The negativity keeps on coming for the embattled CannTrust. As of late September, the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission (AGLC) decided to return $1.3 million of the company’s products – or almost all inventory already ordered by the commission.
The AGLC operates independently of Health Canada, and the regulator has not ordered a recall of any of CannTrust’s products even though they suspended the company’s license. However, the AGLC has a contractual relationship with the company, which allows it to return company products on CannTrust’s expense.
Why are so many recreational market Canadian authorities doing the same thing that Danish authorities initiated July 9, when the news about CannTrust hit Europe?
Beyond all the illegal growing, there are other problems that have now come to light that essentially invalidate if not put into question the legitimacy of CannTrust’s entire grow operation – and for both the medical and recreational market.
As Bloomberg first reported, CannTrust employees brought black market seeds into their unlicensed growing rooms at the facility in Pelham Ontario and even relabelled them to look like brands they were supposed to be carrying. It is unknown how many of these plants were actually sold, but over 1,000 plants were grown and flowered by CannTrust with murky origins. If that is not enough to make Canadian authorities go nuts, it certainly has stirred waves of anger in Europe where seed control is a huge issue, far beyond the medical market. See Novel Food and the huge angst of the developing CBD market.
It is hard to understand exactly, in retrospect, therefore, what CannTrust executives, or even employees thought they were doing exactly.
One thing, however is for sure. CannTrust is not “just” the meltdown of one company in Canada. The entire industry, globally, is paying attention. Particularly those in parts of the world now looking at the opening map of cannabis ex-im.
A Brave New World On The High Seas
As Peter Homberg, one of the top global legal experts at Denton’s law firm pointed out in September in Berlin during a high-level medical cannabis conference, the world is indeed changing fast on the cannabis ex-im front. Producers from Malta, Greece, Denmark, Spain, Portugal and Australia as well as latest market entrant Columbia right now are lining up to import into Germany if not Europe beyond that.
why did this company deliberately go so astray?This is a world governed by several international treaties, national law and regional tolerance.
It is complicated. But in Europe at least, while in the throws of now finding some standard equivalency tests, there is a universal standard – namely good manufacturing practices – to adhere to that is “international” even if just within the EU and for those firms interested in entering the market here.
That is one of the reasons that the Canadian government is in the hot seat to prove to the world that internal regs are up to snuff.
What Impact Will This Have On The U.S?
As CannTrust was not importing across the U.S.-Canadian border, there is no product recall to be had. However, other issues, including investor lawsuits, loom.
On top of this, the regulatory issues faced by the Canadian government in a fully recreational market are, of course, not invisible to those just “south of the border.” Notably, California. Of any state in the union right now, the state is the most advanced on the cannabis regulations front – even if more complicated and nuanced than in any other U.S. state jurisdiction. Of course, they still have generations of unlicensed grower networks to contend with.
None of this was ever going to be easy.
The question in the room, however, post-CannTrust, certainly, is that given the opportunity to go on the straight and narrow, why did this company deliberately go so astray?
On July 18, 2019, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in California served search warrants at 56 illegal cannabis cultivation sites. This operation was spearheaded by 390 law enforcement personnel, whose mission was to combat the ongoing problem of illegal cannabis cultivation sites throughout California.
The raids resulted in:
47,939 marijuana plants confiscated
2,132 pounds of processed cannabis
47 tons of cannabis plants disposed
2 Butane Honey Oil Labs located
The target of the operation was illegal cultivation sites. Individuals or licensed businesses with permits to grow cannabis legally were not affected.
Illegal cultivation is far from just a California problem. For example, if Oregon halted cannabis production today, the state would not experience a shortage as it has a six-year surplus.
The fear for investors and legal growers is that, if some growers turn to the black market to unload excess inventory, federal enforcement will come into play, which will set back the legal cannabis industry to the stone age. Oregon is currently making moves to limit licensure for legal production, but some active licenses may also need to be revoked, which would leave those licensees with vast investment losses. In other words, legalized cannabis’s massive economic market is not without financial problems of its own.
Don’t Make a Federal Case Out of It
Several states have legalized recreational cannabis with the intention of reimagining this vast underground market as an above-board business that bolsters the state’s economy via transparent dealings. To date, however, the federal government has refused to budge regarding cannabis’s status as an illegal Schedule 1 substance. This classification puts cannabis on a par with opioids. As such, those states that have legalized recreational cannabis are extremely motivated to keep these businesses on the up and up and not to pique federal interest.
Black Market Vulnerability
One of the tenets of legalizing cannabis is stemming the proliferation of black-market suppliers and minimizing the negative effects that the “war on drugs”has had in minority communities. These positive impetuses have yet to flourish. As a result of the illegal status of cannabis at the federal level, cannabis-legal states are forced to operate as islands.
Generally, taking legally purchased cannabis across state lines – from a legal to an illegal state – is illegal, and this is not only confusing but is also a recipe for complications. This leaves cannabis-legal states vulnerable to black market activity. These pockets of legal recreational cannabis that are popping up around the country loosen the constraints of the cannabis movement while the legality of this movement remains problematic. The results are an environment that’s extremely hospitable to black market activity.
Supply and Demand
The reality is that – due to supply and demand – cannabis costs about half as much in cannabis-legal states as it does in states in which it’s illegal. Black market growers in legal states destabilize the market. Those legit companies which remain above board, pay their taxes and jump through every legal hoop, cannot compete with black market interlopers who eschew such niceties.
The point made by detractors of legal cannabis isn’t lost on the rest of us – the black market is burgeoning.States that have legalized production have inadvertently made it easier for illegal producers to hide in plain sight, and the line between legal and illegal operations can become blurred. This creates new frustrations for law enforcement and naturally cuts into the legal cannabis trade. The situation has left some opponents to legalization demanding new crackdowns – others characterize such suggestions as amounting to a new war on drugs.
No Going Back
Detractors of legalized cannabis claim the somewhat chaotic effects related to the current patchwork approach to legalization are a result of opening the gates to legalization in the first place. However, putting the genie of legalized recreational cannabis back in the bottle simply isn’t feasible for operational, financial and political reasons. With the proliferation of attendant illegal operations, however, it is becoming more and more clear that leveling the playing field – via some form of federal legalization – is inevitable. The current state-by-state solution leaves too much wiggle room for the illegal transport of cannabis from those states with looser restrictions to those states with tighter protocols. If politics is choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable, the billion-dollar cannabis conundrum is a great example. The question may no longer be should we legalize cannabis but, instead, how do we legalize cannabis.In other words, we need to find a path forward, and focusing only on the pitfalls that we’ve experienced so far isn’t going to get us where we need to be.
A Tale of Two Choices
The point made by detractors of legal cannabis isn’t lost on the rest of us – the black market is burgeoning. As such, we have an important decision to make. A blanket prohibition of cannabis may no longer be practicable, so we’re left to choose between legal and overt practices across the board or a hodgepodge of semilegal practices with covert ops in tow. Fostering illegal activity is rarely in our nation’s best interests, which leaves legalizing cannabis at the federal level as possibly the most practicable solution.
Protecting Public Health
As more states embrace the legalization of recreational cannabis, public health concerns remain an issue. Many of these illegal cultivators use chemicals that are banned in the United States and do not properly dispose of chemicals or waste products that destroy the environment, contaminate drinking water and have the potential to harm or even kill residents and domestic animals. Not only is this activity harmful, growers often steal electricity and water from surrounding residents.
Cobbling together a pastiche of laws, however, inevitably bolsters black market activity and does nothing to help protect public health. Even the staunchest proponents of legalizing cannabis don’t want minors involved in the equation. Additionally, few debate that unchecked usage is a healthy option. Quasi-legislation at the state level (and on a state-by-state basis), however, provides neither a check nor a balance.
Onward and Upward
The most likely next step for safeguarding public health, for stemming black-market activity, and for generating maximum revenues is toward thoughtful and comprehensive national legalization that comes sooner rather than later. In the meantime, law enforcement should protect the public, legal operations, investors, and the environment from the black market.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Guidepost Solutions or its clients.
As Europe swooned under record-breaking heat this summer, the cannabis industry also found itself in a rather existential hot seat.
The complete meltdown at CannTrust has yet to reach a conclusion. Yes, a few jobs have been lost. However, a greater question is in the room as criminal investigatory and financial regulatory agencies on both sides of the US-Canada border (plus in Europe) are getting involved.
As events have shown, there is a great, big, green elephant in the room that is now commanding attention. Beyond CannTrust, how widespread were these problematic practices? And who so far has watched, participated, if not profited, and so far, said nothing?
Who, What, Where?
The first name in the room? Canopy Growth.
Why the immediate association? Bruce Linton, according to news reports, was fired as CEO by his board the same day, July 3, 2019, that CannTrust received its first cease and desist notice from Health Canada.
Further, there is a remarkable similarity in not only problematic practices, but timing between the two companies. This may also indicate that Canopy’s board believed that Linton’s behaviour was uncomfortably close to executive misdeeds at CannTrust. Not to mention, this was not the first scandal that Linton had been anywhere close to around acquisition time. See the Mettrum pesticide debacle, that also broke right around the time Canopy purchased the company in late 2016 as well as the purchase of MedCann GmbH in Germany.
Reorg also appears to be underway in Europe as well. As of August, Paul Steckler has been brought in as “Managing Director Europe” and is now based in Frankfurt. Given the company’s history of “co-ceo’ing” Linton out the door, is more change to come?
Video showing dead plants at Canopy’s BC facility surfaced. Worse, according to the chatter online at least, this was the second “crop failure” at the facility in British Columbia. Even more apparently damning? This all occurred during the same time period that the second round of lawsuits against the reconstituted German cultivation bid surfaced.
Canopy in turn issued a statement that this destruction was not caused by company incompetence but rather a delay in licensing procedures from Health Canada. Despite lingering questions of course, about why a company would even start cultivation in an unlicensed space, not once but apparently twice. And further, what was the real impact of the destruction on the company’s bottom line?
Seen within the context of other events, it certainly poses an interesting question, particularly, in hindsight.
Canopy, which made the finals in the first German cultivation bid, was dropped in the second round – and further, apparently right as the news hit about the BC facility. Further, no matter the real reason behind the same, Canopy clearly had an issue with accounting for crops right as Canadian recreational reform was coming online and right as the second German cultivation bid was delayed by further legal action last fall.
Has Nobody Seen This Coming?
In this case, the answer is that many people have seen the writing on the wall for some time. At least in Germany, the response in general has been caution. To put this in true international perspective, these events occurred against a backdrop of the first increase in product over the border with Holland via a first-of-its kind agreement between the German health ministry and Dutch authorities. Followed just before the CannTrust scandal hit, with the announcement that the amount would be raised a second time.
German health authorities, at least, seem doubtful that Canadian companies can provide enough regulated product. Even by import. The Deutsche Börse has put the entire public Canadian and American cannabis sector under special watch since last summer.
By the turn of 2019, Canopy had announced its expansion into the UK (after entering the Danish market itself early last year) and New York state.
Yet less than two weeks later, Canopy announced not new cultivation facilities in Europe, but plans to buy Bionorica, the established German manufacturer of dronabinol – the widely despised (at least by those who have only this option) synthetic that is in fact, prescribed to two thirds of Germany’s roughly 50,000 cannabis patients.
By August 2019, right after the Canopy Acreage deal was approved by shareholders, Canopy announced it had lost just over $1 billion in the last three months.
Or, to put this in perspective, 20% of the total investment from Constellation about one year ago.
What Happened At CannTrust And How Do Events Line Up?
The current scandal is not the first at CannTrust either. In November 2017, CannTrust was warned by Health Canada for changing its process for creating cannabis oil without submitting the required paperwork. By March of last year however, the company was able to successfully list on the Toronto stock exchange.
Peter Aceto arrived at CannTrust as the new CEO on October 1 last year along with new board member John Kaken at the end of the month. Several days later the company also announced that it too, like other major cannabis companies including Canopy, was talking to “beverage companies.” It was around this time that illegal growing at CannTrust apparently commenced. Six weeks later, the company announces its intent to also list on the NYSE. Two days later, both the CEO and chair of the board were notified of the grow and chose not to stop it.
Apparently, their decision was even unchanged after the video and resulting online outrage about the same over the destroyed crops at the Canopy facility in BC surfaced online.
On May 10, just over a week after the Bioronica purchase in Germany, the first inklings of a scandal began to hit CannTrust in Canada. A whisteblower inside the company quit after sending a mass email to all employees about his concerns. Four days later, the company announced the successful completion of their next round of financing, and further that they had raised 25.5 million more than they hoped.
Six weeks later, on June 14, Health Canada received its warning about discrepancies at CannTrust. The question is, why did it take so long?
Where Does This Get Interesting?
The strange thing about the comparisons between CannTrust and Canopy, beyond similarities of specific events and failings, is of course their timing. That also seems to have been apparent at least to board members at Canopy – if not a cause for alarm amongst shareholders themselves. One week after Health Canada received its complaint about CannTrust, shareholders voted to approve the Canopy-Acreage merger, on June 21.
Yet eight days after that, as Health Canada issued an order to cease distribution to CannTrust, the Canopy board fired Bruce Linton.
One week after that, the Danish recipient of CannTrust’s product, also announced that they were halting distribution in Europe. By the end of August, Danish authorities were raising alarms about yet another problem – namely that they do not trust CannTrust’s assurances about delivery of pesticide-free product.
Is this coincidence or something else?
If like Danish authorities did in late August 2019, calling for a systematic overhaul of their own budding cannabis ecosystem (where both Canadian companies operate), the patterns and similarities here may prove more than that. Sit tight for at least a fall of more questions, if not investigations.
Beyond one giant cannabis conspiracy theory, in other words, the problems, behaviour and response of top executives at some of the largest companies in the business appear to be generating widespread calls – from not only regulators, but from whistle blowers and management from within the industry itself – for some serious, regulatory and even internal company overhauls. Internationally.
And further on a fairly existential basis.
EDITOR’S NOTE: CIJ reached out to Canopy Growth’s European HQ for comment by email. None was returned.
Correction: This article has been updated to show that the Danish recipient of Canntrust’s product announced they were halting distribution one week after Bruce Linton’s firing, not one day.
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.”
While 280E is the most influential code section for the cannabis industry, structuring never happens in a vacuum. There are many open questions that each business must answer for themselves without court adjudication. We believe that among the riskiest of questions is whether a cannabis business can claim research and development credits.
There is no clear legal authority that either allows these credits or disallows them but certainly utilizing such credits comes at great risk. At the beginning of this article we talked about Congress and the purpose of 280E. Congress’s intention was to make sure that only the minimum required tax deductions were available to Schedule 1 and 2 sellers. A cannabis business receiving a research and development credit would not be with the intension of Congress. While the credits would be computed based on COGS expenditures, at this time we do not believe that a cannabis business should take this credit. Disallowance of COGS would create a constitutional challenge which is why Congress allowed the COGS deduction. Disallowance of Research and Development Credits does not open up the same constitutional issue since the credit is not part of COGS although calculated based on COGS expenditures. 280E states very clearly that credits arising from other code sections are disallowed in the entirety.
More recently the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) opened up new issues for cannabis companies that are still unfolding. Two of the most publicized are Qualified Opportunity Funds and Section 199A, the 20% deduction (Qualified Business Deduction).
The 199A deduction allows eligible pass-through entities to claim an additional deduction of 20% of the income (subject to certain limitations) at the individual level potentially lowering the tax rate from 37% to 29.6%. While the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and others have asked the IRS to clarify if 280E would make a cannabis business ineligible, the final regulations on the subject did not address this issue. There are other significant limitations and hurdles in 199A regulations that any business would have to first pass to be considered for the rate deduction. If a cannabis business meets all other eligibility and limitation criteria, should the pass-through income to their investors be qualified income under 199A? The answer will depend on whether the courts will treat this “deduction” as falling under the general prohibition of 280E.
We believe that there is a reasonable chance that the courts will allow the 199A deduction for cannabis companies. That does not mean, however, that we advise cannabis companies to claim this on their pass-through returns as Qualified Business Income. Much like everything else, it depends on the particular business and the risk profile that management is willing to tolerate. This is one area of tax law that is sure to be challenged in court. The more risk-averse business should pass on claiming this deduction on their returns, but monitor development with an eye to amending at a later date if favorable precedent emerges. If the amounts are large enough, consideration should be given to applying for a Private Letter Ruling, but that also has its own tax risks.
Another new tax incentive that was in the TCJA was Section 1400Z or Qualified Opportunity Zones (QOZ). The incentive allows for the deferral of capital gains until December of 2026. The use of 1400Z also results in up to a 15% decrease in capital gains tax- and tax-free appreciation if all requirements are met. While the IRS has only released proposed regulations and we anticipate significant changes to them when they are released as final, there was nothing in the proposed regulations limiting cannabis businesses from using Qualified Opportunity Funds (QOF) in their structure. It is interesting to note that the TCJA and proposed regulations did list other types of businesses that could not make investments under 1400Z along with all its benefits. Liquor stores, golf courses and sun tan parlors were among those listed but cannabis growers and dispensaries were not.
As the industry continues to mature, new issues and precedents will require CPAs and attorneys to find new solutions to best serve the industry.Using Opportunity Zones to entice investors sounds like a great opportunity, but there are significant risks. The first risk is that the proposed regulations, while currently proposed, may not be final. There is always a chance that the IRS will take a different position when the final regulations are released and add cannabis to the type of businesses that do not qualify. Another risk, and one that was previously mentioned as part of 199A and other areas of structuring, is that the IRS and the courts can always disagree with the taxpayer’s position. This is a new area of tax law and will eventually be litigated. The loss of the Opportunity Zone benefits can significantly change the return to the investors and lead to other issues.
All of these issues come into play when structuring businesses in this industry. These issues must be evaluated as they pertain to the business needs. This can be very complex and requires a great deal of research for each business opportunity. We have found that professionals operating in this industry like to know about all of their options. The most important thing we can do for the industry is to continue to educate the professionals working in it.
Accountants should be available to assist their clients and their clients’ attorneys with structuring techniques aimed at asset protection and minimizing 280E disallowances. Accountants should also be ready to speak to the questions outlined above and be prepared to explain the risks associated with each choice. As the industry continues to mature, new issues and precedents will require CPAs and attorneys to find new solutions to best serve the industry.
Editor’s Note: This is the first piece in a two-part series delving into tax issues. Part one discusses tax code 280E as it pertains to cannabis businesses. Part two will go into research and development credits, 199A and a discussion of risk as it relates to Qualified Opportunity Zones. Stay tuned for Part two coming next week!
When building a knowledge base in the cannabis industry as a CPA, one’s tax research typically starts with Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 280E. For those that are unfamiliar, 280E is only three lines long. With this in mind, we at Janover realized that we needed to understand the context for this highly influential tax section.
The genesis of 280E dates back to 1981 with a Tax Court case: Jeffrey Edmonson v. Commissioner. The decision in this case was that a seller of cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis could deduct most business expenses, cost of goods sold, packaging, home, phone and automobile expenses relating to the seller’s illegal business.
In 1982, 280E was enacted to reverse the Edmonson decision and deny sellers of Schedule 1 or 2 controlled substances the right to deduct business expenses. Under the Controlled Substances Act, the federal government defined Schedule 1 drugs as drugs that have no currently acceptable medical use and a high potential for abuse. Since cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, cannabis businesses were unable to deduct most business expenses.
To get a better understanding of what the legislators were trying to accomplish, House and Senate reports provided insight into what their goals might have been. Under the Explanation of Provision, the Senate Report reads:
All deductions and credits for amounts paid or incurred in the illegal trafficking in drugs listed in the Controlled Substances Act are disallowed. To preclude possible challenges on constitutional grounds, the adjustment to gross receipts with respect to effective costs of goods sold is not affected by this provision of the bill.
As the Senate Report explanation provides, 280E specifically excluded cost of goods sold (COGS) from the disallowance of deductions. This treatment was affirmed by the Tax Court in 2012 in Olive v. Commissioner (139 T.C. 19 2012).
To date, there are not many cases that have dealt with the tax issues of 280E. In a 2007 decision involving Californians Helping to Alleviate Medical Problems (CHAMP), the Tax Court ruled that a taxpayer may deduct expenses allocable to an affiliated business that was separate from the entity “trafficking in a controlled substance.” In CHAMP, the legal caregiving business, which was a separate business, was able to deduct the allocated portion of shared expenses. This set a legal precedent that allowed a taxpayer engaged in the selling of a Schedule 1 or 2 controlled substance to distinguish expenses incurred on behalf of other non-prohibited business lines and deduct these expenses.
In addition to these court cases, tax professionals can rely on IRS Chief Counsel Memorandum CCA 201504011. The IRS Chief Counsel released this memorandum in January 2015 in order to respond to questions the IRS was receiving from practitioners.
Although Chief Counsel Memoranda, in general, may not be cited by taxpayers as precedent, this memorandum is the current and best authority outlining the IRS’s position with respect to the extent to which a cannabis business may deduct business expenses. The memorandum also refers to IRC Section 162, ordinary and necessary business expenses that would be disallowed, as well as separately identifying certain direct and indirect business expenses that would be allowed. Citing methods in Treas. Reg. 1.471, the memorandum states that a cannabis producer may allocate to inventory and COGS direct production costs, including direct material costs (Cannabis seeds or plants), direct labor costs (e.g., planting, cultivating, harvesting, sorting, etc.), and transportation or other costs to acquire of the cannabis. It also indicates certain indirect costs that may be taken as COGS.
As the industry continues to mature, more cases are finding their way to the Tax Court. On June 13, 2018, the Tax Court issued a ruling in Alterman v. Commissioner that specifically disallowed the use of 263A under 280E and applied only Section 471 to determine COGS. While we need to follow the facts and circumstances of each case, the broad language used might very well disallow capitalizing of inventoriable costs for companies subject to 280E.
IRC Section 471 is the general rule for inventory accounting for tax. IRC Section 263A is the uniform capitalization rules for tax. Most businesses need to utilize both 471 and 263A when accounting for inventory and to properly capitalize costs into COGS.This opinion may have lasting effects on the part of the industry trying to create brands associated with their cannabis products.
Many resellers and retailers of cannabis thought they could use 263A to capitalize more costs into inventory decreasing their tax burden. The Chief Counsel Memorandum disagreed and more recently the Tax Court in Patients Mutual Assistance Collective Corp v Commissioner sided with the IRS and upheld some of the precedents set in Alterman v. Commissioner. In siding with the IRS, the judge concluded that a taxpayer who is subject to 280E can only deduct costs of goods sold under 471 as the IRC existed when 280E was enacted (in 1982). The taxpayer in the case used two arguments that were not new to the cannabis industry, but to no avail. The first argument was that the business was not trafficking in a controlled substance because the government had abandoned a civil forfeiture action. The second argument that was rejected was that a portion of the business involved branding, marketing and the sales of other non-illegal products. The claimant tried to convince the court that deductions related to these operations should not be subject to the same disallowance of deduction as outlined in 280E.
This second argument is very important for structuring purposes. The court used a significant portion of its opinion to address why the entire business is integrated and completely subjected to 280E. This opinion may have lasting effects on the part of the industry trying to create brands associated with their cannabis products.
This case has even more implications given part of the ruling in which the courts stated that being state licensed in no way effected the Schedule 1 determination at the federal level and, therefore, subjected them to 280E. The judge went so far as to separate the Department of Justice, which enforces the Schedule 1 status of cannabis, and the Department of the Treasury, which has full authority and enforcement rights to treat cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug subject to 280E for income tax purposes. This ruling made it clear that even if the Department of Justice is not pursing criminal charges against state-licensed cannabis businesses the IRS is not precluded from fully enforcing the Internal Revenue Code.
Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold is the founder of MedPayRx, a blockchained ecosystem that does not use utility tokens, and that is currently going to pilot in Europe designed to eliminate such risks.
As reported here in Cannabis Industry Journallast year in a three part series, there are considerable dangers of utilizing blockchain in the cannabis industry (as well as other industry sectors) that directly affect all commercial operators as well as consumers of both the recreational and medical kind. These remain largely unsolved.
These include regulatory and compliance issues in every direction, starting with banking and securities law, but also include privacy and consumer protections. They also fly in the face of regulations imposed by governments to control inflation, set prices for medications and food, and prevent monopolies.
Beyond that, they also pose considerable if so far unexamined liabilities for businesses operating in this space (including uncontrollable volatility in basic business operations) that very much impact the basic cost of doing business.As of the beginning of this year, however, the situation is back in the news.
The Skinny On Paragon As of November last year, the company was sanctioned by the SEC in a precedent setting case on the issue of whether “utility tokens” are securities or not. In fact, the SEC found that Paragon illegally marketed and distributed digital securities under the false pretension that they were not securities. Paragon, in turn, reached a settlement with the SEC that it would return any funds received by investors prior to October 15, 2017 and pay a fine to the SEC.
As of the beginning of this year, however, the situation is back in the news. Because of the settlement agreement, it appears that a pump and dump group operating through the exchange YoBit managed to raise the token briefly from about $.10 a token to $10 in an effort to raise the cost of compensation from Paragon. This absurd rally was completely unsustainable, and as a result, fell back to $0.3 per token (albeit tripled the price of the token). But the fact that it happened at all is illustrative of the extreme risk now faced by the industry itself from this kind of tech and financial model.
Why? It means that all users (token holders) of such an ecosystem and for any purpose, would be directly exposed to such risks in the future. And on literally an hour-by-hour basis.
Utility tokens in other words, as defined by all such models (and Paragon is far from the only one), are used not only for investment in such businesses, but then bought downstream, via exchanges, by people who wish to transact in the network itself. And that is the real danger to businesses themselves by adopting such models.
Problem 1 – Utility Tokens Are Securities
The biggest issue at the heart of this conversation is this: Tokens are recognized now as securities, and further still operating in a world where pump and dump on the exchanges is a major liability for all who buy the tokens for any purpose. This means for example, that anyone who must buy a system cybercoin to transact within a blockchained ecosystem (from consumer to business manager overseeing international distribution of their product from the commercial end) would face unprecedented volatility that does not exist by using regulated currencies. Good old dollars and euros for example do not pose this kind of existential risk to businesses themselves.
In the Paragon case directly, for example, owning Paragon crypto means that monthly rent at the incubator would fluctuate in cost based on the unregulated cost of the coin, not a prenegotiated rental agreement in regular currency for space (which is far less volatile). In the current environment, such space just tripled in price.
Beyond that, no consumer in California, for example, would want to have to face the added cost of buying a hyped token (at artificially raised prices) before they can access the newest, coolest strain of bud.
Such systems in other words, are NOT just a fancy form of a digital payment solution (like Paypal). What they do dramatically increases the risk of price volatility in all business operations (also called “cost of goods sold” or COG), andto the end user while also directly exposing all to such risk at every point of production, processing and sales.
Why?Latency issues are also a major issue.
Because the cost of conducting normal, basic business operations would be directly exposed to speculating investors. Even local businesses, in other words, would be completely vulnerable to not just the fluctuations domestically or even internationally caused by doing business in multiple jurisdictions and traditional currency risk, but have direct and unprecedented exposure to a much less regulated and far more volatile price environment globally. And further one that affects literally the entire manufacturing and distribution process.
Problem 2 – Network Congestion
Latency issues are also a major issue. This is a bit more technical and complicated, but is one of the bigger reasons why most blockchain technology and solutions are still incapable of dealing with commercial industry requirements. Much less keep regulated industries in any space, in compliance.
Here is one way to think of the problem. If you have many users on a blockchain network all at once, speed of transaction goes way down and associated costs go way up.
The tokenized asset in other words, has to compete not only with people buying the token as an investment, but those using them to buy goods and services on the commercial side AND the industry processing taking place behind the scenes to fulfil and track product. This has been easy to see with Bitcoin in particular, but is not limited to the same.
Further, prioritization on a network itself (and the costs involved to overcome them, also paid in tokens) then unfairly creates a monopoly environment because of the added costs involved to speed up otherwise normally processed and critical operations. The biggest boys on the block(chain) win. Always. That is antithetical to anti-trust law.
Problem 4 – Undermining Basic Government Regulations On Cost Of Purchase
Here is the biggest conundrum, particularly facing the international cannabis industry now in the process of exporting across international borders. Governments (particularly in Europe) routinely set prices on medicine (in particular), for large contractual purchases and to insure the continued survival of public healthcare (which in Europe and the UK covers most people). See the German cultivation bid for cannabis as a prime example. The government is forcing the industry to submit prices via competitive bid that are expected to come in somewhere between 1-1.5 euro per gram. This in turn will affect not only domestically grown but imported cannabis – and from all points on the globe as the industry opens up.
That process is impossible in an environment where the cost of production itself would be (in a price volatile blockchained delivery system) inherently unpredictable and unstable because the price of production and distribution is itself a speculated upon commodity that can vary, literally, at the speed of a pump and dumped token, sold on any unregulated exchange, anywhere in the world. And as a result, is also illegal.
If you have never heard of the terms social capital or social homophily, you are not alone. To many in the cannabis space, these terms are quite foreign to them, but as we’ll find out, also quite crucial to them.
That’s okay. You’re not a social scientist, human geographer, macro nor micro sociologist, so why would you? However, I can guarantee that your life has been influenced by these two sociological paradigms, and if you’re a working member of the cannabis industry, these are the two theories that could result in your business failing, you ending up in jail or even bankrupt.
Don’t like capitalism? Tough.Let’s talk in layman’s terms.
Social capital: this wonderful theory can, in its essence, be described as the science behind “street cred.” Social capital refers to the lived social networks and relationships that you are a member of. Examples include: family, friendship groups, work colleagues, et cetera.
Social homophily: this even more excellent theory decides your social groups before they solidify. Homophily is the ability of the individual to only associate, and subsequently bond with, those that have similar interests, passions…
Together, these two theories work together to first decide upon your social groups (homophily), and subsequently lead to the building of tighter social networks (capital).
So, how does this relate to cannabis?
Unfortunately, like any other billion-dollar industry, cannabis will eternally depend on politics, the economy and men in suits. For want of a more succinct phrase, the cannabis industry depends on capitalism. Why? Because it’s a business, just like any other, and businesses live and die by whom you’re friends with.
Don’t like capitalism? Tough.
Herein lies the issue with the big players leading the cannabis industry: you guys play horribly with the people that control your fate.
The easiest way to normalize a trend is to have all of the most important people in the world doing itCannabis is still federally illegal, and the general belief is that it has remained this way because the United States government does not yet have a big enough reason to legalize it. Ask any left-leaning sociologist, economist, or political scientist and they’ll tell you the honest truth: the people who run the cannabis industry do not have any influence over bankers, oil tycoons, major industry leaders, or any of the men in suits that you need to be friends with to get anything done in this country.
Think of it like this: the argument for the legalization of cannabis in Europe centers around alcohol. If you were walking home one night and you cut through an alleyway, who would you rather bump into: a drunk looking for a fight, or a stoner looking for a box of chocolate cookies? It’s a logical argument that plays to both the lowest common denominator, and the highest ranks of British government.
The thing is though; as we discussed in my last piece, cannabis is normalized across Western Europe, and so we don’t have the same issues as the United States.
In the United States, the sensible person wouldn’t walk down the alleyway in the first place. Therefore, we have to first normalize cannabis with normal Americans, and then look to legalize.
The easiest way to normalize a trend is to have all of the most important people in the world doing it. However, the cannabis industry is wrought with incompetence that consistently marginalizes the space from societal norms, which is precisely why cannabis is still illegal, and why you’re killing your future business endeavors before they’ve begun.
The End Goal
I was recently told that I didn’t know enough slang to write for a cannabis company. Firstly, I had actually taken all of the slang terms from another member of the company (which was just plain embarrassing for the wannabe industry leader, but I wasn’t surprised – I mean, this is what I do), and secondly, can we all please read the article I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how using slang is one of the most detrimental moves that the cannabis consistently makes that further reduces legalization efforts.
Put on a suit, talk to your local councilman, pay your taxesDo you see HSBC or Chase using slang in their advertising campaigns?
What major political leaders have you seen trying to create divisions between them and those not “cool” enough to be in their gang?
I have no evidence to back this up, but I’m fairly confident that the Koch brothers have never used a skateboard as a consistent mode of transportation to or from work.
As a macro and micro sociologist, I can’t stress this enough: if you want your business to become legitimate, then you have to stop being legit. Most folks in the cannabis industry don’t want to be friends with big bankers, oil tycoons and billionaire businessmen, but creating such an inherent divide between the cannabis business and the rest of the working world ensures that our children will still go to jail in more than half of US states just for smoking a joint.
Time to Swallow Your Pride?
If you are reading this, and are currently an active member or leader in the cannabis industry, then please put your version of ‘street cred’ to the side. Your actions are the reason that most of your businesses fail, the reason you get robbed and don’t have the law on your side, why we have such huge numbers of minority men in our prisons, and more importantly its the reason that the rest of the real world sees you as irresponsible potheads, and not the innovators you could be.
You have the tools to make one of the biggest political changes for two-thousand years, so why not grow up, take one for the team, and have you and your business’s legacy revolve around the good you did for your fellow man, not as the ‘cool kid.’
Social homophily: You and the big business world want the same thing- legalization. Even Monsanto is getting in on the cannabis game, and I’d rather work for them and see actual change than sit in a room full of men smoking at their desks while they sell cannabis from a dark, illegal dispensary.
Social capital: Unfortunately, the big business world wins here. Put on a suit, talk to your local councilman, pay your taxes, realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you, but it will if you play by their rules. You can still be a weekend hippy, but stop doing it in public. The world isn’t ready… yet.
Pennsylvania Medical Solutions, LLC (PAMS), won a license to grow medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, but some think the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PA DOH) should reconsider awarding that license. PAMS is a subsidiary of Vireo Health, which has medical cannabis licenses in New York and Minnesota, as well as quite the blemish on their business record. In December 2015, two former employees were accused of breaking state and federal laws by transporting cannabis oil from Minnesota to New York. Because of that history, some are questioning why exactly they were awarded the PA medical cannabis license.
In that school of thought is Chris Goldstein, a Philadelphia-based cannabis advocate and author of an article on Philly.com, which calls PAMS’ license into question. According to Goldstein, Vireo Health could lose their licenses in New York and Minnesota, and those former employees involved might even face federal prosecution. “On the surface it would seem that Vireo broke every rule in the book,” says Goldstein. “Not only could the company lose its permits in both of those states, but employees could face federal prosecution for interstate transport and distribution.” But does that previous wrongdoing by two former employees have any bearing on their application in PA? In Maryland, it did. According to The Baltimore Sun, concerns surrounding MaryMed’s parent company, Vireo Health, is the main reason why their permit to grow medical cannabis was revoked.
In response to some of those concerns about their PA license, Andrew Mangini, spokesman for Vireo Health, issued the following statement, which appeared in Goldstein’s article: “While we’re aware of allegations against two former employees of an affiliate, those individuals have never had a role in our application or in the management of PAMS,” says Mangini. “It’s also important to note that our Minnesota affiliate and our parent company Vireo Health have not been accused of any wrongdoing in connection with those allegations.”
Below is a timeline of events leading up to the PA DOH defending their decision to give PAMS a license:
December 2015: Two former employees of Minnesota Medical Solutions, a subsidiary of Vireo Health, transported a half-million dollars worth of cannabis oil from Minnesota to New York, violating state and federal laws.
February 9th, 2017: The two former employees were formally charged with crimes in Minnesota for illegally transporting cannabis across state lines.
February 20th-March 20th, 2017: PAMS submitted a license application to the PA DOH between these dates, listing their business state as Minnesota on the application.
May 2017: Maryland DOH suspended the licenses of MaryMed LLC, a subsidiary of Vireo Health, over concerns that the company did not provide information related to the Minnesota and New York licenses on their application, according to the Washington Post.
June 20th, 2017: PA DOH releases a list of license winners; PAMS was listed among winners for a cultivation license in Scranton.
June 26th, 2017: PA DOH officials defend their decision to award PAMS a license, according to a Philly.com article. That same day, The Baltimore Sun reported the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission revoked MaryMed, LLC their license, citing concerns about Vireo Health.
April Hutcheson, spokeswoman for the PA DOH, told Philly.com in June, “Remember, the permits are given to business entities, not people.” The point she is making refers to the charges being filed against former employees, not any of the businesses who hold medical cannabis licenses.
Steve Schain, Esq., an attorney with Hoban Law Group in Pennsylvania, has seen no objective evidence of anything wrongful in either PAMS’ application or the DOH’s processing of it. “Marijuana related businesses often have distinct, affiliated components and the Department of Health faces two critical issues,” says Schain.
“First, whether grow applicant PA Medical Solutions, LLC (PAMS) had a duty to disclose alleged wrongdoing on its application, failed to fulfill this duty and, if so, whether PAMS’ application should be amended, re-scored or disqualified. Second, as part of its ongoing license reporting requirements, whether grow licensee PAMS has any duty to disclose the alleged wrongdoing. The answer to much of this hinges on whether criminal or administrative charges were leveled against just Vireo Health’s former employees or also included the entity and whether these individuals or enterprise fell within Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Organization Permit Application definition of an “Applicant” (“individual or business applying for the permit”) or applicant’s “Principals, Financial Backers, Operators or Employees” of PAMS. Either way, it does not presently appear that the [PA] DOH missed anything.”
This does raise the question of whether or not Vireo Health is under investigation, which is yet to be determined. According to Goldstein in his Philly.com article, the Minnesota DOH declined to comment on Vireo Health and the New York DOH says the department’s investigation is ongoing. “The selection of a Vireo Health affiliate to grow and process medical cannabis in Pennsylvania has cast a serious shadow over the integrity of the program even before it has started,” says Goldstein.
In Maryland, the DOH revoked their license as a direct result of those former employees in Minnesota committing crimes, according to The Baltimore Sun. Commissioner Eric Sterling said there is “a reasonable likelihood of diversion of medical cannabis by the applicant.” So should Pennsylvania do the same? Do those crimes by former employees have any bearing on their application? This story raises a number of questions regarding applications for state licenses that are largely left unanswered. One thing we know for certain: each state handles applications very differently.
According to The Washington Examiner, Department of Homeland Security secretary John Kelly said that marijuana is a gateway drug during a speech at George Washington University on Tuesday. “And let me be clear about marijuana. It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs,” says Kelly. “[U.S. Customs & Border Protection] will continue to search for marijuana at sea, air and land ports of entry and when found take similar appropriate action.” The DEA recently dropped any mention of the gateway drug theory. Many argue it is a myth propagated by drug war stalwarts and even the National Institute on Drug Abuse won’t call it a gateway drug anymore.
During a crime committee meeting this morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions mentioned a link between the illegal marijuana trade and cartel violence. “We have quite a bit of marijuana being imported by the cartels from Mexico- this is definitely a cartel-sponsored event,” says Sessions. According to The Washington Times, Sessions mentioned violence involving marijuana distribution in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., where cannabis is legal. “So it remains a significant international criminal organization, the marijuana network,” says Sessions. This is not the first time the Attorney General has suggested a link between the plant and violence. Back in February, Sessions claimed that legal cannabis has led to an increase in violence.
The statements made this morning are the latest in a series of contradictory and uncertain messages on federal cannabis policy by the Trump administration. “DHS personnel will continue to investigate marijuana’s illegal pathways along the network into the U.S., its distribution within the homeland, and will arrest those involved in the drug trade according to federal law,” says secretary Kelly. That message, however, contradicts statements he made earlier in the week.
During a Sunday interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” secretary Kelly told Chuck Todd “marijuana is not a factor in the drug war.” In that interview, he went on to add that methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine are the real culprits they are after, noting the high death tolls associated with the drugs and connection to organized crime in Mexico. The Trump administration still has not issued a clear, consistent position on federal cannabis policy.
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