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CBD Industry Caught Between Regulators & Law Enforcement

By Gregory S. Kaufman
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The consumer-facing CBD industry operates in a regulatory gray zone even as it grows in prominence. Illegal to market as an unapproved drug, dietary supplement or food additive under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, nevertheless, the CBD industry has flourished with ingestible products widely available. With the increased consumer interest in CBD, headwinds in the form of mislabeled or contaminated products and unsubstantiated therapeutic claims, combined with regulatory uncertainty, continue to be a drag on legitimate market participants and consumer perception of CBD products. The regulation of hemp-derived CBD falls under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its charge to protect the public health. Despite having jurisdiction to regulate CBD products, the FDA has done little to bring regulatory certainty to the CBD marketplace. However, the FDA, with the assistance of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), recently took important steps that can be described as “getting their ducks in a row” for the eventual regulation of hemp-derived CBD in consumer products. Always looming is the threat of criminal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) by the Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for plants and products not meeting the definition of hemp.

Prior to July 2020, the FDA’s regulation of the CBD industry was limited to a public hearing, data collection, an update report to Congress on evaluating the use of CBD in consumer products, and issuing warning letters to those marketing products for treatment of serious diseases and conditions. The FDA recognizes that regulatory uncertainty does not benefit the Agency, the industry or consumers and, therefore, is evaluating a potential lawful pathway for the marketing of CBD products. In furtherance of this effort, the FDA took several recent actions, including:

  • Producing a CBD Testing Report to Congress1
  • Providing draft guidance on Quality Considerations for Clinical Research2
  • Sending a CBD Enforcement Policy to the Office of Management and Budget for pre-release review and guidance3

FDAlogoNot to be overlooked, the NIST announced a program to help testing laboratories accurately measure compounds, including delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD, in marijuana, hemp and cannabis products, the goal being to increase accuracy in product labeling and to assist labs in identifying THC concentrations in order to differentiate between legal hemp and federally illegal marijuana. These actions appear to be important and necessary steps towards a still be to determined federal regulatory framework for CBD products. Unfortunately, a seemingly innocent interim final rule issued by the DEA on August 21, 2020 (Interim Final Rule), may prove to be devastating to hemp processors and the CBD industry as a whole.4 While the DEA describes its actions as merely conforming DEA regulations with changes to the CSA resulting from the 2018 Farm Bill, those actions may make it exceedingly difficult for hemp to be processed for cannabinoid extraction without violating the CSA in the process.

  1. FDA Report to Congress “Sampling Study of the Current Cannabidiol Marketplace to Determine the Extent That Products are Mislabeled or Adulterated

On July 8, 2020, the FDA produced a report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations detailing the results of a sampling study to determine the extent to which CBD products in the marketplace are mislabeled or adulterated. The study confirmed what the FDA, Congress and the marketplace already knew – that in this regulatory vacuum, there are legitimate concerns about the characteristics of consumer CBD products. These concerns include whether products contain the CBD content as described in the label, whether products contain other cannabinoids (including THC) and whether products were contaminated with heavy metals or pesticides. With these concerns in mind, the FDA tested 147 CBD and hemp products purchased online for the presence of eleven cannabinoids, including determinations of total CBD and total THC, and certain heavy metals. The key tests results included the following:

  • 94% contained CBD
  • 2 products that listed CBD on the label did not contain CBD
  • 18% contained less than 80% of the amount of CBD indicated
  • 45% contained within 20% of the amount listed
  • 37% contained more than 20% of the amount of CBD indicated
  • 49% contained THC or THCA at levels above the lowest concentration that can be detected
  • Heavy metals were virtually nonexistent in the samples
The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

Due to the limited sample size, the FDA indicated its intention to conduct a long-term study of randomly selected products across brands, product categories and distribution channels with an emphasis on more commercially popular products. In furtherance of this effort, on August 13, 2020, the FDA published a notice soliciting submissions for a contract to help study CBD by “collecting samples and assessing the quantities of CBD and related cannabinoids, as well as potential associated contaminants such as toxic elements, pesticides, industrial chemicals, processing solvents and microbial contaminants, in foods and cosmetics through surveys of these commodities.”5

Even though this report was not voluntarily produced by the FDA, rather it was required by Congress’ Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020, it importantly solidified a basis for the need for regulation. With less than half of the products tested falling within the 20% labeling margin of error, this suggests rampant and intentionally inaccurate labeling and/or significant variability in the laboratory testing for cannabinoids.

  1. NIST Program to Help Laboratories Accurately Measure Compounds in Hemp, Marijuana and Cannabis Products

 Proper labeling of cannabinoid content requires reliable and accurate measurement of the compounds found in hemp, marijuana and cannabis products. As part of NIST’s Cannabis Quality Assurance Program, NIST intends to help labs produce consistent measurement results for product testing and to allow forensic labs to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.6 As succinctly stated by a NIST research chemist, “When you walk into a store or dispensary and see a label that says 10% CBD, you want to know that you can trust that number.” Recognizing the lack of standards due to cannabis being a Schedule I drug for decades, NIST intends to produce standardized methods and reference materials the help labs achieve high-quality measurements.

NIST’s efforts to provide labs with the tools needed to accurately measure cannabis compounds will serve as an important building block for future regulation of CBD by the FDA. Achieving nationwide consistency in measurements will make future FDA regulations addressing CBD content in products achievable and meaningful.

  1. FDA Industry Guidance on Quality Considerations for Clinical Research on Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Compounds

On July 21, the FDA released draft guidance to the industry addressing quality considerations for clinical research of cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds related to the development of drugs. These recommendations are limited to the development of human drugs and do not apply to other FDA-regulated products, including food additives and dietary supplements. However, by indicating that cannabis with .3% or less of THC can be used for clinical research and discussing testing methodologies for cannabis botanical raw material, intermediaries and finished drug products, the FDA is potentially signaling to the consumer-facing CBD industry how the industry should be calculating percentage THC throughout the product formulation process.

While testing of botanical raw material is guided by the USDA Interim Final Rule on Hemp Production,7 the FDA warns that manufacturing processes may generate intermediaries or accumulated by-products that exceed the .3% THC threshold and may be considered by the DEA to be Schedule I controlled substances. This could be the case even if the raw material and finished product do not exceed .3% THC. The FDA’s guidance may eventually become the standard applied to regulated CBD products in a form other than as a drug. However, through its guidance, the FDA is warning the CBD industry that the DEA may also have a significant and potentially destructive role to play in the manufacturing process for CBD products.

  1. FDA Submits CBD Enforcement Policy Guidance to the White House

On July 22, 2020, the FDA submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget a “Cannabidiol Enforcement Policy – Draft Guidance for Industry” for its review. The contents of the document are not known outside of the Executive Branch and there is no guarantee as to when, or even if, it will be released. Nevertheless, given the FDA’s interest in a legal pathway forward for CBD products, the submission is looked upon as a positive step forward. With this guidance, it is important to remember that the FDA’s primary concern is the safety of the consuming public and it continues to collect data on the effects of ingestible CBD on the human body.

It is doubtful that this guidance will place CBD products in the dietary supplement category given the legal constraints on the FDA and the lack of safety data available to the FDA. The guidance likely does not draw distinctions among products using CBD isolate (as found in Epidiolex), full or broad spectrum hemp extract, despite the FDA’s expressed interest in the differences between these compositions.8 Instead, the FDA is more likely to establish guardrails for CBD ingestible products without authorizing their marketing. These could include encouragement of Good Manufacturing Practices, accuracy in labeling, elimination of heavy metal and pesticide contamination, and more vigorous enforcement against marketing involving the making of disease claims. The FDA is not expected to prescribe dosage standards, but may suggest a maximum daily intake of CBD for individuals along the lines of the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency guideline of a maximum of 70 mg of CBD per day.9

Identifying concerns in the current marketplace; promoting accuracy in testing; highlighting the line between FDA regulation and DEA enforcement; and proposing guidance to the industry all appear to be signs of substantial progress on forging a regulatory path for ingestible CBD products.

  1. The DEA’s Interim Final Rule Addressing Derivatives and Extracts Could Have a Devastating Impact on the Cannabinoid Industry

The seemingly benign Interim Final Rule published by the DEA in August with the stated intent of aligning DEA regulations with the changes to the CSA caused by the 2018 Farm Bill’s definition of hemp could cut the legs out from under the hemp-derived CBD industry.10 Claiming it has “no discretion with respect to these amendments,” the DEA rule states that “a cannabis derivative, extract, or product that exceeds the 0.3% delta-9 THC limit is a schedule I controlled substance, even if the plant from which it was derived contained 0.3% or less delta-9 THC on a dry weight basis.”11 Under this interpretation of the 2018 Farm Bill language and the CSA, it is unclear whether processors of hemp for cannabinoid extraction would be in possession of a controlled substance if, at any time, a derivative or extract contains more than 0.3% delta-9 THC even though the derivative or extract may be in that state temporarily and/or eventually falls below the 0.3% threshold when included in the final product. It would not be unusual for extracts created in the extraction process to exceed 0.3% delta-9 THC in the course of processing cannabinoids from hemp.

The implications of the rule may have a chilling effect on those involved in, or providing services to, hemp processors. It is known, as revealed by the Secretary of the USDA to Congress, that the DEA does not look favorably on the legalization of hemp and development of the hemp industry. The DEA’s position is that the rule merely incorporates amendments to the CSA caused by the 2018 Farm Bill’s definition of hemp into DEA’s regulations. In doing so, the DEA made explicit its interpretation of the Farm Bill’s hemp provisions that it presumably has held since the language became operative. What is not known is whether this changes the DEA’s appetite for enforcing the law under its stated interpretation, which to date it has refrained from doing. Nevertheless, the industry is likely to respond in two ways. First, by submitting comments to the Interim Final Rule, which will be accepted for a 60-day period, beginning on August 21, 2020. Anyone concerned about the implications of this rule should submit comments by the deadline. Second, by the filing of a legal challenge to the rulemaking on grounds that the rule does not correctly reflect Congressional intent in legalizing hemp and, consequently, the rulemaking process violated the Administrative Procedure Act. If both fail to mitigate harm caused to the CBD industry, the industry will have to look to Congress for relief. In the meantime, if the hemp processing industry is disrupted by this rule, cannabis processors holding licenses in legal states may be looked upon to meet the supply needs of the CBD product manufacturers.

The Interim Final Rule also addresses synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols, finding them to be Schedule I controlled substances regardless of the delta-9 THC content. This part of the rule could impact the growing market for products containing delta-8 THC. While naturally occurring in hemp in small quantities, delta-8 THC is typically produced by chemically converting CBD, thereby likely making the resulting delta-8 THC to be considered synthetically derived.

The hemp-derived cannabinoid industry continues to suffer from a “one step forward, two steps back” syndrome. The USDA’s highly anticipated Interim Final Rule on hemp production (released Oct. 31, 2019) immediately caused consternation in the CBD industry, and continues to, due to certain restrictive provisions in the rule. Disapproval in the rule is evident by the number of states deciding to operate under their pilot programs for the 2020 growing season, rather than under the conditions of the Interim Final Rule.12 With signs of real progress by the FDA on regulating the CBD products industry, yet another interim final rule could undercut the all-important processing portion of the cannabinoid supply chain by injecting the threat of criminality where there is no intent by processors to violate the law. It is not a stretch to suggest that both the USDA and FDA are being significantly influenced by the DEA. The DEA’s Interim Final Rule is just another troubling example of the legal-illegal dichotomy of cannabis that continues to plague the CBD industry.


References

  1.  U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Report to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations and the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Sampling Study of the Current Cannabidiol Marketplace to Determine the Extent That Products are Mislabeled or Adulterated (July 2020).
  2. U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Compounds Quality Considerations for Clinical Research: Guidance for Industry(July 2020).
  3. U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Cannabidiol Enforcement Policy: Draft Guidance for Industry (July 2020).
  4. Implementation of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, 85 FR 51639 (Aug. 21, 2020) (to be codified at 21 C.F.R. §§ 1308, 1312).
  5. U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Collection and Analysis of Products Containing CBD and Cannabinoids, Notice ID RFQ_75F40120R00020 (Aug. 13, 2020).
  6. Nat’l Inst. of Standards and Tech., NIST to Help Labs Achieve Accurate THC, CBD Measurements (July 21, 2020).
  7. Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, Pub. L. 115-334, title X, 10113 (codified at 7 U.S.C. §§ 1639o-1639s).
  8. U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Report to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations and the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Cannabidiol (CBD), p. 14 (March 2020).
  9. U.K. Food Standards Agency, Food Standards Agency Sets Deadline for the CBD Industry and Provides Safety Advice to Consumers (Feb. 2020) at https://www.food.gov.uk/news-alerts/news/food-standards-agency-sets-deadline-for-the-cbd-industry-and-provides-safety-advice-to-consumers.
  10. See supra n. 4.
  11. Id.
  12. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Status of State and Tribal Hemp Production Plans for USDA Approval (as of Aug. 26, 2020).

Cannabis Contracting: The Potential Invalidity Defense Created By Federal Prohibition

By Brett Schuman, Barzin Pakandam, Jennifer Fisher, Nicholas Costanza
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The overwhelming majority of Americans now live in a state where cannabis is legal at the state level for at least some purposes.1 However, cannabis (excluding hemp) remains criminal under federal law for all purposes. This conflict between state and federal law presents challenges for participants in the state legal cannabis industry, including enforcing their contractual agreements. This is because a number of federal court rulings have called into question whether contracts involving cannabis are enforceable in federal court.

In this article, we explore how federal courts and state legislatures have addressed the enforceability of contracts relating to cannabis and provide some practical tips for cannabis companies to protect their contractual rights.

The “Illegality Defense” in Federal Courts

“No principle of law is better settled than that a party to an illegal contract cannot come into a court of law and ask to have his illegal objects carried out . . . .” Mann v. Gullickson, 2016 WL 6473215 at *6 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 2, 2016) (quoting Wong v. Tenneco, Inc., 39 Cal. 3d 126, 135 (1985)).

Bart St. III v. ACC EnterprisesApplying this principle, a number of federal courts have refused to enforce contracts relating to state-legal cannabis. For instance, in Bart St. III v. ACC Enterprises, LLC, No. 217CV00083GMNVCF, 2020 WL 1638329 (D. Nev. Apr. 1, 2020), the parties entered into a loan agreement wherein the plaintiff-lender, Bart Street III, loaned the defendant cannabis cultivators in Nevada approximately $4.7 million to fund operating costs, pay down debts and purchase land for a cannabis cultivation facility in Nevada. Id. at *1-2. The loan agreement specified that it was governed by Nevada law. The cannabis cultivators defaulted on the loan, and Bart Street III sued for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. The cannabis cultivators argued that they could not be liable for breach of a contract that is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, as amended (the CSA). Id. A federal judge in Nevada ruled that certain provisions of the loan agreement (i.e., a right of first refusal provision and another provision concerning disbursement of operating costs) were illegal under federal law and could not be enforced. The judge was unable to decide on summary judgment whether the illegal provisions could be severed from the other parts of the agreement, so on that basis the cannabis cultivators’ summary judgment motion was denied as to the breach of contract claim. However, the judge granted the cannabis cultivators’ motion as to the unjust enrichment claim based on the following reasoning: “Plaintiff cannot prevail for unjust enrichment because the parties’ contract involves moral turpitude. If the Contract is unenforceable, it is because Plaintiff invested in Defendants’ marijuana cultivation business primarily to obtain a pathway to an equity investment therein . . . . Providing funds in exchange for equity violates the CSA because it would allow the investor to profit from the cultivation, possession, and sale of marijuana . . . . Conspiracy to cultivate marijuana is a crime of moral turpitude.”

Polk v. GontmakherThe illegality defense was also raised in Polk v. Gontmakher, No. 2:18-CV-01434-RAJ, 2020 WL 2572536 (W.D. Wash. May 21, 2020), which involved two business partners—Polk and Gontmakher— who owned a licensed cannabis processing facility and retail store through an entity called NWCS. When Polk decided to leave the business, Gontmakher refused to acknowledge Polk’s ownership interest because Polk had a prior criminal record, which violated ownership requirements for cannabis businesses under Washington cannabis regulations. Polk sued Gontmakher for breach of a verbal partnership agreement and sought to recover past and future profits of the cannabis business. Gontmakher moved to dismiss, and the district judge granted the motion: “Mr. Polk’s claim that his requested relief would not require a violation of the CSA defies logic. He is demanding the future profits of a business that produces and processes marijuana in violation of federal law. How does Mr. Polk anticipate NWCS will generate these future profits? The Court cannot fathom how ordering [Gontmakher] to turn over the future profits of a marijuana business would not require them to violate the CSA. And as this Court has previously explained to Mr. Polk, it cannot award him an equitable interest in NWCS because to do so would directly contravene federal law.” Polk, WL 2572536 at *2.

J. Lilly, LLC v. Clearspan Fabric Structures Int’l, Inc.Certain federal district court judges have addressed the illegality defense directly, even when it has not been asserted by the parties. In J. Lilly, LLC v. Clearspan Fabric Structures Int’l, Inc., No. 3:18-CV-01104-HZ, 2020 WL 1855190 (D. Or. Apr. 13, 2020), a licensed cannabis cultivator in Oregon contracted with Clearspan, a lessor of commercial greenhouse equipment located in Connecticut, to lease greenhouse equipment for the facility and also have the facility constructed. After construction began, the cultivator notified Clearspan (and the sub-contractor) of numerous defects in the facility that were impeding cultivation efforts, and after Clearspan allegedly fixed only one defect, the cultivator sued for breach of the agreements and claimed lost profits due to the inability to cultivate cannabis, in the amount of $5.4 million. While Clearspan moved to dismiss the claims on the basis that the cultivator waived any contractual right to consequential damages, the District Court raised the issue of the illegality of the contracts under federal law sua sponte at oral argument. After supplemental briefing on the issue, the Court held that “awarding Plaintiff damages for lost profits [for the sale of cannabis] would require the Court to compel Defendants to violate the [CSA…and] provides an independent basis to dismiss Plaintiff’s lost profits claim in addition to” the issue of waiver, and other merits issues.  Id. at *11-12.

And in Ricatto v. M3 Innovations Unlimited, Inc., No. 18 CIV. 8404 (KPF), 2019 WL 6681558 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 6, 2019), Ricato (an investor) and M3 (the intended cannabis operator and licensee) entered into an agreement to purchase a plot of land in California for M3 to develop as a cannabis processing facility. The investor sued to enforce the investment instrument, and M3 moved to dismiss. The court granted M3’s motion to dismiss on other grounds but noted that “it is not readily apparent to the Court that it could [even] enforce such a contract [as] ‘[m]arijuana remains illegal under federal law, even in those states in which medical marijuana has been legalized,’” such as California. Id. at *5, n.4.

Ricatto v. M3 Innovations Unlimited, Inc.However, under some circumstances a federal court may enforce a cannabis contract. In Mann v. Gullickson, Mann loaned Gullickson money to be used in a cannabis-related business. The agreement was governed by California law. When Gullickson defaulted on the promissory note, Mann sued for breach of contract. Gullickson asserted that the contract was illegal under federal law and moved for summary judgment. In an order denying Gullickson’s motion, the court said that “even where contracts concern illegal objects, where it is possible for a court to enforce a contract in a way that does not require illegal conduct, the court is not barred from according such relief.” 2016 WL 6473215, at *7.

Federal courts are wary of parties seeking the enforcement of cannabis contracts. If there is any possibility that the issuance of a court order enforcing the contract would result in a party violating the CSA, federal courts are likely to deny relief.

State Laws Protecting the Enforceability of Cannabis Contracts

At the state level, legislatures in some states that have legalized cannabis for adult use have enacted laws to protect the enforceability of cannabis contracts. These statutes specifically exempt commercial cannabis activities from general laws voiding contracts that are in furtherance of illegal activities. Examples of these state laws include:

Massachusetts: In December 2016, Massachusetts enacted a statute providing that “[c]ontracts pertaining to marijuana enforceable” and providing that contracts entered into by cannabis licensees or their agents, or by landlords of cannabis licensees, “shall not be unenforceable or void exclusively because the actions or conduct permitted pursuant to the license is prohibited by federal law.” (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 94G, § 10)

California: In January 2019, California enacted a statute providing that “commercial activity relating to medicinal cannabis or adult-use cannabis conducted in compliance with California law and any applicable local standards, requirements, and regulations” shall be deemed the lawful object of a contract and not contrary to law or against public policy, notwithstanding any law that requires all contracts have a “lawful object” under state or federal law. (Cal. Civil Code § 1550.5)

Nevada: In 2016, a ballot initiative was passed in Nevada, which was then codified under state law, declaring “[i]t is the public policy of the People of the State of Nevada that contracts related to the operation of marijuana establishments under this chapter should be enforceable,” and that such contracts “shall not be deemed unenforceable on the basis that the actions or conduct permitted pursuant to the license are prohibited by federal law.” (N.R.S. § 678B.610).

Similar statutes have been enacted in other states, including in Oregon (January 2018), Michigan (December 2018), Illinois (June 2019) and Colorado (January 2020). See Or. Rev. Stat. § 475B.535 (In Oregon, “[a] contract is not unenforceable on the basis that” commercial cannabis activity legal in Oregon is illegal under federal law); Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-601 (similar to Oregon); Mich. Comp. Laws § 333.27960 (Public policy in Michigan is that “…contracts related to the operation of marihuana establishments [are] enforceable.”); 410 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 705/55-75 (similar to Michigan).

However, many states that have legalized cannabis do not have statutes exempting contracts relating to cannabis activities from the illegality defense.

Contracting Tips for Cannabis Companies

Notwithstanding the uncertainty and inherent risks caused by the conflict between federal and state law, there are certain steps parties entering into commercial cannabis agreements can take to protect their contractual rights, including:

  1. Always include a forum selection clause specifying resolution of disputes in state court and waiving any right to remove the dispute to federal court.
  2. If entering into an agreement in a state that has enacted a statutory provision exempting cannabis contracts from the illegality defense, consider selecting that state’s law (as opposed to New York or Delaware law, which are often the jurisdictions of choice for transactional lawyers who don’t know better) in a choice of law provision.
  3. If neither the parties nor the performance of the agreement have any nexus to a state that has enacted a statutory provision protecting the enforceability of cannabis contracts, consider incorporating the contracting entity in one of those states. In the same way that Delaware is the jurisdiction of choice for incorporating most companies, a state like California may on balance be the better choice for cannabis industry participants due to the legal recognition of commercial cannabis activity.
  4. Consider using an arbitration clause in commercial cannabis agreements. These clauses require parties to arbitrate disputes that may arise in connection with the agreement. As a general rule, arbitration is both more efficient and less expensive than litigation, and arbitrators are less likely than federal judges to refuse to enforce an agreement because it relates to federally illegal cannabis activity.

Conclusion

Notwithstanding expanding legalization at the state level, and general federal tolerance of the state-legal cannabis industry, federal courts remain a dangerous place for cannabis companies. If possible, cannabis companies should specify state court (or arbitration) for resolution of disputes in their contracts, and they should choose a state law that expressly excludes cannabis contracts from the illegality doctrine.


References

  1. Cannabis is legal for medical purposes in 33 states plus the District of Columbia; cannabis is legal for adults over 21 in 11 states plus the District of Columbia. Approximately 76.5% of the population of the United States lives in a state with some form of legal cannabis. See https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/popest/2010s-state-total.html#par_textimage_1574439295. This figure excludes Texas, which has a limited medical cannabis program as of this writing. However, if Texas is included, then over 85% of the population lives in a state with some form of legal cannabis.

The Ultimate Guide to Intellectual Property Protection for Cannabis Businesses

By Roger Bora
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As of this writing, one cannot register trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for cannabis products and services that “touch” the cannabis plant (i.e., cultivate, manufacture or dispense cannabis products), with the recent exception for certain hemp-based products and services, because use of trademarks must be lawful under federal law for federal trademark registration eligibility. Brand owners may, however, secure federal trademark registration protection for their brand names for certain cannabis-related products and services that are currently legal under federal law in advance of what could be the full legalization of cannabis at the state and federal levels.

Federal trademark registration provides brand owners with valuable benefits beyond common law (unregistered) and state registered trademark rights, including the preservation of national expansion rights and presumption of trademark ownership and validity. For those reasons, securing federal trademark registration protection for trademarks is a prudent business strategy.

This article summarizes certain laws and regulations for securing federal trademark registration protection for cannabis products (including cannabidiol (CBD) products) and services. It also identifies other forms of intellectual property protection for  cannabis businesses.

What Are Cannabis, Marijuana, Hemp and CBD?

  • Cannabis is a plant of the Cannabaceae family and contains many biologically active chemical compounds, including the well-known delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) compounds.
  • Parts of the Cannabis sativa plant are controlled under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) under the drug class “marijuana.” The CSA is a federal law that regulates drug policy for the manufacture, importation, possession, use and distribution of certain substances. Marijuana is currently listed as an illegal Schedule I drug under the CSA, along with cocaine and heroin, due to its high potential for abuse, which is attributable mainly to the psychoactive effects of THC and the absence of a currently accepted medical use in the United States.
  • Marijuana, a term the CSA uses, is the dried leaves of the cannabis plant. It is derived from the cannabis sativa and cannabis indica species and is used primarily as a psychoactive drug.
  • Hemp is derived only from the cannabis sativa species and has historically been grown primarily for its strong fibers used for industrial purposes, including for making fabrics, clothing and rope.
  • There is a significant difference between marijuana and hemp with respect to their concentration of THC, which gives the plant its psychoactive effect. While marijuana can reach THC levels of 30%, THC levels in hemp are typically 0.3% or less.
  • The low level of THC in hemp is a reason why federal authorities recently removed it from the legal definition of marijuana, which means that cannabis plants and derivatives such as CBD derived from hemp that contain 0.3% or less of THC on a dry-weight basis are no longer considered controlled substances under the CSA.
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) is an active ingredient in the cannabis plant and is derived primarily from the hemp plant. CBD has been touted for its many health benefits, including for the treatment of insomnia, pain and anxiety, and it has become a widely used ingredient in many types of products, including foods, cosmetics, building materials, industrial oils, plastics and textiles.

Relevant Laws and Regulations

Controlled Substances Act (CSA)

Under the CSA, the drug class marijuana is defined as “all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds or resin” (subject to certain exceptions). 21 U.S.C. §802(16).

The CSA prohibits, among other things, manufacturing, distributing, dispensing or possessing cannabis that meets the definition of marijuana, including CBD derived from marijuana.

2018 Farm Bill Removes Hemp from the Definition of Marijuana

The 2018 Farm Bill signed into law on December 20, 2018, amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 and changed certain federal laws and regulations concerning the production and marketing of “hemp,” defined as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol [THC] concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

  • Those changes included removing hemp from the CSA’s definition of marijuana, which means that hemp and its derivatives, such as CBD derived from hemp, that contain no more than 0.3% THC on a dry-weight basis, are no longer controlled substances under the CSA.
  • The recent change in the classification of hemp allows brand owners that legally manufacture and sell certain hemp-based products, including certain hemp-derived CBD products, to federally register their associated trademarks.
  • However, the 2018 Farm Bill explicitly preserved FDA’s authority to regulate certain products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds, even if derived from hemp, including CBD derived from hemp. Thus, federal laws, including FDA regulations, must still be considered for product legality before introducing products into commerce.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Even with the removal of hemp from the CSA’s definition of marijuana, not all hemp-derived products are lawful following passage of the 2018 Farm Bill because certain products may still violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. For example, certain hemp-derived CBD products, including human foods, beverages, dietary supplements and animal foods, still violate FDA laws absent FDA approval.

The FDA monitors and investigates the sale of products that violate FDA laws, including CBD products promoted for therapeutic uses and treating diseases. When the FDA detects such violations, it may send warning letters to the violating parties as a first step in the enforcement process.

On December 20, 2018, the then FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. made the following statement on that point:

“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. 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 because they were marketed as dietary supplements or because they involved the addition of CBD to food.”

Furthermore, in a recent letter to a company selling CBD products, the FTC sent a joint letter with the FDA, and that letter included the following statements and warnings:

  • “The FTC strongly urges you to review all claims for your products and ensure that those claims are supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.  Violations of the FTC Act may result in legal action seeking a Federal District Court injunction or Administrative Cease and Desist Order.  An order also may require that you pay back money to consumers.

  • You should take prompt action to correct the violations cited in this letter. Failure to promptly correct violations may result in legal action without further notice, including, without limitation, seizure and/or injunction.”

What about using hulled hemp seed, hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil in human food?

  • In December 2018, the FDA generally recognized as safe (GRAS) hulled hemp seed, hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil. Accordingly, the FDA’s current position suggests that those products may legally be marketed in human foods for the uses described in the notices, provided they comply with all other requirements. To date, the FDA has not received any GRAS notices for the use of hemp-derived ingredients in animal food.
  • Hemp seeds are the seeds of the Cannabis sativa plant. They do not naturally contain THC or CBD. The hemp seed-derived ingredients that are the subjects of the GRAS notices contain only trace amounts of CBD and THC. The FDA has reported that “[c]onsumption of these hemp seed-derived ingredients is not capable of making consumers ‘high.’”
  • Those GRAS conclusions do not affect the FDA’s position on the addition of CBD and THC to food.

U.S. Trademark Registration Eligibility

Trademarks Must Be Used for Lawful Activities

A trademark’s use must be lawful under federal law for federal trademark registration eligibility. Whether activities associated with cannabis and/or cannabis-related goods or services are lawful under federal law requires review of various federal laws, including the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Federal law controls federal trademark registration eligibility, period.

If a trademark application is filed for goods or services that violate federal laws, including for marijuana products and/or services or certain products that feature CBD, such as foods and nutritional supplements, the USPTO Examiner should refuse the application. Furthermore, filing an “intent-to-use” trademark application cannot obviate that refusal.

What does that mean? It means that filing a trademark application based on an “intent to use” the trademark “in the future” in anticipation of federal law legalizing cannabis still violates current law (the law as of the application filing date), and thus the application should be rejected because the applicant does not and cannot have a “bona fide intent” to use the applied-for mark for a legal purpose.

The USPTO Examination Guide 1-19 for examining cannabis marks states that:

“[r]egistration of marks for foods, beverages, dietary supplements, or pet treats containing CBD will still be refused as unlawful under the FDCA, even if derived from hemp, as such goods may not be introduced lawfully into interstate commerce.”

The following is an excerpt from an issued Trademark Office action refusing registration of a mark on the basis the listed cannabis goods are unlawful:

“Registration is refused because applicant does not have a bona fide intent to lawfully use the applied-for mark in commerce.

To qualify for federal trademark/service mark registration, the use of a mark in commerce must be lawful. Gray v. Daffy Dan’s Bargaintown, 823 F.2d 522, 526, 3 USPQ2d 1306, 1308 (Fed. Cir. 1987) (stating that “[a] valid application cannot be filed at all for registration of a mark without ‘lawful use in commerce’”); TMEP §907; see In re Stellar Int’l, Inc., 159 USPQ 48, 50-51 (TTAB 1968); Coahoma Chemical Co., Inc. v. Smith, 113 USPQ 413 (Com’r Pat. & Trademarks 1957) (concluding that “use of a mark in connection with unlawful shipments in interstate commerce is not use of a mark in commerce which the [Office] may recognize.”). Thus, the goods and/or services to which the mark is applied must comply with all applicable federal laws. See In re Brown, 119 USPQ2d 1350, 1351 (TTAB 2016) (citing In re Midwest Tennis & Track Co., 29 USPQ2d 1386, 1386 n.2 (TTAB 1993) (noting that “[i]t is settled that the Trademark Act’s requirement of ‘use in commerce,’ means a ‘lawful use in commerce’”)); In re Pepcom Indus., Inc., 192 USPQ 400, 401 (TTAB 1976); TMEP §907.

Here, the items or activities to which the proposed mark will be applied are unlawful under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 21 U.S.C. §§801-971.”

USPTO Guidelines for Marijuana and Hemp Products: Key Takeaways

  • Trademark registrations for marijuana and marijuana by-products, including CBD derived from marijuana, are still unavailable.
  • Trademark registrations for certain hemp products are available. If an applicant’s goods are derived from hemp, as defined in the 2018 Farm Bill, the identification of goods must specify that they are derived from hemp and that the products contain less than 0.3% THC. Thus, the scope of the resulting registration will be limited to goods compliant with federal law.
  • Trademark applications covering certain CBD infused products, including foods, beverages, dietary supplements and pet foods, are still refused, even if derived from hemp, because such goods may not be introduced lawfully into commerce without FDA approval.
  • The USPTO is currently approving trademarks for skin care preparations and cosmetics that feature hemp ingredients, including CBD derived from hemp, as long as the application complies with the 2018 Farm Bill and USPTO filing requirements.
  • If a pending application’s filing date is prior to December 20, 2018 (the effective date of the 2018 Farm Bill), the applicant must amend the filing date to a date later than December 20, 2018 before the application may proceed. Once the date has been amended, a new search is conducted for any prior pending confusingly similar marks.
  • Trademark applications for hemp cultivation and production, if allowed, will require proof of authorization and licensure in accordance with a plan approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Federal Trademark Registration Considerations and Options

Although marijuana products and services (i.e., products and services that “touch the plant”) and certain hemp-based products are currently illegal under federal law, making their associated marks ineligible for federal trademark registration protection, there are still certain cannabis-related activities that are legal and thus eligible for federal trademark registration.

Examples of legal activities include:

  • Providing informational services related to cannabis or marijuana-related goods and services.
  • Clothing, including t-shirts and hats, featuring a cannabis-related trademark.
  • Educational programs in the fields of cannabis and CBD, including for health benefits and therapeutic uses of medical cannabis and CBD.
  • Providing an internet news portal featuring links to current events, information, commentary, non-downloadable publications in the nature of brochures, articles, and non-downloadable multimedia files containing video, audio or text in the fields of cannabis or cannabis news.
  • Online journals, namely blogs featuring information about cannabis.
  • Entertainment services, namely, providing podcasts featuring medical and industry experts in the field of cannabis and medical marijuana.

If a brand owner secures federal trademark registration protection for marks for legal activities, including those listed above, those trademark registrations and rights may arguably preserve future product and service expansion under the same registered mark for “related” goods and/or services that are unlawful as of the trademark application filing date, but later become lawful, including CBD infused foods and nutritional supplements and marijuana itself.

Why? Because trademark law protects consumers from “source confusion.”

  • For example, if a brand owner adopts the trademark N-DuraRun for running shoes, another party may not adopt the same or confusingly similar mark for running pants because consumers would likely be confused as to the source of running shoes and running pants if offered under the same trademark by different parties.
    • It is not confusion as to what a consumer is buying (“I thought I was buying running shoes… instead I mistakenly purchased running pants…”). Rather, it is confusion as to the source of the products (“I purchased EnDuraRun brand running pants because I thought they were made by the same company that makes N-DuraRun brand running shoes!”).
    • A question to ask is “Would the average consumer reasonably believe that the parties’ respective goods are of the type that would originate from the same source?”
      • If the answer is “yes” and if the parties’ respective marks are confusingly similar, there may be a likelihood of consumer confusion as to the source of the parties’ respective goods.

For example, if a company provides informational services in the field of cannabis and cannabis derivatives, including CBD infused foods, and/or provides foods and nutritional supplements featuring hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil, and it secures federal trademark registration protection for its trademark for those goods and/or services, that existing federal trademark registration and rights may arguably preserve the brand owner’s right to use and register the same mark for “related” goods and services, which could include CBD-infused foods and nutritional supplements if/when those goods become legal. That is so because the average consumer would arguably believe that informational services about CBD infused foods and CBD infused foods themselves would originate from the same source and also believe that foods and nutritional supplements featuring hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil and foods and nutritional supplements featuring hemp-derived CBD would originate from the same source.

Source confusion is the crux of trademark law.

Therefore, securing federal trademark registration protection now for goods and services that are lawful can preserve future trademark rights for cannabis-related products and services that are currently unlawful and may avoid losing valuable trademark rights to third parties.

As companies prepare for the potential federal legalization of all forms of cannabis, securing federal trademark registration now for brand names for goods and services that are currently legal is vital for protecting valuable company assets, current and future business opportunities, and future growth, and it is possible as long as brand owners understand the current status of the regulatory landscape and the intricacies of trademark law.

Other Forms of Intellectual Property Protection

In addition to trademark and federal trademark registration protection, there are other intellectual property protections available for marijuana, hemp and cannabis businesses, including:

  • State trademark filings. In states that have legalized cannabis, state trademark registrations may be available.
  • Common law trademark rights. In states that have legalized cannabis, common law trademark rights may be available.
  • Patent protection. Patent protection may be secured for various inventions, including plants, such as new strains of the cannabis plant, and methods of cannabis hydration and lighting.
  • Trade secrets. Trade secrets can protect certain aspects of a business, including formulas, processes or methods, that are not generally known or reasonably ascertainable by others and that can help a business obtain an economic advantage over competitors or customers. To be eligible as trade secrets, however, a business owner must take the necessary steps to legally protect them or they will be lost.
  • Copyrights. Copyright protection may be secured for certain company creative works, including trademark logos (artwork), written materials, photographs and software.

As the laws governing the cannabis industry continue to evolve, including trademark, FDA and banking laws and regulations, all interested parties, including cannabis business owners, law firms and investors, must stay abreast of the rapidly changing legal landscape to maximize business growth opportunities, ensure proper legal and regulatory compliance, and avoid having their businesses go up in smoke.


Notice: This article is for educational purposes only, is not legal advice and should not be substituted for retaining an attorney.

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.”

Wyoming Legalizes Hemp, CBD Oil

By Aaron G. Biros
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Governor Mark Gordon signed HB0171/ HEA No. 0110 into law today, officially legalizing the cultivation and sales of hemp and CBD oil in the state of Wyoming. According to Buckrail.com, a Jackson, Wyoming news publication, the bill passed through the state legislature with ease, moving forward in the House on a 56-3 vote and through the Senate with a 26-3 vote.

President Trump signed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the Farm Bill) into law late in December of 2018, which removed hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act in states that choose to regulate it. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signing HB0171 means that the state intends to regulate the cultivation and sales of hemp-derived CBD.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon

Scott McDonald with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture told Wyoming Public Media that once the bill is signed, the state has 30 days to show their plans for regulation to the federal government. “We were kind of hoping to get something in place this spring for this growing season,” McDonald told Wyoming Public Media. “But we’re not sure that’s going to happen or not. There’s some uncertainty there, so it might be next year.”

McDonald also discussed the next steps that the WY Department of Agriculture needs to take to follow through on the bill’s promises, including figuring out a way to distribute licenses to hemp farmers, licensing laboratories to test hemp, insuring it has less than 0.3% THC and implementing a remediation plan for when crops test above that threshold.

According to Charlotte Peyton, a consultant with 30 years of experience in FDA regulations and experience working in the hemp industry, it is important to keep in mind that as soon as products containing hemp-derived CBD are sold across state lines, the FDA maintains regulatory authority. “If you manufacture and sell hemp products inside of a state with a state mandated hemp program, you are legal and protected under state laws, but the minute you sell across state lines, it becomes the jurisdiction of the federal government and, more specifically, the FDA,” says Peyton.

According to some farmers, this is good news for the local economy. Many say this could be give a much-needed boost to the state’s agricultural economy, citing hemp’s suitability to grow in Wyoming’s climate and a perceived high demand throughout the state.

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.

David Kluft headshot

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

By David Kluft
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David Kluft headshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Happening on Capitol Hill? Part 2: A Bill-By-Bill Review

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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Since the first session of the 115th Congress convened on January 3, 2017, twenty-four cannabis reform bills have been introduced, fifteen in the House and nine in the Senate. All of them address in varying ways the puzzles that have emerged as more and more states legalize cannabis in the face of federal prohibition. Some are narrow, some are broad, some are for medical cannabis only, some for recreational too, some have more bipartisan support than others, but all indicate in some manner the direction federal reform will eventually take.

H.R.1227 – Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017

Understanding the content and status of these bills and what they would mean for the industry if/when they are enacted, will help stakeholders anticipate changes that we know are bound to drop, and therefore be better prepared to adapt to them when they do.

Generally lacking in the journalism on cannabis is coverage and analysis of federal proposals deep enough to provide a useable understanding of the policies they stand to codify. As CIJ is dedicated to providing just such useable information to industry-insiders, this bill-by-bill review fills the gap.

All twenty-four bills fit rather neatly into one of three categories: De-scheduling/State Control Reform, Medical Cannabis Reform and Banking/Tax Reform. This second article in the series will look at the first category, and the next article will wrap up the last two.

De-Scheduling/State Control Reform

HR 1227 – Ending Marijuana Federal Prohibition Act of 2017

Policy: The bill proposes two major changes to the CSA. The first is to strike cannabis from the statute, essentially leaving the regulation or prohibition of it up to each state. The second is to insert into the CSA a provision that makes it a federal offense to transport cannabis from one state to another in any way that violates state law. In other words, if a state wished to continue prohibiting cannabis, it would be both a federal and state crime for anyone to transport cannabis into that state. Likewise, if a state wished to legalize and regulate cannabis, but wanted to prevent out-of-state cannabis from entering, the transportation provision would permit that state to do so.

Impact: Industries in states that have already legalized cannabis will structurally remain the same. Banking will open up for these state businesses, and so will the opportunity to write-off ordinary business expenses. Questions about contract enforcement and risks of federal prosecution will become moot, and when state regulatory bodies make decisions on how to govern the industry, they will no longer have to concern themselves with U.S. DOJ enforcement and/or prosecutorial policies. The big potential change will be seen if two or more contiguous states that have legalized cannabis decide to permit transport of the drug between their states. Markets will expand, opening access to new customers and challenges from new competitors. Licensees may also have the option to venue shop, and we could see states themselves competing with one another to attract cannabis business with the carrot of favorable regulations.

Representative Thomas Garett (R-VA)
Photo: C-SPAN

One possible pitfall to keep in mind is that this legislation could violate something in constitutional law known as the Dormant Commerce Clause—a topic CIJ will cover should it surface.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on February 27, 2017 by Representative Thomas Garett (R-VA)
  • Cosponsors: 4 Republican, 11 Democrat, 1 At-Large
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

HR 2528 – Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act of 2017

Policy: This bill would add to the CSA a provision specifically declaring no congressional intent to preempt state cannabis laws.

Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO)
Photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund, Flickr

Impact: HR 2528 would rule out the potential for a judicial resolution to the federalism controversy. Most legal challenges to state legalization regimes have relied on a theory of Supremacy Clause preemption. Most notably was the 2014 case initiated by Oklahoma and Nebraska against Colorado, which you can find broken down here. Although the Supreme Court denied to hear that case, the issue is outstanding and remains an important factor, if not the central factor, in cannabis cases currently pending in federal court. Under this reform, state cannabis laws would be safe from invalidation, but it is less clear whether a mere anti-preemption clause would strip the federal government of its other powers under the CSA, or alter in any way the current status of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance. Questions arising under such uncertainty would likely have to go through long and hotly contested litigation before we have concrete answers. So although this proposal would resolve the ticklish issue of preemption, it leaves unaddressed the many other conundrums posed by federal-state divergence.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on May 18, 2017 by Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO)
  • Cosponsors: 1 Republican
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

HR 1841 – Regulate Marihuana Like Alcohol Act

Policy: This bill sets to accomplish a number of different reforms: remove cannabis from CSA; allow for import and export except into states that wish to prohibit cannabis altogether and/or prohibit its importation into the state; decriminalize cannabis use on national forest land; require a permit from the Secretary of the Treasury to import cannabis and to engage in any cannabis business activity; mandate businesses that obtain a Treasury permit to also comply with all State laws (so if state wants to continue to prohibit, they may); share jurisdiction over the administration and enforcement of the new federal laws between the DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tabaco, Firearms and Explosives which is to be renamed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana, Firearms and Explosives.

Representative Jared Polis (D-CO)
Photo: Joshua Lawton, Flickr

Impact: If enacted, this bill will have many of the same impacts as the abovementioned HR 1227- Ending Marijuana Federal Prohibition Act of 2017. The IMPACT section for that bill will also pertain to this bill, with the following exception: by requiring a permit to operate a cannabis business from the Department of Treasury, the bill would add a layer of regulation on top of state law. Treasury Permits would be conditioned on permitees complying “with all other Federal laws relating to production, sale and consumption of marijuana.” Although §302 of the bill limits Treasury’s discretion in denying applications to only certain, enumerated disqualifying factors, the “other Federal laws” the bill refers to could embody any number of policy and jurisdictional preferences either enacted by the Congress or promulgated by the executive agencies charged with administration. At the current stage of speculation the best we can say is that descheduling cannabis under this bill would be a benefit to the industry, but out of all of the present proposals the provisions authorizing federal regulation present the greatest uncertainty for the shape the future of the industry might take.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on March 30, 2017 by Representative Jared Polis (D-CO)
  • Cosponsors: 1 Republican, 14 Democrat
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
    • Energy and Commerce
    • Ways and Means
    • Agriculture
      • Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry
    • Natural Resources
      • Subcommittee on Federal Lands

HR 975

Statute: Adds one sentence to the CSA that excludes its application to any person acting in compliance with State cannabis laws.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Impact: The bill would have the same impact as the above HR 1227 – Ending Marijuana Federal Prohibition Act of 2017, with the only exception that the transportation provision in HR 1227 makes it clear that states will be permitted to prohibit the importation of cannabis from other states if they want to. This bill, without speaking directly to the matter of interstate importation, could leave the question open-ended until resolved through judicial interpretation.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on February 7, 2017 by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
  • Cosponsors: 8 Republican, 12 Democrat, 2 At-Large
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

Legislative Update

On Tuesday, August 1st, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the twenty-fourth cannabis reform bill. The bill has yet to be assigned a number or referred to committee, but it is called the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017, and makes some interesting contributions to the lineup of reform proposals.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Photo: Nick Fisher, Flickr

For legalization purposes, the bill both removes cannabis from the CSA and removes prohibitions on importing and exporting. The above analysis for descheduling and import/export would apply to Booker’s bill in the same way. The interesting twist thrown in is how criminal and racial justice objectives are linked to incentives for states to legalize. The ultimate decision to legalize or not in a given state will continue to be the prerogative of each state, but the catch is that if a state does not legalize cannabis and the number of arrests for cannabis offenses in that state disproportionately impacts minority or low-income citizens, then the federal government will pull funding it provides to that state for criminal justice-related programs. This could push more states who would otherwise not legalize onto the reform bandwagon. Such states will have to pit how much they value federal funds against how much they value criminalizing cannabis. If the former outweighs the latter, policy logic will dictate that they legalize. Updates on this bill, and movement on any others, will be tracked by CIJ.

For the next piece in this series, we will review the bills currently pending in Congress that cover medical cannabis reform and banking/tax reform. Stay tuned for the latest on what’s happening around Capitol Hill and in federal cannabis policy circles.

National Hemp Association Board Chairman Meets With USDA Senior Officials

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to a press release yesterday sent out by the National Hemp Association (NHA), on Wednesday, June 28th, Board Chairman Geoff Whaling met with senior U.S. Department of Agriculture staff, along with Erica McBride from the Pennsylvania Industrial Hemp Council. The press release says this is the first time that Agricultural Secretary Perdue has had his staff meet with the hemp industry. “The meeting reaffirmed critical elements of the working relationship that the hemp industry has established with the USDA since the enactment of Sec. 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill,” reads the press release put out by the NHA.

The press release says the USDA will support hemp pilot projects, considering grant and loan applications and other means of funding under the USDA and NIFA. “All hemp industry participants are encouraged to participate in these funding opportunities,” says Whaling. “USDA confirmed that nine Industrial Hemp funding requests to NIFA are being processed and that USDA has encouraged those who submitted previous requests to resubmit them.”

“USDA also offered to provide a quick response to any Secretary or Commissioner of Agriculture who is looking for clarification on either the Farm Bill or SOP, which may be preventing the States that have enacted enabling Industrial Hemp legislation from advancing research,” says Whaling.

A big driver of the meeting was the support of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2018 on behalf of the NHA. That bill, which Congressman James Comer (R-KY) plans on introducing in July, would essentially remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, allowing industrial cultivation of the plant. It also would set a THC limit and give states the power to regulate their own hemp industries.

“There is new leadership in the USDA, on the Hill and within our industry,” said Whaling. “I am confident that this group will advance our industry to a level never before achieved.”

What Does The Constitution Have To Say About Cannabis Legalization?

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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With the Trump Administration sending mixed signals on legal cannabis, and with Congress beginning to ramp up efforts for reform, in order for industry stakeholders to best understand where we are headed, it will be helpful to remember how we got here. As readers may be aware, the current status of federal cannabis law can be traced back to the legislative prong of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs. His Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) made it a federal crime for anyone to use or possess any amount of marijuana anywhere in the U.S. Current federal cannabis policy, on the other hand, complicates the matter, and can be traced back to a memorandum issued in 2013 by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. The Cole Memo instructed U.S. attorneys general in states that have legalized marijuana to use their limited resources in prosecuting CSA offenses only if they violated specific federal enforcement priorities. The highest of these priorities include diverting legal marijuana business revenues to illegal drug operations, transporting marijuana over state lines, making marijuana accessible to minors, and growing marijuana on federal lands. The problem is that the Cole Memo is only a policy, it is not law; and so not only can the current administration unilaterally change it whenever it wants, but state-legal cannabis businesses, their employees and customers are breaking federal law every single day!

Former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole
Photo: Shane T. McCoy

This is a very unusual situation to be in for both the states and the feds, and it raises two basic constitutional questions: What gives the feds the right to make cannabis illegal everywhere in the U.S.? And how can states simply defy the prohibition?

The first question was in fact answered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 when two California women (Diane Monson and Angel Raich), both with very serious illnesses, sued the federal government for confiscating their state-legal medical cannabis. The feds defended their actions by claiming that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause gave them the authority to march into California, march into the homes of these women, and enforce the CSA. Diane and Angel argued that the Commerce Clause only gives the feds the authority over interstate commerce; and since their cannabis was grown by themselves, used by themselves, never bought or sold, or transported out of the state, it was therefore wholly intrastate cannabis and had nothing at all to do with interstate commerce. The Court sided with the feds, ruling that even though the cannabis was intrastate, when you take all intrastate cannabis activity like that and add it together, it will have a substantial impact on the interstate cannabis market. Because of that connection it was ‘necessary and proper’ for the feds to enact the CSA and enforce it anywhere in the country they wanted. Although there is still much debate over this ruling, it remains the law of the land to this day.

United States Constitution
Photo: National Archive

Fast forward to 2014. The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado claiming that by legalizing marijuana, Colorado was violating federal law under the CSA. Because federal law overrides state law when they conflict, then Colorado’s cannabis laws must be struck down, or so they argued. In response Colorado took a very interesting position that built on the hard realities of the cannabis market. It is best to explain it in four parts. First, they cited the fact that the federal government lacked the resources to enforce the CSA, a claim which the feds have admitted to themselves. Second, Colorado pointed to a constitutional doctrine called ‘anti-commandeering’, which says that they have no obligation to criminalize cannabis at all. If the feds want to make it a federal crime, that is one thing; but that does not mean CO must make it a state crime as well. Third, Colorado said that by regulating cannabis as extensively and strictly as they have done, they are reducing the amount of cannabis activity compared to not regulating it at all. Taken together, this means that because Colorado does not have to criminalize cannabis, and because the federal government cannot enforce their own criminalization, then Colorado is actually helping out the feds by regulating the drug instead of allowing for a free-for-all under state law.

The Congressional Cannabis Caucus Announced

In March of 2016 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in full or issue an opinion, which had the effect of giving a default victory to Colorado. Among political and legal commentators the speculation is that enough justices on the Court either agreed with the logic of Colorado’s position or wanted to wait for this federal-state controversy to be worked out by Congress. Because it was only a default victory, the constitutional status of the legal cannabis industry remains on unprecedented and unstable ground. The Controlled Substances Act has not yet been found to preempt state law, so cannabis businesses are still able to operate legally in their state. But because the CSA still applies to everyone, they do so at the whim of the Trump Administration’s policy preferences. The confusion that this presents has put cannabis businesses in many difficult situations, and it serves as the legal backdrop for such familiar problems as access to banking and contract enforcement.

Currently, legislative and judicial fixes are in motion. Related cannabis litigation is pending in federal court at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. And a Cannabis Caucus has formed in the U.S. Congress to address the shortcomings of the CSA. In the coming articles we will explore both of these routes to reform, the likelihoods of various possible outcomes, and the impact they will have on the legal cannabis industry.


Editor’s Note: For readers interested in learning more about this topic click here for Brian’s research article published by the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law