On October 7, 2020, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) issued an emergency suspension for El Rey De La Kush, based in Riverside, Washington, for allegedly distributing cannabis products across state lines. This information was found in an email sent out by the WSLCB late Wednesday night on October 7. El Rey De La Kush does not have a website, but it looks like they own this Facebook page.
Back in September, the Wenatchee Police Department told the WSLCB that they were investigating 4.3 pounds of cannabis they found shipped from a residence in Wenatchee via UPS. When they served a search warrant, they found roughly 620 pounds of cannabis with traceability tags leading them back to El Rey De La Kush.
The suspect in the case is Brandi Clardy, who is affiliated with the company in question and listed on their license. The original licensee, Juan Penaloza, passed away in July this year and Clardy had been the chief operator following Penaloza’s death.
In an interview with the police, the WSLCB says that Clardy admitted to the crime of removing cannabis from the premises with the intent to distribute across state lines.
The WSLCB says cannabis products were actively being diverted to Texas, where adult use cannabis sales is still very illegal.
The license remains suspended for 180 days, after which point the WSLCB will “pursue permanent revocation.” This marks the first and only emergency suspension issued in 2020.
By Brett Schuman, Barzin Pakandam, Jennifer Fisher, Nicholas Costanza No Comments
The overwhelming majority of Americans now live in a state where cannabis is legal at the state level for at least some purposes.1 However, cannabis (excluding hemp) remains criminal under federal law for all purposes. This conflict between state and federal law presents challenges for participants in the state legal cannabis industry, including enforcing their contractual agreements. This is because a number of federal court rulings have called into question whether contracts involving cannabis are enforceable in federal court.
In this article, we explore how federal courts and state legislatures have addressed the enforceability of contracts relating to cannabis and provide some practical tips for cannabis companies to protect their contractual rights.
The “Illegality Defense” in Federal Courts
“No principle of law is better settled than that a party to an illegal contract cannot come into a court of law and ask to have his illegal objects carried out . . . .” Mann v. Gullickson, 2016 WL 6473215 at *6 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 2, 2016) (quoting Wong v. Tenneco, Inc., 39 Cal. 3d 126, 135 (1985)).
Bart St. III v. ACC EnterprisesApplying this principle, a number of federal courts have refused to enforce contracts relating to state-legal cannabis. For instance, in Bart St. III v. ACC Enterprises, LLC, No. 217CV00083GMNVCF, 2020 WL 1638329 (D. Nev. Apr. 1, 2020), the parties entered into a loan agreement wherein the plaintiff-lender, Bart Street III, loaned the defendant cannabis cultivators in Nevada approximately $4.7 million to fund operating costs, pay down debts and purchase land for a cannabis cultivation facility in Nevada. Id. at *1-2. The loan agreement specified that it was governed by Nevada law. The cannabis cultivators defaulted on the loan, and Bart Street III sued for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. The cannabis cultivators argued that they could not be liable for breach of a contract that is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, as amended (the CSA). Id. A federal judge in Nevada ruled that certain provisions of the loan agreement (i.e., a right of first refusal provision and another provision concerning disbursement of operating costs) were illegal under federal law and could not be enforced. The judge was unable to decide on summary judgment whether the illegal provisions could be severed from the other parts of the agreement, so on that basis the cannabis cultivators’ summary judgment motion was denied as to the breach of contract claim. However, the judge granted the cannabis cultivators’ motion as to the unjust enrichment claim based on the following reasoning: “Plaintiff cannot prevail for unjust enrichment because the parties’ contract involves moral turpitude. If the Contract is unenforceable, it is because Plaintiff invested in Defendants’ marijuana cultivation business primarily to obtain a pathway to an equity investment therein . . . . Providing funds in exchange for equity violates the CSA because it would allow the investor to profit from the cultivation, possession, and sale of marijuana . . . . Conspiracy to cultivate marijuana is a crime of moral turpitude.”
Polk v. GontmakherThe illegality defense was also raised in Polk v. Gontmakher, No. 2:18-CV-01434-RAJ, 2020 WL 2572536 (W.D. Wash. May 21, 2020), which involved two business partners—Polk and Gontmakher— who owned a licensed cannabis processing facility and retail store through an entity called NWCS. When Polk decided to leave the business, Gontmakher refused to acknowledge Polk’s ownership interest because Polk had a prior criminal record, which violated ownership requirements for cannabis businesses under Washington cannabis regulations. Polk sued Gontmakher for breach of a verbal partnership agreement and sought to recover past and future profits of the cannabis business. Gontmakher moved to dismiss, and the district judge granted the motion: “Mr. Polk’s claim that his requested relief would not require a violation of the CSA defies logic. He is demanding the future profits of a business that produces and processes marijuana in violation of federal law. How does Mr. Polk anticipate NWCS will generate these future profits? The Court cannot fathom how ordering [Gontmakher] to turn over the future profits of a marijuana business would not require them to violate the CSA. And as this Court has previously explained to Mr. Polk, it cannot award him an equitable interest in NWCS because to do so would directly contravene federal law.” Polk, WL 2572536 at *2.
J. Lilly, LLC v. Clearspan Fabric Structures Int’l, Inc.Certain federal district court judges have addressed the illegality defense directly, even when it has not been asserted by the parties. In J. Lilly, LLC v. Clearspan Fabric Structures Int’l, Inc., No. 3:18-CV-01104-HZ, 2020 WL 1855190 (D. Or. Apr. 13, 2020), a licensed cannabis cultivator in Oregon contracted with Clearspan, a lessor of commercial greenhouse equipment located in Connecticut, to lease greenhouse equipment for the facility and also have the facility constructed. After construction began, the cultivator notified Clearspan (and the sub-contractor) of numerous defects in the facility that were impeding cultivation efforts, and after Clearspan allegedly fixed only one defect, the cultivator sued for breach of the agreements and claimed lost profits due to the inability to cultivate cannabis, in the amount of $5.4 million. While Clearspan moved to dismiss the claims on the basis that the cultivator waived any contractual right to consequential damages, the District Court raised the issue of the illegality of the contracts under federal law sua sponte at oral argument. After supplemental briefing on the issue, the Court held that “awarding Plaintiff damages for lost profits [for the sale of cannabis] would require the Court to compel Defendants to violate the [CSA…and] provides an independent basis to dismiss Plaintiff’s lost profits claim in addition to” the issue of waiver, and other merits issues. Id. at *11-12.
And in Ricatto v. M3 Innovations Unlimited, Inc., No. 18 CIV. 8404 (KPF), 2019 WL 6681558 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 6, 2019), Ricato (an investor) and M3 (the intended cannabis operator and licensee) entered into an agreement to purchase a plot of land in California for M3 to develop as a cannabis processing facility. The investor sued to enforce the investment instrument, and M3 moved to dismiss. The court granted M3’s motion to dismiss on other grounds but noted that “it is not readily apparent to the Court that it could [even] enforce such a contract [as] ‘[m]arijuana remains illegal under federal law, even in those states in which medical marijuana has been legalized,’” such as California. Id. at *5, n.4.
Ricatto v. M3 Innovations Unlimited, Inc.However, under some circumstances a federal court may enforce a cannabis contract. In Mann v. Gullickson, Mann loaned Gullickson money to be used in a cannabis-related business. The agreement was governed by California law. When Gullickson defaulted on the promissory note, Mann sued for breach of contract. Gullickson asserted that the contract was illegal under federal law and moved for summary judgment. In an order denying Gullickson’s motion, the court said that “even where contracts concern illegal objects, where it is possible for a court to enforce a contract in a way that does not require illegal conduct, the court is not barred from according such relief.” 2016 WL 6473215, at *7.
Federal courts are wary of parties seeking the enforcement of cannabis contracts. If there is any possibility that the issuance of a court order enforcing the contract would result in a party violating the CSA, federal courts are likely to deny relief.
State Laws Protecting the Enforceability of Cannabis Contracts
At the state level, legislatures in some states that have legalized cannabis for adult use have enacted laws to protect the enforceability of cannabis contracts. These statutes specifically exempt commercial cannabis activities from general laws voiding contracts that are in furtherance of illegal activities. Examples of these state laws include:
Massachusetts: In December 2016, Massachusetts enacted a statute providing that “[c]ontracts pertaining to marijuana enforceable” and providing that contracts entered into by cannabis licensees or their agents, or by landlords of cannabis licensees, “shall not be unenforceable or void exclusively because the actions or conduct permitted pursuant to the license is prohibited by federal law.” (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 94G, § 10)
California: In January 2019, California enacted a statute providing that “commercial activity relating to medicinal cannabis or adult-use cannabis conducted in compliance with California law and any applicable local standards, requirements, and regulations” shall be deemed the lawful object of a contract and not contrary to law or against public policy, notwithstanding any law that requires all contracts have a “lawful object” under state or federal law. (Cal. Civil Code § 1550.5)
Nevada: In 2016, a ballot initiative was passed in Nevada, which was then codified under state law, declaring “[i]t is the public policy of the People of the State of Nevada that contracts related to the operation of marijuana establishments under this chapter should be enforceable,” and that such contracts “shall not be deemed unenforceable on the basis that the actions or conduct permitted pursuant to the license are prohibited by federal law.” (N.R.S. § 678B.610).
Similar statutes have been enacted in other states, including in Oregon (January 2018), Michigan (December 2018), Illinois (June 2019) and Colorado (January 2020). See Or. Rev. Stat. § 475B.535 (In Oregon, “[a] contract is not unenforceable on the basis that” commercial cannabis activity legal in Oregon is illegal under federal law); Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-601 (similar to Oregon); Mich. Comp. Laws § 333.27960 (Public policy in Michigan is that “…contracts related to the operation of marihuana establishments [are] enforceable.”); 410 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 705/55-75 (similar to Michigan).
However, many states that have legalized cannabis do not have statutes exempting contracts relating to cannabis activities from the illegality defense.
Contracting Tips for Cannabis Companies
Notwithstanding the uncertainty and inherent risks caused by the conflict between federal and state law, there are certain steps parties entering into commercial cannabis agreements can take to protect their contractual rights, including:
Always include a forum selection clause specifying resolution of disputes in state court and waiving any right to remove the dispute to federal court.
If entering into an agreement in a state that has enacted a statutory provision exempting cannabis contracts from the illegality defense, consider selecting that state’s law (as opposed to New York or Delaware law, which are often the jurisdictions of choice for transactional lawyers who don’t know better) in a choice of law provision.
If neither the parties nor the performance of the agreement have any nexus to a state that has enacted a statutory provision protecting the enforceability of cannabis contracts, consider incorporating the contracting entity in one of those states. In the same way that Delaware is the jurisdiction of choice for incorporating most companies, a state like California may on balance be the better choice for cannabis industry participants due to the legal recognition of commercial cannabis activity.
Consider using an arbitration clause in commercial cannabis agreements. These clauses require parties to arbitrate disputes that may arise in connection with the agreement. As a general rule, arbitration is both more efficient and less expensive than litigation, and arbitrators are less likely than federal judges to refuse to enforce an agreement because it relates to federally illegal cannabis activity.
Notwithstanding expanding legalization at the state level, and general federal tolerance of the state-legal cannabis industry, federal courts remain a dangerous place for cannabis companies. If possible, cannabis companies should specify state court (or arbitration) for resolution of disputes in their contracts, and they should choose a state law that expressly excludes cannabis contracts from the illegality doctrine.
Cannabis is legal for medical purposes in 33 states plus the District of Columbia; cannabis is legal for adults over 21 in 11 states plus the District of Columbia. Approximately 76.5% of the population of the United States lives in a state with some form of legal cannabis. See https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/popest/2010s-state-total.html#par_textimage_1574439295. This figure excludes Texas, which has a limited medical cannabis program as of this writing. However, if Texas is included, then over 85% of the population lives in a state with some form of legal cannabis.
By Steve Levine, Megan Herr, Meghan Brennan No Comments
On Thursday April 23, 2020, Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) introduced the “Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act” in the House. Blumenauer and Perlmutter have been influential in protecting state-legal cannabis businesses from federal interference, most recently under the 2020 federal appropriations rider.
If passed, the Act would allow state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses to take advantage of the multi-trillion dollar stimulus packages designed to help small businesses harmed by COVID-19.
As we previously discussed, cannabis businesses harmed by COVID-19 remain ineligible to receive federal financial assistance due to their engagement in “federally illegal” activities. Consequently, cannabis businesses cannot receive assistance from the Small Business Administration (SBA) thereby making them ineligible to receive Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and other SBA financial assistance, including Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs), traditional 7(a) loans, 504 loans, and microloans.
To provide the industry with much needed economic relief, the legislation states that cannabis businesses would no longer be prohibited from (i) participating in the PPP, (ii) receiving EIDL loans, or (iii) receiving emergency EIDL grants purely on the basis that the business is a “cannabis-related legitimate business”1 or “service provider.”2
Additionally, the Act clarifies that the SBA and its officers, directors and employees would “not be held liable pursuant to any Federal law or regulation solely for providing a loan or a loan guarantee to a cannabis-related legitimate business or a service provider.”
Even though states have varied in their approach to continue medical and retail cannabis operations amid the coronavirus outbreak, a majority of states that allow some form of sale and consumption of cannabis have designated the cannabis industry as “essential” and open for operation.3 Some states have gone as far as allowing home delivery, curbside pick-up, and telemedicine consultations.
Nonetheless, despite the cannabis industry’s designation as “essential,” cannabis businesses (including those who service the cannabis industry) will continue to be precluded from receiving federal financial assistance until the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act, or similar legislation, is passed. It is important to note that, even if passed, the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act would likely provide little relief, as the majority of the funds to be administered by the SBA have already been accounted for.
What does this mean to you?
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for the heavily-taxed and financially burdened cannabis industry to receive assistance under the stimulus packages, the Act, even if passed by Congress, faces an uphill battle in the Republican-held Senate.
The term “cannabis-related legitimate business” means a manufacturer, producer, or any person that – (A) engages in any activity described in subparagraph (B) pursuant to a law established by a State or a political subdivision of a State, as determined by such State or political subdivision; and (B) participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling cannabis or cannabis products, including cultivating, producing, manufacturing, selling, transporting, displaying, dispensing, distributing, or purchasing cannabis or cannabis products.”
The term “service provider” (A) means a business, organization, or other person that – (i) sells goods or services to a cannabis-related legitimate business; or (ii) provides any business services, including the sale or lease of real or any other property, legal or other licensed services, or any other ancillary service, relating to cannabis; and (B) does not include a business, organization, or other person that participates in any business or organized activity that involves handling cannabis or cannabis products, including cultivating, producing, manufacturing, selling, transporting, displaying, dispensing, distributing, or purchasing cannabis or cannabis products.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) introduced legislation this week that would allow cannabis businesses to become eligible for federal assistance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The bill, called the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act, would allow cannabis businesses, as well as business that provide services to cannabis businesses, to qualify for federal government relief funding through the Small Business Administration (SBA).
As of now, cannabis businesses and some companies that provide services to cannabis businesses are completely ineligible to receive any SBA funding, largely due to the Schedule I status of cannabis (excluding hemp). The SBA currently does not provide any financial assistance to small businesses “engaged in federally illegal activity,” which includes both the Paycheck Protection Program as well as the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.
Last week, Rep. Blumenauer and more than 30 of his colleagues sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, insisting that cannabis companies become eligible for federal funding. According to an NCIA press release, Senators Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent a similar letter to Senate leadership earlier this week.
Global counterfeiting is expected to reach $1.82 trillion by 2020.1 Counterfeiting includes, but goes way beyond, fake watches or bogus polo shirts. In fact, no product is safe, including cannabis.
Counterfeiting is insidious; it supports child labor, human trafficking, organized crime, and has been linked to terrorist groups.2 “[C]ounterfeit good sales have been linked to al-Qaeda, FARC, Colombia’s rebel army and paramilitary groups in Northern Island.” 3 The FBI believes that counterfeit goods financed the World Trade Center bombing and the attack on September 11, 2001.4
Counterfeiters and their fake merchandise are typically difficult to locate and remove from the marketplace. Currently, we are seeing a proliferation of counterfeiting in the cannabis industry. Cannabis companies must consider the impact that counterfeit products have on their brand and goodwill. It is vital for cannabis companies to implement strategies to combat counterfeiting.
Typically, companies use trademark laws to combat counterfeiters. However, brand protection for cannabis companies is difficult because trademark laws do not provide the breadth of protection needed to successfully protect and enforce a cannabis company’s brand. Currently, U.S. trademark laws prohibit the registration of cannabis trademarks because selling cannabis violates federal law.5 While the 2018 Farm Bill amended this steadfast rule slightly, it only applies in limited circumstances, i.e., when the cannabis product contains less than 0.3% THC.6 As a result, cannabis companies are forced to seek protection through indirect registration, namely filing for goods and services that are not cannabis-related, such as clothing, publications or medical services. Indirect registrations are not enough to combat counterfeiters successfully.
Fortunately, there is another avenue that cannabis companies should be using to protect and enforce their brands against counterfeiters — obtaining copyright registrations for the company’s logo, product packaging and, if appropriate, company name. Copyright protection extends to a protectable work regardless of whether the copyright is in an illegal work or the copyright owner uses its copyright for an illegal purpose.7 Moreover, if there is pending or prospective litigation, a brand owner may request special handling of a copyright application to obtain expedited processing.8 If the application meets all the requirements for registration, special handling will result in the brand owner obtaining a copyright registration in about a week.9 Trademark registrations, on the other hand, typically take at least five months to obtain.
Once a company receives a copyright registration, the Copyright Act provides unique and important avenues for relief against counterfeiters.10 For example, a brand owner may obtain an ex parte seizure order, which allows the company to enter the counterfeiter’s premises, without notice, and seize the counterfeit products, business records, financial information relating to the counterfeit operation, customer and vendor lists, and bank account information.11 A brand owner may also obtain injunctive relief — a court order prohibiting the counterfeiter from buying, selling, and advertising counterfeit products — and freeze the counterfeiter’s bank accounts.12
People often say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, in the counterfeiting context, imitation can be lethal to your company.A cannabidiol (CBD) company recently used its copyright registrations to stop counterfeiters from advertising and selling counterfeit CBD gummies and oils. The CBD company obtained an ex parte seizure order, injunction and asset freeze, and obtained a $5 million judgment against the counterfeiters.13
Litigation is a valuable and effective tool in fighting counterfeiting. It helps protect the company’s goodwill, enhances consumer confidence and increases the company’s revenues. There are other tools that should be used to combat counterfeiting.
Companies must diligently watch their vendors, distributors, and customers for bad actors. Your vendor agreements should include provisions allowing regular audits and inspections. Your distribution agreements should prohibit distributors from selling outside their territory and engaging in price arbitrage. Your customers should be prevented from selling your products in smaller units. Having unique packaging with holograms will also assist in reducing counterfeits as the packaging is harder to replicate. An effective public relations campaign that includes educating your customers and the industry on the harmful effects of buying counterfeit cannabis products is also a very effective tool.
People often say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, in the counterfeiting context, imitation can be lethal to your company. Counterfeit cannabis products can be subpotent, superpotent or contaminated. Having these dangerous products advertised under your brand in identical packaging can have dire consequences.
If you are not currently experiencing a counterfeiting problem, you likely will. It is important to be proactive and find attorneys that have experience combatting counterfeiters in the cannabis industry to help protect your brand and company.
Global Brand Counterfeiting Report 2018-2020 – ResearchAndMarkets.com, AP News (May 15, 2018), https://www.apnews.com/ef15478fa38649b5ba29b434c8e87c94.
Colleen Jordan Orscheln, Bad News Birkins: Counterfeit in Luxury Brands, 14 J. Marshall Rev. Intell. Prop. L. 249, 259 (2015).
See, e.g., Flava Works, Inc. v. Gunter, 689 F.3d 754, 756 (7th Cir. 2012); Dream Games of Ariz., Inc. v. PC Onsite, 561 F.3d 983 (9th Cir. 2009); Mitchell Bros. Film Grp. v. Cinema Adult Theater, 604 F.2d 852, 855 (5th Cir. 1979); Big Daddy Games, LLC v. Reel Spin Studios, LLC, No. 3:12-cv-00449, 2013 WL 12233949, at *16–17 (W.D. Wis. Apr. 10, 2013).
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.
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