Tag Archives: legislature

First in the South – Virginia’s Legalization Focuses on Public Safety, Health and Social Justice

By Gregory S. Kaufman, Jessica R. Rodgers
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With the signing of the Cannabis Control Act (the Act) on April 21, 2021, Virginia became the first southern state to legalize adult use cannabis and just the fourth state to do so through the legislature. Legalizing adult use cannabis through the legislature, as opposed to through the ballot box, is not the typical route states have followed up to now. Eleven of the sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use cannabis through the use of ballot measures. Virginia joins Vermont, Illinois, New York and New Mexico (which legalized after Virginia) as one of the few states that have gone the legislative route. Under Governor Northam’s administration, the path to legalization was swift, taking less than four months from introduction to passage.

Governor Northam added amendments to the already passed Senate Bill 1406 and the General Assembly voted to approve those amendments, with the Lieutenant Governor breaking the tie in the Senate’s vote. Upon signing, Governor Northam called the law a step towards “building a more equitable and just Virginia and reforming our criminal justice system to make it more fair.” This message and the opportunities to promote social equity through a legal cannabis industry have been consistent points of advocacy made by supporters as the bill advanced to becoming law.

Prior to the Governor’s amendments, the Act under consideration set July 1, 2024 as the date on which both legal possession and adult use sales would begin. The Governor decided to accelerate the date for legal possession to July 1 of this year, a decision believed to have been influenced by data showing that Black Virginians were more than three times as likely to be cited for possession, even after simple possession was decriminalized in the state a year prior. The regulated adult use market is still set to begin making sales on July 1, 2024; however, it remains possible that this date could be advanced through the legislature in the meantime. Nevertheless, Virginia is on track to becoming the first southern state with an operating regulated commercial cannabis market.

Creating an Administrative Structure for the Adult Use Program

Virginia became the first state in the South to legalize adult use cannabis

This sweeping fifty-page law creates the Cannabis Control Authority to regulate the cultivation, manufacture, wholesale and retail sale of cannabis and cannabis product. The Act further lays the groundwork for licensing market participants and regulating appropriate use of cannabis; defining local control; testing, labeling, packaging and advertising of cannabis and cannabis products; and taxation. The Act also contains changes to the criminal laws of the Commonwealth. Companion to the Act are new laws addressing the testing, labeling and packaging of smokable hemp products and manufacturing of edible cannabis products. Additionally, the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board was created to address the impact of economic divestment, violence and criminal justice responses to community and individual needs through scholarships and grants.

While persons 21 years or older may possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use per household beginning on July 1, 2021, there are a host of regulations to be written in order to regulate the adult use market. These regulations will be the devil in the details of how the regulated market will work. Regardless, the Cannabis Control Act does establish the framework for adult use cannabis that is unique to Virginia and designed to promote and encourage participation from people and communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition and enforcement.

The Cannabis Control Authority (CCA) will consist of a Board of Directors, the Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council, the Chief Executive Officer and employees. The Board will have five members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the legislature, each with the possibility of serving two consecutive five-year terms. The Board is tasked with creating and enforcing regulations under which retail cannabis and cannabis products are possessed, sold, transported, distributed, and delivered. It is expected that the Board will begin discussing regulations next year and that applications for licenses for cannabis cultivation facilities, manufacturing facilities, cannabis testing facilities, wholesalers, and retail stores will begin to be accepted in 2023. Importantly, a Business Equity and Diversity Support Team, led by a Social Equity Liaison, and the Equity Reinvestment Board, led by the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, are to contribute to a plan to promote and encourage participation in the industry by people from disproportionately impacted communities.

Regulating Participation in the Market

The Act empowers the Board to establish a robust and diverse marketplace with many entry opportunities for market participants. Up to 450 cultivation licenses, 60 manufacturing licenses for the production of retail cannabis products, 25 wholesaler licenses and 400 licenses for retail stores can be granted. These numbers do not include the four permits granted to pharmaceutical processors (entities that cultivate and dispense medical cannabis) under the Commonwealth’s medical program.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam
Image: Craig, Flickr

In addition to the sheer number of licenses that can be granted, the Act devises a unique approach to addressing concerns of a concentration of licenses in too few hands and a market dominated by large multi-state operators. At the same time, it sets up a mechanism to capitalize two cannabis equity funds intended to benefit persons, families and communities historically and disproportionately targeted and affected by drug enforcement through grants, scholarships and loans. Over-concentration and market dominance concerns are addressed by limiting a person to holding an equity interest in no more than one cultivation, manufacturing, wholesaler, retail or testing facility license. This eliminates the ability of companies to be vertically integrated from cultivation through retail sales operations. However, there are two exceptions to the impediment to vertical integration. First, the Board is authorized to develop regulations that permit small businesses to be vertically integrated and ensure that all licensees have an equal and meaningful opportunity to participate in the market. These regulations will be closely scrutinized by those looking to enter Virginia’s regulated market once they are proposed. Qualifying small businesses could benefit substantially from the economic advantages commensurate with being vertically integrated, assuming they have the access to the capital needed to achieve integration and operate successfully. The second exception allows permitted pharmaceutical processors and registered industrial hemp processors to hold multiple licenses if they pay $1 million to the Board (to be allocated to job training, the equity loan fund or equity reinvestment fund) and submit a diversity, equity and inclusion plan for approval and implementation. Consequently, Virginia is attempting to fund, in part, its ambitious social equity programs by monetizing the opportunity for these processors to participate vertically in the adult use market.

Those devilish details of how this market will function, and how onerous compliance obligations will be, will emanate from those yet to be proposed regulations covering many areas and subject matters including:

  • Outdoor cultivation by cultivation facilities;
  • Security requirements;
  • Sanitary standards;
  • A testing program;
  • An application process;
  • Packaging and labeling requirements;
  • Maximum THC level for retail products (not to exceed 5 mg per serving or 50 mg per package for edible products);
  • Record retention requirements;
  • Criteria for evaluating social equity license applications based on certain ownership standards;
  • Licensing preferences for qualified social equity applicants;
  • Low interest loan program standards;
  • Personal cultivation guidelines; and
  • Outdoor advertising restrictions.

Needless to say, the CCA Board has a lot work ahead in order to issue reasonable regulations that will carry out the dictates in the Act and encourage the development of a well-functioning marketplace delivering meaningful social equity opportunities.

Much work needs to be done before July 1, 2024 to prepare for its debutThe application process for the five categories of licenses will be developed by the Board, along with application fee and annual license fee amounts. It is not clear how substantial these fees will be and what effect they will have on the ability of less-well-capitalized companies and individuals to compete in the market. The Act dictates that licenses are deemed nontransferable from person to person or location to location. However, it is not entirely clear that changes in ownership will be prohibited. The Act contemplates that changes in ownership will be permitted, at least as to retail store licensees, through a reapplication process. Perhaps the forthcoming regulations will add clarity to the transferability of licenses and address the use of management services agreements as a potential workaround to the limitations in license ownership.

Certain requirements particular to certain license-types are worthy of highlighting. For example, there are two classes of cultivation licenses. Class A cultivation licenses authorize cultivation of a certain number of plants within a certain number of square feet to be determined by the Board. Interestingly, Class B licenses are for cultivation of low total THC (no more than 1%) cannabis. Several requirements specific to retail stores are noteworthy. Stores cannot exceed 1,500 square feet, or make sales through drive-through windows, internet-based sales platforms or delivery services. Prohibitive local ordinances are not allowed; however, localities can petition for a referendum on the question of whether retail stores should be prohibited in their locality. Retail stores are allowed to sell immature plants and seek to support the home growers, an allowance that is fairly unique among the existing legal adult-use states.

Taxing Cannabis Sales

Given the perception that regulated cannabis markets add to state coffers, it is little surprise that Virginia’s retail market will be subject to significant taxes. The taxing system is straightforward and not complicated by a taxing regime related to product weight or THC content, for example. There is a 21% tax on retail sales by stores, in addition to the current sales tax rates. In addition, localities may, by ordinance, impose a 3% tax on retail sales. These taxes could result in a retail tax of approximately 30%.

Changes to Criminal Laws

Changes to the criminality of cannabis will have long lasting effects for many Virginians. These changes include:

  • Fines of no more than $25 and participation in substance abuse or education programs for illegal purchases by juveniles or persons 18 years or older;
  • Prohibition of warrantless searches based solely on the odor of cannabis;
  • Automatic expungement of records for certain former cannabis offenses;
  • Prohibition of “gifting” cannabis in exchange for nominal purchases of some other product;
  • Prohibition of consuming cannabis or cannabis products in public; and
  • Prohibition of consumption by drivers or passengers in a motor vehicle being driven, with consumption being presumed if cannabis in the passenger compartment is not in the original sealed manufacturer’s container.

These changes, and others, represent a balancing of public safety with lessons learned from the effects of the war on drugs.

Potpourri

The Act contains myriad other noteworthy provisions. For example, the Board must develop, implement and maintain a seed-to-sale tracking system for the industry. Plants being grown at home must be tagged with the grower’s name and driver’s license or state ID number. Licenses may be stripped from businesses that do not remain neutral while workers attempt to unionize. However, this provision will not become effective unless approved again by the legislature next year. Banks and credit unions are protected under state law for providing financial services to licensed businesses or for investing any income derived from the providing of such services. This provision is intended to address the lack of access to banking for cannabis businesses due to the federal illegality of cannabis by removing any perceived state law barriers for banks and credit unions to do business with licensed cannabis companies.

The adult use cannabis industry is coming to Virginia. Much work needs to be done before July 1, 2024 to prepare for its debut. However, the criminal justice reforms and commitment to repairing harms related to past prohibition of cannabis are soon to be a present-day reality. Virginia is the first Southern state to take the path towards legal adult use cannabis. It is unlikely to be the last.

Virginia Finalizes Legalization Plan

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Update: On April 21, 2021, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed the legislation into law, making Virginia the first state int he American South to legalize adult use cannabis.


On April 7, 2021, legislators in Virginia finally came to an agreement for their adult use cannabis legalization plan. Back in February of this year, lawmakers passed a bill to legalize adult use cannabis with a launch date of 2024, but Governor Ralph Northam wanted to move quicker than that.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam
Image: Craig, Flickr

Last week, Gov. Northam issued a number of amendments to the legalization bills (Senate Bill 1406 and House Bill 2312) that essentially tapers the time frame of legalization to July of this year. With the legislature approving those amendments yesterday, the state of Virginia has now finalized their legalization plans, setting in motion the launch of the very first legal adult use cannabis market in the American South.

Beginning July 1, 2021, Virginia will allow adults to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and up to four plants per household. The commercial cannabis market, and the regulatory framework accompanying it, will be set to legalize sales July 1, 2024.

The bill establishes the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority as the regulatory body overseeing the legal cannabis market. A five-member Board of Directors in that agency will develop and issue regulations and licenses. According to the bill, the Board can set the number of licenses, with a maximum of 400 retailers, 25 wholesalers, 450 cultivators and 60 manufacturers, aside from any medical cannabis and hemp processing license already issued. The Board is also in charge of licensing testing labs.

Vertical integration is not permitted under Virginia’s new legalization plan, but all of the medical cannabis licensees in the state are already vertically integrated. According to the bill, they can keep their vertical integration for a small fee of $1 million and after they submit a diversity, equity and inclusion plan.

In addition to Virginia’s normal 6% sales tax, a state tax of 21% is added to retail sales of adult use cannabis, excluding medical dispensaries. Local municipalities are allowed to issue up to 3% in additional taxes.

Wyoming Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Legalize Cannabis

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Update: The House Judiciary Committee has passed the legalization bill, HB0209, by a 6-3 vote. After moving out of the Judiciary Committee, the bill now awaits a floor hearing, which is expected to come within the next week or two during the legislative session that ends on April 2. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Wyoming have introduced a bill to legalize cannabis in the state’s legislature. First reported by Buckrail.com, HB0209 was assigned on March 2. The bill would legalize possession, home grow and sales for adults, as well as establish a regulatory framework for licensing, tracking and taxation.

In November 2020, voters in Montana and South Dakota passed ballot measures that legalize adult use and sales of cannabis. About a month after Election Day, the University of Wyoming conducted a poll that found roughly 54% of Wyoming residents now support legal adult use cannabis. In 2018, UW found that 85% of Wyoming residents support medical cannabis legalization.

In March of 2019, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signed a bill into law that essentially legalized hemp in the state. That bill was a boon for the state’s agricultural economy, giving many farmers a much-needed boost in their crop diversity.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon

You can find the current version of HB0209 here. Sponsors of the bill include: Representatives Jared Olsen (R-Laramie), Mark Baker (R-Sweetwater) Eric Barlow (R-Campbell/Converse), Landon Brown (R-Laramie), Marshall Burt (L-Sweetwater), Cathy Connolly (D-Albany), Karlee Provenza (D-Albany), John Romero-Martinez (R-Laramie), Pat Sweeney (R-Natrona), Cyrus Western (R-Sheridan), Mike Yin (R-Teton) and Dan Zwonitzer (R-Laramie) and Senators Cale Case (R-Fremont) and Chris Rothfuss (D-Albany).

According to Buckrail, if the bill becomes law, Wyoming could get roughly $49.15 million in tax and license fee revenue in 2022. That number would mean a sizable windfall for the state that saw an 8.5% decline in tax revenue in 2020. Governor Gordon proposed budget cuts as high as 15% for agencies across the state last year. Most of the revenue generated from cannabis taxes would be earmarked for education.

Wyoming’s tax revenue is notoriously limited when it comes to diversity: the state makes its money on oil and gas, and that’s about it. Earlier this year, the Biden administration halted oil and gas leasing on federal land, hitting pause on a nearly half-million-acre deal. If the pause on oil and gas leasing on federal lands continues or were to become permanent, Wyoming stands to lose tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars every year.

So, what does the least populous state in the country do when they can no longer generate revenue from oil and gas? Simple. Legalize cannabis.

MORE Act Passes the House – Is Legalization Around the Corner?

By Steve Levine, Alyssa Samuel
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On Friday, December 4, 2020, the US House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 (the MORE Act), which would effectively legalize cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act. The bill (H.R. 3884) has several key components:

  • Most importantly, the bill would remove cannabis from the list of controlled substances in the Controlled Substances Act, as well as other federal legislation such as the National Forest System Drug Control Act of 1986. This would effectively end many of the obstacles created by the federal illegality of cannabis such as the lack of access to banking, tax consequences such as 280E, adverse immigration impacts and threats of federal criminal enforcement.

    Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) donning his cannabis mask as he presides over the Congress
  • Second, not only does the bill preclude future prosecution for cannabis-related crimes, the bill is designed to be retroactive and would provide for the expungement of past non-violent cannabis offenses.
  • The bill creates a prescribed excise tax on cannabis and cannabis products. The funds collected from the taxes would be channeled into opportunity and reinvestment programs.
  • A Community Reinvestment Grant Program would be established aimed at the provision of services for “individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs,” such as job training, education, literacy programs, mentoring, and substance use treatment programs;
  • A Cannabis Opportunity Program would be established providing state funds for small business loans in the cannabis industry targeted at social equity candidates; and
  • An Equitable Licensing Grant Program providing funds for states to implement equitable cannabis licensing programs aimed at minimizing “barriers to cannabis licensing and employment for individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.”
  • The bill would require all cannabis producers to obtain a federal permit. Cannabis businesses would need to be licensed at the state, local, and federal levels to operate.

This MORE Act is a substantial step in cannabis legislation. Reactions to the proposed legislation have been mixed. While the bill does include some measures aimed at social equity, critics of the bill claim it does not go far enough. Similarly, while the bill includes a federal permitting provision, this would be the beginning of a nascent federal regulatory scheme.

What does this mean for your business? 

While this bill passed in the US House of Representatives, it would still need to pass in the U.S. Senate this term, which by most accounts does not seem likely. However, the passage of this bill signifies the progress that has been made and provides insight on what further legislation may look like.

Cannabis Won Big: A Post-Election Analysis

By Aaron G. Biros
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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include the presidential and congressional election results.


While the votes continue to come in for the presidential and congressional elections and we have some concrete results materializing, cannabis legalization has emerged as a clear winner across the board. Five states had initiatives on the ballot to legalize cannabis in one form or another and voters in all five states approved those measures by wide margins.

As of this writing, 15 states now have legalized adult use cannabis and 36 states have legalized medical cannabis. That is a significant portion of the United States with some form of legal cannabis, even without counting the emergent hemp markets across the country.

After a tight race and mail-in vote counts diminishing President Trump’s lead days following the election, Joe Biden has won the White House. Most cannabis industry stakeholders see this as a win for cannabis as both Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris have voiced support for federal decriminalization of cannabis. The vocal support is very much so tied to their campaign on ending racial injustices and systemic racism, citing the failed war on drugs for disproportionately harming communities of color.

While it is looking like the Democrats will retain control of the House of Representatives, it is still unclear which party will control the Senate. That  question likely won’t be answered until January 2021, when voters in Georgia will decide on two Senate seats in runoff elections that will decide which party gets the majority. With a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, it is entirely possible that the Biden administration could decriminalize cannabis on a federal level within the next four years. Without that majority, however, it is possible reform could come at a much slower pace.

As more states legalize cannabis, their neighbors see the potential economic benefits and want to cash in on the movement. Just take a look at the West Coast.

Comments made by politicians leading up to the election in the Northeast also shed some light on the alleged domino effect coming to the United States. In late October, about two weeks before the election, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was asked when his state will legalize adult use cannabis. His answer: “Soon, because now we need the money.” Back in September, Pennsylvania Governor Tom wolf specifically asked the state legislature to legalize adult use cannabis. Governor Wolf said “people will go to New Jersey” to purchase cannabis once it becomes legal in the neighboring state.

Question 1 in NJ won by a very wide margin

Well, New Jersey legalized adult use cannabis. So now it appears we are in a waiting game to see which neighboring state will move forward before the other. Alyssa Jank, consulting services manager at Brightfield Group, predicts cannabis sales in New Jersey to reach about $460 million in 2021, up from about $94 million this year. She says the market could reach $1.5 billion by 2025.

Sam D’Arcangelo, director of the Cannabis Voter Project, a division of HeadCount, says the New Jersey measure is pretty bare-bones, so the legislature will need to pass enabling legislation that actually creates the adult-use program. “It’s tough to tell exactly what that legislation will look like or how long it will take to pass, but it’s possible it will be approved pretty quickly,” says D’Arcangelo. “Tonight’s results could set off a domino effect that inspires lawmakers to move forward with legalization in a number of states throughout the region.”

Let’s take a closer look at Arizona: Back in 2016, Arizona had a measure on the ballot to legalize adult use cannabis that failed to get enough votes. Things have clearly changed in the state in the last four years because Prop. 207 (the 2020 ballot initiative to legalize adult use cannabis) won 59.8% to 40.2%. Arizona now joins a massive West Coast bloc of states slowly creeping inland that have legalized adult use cannabis, including, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and now Arizona, not to mention Montana. Drug Policy Alliance’s Emily Kaltenbach believes that New Mexico will follow suit as well, with three out of four voters in the state in favor of it.

Voters in Mississippi approved a medical cannabis program by a wide margin with almost 74% in favor. Even more encouraging, voters in the state rejected the legislature’s attempt to hijack the initiative with their own alternative measure that would have involved developing their own program as they see fit without any sort of deadline.

While Montana can tend to lean slightly Democrat, it is surrounded by heavily Republican-dominated states like Wyoming and Idaho. With both Montana and South Dakota voters approving adult use legalization measures, this presents a potential inroad for cannabis to reach far more conservative states in the Northern Rockies and beyond.

Greg Kaufman Partner at Eversheds Sutherland and frequent Cannabis Industry Journal contributor, says this election puts considerable pressure on Congress to take some action on one or more of the cannabis-related bills currently pending. “In several states, cannabis was more popular than the winning presidential candidate, regardless of the party of the winning candidate,” says Kaufman. “This suggests that cannabis is not a partisan issue, nor should it be.”

The 15 states that have legal adult use cannabis now represents about 34% of the population in our country. “During the most divisive election in modern U.S. history, Americans demonstrated unity around at least one issue – cannabis policy reform,” says Aaron Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association. He says the victories we saw this week are commendable and will lead to a lot of new jobs, tax revenue and thousands of fewer arrests, but there is still a lot of work to be done. “We look forward to building on this progress as we continue to work with Congress to end the conflict between outdated federal laws and the growing number of states with regulated cannabis markets, and help undo the racially and economically disparate harms caused by prohibition.”

While we wait to hear who will control the Senate in 2021, which will have a massive impact on cannabis reform, we leave you with this great quote from Aaron Smith: “There is still a lot of work to do, but the wind is at our backs.”

To see the details and results of each cannabis measure on the ballot in this election, click here. 

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Cannabis Is the Answer to Declining State Revenues

By Carl Silverberg, Seana Chambers
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As states grapple with flagging tax revenues and soaring unemployment as a result of the pandemic, governors and state legislators are facing a quandary. Either cut back on programs that voters like, or increase taxes to keep them funded. According to a recent assessment by iUNU, many legislatures will look to the booming business of legal cannabis as a revenue source.

“For those states that have only made incremental steps towards legalization within their jurisdiction… there’s going to be pressure to initiate, whether it’s through medical marijuana programs or the expansion into recreational,” says Martin Glass, a partner at Jenner & Block who specializes in mergers & acquisitions and securities transactions.

Martin Glass, a partner at Jenner & Block

In recent months, the average per-store retail sale of cannabis increased in legalized states – a telling change given the current state of the economy. Other facts – a loyal consumer base, proven health benefits and strong external investment – all point to a dependable industry. Mr. Glass saw this as a sign that cannabis is more stable than most believe: “The industry has proven to be quite resilient… it has absorbed the COVID-19 shock very well.”

Not only is cannabis a dependable industry, it’s also an expanding one. In 2019, global revenue rose to $15 billion, a 48% increase from the prior year. By 2020, economists expect that number to reach $20 billion. Kristin Baldwin, executive director of the Cannabis Alliance, added some perspective: “Right now, we’re at about 240,000 people employed according to the latest numbers I have. Maybe even 250,000. In King County, which is the largest county in Washington and where Seattle is, we had a 22% increase in sales in March alone.”

In the United States, the revenue from annual sales increased by nearly 40% from 2018 to 2019, rising 3.3 billion over the course of the year. This growth is expected to continue at a similar rate in the coming years, forecasted to hit $29.7 billion in revenue by 2025. These growth statistics are impressive and especially attractive as state legislatures and governors search for options to balance their budgets.

Kristin Baldwin, executive director of the Cannabis Alliance

The industry also is logging similarly impressive growth on the employment side. The cannabis industry was recently dubbed “the fastest growing job market in the country” by CNBC, leaping an estimated 110% from 2017 to 2019 and hitting six figures in real numbers during that three-year period. The industry turned in those impressive numbers while constrained to 33 states (11, if evaluated from a recreational standpoint), leaving plenty of room for growth.

Baldwin agreed. “I think employment will grow along with the sales just because you are going to need budtenders, delivery drivers, and farmers,” says Baldwin. “For example, in California, Oregon, and Washington – highly regulated systems – there’s still going to be a significant amount of growth because there’s a significant amount of demand.”

Heading into budget negotiations in 2021, states are facing huge revenue gaps. Right now, those dismissing cannabis are, as Glass says, “leaving a lot of money on the table” by failing to take advantage of a major economic resource. Not only does the industry produce tax revenue to expedite states’ recoveries, as legalization expands, the cannabis industry has the ability to provide thousands of jobs.

Still dubious? Baldwin shared this fascinating piece of information: “It’s a generational shift that’s occurring as we speak. The fastest growing consumer group in cannabis right now is women over the age of 40.”

Soapbox

Medical Cannabis in Georgia: Federal Policy Effects on State Industries

By Reggie Snyder
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Under the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Controlled Substance Act (CSA), drugs are classified into five distinct schedules depending upon their acceptable medical use and their overall potential for abuse or dependency. The DEA currently lists cannabis as a Schedule I drug, which the CSA defines as drugs having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. It appears, however, that the DEA may soon reconsider its current Schedule I classification of cannabis.

This article considers how the DEA’s potential reclassification of cannabis potentially could affect Georgia’s medical cannabis industry. Specifically, the article discusses: (1) how Georgia medical cannabis distributors would operate within this new regulatory framework; (2) how this change would affect registered Georgia patients who are either currently purchasing medical cannabis or are planning to do so; and (3) whether this reclassification would cause big pharmaceutical companies to enter Georgia’s medical cannabis market, and if so, how.

The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Affect the Regulatory Framework of Georgia’s Medical Cannabis Industry

On April 2, 2019, Georgia became the 34th U.S. state to legalize cannabis for medicinal use when the Georgia Legislature passed House Bill 324 (“HB 324”), which recently took effect on Monday, July 1, 2019. In Georgia, medical cannabis is defined as a “low-THC oil” that contains 5% or less of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the psychoactive chemical in cannabis that causes a “high.”

Georgia State Flag

If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, the regulatory framework of Georgia’s medical cannabis industry under HB 324 would likely be affected. For instance, depending on how the DEA elects to reclassify cannabis, low-THC oil products manufactured and sold in Georgia could become subject to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) costly, complicated and time-consuming drug approval process. Then, any low THC oil products that the FDA approves will be subject to federally mandated quality, efficacy and potency standards for FDA-approved drugs. Also, any federal standards that stem from the DEA’s reclassification of cannabis will trump any conflicting provisions in HB 324 or any other conflicting rules, regulations or procedures established by the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission (GAMCC), the seven member state agency responsible for promulgating and implementing the state-based rules, regulations and procedures necessary to produce and distribute low-THC oil in Georgia, and the Georgia State Board of Pharmacy (Pharmacy Board). However, even if the DEA reclassifies cannabis, the following state regulatory framework established by HB 324 will remain unaffected:

  • The GAMCC will likely continue to oversee the state’s medical cannabis industry.
  • The following two different types of dispensary licenses issued under the legislation will still likely remain: retail outlets (issued by the GAMCC) and pharmacies (issued by the Pharmacy Board).
  • Licensed dispensaries will still likely not be located within a 1,000-foot radius of a school or church, and licensed production facilities will still not be located within a 3,000-foot radius of a school or church.
  • Pharmacists who dispense low-THC oil will still likely have to review each registered patient’s information on the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) database to confirm that they have been diagnosed with one or more of the 17 approved conditions and diseases. The legislation does not require retail outlet dispensaries to review patient information on the PDMP database or employ a pharmacist to dispense the drug.
  • Registered patients will still likely be prohibited from vaping low-THC oil or inhaling it by any other electronic means. The legislation does not expressly prohibit the use of other, non-electronic delivery methods of low THC oil such as pills or nasal spray.
  • All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production companies) will still likely be subject to an “on-demand” inspection when requested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the GAMCC, the four-member Medical Cannabis Commission Oversight Committee (MCCOC), or local law enforcement. The GAMCC and the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency (GDNA) will also still likely be able to conduct one, annual inspection of dispensary locations. And, upon request, licensed dispensaries will still likely be required to immediately provide a sample of their low-THC oil for laboratory testing to the GBI, GAMCC, MCCOC, GDNA or local law enforcement.
  • All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production facilities) will still likely be required to utilize a GAMCC-approved seed-to-sale tracking software.
  • All licensed dispensaries (and all licensed production companies) will still likely be prohibited from advertising or marketing their low-THC oil products to registered patients or the public. However, they will still likely be allowed to provide information about their products directly to physicians, and upon request, physicians will still likely be allowed to furnish the names of licensed dispensaries (and licensed production companies) to registered patients or their caregivers.

The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Affect the Availability of Low THC Oil

To date, approximately 9,500 Georgians are registered with the state’s Low-THC Registry, which allows them to purchase low-THC oil from licensed dispensaries. Since the legislation’s passage, the number of registered patients has increased significantly and continues to steadily rise. If the DEA reclassifies marijuana, this patient number will likely increase at an even faster rate because the public will likely perceive reclassification as an acknowledgement by the federal government that marijuana possesses health and medicinal benefits. If that occurs, statewide demand for low THC oil could quickly outstrip the supply.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp
Image: Georgia National Guard, Flickr

Under HB 324, the GAMCC is tasked with ensuring that the state has a sufficient number of retail outlet dispensaries across the state to meet patient demand but is limited to issuing only six production licenses. As the number of registered patients continues to grow, the GAMCC may be forced to recommend amendments to the statute allowing it to issue additional production licenses to increase the state’s supply of low THC oil, and depending on how many additional patients are added to the state’s Low-THC Registry, the GAMCC may also have to issue additional dispensary licenses to keep up with patient demand by relaxing the geographic limitations on locating dispensaries.

Thus, the DEA’s reclassification of cannabis likely would affect the amount of low THC oil available to registered patients in Georgia.

The DEA’s Reclassification of Cannabis Would Likely Cause Large Pharmaceutical Companies to Enter Georgia’s Medical Cannabis Market

Large pharmaceutical companies typically manufacture, market, sell and ship their products on a national and international scale. Given cannabis’ current status as a Schedule I drug under the CSA, these companies have largely steered clear of the burgeoning medical marijuana industry because of the inherent risk of violating federal law. If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, that risk will be diminished greatly, and the companies therefore will likely decide to enter the market by acquiring existing medical marijuana companies with established national or state-level medical cannabis brands.

If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, Georgia’s medical cannabis market will likely be affected in multiple ways.Depending on how the DEA reclassifies cannabis, low-THC oil in Georgia could be subject to stringent federal standards, including the FDA’s complex and expensive drug approval process. Georgia medical cannabis companies will likely not be accustomed to complying with such federal regulations. Large pharmaceutical companies, on the other hand, are very accustomed to dealing with the federal government, including FDA drug approval. So, if the DEA reclassifies marijuana, pharmaceutical companies will likely view reclassification as a tremendous opportunity to enter the Georgia market by leveraging their experience and institutional knowledge dealing with federal law to acquire or partner with a licensed Georgia cannabis company that has an established brand of low -HC oil.

Entering Georgia’s medical cannabis market won’t be easy, however, because HB 324 prohibits licensees from transferring their licenses for five years and requires that the original licensee be a Georgia business. But, HB 324 does not prohibit them from selling their businesses, which necessarily includes any licenses the business owns. Purchasing a licensed Georgia medical cannabis company requires payment of a production license business transfer fee. The fee for the first sale of a business with a Class 1 production license is $100,000 and the fee for a Class 2 license is $12,500. The fee for the second sale is $150,000 for a Class 1 production license, and $62,500 for a Class 2 license. The fee for the third and fourth sales is $200,000 for a Class 1 production license, and $112,500 for a Class 2 license.

Conclusion

If the DEA reclassifies cannabis, Georgia’s medical cannabis market will likely be affected in multiple ways. Specifically, depending on how the drug is reclassified, the regulatory framework for medical cannabis companies likely will change to include both state and federal requirements, potentially including the FDA’s complex drug approval process. Also, the amount of low-THC oil available for registered patients to purchase likely will be diminished precipitating the need for the GAMCC to modify the statute to allow for issuing additional production licenses and relaxing the geographic limitations on locating dispensaries. Finally, large pharmaceutical companies likely will attempt to enter Georgia’s medical cannabis market by purchasing existing, licensed Georgia companies that have established low-THC oil brands.

Arizona Still Doesn’t Require Lab Testing, But That Could Change Soon

By Aaron G. Biros
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As of today, Arizona is the only state in the country that has legalized medical cannabis but does not require producers to test their medical cannabis. States throughout the country that legalize medical cannabis routinely implement regulations that require third-party, independent lab testing to protect patient and consumer safety. Arizona legalized medical cannabis for a number of qualifying conditions back in 2011, but still has no measure like other states to protect patient safety.

Lawmakers in Arizona now have the opportunity to change that with SB1494, which passed unanimously through the state’s Senate back in March of 2019. According to the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association (ACLA), the bill awaits action in the House of Representatives. The ACLA says in a press release that “supporters of the bill are calling on lawmakers to move on a bill that unanimously passed in the Senate earlier this year.” The bill would require producers to use independent, third-party labs to test cannabis for things like harmful toxins and molds.

Ryan Tracy, co-founder of the ACLA and founder/CEO at C4 Labs.

According to Ryan Treacy, co-founder of the ACLA and CEO/Founder of C4 Laboratories, the ACLA was formed for a few important reasons: “We feel it is very important that we encourage and cultivate a professional and collaborative rapport among the reputable Arizona cannabis labs,” says Treacy. “So that we can call upon the collective groups’ years of experience to help provide insight and suggestions on how we as a group can insure the most accurate and consistent results for our clients throughout the state and ultimately their patients.” Treacy went on to add that it is particularly important their collective voice be heard at the State Capitol as lawmakers work towards passing SB 1494.

“There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”George Griffeth, President of the ACLA, says there is a sense of urgency in passing this bill before the voters decide on legalizing recreational adult-use cannabis next year. “Everyone agrees that now is the time to be proactive to protect patients from unsafe contaminants,” says Griffeth. “Currently 61 tons of medical marijuana is consumed by patients and many believe that the number of people using the medicine will continue to grow. With a ballot initiative related to the recreational use of marijuana facing voters next year, Arizona must act now to make sure standards are in place.”

They say the bill has bipartisan support and many stakeholders in Arizona’s cannabis industry express support for it as well. For Ryan Treacy, he is worried about patients consuming harmful chemicals and toxins. “My colleagues and I are deeply concerned that more than two-hundred thousand people who use medical marijuana could be inadvertently exposing themselves to toxic chemicals, E. Coli, Salmonella or mold,” says Treacy. “There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”

Treacy says this bill is particularly difficult to pass because the original measure to legalize medical cannabis was a ballot initiative. That means the bill needs 75% support in both the House and the Senate in order to amend the original measure. “The passing of this bill would be a huge win for the patients and will help to ensure honesty and transparency for those that operate in the current medical cannabis program here in AZ,” says Treacy. “This testing bill is also written with legislative intent to cover any and all future adult use or recreational use legislative laws or ballot initiatives. We hope to have a final verdict on this bill by end of this week or early next.”

Illinois Governor Announces Plan to Legalize Adult-Use Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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Last weekend, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the introduction of a bill that would legalize adult-use cannabis, allowing medical dispensaries to begin sales for anyone over the age of 21. According to the Chicago Sun Times, the major focus for Governor Pritzker on legalizing cannabis is on things like social equity and criminal justice.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker

Rather than touting the tax dollars that could be raised, like other state governments are often eager to highlight, Governor Pritzker’s announcement was about racial equality and helping those disproportionately affected by the drug war. “We are taking a major step forward to legalize adult use cannabis and to celebrate the fact that Illinois is going to have the most equity-centric law in the nation,” Governor Pritzker told members of the media during a press conference. “For the many individuals and families whose lives have been changed, indeed hurt, because the nation’s war on drugs discriminated against people of color, this day belongs to you, too.”

The legislation includes a provision for automatically expunging about 80,000 convictions related to cannabis, allowing those with convictions to work in the newly-legal Illinois cannabis industry. It also includes a provision for license applicants to be designated as social equity applicants, where lawmakers are hoping to encourage minority-owned business growth. They plan on waiving fees as well as helping social equity applicants get better access to capital and business loans.

This is not the first time that Democrats in the Illinois state legislature have attempted to legalize adult-use cannabis. Back in 2017, state Representative Kelly Cassidy and state Senator Heather Steans, the two lawmakers sponsoring this bill, sponsored a legalization bill that failed to garner support. Back in late January of 2019, Governor Pritzker, Rep. Cassidy and Sen. Steans announced their plans for legalization. Introducing this bill to the legislature this week takes their plans and the state of Illinois one step closer to adult use legalization.

During the press conference, Sen. Steans mentioned they want to make sure revenue from the new market will benefit residents of Illinois. According to the Chicago Sun Times, the bill allows for 25% of tax revenue would go to helping those disproportionately affected by the drug war and 20% would go to mental health and substance abuse treatment.

That revenue, an estimated $170 million, will mainly come from licensing fees in 2020. Cannabis products with less than 35% THC content would be taxed at a fixed 10% rate, while products with more than 35% THC would be taxed at 20%. The bill would also allow people in Illinois to grow up to five plants at home.

Legalization & Regulation Recap: This Week’s News

By Aaron G. Biros
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Across the country, a handful of states are expected to move forward with a number of bills making their way each state’s legislature. Here is a quick recap on some of the more newsworthy bills from this week.

Arizona

When Arizona legalized medical cannabis use, there was no provision in the legislation that required laboratory testing to insure the safety of cannabis products. To this day, Arizona is one of the few states left that has legalized medical cannabis, but does not require lab testing. A bill, SB 1494, that just passed through the state’s Senate could very well change that. According to azmarijuana.com, the bill passed unanimously through the Arizona Senate and would require the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) to implement regulations for laboratories to test for contaminates like pesticides.

They need at least 75% of the House to vote in favor in order for it to pass. If that happens, testing could be required as soon as June 1, 2020.

New Hampshire

In the Northeast, New Hampshire and Vermont have bills related to cannabis making their way through the state legislatures. A committee in the New Hampshire House of Representatives just backed a bill to legalize recreational cannabis.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 10-9 to recommend HB 481, which would legalize recreational cannabis, including growing up to 12 plants, imposing a tax of $30 per ounce on cannabis sold through retail. It would also set up a regulatory agency in charge of licensing and regulating the industry.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy

New Jersey

Governor Phil Murphy met with lawmakers earlier this week to discuss the legalization of recreational cannabis. According to CBS New York, the Governor reached a deal with Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Sen. Nicholas Scutari and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano to introduce a bill that he would sign into law.

The deal would legalize and regulate recreational cannabis, expunge previous cannabis-related convictions, levy a $42 tax per ounce of cannabis sold, along with setting up a commission to issue licenses and regulate the market. When Governor Murphy ran for office, his campaign included a pledge to legalize recreational cannabis, A previous attempt to get a bill through the legislature failed to get enough votes last year.

Vermont

Back in February, the Vermont Senate passed a bill to regulate and tax recreational cannabis with a veto-proof majority. SB 54 is now in committee review in the House, where it is expected to see more hurdles, according to Burlington Free Press.

Another bill was introduced in the Vermont Senate, SB 117,which would reportedly open up more access to the medical cannabis program, including increasing possession limits, allowing patients to grow more plants at a time and set up a lab testing program as well.

Wyoming

Last week, Governor Mark Gordon signed a bill into law that legalizes and regulates the cultivation and sales of hemp-derived CBD. The state is now working with the WY Department of Agriculture to submit plans to the federal government for regulating the industry.