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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.

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A Look at the Rise Of The East Coast Cannabis Market

By Serge Chistov
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The rise of the East Coast cannabis market gained another foothold in late March 2021 when New York became the most recent state to legalize adult use cannabis, joining ranks with other Atlantic stalwarts, including New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

In doing so, it opened the door to an industry that many experts agree could exceed $7 billion annually, once the market is fully established. That’s potential the cannabis market hasn’t seen since Washington became the first Pacific state to legalize adult use cannabis, almost 10 years ago (followed shortly after by Colorado, then Oregon in 2014 and California in 2016).

Unfortunately, the leaders of this great country have yet to follow suit, and cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. For those in the cannabis market, this means that state-licensed cannabis businesses must cultivate and sell their products within the confines of the state in which they are licensed. Nothing can cross state lines. Even if a business is licensed in both Vermont and New York, it can’t ship product from one state to the other without running afoul of federal legislation. Most in the East Coast cannabis market view this as a negative.

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

While it certainly makes things more difficult, a small group of forward-thinking investors and entrepreneurs see this for what it really is: an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and establish state-specific grow operations and other supply-chain waypoints, where none or few currently exist. Think of the current state of the East Coast cannabis market as a beachhead. Right now, the industry is defined by state lines. But when the federal government finally legalizes adult use cannabis from coast to coast—and it’s only a matter of time before it does—those state lines will essentially disappear. When they do, the beachheads established now will become the infrastructure for the entire Eastern seaboard.

Take Virginia, for example. It shares its border with five states that have legalized medical cannabis but have yet to cross the bridge into adult use sales (West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina). A Virginia-based grow operation built now has the potential to serve not just those five states but other contiguous markets including Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Carolina, and even Alabama, Georgia and Indiana. A relatively small investment now could pay huge dividends in just a few years, when the market literally blows wide open.

It’s this incredible potential that makes the rise of the East Coast cannabis market one of the most important developments in the last five years. And while the potential scale of grow operations and other cannabis businesses is certainly essential to the conversation, let’s not forget that “niche products” within the East Coast cannabis market are still very much up for grabs.

If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that consumers are willing to pay a premium for high-quality, organically grown cannabis. Both new and long-time cannabis enthusiasts will choose — even demand — high-quality, organically grown cannabis that looks, smells and tastes fresh and doesn’t rely on harmful fertilizers, heavy metals or pesticides. They’re also enthusiastic about supporting brands that have a commitment to sustainable, eco-friendly operations.

The demand for high-quality, organically grown cannabis continues to increase

It’s very much like the current trends we see in the grocery store aisles. Manufacturers and consumers alike are seeing the value of “whole foods.” After decades of relying on heavily processed fare, both suppliers and end-users are benefiting from higher-quality ingredients. Consumers want to know what’s in the stuff they’re putting into their bodies. When it comes to cannabis, they want to know that what they’re taking to alleviate their anxiety doesn’t include harmful chemicals. This demand has the capacity to push revenue even higher.

And when the dam finally breaks and businesses can ship product from state to state, the idea is for growers to be well-positioned geographically to become suppliers of high-quality, organically grown cannabis, for every state east of the Mississippi.

Cannabis businesses in states such as Colorado have had the past decade to prepare for the coming boom, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to join the party. The rise of the East Coast market parallels what Colorado and the other Pacific states experienced in the early-to-mid teens—the potential to become a very real industry, with huge capacity for growth and profit. Get in on that action now!

The East Coast cannabis market—and, indeed, the entire U.S. market—also sits on the verge of another game-changing trend: following in the footsteps of other markets and realizing sooner rather than later that high-quality, organically grown, eco-friendly cannabis is the next stage of the game. Few investors and entrepreneurs see that right now, but the astute businessperson can capitalize on both trends now and position themselves and their businesses for huge returns in the very near future. The rise of the East Coast cannabis market makes that a very real possibility.

South Africa Reschedules CBD and THC

By Marguerite Arnold
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The South African government has taken a leap into the future (ahead also of the expected World Health Organization (WHO) decision on cannabis this December). Namely, it has begun to regulate hemp (more in line with Europe intriguingly, than the U.S.) and attempted to remove the THC part of the equation from a domestic list of plants and drugs with no medical use.

The notice was signed by South African Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize and published a week after a domestic moratorium on CBD expired. The moratorium permitted the sale of some kinds of CBD products.

This is an intriguing new development, although it will also undoubtedly cause headaches for the burgeoning industry in the region.

On The CBD Front…

South Africa’s new hemp guidelines – namely for the amount of THC allowed in legit hemp crops that are also regulated – are that plants contain no more than 0.2% THC. This makes the guidelines absolutely in line with what is generally developing across the EU. And even more intriguingly, below federal guidelines for most U.S. domestic hemp crops (which are 0.3% at a federal level and only differ in a few state cases where the amount is lower by state law).

However, there is also a unique twist to all of this: The South African government has now created a two-pronged regulatory schemata just for CBD. The default approach to the cannabinoid is that it is in fact medication, scheduled under South African internal and global drug guidelines as a “Schedule 4” drug.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

The other designation is reserved for CBD packaged in sizes of 600mg or less (and limited by instructions to no more than 20mg a day). This kind of CBD (despite the dubious understanding of cannabinoid science) will henceforth be labelled a “supplement” and on “Schedule 0”.

However, do not be fooled: This is not “descheduling.” This actually means that all CBD has been classified as a medical substance except in packets that are under a certain size, with portion suggestions on the outside of the wrapper or package.

That is hardly scientific. However, what is more burdensome is that any CBD cultivator in South Africa must also be GMP- (or internationally medically) certified (even if bound for the supplement market). By definition, in other words, it will make the cost of production for the supplement (commercial, food and cosmetic) part of the equation as expensive as pharmaceutical production. While from a purist’s point of view, having ultra clean cannabis in any product (at the level of pharmaceutical standards) is a wonderful idea, but this gets ridiculous when it comes to reality, and will ultimately never stand.

This development is also undeniably inconvenient (at minimum) for any who had envisioned outdoor hempires, which most of the cannabis grown in South Africa is. The only people who have the money to build indoor grows, starting with GMP certified greenhouses, are, for the most part, white people, foreigners or those who own property and have access to external, international equity.

The sins of Apartheid, in other words, are being writ large on the entire cannabis industry at present in South Africa. And CBD is contained right in the middle of the mix.

On The THC Front…

There are several interesting aspects to this.

The first is that THC has been removed from the South African “Schedule 7” which is roughly equivalent to the international “Schedule I” that cannabis also resides in until the WHO re- or deschedules the same.

However, this also means that all CBD as well as THC must be produced by those with pharmaceutical-grade facilities – and this of course includes more than just indoor, temperature-controlled greenhouses. It also includes a complex supply chain that is European and Western centric, starting with the requirement to access a rather large amount of capital to construct the same.

Global Re-Alignment Or Stopgap Measure?

This new regulation, in other words, specifically leaves the vast majority of what has already been seeded, or what is most likely to be, in the hands of a few Canadian and other companies who have been moving in this direction for the last several years.

It also implies, intriguingly, that the intra-African cannabis market is low priority at present for those writing the (health) rules. And that also means that eyes are being set more on creating an export market than for treating South African citizens.

It is not an unusual move, rather tragically so far. And almost certainly one that will be challenged, and in several directions, both by events, but also by firms caught up in the mix.

Why? For starters, the South African cannabis market also effectively controls the Lesotho cannabis regulatory scheme (namely all exports from Lesotho, which has seen quite a lot of cannabis investment over the last several years). All such crops must be labelled per South African guidelines if they, literally, can hit a port to be exported.

The vast majority of those grows, even with relatively decent foreign backing, are also outside – and of course as a result ineligible for GMP certification.

Of course given the fact that the UN is likely to clarify both the status of THC and CBD by the end of the year, this current situation in South Africa is also fairly clearly intended to be a stop-gap regulatory measure to last up until at least this time.

Where it may go after that is anyone’s guess. This measure, however, is also clearly being made to protect those who have invested in GMP-grade facilities as opposed to those who have been clearly angling for reform on the CBD front, starting with the beer market. Stay tuned. Interesting developments clearly ahead.

Georgia Governor Signs Medical Cannabis Cultivation Bill Into Law

By Aaron G. Biros
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On Wednesday, April 17, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed HB 324 into law, closing a loophole that has been around for years, which prevented the cultivation of cannabis in-state. Before the signing of this bill, possession of medical cannabis was technically legal, but the cultivation of it was still illegal under state law, preventing legal patient access entirely.

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

Back in 2015, Georgia’s legislature legalized medical cannabis with less than 5% THC, as well as CBD oil for a number of qualifying conditions. Since then, the state has added more qualifying conditions such as chronic pain and PTSD, bringing the total to sixteen types of illnesses that would qualify patients for medical cannabis.

Governor Kemp signing HB 324 into law sets in motion the process to establish a regulatory framework for six growing licenses in the state. According to WSB-TV Atlanta, the new law goes into effect on July 1, but it could take up to two years to establish legitimate cultivation operations in the state. The law gives a state commission the authority to investigate and establish the regulations further.

That state commission will give priority to pharmacies for distributing cannabis, but reserves the right to establish licenses for independent retail locations as well. According to ABCNews, “The commission can also attempt to legally obtain the oil from other states. Two universities will be allowed to seek federal approval to research and produce the oil.”