UPDATE: Late in the evening on May 15, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES package, voting 208-199 (with 23 abstentions). The bill now now heads to the Senate where its fate is more uncertain.
On page 1,066, those in the cannabis industry will find a very exciting addition: the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. For the uninitiated, the SAFE Banking Act would ensure access to financial services for cannabis-related businesses and service providers.
Currently, federally regulated financial institutions face penalties for dealing with cannabis companies due to the Controlled Substances Act. The bill, if passed, would eliminate the possibility of any repercussions for doing business with cannabis companies.
The impact of this bill becoming law would be widespread and immediate for both the cannabis market and banks looking to invest in the cannabis industry. With banks given the green light to conduct business with the cannabis industry, there is no doubt that many financial institutions will rush to the opportunity. Cannabis businesses will benefit greatly, no longer having to deal with massive quantities of cash and gain access to things like loans, bank accounts and credit lines. Furthermore, cannabis companies will benefit from the rush of banks getting in the game, leading to a competitive and affordable banking market.
It is no secret that cannabis businesses have had a cash problem for decades now. Given the coronavirus pandemic, CDC guidelines dictate minimizing the handling of cash and encourage payment options like credit cards. Cannabis businesses dealing with large quantities of cash puts them, their employees, their customers and even regulators at risk.
According to Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the cash problem is a serious, unnecessary health risk. “On behalf of the legal cannabis industry, we commend the congressional leadership for prioritizing public health and safety by including sensible cannabis banking policy in this legislation,” says Smith. “Our industry employs hundreds of thousands of Americans and has been deemed ‘essential’ in most states. It’s critically important that essential cannabis workers are not exposed to unnecessary health risks due to outdated federal banking regulations.”
In fact, it was the NCIA and a handful of other industry organizations that lobbied Congress last week to include language from the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES Act, citing the known fact that cash can harbor coronavirus and other pathogens, along with the “personal proximity required by cash transactions as reasons for urgency in addition to the other safety and transparency concerns addressed by the legislation.”
The SAFE Banking Act was already approved by the House of Representatives. In September of 2019, the bill made a lot of progress through Congress, but stalled once it made it to the Senate Banking Committee.
The HEROES Act will be debated by the House of Representatives prior to a floor vote. If it passes the House, it moves to the Senate, which is about as far as it made it the last go around. However, because the banking reform is included in coronavirus relief legislation, there is a newborn sense of hope that the bill could be signed into law.
According to a press release published by the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the House Judiciary Committee approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act by a 24-10 vote. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced The MORE Act (HR 2884), which now has 55 cosponsors. This marks the first time in history that a congressional committee approved a bill to legalize cannabis.
“Today’s vote marks a turning point for federal cannabis policy, and is truly a sign that prohibition’s days are numbered,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA. “Thanks to the diligent efforts of advocates and lawmakers from across the political spectrum, we’ve seen more progress in this Congress than ever before.”
A little bit of background on the bill: The MORE Act, if passed, would decriminalize cannabis completely on a federal level. It would remove it from the Controlled Substances Act, not reschedule it. If the bill were to pass, it would expunge all prior federal cannabis convictions. The bill provides for the establishment of the “Cannabis Justice Office,” which would develop a. program for reinvesting resources in those communities most affected by the war on drugs. That program would be funded by a 5% tax on cannabis commerce in states that have legal regulatory frameworks.
The bill also would allow the Small Business Administration to provide loans, grants and other support to cannabis-related businesses, as well as support state equity licensing programs. Through the bill, physicians in the Veteran Affairs system would be given permission to recommend medical cannabis to patients as well.
“Supermajority public support for legalization, increasing recognition of the devastating impacts of prohibition on marginalized communities and people of color, and the undeniable success of state cannabis programs throughout the country are all helping to build momentum for comprehensive change in the foreseeable future,” says Smith.
According to NCIA, there was a recent amendment to the MORE Act that includes language from the Realizing Equitable & Sustainable Participation in Emerging Cannabis Trades (RESPECT) Resolution introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). That resolution is based on the white paper that NCIA’s Policy Council published back in March of 2019.
“There is still much work to be done, including the establishment of sound federal regulations for cannabis products,” says Smith. “This vote brings us one step closer to ending the disaster that is prohibition and repairing the harms it has caused while we continue the discussion in Congress about how to best regulate cannabis at the federal level. We urge lawmakers to move forward with this necessary bill without delay.”
Under the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Controlled Substance Act (CSA), drugs are classified into five distinct schedules depending upon their acceptable medical use and their overall potential for abuse or dependency. The DEA currently lists cannabis as a Schedule I drug, which the CSA defines as drugs having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. It appears, however, that the DEA may soon reconsider its current Schedule I classification of cannabis.
This article considers how the DEA’s potential reclassification of cannabis potentially could affect Georgia’s medical cannabis industry. Specifically, the article discusses: (1) how Georgia medical cannabis distributors would operate within this new regulatory framework; (2) how this change would affect registered Georgia patients who are either currently purchasing medical cannabis or are planning to do so; and (3) whether this reclassification would cause big pharmaceutical companies to enter Georgia’s medical cannabis market, and if so, how.
The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Affect the Regulatory Framework of Georgia’s Medical Cannabis Industry
On April 2, 2019, Georgia became the 34th U.S. state to legalize cannabis for medicinal use when the Georgia Legislature passed House Bill 324 (“HB 324”), which recently took effect on Monday, July 1, 2019. In Georgia, medical cannabis is defined as a “low-THC oil” that contains 5% or less of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the psychoactive chemical in cannabis that causes a “high.”
If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, the regulatory framework of Georgia’s medical cannabis industry under HB 324 would likely be affected. For instance, depending on how the DEA elects to reclassify cannabis, low-THC oil products manufactured and sold in Georgia could become subject to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) costly, complicated and time-consuming drug approval process. Then, any low THC oil products that the FDA approves will be subject to federally mandated quality, efficacy and potency standards for FDA-approved drugs. Also, any federal standards that stem from the DEA’s reclassification of cannabis will trump any conflicting provisions in HB 324 or any other conflicting rules, regulations or procedures established by the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission (GAMCC), the seven member state agency responsible for promulgating and implementing the state-based rules, regulations and procedures necessary to produce and distribute low-THC oil in Georgia, and the Georgia State Board of Pharmacy (Pharmacy Board). However, even if the DEA reclassifies cannabis, the following state regulatory framework established by HB 324 will remain unaffected:
The GAMCC will likely continue to oversee the state’s medical cannabis industry.
The following two different types of dispensary licenses issued under the legislation will still likely remain: retail outlets (issued by the GAMCC) and pharmacies (issued by the Pharmacy Board).
Licensed dispensaries will still likely not be located within a 1,000-foot radius of a school or church, and licensed production facilities will still not be located within a 3,000-foot radius of a school or church.
Pharmacists who dispense low-THC oil will still likely have to review each registered patient’s information on the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) database to confirm that they have been diagnosed with one or more of the 17 approved conditions and diseases. The legislation does not require retail outlet dispensaries to review patient information on the PDMP database or employ a pharmacist to dispense the drug.
Registered patients will still likely be prohibited from vaping low-THC oil or inhaling it by any other electronic means. The legislation does not expressly prohibit the use of other, non-electronic delivery methods of low THC oil such as pills or nasal spray.
All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production companies) will still likely be subject to an “on-demand” inspection when requested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the GAMCC, the four-member Medical Cannabis Commission Oversight Committee (MCCOC), or local law enforcement. The GAMCC and the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency (GDNA) will also still likely be able to conduct one, annual inspection of dispensary locations. And, upon request, licensed dispensaries will still likely be required to immediately provide a sample of their low-THC oil for laboratory testing to the GBI, GAMCC, MCCOC, GDNA or local law enforcement.
All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production facilities) will still likely be required to utilize a GAMCC-approved seed-to-sale tracking software.
All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production companies) will still likely be prohibited from advertising or marketing their low-THC oil products to registered patients or the public. However, they will still likely be allowed to provide information about their products directly to physicians, and upon request, physicians will still likely be allowed to furnish the names of licensed dispensaries (and licensed production companies) to registered patients or their caregivers.
The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Affect the Availability of Low THC Oil
To date, approximately 9,500 Georgians are registered with the state’s Low-THC Registry, which allows them to purchase low-THC oil from licensed dispensaries. Since the legislation’s passage, the number of registered patients has increased significantly and continues to steadily rise. If the DEA reclassifies marijuana, this patient number will likely increase at an even faster rate because the public will likely perceive reclassification as an acknowledgement by the federal government that marijuana possesses health and medicinal benefits. If that occurs, statewide demand for low THC oil could quickly outstrip the supply.
Under HB 324, the GAMCC is tasked with ensuring that the state has a sufficient number of retail outlet dispensaries across the state to meet patient demand but is limited to issuing only six production licenses. As the number of registered patients continues to grow, the GAMCC may be forced to recommend amendments to the statute allowing it to issue additional production licenses to increase the state’s supply of low THC oil, and depending on how many additional patients are added to the state’s Low-THC Registry, the GAMCC may also have to issue additional dispensary licenses to keep up with patient demand by relaxing the geographic limitations on locating dispensaries.
Thus, the DEA’s reclassification of cannabis likely would affect the amount of low THC oil available to registered patients in Georgia.
The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Cause Large Pharmaceutical Companies to Enter Georgia’s Medical Cannabis Market
Large pharmaceutical companies typically manufacture, market, sell and ship their products on a national and international scale. Given cannabis’ current status as a Schedule I drug under the CSA, these companies have largely steered clear of the burgeoning medical marijuana industry because of the inherent risk of violating federal law. If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, that risk will be diminished greatly, and the companies therefore will likely decide to enter the market by acquiring existing medical marijuana companies with established national or state-level medical cannabis brands.
If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, Georgia’s medical cannabis market will likely be affected in multiple ways.Depending on how the DEA reclassifies cannabis, low-THC oil in Georgia could be subject to stringent federal standards, including the FDA’s complex and expensive drug approval process. Georgia medical cannabis companies will likely not be accustomed to complying with such federal regulations. Large pharmaceutical companies, on the other hand, are very accustomed to dealing with the federal government, including FDA drug approval. So, if the DEA reclassifies marijuana, pharmaceutical companies will likely view reclassification as a tremendous opportunity to enter the Georgia market by leveraging their experience and institutional knowledge dealing with federal law to acquire or partner with a licensed Georgia cannabis company that has an established brand of low -HC oil.
Entering Georgia’s medical cannabis market won’t be easy, however, because HB 324 prohibits licensees from transferring their licenses for five years and requires that the original licensee be a Georgia business. But, HB 324 does not prohibit them from selling their businesses, which necessarily includes any licenses the business owns. Purchasing a licensed Georgia medical cannabis company requires payment of a production license business transfer fee. The fee for the first sale of a business with a Class 1 production license is $100,000 and the fee for a Class 2 license is $12,500. The fee for the second sale is $150,000 for a Class 1 production license, and $62,500 for a Class 2 license. The fee for the third and fourth sales is $200,000 for a Class 1 production license, and $112,500 for a Class 2 license.
If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, Georgia’s medical cannabis market will likely be affected in multiple ways. Specifically, depending on how the drug is reclassified, the regulatory framework for medical cannabis companies likely will change to include both state and federal requirements, potentially including the FDA’s complex drug approval process. Also, the amount of low-THC oil available for registered patients to purchase likely will be diminished precipitating the need for the GAMCC to modify the statute to allow for issuing additional production licenses and relaxing the geographic limitations on locating dispensaries. Finally, large pharmaceutical companies likely will attempt to enter Georgia’s medical cannabis market by purchasing existing, licensed Georgia companies that have established low-THC oil brands.
Earlier this month, the House passed HB 1438 in a 66-47 vote, with bipartisan help. Roughly 24 hours before that, the same bill cleared the Senate in a sweeping 38-17 vote. Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA) into law on Tuesday, making Illinois the 11th state in the nation to legalize adult use cannabis and the first to do so via the legislature.
Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker campaigned and won the election on this issue and helped design HB 1438. Sponsors of the bill, Senator Heather Steans (Chicago-D) and Representative Kelly Cassidy (Chicago-D), along with Governor Pritzker, have been viewed as the architects of this piece of legislation.
Some supporters say the state legalizing cannabis in this particular fashion will have shockwave effects throughout the rest of the country. Not only did Illinois pass this legislation, but they did so with social equity and public health in mind. Back when the sponsors of the bill announced their intentions in January this year, Sen. Steans told a town hall meeting in Springfield, “We have a huge opportunity in Illinois to do this right and carefully… If we don’t address the social-justice issues of this, if we don’t address the collateral consequences of the ‘war on drugs,’ we will have failed.”
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has a handy overview of the legislation that breaks down exactly what was legalized. An MPP press release says this legislation is, “the most far-reaching social equity provisions ever included in a legalization law. It includes reinvestment in communities disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition, broad expungement provisions, and measures to ensure the industry includes communities that have been targeted by cannabis enforcement.”
Illinois lawmakers came one step closer to legalizing adult use cannabis this week. The Illinois Senate voted 38-17 to pass HB 1438, which is now headed to the House for a vote. Sponsors of the bill, Senator Heather Steans (Chicago-D) and Representative Kelly Cassidy (Chicago-D), along with Governor J.B. Pritzker, have been viewed as the architects of this piece of legislation.
This is not the first time that Democrats in the Illinois legislature have attempted to legalize adult use cannabis. Back in 2017, state Representative Kelly Cassidy and state Senator Heather Steans, the two lawmakers sponsoring this bill, sponsored a legalization bill that failed to garner support.
Regarding the bill that just cleared the Senate, one particularly contentious issue raised was the allowance for “home grow.” The Senate approved the bill after a provision was added allowing just medical cannabis patients to grow their own, not everyone.
If this bill manages to pass through the House, Governor Pritzker is expected to sign the bill immediately. The bill would legalize and regulate sales of cannabis and cannabis products on January 1, 2020.
As of today, Arizona is the only state in the country that has legalized medical cannabis but does not require producers to test their medical cannabis. States throughout the country that legalize medical cannabis routinely implement regulations that require third-party, independent lab testing to protect patient and consumer safety. Arizona legalized medical cannabis for a number of qualifying conditions back in 2011, but still has no measure like other states to protect patient safety.
Lawmakers in Arizona now have the opportunity to change that with SB1494, which passed unanimously through the state’s Senate back in March of 2019. According to the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association (ACLA), the bill awaits action in the House of Representatives. The ACLA says in a press release that “supporters of the bill are calling on lawmakers to move on a bill that unanimously passed in the Senate earlier this year.” The bill would require producers to use independent, third-party labs to test cannabis for things like harmful toxins and molds.
According to Ryan Treacy, co-founder of the ACLA and CEO/Founder of C4 Laboratories, the ACLA was formed for a few important reasons: “We feel it is very important that we encourage and cultivate a professional and collaborative rapport among the reputable Arizona cannabis labs,” says Treacy. “So that we can call upon the collective groups’ years of experience to help provide insight and suggestions on how we as a group can insure the most accurate and consistent results for our clients throughout the state and ultimately their patients.” Treacy went on to add that it is particularly important their collective voice be heard at the State Capitol as lawmakers work towards passing SB 1494.
“There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”George Griffeth, President of the ACLA, says there is a sense of urgency in passing this bill before the voters decide on legalizing recreational adult-use cannabis next year. “Everyone agrees that now is the time to be proactive to protect patients from unsafe contaminants,” says Griffeth. “Currently 61 tons of medical marijuana is consumed by patients and many believe that the number of people using the medicine will continue to grow. With a ballot initiative related to the recreational use of marijuana facing voters next year, Arizona must act now to make sure standards are in place.”
They say the bill has bipartisan support and many stakeholders in Arizona’s cannabis industry express support for it as well. For Ryan Treacy, he is worried about patients consuming harmful chemicals and toxins. “My colleagues and I are deeply concerned that more than two-hundred thousand people who use medical marijuana could be inadvertently exposing themselves to toxic chemicals, E. Coli, Salmonella or mold,” says Treacy. “There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”
Treacy says this bill is particularly difficult to pass because the original measure to legalize medical cannabis was a ballot initiative. That means the bill needs 75% support in both the House and the Senate in order to amend the original measure. “The passing of this bill would be a huge win for the patients and will help to ensure honesty and transparency for those that operate in the current medical cannabis program here in AZ,” says Treacy. “This testing bill is also written with legislative intent to cover any and all future adult use or recreational use legislative laws or ballot initiatives. We hope to have a final verdict on this bill by end of this week or early next.”
On Wednesday, April 17, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed HB 324 into law, closing a loophole that has been around for years, which prevented the cultivation of cannabis in-state. Before the signing of this bill, possession of medical cannabis was technically legal, but the cultivation of it was still illegal under state law, preventing legal patient access entirely.
Back in 2015, Georgia’s legislature legalized medical cannabis with less than 5% THC, as well as CBD oil for a number of qualifying conditions. Since then, the state has added more qualifying conditions such as chronic pain and PTSD, bringing the total to sixteen types of illnesses that would qualify patients for medical cannabis.
Governor Kemp signing HB 324 into law sets in motion the process to establish a regulatory framework for six growing licenses in the state. According to WSB-TV Atlanta, the new law goes into effect on July 1, but it could take up to two years to establish legitimate cultivation operations in the state. The law gives a state commission the authority to investigate and establish the regulations further.
That state commission will give priority to pharmacies for distributing cannabis, but reserves the right to establish licenses for independent retail locations as well. According to ABCNews, “The commission can also attempt to legally obtain the oil from other states. Two universities will be allowed to seek federal approval to research and produce the oil.”
Across the country, a handful of states are expected to move forward with a number of bills making their way each state’s legislature. Here is a quick recap on some of the more newsworthy bills from this week.
When Arizona legalized medical cannabis use, there was no provision in the legislation that required laboratory testing to insure the safety of cannabis products. To this day, Arizona is one of the few states left that has legalized medical cannabis, but does not require lab testing. A bill, SB 1494, that just passed through the state’s Senate could very well change that. According to azmarijuana.com, the bill passed unanimously through the Arizona Senate and would require the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) to implement regulations for laboratories to test for contaminates like pesticides.
They need at least 75% of the House to vote in favor in order for it to pass. If that happens, testing could be required as soon as June 1, 2020.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 10-9 to recommend HB 481, which would legalize recreational cannabis, including growing up to 12 plants, imposing a tax of $30 per ounce on cannabis sold through retail. It would also set up a regulatory agency in charge of licensing and regulating the industry.
Governor Phil Murphy met with lawmakers earlier this week to discuss the legalization of recreational cannabis. According to CBS New York, the Governor reached a deal with Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Sen. Nicholas Scutari and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano to introduce a bill that he would sign into law.
Back in February, the Vermont Senate passed a bill to regulate and tax recreational cannabis with a veto-proof majority. SB 54 is now in committee review in the House, where it is expected to see more hurdles, according to Burlington Free Press.
Another bill was introduced in the Vermont Senate, SB 117,which would reportedly open up more access to the medical cannabis program, including increasing possession limits, allowing patients to grow more plants at a time and set up a lab testing program as well.
On Monday, January 22nd, Vermont made history becoming the first state to legalize adult use cannabis via the legislature. Governor Phil Scott signed the bill, H. 511, into law, which legalizes adult possession and cultivation of cannabis, eliminating penalties for possessing one ounce or less and up to two mature marijuana plants and up to four immature plants for people 21 and older, beginning on July 1.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project, they have been lobbying Vermont’s legislature since 2003 and they plan on working with the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana and the state task force to implement sensible and effective regulations for the state’s new industry. This makes Vermont the ninth state to legalize cannabis.
On Thursday, January 4th, the Vermont House passed this bill, sending it to the Senate for concurrence. On January 10th. The state’s Senate also passed the vote, sending it to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk to sign. Now that he signed the bill into law, Vermont is officially the first state to legalize cannabis through their legislature.
“After more than 15 years of hard work by MPP and our allies in the state, adults in Vermont no longer need to fear being fined or criminalized for low-level marijuana possession and cultivation,” says Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “This is a great step forward for the state and the whole region. Responsible adults will soon have the freedom to enjoy a safer option legally, and law enforcement will be free to concentrate on serious crimes with actual victims. We are looking forward to working with lawmakers and state leaders to continue improving marijuana laws in the Green Mountain State.”
On Thursday, January 4th, the Vermont House passed this bill, sending it to the Senate for concurrence. Now that the Senate has passed the bill and Gov. Scott is expected to sign it into law, it is beginning to look like Vermont will be the first state to legalize recreational cannabis through the legislature, which is a monumental accomplishment.
This could also be an important milestone for the East Coast, as legislatures in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Delaware are seriously eyeing legalization bills as well. New Hampshire lawmakers in the state’s House approved a similar bill recently.
Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, sees this as a massive win for the legalization movement. “Vermont is poised to make history by becoming the first state to legalize marijuana cultivation and possession legislatively, rather than by ballot initiative,” says Simon. “We applaud lawmakers for heeding the calls of their constituents and taking this important step toward treating marijuana more like alcohol.”
H. 511, the bill the Vermont Senate just approved, would eliminate penalties for possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and remove penalties for having two mature plants and four immature plants. A task force appointed by the governor will work on a report to investigate how the state should tax and regulate sales by December of 2018.
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