period from July to August. “We are simply looking for a regulatory framework on the extraction, production and reconstitution of CBD or cannabinoid related products.”
Healthcare & Research
Healthcare providers, and physician testimony also echoed a lot of the same concerns, including the lack of research done, concerns about effects on at-risk populations and concerns about use as ingredients in dietary supplements and food. Some of the presentations also highlighted the room for nefarious activity in an unregulated marketplace. Some went as far as to mention cases where they found CBD vape juices with DXM in it (the active ingredient in cough syrup), CBD products found to contain THC, as well as synthetic cannabinoids responsible for drug overdose deaths. Some advocates in the hemp and CBD community have equated these arguments similar to reefer madness.
The major takeaway from this hearing is that everyone wants to see more data. Researchers and healthcare providers want to study the efficacy of CBD used in medicine, regulators want public safety information, patient advocates want to see data about effects on at-risk populations, trade organizations want data to back up label claims and the FDA wants to see just how safe CBD really is.
As the cannabis industry continues to grow, demand for insurance products is also increasing. While insurers have been cautious about entering a market that carries the stigma of a Schedule I drug, the cannabis industry is clamoring for insurance coverage options tailored to meet the needs of key players— distributors, growers, processors and retail dispensaries.
The escalating need for insurance products tailored to these cannabis business sectors has not expedited an increase in coverage offerings. The slow entry of insurance carriers into the cannabis sector can be tied to a reluctance to insure an industry with emerging and often unknown risks. This will begin to change as more information becomes available on what loss ratio trends look like in the cannabis industry.
For now, there is a wait-and-see stance held by insurance carriers. This presents a major concern for cannabis-related businesses that are subject to risk at every stage of the supply chain, with particular exposure for theft, general liability, crop loss, and product liability.some degree of crime and theft coverage is needed for these enterprises to help manage the risks associated with a cash-based business
For cannabis companies, the use of paper currency is a huge part of their risk exposure. Federal banking regulations have limited these businesses to dealing mostly in cash, which makes them a prime target for crime and fraud. Currently, only one carrier will insure coverage for cash and theft risk, and the policy is limited to $1 million for most risks. This is inadequate coverage since many operators have more than that amount on-site.
In states with legislation legalizing cannabis, the cannabis sector will be able to move away from operating in cash if Congress passes the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would protect financial institutions from liability for federal prosecution that could arise from servicing cannabis-related businesses authorized under state law. Until banking regulations give the cannabis industry the ability to operate as legitimate businesses with the stability and safety that would deter criminal activity, some degree of crime and theft coverage is needed for these enterprises to help manage the risks associated with a cash-based business.
Cannabis-related businesses need the same general liability coverage as other businesses to protect their premises and operations from lawsuits involving public contact. However, standard general liability policies—which exclude Schedule I substances from coverage—were not created with cannabis businesses in mind. It is still difficult for these businesses to obtain adequate general liability as a result of the legal uncertainty associated with the industry.
Product liability exposures for cannabis businesses encompass a wide range of areas, including edibles, vaporizers, pesticides, mold/fungus, misrepresentation, label claims, breach of warranty, deceptive practices, and failure to warn.
A major area of exposure concerns accidents resulting from impairment. A cannabis cultivator, processor, distributor, or retailer potentially may be considered liable in the event a product defect results in injury after reasonable use or when label defects fail to warn users that a product may have psychoactive effects.
Another area of risk exposure involves products that contain THC, the psychoactive compound that gives cannabis users a high. As the number of THC-containing products such as edibles and tinctures increases, so does the potential exposure to product liability claims for manufacturers and retailers.
The California Cannabis Track-and-Trace (CCTT) system also has implications for product liability. The CCTT is a statewide system used to record the inventory and movement of cannabis and related products through the commercial supply chain. All state cannabis licensees, including those with licenses for cultivation, manufacturing, retail, distribution, testing labs and microbusinesses, are required to use this system. The product liability impact lies in its capacity to determine responsibility along the supply chain from seed to sale.
For example, if a plastic vape pen explodes, a product liability lawsuit could have repercussions for many touch points across the supply chain beyond the manufacturer of the pen–all of which can be identified through CCTT. Entities that touch cannabis products such as soil suppliers or delivery persons also have product liability risk exposure. Personal injury attorneys can find incident-related parties easily and determine liability. This makes it particularly important to add these parties to the policy as additional insureds to help reduce claims exposure.
Another area of concern for risk exposure is crop loss. Crop insurance is generally hard to obtain due to the significantly different nature of cannabis crops compared to traditional crops like corn or soybeans.
An indoor crop insurance policy covers cultivators when there is loss resulting from threats such as fire, theft, and sprinkler leakage. However, crop insurance policies generally do not cover losses resulting from mold, rot, disease, changes in climate, or fertilization issues. Many growers forgo this coverage and instead elect to absorb losses and regrow their crops.
Outdoor crop coverage is generally unavailable, or the cost is prohibitive. Any potential for writing outdoor crop insurance for the cannabis industry essentially disappeared as a result of the recent wildfires in California. These devastating fires highlighted the pressing need for property damage and business interruption coverage for growers and dispensaries and other downstream businesses whose supply was disrupted. This lack of available outdoor crop insurance is one of the more notable gaps in available cannabis business insurance coverage.
While cannabis businesses operating in states that have legalized medical and/or recreational cannabis use have challenges getting adequate insurance coverage, there is some good news on the insurance front for those in California. Last year, California’s insurance commissioner announced approval for carriers to offer insurance coverage specifically to cannabis businesses. The state also approved a cannabis business-owners policy (CannaBOP) program that provides a package policy containing both property and liability coverage for qualifying dispensaries, distributors, manufacturers, processors and storage facilities. Colorado is on the verge of being the second state to approve its version of a CannaBOP program.
While more insurance carriers are beginning to write cannabis coverage, the limited insurance options and policies with restrictive plans currently offered todaydo not meet the needs of the cannabis industry. Insurers must catch up to the coverage requirements of this sector by offering more options tailored to growers, retail dispensaries, processors and distributors with better terms and better pricing.
The Justice Department rescinding the Cole Memo, the Omnibus bill including Leahy Amendment protections, a host of potential bills for federal cannabis policy change: a lot has been happening in Washington D.C. recently with respect to cannabis business. With the National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) Cannabis Business Summit in San Jose fast approaching, as well as the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days, we thought it would be a good time to hear what NCIA has been up to recently.
We sat down with Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of NCIA, to learn what the organization is working on right now and how we might be able to make some real federal policy changes for cannabis.
CannabisIndustryJournal:With the Department of Justice rescinding the Cole Memo, working as a group to tackle federal policy reform is now more important than ever. Can you give us a 30,000-foot view of what NCIA is doing right now to help us work together as a group and affect policy change?
Aaron Smith: So our team in D.C. consists of three full-time staff members as well as lobbying consultants, who have been really focused on the appropriations process, which is the way we’ve been able to affect change in such a dysfunctional congress by affecting the budget and restricting law enforcement activities. The medical marijuana protections, formerly known as the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, [and now known as the Leahy Amendment] prevent the Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute state-legal medical marijuana businesses and patients. Going into the fiscal year, thankfully after a lot of hard work, we were able to include protections for medical marijuana, which just happened last week. Now we are really focused on the next year’s fiscal budget, working to hopefully expand those protections to cover all state-legal marijuana activity so the Department of Justice cannot go after all state-legal cannabis businesses, including those businesses in the recreational cannabis industry, which is certainly one of our priorities right now. As Congress starts to transition into fiscal year 2019 appropriations, the D.C. team is working with Capitol Hill staff and other cannabis groups in D.C. to ensure an organized, uniformed strategy through the appropriations process.
CIJ: What are some other priorities for NCIA in the House and Senate right now? What is NCIA focusing its resources on?
Smith: Another big issue for us is the 280E section of tax code, which prevents legal cannabis businesses from deducting normal business expenses. A lot of these businesses face upwards of a 70 percent effective tax rate. Working with our champions in Congress, we are working on reforms to 280E so we can make normal deductions and be treated fairly, just like any other legal business. The Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017 addresses this issue and has bipartisan support in the House and the Senate right now, and we are working to build more support for that. This bill currently has 43 cosponsors in the House.
The other big issue for us right now is banking reform, which is a very high priority for NCIA as it affects most of our members. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act of 2017 provides a “safe harbor” and additional protections for depository institutions who provide “financial product or service” to a covered business. This bill currently has 89 cosponsors in the House. NCIA’s D.C. team and lobbying consultants continue to push for cosponsors and support on these important bills.
CIJ: I saw that the Omnibus spending package includes Leahy Amendment protections for cannabis businesses through September. Would you consider that a win in your book? How are you working to maybe extend those protections?
Smith: It was a big win for us. It doesn’t always seem like it because it is really just maintaining the status quo, but we are up against an Attorney General lobbying congress to strip those protections and the house didn’t allow us to vote on it. But by including the Leahy Amendment in the budget we are not only protecting medical marijuana patients and businesses, but we sent a clear signal to Congress that the intention is not to go backwards. We have been playing some defense recently given the current administration’s policies. But we are working with our allies in congress to negotiate those protections for recreational businesses as well. Negotiations for that are just getting started now.
The fiscal year ends September 30th so the protections are in place for now, but Congress needs to pass another budget for the next fiscal year with those protections included. It’s hard to say when the vote will be, because they haven’t been passing budgets in a timely manner, but usually it’s in May or June, right around our Lobby Days. This is what we are focused on now, getting as many of these cannabis businesses and NCIA members out there to really show Congress what the legal industry looks like.
CIJ: NCIA is hosting the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days a little more than a month from now; do you have any goals for that event? Is there anything in particular you hope to accomplish there? How can cannabis businesses get involved?
Smith: The primary purpose of Lobby Days is to show members of Congress and their staff (many of whom have never had exposure to cannabis businesses) what a responsible industry really looks like. And it lets business owners come tell Congress how current policies and laws are affecting their business. It is great for the cause and helps change minds in DC.
Last year, we came out of Lobby Days with several new co-sponsors of cannabis legislation and we hope to get that again this year. It is a great opportunity to connect and network as well; some of the top people in the industry will be there.
Trump Administration-Israeli relations had the distinct whiff of cannabis to them in the first week of February. In a development potentially just as impactful as transplanting Israel’s capital to Jerusalem, it has now emerged that Israel’s president, Benjamin Netanyahu, has effectively scotched, at least temporarily, the country’s budding medical cannabis international export plans on the eve of finally launching them.
What this latest act of international “diplomacy” will eventually impact in the long run is anyone’s guess. There will, however, be winners and losers out of this situation, both now and in the long term.
On the surface (and to gentiles) it might be hard to understand why Israel effectively shot itself in the foot from a global perspective. But cannabis falls into complicated geopolitical and religious crevices at home too. Bibi, as Netanyahu is referred to by an international Jewish audience, has just scored political points over the Jerusalem showdown. Why rock the boat over a plant that has so recently gained legitimacy just in Israel? Remember the country only partially decriminalized recreational use in 2017. However, Israel has explored legal medical cannabis for quite some time, and Tikun Olam, the country’s flagship producer, has been growing cannabis since 2007.
The quote from Netanyahu that has been widely circulated in the press says a great deal. “I spoke with Trump and he told me about his general opposition to the legalization of cannabis, and I’m not sure Israel should be the export pioneer.”
The fact that apparent encouragement of this policy came from the Israeli Finance Ministry only underscores the gravity of the impact for the losing side – and what was also probably threatened. Uruguayan pharmacies, who began distributing medical cannabis legally, walked away from customers last year after their banks were first informed by U.S. partners that they would either have to cut off the pharmacies or sever ties and access to the entire U.S. banking system. The cannabis trade was estimated to be worth between $1-4 billion per year to Israeli firms.
That said, this will also be a short-lived hiccup. Netanyahu apparently wants to see more medical evidence before moving forward with the plan. That means Israel will be in the race, but not for the next 12 to 18 months (minimum).
This will also not affect the cannabinoid-related export of intellectual property, where Israel has also led the cannabinoid discussion and for several generations now. Recipes, breeding instructions and even seeds cross borders more easily than plants. If anything, it will merely sharpen and shape the start up nation’s many budding cannapreneurs in a slightly different focus.
Canadian, Australian and a few other exporters also win. As of 2018, there will also be multiple European countries and EU-based firms importing and exporting (even if it is to each other).
The U.S. legal state cannabis movement has just been served a two fisted punch in the face by the White House. The Trump administration, in fact, has doubled down, in the space of less than five weeks, on its views towards cannabis legalization.
This also means that there will be no U.S. firms in any position to join a now global and exploding legitimate cannabis industry that stretches from the American hemisphere north and south of the U.S. itself. Not only will American producers not be able to get export approvals themselves from the U.S. government, but they may well be facing federal prosecution back home.
It will also be interesting to see whether this heralds any post-Cole memo prosecutions of the many Israeli entrepreneurs already operating in the U.S. state cannabis space. American and Israeli entrepreneurs with IP to protect are also the losers here, no matter how much this is being fought on the California front right now. That is just a state battle. IP must be protected federally.
Investors in the U.S. who had already been tempted to invest in the Canadian cannabis industry, now have little incentive to invest domestically or in Israel, no matter how big and bad California is. There is clearly budding (and less politically risky) competition elsewhere.
It goes without saying, of course, that this decision also hurts consumers – both recreational consumers and medical patients.
This is clearly sabre rattling of the kind intended to make news both internationally and abroad. However, in direct terms, it will have little impact to the overall growth of the industry, no matter who is doing the growing, distributing and ex-im. The cannabis industry will also clearly not stop being a political business for the near term.
Look for prosecutions this if not next year in the U.S. – potentially in California or another high profile “impact” state. We might see pressure on Netanyahu at home, and probably from abroad as well, to get Israel into the cannabis game globally.
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.
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.
To round out our federal reform review, we look at the bills introduced into the 115th Congress that attempt to resolve the banking and taxation problems faced by state-legal cannabis businesses. As this is perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of the cannabis industry, any movement by the feds on these issues will be welcomed. As it turns out, there are four proposals currently pending for fixing the broken cannabis financial services system, with each proposal comprising a pair of House-Senate companion bills. We look at each pair in turn.
S. 1156 – SAFE Act; or, Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act
Policy: These SAFE Acts would prohibit federal prosecutors and federal regulators from preventing or disciplining in any way a depository institution simply because that depository institution serviced a cannabis-related business.
Impact: The impact of these bills would be widespread for both the cannabis industry and for financial service institutions looking to capitalize on the cannabis industry. For banks, the bills would remove all of the barrier-risks that are now keeping them out of the cannabis business. Currently, the feds have handed down policy guidance to banks stating that as long as they submit what are called “Suspicious Activity Reports, or “SARs” for cannabis-related accounts, and conduct their due diligence to ensure such accounts are complying with state law, then those banks will not be pursued by federal law enforcement. The problem with this guidance is that it is only policy, it is not law, and so it can change on as little as an administrative whim. The protection from cannabis business risk, most banks have determined, is therefore temporary at best and illusory at worst. Passage of the SAFE Act would instantly change all of that and initiate a banking bonanza. Banks will be racing to profit off of what is amounting to a newly minted billion dollar industry. Cannabis businesses will benefit greatly from all of this. Not only will they be able to stop operating strictly in cash and have access to all the traditional financial services that other businesses heavily rely on, but they will also be the beneficiaries of a highly competitive, and therefore affordable and efficient, cannabis banking market.
Introduced: May 17, 2017 by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Introduced: April 27, 2017 by Representative Ed Perlmutter (D-CO)
Cosponsors: 7 Republicans, 44 Democrats
Referred to House Committees on:
Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
S777 – Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017
HR 1810 – Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017
Policy: These bills would carve out an exception to IRC 280E allowing cannabis businesses to deduct ordinary business expenses from their federally taxable revenues.
Impact: If enacted these bills will dramatically ease the tax burden for cannabis businesses. Currently, even when they are in perfect compliance with state law, cannabis businesses are not permitted to deduct ordinary business expenses. This means that net taxable revenues are, and are going to continue to be, substantially higher than net taxable revenues for businesses in any other industry. If enacted, profit margins—and therefore product quality, operational efficiency and innovation—are going to uptick across all states that have legalized.
Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Cosponsors: 1 Republican, 4 Democrats
Referred to Senate Committee on:
Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL)
Cosponsors: 10 Republicans, 24 Democrats
Referred to House Committee on:
Ways and Means
S. 780 – Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act of 2017
HR. 1824 – Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act of 2017
Policy: These bills combine to accomplish what each of the foregoing pairs accomplish separately. IRC 280E would no longer apply to state-legal cannabis businesses, and banking would become available for them as well. Additionally, advertising prohibitions in the CSA and the Communications act of 1934 would be removed, with the one exception that advertisements inducing travel from a state where cannabis is not legal to a legal cannabis state would be prohibited. Under Title II of the acts, barriers to federal bankruptcy proceedings would be removed. These bills would also reform the CSA as it relates to criminal liability for individuals, criminal record expungement and medical research for institutions, all of which are noteworthy but neither of which directly impact the legal cannabis industry.
Impact: For the impact of IRC reform, see “Impact” section under S.777/HR.180. For the impact of banking reform, see “Impact” section under S.1156/HR/2215.
By leaving advertising guidelines completely up to the states, we would probably witness the easing of advertising restrictions by the states. Currently, states have tight advertising rules because, after protecting consumers, they do not want their state’s legal cannabis industry to draw attention from the feds in any way. That concern would become moot and we could see more advertising in and across legalized states. This would drive competition across larger markets, in terms of both product and service quality and branding/marketing strategy.
Access to federal bankruptcy proceedings would clarify the landscape for all potential financial scenarios in the lifecycle of cannabis businesses, which in turn will ease uncertainty concerns of potential investors. The bankruptcy provision, combined with the banking provisions will undoubtedly open access to capital for cannabis businesses looking to grow operations and market presence.
Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Referred to Senate Committee on:
Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Earl Blumenaur (D-OR)
Cosponsors: 0 Republicans, 8 Democrats
Referred to House Committees on:
Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law
Immigration and Border Security
Energy & Commerce
Ways and Means
Indian, Insular, and Alaskan Affairs
Education and the Workforce
Oversight and Government Reform
S. 776 – Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act
HR. 1823 – Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act
Policy: Subchapters A and B of these bills would impose two additional federal tax requirements on cannabis businesses. The first would be an excise tax on all producers, beginning at a rate of 10%, and growing each year that a producer is in business to a cap of 25% at five years. The second tax would be an occupational tax of $1,000 per year, to be paid by the principals of any cannabis producer or warehouse proprietor. Significantly, these bills would also authorize the federal government to regulate operations in the industry.
Impact: The tax impact of these bills would be a straightforward additional tax that cannabis businesses would have to pay, on top of state and local taxes. The burden of additional taxes will inevitably impact profit margins, initial decisions on whether or not to enter the market and strategies for expansion and innovation. The impacts of federal authorization and regulatory requirements was discussed in the second article of the series, specifically under the “Impact” section of HR1841
Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Referred to Senate Committee on:
Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Earl Blumenaur (D-OR)
CanPay, a debit payment solution for the cannabis space, announced today their partnership with Harborside, the largest medical dispensary brand in the United States. The partnership will allow Harborside’s more than 200,000 patients to use a mobile debit app when purchasing cannabis through their delivery service, instead of bringing cash.
For deliveries, patients would use the CanPay app on their device “to generate a secure, single-use payment token that includes no personal identifiable information,” according to the press release. A Harborside delivery employee scans the token and the money is transferred from the patient’s checking account to Harborside. This allows for delivery employees to make less cash transactions and affords patients the luxury of not having to take out cash to get their medicine.
Harborside, founded in 2006, is recognized as the largest nonprofit cannabis dispensary in California, and the United States. They were reportedly the first dispensary to lab test their products. Being an advocate for patients and their safety, they offer a variety of free health and wellness services. “It’s important to us that we stay on the forefront of patient care and access to the products our community needs to improve their quality of life,” says dress wedding, co-founder of Harborside. “CanPay enables us to continue delivering on those goals by normalizing the payment process for our patients and staff.”
CanPay launched last year in November and has since expanded to over 50 dispensaries and six different states. The premise of their system is a secure and safe transaction for customers or patients of dispensaries. “To ensure privacy and security, all purchases are made using non-identifiable, single-use, and random payment tokens generated in the CanPay App,” reads the press release. CanPay is currently serving businesses in Washington, California, Colorado, Maine, Florida, and Oregon.
“Patients who rely on cannabis for preexisting medical conditions should not have to be inconvenienced or have their safety put at risk by a cash-only model,” says Dustin Eide, chief executive officer of CanPay. “Delivery is a mainstream solution and payments should be able to keep up with the industry. By partnering with Harborside, we are providing their patients the benefits of more secure, transparent transactions.” According to Eide, their service is compliant with federal medical cannabis policy and guidance. “CanPay’s service operates under compliance programs built around the Cole Memo and FinCEN Guidance issued by the Department of Justice and the Treasury, respectively, and updated on Feb. 14, 2014 which provided guidance to financial institutions on the conditions with which they can provide banking services to the state regulated cannabis industry without incurring federal action,” says Eide. “Also, CanPay utilizes the Automated Clearing House (ACH) network to affect our services in full transparency. While Visa and MasterCard have established clear rules prohibiting cannabis transactions on their networks, the ACH network relies on the individual financial institutions to determine what type of transactions may occur.” Because of that, Eide says, there’s no need to hide transactions, unlike services that use Visa or MasterCard that require using an obscure legal entity name or a financial intermediary’s name.
According to Dustin Eide, CanPay is designed to be a long-term solution for the cannabis industry’s cash transaction woes. “At approximately 2% fees to the dispensary (and no cost to the consumer), CanPay will be a low cost payment service compared to Visa and MasterCard when they do enter the market, which we’ve been told by our contacts at the companies that this won’t be until federal law changes,” says Eide. He thinks that when MasterCard and Visa begin working with cannabis businesses, they will charge higher transaction fees in the 3-4% range, given the high-risk nature of the market. “CanPay’s challenge is to gain sufficient breadth of coverage with dispensaries and adoption among cannabis consumers to be able to offer that value on a wide scale prior to Visa and MasterCard’s entry into the market.”
Looking to the future, Eide hopes the partnership with Harborside will lead to more business. “CanPay couldn’t ask for a better partner to enter into the California cannabis market, which is expected to top $20 billion by 2020, than Harborside, one of the world’s most respected and well-known cannabis organizations,” says Eide. “It is an honor to be chosen by Harborside, who has their pick of services for the cannabis industry, to facilitate their cashless delivery payments and enhance the safety and convenience of purchasing medicine from Harborside for both their patients and their employees.”
Members of Congress last week announced the formation of a ‘Congressional Cannabis Caucus’ in order to organize and affect cannabis policy at the federal level. Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO) and Don Young (R-AK) announced the creation of the caucus on February 16th. Cannabis advocacy and drug policy groups were quick to commend the formation of the organization.
In a joint statement issued on Friday, the National Cannabis Industry Association, the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, NORML, Americans for Safe Access, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, and Clergy for a New Drug Policy expressed commendation and excitement for the new group. “We commend Representatives Blumenauer, Rohrabacher, Polis, and Young for their leadership on the issue of cannabis policy,” reads the statement. “The establishment of a Cannabis Caucus will allow members from both parties, who represent diverse constituencies from around the country, to join together for the purpose of advancing sensible cannabis policy reform. It will also facilitate efforts to ease the tension between federal prohibition laws and state laws that regulate cannabis for medical and adult use.”
The members of Congress that formed the caucus all represent constituents in states where cannabis is legal for medical and adult use. “The formation of this caucus is a testament to how far our country has come on the issue of cannabis policy,” says the joint statement by the drug policy reform groups. “We look forward to working with caucus members to translate this growing public sentiment into sound public policy.” According to their statement, 44 states so far have adopted laws effecting cannabis prohibition on the state level, representing 95% of the U.S. House of Representatives and 88% of the Senate.
Representatives Blumenauer and Rohrabacher have been prominent cannabis policy reform advocates in the past. Blumenauer supported the bill to legalize adult use cannabis in Oregon back in 2014 and Rohrabacher introduced the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment to Congress, which prohibits the Justice Department from spending money on interfering with state medical cannabis laws.
According to an article on Roll Call, Blumenauer says the caucus will focus on more medical research and the tax and banking regulations hurting cannabis businesses.
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