Tag Archives: enforce

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.

FDA Says No, CBD Does Not Cure COVID-19

By Aaron G. Biros
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Former NFL player Kyle Turley made headlines this week for some eye-catching remarks. The retired offensive lineman entered the cannabis industry in 2017, when he launched Neuro Armour (now called Neuro XPF), a brand of CBD products.

Turley and his Neuro XPF brand made claims in recent weeks, both on their website and in various social media posts on Facebook and Twitter, saying that their CBD products can cure COVID-19. Two quotes below, one from their website and one from a Facebook post, show how the company touted CBD as an effective medicine for treating COVID-19.

  • “Crush Corona . . . While scientists around the world are working 24/7 to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, it will take many more months of testing before it’s approved and available. However, there’s something you can do right now to strengthen your immune system. Take CBD . . . CBD can help keep your immune system at the stop of its game. . . . We want everyone to take CBD and take advantage of its potential to help prepare your body to fight a coronavirus infection. So, we’re making all of our products more affordable.”

  • “Crush Corona! Your best defense against the COVID-19 blitz starts with a strong immune system. It’s what protects your body from the everyday attacks of bacteria, viruses, parasites and a host of other nasties. Learn more here: https://neuroxpf.com/crush-corona/ FDAlogo

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) got wind of these marketing tactics and sent Turley and his brand a warning letter. “FDA is taking urgent measures to protect consumers from certain products that, without approval or authorization by FDA, claim to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19 in people,” reads the warning letter. “As described below, you sell products that are intended to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19 in people. We request that you take immediate action to cease the sale of such unapproved and unauthorized products for the mitigation, prevention, treatment, diagnosis, or cure of COVID-19.”

Before entering the cannabis space, Turley was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and then early onset Alzheimer’s as a result of sustaining head injuries while playing in the NFL. Turley has a reputation for being an outspoken cannabis activist, crediting cannabis with improving his quality of life and eliminating the need for prescription opiates.

In a tongue-and-cheek response to the FDA, Turley posted the following on twitter: “OK OK, YOURE ALL RIGHT, ILL ADMIT IT! CHEAP CBD BRAND PRODUCTS WILL NOT PREVENT OR CURE COVID19!” Turley, making light of the situation, inserted the term “cheap” in there, almost challenging the FDA and disregarding their warning letter.

However, the FDA is not joking when they send these warning letters. According to the letter, Turley and his company have 48 hours to remediate the situation or face a federal court injunction.

Cannabis Legalization in Massachusetts: An Interview with Steven Hoffman, Chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission

By Aaron G. Biros
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On February 13 at the upcoming Seed To Sale Show in Boston, MA, Steven Hoffman, Chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission of Massachusetts, will deliver a keynote discussion. Hoffman will sit down with National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Executive Director Aaron Smith to discuss the first few months of recreational legalization, challenges and the path forward for the state. We caught up with Hoffman to hear about some of the biggest obstacles and successes when it came to standing up a regulated adult-use cannabis market.

On November 8, 2016, voters in Massachusetts ushered in a new era for the East Coast, when they passed a ballot initiative to legalize adult-use cannabis. Almost immediately after that, the Massachusetts Legislature put a hold on implementation in order to study the issues and revise the legislation, which was ultimately signed in July of 2017. That September, Steven Hoffman and his colleagues at the Cannabis Control Commission were appointed to figure out how the state should regulate the market, enforce its regulations and roll out the new adult-use program.

Steven Hoffman, Chairman of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission

The Commission was tasked with creating something brand new, without a roadmap in place and developing rules around some very contentious issues. “I think the biggest obstacle was that we were doing something unprecedented,” says Hoffman. “Every state is different demographically and the laws differ state to state, and we got a lot of help from other states sharing their experiences with us, but we were still going down an uncharted path for Massachusetts.”

Hoffman told us the very first thing they needed to do in 2017 was conduct listening sessions in which the commissioners listened to citizens for recommendations and heard people’s thoughts on cannabis legalization. “We did that immediately. We needed to conduct a process that was transparent, thoughtful and inclusive,” says Hoffman. “We then, in public, debated policies around adult-use marijuana regarding licensing processes, criteria and enforcement.”

They debated policies in a public forum for four days and came back the following week to embed their decisions in draft regulations that were submitted to the Secretary of State in December 2017. Then, they had 10 more public hearings, made some modifications to the rules, and promulgated a final version of the adult-use regulations in March 2018, keeping everything as transparent and inclusive as possible. “I don’t think anyone has been critical of that process behind it,” says Hoffman.

Certain pieces of the regulations stand out as particularly inclusive and progressive for Massachusetts’ cannabis program. For example, certain mandates encourage diversity and support communities affected by the drug war. Hoffman says the Commission couldn’t take credit for those completely because their objectives are explicit in the legislation, however, the agency still made sure the state followed through. “The mandate said the industry should look like the state of Massachusetts in terms of our diversity,” says Hoffman. That includes creating a diverse industry with respect to ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ, veteran and disabled participation. Additionally, he added, “it was a very explicit set of requirements that those communities who were disproportionally harmed by the drug war are full participants in the new industry we set up. Those were both legislative mandates, so we take them very seriously and I wouldn’t have taken this appointment if I didn’t think it was absolutely essential.”

You can expect to hear more from Hoffman on this and other matters related to implementing cannabis regulations at the upcoming Seed To Sale Show in Boston, MA, February 12-13, 2019. On November 20, 2018, the first adult-use dispensaries in the state opened their doors for business and began selling cannabis. Hoffman says he is most proud of their rollout of the program as well as the transparency and inclusiveness through which they conducted the process. “I think this is a very controversial issue; the voters approved this issue by 53-47%,” says Hoffman. “No matter what we do, we won’t make everyone happy, but we’ve done everything possible to allow people to participate and feel like they’ve been listened to. We made our decisions publicly and transparently.”

Beyond that, the Commission wanted to take their time to make sure things were done the right way the first time. “From day one, we decided we were going to do this right rather than meet an arbitrary timeline,” says Hoffman. “It’s gradual, it’s maybe slower than some people would like, but our rollout has been well-received and relatively smooth. I think a gradual and thoughtful process, not focused on a deadline, went very well. Hopefully we have given other states a model when they plan their own rollout.”

Hoffman wouldn’t comment on whether or not he would encourage other states down a similar path, but he did say they could probably learn a thing or two from them. “I expect other states will do what we did,” says Hoffman. “They will talk to other states ahead of them like us and hopefully will benefit from learning from our experiences. I don’t know what the laws will look like but I expect other states need to make it work for them specifically.”

You can expect to hear more from Hoffman on this and other matters related to implementing cannabis regulations at the upcoming Seed To Sale Show in Boston, MA, February 12-13, 2019. Make sure to check out his keynote discussion with Aaron Smith on Wednesday, February 13 at 10:30am.

WSLCB

Washington State Regulators Crack Down On Diversion

By Aaron G. Biros
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WSLCB

For the second time in six months, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) took swift and severe action on a cannabis business licensee operating in the black market. The regulatory agency issued an emergency license suspension for Port Angeles’ North Coast Concentrates, which are effective for 180 days, during which time regulators plan on revoking the license altogether.

WSLCBAccording to a release emailed last week, the violation was uncovered during a routine traffic stop. “On September 20, 2018 an employee of North Coast Concentrates was pulled over by Lower Elwha Police, during the course of the traffic stop officers found 112 grams of traceable marijuana concentrates, three large jars and a large tote bin of untraced dried marijuana flower,” reads the release. “The products were not manifested in the state traceability system. Subsequent investigation by WSLCB officers revealed that the untraced product had been removed from the licensees grow operation and that the traced concentrates were returned from a marijuana retailer in Tacoma several weeks earlier.”

The release goes on to add that when regulators investigated the matter, they found text messages indicating the license holder’s complicity in the act. When the WSLCB suspended the license, officers seized “556 pounds of marijuana flower product, 24 pounds of marijuana oil and 204 plants from both locations.” Regulators say, “the severity of these violations and the risk of diversion” is the reason for the emergency suspension and product seizures.

According to the end of the release, The WSLCB issued one emergency suspension in 2017, and six in 2018. One of those was roughly six months ago in July when regulators issued an emergency suspension for a Tacoma-based cannabis business for the same reason as the most recent one- diversion.

The WSLCB release email from July
The WSLCB release email from July

The enforcement branch of the WSLCB acted on a complaint and inspected Refined Cannabinoids where they found “numerous and substantial violations including full rooms of untagged plants, clones and finished product,” reads a release emailed back in July. “During the course of the inspection officers discovered and seized 2,569 marijuana plants, 1,216 marijuana plant clones, 375.8 lbs. of frozen marijuana flower stored in 11 freezer chests, 3,423 0.5 gram marijuana cigarettes, and 97.5 lbs. of bulk marijuana flower without the requisite traceability identifiers.”

That July release also states that enforcement officers found evidence of diversion to the black market, in addition to the company not tracking their product. “Traceability is a core component of Washington’s system and essential for licensee compliance,” says Justin Nordhorn, WSLCB chief of enforcement. “If our licensees fail to track their product they put their license in jeopardy.”

Richard Naiberg
Quality From Canada

Protecting Intellectual Property in Canada: A Practical Guide, Part 4

By Richard Naiberg
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Richard Naiberg

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a series by Richard Naiberg where he discusses how cannabis businesses can protect their intellectual property in Canada. Part 1 introduced the topic and examined the use of trade secrets in business and Part 2 went into how business owners can protect new technologies and inventions through applying for patents. Part 3 raised the issue of plant breeders’ rights and in Part 4, below, Naiberg discusses trademarks and how cannabis businesses should go about protecting their brand identity in Canada.


Trademarks: Protections For Brands And Goodwill

Cannabis businesses must not only protect their investments in their technical creations, but also must protect their brand identities. A cannabis producer can invest heavily in making a desirable, high-quality product, and can advertise and sell this product so as to generate customer interest and goodwill, but if the customer cannot distinguish the producer’s product from that of its competitor, this investment is for not. Trademarks become unenforceable when they are no longer distinctive.

A trademark provides its owner with the right to have the Court stop another entity from using the trademark, or using a similar trademark in a way that confuses the public. When the trademark is infringed, the Court can also make a monetary award in favor of the trademark owner.

Trademarks are identifiers of a particular source of manufacture and they can take virtually any form. Trademarks can be words, phrases, symbols, names, designs, letters, numbers, colors, three-dimensional shapes, holograms, moving images, modes of packaging, sounds, scents, tastes, textures, or any other distinguishing element. What a trademark cannot be is a mere descriptor of the goods or services themselves because such a trademark would prevent other entities from describing their products in their ordinary terms.

Trademarks can be registered, but they do not have to be. In choosing a trademark, the cannabis producer must balance competing impulses: the desire to choose a trademark that is suggestive of the product itself so as to have an immediate meaning to customers without need of an expensive marketing campaign; and the desire to coin a unique and striking trademark which is instantly eye-catching and memorable, but which must be advertised before customers can understand the product to which it refers.

For example, a depiction of cannabis leaf or a word that plays on the ordinary terms used to refer to cannabis will not make a strong mark that can be enforced against those who adopt something similar. On the other hand, a coined word, such as “Kodak”, may have no independent association with cannabis but, after a time, use of this mark in association with a cannabis product can create a very strong mark with a wider ambit of exclusivity.

All that said, even a very suggestive mark can serve as a trademark where the use of the mark is so longstanding and ubiquitous that the suggestive mark acquires a secondary meaning as an indicator of its source of manufacture. Cannabis producers can and should also consider adopting specific colors, scents or tastes of their products as trademarks, where appropriate.

Trademarks become unenforceable when they are no longer distinctive. For this reason, trademark owners must keep abreast of any use of trademarks similar to their own by third parties, and must act quickly to either license such uses or to restrain them.Cannabis businesses have been very busy applicants for trademarks. More than 1700 such applications are now on file, though a comparative few have yet been registered. 

Trademarks can be registered, but they do not have to be. When a company’s product or service becomes known to its customers or potential customers with reference to a mark through ordinary business use, a trademark has been created.

Registration does however provide certain advantages. Under the amendments to the Trademarks Act coming in 2019, a registered trademark can be obtained for without any proof of use or goodwill.  By contrast, and as noted above, an unregistered mark must be used and possess goodwill before it can be said to exist at all. A registered trademark provides protection for its owner across Canada. An unregistered trademark can only be enforced in the geographical area in which its owner has established its reputation. A registered trademark is protected from those who use it in a manner that is likely to depreciate the goodwill of the trademark. An unregistered trademark only protects against consumer confusion.

Registration under the Trademarks Act also makes it an offence to sell goods or services on a commercial scale in association with another’s registered trademark, or to traffic in infringing labels. Further, a trademark owner can request that the import or export of such goods in Canada be arrested. No similar rights accrue for unregistered trademarks.

Finally, a registered trademark is published at the CIPO web site, providing notice of its existence to new market entrants before these entrants commit to using a similar trademark. Unregistered marks are not always easily discovered and a new market entrant may commit to a mark before having any opportunity to discover that it is the unregistered trademark of another.

Registering a trademark is straightforward. The applicant prepares an application that identifies the applicant, the trademark and the goods and/or services with which the trademark is being used or is intended to be used. Once satisfied that the application complies with the Trademarks Act, CIPO publishes the application to allow potential opponents of the registration to come forward. If there is no opposition, or if an opposition proceeding is brought and dismissed, the trademark is issued.

There is an interaction between the Trademarks Act and the Plant Breeder’s Rights Act. As discussed above, when a denomination has been adopted for a plant variety under the Plant Breeder’s Rights Act, nothing similar can be adopted or registered as a trademark. This is so other traders may use the denomination in their sale of the variety after expiry of the plant breeder’s right.

Cannabis businesses have been very busy applicants for trademarks. More than 1700 such applications are now on file, though a comparative few have yet been registered. Trademark applications in this area are likely to increase further with the coming changes to the Trademarks Act and the removal of the requirement that applicants show use of the trademark prior to registration. Companies will be encouraged to apply for trademarks they may only be considering using, and for any trademarks that they think their competitors may be planning to use. There is some concern that the changes to the Trademarks Act will lead to the rise of trademark trolls.

Before adopting a particular trademark, the producer must do what it can to minimize the likelihood that a third party will assert that the trademark infringes the third party’s prior rights. Searches of Canadian and international trademarks, particularly United States trademarks, are advised. National intellectual property offices, such as CIPO and the United States Patent and Trademark Office, maintain easily searchable databases of registered and applied-for trademarks that should be reviewed. Search professionals can also assist in identifying trademarks that have never been the subject of a trademark application. With the result of the searches in hand, the cannabis producer can determine whether or not to proceed to adopt the contemplated mark and invest in its promotion.


In Part 5, Naiberg will explain how to use a copyright to protect works of creative expression. Stay tuned for more!

Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights for Cannabis Put to Test in Federal Court

By Dr. Travis Bliss
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A number of cannabis businesses have pursued federal intellectual property protection for their cannabis-related innovations, such as U.S. patents that protect novel cannabis plant varieties, growing methods, extraction methods, etc. Enforcement of such federal IP rights requires that the IP owner file suit in federal court asserting those rights against another cannabis company. However, given that cannabis is still illegal under federal law, the industry is uncertain about whether a federal court will actually enforce cannabis-related IP rights. This question might be answered soon.

The potential impact of this case goes way beyond the two parties involvedOrochem Technologies, Inc. filed a lawsuit in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois on September 27, 2017, seeking to assert and enforce trade secret rights against Whole Hemp Company, LLC. According to the complaint, Orochem is a biotechnology company that uses proprietary separation methods to extract and purify cannabidiol (CBD) from industrial hemp in a way that produces a solvent-free and THC-free CBD product in commercially viable quantities.

The complaint goes on to say that Whole Hemp Company, which does business as Folium Biosciences, is a producer of CBD from industrial hemp and that Folium engaged Orochem to produce a THC-free CBD product for it. According to the allegations in the complaint, Folium used that engagement to gain access to and discover the details of Orochem’s trade secret method of extracting CBD so that it could take the process and use it at their facility.

The complaint provides a detailed story of the events that allegedly transpired, which eventually led to an Orochem employee with knowledge of the Orochem process leaving and secretly starting to work for Folium, where he allegedly helped Folium establish a CBD production line that uses Orochem’s trade secret process. When Orochem learned of these alleged transgressions, it filed the lawsuit, claiming that Folium (and the specific employee) had misappropriated its trade secret processes for extracting and purifying CBD.

While the particular facts of this case are both interesting and instructive for companies operating in the cannabis industry, the potential impact of this case goes way beyond the two parties involved.

If it moves forward, this case will likely provide a first glimpse into the willingness of federal courts to enforce IP rights that relate to cannabis. Orochem is asserting a violation of federal IP rights established under the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) and is asserting those rights in federal district court. As a result, the federal district court judge will first need to decide whether a federal court can enforce federal IP rights when the underlying intellectual property relates to cannabis.

If the court ultimately enforces these federal trade secret rights, it could be a strong indication that other federal IP rights, such as patent rights, would also be enforceable in federal court. Since the outcome of this case will likely have a far reaching and long lasting impact on how the cannabis industry approaches and deals with intellectual property, it’s a case worth watching.