Building brand loyalty should be a goal of any business. However, before a business can build brand loyalty, it has to have a brand. Before beginning our discussion on branding, let’s spend a moment speaking the same lingo. A brand is usually built around a trademark. A trademark can be a name, a logo, a color or a sound for example, something that inspires a consumer to think about a product originating from a particular business. The Feds won’t let you register a trademark for cannabis on the federal register because of its Schedule I status. However, most states where cannabis is legal will allow businesses to register a trademark on the state registry. Now that we are all using the same lingo, let’s get to the interesting stuff.
What Not to Do
The cannabis industry has been known for piggybacking on the trademarks of other brands. And, when cannabis started becoming legal, shoppers where able to find strains like: Dirty Sprite, Candyland, AC/DC, Trapitio, and Starbucks, to name a few. Boy were those brand owners mad- suing over trademark infringement. Not getting sued is a good reason to find your own, unique trademark. There are other reasons.
First, a trademark is an intangible asset having value. A strong, registered trademark will have more value than one that is not. A strong trademark is one that is creative and/or fanciful. Descriptive trademarks are not creative or fanciful. So, for example, “Seattle Canna” is not a strong trademark. Seattle is a geographic identifier and Canna describes the product. Really, do you need to use the word cannabis in your trademark? Be creative here.
One of my favorite canna trademarks belongs to Tumbleweed Farm a grower here in my home state of Washington.
This trademark is creative using the quintessential denotation for a useless weed, Tumbleweed, for something that brings pleasure and happiness.
Second, a business should not tie itself to another brand. What if that other brand has a public relations nightmare as we’ve seen happen periodically in 2017? Does your company really want to be associated with that?
What to Do
Register your trademark. Register your trademark. And, in case you didn’t hear me the first few times, register your trademark. Why is this important? A business having an unregistered trademark only has rights to that trademark in the region it sells products. A cannabis retailer contacted me recently about a store on the other side of the state using the same or similar trademark. Under common law, trademark rights within a certain territory are based on priority of use of a mark within that territory.
If you are like many in the cannabis industry, you are preparing for the day that its use becomes federally legalized. One strategy to protect your brand is to get copyright protection on your trademark; that’s right ladies and gentlemen, the US Copyright Office is not restricted by the same arcane laws the USPTO must function under.
As a Side Note
Any company who does not have hands on a cannabis plant may register their trademark at the USPTO. For example, a company selling a vaporizer, grow lights, fertilizer, etc., are selling legal products. Get your federal trademarks.
By Brian J. Amos, Ph.D, Charles R. Macedo, M.S No Comments
You’ve bred a new strain of cannabis, or perhaps discovered an excellent new hybrid outgrowing the other plants in your cannabis plot. Can you claim the new plant as yours and legally protect it? The short answer is potentially yes. The long answer follows below:
Since a 1930s’ Act passed by Congress, the US government has permitted a person land, and (ii) asexually reproduces that plant, to apply for a Plant Patent. If granted, the Plant Patent will protect the patent holder’s right to “exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale and importing the plant, or any of its parts.” In other words, if you have a Plant Patent, you have a monopoly on that particular plant and its progeny plants, as long as they are asexually reproduced (for example, from cuttings – i.e. a clone). There is a hole in the protection – once you’ve sold or given anyone the plant they can use the seed or pollen from it without your permission.
Originally this sort of coverage was thought to be useful for things like new apple varieties, which are often from spontaneous new mutants found by farmers in their orchards (i.e. “cultivated land”). But is it possible this coverage can be extended to cannabis plants? The answer is yes. Unlike the traditional refusal of the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) to register “offensive” or “disparaging” trademarks on moral grounds, US patent law does not have any well-established “morality exception.” And, indeed, Plant Patents have already been issued for cannabis strains. In December 2016, US Plant Patent No. 27,475 was issued for a cannabis plant called “Ecuadorian Sativa.” This plant is said to be distinct in its exceptionally high level of a particular terpene (limonene) at levels of 10 to 20 times the usual range, and is a single variety of a cross between what are commonly named as Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.
How do you get a Plant Patent? Firstly – a Plant Patent is not automatically granted. The application has to be written correctly, and the USPTO will examine it to determine if your plant is new and distinct (non-obvious) from other known varieties, that it is described as completely as is reasonably possible, and that it has been asexually propagated. In addition, if the plant was “discovered” as opposed to “invented” then the USPTO will need to be shown that it was found in a cultivated area. A plant discovered simply growing wild cannot be patented. If you pass these hurdles, you will have a Plant Patent that lasts for 20 years.
Another type of patent that can protect your new cannabis plant, and much more besides that, is a Utility Patent. Utility Patents have a longer history than Plant Patents in the US and, while they may be harder to obtain, a Utility Patent gives you broader protection than a Plant Patent. A Utility Patent can cover not only the plant itself, but if properly written can also cover parts of the plant, uses of the plant, methods used to create the plant, methods for processing the plant, and even edibles (like brownies) that contain an extract from that plant. If granted, the Utility Patent will protect your right, for 20 years from the date you filed the application, to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States.” An additional protection is that if the invention you claim in the patent is a “process,” you can assert the Utility Patent to exclude others from importing into the United States any products made by that process. Of course, given that present U.S. federal law regards cannabis as a DEA Schedule 1 drug, this importation blocking right is currently irrelevant. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that utility patents have a 20-year term, and Federal law may shift during that time.
Utility Patents are harder to obtain than Plant Patents. The USPTO will examine your application to determine whether what you are claiming protection on (for example: plants, cells, methods or processes) is new and non-obvious, does not cover a naturally occurring product or process, and is fully described. The simple description used in a Plant Patent is not enough for the more rigorous description needed in a Utility Patent. In addition, meeting the “enablement requirement” of a Utility Patent may require you to have the plant strain deposited with a recognized depository which will maintain that specimen plant – and you must agree that the public is permitted to access that deposit if a Utility Patent is granted to you.
So has the US government granted any patents on cannabis plants? Yes it has, multiple patents. A recent example is US Utility Patent No. 9,095,554 granted to Biotech Institute LLC (Los Angeles), which covers hybrid cannabis plants of a particular type with a CBD content of greater than 3%, as well as methods of breeding or producing them. Biotech Institute was also granted claims in the same Utility Patent for cannabis extracts from those plants, and edibles containing the extract. In this case, the plant samples were deposited with the NCIMB, which is a recognized depository in Aberdeen, Scotland. It should be noted that while the depository has to be internationally recognized, it does not have to be in the US. Another corporation, GW Pharma Ltd. (a UK firm), was early in the game and, according to USPTO records, has more than 40 U.S. Utility Patents issued relating to cannabis in some form or another, the earliest dating back to 2001.
Plant Variety Protection Act
A third type of protection is potentially available under the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) if you breed a new cannabis plant by sexual reproduction. Colloquially, this protection is more often known as “breeder’s rights” and the USDA administers it. This right is not mutually exclusive with other protections – in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that sexually reproduced plants eligible for protection under the PVPA are also eligible for Utility Patents.
In theory, obtaining a PVPA certificate is a relatively straightforward procedure for seed reproduced plants, which are new, distinct, uniform and stable. If you are granted a PVP certificate it will last for 20 years from the grant date. You can bring a civil action against someone who sells, offers for sale, delivers, ships or reproduces the covered plant. So have any PVPA Certificates been issued for new cannabis strains? We have reviewed the USDA published certificates for the last two years and have not found any. Why is this? One obstacle may be what happens after you file your application. The US code governing these certificates states that a seed sample “will be deposited and replenished periodically in a public repository.” However, the government body that administers the PVPA, the USDA, specifically requires that all applicants submit a seed sample of at least 3,000 seeds with an 85% or more germination rate within 3 months of filing the application. Sending cannabis seeds in the mail to a federal agency – that’s a deterrent given current uncertainty. Ironically, the location that the seeds must be sent to is Fort Collins in Colorado, a state where cannabis has been decriminalized. The USDA’s published PVPA guidance describes courier delivery of the seed sample to the Fort Collins repository, but does not mention hand delivery of the seed samples. We contacted the seed depository and were informally told that seed samples can be deposited by hand delivery – but this still entails handing over to a federal agency actual seeds of a plant which is a DEA Schedule 1 drug. In any event, no PVPA Certificates that have yet been issued for new cannabis strains. It is possible that a new federal administration might deschedule cannabis, permitting an easier route to PVPA coverage. But for the present at least, PVPA protection may be hard to obtain.
The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Amster, Rothstein & Ebenstein, LLP, or its clients. Nothing in this article is to be construed as legal advice or as a substitute for legal advice.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
According to the Marijuana Policy Group, the U.S. cannabis industry is expected to reach more than $13 billion in sales by 2020 and create more jobs than the U.S. manufacturing industry. According to Viridian Capital’s Cannabis Deal Tracker, there were close to 100 M&A transactions in the U.S. cannabis industry in 2016 and approximately $1.2 billion was raised in equity and debt. As the cannabis industry has grown more mature and businesses begin to have more capital available, the M&A activity within the industry is poised to grow significantly over the next years to assist businesses gain necessary scale and take advantage of synergies and diversification.
The Obvious Wrinkle
U.S federal law has prohibited the manufacture and distribution of cannabis since 1935. The U.S. regulates drugs through the Controlled Substances Act, which classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug (i.e., drugs determined to have a high potential for abuse with no currently accepted medical use and a lack of accepted safety regarding their use). Yet, more than 25 states have by now legalized cannabis for medical and/or recreational purposes and, as a result, there is a clear conflict between such state laws and existing federal law. To possibly help bridge that conflict, the U.S. Attorney General’s office in 2013 issued guidance directing the federal government not to intervene with state cannabis laws except in specific, limited circumstances, but, contrarily, the DEA has shown no desire to re-classify cannabis. To add to the confusion, President Trump and the new U.S. Attorney General have provided mixed statements and signals about their positions.
All of this means that it continues to be risky to acquire cannabis businesses. The requirements to legally grow, distribute, prescribe, and use cannabis for either medical or recreational purposes vary widely by country, state, and local jurisdiction, making it tricky to determine whether such businesses can be legally combined, in particular, across state lines.
Pick the Right Team of Advisors
When preparing to sell or buy a cannabis business, it is important to pick the right team of advisors. Your regular legal counsel, accounting firm or CPA may not be the right advisors for a cannabis M&A transaction. Choose a legal counsel that not only has experience with cannabis laws and regulations, but also has cannabis M&A experience and can offer expert advice on areas like IP, employment, tax matters, etc. Similarly, verify that your accounting firm or CPA has real experience with financial and quality of earnings analysis and due diligence.
Conduct Gating Due Diligence Up Front
In any contemplated M&A transaction, it is wise to prioritize your due diligence investigations. There will always be some more prominent risks and business objectives in a particular industry or with respect to a specific target business. It will be more cost and time effective if those specific risks and business objectives are prioritized early in the due diligence process. These can dictate whether you even want to pursue the target further before you dig into a deeper and broader due diligence investigation. Conducting gating due diligence up front is even more important in an industry like cannabis that contain complex and thorny regulatory hurdles.
So, before you spend money and time on a broader legal, business and financial due diligence investigation, have your legal counsel analyze and confirm that the potential transaction is feasible from a regulatory perspective. This will include whether it is possible to obtain or transfer necessary local and/or state licenses and whether a combination or sale can occur across state lines if necessary. Early on in the process, It is also advisable to request that the target business complete a legal compliance questionnaire or discuss with the target its regulatory compliance program, policies and training. Such up front due diligence will either clear a path to negotiations and broader confirmatory due diligence or flush out “red flags” that may kill a possible deal or require the buyer to investigate further before proceeding.
Important Terms and Pitfalls in the M&A Agreement
Generally, a sale or purchase agreement for a cannabis business does not appear to vary much from a similar agreement in any other industry. However, the complex environment and the premature nature of the industry impacts certain deal terms and processes in different ways from most other developed industries.
Here are few examples to keep in mind when preparing and negotiating a sale or purchase agreement:
Third Party and Governmental Consents: Buyer’s legal due diligence must focus on the consents that may be required from seller’s suppliers, customers, landlords, licensors or other third parties under relevant contracts. Additionally, the due diligence should focus on consents and approvals required by local and state regulators as a result of the sale. The M&A agreement should contain solid seller representations and warranties about all such consents and approvals and any such material consents and approvals should, from a buyer’s perspective, be a condition precedent to closing of the transaction.
Legal Compliance: A buyer should not agree to a boilerplate seller representation about the target’s compliance with laws. Be specific and tailor seller’s legal compliance representation to relevant state and local cannabis laws, regulations and ordinances. From a seller perspective, be careful and thoughtful about any appropriate exceptions (including the federal prohibition) to be disclosed to buyer in the disclosure schedules underlying the sale or purchase agreement.
Financial statements: The cannabis industry is very fragmented and consists of many small businesses. Many of these small businesses do not have financial statements prepared in accordance with GAAP and may consist of only management prepared financials. In that scenario, a buyer should have its financial advisor do an analysis of the financials available and ask seller to provide a representation and warranty about the accuracy and good faith preparation of the provided financials.
Escrow: Typically, a buyer will request some part of the purchase price be placed with an independent financial institution for a period of time post-closing as a source of recovery for losses as a result of breaches by seller of any of the representations and warranties in the definitive sale or purchase agreement. Due to the federal cannabis and banking regulations, many of the larger commercial banks will not provide financial services to cannabis businesses, in particular if the business touches the plant. The parties must therefore consider alternatives, including local financial institutions with more relaxed compliance requirements or perhaps place the escrow in a trust account of a law firm or other independent party.
Working Capital Dispute Procedures: Similar to the escrow, larger accounting firms generally do not provide services to cannabis businesses. Due to the rapid evolution of cannabis related regulations, if the terms of the transaction include provisions for a post-closing working capital/purchase price adjustment and related dispute procedures, it is advisable to not name an arbiter in the agreement. Instead, parties should agree to mutually select the arbiter if and when a dispute should arise.
Indemnification: Because of the tricky legal environment of the cannabis industry, it may be prudent for a buyer to request, at the very least, that certain parts of seller’s legal compliance representation and warranty not be subject to the “regular” caps, deductibles and other indemnification limitations. Also, if a buyer has unearthed a significant issue in its due diligence investigation, it should consider asking seller for a special indemnity for such issue that would be indemnifiable regardless of buyer’s knowledge of the issue and not be subject to the general indemnification limitations.
R&W Insurance: If there’s a lot of competition for the purchase of a target, particularly in a bidding process, it is now common for buyer to offer to purchase a representation and warranty insurance policy (“R&W Insurance”) to possibly gain an advantage by limiting the seller’s post-closing indemnification exposure. The good news is that many of the R&W Insurance carriers do offer such insurance in connection with the sale and purchase of cannabis businesses. However, typically, R&W Insurance cannot be obtained for insured amounts of less than $5 million. Experienced M&A counsel can advise of the advantages and disadvantages of R&W Insurance and assist in the negotiation of the related terms.
The above are just some examples of what to expect in a cannabis M&A transaction. Every M&A transaction will have its unique issues that will need to be appropriately reflected in the sale or purchase agreements and good M&A practices will continue to evolve with the industry. If you are an owner of a successful cannabis business, buckle your seat belt and be prepared for an exciting ride as the industry gets closer to significant consolidation.
The Hoban Law Group announced today the formation of a committee to address banking access issues for the Pennsylvania cannabis market. Steve Schain, Esq., nationally recognized consumer finance litigation, banking law and cannabis law expert practicing with national cannabis law firm Hoban Law Group, is the committee’s spokesman and chair.
Limited access to banking is an ongoing issue plaguing cannabis businesses due to its federally illegal status. According to Steve Schain, cannabis businesses across the country are forced to pay their vendors, utility bills, payroll, taxes and insurance in cash. “At any time, a dispensary or cultivation operation could have up to $200,000 in cash on site- not having a place to bank opens opportunities for criminal activity,” says Schain. It also presents operational issues for business owners like record keeping or even personal bank accounts getting shut down.
“All of those issues could mean less jobs, less economic activity and less tax revenue for the state,” says Schain. “Fully compliant operations should not have to deal with this.”
Schain formed the committee for a number of reasons, including “Setting the table and starting a dialogue. We want this to be scalable. In the past, the great flaws in banking efforts for cannabis were a lack of cohesion and operating credibility- we hope to approach it from a multi-disciplinary angle and change that,” says Schain.
The committee’s members include three PA politicians: Daylin Leach, State Senator of the 17th District, who introduced the bill that legalized medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, Derek Green, Philadelphia City Councilman and Mary Jo Daley, Representative of the 148th District. Tom Fleming, former assistant director of the Office of Compliance at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, is also a member of the committee.
A number of committee members are actively involved in the legal cannabis industry and cannabis banking initiatives. Sundie Seefried, a member of the committee, is the chief executive officer of Partner Colorado Credit Union, which is
currently handling over half of Colorado’s estimated billion-dollar cannabis banking market, according to Schain. Lindy Snider, founder and chief executive officer of LindiSkin, advisory board member of KIND Financial and Greenhouse Ventures, is also listed as a member of the committee.
“According to the treasury department, only 301 financial institutions have reported banking cannabis cash,” says Schain. “Few federally chartered banks or credit unions will work with cannabis businesses, but two states-Washington and Maine- have banking regulators sensitive to cannabis banking and we have found 36 banks and credit unions providing financial services to cannabis enterprises.”
The goal with forming this committee is to change that and create an environment where banking for cannabis businesses is much easier. “We plan on drafting a white paper with best practices on compliant and profitable banking on behalf of cannabis-related businesses and financial institutions,” says Schain.
Working from a banker’s perspective is the key here, says Schain. They want to create a working, compliant and profitable system for banks to do business with cannabis cash. One of the problems in the meantime is the high-risk nature of dealing with cannabis companies, leading to an inability to get insurance on those accounts. In the eyes of the federal government currently, conducting cannabis-related transactions may be deemed money laundering and highly illegal. “The real issue is with the federal government and I strongly suspect this is not an issue at the top of the Trump White House agenda.”
I recently had a discussion with a colleague of mine on how the cannabis industry lacks business sophistication. There are not many MBA level, or proven business professionals, that have made a living and name for themselves in another industry, entering the cannabis space. At first glance, you would think there should be, primarily because they can leverage their previous expertise and success into a new, multi-billion dollar space. Instead, those professionals are watching from afar and eying a move to enter the industry five to ten years down the line.
It just so happens that the individual I was speaking to is in the situation described above, so I asked why? Why not leverage your success and make a name for yourself in this industry where there is clearly an opportunity? This individual is coming from a legal background so this piece will focus on that area primarily. However, the story is the same for many others that come from different professional backgrounds.
They informed me that entering the cannabis industry could risk them potentially losing their license to practice law. They practice law in a state that does not have any form of cannabis legalization. So even if this person wanted to actively pursue working in the cannabis industry (where legal), they run the risk of potentially losing their license and not being able to practice law again. This creates a difficult decision for someone considering an emerging industry that still has an uncertain future.
Beyond putting professional careers and relationships in jeopardy, the cannabis stigma affects personal lives. It amazes me that there is still an extremely negative stigma that surrounds this industry. No matter the level of professionalism the industry demonstrates, many still think working with cannabis could be considered unprofessional.
I know from first hand experience in talking with a handful of professionals that are working in the industry, they do not tell everyone what their job is. Or they use their job title from their other current, or previous, job outside of the industry. They do not want certain individuals to know they are in the industry because they know it will damage their current reputation in certain groups.
This is one of the recurring issues with startups not only going through Greenhouse Ventures accelerator program, but throughout the industry. Many lack that level of business sophistication to have the know-how and ability to scale and grow their startup. Yes, they are the founding team and they have the idea and the vision, but they are not the team that investors put their faith and capital in.
My question is, what needs to happen to start attracting these business professionals into the cannabis space? We have already seen a few of the more risk averse professionals jump ship, but a majority are still hiding in the shadows or watching from the sidelines.
From time to time, lawyers that service the cannabis industry find themselves representing a client with a litigation matter. By anecdotal evidence, it appears that there is an up-tick in cannabis related litigation over the past year and a half, mostly in circumstances where respective promises made have not been lived up to or those who have invested money are seeking its return. Perhaps a partnership formed within the last few years is simply becoming unraveled.
In the world of litigation, we see defenses, or what are known as affirmative defenses, may be filed in response to a particular lawsuit or claim. One such affirmative defense often utilized in litigation is that a particular contract or agreement may be void based on illegality or void as against public policy.
In fact, this particular grounds for dismissal was at issue in a case in Maricopa County, Arizona wherein a judge in April of 2011 dismissed a lawsuit seeking enforcement of a loan agreement where two Arizona business people loaned $250,000.00 each to a Colorado-based medical marijuana dispensary. The agreement in that case specifically stated that the loan was for “a retail medical marijuana sales and growth center.” Colorado had the foresight in 2013 to legislate against this type of defense when their general assembly passed a law indicating “a contract is not void or voidable as against public policy if it pertains to lawful activities authorized by” Colorado’s constitutional and statutory cannabis law.
The issue becomes germane in emerging states wherein the legislatures and courts have not been dealing with cannabis related matters for any length of time. This is particularly true and ripe for problems in states such as Illinois and Massachusetts that have recently moved forward with cannabis programs and experienced an influx of out of state consultants and companies looking to partner with and work with local residents for licensure purposes. In Florida alone, there have been at least three lawsuits in the past year dealing with cannabis related civil disputes.
To my knowledge, none of those disputes were defended upon, nor did the court address, the legality of the underlying subject matter. However, the question arises whether the lawyer’s obligation to their client necessitates raising this as a defense, for instance, to an action for non-payment of a promissory note for a loan to fund cannabis related business. If the lawyer practices and seeks clients in the industry and hopes to move the industry forward in a positive manner, is it incumbent upon the lawyer to assist the client by making the best legal argument or protect the industry and greater good? As an aside, the answer is to zealously represent the client. Potentially, an adverse ruling in a particular jurisdiction could ultimately affect enforceability of cannabis related agreements in that jurisdiction. It is possible that having a court ruling, even if it is a trial level court within the jurisdiction, at least provides some precedent and a basis for the industry moving forward in that particular jurisdiction. If the ruling is unfavorable like the Arizona precedent mentioned earlier, perhaps planning for jurisdiction and venue to be in more favorable environs is key to document drafting on the front end. For investors, knowing the enforceability of their agreements in a particular jurisdiction could mean the difference between investing in a venture in a particular state or not.
Ultimately, I believe that as advocates, we must do whatever is in our power to protect the client even if it means testing the legal bounds by making an argument that at first blush may hurt the industry. However, having courts develop precedent by which the industry can govern itself in business dealings is important and takes away uncertainty, which in turn allows for good decision-making on the front end. Hopefully, in the near future this will be moot as the federal government moves forward to take actions that provide more certainty and uniformity in dealings within the cannabis space.
Today I get to take a break from talking about what some lawyers, where ethically permissible, generally deal with in the cannabis space in terms of drafting leases, distribution agreements, licensing agreements, and/or application assistance. Within the cannabis industry, I personally serve as outside general counsel to entities to which I provide legal guidance and advice under retainer agreements, which comply, with my ethical obligations as a member of the Florida Bar. Over the last two years, I have spoken with individuals in other states and lawyers who practice in other states. As the cannabis industry has evolved, we continue to witness start-ups that need legal help and often take the most cost-effective route. In certain jurisdictions, I have heard of attorneys, particularly attorneys in Colorado, who have expanded into those jurisdictions and taken an equity stake of the start-up for their legal services. Whether or not this is true, and furthermore permissible, remains to be determined or even addressed by me, as this is a topic for another day.
But what happens when the lawyer-client relationship goes south?
It just so happens that in Florida a lawsuit is taking place between a well-known industry participant and its former lawyer. The names of the parties are omitted to protect them; however, perhaps more importantly, not to put myself in anyone’s cross hairs. This dispute was first reported in a reputable industry publication. Having had experience in media-worthy cases in the past, I am assuming that one party or the other reached out to self report the lawsuit for whatever advantage they thought they would garner. Upon review of the docket in preparation for writing this piece, I noted the docket’s length. For those who are unaware, a docket is essentially a listing of the dates and matters that have been filed during the pendency of a lawsuit.
The docket for the case begins between our anonymous parties, on October 26, 2015 with the filing of a complaint. Since October 26, 2015, there have been approximately 59 docket entries. In some cases, that number could encompass all of the docket entries over the life of a full litigation, short of trying a case, and probably gives the reader some idea as to the litigiousness between the parties. In part, this could be due to the personalities of both former counsel and new counsel representing the company in defense, but probably is not indicative of what would happen in every dispute between former counsel and a company. It is certainly a scary proposition considering the fees that may be incurred in defense of the action, aside from the sum that is allegedly owed to the plaintiff. Without getting into the minutia of the complaint, of note was a portion of the retainer agreement that served as the basis of the breach of contract claim, which granted the law firm incentive stock options pursuant to the company’s incentive stock program. It is imaginable that at the time of signing the retainer agreement, the company probably did not think too much about signing such an agreement; however, as time went on, this may have become problematic on a number of levels. Further review shows the parties airing out their dirty laundry in a public forum.
What example has this lawsuit shown us, and what can one take from it?
Well, this lawsuit is illustrative of what can go wrong for start-ups and newer companies in hiring counsel, either on a one-time basis or as outside general counsel. Giving stock options may not always be advisable as a means of deferring payment on the front end. Also realize that counsel who you hire will be privy to some very important and intimate details of how your company operates. In the cannabis industry, one might wish to be especially guarded, as the industry still has considerable exposure federally. The attorney-client privilege, which some readers may have heard about, can cover communications and work done on behalf of the company during the relationship and survive termination; however, that privilege may very well be waived if the services/fees of the attorney are being attacked or defended. Overall, like anything else, it is important to understand who you may be working with on the front end and memorialize any relationship properly and clearly in writing. Go into the professional lawyer-client relationship with reasonable expectations, reasonable demands, and pay reasonable compensation for the work being performed. As a business, don’t try to get something for nothing. And as an attorney, don’t expect the company to be your golden ticket.
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