Tag Archives: lawsuit

Practical Advice on How to Avoid a TCPA Suit

By Paul Gipson
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Texting consumers is a very effective means to drive engagement and ultimately sales. Text messages have outpaced emails when looking at conversion and click-thru rates. In fact, 95% of texts are read in ninety seconds or less! While text messages can be a great way to engage with prospects and customers, the FCC’s Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) is a regulation you need to be mindful of. In fact, the average cost of a TCPA settlement is over $6m dollars, which doesn’t include legal fees or reputational damage.

Over the past few years, there have been about 4,000 TCPA cases filed annually. Take a look at the growth:

Companies are being targeted for various reasons, but there are a few that I’ll cover below along with some advice on how to avoid TCPA suits.

See if you can spot the trend in these cases:

  • Papa Johns: $16.5m settlement due to texting pizza specials to consumers without their consent.
  • Abercrombie & Fitch: $10m settlement due to texting store promotions to consumers without their consent.
  • Rack Room Shoes: $26m settlement for texting their reward program members with various sales without their consent.

Do any of these campaigns sound like something your company is engaged in?

So, you’ve got someone who has signed up for a rewards program, wants to receive deals, or has provided their number to your company for other purposes, but you are concerned about the TCPA (hopefully). Based on my experience working with hundreds of clients at CompliancePoint, here’s where I think you should start. But first…

Quick assumption: Your company is using an automated system to send both informational and promotional texts. Examples include “blast campaigns” (upcoming sale) or “triggered campaigns” (signed up for rewards).

Quick point: Just because the text message says your store is having a sale but doesn’t ask the consumer to buy anything on the message, you may think it’s not considered “telemarketing”. This is wrong. Any plan to sell now or in the future through direct marketing is telemarketing and subject to the TCPA.

Here are my top 5 things to consider:

  1. Obtain consent. This is not achieved by simply having a number provided by the consumer. Instead, the consumer must affirmatively agree to receive promotional calls/texts by automated means. This is done through a clear disclosure and often accompanied by an unchecked checkbox.
  2. Honor opt-outs. This seems obvious right? Provide instructions on how to opt-out and look for other phrases like “stop/quit/cancel”. Opt-outs should occur immediately with most common texting platforms.
  3. Keep records. If you receive a complaint, you want to be able to respond confidently and records help you do that. The key records to maintain are your texting records (the phone numbers you texted, the date/time of the text, and the content of the text), your consent opt-in forms, and opt-out requests from consumers with dates. Ask yourself: what records do you need to prove you had consent, and what records prove you didn’t text a consumer after they opted out.
  4. Only text consumers between the hours of 8AM and 9PM according to their time zone. I always recommend going off address and not phone number due to cellphone mobility. If you text a California number at 8PM, but the phone owner lives in New York, you might get a few complaints.
  5. Monitor compliance with these items. Another one that seems obvious, yet most companies fail to do so, and you see above what happens. I guarantee you’ll find issues with most audits.

Bonus – here is a more comprehensive checklist on how to achieve a Safe-Harbor defense.

This article is not intended to be a scare tactic. The TCPA legal landscape is rampant and consumers are more aware now than ever of their rights. A quick Google search of “Cannabis TCPA” helps to illustrate the fact that this industry, like most, is not immune. However, with proper compliance parameters in place, your company can enjoy the benefits of texting with consumers with peace of mind.

Consumer Protection Laws & CBD Products—What You Need to Know Before Going to Market

By Jonathan C. Sandler, Alissa Gardenswartz
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By now, cannabis companies have heard that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a slew of warning letters to sellers of CBD products for selling unapproved and mislabeled drugs and illegally adulterated food, as prohibited by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. However, companies marketing CBD products should know that making any health-related claims about their products also exposes them to liability under state and federal consumer protection laws. These laws additionally prevent CBD sellers from misrepresenting how much CBD is contained in their products, and even govern how companies communicate with their customers via text message. As the former head of consumer protection enforcement in Colorado and a lawyer routinely defending consumer protection class actions in California, we have seen firsthand how not considering these laws when developing a sales and marketing strategy can result in protracted and expensive litigation.

Consumer Protection Laws – Federal and State

Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act provides that “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce . . . are declared unlawful.”1 The FTC enforces this law, and has clarified that “deceptive” practices involve a material representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead a reasonable consumer under the circumstances.In other words, a claim is deceptive if an average consumer would believe and rely on the misleading claim to buy something. With the rise of social media marketing, the FTC has also issued disclosure guidelines for companies and influencers promoting products online.3 Every state has some form of consumer protection statute that similarly prevents deceptive marketing, and is typically enforced by the state’s attorney general. Many state laws also allow for consumers to bring actions themselves.

Both the FTC and state attorneys general have used these laws for decades against companies making scientifically unsupported health claims about their products. Just this month, the FTC and the Maine attorney general filed a lawsuit against two dietary supplement companies who were claiming that their products were a “miraculous natural solution” for life-threatening diseases. According to the lawsuit, the companies violated a 2018 settlement that required them to not make any health claims about their products without first conducting at least one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to support the claims.4 While much of the enforcement around dietary supplements has focused on unsubstantiated health claims, other actions have been brought for improper “expert” endorsements as well as misrepresenting the amount of active ingredient contained in the supplement.5 In other words, these laws are used to police all manner of labelling and marketing of products, including those containing CBD. The FTC has already issued warning letters to CBD companies several times this year, and has stated that CBD sellers could be subject to enforcement for making unsubstantiated health claims.6

While consumer protection laws are largely focused on the content of advertisements, there are also laws that address how sellers can communicate with consumers. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) restricts telemarketing and the use of automated systems to contact consumers, and applies to both voice calls and text messaging. Both the FTC and state attorneys general can enforce the TCPA, and consumers can bring private TCPA actions as well. Because the TCPA allows for courts to award $500 per violation—that is, per illegal call or text—companies can face judgments into the millions of dollars.

Recent Consumer Protection Lawsuits in the Cannabis Industry

Cannabis is proving to be an attractive target for consumer protection litigation.All companies need to navigate consumer protection laws when they market their products, but class action lawyers may be pursuing cannabis companies in particular because of the products’ legal uncertainty, and because they provide opportunities for unique claims of deception. For example, a nationwide class of consumers recently filed a lawsuit in California against a CBD company that had received a warning letter from the FDA in November of this year, alleging that they would not have purchased the company’s CBD products if they knew selling the items was illegal.7 The consumers claimed violations of a variety of California and Arizona consumer protection laws, including those related to breach of warranty and unfair competition. Other lawsuits have been brought because products did not contain the amount of CBD as represented on the label, or because the product claimed to not contain THC when it did.8

Cannabis companies have been subject to TCPA class actions as well. Florida’s largest medical marijuana company has been accused of spamming customers with unwanted texts in violation of the TCPA.9 A dispensary with multiple locations in Colorado was also the subject of a TCPA class action complaint in Florida alleging that it did not obtain prior consent from consumers prior to texting them.10

Cannabis is proving to be an attractive target for consumer protection litigation. However, companies can head off lawsuits by thoroughly vetting their marketing strategies with experienced consumer protection lawyers before going to market.


References

 

  1.  15 U.S.C. Sec. 45(a)(1).
  2. See FTC Policy Statement on Deception, October 14, 1983.
  3. See Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers at https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/disclosures-101-social-media-influencers.
  4. See https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2019/12/ftc-state-maine-file-contempt-action-against-dietary-supplement.
  5. See FTC v. Nobetes Corp., Case No. 2:18-cv-10068 (C. D. Cal) (complaint against supplement company for using deceptive endorsements); “New York Attorney General Targets Mislabeled Herbal Supplements,” https://www.npr.org/2015/02/03/383578263/new-york-attorney-general-targets-mislabeled-herbal-supplements. (detailing the New York attorney general’s investigation of herbal supplements, and finding that they did not contain the ingredients as advertised).
  6. See https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/business-blog/2019/09/making-cbd-health-claims-careful-disseminating.
  7. Fausett et al. v. KOI CBD, LLC., Case No. 2:19-cv-10318 (C. D. Cal).
  8. Potter et al v. PotNetwork Holdings, Inc., Diamond CBD, Inc., and First Capital Venture Co., Case No. 19-cv-24017, (S. D. FL); Horn v. Medical Marijuana, Inc., Case No. 15-cv-701-FPG, (W.D.N.Y.).
  9. Jaslow v. Trulieve, Inc., Case No. 4:19-cv-RH-CAS (N.D. Fla.).
  10. Stinnett v. Hobby Farms, LLC d/b/a A Cut Above, Case No. 9:18-cv-81449-RLR (S.D. Fla.)

How Half-Baked Labels Can Destroy a Cannabis Business

By Greg Boulos
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Cannabis manufacturers and consumers are currently in a honeymoon phase. Consumers love their CBD gummies and believe wholeheartedly in the benefits of cannabis-related products. But it is only a matter of time before industrious plaintiffs’ lawyers take a close look at ways to attack manufacturers. We know from other industries that product labels tend to be the entry point for plaintiff lawyers eyeing manufacturers and looking for easy targets. Any company in the business of manufacturing cannabis-related products needs to devote significant time and resources to developing labels that minimize the risk of bet-the-company litigation down the road. Most notably, manufacturers need to think through whether there are any adverse effects associated with their products of which consumers should be aware. Also, manufacturers must scrutinize any “all natural” or “organic” claims on their labels to ensure that they are not misleading consumers.

Failure to Warn of Potential Detrimental Effects

Most manufacturers are well aware of state mandated labels for cannabis products. And, based on the recent FDA public hearing on cannabis, the industry will likely see FDA labeling requirements in the near future. However, simply complying with these requirements does not insulate a manufacturer from litigation, particularly failure to warn claims. One example, dating back to the 1970s, relates to OSHA’s regulation of asbestos-containing products as it became more and more clear that certain types of asbestos could cause a rare form of cancer, mesothelioma. Among other things, OSHA required manufacturers of asbestos-containing products to add a warning to all packaging. The mandated warning included very specific language. Manufacturers largely complied and added the OSHA-mandated label to their product packaging.

FDAFast-forward 40 years and today, several of those manufacturers are now bankrupt due to litigation based on their alleged failure to warn consumers that asbestos can cause cancer. Plaintiffs have been successful in bringing these claims because the OSHA label only warned that asbestos could cause harm, but it did not mention the word cancer. Some juries have found that the language in the warning was not sufficient to caution end users of the increased risk of developing cancer. While there have also been numerous defense verdicts in asbestos litigation and many asbestos-related cases lack merit – especially against certain defendants – the plaintiffs’ verdicts and legal fees to defend these cases are staggering. Recent plaintiffs’ verdicts have ranged from $20 to $70 million.

Of course, asbestos is an extreme example since CBD has not been associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. But there are other health concerns that manufacturers should consider. For instance, one group of doctors claim to have linked consuming cannabis before the age of twenty-five to development delaysAnother study purports to link cannabis consumption to increased risk of premature birth. If there are legitimate studies underpinning these concerns, manufacturers can become the target of potential lawsuits. Beware that when plaintiff law firms find a manufacturer to target, they often file thousands of cases around the country – not just one. Even if the claims are entirely bogus, the legal fees to merely defend these cases are crippling and can lead to a swift bankruptcy.

While there are risks involved with failing to warn consumers of possible adverse effects of a product, manufacturers should not try to mention every alleged adverse effect on its labels. Rather, manufacturers must do their due diligence and investigate whether claimed adverse effects are legitimate, then warn of those that appear to be based on valid scientific studies. Each manufacturer’s research department should assess the credibility of any study linking cannabis use to an adverse health effect and have a candid discussion with their attorneys on whether a warning is warranted. Do not fear lawsuits, they are unavoidable. Rather, work toward ensuring that the company and product(s) have a strong, defensible warning in the event litigation arises.

Questionable “All Natural” and “Organic” Claims

It seems like every CBD product on the market has an “all natural” or “organic” claim on the label. If the product is truly organic, fantastic. Flaunt that organic label. But several food companies have landed in hot water with these labels when there is a hidden ingredient that is not natural. What’s more, manufacturers have been sued when their product contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. These lawsuits come in the form of class actions at the state and federal level. Class action litigation is very expensive to defend. And they typically result in settlements for beaucoup bucks – typically multi-million-dollar settlements. Plaintiffs lawyers love these claims because their fees typically also end up in the millions. One example of this kind of class action is a case involving the well-known Kashi brand. Kashi was accused of misleading consumers by including the words “All Natural” on some of its products. Plaintiffs asserted that the products contained bio-engineered, artificial and synthetic ingredients. The class action was settled for $3.9 million.

Just some of the many CBD products on the market today.

How can all natural or organic claims lead to millions of dollars in damages? Here is an example of how these cases usually work: A group of consumers determine that an “all natural” product is not “all natural.”  Let’s call this Product A and assume it sells for $5 per unit. The consumers then find a similar product that is not labeled “all natural.” That product is $2 per unit. The consumers argue that they overpaid for Product A by $3 per unit because they thought the product was all natural. Three dollars may not sound too bad, but if the class consists of two-million consumers, each entitled to $3, that’s a $6 million damages claim against a company. That does not count the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will be spent on legal fees defending the class action.

Cannabis manufacturers should not use all natural labels loosely and should consult with an attorney experienced in product labeling class actions to determine whether they should forgo these labels. The same is true for any labels that claim a product provides unique health benefits. 

Key Takeaway

When manufacturers are excited about introducing a product to the market, trying to compete with other manufacturers and already dealing with miles of regulatory red tape, it may be tempting to avoid self-imposed labeling requirements. But to ensure their businesses are sustainable over the long-term, manufacturers need to take necessary steps now that will limit future litigation risk.  The cost of taking preventative measures to develop a meaningful label is considerably less than the types of product labeling verdicts and settlements affecting other industries. Focus on warnings and the use of all natural labels as a starting point. Then speak with an attorney about the unique aspects of your product, potential adverse effects and the adequacy of your warning. We are here to help.

european union states

European Moves Signal Green Spring For Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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european union states

It is hard to believe that two years have passed since the German government changed the law to mandate insurance coverage of cannabis by public health insurers. It is not so much the passing of time, but what has and what has not happened here on the ground during this stretch.

This is borne out by a quick overview of regional developments just in the last few weeks on the ground across the European Union.

Germany

The country that is still given credit for kicking off the whole medical cannabis enchilada discussion on a formal, federal level in Europe, still has not issued its first domestic cannabis cultivation tender. It will be two years this April since the initiative was first announced. Since then, several lawsuits have derailed the process, BfArM, the federal agency in charge of the tender, has admitted to a “technical fault,” and, presumably after the next round in court, the agency might be able to get on with business. The next date of note is April 10 (when the lawsuit will be heard in Dusseldorf).

german flag
Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

Hopefully, this also means that the domestic cultivation of cannabis will finally begin (according to the agency) by, at latest, the fourth quarter of 2020. In the meantime, look for the awarding of bid finalists (or in the worst case, one more bid issuance after April) this year.

In the meantime, and even according to BfArM’s press statements, the import industry will fill in the gaps- meaning that by the time cultivation actually gets under way for real here, it will already be swamped, in terms of volume, by imports.

Where those imports will come from is another discussion. Right now, the only two countries with import rights for cannabis into Deutschland are Holland and Canada. Expect that to change this year, with Israel, Portugal, Spain and potentially even Greece all being very likely contenders.

Switzerland

Significantly, this tiny, non-EU but Schengen state is considering a pilot to study recreational cannabis. Namely, 5,000 recreational users could soon be recruited to help the government set the rules for a fully recreational market, presumably sometime in the near future.

Switzerland has led the discussion in the region on several fronts- notably setting the pace on CBD sales and continuing to air debates about how profitable the fully recreational industry will be for the public purse.

Bern, the capital of Switzerland
Photo: martin_vmorris

It is all very intriguing, particularly to neighbouring DACH state, Germany, but don’t expect the Swiss to do anything too outrageous on the legalization front- namely step too far out in front of either the UN or the European Parliament. Or anger their other DACH trade partner, Austria, who has taken the extreme polar opposite approach to all things CBD.

So to the extent that the Swiss have very much led the charge on the CBD front, such policies have not and will certainly not be copied across Europe (and has not been so far) any time soon. See the controversies over “novel foods” popping up not only in Austria, but Spain too.

Regardless, like Luxembourg, the Swiss are eyeing this new industry and proceeding cautiously in line with larger, international regulations that so far have led the pack on tweaking, testing and presumably changing in the next couple of years.

There are at least 200,000 people who currently use the fully leaded THC version of the drug illegally. Those who would qualify for the pilot study (only one of several proposed as the country considers the impact of cannabinoids from all angles) would have to be adults who already use the drug.

Stay tuned. This will certainly be one interesting trial.

Belgium

Belgium has also just announced the formation of its own “Cannabis Agency.” The new agency will, just as in Germany, oversee the development of the industry domestically- namely issuing licenses for production and import and overseeing quality.

Does this mean a Belgian cultivation bid is on the horizon? Could be. Although so far, no country except Greece has engaged in any large-scale cultivation effort commissioned by the government. And no country except Germany has so far issued a public tender. Even Italy proceeded with a unique hybrid last year when the military essentially turned over the domestic production it controlled over to Aurora.

This too is also likely to be an interesting space over the next few years.

A Belgian tender, right along with a Polish one (also expected after BfArM successfully executes at least one) may well be in the offing this year. This may also put additional heat on the German agency to bite the bullet and issue cultivation licenses by the end of 2019 no matter what happens in Dusseldorf in April.

David Kluft headshot

How to Protect Your Trademarks When You Can’t Protect Your Trademarks

By David Kluft
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David Kluft headshot

Federal trademark registrations are invaluable tools for emerging businesses. They put the world on notice of a company’s name; they can secure nationwide priority over others using similar names; they distinguish a product in the marketplace; they provide crucial advantages in trademark infringement lawsuits; and they are instrumental in building goodwill. But if you sell cannabis, a federal trademark registration will not do any of those things for you … because you can’t get one.

Someday, the USPTO policy may change and there could be a gold rush for federal cannabis trademark registrations.The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) continues to refuse to register federal trademarks for cannabis businesses, even if the sale of cannabis is legal in the state where the businesses are located. The USPTO’s reasoning goes something like this: federal trademark law allows for the registration of trademarks associated with goods in “lawful” commerce, which means that the goods are not illegal under federal law. Cannabis, and its psychoactive component, THC, remain Schedule I substances under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Therefore, irrespective of state laws to the contrary, and irrespective of whether the federal law is actually enforced, the manufacture and sale of cannabis is not “lawful” commerce.

This reasoning is of fairly recent vintage. In 2009, by which time about fifteen states had legalized medical cannabis, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Drug Enforcement Administration would cease raids on state-sanctioned medical cannabis facilities. The USPTO followed Holder’s lead in 2010 and created a new category of acceptable goods and services for marks related to “medical marijuana.” Within months, however, the USPTO had retreated from this “mistake” and changed its practice manual expressly to preclude such registrations.

David Kluft headshot
David Kluft, partner in the Boston office of Foley Hoag, LLP

Many argue that the USPTO’s position is unjustifiable as a matter of public policy. Making it easier to infringe the trademarks of state-sanctioned businesses does not advance the purposes of the CSA, and it directly undermines a key goal of trademark law, which is to prevent the proliferation of confusingly similar trademarks. But the merits of these arguments have been lost on the USPTO, which continues to refuse to register marks for anything it perceives to be prohibited by the CSA.

So if you own a cannabis business, what can you do to protect your goodwill while the federal government maintains its current policy? Below are some ideas. Admittedly, none of them– individually or collectively – is a substitute for federal registration. But each of them is better than nothing, and all of them may help to establish your ownership and priority when and if the USPTO changes its policy.

  1. State Trademark Registrations. Each state has its own trademark registration system. State registration may offer protection from infringers within the state, or at least within the parts of the state where the registrant operates, and for that reason alone it is probably worth the small cost involved. However, state registration will have little to no efficacy outside the state. You cannot use a State A registration to file a lawsuit in State B, or to stop infringement in State B, or even to prevent conflicting registrations in State B. Additionally, most state trademark registrants, unlike federal registrants, do not benefit from presumptions of validity and ownership in the litigation context.
  2. Related Federal Registrations. Many cannabis businesses also pursue federal registrations for whatever aspects of their business are not prohibited by the CSA. For example, even though the USPTO refused the POWERED BY JUJU mark for cannabis vaporizers (because it was CSA-prohibited “paraphernalia”), it allowed the same company to register the same mark for “vaporizers for smoking purposes not for use with cannabis.” The USPTO has also allowed registrations for cannabis-related business consulting (e.g., CANNACARD; PRAIRIEJUANA); investment analysis (e.g., FORTUNE420); clothing (e.g., CANNABIS COUTURE, THE MARIJUANA COMPANY); and for CBD – as opposed to THC – derivatives (e.g., CBD LIQUID GOLD). Once the USPTO permits federal registrations for cannabis marks and the inevitable disputes over ownership arise, such federal registrations for these related products and services are likely to be highly persuasive evidence in the registrants’ favor. Moreover, even in the current legal climate, federal registrations (especially when cited in a demand letter) are of great practical use in convincing others not to use confusingly similar marks.
  3. Common Law Unfair Competition. Unfair competition is a state common law cause of action that was a precursor to modern trademark law, and it is still available to protect commercial goodwill even in the absence of a state or federal trademark registration. However, unfair competition law has similar territorial restrictions as state registration. In some cases, the protected territory may be even narrower, limited only to the area within which the plaintiff can prove consumer recognition of the mark.
  4. Other Intellectual Property Protection. Copyright law, unlike federal trademark law, has no “lawful” commerce requirement, and the U.S. Copyright Office regularly issues registrations for cannabis-related copyrights. While copyright will not protect a short phrase such as a business name, it will protect a creative logo design or original packaging, and can be very effective when it comes to getting infringing uses taken down from the internet. Note also that the USPTO does not appear to have the same qualms about legality when it comes to patents, and it often grants patent protection to useful, new and non-obvious inventions related to the cannabis industry.
  5. Save stuff. Finally, if you do nothing else, save stuff. Document that first sale; keep a copy of that first shipping invoice; and save that file containing your original packaging design. Someday, the USPTO policy may change and there could be a gold rush for federal cannabis trademark registrations. Your lawyer is going to ask you for proof of your first uses of the mark, and you don’t want your response to be a glassy stare. So keep your eyes on the eventual prize and stay ready.

Growing Pains a Month Into California’s Market Launch

By Aaron G. Biros
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For about a month now, California’s adult use market has been open for business and the market is booming. About thirty days into the world’s largest adult use market launch, we are beginning to see side effects of the growing pains that come with adjusting the massive industry.

Consumers are also feeling sticker shock as the new taxes add up to a 40% increase in price.While the regulatory and licensing roll out has been relatively smooth, some municipalities are slower than others in welcoming the adult use cannabis industry. It took Los Angeles weeks longer than other counties to begin licensing dispensaries. Meanwhile, retailers in San Diego say the first month brought a huge influx of customers, challenging their abilities to meet higher-than-expected demand.

Businesses are struggling to deal with large amounts of cash, but California State Treasurer John Chiang may have a solution in store. Yesterday, his department announced they are planning to create a taxpayer-backed bank for cannabis businesses.

Reports of possible supply shortages are irking some businesses, fearing that the state hasn’t licensed enough growers and distributors to handle the high demand. Consumers are also feeling sticker shock as the new taxes add up to a 40% increase in price.

CA cannabis testing chart
California’s plan for phasing in testing requirements.

In the regulatory realm, some are concerned that a loophole in the rules allows bigger cultivation operations to squeeze out the competition from smaller businesses. The California Growers Association filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Food and Agriculture to try and close this loophole, hoping to give smaller cultivators a leg up before bigger companies can dominate the market.

The Bureau of Cannabis Control (known as just “The Bureau”) began holding meetings and workshops to help cannabis businesses get acquainted with the new rules. Public licensing workshops in Irvine and San Diego held last week were designed to focus on information required for licensing and resources for planning. The Bureau also held their first cannabis advisory committee meeting, as well as announcing new subcommittees and an input survey to help the Bureau better meet business needs.

On the lab-testing front, the state has phased in cannabinoids, moisture content, residual solvent, pesticide, microbial impurities and homogeneity testing. On July 1, the state will phase in additional residual solvent and pesticide testing in addition to foreign material testing. At the end of 2018, they plan on requiring terpenoids, mycotoxins, heavy metals and water activity testing as well.

Enforcing Your Patent Without Litigation

By William H. Honaker
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Patent litigation can be costly; the median cost can be more than $3 million. Even as the owner of a patent, you should explore all options before deciding to file an infringement suit. Litigation should be your last resort, even if your lawyer is convinced you can win. Winning a patent lawsuit is not likely your true goal. Remind your confident lawyer that the stronger your case, the greater your options.

Patent litigation is expensive and distracting for everyone. The expense is astronomical. A recent survey by the American Intellectual Property Law Association, “2017 Report of the Economic Survey,” stated that the median cost to litigate a patent case is $3,000,000. In addition to the out-of-pocket costs, there are the distractions that keep you from running your business. Patent litigation means years of endless meetings, depositions, document productions, and days in court.

William H. Honaker, member and attorney at Dickson Wright

Patent litigation is also uncertain. Like my 92-year-old father who recently was cut off on the highway. He chased down the young guy at a red light, jumped out and pounded on the guy’s window, and said. “ONE of us is getting his ASS kicked.” Patent litigation is the same; someone is getting their ass kicked. Many surprises can develop in a patent case leaving the outcome a question.

As cannabis-related businesses grow and enter the business main stream, patent litigation will increase. More businesses will get patents. Patents are valuable to businesses: they protect margins, protect market share and increase the asset value of the business. They do this by preventing competition.

The winds of change are blowing, as I read the article by Walters, G. “What a Looming Patent War Could Mean for the Future of the Marijuana Industry.” The article referenced United States Patent No. 9,095,554, stating:

“On August 4, 2015, US officials quietly made history by approving the first-ever patent for a plant containing significant amounts of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, according to the patent’s holders, their lawyers, and outside experts in intellectual property law.”

At first, this made me acutely aware that we are on the threshold of a brave new world, where legalized cannabis is driving great changes in the way we look at a now-legitimate industry.

Then, I had a little chuckle when I read the words of a longtime cannabis activist:

“It’s going to be a mess,” said Tim Blade, a longtime grower and activist who founded California’s annual Emerald Cup cannabis competition. “Marijuana growers developing new varieties are going to have to spend a lot of money on attorneys.”

It’s clear Mr. Blake was starting to see through the haze of an unregulated industry that’s been under the radar until now. And what he saw was going to be a real buzz-kill. So how can you avoid litigation?

Both sides of the lawsuit will suffer. Typically, litigation should be avoided if at all possible. The good news is there are alternatives. You can take advantage of your patents without suing for infringement.

By knowing what you want, you can then know the options you have.The Myth About Patent Litigation

Before we explore alternatives, you may find some comfort in the fact that about 90% of patent suits are settled; (see Pridham, D. “The Patent Litigation Lie”, found in Forbes. Of those not settled, only 1% to 5% are litigated, (see LaBelle, M. “Against Settlement of (Some) Patent Cases” found in Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, 2014.) The cases not settled and not litigated are concluded through summary judgment or other motions prior to trial. But, even though only 1% to 5% make it to trial, getting to settlement or other non-trial resolutions is still uncertain, expensive and distracting.

Avoiding Patent Trials

Options open up when you understand what you want, and what you are willing to accept. First, you must know what you want to achieve, what you will sacrifice and how that will affect the accused infringer. Maybe you want to put the accused infringer out of business. You might be satisfied if they changed their product. You may want then to pay for their infringement, or only sell in certain geographic areas. By knowing what you want, you can then know the options you have.

Simple Agreement

Talk to the accused infringer and discuss your position and listen to theirs. You may be able to come to terms. I represented a client who was faced with asserting their patents against a competitor. The product was a huge success, and the patent was very strong. The competitor was clearly cornered, and like any cornered animal, it had no alternative but to fight. But there was an alternative. The client realized this and offered the competitor a different design. Not as good, but acceptable. The two agreed to the re-design, saving both millions in litigation costs and giving both certainty in the outcome.To avoid the loss of the patent, the owner decided to license, rather than sue, infringers.

License Agreement

Work out a license. As the patent owner, you have the ability to grant others the right to use your invention, for a fee or other terms. You define the terms and allow the accused infringer to continue their activities, or a variation of them. You can limit sales to certain industries, geographic areas, customer size, charge a royalty, allow for a specific time period to continue selling, etc. You can even cross-license technology with the accused infringer.

A client had a very successful product, but it was protected by a weak patent. Weak because others could challenge the patent and likely win. To avoid the loss of the patent, the owner decided to license, rather than sue, infringers. That allowed the owner to remain in control of the patent and receive a stream of income from the licensees. The licensed parties were limited to geographic areas, and not permitted to expand beyond them.

Mediation

Agree to have an independent third-party mediator consider your case. Mediation is an opportunity to have one or more independent mediators review the evidence and provide a decision. Every aspect of the process is agreed-upon by the participants. The parties can agree to the type of evidence that can be presented, the length of time of the mediation, the number of witnesses if any, the effect of any decision, whether evidence can be used later in a trial, whether the proceeding is confidential, whether the decision is advisory, etc.Getting the full value from a patent doesn’t always require litigation

At a minimum, mediation gives everyone an independent view of the case. This independent view can lead to more informed negotiations. It can show both parties what an independent evaluator considers the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s case.

Mock Trial

A variation of mediation is a mock trial. Again, the parties can set the rules. The difference is the Mock Trial would use actual jurors to hear each side’s case, normally a very short summary. This summary can take the form of a closing argument, brief testimony from key witnesses, or the reading of their statements. Mock trials are usually used to give the parties an idea of what a typical jury thinks, and help the parties better understand their respective positions.

Getting the full value from a patent doesn’t always require litigation. Historically, only a tiny fraction of patents are litigated. To avoid litigation as a patent owner, keep the lines of communication open with the accused infringer. Think about your actual goal. It’s rarely winning a lawsuit (that’s the goal of a lawyer, not a business person). Your goal is more likely a beneficial result that business people will both understand; a result that works for both of you.

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

By Dr. Travis Bliss
6 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is There a Medical Cannabis Crisis Brewing in Germany?

By Marguerite Arnold
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There is a great deal to be happy about with medical cannabis legalization in Germany. This is the first country that has mandated insurance coverage of the drug – at least at the federal legislative level.

However, as the government evaluates the finalists in the first tender bid for domestically grown and regulated cannabis, a real crisis is brewing for patients on the ground. And further one that the industry not only sees but is trying to respond to.

Spektrum Cannabis GmbH, formerly MedCann GmbH began trying to address this problem when they obtained the first import license for Canadian cannabis last year. They are also one of the apparent five finalists in the pending government bid to grow the plant domestically for medical purposes. According to Dr. Sebastian Schulz, head of communications for Spektrum, “Shortly after the new cannabis law was reformed we experienced a huge increase in demand from the side of patients. We had prepared for that. The German population is very curious about cannabis as a medicine and in general very open to natural remedies.”

People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowly. Much like Israel, the government has allowed a trickle of patients to have access to cannabis by jumping through multiple, time consuming hoops. The process of getting cannabis prescribed, much less getting a pharmacy to stock it, was difficult. Patients had to pay out of pocket – a monthly cost of about $1,700. While that is expensive by American standards, to Germans, this is unheard of. The vast majority of the population – 90% – is on public health insurance. That means that most Germans get medications for $12 a month, no matter what they are. Allegedly, German patients were supposed to get about 5oz a month for this price. At least that is what the law says.

People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowlyAs in other countries, no matter what Germans think about recreational reform, the clear majority of them at this point support medical use. And at this point, both legislatively and via the courts, the government has said and been required to provide the drug to Germans patients at low cost.

Unintended Effects & Consequences

Since the law went into effect in March of this year however, things have suddenly turned very dire for patients.

The handful of people who had the right to grow at home – established under lawsuits several years ago – were suddenly told they could no longer do so. They had to go to a doctor and regular pharmacy. Even regular patients in the system found that their insurance companies, allegedly now required to pay, are refusing to reimburse claims. Doctors who prescribed the drug were abruptly informed that they would be financially responsible for every patient’s drug cost for the next two years (about $50,000 per patient).

Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

To add a final blow to an already dire situation, German pharmacies that carried the drug, then announced an additional fee. It is about $9 extra per gram, added at the pharmacy, pushing the price of legitimate cannabis north of $20 dollars per gram. This is justified as a “preparation fee.” Cannabis bud is technically marked as an “unprocessed drug.” This means the pharmacies can charge extra for “processing” the same. In reality this might be a little bud trimming. If that. The current distributors in the market already prep and pre-package the drug.

What this bodes for a future dominated by infused products, oils and concentrates is unclear. However the impact now is large, immediate and expensive in a country where patients also must still go to the pharmacy in person for all prescription drugs.

There is no mail order here, by federal law. Online pharmacies are a luxury for Auslanders.

At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow.While nobody has challenged this situation yet en masse, it is already a sore point not only for patients but across the industry. It means that an already expensive drug has gotten even more expensive. It also means that the government regulations are not working as planned.

At least not yet. For the large Canadian companies now coming into the market with multimillion-dollar investments already sunk in hard costs, Germany will be a loss-leader until the system sorts itself out.

According to Schulz, whose company is now in the thick of it, the new law is very vague. “Currently, there are almost no cannabis flowers available in German pharmacies because companies like us are not allowed to sell them,” says Schulz. “Various different regulatory demands come up that seemed to change on a monthly basis. We are ready to deliver even large amounts of cannabis for a market that might well explode soon – but we first need to overcome the regulatory nightmare that leads to the suffering of so many patients here these days.”

At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow. Black market costs for cannabis are about $10-15 a gram. In other words, exactly the situation the government was hoping to avoid.

What Is Causing The Situation?

The intended effect of the legislation was twofold, according to industry insiders: To legalize cannabis in such a way to meet a rising public demand and, in the face of a court decision, to limit the home grow movement. The latter of which, despite federal regulations, is thriving here. Germans like to grow things, and cannabis is a rewarding plant to nurture.

High attendance at the Mary Jane Grow Expo in Berlin in June is just one sign that the genie is out of this particular bottle. BfArM – the federal agency in charge of regulating narcotics and medical devices – cannot stuff it back.Patients are going back to the way things were

However home grow does not build a professional, high volume cannabis market, much less a highly regulated medical one make. The government also made clear that it is going to have strict inspections and quality controls, and will technically buy all the cannabis produced, per the terms of the bid application process.

However, it is not entirely clear when the government will start actually doing the buying. And why the buying has not started yet. If insurance companies are refusing to pay, this means the government is not reimbursing them. The same government, which has also agreed to do so, as of March 2017.

What Gives On Good Old German Efficiency?

On the streets, patients are going back to the way things were. Many are used to fighting for the only drug that makes them feel better. The euphoria in May, for example, has been replaced with weary acceptance that things might get a bit worse before they really improve.

That said, there is also a realization that more activism and lobbying are required on just about every front. If an extrapolation of data from say Colorado or California is applied to Germany, there are already at least a million eligible patients here, based on the qualifying conditions. The government is planning for an annual increase in medical patients of about 5-10,000 a year, including in the amount of cannabis they are planning on buying from the licensed producers they choose. The numbers, however, are already not matching.Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.

Added to this wrinkle is the other reality that is also looming, particularly now.

With one exception, all of the firms now apparently in contention as finalists for the German government bid will also be supplying a domestic market in Canada that is going rec next summer. One year, in other words, before the German companies even begin producing.

What Is The Upshot For Patients?

Guenther Weiglein is one of the five patients who sued for home grow rights in 2014. He is now suing again for the right to extend home grow privileges until the government figures out its process. He is not the only one. Earlier this year he was told he had to stop his home grow and integrate into the “mainstream” system. So far, he, along with other patients who are suing, including for insurance coverage, have not been able to get cannabis easily through the system, although they are starting to make progress.

Weiglein’s situation is made even more frustrating by the fluidity of the situation. As of late July, he had finally gotten agreement from his insurance company to cover the drug. But now he cannot find a doctor willing to accept the financial risk of prescribing it to him. And in the meantime he has no access to medication.

Talk to any group of advocates right now, and there is one ongoing story. Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.

And those that can’t afford it? They are out of luck. Some patients say a tragedy like someone dying will create the impetus to move this into public eye. A hunger strike here by a leading cannabis doctor earlier this summer has so far not had much impact on policy. There is a great deal of pessimism here, as promised change earlier this year has turned into a long and drawn out multiyear question mark.

If this sounds like a bubbling and untenable situation, especially before a national election, it is. The prospect of another four years of Angela Merkel does not bode well for fast cannabis reform.

That said, the German government is now in an interesting situation. The law has now clearly changed to say that sick Germans are allowed to use cannabis as a drug of choice for chronic diseases when all else fails. Further, the national government has bound the insurance industry to cover it. So far, every patient who has sued for coverage has won. That has not, however, moved the insurance industry altogether. Nor has it solved the problem with doctors prescribing the drug.

Many now ask what will? It is clear, however, that it will change. The question is when, how fast, and in what situations.

The problem will undoubtedly ease by 2019, when the first German crops are finally ready, although it will be far from completely solved.

Hoban Law Group Files Lawsuit Against DEA

By Aaron G. Biros
2 Comments

The Hoban Law Group filed a petition on behalf of three clients against the DEA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District on January 13th, according to a press release. The clients represented by Hoban Law Group in the suit are Hemp Industries Association, RMH Holdings, LLC and Centuria Natural Foods, Inc. The companies are based in California, Colorado and Nevada respectively and are all active in the legal hemp trade. The press release says RMH Holdings “sources its products from industrial hemp lawfully cultivated pursuant to the Agricultural Act of 2014 (also known as the Farm Bill).”

San Francisco's United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Photo: Ken Lund, Flickr
San Francisco’s United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Photo: Ken Lund, Flickr

In December, the DEA published a ‘Final Rule’ that classifies cannabis-derived extracts, such as CBD oil, in their own category with a code number to “better track these materials and comply with treaty provisions.” The announcement by the DEA ultimately serves to make any cannabis extract a Schedule 1 narcotic. “Extracts of marihuana will continue to be treated as Schedule I controlled substances,” says the document.

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Bob Hoban, managing partner

Bob Hoban, managing partner of Hoban Law Group says the action is clearly beyond the DEA’s authority. “This Final Rule serves to threaten hundreds, if not thousands, of growing businesses, with massive economic and industry expansion opportunities, all of which conduct lawful business compliant with existing policy as it is understood and in reliance upon the Federal Government,” says Hoban.

The lawsuit states that they want a judicial review of the DEA’s actions “on the grounds that the Final Rule is (1) arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law, e.g. the CSA, the Farm Bill, and the DEA’s regulations; (2) contrary to constitutional right, power, privilege, or immunity; (3) in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations; and, (4) without observance of procedure required by law.” The suit also claims that the ‘Final Rule’ conflicts with other federal laws like the Data Quality Act, Regulatory Flexibility Act and Congressional Review Act.

According to Garrett Graff, associate attorney at Hoban Law Group, the entire Cannabis genus is not unlawful and the DEA is overstepping its authority. “As the Ninth Circuit found in 2003 and 2004 there are certain parts of the plant like the stalk and seed that are congressionally exempted from the Controlled Substances Act and thus the DEA’s rulemaking authority,” says Graff. “By creating a drug code for ‘marihuana extract’, the DEA is saying that they are a controlled substance, but that goes against a number of existing laws.”

Garrett Graff, associate partner at Hoban Law Group
Garrett Graff, associate partner at Hoban Law Group

The definition of ‘marihuana extract’ under the ‘Final Rule’ also references extracts containing one or more cannabinoids, which goes beyond the realm of cannabis altogether, according to Graff. “The DEA and many other sources have acknowledged and confirmed that cannabinoids can be derived from other varieties of flowers, cacao and other sources, making it virtually impossible to distinguish which cannabinoids would be subject to this drug code,” says Graff. “The DEA’s rule effectively makes the presence of cannabinoids a determinative factor of a controlled substance, which is inconsistent with what Congress has said.”

The petition filed is essentially the initiation or commencing of a lawsuit. Graff says their case is rooted in statute. “We hope to accomplish a striking of the rule, permanent injunction of the rule and for the DEA to engage in the appropriate processes and procedures when making rules in the future,” says Graff. “Alternatively, an amendment to the rule to make the definition of ‘marihuana extract’ consistent with existing law and reflect those portions and varieties of the plant which are in fact lawful could be considered.” It may still be roughly 30 days before the DEA responds with briefing and possibly an oral argument to follow on the various issues surrounding the petition, says Graff. The Ninth Circuit petition, including briefings and hearings, is likely to take at least several months.