Tag Archives: Congress

SAFE Banking Act Included in COVID-19 Legislation

By Aaron G. Biros
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UPDATE: Late in the evening on May 15, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES package, voting 208-199 (with 23 abstentions). The bill now now heads to the Senate where its fate is more uncertain. 


Earlier today, Speaker Nancy Pelosi debuted the latest piece of legislation to help Americans impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act) is a large bill containing emergency supplemental appropriations more than 1,800 pages long.

On page 1,066, those in the cannabis industry will find a very exciting addition: the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. For the uninitiated, the SAFE Banking Act would ensure access to financial services for cannabis-related businesses and service providers.

Currently, federally regulated financial institutions face penalties for dealing with cannabis companies due to the Controlled Substances Act. The bill, if passed, would eliminate the possibility of any repercussions for doing business with cannabis companies.

The impact of this bill becoming law would be widespread and immediate for both the cannabis market and banks looking to invest in the cannabis industry. With banks given the green light to conduct business with the cannabis industry, there is no doubt that many financial institutions will rush to the opportunity. Cannabis businesses will benefit greatly, no longer having to deal with massive quantities of cash and gain access to things like loans, bank accounts and credit lines. Furthermore, cannabis companies will benefit from the rush of banks getting in the game, leading to a competitive and affordable banking market.

It is no secret that cannabis businesses have had a cash problem for decades now. Given the coronavirus pandemic, CDC guidelines dictate minimizing the handling of cash and encourage payment options like credit cards. Cannabis businesses dealing with large quantities of cash puts them, their employees, their customers and even regulators at risk.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

According to Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the cash problem is a serious, unnecessary health risk. “On behalf of the legal cannabis industry, we commend the congressional leadership for prioritizing public health and safety by including sensible cannabis banking policy in this legislation,” says Smith. “Our industry employs hundreds of thousands of Americans and has been deemed ‘essential’ in most states. It’s critically important that essential cannabis workers are not exposed to unnecessary health risks due to outdated federal banking regulations.”

In fact, it was the NCIA and a handful of other industry organizations that lobbied Congress last week to include language from the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES Act, citing the known fact that cash can harbor coronavirus and other pathogens, along with the “personal proximity required by cash transactions as reasons for urgency in addition to the other safety and transparency concerns addressed by the legislation.”

The SAFE Banking Act was already approved by the House of Representatives. In September of 2019, the bill made a lot of progress through Congress, but stalled once it made it to the Senate Banking Committee.

The HEROES Act will be debated by the House of Representatives prior to a floor vote. If it passes the House, it moves to the Senate, which is about as far as it made it the last go around. However, because the banking reform is included in coronavirus relief legislation, there is a newborn sense of hope that the bill could be signed into law.

Bill Introduced to Make Cannabis Businesses Eligible for COVID-19 Relief Funds

By Aaron G. Biros
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Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) introduced legislation this week that would allow cannabis businesses to become eligible for federal assistance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The bill, called the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act, would allow cannabis businesses, as well as business that provide services to cannabis businesses, to qualify for federal government relief funding through the Small Business Administration (SBA).

As of now, cannabis businesses and some companies that provide services to cannabis businesses are completely ineligible to receive any SBA funding, largely due to the Schedule I status of cannabis (excluding hemp). The SBA currently does not provide any financial assistance to small businesses “engaged in federally illegal activity,” which includes both the Paycheck Protection Program as well as the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.

Last week, Rep. Blumenauer and more than 30 of his colleagues sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, insisting that cannabis companies become eligible for federal funding. According to an NCIA press release, Senators Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent a similar letter to Senate leadership earlier this week.

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FDA Issues Update on CBD: Still Working, Still Waiting

By Aaron G. Biros
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On March 5, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release to the public about their work on devising a regulatory framework for cannabidiol (CBD) products. The FDA also submitted a report to Congress on their rulemaking progress.

The main theme of the report is the same story we’ve been hearing from the FDA for a while now: They are still working on figuring out how to regulate CBD products and wants to do more research before they tackle the rulemaking.

The most intriguing new development from this report is the FDA’s newfound interest in regulating CBD products like dietary supplements:

“FDA is actively considering potential pathways for certain CBD products to be marketed as dietary supplements. Under current law, CBD products cannot lawfully be marketed as dietary supplements, but FDA has the authority to create an exemption through notice-and-comment rulemaking that would allow products containing CBD to be sold legally as dietary supplements.”

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple years, here’s a recap: In June of 2018, the FDA approved GW Pharma’s drug, Epidiolex, for the treatment of rare forms of epilepsy. This allowed a drug containing CBD to go to market, but only through the agency’s drug approval process. When the 2018 Farm Bill (Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018) was signed into law in December later that year, the federal government removed cannabis (hemp) with less than 0.3% THC from the Controlled Substances Act, essentially legalizing it on a federal level. Congress tasked the FDA with figuring out how to regulate the market. Without any FDA guidance in the early days, the subsequent market growth created mass confusion for the industry and consumers alike, with no one really knowing if selling CBD products is legal or not. In May of 2019, the agency held a comment period and public hearing on CBD, which included a lot of discussion around the benefits, the risks and further research on CBD. Throughout 2019, the FDA sent a large number of warning letters to companies marketing CBD products with unsubstantiated health claims. Towards the end of 2019, Congress passed a bill mandating that the FDA update them on their progress to regulate the market within 60 days. That deadline came and went, and then the FDA issued the public update and submitted the report mentioned above to Congress last week. FDAlogo

The FDA says they intend to take a number of steps towards providing some market clarity, while still protecting the public from unknown risks. Firstly, they want to educate the public more about potential risks associated with CBD. “We remain focused on educating the public about the number of questions that remain regarding CBD’s safety,” reads the update. “There may be risks that need to be considered before using CBD products outside of the monitored setting of a prescription from your health care provider.” Those concerns mentioned above include potential liver injury, drug interactions, reproductive toxicity and more benign side effects like drowsiness.

The agency also wants to try and close knowledge gaps in the areas of safety and potential benefits. In this section of the update, the agency asks industry stakeholders for help. “We’re seeking reliable and high-quality data.” The agency is requesting data on sedative effects, impacts of long-term use, pharmacokinetics, safety of various drug delivery mechanisms, safety for animals, different processes for full or broad spectrum or isolate derivation, among other areas of interest. They plan to re-open the public docket from the public hearing back in May 2019, extending the comment period indefinitely as a tool for stakeholders to share information with the FDA.

As far as enforcement actions go, the agency wants to take a risk-based approach to it. While there is still no official enforcement policy, the FDA is working on it. Their biggest concern is with companies marketing CBD products using drug and health claims, which could “deter consumers from seeking proven, safe medical therapies for serious illnesses – potentially endangering their health or life.” The agency is also worried about potential contamination risk and consumer exposure to things like residual solvents and heavy metals. Their last concern in this area involves truth in labeling, like making false label claims, not listing every ingredient or incorrectly stating the amount of cannabinoids in the product.

“Our ongoing efforts related to CBD, including the steps we’re announcing today, are in line with our mission to protect the public, foster innovation and promote consumer confidence. We recognize the significant public interest in CBD and we must work together with stakeholders and industry to develop high-quality data to close the substantial knowledge gaps about the science, safety and quality of many of these products. We are committed to working efficiently to further clarify our regulatory approach to these products – as always, using science as our guide and upholding our rigorous public health standards.”

Overall, the public update and the report don’t disclose anything groundbreaking. They do, however, provide some much-needed guidance for the CBD market on how stakeholders can help the FDA’s efforts. The fact that they are investigating dietary supplements as a path toward a regulatory framework is the by far the biggest take away from all this.

MORE Act Passes House Judiciary Committee

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to a press release published by the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the House Judiciary Committee approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act by a 24-10 vote. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced The MORE Act (HR 2884), which now has 55 cosponsors. This marks the first time in history that a congressional committee approved a bill to legalize cannabis.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (Image credit: Ralph Alswang)

“Today’s vote marks a turning point for federal cannabis policy, and is truly a sign that prohibition’s days are numbered,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA. “Thanks to the diligent efforts of advocates and lawmakers from across the political spectrum, we’ve seen more progress in this Congress than ever before.”

A little bit of background on the bill: The MORE Act, if passed, would decriminalize cannabis completely on a federal level. It would remove it from the Controlled Substances Act, not reschedule it. If the bill were to pass, it would expunge all prior federal cannabis convictions. The bill provides for the establishment of the “Cannabis Justice Office,” which would develop a. program for reinvesting resources in those communities most affected by the war on drugs. That program would be funded by a 5% tax on cannabis commerce in states that have legal regulatory frameworks.

The bill also would allow the Small Business Administration to provide loans, grants and other support to cannabis-related businesses, as well as support state equity licensing programs. Through the bill, physicians in the Veteran Affairs system would be given permission to recommend medical cannabis to patients as well.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

“Supermajority public support for legalization, increasing recognition of the devastating impacts of prohibition on marginalized communities and people of color, and the undeniable success of state cannabis programs throughout the country are all helping to build momentum for comprehensive change in the foreseeable future,” says Smith.

According to NCIA, there was a recent amendment to the MORE Act that includes language from the Realizing Equitable & Sustainable Participation in Emerging Cannabis Trades (RESPECT) Resolution introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). That resolution is based on the white paper that NCIA’s Policy Council published back in March of 2019.

“There is still much work to be done, including the establishment of sound federal regulations for cannabis products,” says Smith. “This vote brings us one step closer to ending the disaster that is prohibition and repairing the harms it has caused while we continue the discussion in Congress about how to best regulate cannabis at the federal level. We urge lawmakers to move forward with this necessary bill without delay.”

USDA Logo

USDA Announces Hemp Regulations

By Aaron G. Biros
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USDA Logo

This morning, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the establishment of the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program. The program, as stipulated by Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill, will establish a regulatory framework for hemp production in the country.

Secretary Perdue made the announcement in a YouTube video titled “USDA’s Hemp Policy.” Later in the week, an interim final rule formalizing the program will be published in the Federal Register, according to the USDA’s website. “The rule includes provisions for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to approve hemp production plans developed by states and Indian tribes including: requirements for maintaining information on the land where hemp is produced; testing the levels of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol; disposing of plants not meeting necessary requirements; and licensing requirements,” reads the press release. “It also establishes a federal plan for hemp producers in states or territories of Indian tribes that do not have their own approved hemp production plan.” The interim final rule will go into effect as soon as it is published in the Federal Register, which should be by the end of this week.

You can find a preview of the rule here. The agency has also developed guidelines for sampling and testing procedures, which you can find here. Those documents are meant to provide more information for hemp testing laboratories.

You can watch the YouTube video and read the announcement he made below:

Hello everyone, as I travel across this great country of ours, I hear a lot about a strong interest in a new economic opportunity for America’s farmers: the production of hemp. Which is why today I am pleased to announce the USDA has published the rule establishing the US domestic hemp production program. We said we’d get it done in time for producers to make planning decisions for 2020 and we followed through. We have had teams operating with all hands-on-deck to develop a regulatory framework that meets Congressional intent while seeking to provide a fair, consistent and science-based process for states, tribes, and individual producers who want to participate in this program. As mandated by Congress, our program requires all hemp growers to be licensed and includes testing protocols to ensure that hemp grown under this program is hemp and nothing else. The USDA has also worked to provide licensed growers access to loans and risk management products available for other crops. As the interim final rule, the rule becomes effective immediately upon publication in the federal register. But we still want to hear from you. Help us make sure the regulations meet your needs. That’s why the publication of the interim final rule also includes a public comment period continuing a full and transparent rulemaking process that started with a hemp listening session all the way back in March 2019. At USDA, we are always excited when there are new economic opportunities for our farmers and we hope the ability to grow hemp will pave the way for new products and markets. And I encourage all producers to take the time to fully educate themselves on the processes, requirements and risk that come with any market or product before entering this new frontier. The Agricultural Marketing Service will be providing additional information, resources and educational opportunities on the new program. And I encourage you to visit the USDA hemp website for more information. As always, we thank you for your patience and input during this process.

Who’s Afraid of Biotech Institute LLC?

By Brett Schuman, Daniel Mello, Nicholas Costanza, Olivia Uitto
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While cannabis patenting activity is still in its infancy, relatively speaking, a lot has been written already about the cannabis patenting activity of an entity called Biotech Institute LLC (BI) of Westlake Village, California.1 BI is building a sizable portfolio of utility and plant patents covering various aspects of the cannabis plant. According to some commentators, BI’s patents have “many in the cannabis industry concerned.”2

But how concerned should members of the cannabis industry really be about BI’s patents? Generally, patents are susceptible to numerous challenges in multiple fora. From 2012-2016, approximately 80% of challenged patents were invalidated by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) each year.3 The PTAB was created in 2011 by the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, 35 U.S.C. § 6, to create a process for eliminating improvidently issued patents. And the statistics suggest that the process may be working as intended by Congress.

BI may be building its portfolio by taking advantage of some unique challenges in the cannabis patenting area. First, even though cannabis has been cultivated and consumed by humans for thousands of years, there is a relative lack of published prior art available to patentees and patent examiners examining patent applications.4 Second, patent examiners are not as familiar with cannabis patent applications as they may be with other types of patent applications.

So, we examined carefully BI’s earliest and arguably broadest utility patent, U.S. Patent No. 9,095,554, and concluded that maybe the cannabis industry need not be so concerned about this and some of BI’s other utility patents. Although the ’554 patent is lengthy – 247 columns of text and over an inch thick when printed in hardcopy – there appears to be little if any novelty to the claimed invention. Alternatively, the patent appears to be obvious in light of the available prior art.

In a patent, the claims define the metes and bounds of the patentee’s intellectual property. Claim 1 of the ’554 patent recites:

  1. A hybrid cannabis plant, or an asexual clone of said hybrid cannabis plant, or a plant part, tissue, or cell thereof, which produces a female inflorescence, said inflorescence comprising:
  1. a BT/BD genotype;
  2. a terpene profile in which myrcene is not the dominant terpene;
  3. a terpene oil content greater than about 1.0% by weight; and
  4. a CBD content greater than 3%;
  5. wherein the terpene profile is defined as terpinolene, alpha phelladrene, beta ocimene, careen, limonene, gamma terpinene, alpha pinene, alpha terpinene, beta pinene, fenchol, camphene, alpha terpineol, alpha humulene, beta caryophyllene, linalool, cary oxide, and myrcene, and wherein the terpene oil content is determined by the additive content of the terpenes in the terpene profile; and wherein the terpene contents and CBD content are measured by gas chromatography-flame ionization detection (GC-FID) and calculated based on dry weight of the inflorescence; wherein a representative sample of seed producing said plants has been deposited under NCIMB Nos. 42246, 42247, 42248, 42249, 42250, and 42254.

While claim elements define the metes and bounds of the invention, typically only certain claim elements are intended to distinguish the claimed invention from the prior art. Other claim elements merely help to describe the invention. For example, the preamble in the ‘554 patent, or the part of the claim before subpart (a), describes the flowering part of the cannabis plant. This is not intended to describe anything novel about the claimed invention, but rather it simply describes the part of the cannabis plant that is relevant to the invention.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

Before the priority date of the ’554 patent, it was known in the prior art that BT/Bgenotypes produce nearly equal amounts of THC and CBD (both are dominant; one is not recessive).5 Thus, it is not unexpected to have a CBD content greater than 3% in a genotype that can produce large amounts of CBD (known references state as high as 21% in CBD-dominant strains and 3%-15% in BT/Bgenotypes).6 Further, it was known in the prior art that terpenes generally constitute more than 1.0% percent by weight (usually between 2-4%) of the flower.7

As these databases continue to grow and studies of cannabis are publicly disclosed, cannabis patents like BI’s ’554 patent will become more and more susceptible to patent challenges and invalidation.Claim element (b), reciting a terpene profile in which myrcene is not the dominant terpene, appears to be one of – if not the only – claimed element of novelty of the BI invention. Terpenes are aromatic compounds produced in plants, and the cannabis plant has more than 100 different terpenes. Claim element (e) simply lists the most abundant terpenes in the cannabis plant. A majority of cannabis strains express high levels of myrcene; however, there are known prior art strains that express high levels of other terpenes, such as caryophyllene, limonene, pinene, etc. Additionally, it is well known in the art that terpenes have different therapeutic effects. For example, pinene and linalool are known to have antidepressant activity.8 Thus, a prior disclosure of a BT/Bgenotype that has a terpene profile where myrcene is not the dominate terpene very likely invalidates this claim. And even assuming there is any novelty to a high-CBD strain where myrcene is not the dominant terpene, there is a motivation to breed for a dominant terpene besides myrcene.

Because cannabis has been and remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, previously known and used strains generally have not been chemically characterized, studied, researched, and the subject of publications that can be used as prior art for purposes of challenging cannabis patents. But that is changing. For example, the Open Cannabis Project (OCP) attempted to characterize and publish chemical details of cannabis plants. Even though OCP closed as of May 31, 2019, is database is still publicly available. Another example is CANNA, a non-profit initiative of the CANNA Espana Fertilizantes SL company, which carries out studies and conducts research on cannabis and its active compounds.9 In one study,10 CANNA found that some strains have terpene profiles where myrcene is not the dominant terpene, which could be relevant to a novelty-based or obviousness challenge to claim 1 of the ‘554 patent. As these databases continue to grow and studies of cannabis are publicly disclosed, cannabis patents like BI’s ’554 patent will become more and more susceptible to patent challenges and invalidation.


References

  1. See, e.g.,Amanda Chicago Lewis, The Great Pot Monopoly Mystery, GQ (August 23, 2017), https://www.gq.com/story/the-great-pot-monopoly-mystery;  Brian Wroblewski, Utility Patents on Marijuana? Who is BioTech Institute LLC?, The National Marijuana News, https://thenationalmarijuananews.com/utility-patents-marijuana-biotech-institute-llc/; Eric Sandy, Biotech Institute Has Applied for Patents on 8 Individual Cannabis Cultivars, Cannabis Business Times(June 24, 2019), https://www.cannabisbusinesstimes.com/article/biotech-institute-cannabis-patent-applications/.
  2. Nicole Grimm, George Lyons III, and Brett Scott, Biotech Institute’s Growing Patent Portfolio — U.S. Patent No. 9,095,554 and the Path Forward, JD Supra (November 17, 2017), https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/biotech-institute-s-growing-patent-17433/.
  3. World Intellectual Property Organization, An overview of patent litigation systems across jurisdictions,World Intellectual Property Indicators 2018, https://www.wipo.int/edocs/pubdocs/en/wipo_pub_941_2018-chapter1.pdf.
  4. Brett Schuman et al., Emerging Patent Issues In The Cannabis Industry, Law360(February 20, 2018), https://www.goodwinlaw.com/-/media/files/publications/emerging-patent-issues-in-the-cannabis-industry.pdf.
  5. Chandra, et al. Cannabis sativa L. – Botany and Biotechnology, pages 142-144, Springer, 2017 (citing de Meijer, Genetics163: 225-346 (2003)). See alsoMolecular Breeding (2006) 17:257-268, doi/10.1007/s11032-005-5681-x. 
  6. American Journal of Botany 91(6): 966:975 (2004). doi.org/10.3732/ajb.91.6.966; See e.g., Jikomes, Peak THC: The Limits on THC and CBD Levels for Cannabis Strainshttps://www.leafly.com/news/science-tech/peak-thc-cbd-levels-for-cannabis-strains.
  7. PLoS One. 2017; 12(3): e0173911. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0173911.  See also, Fischedick J. T., Hazekamp A., Erkelens T., Choi Y. H., Verpoorte R. (2010). Phytochemistry712058–2073 (2010). 10.1016/j.phytochem.2010.10.001
  8. J Ethnopharmacol. 2012 Sep 28;143(2):673-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2012.07.026. Epub 2012 Jul 31.
  9. Retrieved from https://www.fundacion-canna.es/en/about-us, on August 6, 2019.
  10. Retrieved from https://www.fundacion-canna.es/en/variations-terpene-profiles-different-strains-cannabis-sativa-l, on August 6, 2019.

Farm Bill Analysis: Is Hemp Legal Now?

By Aaron G. Biros
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On December 20, President Trump signed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the Farm Bill) into law, which included an important change to the way federal agencies regulate hemp farming and production. The Farm Bill essentially removes hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act in states that choose to regulate it. It strips the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA’s) authority from outlawing hemp and gives states the ability to regulate hemp markets on their own, with approval from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

This gives the USDA the authority to regulate hemp farming, providing for things like access to banks, insurance, grants, certifications and gets rid of the need for a pilot program, which was previously the case under the 2014 Farm Bill. It also defines hemp a little better, to include cannabinoids, derivatives and extracts.

According to Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the signing of the Farm Bill is a crucial step towards full legalization. “The lifting of the federal ban on non-psychoactive hemp is a concrete sign that the ‘reefer madness’ which first led to its criminalization is finally coming to an end,” says Smith. “This Farm Bill is a step in the right direction for comprehensive cannabis policy reform and will help fuel discussions in Congress about the best ways to end federal prohibition and create a regulated national cannabis market.”

FDAlogoHowever, one particularly important caveat needs to be mentioned: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still retains regulatory authority over CBD products. In a statement released the same day that the Farm Bill was signed, the FDA addressed their oversight capabilities. “We’ll take enforcement action needed to protect public health against companies illegally selling cannabis and cannabis-derived products that can put consumers at risk and are being marketed in violation of the FDA’s authorities,” reads the FDA statement. “The FDA has sent warning letters in the past to companies illegally selling CBD products that claimed to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure serious diseases, such as cancer. Some of these products were in further violation of the FD&C Act [Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act] because they were marketed as dietary supplements or because they involved the addition of CBD to food.”

The Farm Bill signing opened the doors for hemp cultivation and production in the United States.What the FDA said in their statement is crucial information for those developing hemp-derived products. They recommend that companies use traditional pathways to get approval from the FDA to market their products, providing the Epidiolex example where the drug manufacturer used clinical studies to prove the drug’s efficacy.

The FDA also notes that there are circumstances “in which certain cannabis-derived compounds might be permitted in a food or dietary supplement.” That means they are exploring opportunities for companies to develop, manufacture and market legal CBD products without going through the extensive drug approval process.States need to establish programs approved by the USDA and companies need to cooperate with the FDA, taking the necessary steps to get their products and marketing approved.

In the food ingredients realm, they have already taken steps to approve hulled hemp seeds, hemp seed protein and hemp seed oil as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). “Therefore, these products can be legally marketed in human foods for these uses without food additive approval, provided they comply with all other requirements and do not make disease treatment claims,” reads the FDA statement.

The Farm Bill signing opened the doors for hemp cultivation and production in the United States. It allows farmers to access the same goods and services extended to other commodities farming, it makes conducting business easier across state lines, it will pave the way for more research into hemp as an effective medicine and helps to end the debate over hemp’s legality. But this doesn’t mean any business can just start producing and selling CBD products. States need to establish programs approved by the USDA and companies need to cooperate with the FDA, taking the necessary steps to get their products and marketing approved.

In the coming months and years, we will see which states decide to develop hemp cultivation programs and how the proliferation of hemp-derived products will evolve under FDA regulatory oversight.

NCIA Federal Policy Update: Q&A with Aaron Smith

By Aaron G. Biros
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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.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

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.

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.

Protecting Your Cannabis Plant IP

By Brian J. Amos, Ph.D, Charles R. Macedo, M.S
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You’ve bred a new strain of cannabis, or perhaps discovered an excellent new hybrid outgrowing the other plants in your cannabis plot. Can you claim the new plant as yours and legally protect it? The short answer is potentially yes. The long answer follows below:

Plant Patents


Since a 1930s’ Act passed by Congress, the US government has permitted a person land, and (ii) asexually reproduces that plant, to apply for a Plant Patent. If granted, the Plant Patent will protect the patent holder’s right to “exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale and importing the plant, or any of its parts.” In other words, if you have a Plant Patent, you have a monopoly on that particular plant and its progeny plants, as long as they are asexually reproduced (for example, from cuttings – i.e. a clone). There is a hole in the protection – once you’ve sold or given anyone the plant they can use the seed or pollen from it without your permission.

Originally this sort of coverage was thought to be useful for things like new apple varieties, which are often from spontaneous new mutants found by farmers in their orchards (i.e. “cultivated land”). But is it possible this coverage can be extended to cannabis plants? The answer is yes. Unlike the traditional refusal of the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) to register “offensive” or “disparaging” trademarks on moral grounds, US patent law does not have any well-established “morality exception.” And, indeed, Plant Patents have already been issued for cannabis strains. In December 2016, US Plant Patent No. 27,475 was issued for a cannabis plant called “Ecuadorian Sativa.” This plant is said to be distinct in its exceptionally high level of a particular terpene (limonene) at levels of 10 to 20 times the usual range, and is a single variety of a cross between what are commonly named as Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.

How do you get a Plant Patent? Firstly – a Plant Patent is not automatically granted. The application has to be written correctly, and the USPTO will examine it to determine if your plant is new and distinct (non-obvious) from other known varieties, that it is described as completely as is reasonably possible, and that it has been asexually propagated. In addition, if the plant was “discovered” as opposed to “invented” then the USPTO will need to be shown that it was found in a cultivated area. A plant discovered simply growing wild cannot be patented. If you pass these hurdles, you will have a Plant Patent that lasts for 20 years.

Utility Patent
 

Another type of patent that can protect your new cannabis plant, and much more besides that, is a Utility Patent. Utility Patents have a longer history than Plant Patents in the US and, while they may be harder to obtain, a Utility Patent gives you broader protection than a Plant Patent. A Utility Patent can cover not only the plant itself, but if properly written can also cover parts of the plant, uses of the plant, methods used to create the plant, methods for processing the plant, and even edibles (like brownies) that contain an extract from that plant. If granted, the Utility Patent will protect your right, for 20 years from the date you filed the application, to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States.” An additional protection is that if the invention you claim in the patent is a “process,” you can assert the Utility Patent to exclude others from importing into the United States any products made by that process. Of course, given that present U.S. federal law regards cannabis as a DEA Schedule 1 drug, this importation blocking right is currently irrelevant. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that utility patents have a 20-year term, and Federal law may shift during that time.

Utility Patents are harder to obtain than Plant Patents. The USPTO will examine your application to determine whether what you are claiming protection on (for example: plants, cells, methods or processes) is new and non-obvious, does not cover a naturally occurring product or process, and is fully described. The simple description used in a Plant Patent is not enough for the more rigorous description needed in a Utility Patent. In addition, meeting the “enablement requirement” of a Utility Patent may require you to have the plant strain deposited with a recognized depository which will maintain that specimen plant – and you must agree that the public is permitted to access that deposit if a Utility Patent is granted to you.

So has the US government granted any patents on cannabis plants? Yes it has, multiple patents. A recent example is US Utility Patent No. 9,095,554 granted to Biotech Institute LLC (Los Angeles), which covers hybrid cannabis plants of a particular type with a CBD content of greater than 3%, as well as methods of breeding or producing them. Biotech Institute was also granted claims in the same Utility Patent for cannabis extracts from those plants, and edibles containing the extract. In this case, the plant samples were deposited with the NCIMB, which is a recognized depository in Aberdeen, Scotland. It should be noted that while the depository has to be internationally recognized, it does not have to be in the US. Another corporation, GW Pharma Ltd. (a UK firm), was early in the game and, according to USPTO records, has more than 40 U.S. Utility Patents issued relating to cannabis in some form or another, the earliest dating back to 2001.

Plant Variety Protection Act


A third type of protection is potentially available under the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) if you breed a new cannabis plant by sexual reproduction. Colloquially, this protection is more often known as “breeder’s rights” and the USDA administers it. This right is not mutually exclusive with other protections – in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that sexually reproduced plants eligible for protection under the PVPA are also eligible for Utility Patents.

In theory, obtaining a PVPA certificate is a relatively straightforward procedure for seed reproduced plants, which are new, distinct, uniform and stable. If you are granted a PVP certificate it will last for 20 years from the grant date. You can bring a civil action against someone who sells, offers for sale, delivers, ships or reproduces the covered plant. So have any PVPA Certificates been issued for new cannabis strains? We have reviewed the USDA published certificates for the last two years and have not found any. Why is this? One obstacle may be what happens after you file your application. The US code governing these certificates states that a seed sample “will be deposited and replenished periodically in a public repository.” However, the government body that administers the PVPA, the USDA, specifically requires that all applicants submit a seed sample of at least 3,000 seeds with an 85% or more germination rate within 3 months of filing the application. Sending cannabis seeds in the mail to a federal agency – that’s a deterrent given current uncertainty. Ironically, the location that the seeds must be sent to is Fort Collins in Colorado, a state where cannabis has been decriminalized. The USDA’s published PVPA guidance describes courier delivery of the seed sample to the Fort Collins repository, but does not mention hand delivery of the seed samples. We contacted the seed depository and were informally told that seed samples can be deposited by hand delivery – but this still entails handing over to a federal agency actual seeds of a plant which is a DEA Schedule 1 drug. In any event, no PVPA Certificates that have yet been issued for new cannabis strains. It is possible that a new federal administration might deschedule cannabis, permitting an easier route to PVPA coverage. But for the present at least, PVPA protection may be hard to obtain.

Notice

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Amster, Rothstein & Ebenstein, LLP, or its clients. Nothing in this article is to be construed as legal advice or as a substitute for legal advice.