Last week, Curaleaf, a medical cannabis producer and processor in Miami, Florida, announced they have earned the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Level II certification. In the press release, they claim they are the first and only medical cannabis company in the state to achieve that certification.
Curaleaf’s products include a line of low-THC and full strength medical cannabis products. They have dispensaries in Miami, Lake Worth, Fort Myers and St. Petersburg, as well as delivery of products from Jacksonville south to Key West.
According to Lindsay Jones, president of Curaleaf Florida, patients ask frequently about the level of safety of cannabis products. “Every day patients express interest and assurance of wanting to know that the foods and medicines they consume are safe and of the best quality available,” says Jones. “This SQF Level II certification that Curaleaf has earned is particularly important for patients and demonstrates that our medical marijuana processing expertise delivers superior quality products for patients in need across Florida.”
Florida’s regulations on medical cannabis producers and processors actually require a form of certification demonstrating proper food safety protocols. “Within 12 months after licensure, a medical marijuana treatment center must demonstrate to the department that all of its processing facilities have passed a Food Safety Good Manufacturing Practices, such as Global Food Safety Initiative or equivalent, inspection by a nationally accredited certifying body,” reads Rule 9 in the 2017 Florida Statute. Edibles producers in Florida “must hold a permit to operate as a food establishment pursuant to chapter 500, the Florida Food Safety Act, and must comply with all the requirements for food establishments pursuant to chapter 500 and any rules adopted thereunder.” The rules also lay out requirements for packaging, dosage and sanitation rules for storage, display and dispensing of edible products.
Looking at SQF Level II certification and GFSI could be a step in the right direction for many cannabis infused product manufacturers, as they are some of the more recognized programs in the food industry.
EVIO Labs recently became the first cannabis laboratory in Florida to obtain ISO 17025 accreditation. Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc. (PJLA), an organization that provides third-party assessments to ISO/IEC 17025, accredited EVIO Labs. The assessment process that lead to ISO 17025 accreditation for EVIO Labs included a thorough review of their quality management system, their capability to perform potency and contaminant testing for cannabis products.
Tracy Szerszen, president and operations manager at PJLA, encourages this international standard for laboratories to provide confidence to end-users that the test results they receive are reliable. She says laboratories that achieve this accreditation are showing they have the proper tools, equipment and staff to provide accurate testing. “It is a very critical component of the industry, and becoming accredited provides the assurance that laboratories are performing to the highest standard,” says Szerszen. “EVIO Labs has taken the right step in their commitment towards meeting this standard and providing clean and safe cannabis for the patients of Florida.”
EVIO Labs provides cannabis testing for cannabinoid and terpene profiles, microbiological and pesticides contamination, residual solvent, heavy metals, mycotoxins, water activity and moisture content. Chris Martinez, co-founder and president of EVIO Labs Florida explains that the Florida Department of Health mandates that an independent third-party laboratory tests medical cannabis to ensure that these products are safe for human consumption. Martinez says their first priority is the safety of their patients, and ensuring that EVIO Labs provides clean and safe cannabis for Florida.
Martinez launched their laboratory with some help from Shimadzu last year. “Our Broward lab is powered by Shimadzu with over $1.2M in the latest testing equipment utilizing LCMS technology with the world’s fastest polarity switching time of 5 m/sec and scan speeds of 30,000 u/sec with UF Qarray sensitivity 90 times that of previously available technologies,” says Martinez. According to Martinez, their licensing agreement with EVIO Labs (OTC:SGBYD) marked a first for the publicly traded company with exclusivity in the Florida market. The agreement includes proprietary testing methodologies, operating procedures, training and support.
Every certificate of analysis is reviewed by a lab director with over 20 years of experience operating in FDA regulated labs. Martinez says that EVIO has some of the most advanced technology in the industry, which provides them the opportunity to quickly provide results, frequently as fast as a 24-hour period. Martinez and his team are currently building a 3,300 square-foot laboratory in Gainesville, which is expected to be running by March of this year.
Currently, there are no lab testing regulations for Florida’s medical cannabis market. Chris Martinez, co-founder and chief operating officer of EVIO Labs Florida, a veteran-owned business, is looking to change that.
When Martinez co-founded EVIO Labs Florida, he saw the need for a dedicated cannabis lab to ensure safety and quality of medicine for patients in the state. Partnering with EVIO Labs to accomplish this goal, Martinez secured a 5,500 sq. ft. facility in Broward County to test for potency, pesticides, microbial contaminants, terpenes, residual solvents and heavy metals. Their lab, a first of its kind in the industry, qualifies as a true pharmaceutical-grade clean room. This week, Martinez also secured their 2nd laboratory location in the City of Gainsville, where they will test for potency, microbials, terpenes and residual solvents. And he isn’t doing it on the cheap. “Our Broward lab is powered by Shimadzu with over $1.2M in the latest testing equipment utilizing LCMS technology with the world’s fastest polarity switching time of 5 m/sec and scan speeds of 30,000 u/sec with UF Qarray sensitivity 90 times that of previously available technologies,” says Martinez.
Martinez, an entrepreneur at heart, started the lab with a team of experts to become the first completely cannabis-focused laboratory in Florida. Jorge Segredo, their head chemist and quality assurance director, has over 18 years of experience in the development of nutraceutical and pharmaceutical products under ISO and FDA accreditation. Segredo has helped launch three independent FDA-accredited laboratories and has extensive knowledge of HPLC, GCMS, LCMS, ICPMS technologies and development/validation of testing methods and procedures. Cynthia Brewer, their director of operations, was an active participant in the 2017 state legislative session and has been an advocate for medical cannabis, working with legislators on a suitable framework to increase patient access to cannabis.
EVIO is one of the nation’s leaders in cannabis testing, research science and advisory services. It is an evolving network of laboratories with nine EVIO cannabis laboratories operating in five different states: Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, Florida and California. “After speaking with industry chemists around the country for months, the EVIO name was constantly brought up in conversation,” says Martinez. “When we spoke with the EVIO Team it was an easy decision for us to partner.” He says Lori Glauser, chief operating officer of EVIO, and William Waldrop, chief executive officer of EVIO, are truly visionaries in the cannabis industry.
According to Martinez, their licensing agreement with EVIO Labs (OTC:SGBYD) marked a first for the publicly traded company with exclusivity in the Florida market. The agreement includes proprietary testing methodologies, operating procedures, training and support.
In addition to testing cannabis for safety and quality, they are launching a technology platform called MJ Buddy, essentially a software tool that takes efficacy feedback from patients and uses testing and genetic data they gather from EVIO Labs across the country. “This will provide real data to the cannabis industry as to the medical benefits for thousands of patients in relation to the genotype and cannabinoid profiles of their medicine,” says Martinez.
Of the states that have legalized some form of cannabis, a large number of them have some lab testing regulations on the book, with some more comprehensive than others. Martinez says he hopes the Florida Department of Health, Office of Medical Marijuana Use follows some of the more thorough state programs, such as Oregon. His team has compiled a set of documents for regulators with recommendations for regulating the lab testing industry.
Without any regulations on paper, it is up to businesses to produce safe and quality medicine, without any oversight. EVIO Labs Florida follows FDA Good Laboratory Practices, has an ISO 17025:2005 accreditation pending, and is working on TNI 2016 accreditation.
When discussing what he wants to see happen with Florida’s regulatory framework, Martinez says the rules need to be specific to Florida. For example, due to the climate being so humid, microbial contaminant testing for things like yeast and mold will be particularly imperative. Because processing methods like butane and alcohol extraction are legal, he emphasizes the need for comprehensive residual solvents testing. “The most important regulation would be to have the laboratories select the samples at the MMTC facility and have the state randomly verify laboratory results to ensure accurate unbiased testing,” says Martinez.
In addition to that, he hopes their pesticide thresholds will be realistic and based on actual science. “We believe the public should receive carcinogenic data for products that are inhaled,” says Martinez. “Chemicals may be introduced into the processing of cannabis to vape liquid that may cause harm. This is important information for public health and communication of the risk related to exposure to such materials.” Martinez says EVIO Labs Florida was founded on the belief that through technology and science we can increase safety and patient outcomes.
The demand for medical cannabis in Florida might be growing steadily, with patient numbers soaring, but that doesn’t mean the market will grow accordingly. Due to hampering regulations and a lack of state guidance, the industry in Florida is tiny and patients have limited options for medical cannabis products.
A little more than three years ago, Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law, legalizing medical cannabis, but only for terminally ill patients and only for one strain, Charlotte’s Web. That stipulated a low-THC, concentrated oil form of cannabis. That bill also set up the licensing framework for what is now an extremely limited market.
In November of 2015, the Office of Compassionate Use, now called the Office of Medical Marijuana, issued licenses for five dispensaries. To get a license, applicants needed to meet a variety of absurd requirements. That included being a nursery in business for thirty years, growing a minimum of 400,000 plants at the time of applying, paying $300,000 in fees and a $5 million performance bond.
Fast forward to Election Day last year when voters passed Amendment 2 by a wide margin, amending the state’s constitution and legalizing medical cannabis for a broader scope of qualifying conditions. What hasn’t changed, however, is the old vertical licensing framework. Critics have dubbed this a “pay-to-play” market, with massive barriers to entry prohibiting small businesses from gaining market access.
David Kotler, Esq., attorney and partner at CohenKotler P.A., says we shouldn’t expect to see a viable market for years as a result of all this red tape. “Honestly the State of Florida, with their limited licenses and odd requirements to qualify for licensure have stunted what could be a good market both for businesses and patients,” says Kotler. “It has been an inefficient roll-out and is truly an embarrassment for the state, legislature and the Department of Health.” Kotler says he’s heard reports of extremely limited product selection, poor quality, as well as no dried flower being offered.
But the patients are pouring in by the thousands- on July 27th, the Office of Medical Marijuana reported 26,968 registered medical patients, with more than 10,000 patients signing up since June 7th. “Despite my belief that it would be a slow roll out, it appears the patient count is picking up,” says Kotler. “The elimination of the 90-day doctor-patient relationship will certainly help this.” He is referring to the reversal of a waiting period policy, where patients had to wait 90 days before receiving a medical cannabis certification. “But there still seems to be a backup with issuance of cards and poor guidance from the Department of Health leaving many doctors unsure of what they should be doing,” says Kotler. The rules and guidelines for physicians participating in the program are still not established, but the Florida Board of Medicine expects to vote on them this week, reports say.
With seven licensees right now and a total of ten licensees by October allowed to grow and distribute cannabis products, the question remains if that is enough to satisfy the growing number of patients. According to Matt Karnes, founder and managing partner of GreenWave Advisors, the state is adjusting by adding more licensees and allowing them to operate more dispensaries, potentially trying to sate that demand. “Both of these amendments will likely serve as a catalyst for revenue growth but could be tempered by a lack of physician participation (as we have seen in other states) in the medical marijuana program,” says Karnes. “For every incremental 100,000 patients who register in the Medical Marijuana program, four more licenses will be issued and existing licensees will be allowed to open another four dispensaries (current cap is 25). We do not expect an incremental 100,000 patients until sometime in 2021.” His firm’s market projections account for those increases and edibles now being sold, but still no dry flower allowed. They project total sales figures in the state to reach $712 million by 2021.
Those figures are contingent on the increase in registered patients and more licensees. If Florida’s vertical licensing model remains, it’s quite possible the state will see a cannabis shortage, much like Nevada during their opening month of adult use sales. “Instead of learning from so many states before it, Florida forged a path down the rabbit hole that may limit Florida’s potential until either a legislative change or a backlash at the polls in the form of an amendment bringing forth adult use,” says Kotler. In New York, that vertical licensing model arguably created a monopoly, with only a select few businesses controlling the entire market. That doesn’t foster market growth; it hurts quality, keeps prices high and prevents real competition. “We see how that worked out for New York,” says Kotler. “We cling to that despite what could be a large patient base with the potential to service tourists who wish to have reciprocity.”
Florida’s market could be a powerhouse for the state, with the potential to generate millions in tax revenue, create thousands of jobs and actually help patients get the medicine they need. But until the state ditches their conservative, closed-door approach, we won’t see the industry truly flourish. .
Voters in Florida passed Amendment 2 last year with an overwhelming majority of over 70%. The constitutional amendment went into effect on January 3rd this year and regulators have until July 3rd to promulgate the rules.
The Florida Department of Health set up the Office of Compassionate Use (OCU) in July of 2014 after the passing of the so-called Charlotte’s Web measure (HB 843). That bill allows use of low THC/high CBD cannabis for treating seizures. The OCU is charged with the task of writing and implementing medical cannabis rules. Ongoing public hearings and workshops at the Department of Health (DOH) are meant to give stakeholders the opportunity to chime in on the proposed rules.
On January 17th, the DOH published proposed rules and announced public hearings, seeking input from the public on the matter. The OCU is required to implement rules consistent with Amendment 2, but they would defer to the legislature if a bill were passed, promulgating rules consistent with Amendment 2 and the bill.
After the passing of Amendment 2, Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) filed SB614, a bill that establishes four license categories instead of the currently required vertically integrated business model. Notably, Sen. Brandes’ bill requires laboratory batch testing, whereas other proposed rules do not include such a measure. Sen. Brandes sees the DOH’s proposed rules as more of the same from the current medical program, according to a quote from FloridaPolitics.com. “Any proposal which seeks to mold the spirit of Amendment 2 into the narrow and flawed law on the books today should be rejected, and a more comprehensive strategy must take priority,” says Sen. Brandes. “I will support no bill, nor any rule, that maintains the established state sanctioned cartel system we have today, and I urge my colleagues to join me in proposing a free market solution for Florida.” He is referring to the seven licensed nurseries from the low THC/high CBD medical program, all of which are vertically integrated.
According to Matthew Ginder, senior counsel in the cannabis law practice at Greenspoon Marder, the biggest question for the legislature is how many licenses will they issue and what kind of structures are required for the licensees. Another big issue is the process by which patients access medical cannabis through their physicians. “The current program requires physicians to register as the orderer of medical cannabis, specify dosing and order medical devices, which is highly uncommon in other state programs,” says Ginder. “Sen. Brandes’ bill removes these requirements and is more consistent with other states by requiring a physician’s recommendation.” He says that bill would create four licenses: cultivation, processing transportation and retail.
Sen. Robert Bradley (R-5th District) also filed legislation (SB 406) to implement Amendment 2, but this bill is very different from Sen. Brandes’ bill. “Bradley’s bill is built upon the statutory framework that is already in place,” says Ginder. “Bradley’s is keeping vertical integration intact, seeking to also limit the amount of vertically integrated license based on a patient ratio of about 20,000 registered patients per license issued.” Bradley’s bill does not provide for independent lab testing requirements. Some might characterize Bradley’s bill as more of the same, allowing for the consolidation of existing monopolies.
Ginder says these are just two bills from the Senate, the House still has not proposed any bills. “We will most likely see more bills,” says Ginder. “We still don’t know what iteration of the bill or what language might be adopted and you can expect them to change as it moves through the committees.” With the legislative session beginning on March 7th, we can expect to see these bills debated on the floor and likely the filing of other legislation.
On February 1st, Greenspoon Marder announced the launch of their Organization for Safe Cannabis Regulation (OSCR) in Florida. By hiring lobbyists and making contributions to certain political candidates, the OSCR aims to advocate for a broad and fair marketplace, specifically “advocating for laws that create independently “registered” entities that perform specific functions along the production and distribution chain.”
Update: With 100% reporting (589 of 589 precincts), voters in Maine passed Question 1, legalizing recreational cannabis by a very narrow margin of 50.2% to 49.8% (378,288 in favor and 375,668 against is a margin of only 2,620 votes)
Voters in California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada passed ballot initiatives legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, creating huge new markets for the cannabis industry overnight. Voters in North Dakota, Florida, Montana and Arkansas passed ballot initiatives to legalize forms of medical cannabis. Voters by a margin of 52.2% to 47.8% rejected Arizona’s Proposition 205, which would have legalized recreational cannabis.
With 100% of the votes in for Maine’s Question 1, voters narrowly passed legalizing recreational cannabis, the polls show it won by a very slim margin, less than 3,000 votes.
New Frontier Data and Arcview Market Research released an Election Day update to their growth projections for the cannabis industry by 2020. The release projects: “The legalization of cannabis in California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota will result in new markets that account for $7.1 billion in sales by 2020. We project the overall U.S. cannabis market will exceed $20.9 billion by 2020.” Those numbers include overall cannabis sales and assume the markets are all fully operational by 2018.
According to Giadha DeCarcer, founder and chief executive officer of New Frontier, there is overwhelming support for medical cannabis and a majority of Americans are in favor of legalizing recreational cannabis as well. “The ten initiatives on the ballot reflect the accelerating public debate on legal cannabis access,” says DeCarcer. “The passage of California’s adult use measure and Florida’s medical initiative expand legal access into two of the country’s most populous states.” The market potential is notably enormous in California, it currently being the 6th largest economy in the world. “Additionally, the passage of the measure in Massachusetts opens the first adult use market in the Northeast extending the reach of legal adult use access from coast to coast,” says DeCarcer. “The passage of the measures in Arkansas and North Dakota shows that public support on this issue is not solely confined to urban, liberal markets but extends into conservative rural states as well.”
According to the release, by 2020 California could reach a total market size of $7.6B and Massachusetts could grow to $1.1B. Massachusetts being the first mover in the Northeast to legalize recreational cannabis will be watched very closely by a number of surrounding states that appeared bullish on cannabis legalization previously.
Leslie Bocskor, president and founder of Electrum Partners, believes the Election Day results will bring an influx of investing opportunities to the industry. “We are going to see a diverse approach from the irrationally exuberant to the sophisticated and experienced investor and entrepreneur getting involved, creating businesses and investing in the industry that will create innovation, jobs, wealth and tax revenue far beyond the consensus expectations,” says Bocksor. “The cannabis industry is more than one industry; it is an entire ecosystem, impacting so many verticals, such as agriculture, industrial chemicals from hemp, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and more. We see the funding of innovation that might have been absent without the velocity and heft that has come from this phenomenon,” adds Bocksor. As these newly legalized markets begin to launch, it will require a considerable amount of time to see the industry flesh out in each new state.
Donald Trump winning the presidential election and the GOP retaining control over the House and Senate could mean a lot of uncertainties for the future of the cannabis industry on a national scale. President-elect Trump has previously flip-flopped on the issue of cannabis legalization, but has said in the past he favors leaving the issue of medical use up to the states, advocating for access to medical cannabis, while recently saying he opposes regulating cannabis for adult use, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. The MPP gave him a C+ grade for his views toward cannabis.
On The O’Reilly Factor in February 2016, Trump told the conservative political commentator that he supports medical cannabis while opposing the recreational use. “I’m in favor of it [access to medical cannabis] a hundred percent. But what you are talking about [recreational use], perhaps not. It’s causing a lot of problems out there [in Colorado],” says Trump. It is still unclear at this time exactly what Trump’s policy will be for the now 28 states that have some form of legal cannabis.
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), appeared optimistic regarding the outcomes of Election Day. “More than 16 million voters, including in two of the three most populated states in the nation, chose legal, regulated cannabis programs that promote safety, boost the economy, help sick patients and address social injustices,” says Smith. In the press release, the NCIA spelled out their priorities for congressional action on cannabis policy: Opening up bank access for state-compliant cannabis businesses, ending the effects of federal tax code Section 280E on cannabis businesses and removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act via descheduling. “Last night’s results send a simple message – the tipping point has come,” says Smith.
From time to time, lawyers that service the cannabis industry find themselves representing a client with a litigation matter. By anecdotal evidence, it appears that there is an up-tick in cannabis related litigation over the past year and a half, mostly in circumstances where respective promises made have not been lived up to or those who have invested money are seeking its return. Perhaps a partnership formed within the last few years is simply becoming unraveled.
In the world of litigation, we see defenses, or what are known as affirmative defenses, may be filed in response to a particular lawsuit or claim. One such affirmative defense often utilized in litigation is that a particular contract or agreement may be void based on illegality or void as against public policy.
In fact, this particular grounds for dismissal was at issue in a case in Maricopa County, Arizona wherein a judge in April of 2011 dismissed a lawsuit seeking enforcement of a loan agreement where two Arizona business people loaned $250,000.00 each to a Colorado-based medical marijuana dispensary. The agreement in that case specifically stated that the loan was for “a retail medical marijuana sales and growth center.” Colorado had the foresight in 2013 to legislate against this type of defense when their general assembly passed a law indicating “a contract is not void or voidable as against public policy if it pertains to lawful activities authorized by” Colorado’s constitutional and statutory cannabis law.
The issue becomes germane in emerging states wherein the legislatures and courts have not been dealing with cannabis related matters for any length of time. This is particularly true and ripe for problems in states such as Illinois and Massachusetts that have recently moved forward with cannabis programs and experienced an influx of out of state consultants and companies looking to partner with and work with local residents for licensure purposes. In Florida alone, there have been at least three lawsuits in the past year dealing with cannabis related civil disputes.
To my knowledge, none of those disputes were defended upon, nor did the court address, the legality of the underlying subject matter. However, the question arises whether the lawyer’s obligation to their client necessitates raising this as a defense, for instance, to an action for non-payment of a promissory note for a loan to fund cannabis related business. If the lawyer practices and seeks clients in the industry and hopes to move the industry forward in a positive manner, is it incumbent upon the lawyer to assist the client by making the best legal argument or protect the industry and greater good? As an aside, the answer is to zealously represent the client. Potentially, an adverse ruling in a particular jurisdiction could ultimately affect enforceability of cannabis related agreements in that jurisdiction. It is possible that having a court ruling, even if it is a trial level court within the jurisdiction, at least provides some precedent and a basis for the industry moving forward in that particular jurisdiction. If the ruling is unfavorable like the Arizona precedent mentioned earlier, perhaps planning for jurisdiction and venue to be in more favorable environs is key to document drafting on the front end. For investors, knowing the enforceability of their agreements in a particular jurisdiction could mean the difference between investing in a venture in a particular state or not.
Ultimately, I believe that as advocates, we must do whatever is in our power to protect the client even if it means testing the legal bounds by making an argument that at first blush may hurt the industry. However, having courts develop precedent by which the industry can govern itself in business dealings is important and takes away uncertainty, which in turn allows for good decision-making on the front end. Hopefully, in the near future this will be moot as the federal government moves forward to take actions that provide more certainty and uniformity in dealings within the cannabis space.
Today I get to take a break from talking about what some lawyers, where ethically permissible, generally deal with in the cannabis space in terms of drafting leases, distribution agreements, licensing agreements, and/or application assistance. Within the cannabis industry, I personally serve as outside general counsel to entities to which I provide legal guidance and advice under retainer agreements, which comply, with my ethical obligations as a member of the Florida Bar. Over the last two years, I have spoken with individuals in other states and lawyers who practice in other states. As the cannabis industry has evolved, we continue to witness start-ups that need legal help and often take the most cost-effective route. In certain jurisdictions, I have heard of attorneys, particularly attorneys in Colorado, who have expanded into those jurisdictions and taken an equity stake of the start-up for their legal services. Whether or not this is true, and furthermore permissible, remains to be determined or even addressed by me, as this is a topic for another day.
But what happens when the lawyer-client relationship goes south?
It just so happens that in Florida a lawsuit is taking place between a well-known industry participant and its former lawyer. The names of the parties are omitted to protect them; however, perhaps more importantly, not to put myself in anyone’s cross hairs. This dispute was first reported in a reputable industry publication. Having had experience in media-worthy cases in the past, I am assuming that one party or the other reached out to self report the lawsuit for whatever advantage they thought they would garner. Upon review of the docket in preparation for writing this piece, I noted the docket’s length. For those who are unaware, a docket is essentially a listing of the dates and matters that have been filed during the pendency of a lawsuit.
The docket for the case begins between our anonymous parties, on October 26, 2015 with the filing of a complaint. Since October 26, 2015, there have been approximately 59 docket entries. In some cases, that number could encompass all of the docket entries over the life of a full litigation, short of trying a case, and probably gives the reader some idea as to the litigiousness between the parties. In part, this could be due to the personalities of both former counsel and new counsel representing the company in defense, but probably is not indicative of what would happen in every dispute between former counsel and a company. It is certainly a scary proposition considering the fees that may be incurred in defense of the action, aside from the sum that is allegedly owed to the plaintiff. Without getting into the minutia of the complaint, of note was a portion of the retainer agreement that served as the basis of the breach of contract claim, which granted the law firm incentive stock options pursuant to the company’s incentive stock program. It is imaginable that at the time of signing the retainer agreement, the company probably did not think too much about signing such an agreement; however, as time went on, this may have become problematic on a number of levels. Further review shows the parties airing out their dirty laundry in a public forum.
What example has this lawsuit shown us, and what can one take from it?
Well, this lawsuit is illustrative of what can go wrong for start-ups and newer companies in hiring counsel, either on a one-time basis or as outside general counsel. Giving stock options may not always be advisable as a means of deferring payment on the front end. Also realize that counsel who you hire will be privy to some very important and intimate details of how your company operates. In the cannabis industry, one might wish to be especially guarded, as the industry still has considerable exposure federally. The attorney-client privilege, which some readers may have heard about, can cover communications and work done on behalf of the company during the relationship and survive termination; however, that privilege may very well be waived if the services/fees of the attorney are being attacked or defended. Overall, like anything else, it is important to understand who you may be working with on the front end and memorialize any relationship properly and clearly in writing. Go into the professional lawyer-client relationship with reasonable expectations, reasonable demands, and pay reasonable compensation for the work being performed. As a business, don’t try to get something for nothing. And as an attorney, don’t expect the company to be your golden ticket.
It is now December of 2015 and we are one year removed from the loss at the polls of an amendment that would allow for full spectrum medical cannabis in Florida. The defeat of Amendment 2 allowed for the implementation of the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014, albeit a rather rocky implementation, thus legalizing low THC, high CBD cannabis strains. I participated in many of the public meetings which took place and watched the different draft regulations set forth by the Florida Department of Health be debated, commented on and ultimately revised. The process underwent legal challenges and as of the publication of this, applications for five license holders were awarded.
As many might be aware, the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act applicants were required to be nurseries continuously operating for over 30 years with a plant registration of 400, 000 plants as of the time of application. There were other relevant requirements, but the two foregoing were the most restrictive and narrowed the market of potential applicants.
Following in line with legislative means to put cannabis in the hands of a few large, Florida-centric entities, a Bill recently passed the Senate in Florida allowing for the expansion of the use of cannabis with higher THC content for patients with debilitating diseases under Florida Statute 499.0295. Presumably, the five licensees would then be authorized to expand their crop to include THC based plants and provide those to qualifying patients.
My fear all along has been that Florida would abandon the possibility of having a robust economic, yet patient-centric model not dissimilar to Colorado, Washington or Oregon, but more akin to what one might see in New York or what was narrowly avoided in Ohio. In fact, I have considered the possibility that should the new Amendment supported by United for Care passed, since that Amendment allowed for the Department of Health to promulgate the rules and regulations, that the Department could, assuming the five licensees are operational, merely give responsibility to the five licensees, allowing them to expand.
Alas, I believe, and I am happy to admit it, I may be wrong. In Florida, constitutional amendments require a review by the Office of Economic and Demographic Research. It is the focus of this body to analyze and report the economic impact that a particular amendment might have upon passage and effectuation. Data from numerous sources are reviewed and integrated into the Committee’s opinion. Of note, during my review of the October Economic Estimating Conference Meeting and Reports was the position taken by the Department of Health. Specifically, the Department of Health did not indicate that it could implement a system by merely expanding or working off of the framework it has for the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act. Instead, the Department took the approach that a new set of regulations and guidelines, as well as departmental operations, would need to be implemented. In fact, it would need to be implemented to comply with the MMTC system authorized by the amendment. Whether one believes in the vertical model or one which licenses similar to Maryland and a few other states, the important point is that the Department of Health seemingly recognizes that a more robust model will have to be implemented.
So what does all this mean for patients and potential businesses in Florida? In regard to patients, I wish I could say that the potential for treatment through cannabis is foreseeable in the short term. However, I am not convinced of this. I do believe that the selections and process for which applications were selected under the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act will be challenged, thus resulting in more delays. With regard to the Amendment and implementation should it pass, it will not be until the middle of 2017, approximately one and one-half years away. Should businesses begin preparations in Florida currently? In my honest opinion I believe it is hard to say. In the summer of 2014, I spent a lot of time counseling individuals and businesses on planning for the legalization of medical cannabis in Florida. Some clients were more aggressive than others and ultimately spent time and money, perhaps unnecessarily. On the flip side, I participated in the application process in Maryland and am of the belief that individuals who made application for Maryland cultivation licenses benefitted from an early start and preliminary planning.
I know a number of successful cultivators in legal states who moved on Maryland as a last minute decision once recognizing that although scored as part of an application, residency or lack thereof was not a bar to licensure. I am therefore of the opinion that certain preparation in advance is advantageous and allows alteration of the plan and adaptation at a later stage without wasting resources to accomplish much of the work that is capable of being accomplished in advance. I do believe there are a good deal of uncertainties, depending on how things move forward, as to what our model will look like and if that model will get into place, depending on the rollout of the Compassionate Medical Cannabis licenses as well as the possibility of some of the legislative initiatives catching wildfire, much as the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014 did at the very end.
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