The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) announced last week their newest addition to the Cannabis Business Summit: former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole as the keynote speaker. Cole will be joining Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA, for a fireside chat where they will take a look at his legacy in the cannabis industry as author of the Cole Memo. They will also discuss his predictions for the future of federal cannabis policy under the Justice Department.
As author of the Cole Memo, James Cole was an instrumental figure in the fight for legal cannabis in the United States. The Cole Memo was a policy directive issued in 2013 that instructed U.S. attorneys general in states that have legalized cannabis to use their resources in prosecuting Controlled Substances Act offenses only if they violated specific federal enforcement priorities. The Obama-era policy directive essentially served to protect state-legal medical cannabis businesses from federal raids and prosecution as long as they were abiding by the state’s regulations.
At the Cannabis Business Summit, James Cole will share insights on the future of the Justice Department’s policy towards cannabis. “The Justice Department holds a huge number of cards when it comes to the future of our industry, but its inner workings and internal debates on cannabis policy aren’t well understood,” says Smith. “That’s what makes this keynote with Jim Cole so exciting and valuable for anyone trying to predict what comes next for the industry.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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., 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.”
“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.
In a memo sent throughout the Department of Justice on April 5th, attorney general Jeff Sessions outlines the establishment of the Department’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. That task force, largely focused on violent crime, is supposed to find ways that federal prosecutors can more effectively reduce illegal immigration, violent crimes and gun violence.
The task force is made up of subcommittees, according to the memo, and one of them is focused on reviewing federal cannabis policy. “Task Force subcommittees will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities,” the memo reads. “Another subcommittee will explore our use of asset forfeiture and make recommendations on any improvements needed to legal authorities, policies, and training to most effectively attack the financial infrastructure of criminal organizations.” Those existing policies that Sessions refers to in the memo could very well be the 2013 Cole Memorandum, an Obama administration decree that essentially set up a framework for states with legal cannabis laws to avoid federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.
In the past, Sessions has said he thinks the Cole Memo is valid, but remains skeptical of medical cannabis. In the last several months, comments made by Sessions and White House press secretary Sean Spicer have sparked outrage and growing fears among stakeholders in the cannabis industry, including major business players and state lawmakers. As a general feeling of uncertainty surrounding federal cannabis policy grows, many are looking for a safe haven, which could mean looking to markets outside of the U.S., like Canada, for example.
Washington State’s former Attorney General Rob McKenna, Washington State’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Moran, and Maryland’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Kay Winfree recently went on the record identifying the BioTrack THC traceability system as fully compliant with the Cole Memo. “The key to meeting the requirements of the Cole Memorandum is ‘both the existence of a strong and effective state regulatory system, and an operation’s compliance with that system’,” says the former attorney general and chief deputy attorneys general in a press release. “As described above, Washington State has a robust, comprehensive regulatory scheme that controls the entire marijuana supply chain.
The flagship component of this regulatory scheme is the WSLCB’s seed to sale inventory system, the BioTrackTHC Traceability System.” Those commendations from a former attorney general could provide some solace to business operating with the seed-to-sale traceability software.
Still though, worries in the industry are fueled by speculation and a general lack of clarity from the Trump Administration and the Department of Justice. In an email obtained by an open records request and first reported by the International Business Times, a DEA supervisor asked a Colorado prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office about a number of cannabis-related prosecutions. The DEA supervisor asked for the state docket numbers of a handful of cases, including one involving cannabis being shipped out of state, according to The Denver Post. “Some of our intel people are trying to track down info regarding some of DEA’s better marijuana investigations for the new administration,” reads the email. “Hopefully it will lead to some positive changes.” So far, only speculations have emerged pertaining to its significance or lack thereof and what this could possibly mean for the future of federal cannabis policy.
Answering questions following a speech in Richmond, Virginia, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters he thinks the Cole Memo is a valid way to deal with state cannabis laws and said medical cannabis is “hyped, maybe too much.” According to a MassRoots blog post by Tom Angell, Sessions spoke yesterday regarding cannabis, addressing it as he tip-toed around his previous statements, like calling cannabis use unhealthy or the infamous “Good people don’t smoke marijuana” line.
This time around, Sessions’ words on legal cannabis were more carefully chosen. “The Cole Memorandum set up some policies under President Obama’s Department of Justice about how cases should be selected in those states and what would be appropriate for federal prosecution, much of which I think is valid,” Sessions told reporters. The Cole Memo essentially set up a framework for states with legal cannabis laws to avoid federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.
These comments do fall in line with some of his previous statements, like suggesting he wants to uphold federal law. During the speech in Richmond, Sessions denied any possibility that cannabis could be a solution to the opioid crisis. “I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store,” says Sessions. “And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.” These statements echo much of what White House press secretary Sean Spicer said weeks ago, citing the opioid crisis as possibly linked to recreational cannabis consumption.
Sessions admitted to reporters that he acknowledges the benefits of medical cannabis, but says he is still skeptical of the idea, saying it has been overhyped. “It’s possible that some dosages can be constructed in a way that might be beneficial,” says Sessions. “But if you ever just smoke marijuana, for example, where you have no idea how much THC you’re getting it’s probably not a good way to administer a medicinal amount- so, forgive me if I’m a bit dubious about that.” Sessions pontificating the medical efficacy of delivery methods for cannabinoids could suggest he is trying to familiarize himself more with the science behind medical cannabis.
According to a Politico article, Sessions privately told senators that he would respect states’ rights on the issue and uphold Obama-era policies, perhaps referring to the Cole Memo. While Sessions’ most recent remarks could signal a less aggressive approach toward legal cannabis, he still makes his position clear as a Drug War stalwart. “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life,” Says Sessions.
California has enjoyed legal medical marijuana for almost two decades, giving the state one of the greatest head starts in the industry. States like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon have since legalized recreational use for adults and passed legislation providing for state regulation of the industry.
For the past two decades, California’s medical marijuana market lacked strict, enforceable regulations, allowing for a black-market-mentality to remain prevalent.
However, that could all change with a 2016 ballot initiative that would legalize recreational use for adults along with more regulations for medical marijuana. I have noticed a schism developing in the cannabis industry, with some clamoring for more regulations to ensure safety and traceability, and others fearing over-regulation and big business involvement.
In the interest of advancing legalization efforts nationwide with mainstream acceptance, I think regulations that address traceability, testing, and safety are important to jettison the cannabis industry into a legitimate spotlight.
Colloquially known as the “Wolf of Weed Street”, Jason Spatafora, founder of MarijuanaStocks.com and CEO of FBEC Worldwide, Inc. believes that the marijuana market in California could be on par with the tech boom. “Previously, California’s medical marijuana laws might as well have been recreational, but as the state introduces new legislation we will see heavy expansion with companies getting into the recreational market, leading to increasing growth and production, which requires ancillary businesses to support that growth,” he says.
“It is not just the private market that will benefit, the public sector will soon be on par with Colorado when tax revenue begins to grow,” says Spatafora. “California is the most populated state in the country, [and] new legislation will really change the landscape of the cannabis market.”
Matt Karnes, founder and managing partner of GreenWave Advisors, LLC, believes that while implementation of new rules would not go into effect until 2018, the process will be facilitated by existing infrastructure expected to be established for medical marijuana. “We are conservative in our estimates for 2016 and expect that California’s legal medical marijuana market will grow 15% to approximately $2 billion from the 2015 estimate of $1.8 billion,” says Karnes.
According to Karnes’ figures, we can expect both markets to grow considerably over the next five years, leading to a $7.61 billion total marijuana industry in California by 2020.
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