Tag Archives: court

Cannabis Receiverships: A Viable Alternative to Bankruptcy

By Oren Bitan
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Doing business in California’s legal cannabis industry remains a risky endeavor. The majority of the industry is still unlicensed, tax rates at the state and local levels are high (notwithstanding a recent reprieve from California’s cultivation tax) and there are not enough licenses to meet geographic demand throughout the state. Outside financing remains difficult to secure for equipment, tenant improvements, account receivables and working capital because, under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), cannabis remains a Schedule I narcotic. Therefore, entrepreneurs, investors and lenders who have stakes in state-sanctioned cannabis enterprises expect to see returns that justify the higher level of risk, which places additional financial pressure on cannabis businesses. In addition to the industry specific challenges, the United States economy is on the verge of a recession that may further hamper the industry notwithstanding the industry’s resiliency during the pandemic when it was deemed to be an “essential” industry that benefited from consumer spending of stimulus monies.

These outside pressures increasingly lead to ownership disputes and creditor defaults that result in litigation and the need for restructuring. In some instances, business partners cannot agree about control and finances of the licensed businesses and in other instances unpaid creditors file suit to enforce their interest in a company’s assets. And sometimes a local municipality discovers wrongdoing by an operator and initiates a health and safety lawsuit to cease the illegal condition.

Bankruptcy reorganization is an option typically utilized by struggling businesses to shed or restructure debt. Cannabis businesses, however, cannot take advantage of bankruptcy remedies because bankruptcy is a product of federal law and federal law still prohibits the sale of cannabis.

As a result, stakeholders in legal California cannabis enterprises must consider alternatives to bankruptcy to collect what they can on their loans and investments in the event the enterprise becomes insolvent or requires restructuring. A well-established alternative to bankruptcy is a state court remedy – the appointment of a receiver over the assets of a business or over the entire business operations. Through the receivership process, stakeholders may obtain many of the same protections available to them through bankruptcy

A. Federal Illegality Bars Access to Bankruptcy Protection

Over the past ten years, bankruptcy courts have routinely prohibited licensed cannabis businesses from seeking bankruptcy protection because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Bankruptcy trustees are typically charged with managing and operating property in the same manner that the owner would be bound to do if in possession thereof. Because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, trustees are not able to manage and operate licensed cannabis businesses.

B. Receivership as an Alternative to Bankruptcy

Under California law, a receiver is a neutral agent of the court appointed to preserve, control, manage and ultimately dispose of property that is subject to the litigation before the court.1 The receiver, therefore, holds property for the court, not the parties to the litigation.

Appointment of a receiver is a statutory provisional remedy. Other than corporate dissolutions under Code of Civil Procedure section 565, the law does not have a specific cause of action to appoint a receiver. Thus, the proponent of a receiver must have a valid cause of action in an underlying lawsuit.

1. The Appointment of a Receiver

The appointment of a receiver rests within the trial court’s discretion. Code of Civil Procedure section 564 contains the broadest statutory authority to appoint a receiver. Subdivision (b), details twelve possible situations in which a receiver may be appointed, most of which are beyond the scope of this article. The most common of these is a lender’s request to appoint a receiver when a borrower defaults on a loan and the lender seeks the appointment of a receiver over its collateral. The statute, however, clarifies that the situations listed in the statute are not exclusive: a court may appoint a receiver “[i]n all other cases where necessary to preserve the property or rights of any party.”

The receiver’s powers are limited by the statute under which the court appointed the receiver and those conferred by the court. The appointment order should, therefore, detail the duties the receiver owes to the court, and actions that the court authorizes the receiver to take to perform those tasks. The order should also specify the property that will be part of the receivership estate.

2. The Receiver’s Powers

The receiver has general statutory powers.2 The statutory powers include (i) commencing or defending litigation; (ii) taking and possessing property of the receivership estate, (iii) receiving rent, collecting debts, and making transfers, and (iv) acting in accordance with the court’s instruction with respect to the property.3 But the court’s authorization is necessary to sue the receiver and for the receiver to commence litigation.4 In the foregoing scenarios, the receiver is immunized personally from tort liability, but not in his or her official capacity as receiver.5

In addition to taking possession of property, the receiver may dispose of receivership property with the court’s approval.6 If the receiver is an equity receiver, the receiver may take possession and satisfy creditors from all the debtor’s assets.7

The court may further authorize the receiver to issue “certificates of indebtedness” to raise money to administer the receivership estate.8 This device permits the receiver to provide liquidity to the estate and gives the certificate holder an interest-bearing priority claim against the receivership estate.

3. Liquidating Cannabis Assets Through a Court Appointed Receiver

After the court appoints the receiver, the receiver should have sufficient powers to, among other things: (i) take over the management of the company; (ii) open bank accounts; (iii) borrow money by issuing receivership certificates; (iv) manage all of the company’s property; (v) hire counsel and other professionals; and (vi) sell the receivership estate’s assets for the benefit of the creditors. To maximize repayment to the creditors, the receiver may hold an auction to sell the assets and assist in facilitating the cancellation of company’s state license while the buyer of the assets secures its state license after the local license is transferred.

State cannabis licenses may not be sold or transferred.9 Yet, to maximize recovery for the creditors, the receiver may need to participate in the regulatory process to maintain a license during the pendency of the receivership and to assist in the amendment of a license while a prospective buyer seeks to obtain its own license. To do so, the receiver will first need to qualify as a licensee under state law to join as a licensee on the license and further the licensee as a going concern. Next, the principals of the prospective buyer will themselves need to qualify as licensees under the license. Then, once the sale of the company’s assets (including any interest in the license) to the buyer closes, the receiver and the company’s original owners will terminate their capacities as licensees of the license, leaving only the new owners as licensees. Thus, the proposed order should be written with attention to ensure the receiver has powers to further the foregoing and not diminish the value of the receivership estate.

After the conclusion of the sale of all assets, the receiver will need to obtain a discharge from the court of his or her duties as receiver. The receiver may do so by the parties’ stipulation or by motion. Together with the request for a discharge, the receiver should seek approval to pay: (i) any lenders to the receivership estate; (ii) professionals that the receiver hired; and (iii) him or herself for his or her services. Upon the court’s approval, the receivership will be terminated.

The conflict between federal and California law regarding cannabis continues to be an impediment for stakeholders in California’s cannabis market. Because of this conflict, stakeholders in California’s legal cannabis market lack access to vital traditional institutions, such as bankruptcy remedies. As a result, stakeholders must be prepared to consider alternatives such as a court appointed receiver, which can be a useful alternative to both secured creditors and unsecured creditors. Stakeholders who pursue a court appointed receiver will benefit from a long-established body of law and experienced professionals.


References

  1. Cal. Rules of Ct., r. 3.1179(a).
  2. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 568-570.
  3. Free Gold Mining Co. v. Spiers, 136 Cal. 484, 486 (1902); Steinberg v. Goldstein, 129 Cal. App. 2d 682, 685 (1954).
  4. Vitug v. Griffin, 214 Cal. App. 3d 488, 493 (1989).
  5. Chiesur v. Superior Court, 76 Cal. App. 2d 198, 201 (1946).
  6. Helvey v. U.S. Bldg. & Loan Ass’n, 81 Cal. App. 2d 647, 650 (1947).
  7. Turner v. Superior Court, 72 Cal. App. 3d 804, 812 (1977).
  8. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 568.
  9. See e.g., Cal. Code Regs. tit. 16, § 5023(c).

Pennsylvania Recall Overturned by State Courts

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Back in December of 2021, The Pennsylvania Department of Health sent emails to registered medical cannabis patients, notifying them of a safety review being conducted on ingredients found in cannabis vape products.

Then in February this year, the state’s health agency sent a third email. This one notified patients that they were recalling more than 650 products and ingredients. “As you know, the Department recently conducted a statewide review of all vaporized medical marijuana products containing added ingredients,” reads the email to patients. “After finishing this review, the Department has determined that certain vaporized medical marijuana products containing some added ingredients have not been approved for inhalation by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).”

The recall generated a lot of controversy for the state’s medical cannabis market, leaving patients, dispensaries, processors and other cannabis businesses with little guidance from the state’s health department. Cannabis companies in Pennsylvania, like Curaleaf, Jushi and Trulieve, formed a coalition and sued the state’s health department in February, alleging that regulators ordered the recall preemptively and did so without going through the proper channels, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

On June 2, the coalition of cannabis companies won and a judge stopped the recall. The very next day, the health department took issue with the judge’s decision and filed an appeal with the PA Supreme Court. For now though, as the appeal makes its way to Pennsylvania’s top court, the recall is lifted and dispensaries can restock their shelves with vape products.

How to Navigate Section 280E: Lessons Businesses Can Learn from Recent Court Outcomes

By Jay Jerose
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The cannabis business landscape is complex and is under constant review and control. Further, rules and regulations from both federal and state governments can pose additional challenges and barriers to business owners. For those unfamiliar, there is a section of Internal Revenue Code, Section 280E, that prohibits taxpayers who are engaged in the business of buying and selling certain controlled substances from deducting many typical business expenses that other businesses are able to freely deduct.

What is Section 280E and What Challenges Does it Pose?

A dispensary could deduct the cost of the product it sells, but due to Section 280E it would be unable to deduct necessary and ordinary business expenses such as building rent, insurance or employee wages. This can create a significant tax burden, as taxable income is calculated at the gross profit level instead of starting with net income. As a result, Section 280E has become increasingly relevant for cannabis businesses, which have grown substantially in recent years due to more states opting to legalize marijuana. But despite this trend towards legalization at the state level, cannabis with more than 0.3% THC remains illegal under federal law, which raises questions surrounding Section 280E.

In this article, we take a closer look at recent court cases that highlight challenges with Section 280E, the related outcomes and what it means for businesses in the cannabis space.

Challenging its Constitutionality

Patients Mutual Assistance Collective Corp. v. Commissioner, also known as the Harborside Case, partially involved legal arguments against the constitutionality of Section 280E under the 16th amendment. Harborside argued that income must be present for the IRS to levy an income tax, however Section 280E can frequently cause taxpayers to experience real losses along with taxable income. They argued that they were forced to pay taxes while losing money.

Two circuit courts before this case upheld that Section 280E did not violate either the 8th or 16th amendments to the constitution, leading to the court declining to even address the constitutionality claim. The court addressing a constitutionality issue could lead to unintended consequences for unrelated code provisions, leading this strategy to likely fail due to the mess it could unravel.

Attracting Customers with Freebies

Olive v. Commissioner involved a medical cannabis dispensary that also operated a consumption lounge. While the consumption lounge revenue entirely consisted of sales of medical cannabis, the business also provided services such as health counseling, movies, yoga, massage therapy and beverages at no additional cost. The business attempted to deduct the expenses of these free services as well as the cost of the cannabis itself.

The IRS denied the deductions for the additional services due to the sole source of revenue coming from cannabis sales. The court held that the expenses related to free services were designed to benefit and promote the sales of cannabis and induce further business from its customers.

The court did acknowledge that expenses can be allocated between two separate trades or businesses while still complying with 280E. However, distinct revenue streams need to be established to show the clear separability of the activities and care must be taken to document and support the expense allocations.

Co-mingling Cannabis and Non-Cannabis Enterprises

In the case of Alternative Healthcare Advocates v. Commissioner, the owner of a retail dispensary established a separate management corporation to provide management functions to the dispensary business. The two businesses shared identical ownership, and the management company solely provided services to the joint owner’s dispensary. The management company hired employees, advertised, and handled rent and other regular business expenses on behalf of the dispensary.

Despite the argument from the taxpayer that the businesses were separate entities, and that the management company did not own or “touch” cannabis in any way, the Tax Court ruled that both companies were in the business of trafficking illegal substances. This disallowed expenses on both entities. The IRS argued successfully that the operations of both companies were intertwined. The fact that the management company broke even on expenses and provided no services to any other unrelated entities meant that while legally separate, they were considered part and parcel to each other.

The Solution: Clear Documentation, Allocation and Separation

Californians Helping to Alleviate Med. Problems, Inc. v. Commissioner (CHAMP) involved a public benefit corporation that provided caregiving services along with cannabis to customers suffering from diseases. In this case, the taxpayer argued that they had two separate and distinct lines of service, being the sale of cannabis, and the sale of caregiving services.

While the IRS disagreed with this position and attempted to apply Section 280E to the entire entity, the Tax Court disagreed. It held that the taxpayer was operating with a dual purpose, the primary being the caregiving services, and the secondary being the sale of medical cannabis. The taxpayer’s customers were required to pay a membership fee and received extensive caregiving services, including support groups, one-on-one counseling, addiction counseling services, hygiene supplies and even food for low-income members. While the membership fee did include a set amount of medical cannabis, it was not unlimited. The Court held that the taxpayer’s extensive records and documentation clearly demonstrated two separate and distinct lines of business, with the caregiving being a primary service and the medical cannabis being secondary.

From these court cases and outcomes, it is clear that Section 280E can be confusing. The cannabis industry is a high-risk area, and the IRS has successful court cases to stand behind to back their legislation and agenda. These cases demonstrate two very simple concepts: first, businesses have attempted many creative ways of sidestepping Section 280E and failed; and second, clear documentation and detailed financial records are key, and will be paramount to support any tax positions related to Section 280E.

With the risks associated with conducting business in the cannabis industry, there is a strong likelihood that it will be high on the IRS’ radar over the next few years. Cannabis businesses should carefully consider their interpretation and application of Section 280E as it relates to the costs within their business. It will be important for businesses to utilize and consult with experienced attorneys and cannabis accountants to ensure they not only maintain compliance with federal laws, but also keep up with the changing regulations and court test opinions.


Disclaimer: The summary information presented in this article should not be considered legal advice or counsel and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. If the reader of this has legal questions, it is recommended they consult with their attorney.

photo of outdoor grow operation

The 2020 Global Cannabis Regulatory Roundup

By Marguerite Arnold
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photo of outdoor grow operation

As a strange year heads to a final, painful finish, there have been some major (and some less so) changes afoot in the global world of cannabis regulation. These developments have also undoubtedly been influenced by recent events, such as the recent elections in the United States, state votes for adult use reform in the U.S. and the overall global temperature towards reform. And while all are broadly positive, they have not actually accomplished very much altogether.

Here is a brief overview of the same.

The UN Vote On Cannabis
Despite a wide celebration in the cannabis press, along with proclamations of an unprecedented victory by large Canadian companies who are more interested in keeping their stock prices high than anything else, the December 2 vote on cannabis was actually fairly indecisive.

Following the WHO recommendations to reschedule cannabis, the UN voted in favor of the symbolic move. Despite removing cannabinoids from Schedule IV globally, a regulatory label designed for highly addictive, prescription drugs (like Valium), the actual results on the ground for the average company and patient will be inconclusive.

The first issue is that the UN did not remove cannabinoids themselves, or the plant, from Schedule I designation. This essentially means that countries and regions will be on the front lines to create more local, sovereign policies. This is not likely to change for at least the next several years (more likely decade) as the globe comes to terms with not just a reality post-COVID-19, but one which is very much pro-cannabis.

In the meantime, however, the ruling will make it easier for research to be conducted, for patient access (for the long term), and more difficult for insurers to turn down in jurisdictions where the supposed “danger” of cannabis has been used as an excuse to deny coverage. See Germany as a perfect example of the same.

It is also a boon for the CBD business, no matter where it is. Between this decision and the recent victory in Europe about whether CBD is a narcotic or not (see below), this is another nail in the coffin for those who want to use semantic excuses to restrain the obvious global desire for cannabinoids, with or without THC.

The U.S. Vote On The MORE Act

While undoubtedly a “victory” in the overall cannabis debate, the MORE Act actually means less rather than more. It will not become law as the Senate version of the bill is unlikely to even get to the floor of the chamber before the end of the session – which ends at the end of this year.

The House voted 228 to 164 to pass the MORE Act.

That said, the vote is significant in that it is a test of the current trends and views towards big issues within the overall discussion, beginning with decriminalization and a reform of current criminal and social justice issues inherent in the same. The Biden Administration, while plagued with a multitude of issues, beginning with the pandemic and its immediate aftershocks, will not be able to push both off the radar. Given the intersection of minority rights’ issues, the growing legality of the drug and acceptance thereof, as well as the growing non-partisan position on cannabis use of both the medical and adult use kind, and the economy, expect issues like banking to also have a hope of reform in the next several years.

Cannabis may be taking a back seat to COVID, in other words, but as the legalization of the industry is bound up, inextricably, in economic issues now front and center for every economy, it will be in the headlines a great deal. This makes it an unavoidable issue for the majority of the next four years and on a federal level.

Prognosis in other words? It’s a good next federal step that is safe, but far from enough.

The European Commission (EC) Has Finally Seen The Light On CBD

One of the most immediately positive and impactful decisions of the last month was absolutely the EC decision on whether CBD is a narcotic or not.

This combined with the UN rescheduling, will actually be the huge boost the CBD industry has been waiting for here, with one big and still major overhanging caveat – namely whether the plant is a “novel” one or not. It is unlikely as the situation continues to cook, that Cannabis Sativa L, when it hits a court of law, will ever be actually found as such. It has inhabited the region and been used by its residents for thousands of years.

However, beyond this, important regulatory guidance will need to fall somewhere on the matter of processing and extraction. It is in fact in the processing and extraction part of the debate that this discussion about Novel Food actually means something, beyond the political jockeying and hay made so far.

Beyond this of course, the marketing of CBD now allowed by this decision, will absolutely move the topic of cannabinoids front and center in the overall public sphere. That linked with sovereign experiments on adult use markets of the THC kind (see Holland, Luxembourg and Denmark as well as Portugal and Spain right after that), is far from a null sum game.

Legal Challenges Of Note

The European Court of Human Rights

Against this changing regulatory schemata, court cases and legal decisions remain very important as they also add flavor to how regulations are interpreted and followed. The most important court case in Europe right now is the one now waiting to be decided in the Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg regarding the human rights implications of accessing the plant.

Beyond that, in Germany, recent case law at a regional social benefits court (LSG) has begun to establish that the cannabis discussion is ultimately between doctors and their patients. While this still does not solve the problem of doctor reluctance to prescribe the drug, barriers are indeed coming down thanks to legal challenges.

Bottom line, the industry has been handed a nice whiff of confidence, but there is a still high and thorny bramble remaining to get through – and it will not happen overnight, or indeed even over the next several years.

A Survey of State CBD & Hemp Regulation Since The 2018 Farm Bill

By Brett Schuman, Jennifer Fisher, Brendan Radke, Gina Faldetta
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Since the December 20, 2018 enactment of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, better known as the Farm Bill, we have seen a number of new state laws addressing both the legality of hemp and products derived therefrom, most noticeably cannabidiol, better known as CBD. This piece provides a brief overview of some of the more interesting state laws concerning hemp and CBD, as well as recent developments.

Legality of Hemp

Since the passage of the Farm Bill, the vast majority of states have legalized the cultivation and sale of hemp and hemp products. However, certain states maintain laws barring some or even most forms of hemp.

The most stringent of those states is Idaho, where hemp remains illegal. In March 2020, Senate Bill 1345 – legislation that would have allowed for the production and processing of industrial hemp – died in the House State Affairs Committee, due to concerns that legalizing hemp would be the first step toward legalizing “marijuana”; that the bill contained too much regulation and that it was otherwise unworkable. As a result, Idaho is currently the only state without a legal hemp industry. Hemp with any THC, even at or below the 0.3 percent threshold under the Farm Bill, is considered equivalent to “marijuana” in Idaho and is illegal (see below for a discussion of CBD in Idaho).

Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, and Texas have enacted bans on smokable hemp. Indiana law prohibits hemp products “in a form that allows THC to be introduced into the human body by inhalation of smoke.” Iowa has amended its Hemp Act to ban products introduced to the body “by any method of inhalation.” Louisiana prohibits “any part of hemp for inhalation” except hemp rolling papers, and Texas law prohibits “consumable hemp products for smoking.”

Some of these bans have been challenged in court. In Indiana, a group of hemp sellers requested an injunction against the smokable hemp ban in federal court, on the grounds that the federal Farm Bill likely preempted the Indiana law. In September of 2019, the district court issued the requested injunction, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit overturned that decision in July 2020, stating that the order “swept too broadly.” The Seventh Circuit noted that the 2018 Farm Bill “expressly provides that the states retain the authority to regulate the production of hemp” and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Similarly, in Texas, hemp producers have sued in state court over the smokable hemp ban, questioning its constitutionality and arguing that it would result in a loss of jobs and tax revenue for the state. According to those producers, smokable hemp comprises up to 50 percent of revenue from hemp products. On September 17, 2020, Travis County Judge Lora Livingston issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the law until trial, which currently is set to commence on February 1, 2021. Judge Livingston had previously issued a temporary restraining order to that same effect.

State Laws Regulating CBD

State laws and regulation on hemp-derived CBD are varied, and the legality of a CBD product often comes down to its form and marketing.

FDAlogoAs an initial matter, it must be noted that notwithstanding the Farm Bill the FDA currently prohibits hemp-derived CBD from being be sold as dietary supplements, and food (including animal food or feed) to which CBD has been added cannot be introduced into interstate commerce. As discussed below, a substantial minority of states, including California, follow the FDA’s current position on the permissibility of putting hemp-derived CBD in food or dietary supplements.

Certain states include strict limitations on CBD, none more so than (once again) Idaho. Lacking any legal hemp industry, Idaho restricts CBD products to those having no THC whatsoever, rejecting the generally accepted threshold of not more than 0.3 percent THC. Idaho law also requires that hemp CBD be derived only from “(a) mature stalks of the plant, (b) fiber produced from the stalks, (c) oil or cake made from the seeds or the achene of such plant, (d) any other compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the mature stalks, or (e) the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination.”

Kansas similarly prohibits CBD with any amount of THC, though the law is murkier than Idaho’s. While Senate Bill 282 allowed possession and retail sale of CBD effective May 24, 2018 by removing CBD oil from the definition of “marijuana,” this was broadly interpreted to apply to THC-free CBD only. Later legislation, Senate Substitute for HC 2167, effective July 2019, allowed the farming of hemp with THC levels aligned with the Farm Bill definition (i.e., 0.3 percent THC or lower), but expressly prohibited the use of industrial hemp in: cigars, cigarettes, chew, dip, or other smokeless forms of consumption; teas; liquids for use in vaporizing devices; or “[a] ny other hemp product intended for human or animal consumption containing any ingredient derived from industrial hemp that is prohibited pursuant to the Kansas Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act or the Kansas Commercial Feeding Stuffs Act,” though this final section provides that “[t] his does not otherwise prohibit the use of any such ingredient, including cannabidiol oil, in hemp products,” the law’s only reference to CBD. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation has reportedly made statements indicating that CBD with any level of THC remains illegal.

Just some of the many hemp-derived CBD products on the market today.

Mississippi only recently legalized the cultivation of hemp via Senate Bill 2725, the Mississippi Help Cultivation Act, which was signed into law on June 29, 2020. House Bill 1547, passed on April 16, 2019, imposed content requirements upon CBD products within Mississippi: to be legal in Mississippi, a CBD product must contain “a minimum ratio of twenty-to-one cannabidiol to tetrahydrocannabinol (20:1 cannabidiol:tetrahydrocannabinol), and diluted so as to contain at least fifty (50) milligrams of cannabidiol per milliliter, with not more than two and one-half (2.5) milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol per milliliter.” Moreover, CBD products produced in Mississippi must be tested at the University of Mississippi’s lab. However, subject to these restrictions, Mississippi allows the sale of CBD products, including edibles, contrary to the restrictions of many of states considered friendlier to hemp.

Perhaps more surprising is Hawaii, which restricts the sale and distribution of CBD, aligning with the FDA’s guidance. In Hawaii it is illegal to add CBD to food, beverages, as well as to sell it as a dietary supplement or market it by asserting health claims. It is also illegal to add CBD to cosmetics, an uncommon restriction across the many states with CBD-specific laws and regulations. Unlike Idaho and Mississippi, which have no medical marijuana programs, Hawaii has long legalized marijuana for medical purposes and in January 2020 decriminalized recreational possession. Hawaii very recently enacted legislation allowing the production and sale of cannabis-infused consumable and topical products by medical cannabis licensees effective January 1, 2021, but this legislation did not address CBD. Given the foregoing, Hawaii’s restrictions on CBD stand out.

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

Beyond broad CBD restrictions, many more states prohibit the use of CBD within food, beverages, or as dietary supplements. For instance, twenty states – including California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Washington – prohibit the sale of CBD in food or beverage. In California, a bill to overhaul California’s hemp laws, Assembly Bill 2028, failed when the legislative session concluded on August 31, 2020 without a vote. AB 2028 would have allowed CBD in food, beverages, and dietary supplements (though, interestingly, it would have banned smokable hemp). As a result, California remains a relatively restrictive state when it comes to hemp-derived CBD, notwithstanding the legality of recreational marijuana.

New York allows the manufacture and sale of CBD, but requires CBD products to be labeled as “dietary supplements.” This mandate conflicts directly with the FDA’s position that CBD products are excluded from the definition of a dietary supplement. Further, despite the state’s categorization of CBD products as dietary supplements, New York prohibits the addition of CBD to food and beverages. These regulations have resulted in a confusing landscape for retailers and manufacturers in the Empire State.

Several states also have labeling requirements specific to CBD products. Batch numbers and ingredients are ubiquitous, but an increasingly common requirement is the inclusion of a scannable code that links to specific information about the product. States imposing this requirement include Florida, Indiana, Texas, and Utah. Indiana is viewed as having one of the more comprehensive labeling requirements for CBD products – or, depending upon your perspective, the most onerous.

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Judge Dismisses Claims in Vaping Illness Lawsuit

By Aaron G. Biros
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In September of 2019, Charles Wilcoxen fell seriously ill after vaping cannabis oil from a cartridge. Just days after he began experiencing symptoms he was hospitalized and later diagnosed with lipoid pneumonia, the mysterious lung illness now known as EVALI associated with the 2019 vape crisis.

Wilcoxen spent three days in the hospital and ever since he was diagnosed, he has been unable to exercise, return to work full time or even play with his daughter. Attorneys for Herrmann Law Group representing Wilcoxen filed a product liability lawsuit, Wilcoxen v. Canna Brand Solutions, LLC, et al., in Washington State Court, naming six cannabis companies as defendants: Canna Brand Solutions, Conscious Cannabis, Rainbow’s Aloft, Leafwerx, MFused and Janes Garden.

This image came from the complaint filed, alleging that Mr. Wilcoxen believes this was a CCELL product.

This case was allegedly the first lawsuit in the wake of the 2019 vape crisis. The Vanderbilt University Law School Blog has a very comprehensive post on this case that has the original complaint and a lot of information on the lawsuit.

Canna Brand Solutions, the primary defendant named in the complaint, is a packaging supplier and distributor for CCELL vaping products (heating elements, pens and batteries) in the state of Washington. The complaint alleges that Wilcoxen believes he used a CCELL vape. CCELL is a Chinese company, which makes it notoriously difficult to pursue legal action against them, hence why Canna Brand Solutions was listed as a defendant instead.

On August 31, 2020, Judge Michael Schwartz dismissed all claims against Canna Brand Solutions. “All claims asserted by Plaintiff against Canna Brand in the above-mentioned matter shall be voluntarily dismissed without prejudice and without costs or fees to any of the parties to this litigation,” Judge Schwartz says in the dismissal. Judge Schwartz dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning it could be brought to the court again should the plaintiff’s attorneys decide to do so.

With the allegations against Canna Brand Solutions focusing on CCELL products, it seems that the case was dismissed largely due to a lack of evidence connecting exactly which product resulted in the illness, as well as the lack of culpability for a distributor of products they did not manufacture.

These are the vape cartridges that Mr. Wilcoxen purchased

Daniel Allen, founder and president of Canna Brands Solutions, claims that the product mentioned in the complaint did not come from his company. “We stand by our high quality and customizable CCELL vaporization products,” says Allen. “We feel vindicated in this case by the judge’s decision, which shows the claims against our company and products were completely unfounded from the beginning.”

He also added that the quality and safety of the products they distribute is their highest priority. “The product in question involved in this case did not come from Canna Brand Solutions,” says Allen.

Wilcoxen’s illness and subsequent long-term lung injury is extremely unfortunate. Thousands of people have been hospitalized and 68 deaths have been confirmed by the CDC. The CDC is still calling the illness EVALI (e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury). According to the CDC, there is no real known cause of EVALI, but they have found that vitamin E acetate is “strongly linked” to the outbreak. Knowing that, it is entirely possible that Mr. Wilcoxen’s illness was a result of one of the cannabis products he consumed, just most likely not anything that came from Canna Brand Solutions. A closer look at the contents with an independent lab test of the THC oil he consumed could shed some more light on what exactly caused the illness.

I would venture to guess that one of the products he consumed did have vitamin E acetate. Because the case was dismissed without prejudice, it could be brought to the court again if, say, Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys were to obtain more evidence, such as an independent lab report showing vitamin E acetate in the contents of one of the products he consumed. If Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys can figure out which product actually contained vitamin E acetate, perhaps the lawsuit could get a second shot and Mr. Wilcoxen could have a greater chance at getting some long-overdue and much-deserved restitution.

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Consumer Class Actions Against CBD Companies Are Hitting a Snag

By Seth A. Goldberg, Justin M. L. Stern
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Over the past year, more and more consumer class actions have been filed against manufacturers and distributors of CBD-infused products. These actions typically assert claims based on how the product is marketed, such as whether it (i) contained the advertised amount of CBD, (ii) contained more THC than it should have or (iii) has the ability to provide the therapeutic benefits touted. The marketing of these products is subject to regulation by FDA, which has yet to issue pertinent regulations that have been expected since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing hemp and CBD products derived therefrom. Thus, in recent months, a number of federal courts have stopped these class actions in their tracks pending further guidance from FDA as to how CBD-infused products should be regulated. This growing body of precedent should be welcome news for the CBD supply chain, as it may provide a disincentive to the plaintiffs’ bar to expend their resources on similar actions until the regulatory framework is clear.

Just some of the many CBD products on the market today.

The first case that was put on hold until the “FDA completes its rulemaking regarding the marketing, including labeling, of hemp-derived ingestible products” was Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida, a case about the content of CBD in Green Roads’ products pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Then, in May, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California took the same approach, deciding to stay the case of Colette v. CV Sciences, Inc., also on account of the lack of FDA regulations. Less than one month later, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, relying on the rulings in Snyder and Colette, stayed Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, also under the primary jurisdiction—a doctrine implicated where the claims involve a federal agency’s expertise concerning a regulated product.

On August 11, 2020, two federal judges became the most recent to stay putative class actions involving the sale of CBD products under the primary jurisdiction doctrine: Pfister v. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, Inc., in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Both were stayed on account of a lack of regulatory direction from FDA.

A trend appears to be developing, but not all courts faced with the option to stay the proceedings pursuant to the primary jurisdiction doctrine have chosen to put their respective cases on hold. In March, the judge overseeing Potter v. Diamond CBD (pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida) declined to stay the proceedings despite the absence of FDA regulations concerning ingestible CBD products. Despite the defendant’s objection, the court declined to stay the proceedings, finding that to the extent FDA regulations were forthcoming, they would be unlikely to change the food labeling requirements which were at issue in that case.

The stays of federal court cases involving CBD products highlight the need for FDA to issue regulations that cover the marketing of them. They also may provide the CBD product supply chain with a break in the number of consumer class actions filed until such regulations are issued.

CBD You in Court: Consumer Class Actions Involving Hemp-Derived CBD Products

By David J. Apfel, Nilda M. Isidro, Brendan Radke, Emily Notini, Zoe Bellars
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Consumer demand for products containing cannabidiol (CBD) is on the rise across the country, with industry experts estimating that the market for CBD products will reach $20 billion by 2024. This boom in consumer demand has outpaced the regulatory framework surrounding these products. While the 2018 Farm Bill decriminalized hemp, it left much up to individual states and preserved the FDA’s jurisdiction over dietary supplements, foods and cosmetics. The FDA has not yet issued any specific rulemaking for CBD products.

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

Against this background, it is not surprising that consumer class actions regarding hemp-derived CBD products are flourishing. Over the past year alone, the plaintiffs’ bar has filed approximately twenty putative class action lawsuits against manufacturers of hemp-derived CBD products. The cases are primarily in federal court in California and Florida, with additional cases in Illinois and Massachusetts. Plaintiffs challenge the marketing and advertising of a variety of CBD products, including oils, gummies, capsules, creams, pet products and more.

The cases so far follow a familiar pattern seen in prior consumer class actions, especially in the food and beverage industry. Read on to learn what plaintiffs have claimed in the CBD lawsuits, how companies are defending their products, and how best to position your hemp-derived CBD products in light of lessons learned from past litigation.

What These Lawsuits Are Claiming, and How Companies Are Defending Their Products

In most of the recent CBD lawsuits, plaintiffs claim either that: 1) product labels over- or understate the amount of CBD in the products; and/or 2) the sale of CBD products is inherently misleading to consumers because the products are purportedly illegal under federal law. Regardless of which theory underlies the claims, plaintiffs typically frame their claims as consumer fraud, false advertising, breach of warranty, unjust enrichment, and/or deceptive trade practices.

Just some of the many CBD products on the market today.

In most cases, defendants have filed motions to dismiss seeking to have the cases thrown out. In these motions, defendants argue that plaintiffs’ claims are “preempted” by the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), and that only the federal government can enforce the FDCA. Some defendants have additionally argued that if the court is not prepared to dismiss the claims as preempted, the doctrine of “primary jurisdiction” applies. This means that the issues raised regarding CBD are for the FDA to decide, and the cases should be stayed until the FDA finalizes and issues rules on products containing hemp-derived CBD. Many defendants have also advanced dismissal arguments for lack of standing, claiming that the individuals bringing the lawsuits are trying to sue for conduct that never harmed them personally (e.g., because they never purchased a particular product), or will not harm them in the future (e.g., because plaintiffs have stated they will not buy the product again). The standing arguments often apply to particular claims or products within the lawsuit, rather than to the lawsuit as a whole.

Current Status of the Cases

Of the approximately twenty consumer class actions filed over the last year, about half remain pending:

  • Five have been stayed pursuant to motions filed by defendants;
  • Two have motions to dismiss pending;
  • One has a pending motion to vacate a default judgment against defendants;
  • One was filed earlier this month, and defendant’s deadline to respond has not yet elapsed.

FDAlogoTo date, none of the cases (currently pending or otherwise) has proceeded to discovery, and no class has yet been certified. That means that no court has yet determined that these cases are appropriate to bring as class action lawsuits, rather than as separate claims on behalf of each individual member of the putative class. This is significant, because plaintiffs’ ability to achieve class certification will likely influence whether these CBD lawsuits will continue to be filed. Consumer fraud cases like these typically do not claim any physical injury, and the monetary damages per individual plaintiff are relatively low. As such, the cases often are not worth pursuing if they cannot proceed as class actions.

Of the cases that are no longer pending, all but two were voluntarily dismissed by plaintiffs. While the motivation behind these dismissals is not always announced, approximately half of the voluntary dismissals came after defendants filed a motion to dismiss, but before the court had ruled on it. One Florida case was mediated and settled after the court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss.1 A California court spontaneously dismissed one matter (without the defendant having filed any motion) due to a procedural defect in the complaint, which plaintiffs failed to correct by the court-imposed deadline.2

Early Outcomes on Motions to Dismiss 

Of the thirteen motions to dismiss filed to date, only five have been decided. So far:

  • No court has dismissed a case based on federal preemption grounds. Courts have either deferred ruling on preemption, or denied it without prejudice to re-raising it at a later time.
  • Four courts have stayed cases based on primary jurisdiction.3
  • Only one court has denied the primary jurisdiction argument.4
  • Standing arguments have been successful in three cases,5 and deferred or denied without prejudice to later re-raising in the other two cases.6 However, the standing arguments applied only to certain products/claims, and were not dispositive of all claims in any case.

These rulings show a clear trend towards staying the cases pursuant to primary jurisdiction. In granting these stays, courts have noted that regulatory oversight of CBD ingestible products, including labeling, is currently the subject of FDA rulemaking, and that FDA is “under considerable pressure from Congress” to expedite the publication of regulations and guidance.7

Any label claims need to meet FDCA regulations and applicable FDA guidance.

Plaintiffs may be recognizing the trend towards primary jurisdiction as well, since there is now at least one case where plaintiffs agreed to a stay after defendant filed a motion to dismiss asserting, among other things, primary jurisdiction.8 But some plaintiffs are still resisting. For example, in the first case to have been stayed plaintiffs have since filed a motion to lift the stay. The motion—which was filed after the case was reassigned to a different judge—argues that primary jurisdiction does not apply, and that the FDA’s recent report to Congress suggests no CBD-specific rulemaking is forthcoming.9 The motion is pending.

Lessons Learned From Food Industry Consumer Class Actions

The motions to dismiss that have been filed to date in CBD-related class actions follow a tried and true playbook that has been developed by defense counsel in other food and beverage industry class actions. For example, the primary jurisdiction arguments that have been gaining traction in the CBD consumer class actions are very similar to primary jurisdiction arguments that were successful years earlier in cases involving the term “natural” and other food labeling matters.10

Similarly, the standing arguments that have succeeded in the early motions to dismiss CBD consumer class actions followed similar standing arguments made years earlier in food and beverage class actions.11

Work with reputable labs to ensure the potency stated on the label is accurate

The preemption arguments that have largely been deferred in CBD consumer class actions to date could become a powerful argument if and when the FDA completes its CBD rulemaking. The preemption defense has been particularly effective when the preemption arguments focus on state law claims that require defendants to omit or add language to their federally approved or mandated product labeling, or where plaintiffs otherwise seek to require something different from what federal standards mandate.12 These arguments could be particularly compelling once the FDA issues its long-anticipated rulemaking with respect to CBD products.

Until then, primary jurisdiction will likely continue to gain traction. The FDA’s comprehensive regulatory scheme over food, dietary supplement, drug, and cosmetic products, combined with the FDA’s frequently-expressed intention to issue rulemaking with respect to CBD-products, and a need for national uniformity in how such rulemaking will interface with state requirements, converge to make primary jurisdiction especially appropriate for CBD-related class actions.13

How to Best Position Your Products

Until the FDA issues its long-awaited rulemaking regarding CBD products, companies can take the following steps to best position their products to avoid litigation and/or succeed in the event litigation arises:

  • Work with reputable labs to ensure the amount of CBD stated on product labeling and advertising is accurate;
  • Ensure that the product is manufactured according to appropriate current Good Manufacturing Processes (cGMPs);
  • Ensure that any claims made on product labeling and/or in advertising are consistent with FDCA requirements and applicable FDA guidance to date – for example, if the product is a dietary supplement, avoid making express or implied claims that it can cure or prevent disease;
  • Maintain a file with appropriate substantiation to support any claims stated in product labeling and advertising;
  • Work with legal counsel to stay abreast of developments in federal and state laws applicable to hemp-derived CBD products, and how any changes might impact potential class action defenses; and
  • If a lawsuit arises, work with legal counsel to develop a strategy that not only resolves the current litigation as efficiently as possible, but also positions the company strategically for any future consumer claims that may arise.

References

  1. Final Mediation Report, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. July 30, 2020).
  2. Court Order, Davis v. Redwood Wellness, LLC, 2:20-cv-03273-PA-JEM (C.D. Cal. Apr. 10, 2020).
  3. Electronic Order, Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, 1:19-cv-12005-ADB (D. Mass. Aug, 11, 2020); Memorandum and Order, Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, 2:19-cv-01906-MCE-KJN (E.D. Cal. June 15, 2020); Order Granting in Part Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and Staying Remaining Causes of Action, Colette et al. v. CV Sciences Inc., 2:19-cv-10227-VAP-JEM (C.D. Cal. May 22, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
  4. Order on Motion to Dismiss, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020).
  5. Order Granting in Part Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and Staying Remaining Causes of Action, Colette et al. v. CV Sciences Inc., 2:19-cv-10227-VAP-JEM (C.D. Cal. May 22, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
  6. Electronic Order, Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, 1:19-cv-12005-ADB (D. Mass. Aug, 11, 2020); Memorandum and Order, Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, 2:19-cv-01906-MCE-KJN (E.D. Cal. June 15, 2020).
  7. Order on Motion to Dismiss at 12, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
  8. Minute Entry, Pfister v. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, Inc., 1:20-cv-00418 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 11, 2020).
  9. Plaintiff’s Motion to Lift Stay, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. July 13, 2020).
  10. See, e.g., Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012), rev’d on other grounds, 783 F.3d 753 (9th Cir. 2015); Taradejna v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 909 F. Supp. 2d 1128 (D. Minn. 2012).
  11. See Miller v. Ghirardelli, 912 F. Supp. 2d 861, 869 (N.D. Cal. 2012) (holding that the named plaintiff lacked standing where the products purchased by the putative class members were not “substantially similar” enough to those purchased by the named plaintiff); Colucci v. ZonePerfect Nutrition Co., No. 12-2907-SC, 2012 WL 6737800 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 28, 2012) (finding one of two named plaintiffs lacked standing because, even though the other named plaintiff (his fiancée) purchased the nutrition bars for him, he himself did not purchase any of the bars); Veal v. Citrus World, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-801-IPJ, 2013 WL 120761 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 8, 2013); Robinson v. Hornell Brewing Co., No. 11-2183 (JBS-JS), 2012 WL 6213777 (D.N.J. Dec. 13, 2012) (holding that there was no Article III standing because the named plaintiff had testified and stated in written discovery that he would not purchase the product in the future).
  12. See, e.g., Turek v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 662 F.3d 423 (7th Cir. 2011); Lam v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 859 F. Supp. 2d 1097 (N.D. Cal. 2012); Veal v. Citrus World, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-801-IPJ, 2013 WL 120761, at *9-10 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 8, 2013).
  13. See, e.g., Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012), rev’d on other grounds, 783 F.3d 753 (9th Cir. 2015); Taradejna v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 909 F. Supp. 2d 1128 (D. Minn. 2012).

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.

Solutions & Alternatives to Bankruptcy for Cannabis Businesses

By Richard Ormond
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A Cannabis Related Business (or CRB), whether a plant-touching operation or a provider of goods and services to plant-touching operations cannot seek protection from the bankruptcy court as it is a federal court and cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. As such, a CRB does not have the benefit of a court approved restructuring as provided by Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code and does not receive the benefit of an orderly liquidation as provided by Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. However, alternatives to bankruptcy do exist and are available to a CRB.

Historical Considerations

Before the emergence of the Bankruptcy Code, businesses and their creditors had very few options available to undertake a court-supervised restructuring or liquidation other than seeking the appointment of a court neutral, typically called a receiver or special master. That “neutral” would take the business or its assets into “legal custody” or custodia legis and begin the process of dissolving the entities, selling the assets or otherwise sell the business as a going-concern. In the 1880s and 1890s with the Gilded Age coming to an abrupt halt, this process was successfully used to restructure and recapitalize the failing network of over-extended railways and rail lines, leading to the consolidation in the market that remains to this day.

Cannabis businesses can be legal and now an “essential” business but, still cannot receive the benefits of bankruptcy court.During the Great Depression, the federal judiciary established “reference” courts to deal specifically with bankrupt businesses and individuals laying the foundations for the modern bankruptcy code which is still in effect today. Many of those first precedents used to establish the bankruptcy code and rules were drawn directly from the receivership case law and receivership statutes ever-present in the historical record of common law cases and common law countries, reaching all the way back to the Courts of Chancery in Britain established soon after the Norman invasion of the British Isles in 1066.

In the United States, the equitable power of courts to initiate receiverships or other insolvency proceedings and crafting orders and decrees based on equity, as opposed as based on law or statute, is codified clearly in Article III of the United States Constitution. Today, receiverships and special masters are still utilized by state and federal courts to remedy unique circumstances where a simple bankruptcy cannot address the inequities presented in that case.

State Court Powers & Financing of Receivership Estates

State courts in particular, and California especially, have a wide body of case law supporting the equitable powers of the court, the quasi-judicial immunity of the receiver and the many equitable tools available to receivers. These powers include the negotiation and transfer of liens, with liens attaching to proceeds of sales of assets, the dissolution of a business and the establishment of a claims process akin to a bankruptcy or assignment for benefit of creditors.

One of the many overlooked powers of a receiver is their ability to bring in outside financing or capital to fund the receivership estate to maintain a business as an ongoing concern or to provide short term leverage so that assets can be properly maintained, “dusted off” and sold.

This process of bringing in new capital is typically done by the issuance of receivership certificates. These certificates are approved, ahead of time, by the court and courts can authorize that such certificates prime all other claims (including sometimes administrative claims) and that these certificates can be reduced to a security interest recorded against real or personal property.

The Mechanics of a Receivership

However, because cannabis is approved at the state level, state courts retain their equitable powers and the power to appoint a receiver over a business in need of restructuring or liquidation. There are many avenues to get to court for this benefit, but the primary path to a receivership is either through a creditor (or group of creditors) filing a lawsuit and seeking the appointment of a receiver. This scenario can be done through cooperation and stipulation but can be hostile as well. The receiver option is available and open to address the needs of insolvency for this rapidly expanding industry.Or, a legal entity, can seek dissolution protection from the state court and seek a neutral dissolution officer (a receiver) to manage that process which may include the infusion of new capital through receivership certificates, the sale of assets to third parties, the negotiation and payment of liens and claims through a claims process and the final restructure of dissolution of the legal entity in a manner similar to a bankruptcy or assignment for benefit of creditors. This voluntary petition is permitted by statute and case law and is a mechanism available to a business that is unable to file for bankruptcy protection but is in dire need of court supervision and authority to work through its insolvency problems. Further, by court order, a receiver is able to establish banking relations where a CRB may be unable.

Typically, it is recommended that any receivership filing whether by creditors, claimants or the business itself, be guided by a well-written, explicit order that outlines the parameters of the receivership, the funding requirements and limits, the rights of claimants and some sort of stay of claims against the receivership estate to give the receiver the time needed to work through all of the issues in that receivership estate. Further, outside funding can be pre-approved by the court and the priority of that funding can be established through the open process that the court provides, much akin to a debtor in possession (DIP) financing motion in bankruptcy court.

Because of the unique circumstance that CRBs find themselves in here in California, where they are a legal and now an “essential” business but still cannot receive the benefits of bankruptcy court, the receiver option is available and open to address the needs of insolvency for this rapidly expanding industry.