Posted on

How to Read a Cannabis Patent

554-cover-page.jpg

Previous posts have discussed cannabis patents, here, and here, and here. Today I explain the basics of how to read a patent. Why would you want to do such a thing? If you are in the cannabis business, you may own a patent, or be threatened of infringing one. The tips below will give you a good start on understanding what a patent means.

Today I focus on utility patents, which are about 90% of all patents. (The other major category is design patents.) Utility patents can cover such things as cannabis plants, or methods of making cannabis plants. Utility patents have four basic parts: introductory material, drawings, the specification, and the claims. To read and understand a patent, you should be be familiar with each of them.patent marijuana cannabisUnsurprisingly, the introductory material is at the beginning of the patent (shown above). It starts out with the patent number, the date the patent was issued, the inventor(s), and the assignee — if there is one. It also provides the filing date of the patent, which is usually several years before the issue date. The next important part is the “references cited,” a list of prior art that the patent examiner looked at. There is also a short “abstract,” a sort of summary of the invention, often followed one or two pictures of the invention. While the abstract and the opening pictures can give a good idea of what is to come, they do not define the invention. More on that later.

Next are a series of stylized line drawings or charts. While making patent figures is an art, the figures are not intended to be artistic. Rather, they are there to help the reader understand what the invention is, and perhaps how it is used. Like the abstract, the figures do not define the invention. In fact, some of the figures may not refer to the invention at all.

Following the figures is one or more pages of text in 8 point type, set out in two columns separated by a narrow column of numbers. This is generally referred to as the “specification,” or “spec” (although technically the specification also includes the figures and the claims). The specification usually gives the background of the invention, a summary of the invention, often a brief description of the drawings, and then a “detailed description of the invention.” This sets out the nitty gritty technical details of the patent, usually making reference to the various drawings by number. Although the specification gives this detailed description, once again, it does not define the invention.

Finally, tucked away at the very back of the patent, shyly hiding behind the specification, are one or more patent claims. The claims are numbered, and always start with “What is claimed” or “I claim” or “we claim” or similar language. What, you may ask, do these puny claims do? Well, they define what has been invented, that is, what is covered by the patent. They are the equivalent of the deed to your house, which describes, in somewhat technical terms, exactly where your property begins and ends.

So how do you make sense of all of this? I suggest that you start with the introductory material. Then turn to the claims. Keep in mind that in order to infringe a patent claim, whatever is accused of infringing must have every single thing listed in the claims.  If the claim is for a hybrid cannabis plant, which produces a female flower comprising CBD content of >3% and a terpene profile of alpha phellandrene, a plant that has only 2% CBD won’t infringe.

Next, look at the drawings and the specification. I usually print out an extra copy of the drawings and have them open when I read them. Once you have done that, you can go back to the claims with a better understanding. Often, claims only contain part of what is in the specification. But the claims are the key to knowing what the patent is about.

Most importantly, have fun! You could be reading the tax code.

 

Posted on

Los Angeles Priority Dispensary Applicants: No Changes Allowed

los-angeles-2506269_960_720-320x213.jpg

california marijuana cannabis L.A.
Prop M priority applicants need to sit tight — for now.

We’ve received a lot of questions from existing City of L.A. dispensaries regarding whether or not they can make any corporate entity, location, or “ownership” changes before submitting their Prop M Priority Applications to the Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR) pursuant to the Prop M ordinances. With MAUCRSA allowing for for-profit operations, many Prop. D dispensaries now desire to  leave behind the old “cooperative/collective” model and many want to leave their current locations for better digs. However, the DCR has made clear (at least to us based on our communications with them) that it likely will not honor or recognize those Prop. D dispensaries wanting to amend their business tax registration certificates (“BTRCs”) to reflect new corporate entities, “owners”, managers, or locations. Here is the rundown on key issues:

  1. Converting to a For-Profit: MAUCRSA provides that commercial cannabis businesses can organize as for-profit companies. The issue Prop. D dispensaries are facing is that their past BTRCs (certain ones of which are necessary for priority processing under Measure M) will not match their new for-profit entities where most Prop. D dispensaries are already some form of non-profit. The DCR has relayed that it will most likely not accept your application if the new entity does not match entity listed on the relevant BTRC, and that it’s best wait until after City licensure to convert to a for-profit company.
  2. Moving Locations: At this point, pretty much all cannabis businesses, especially retailers and deliveries, are hoping to capitalize on California’s robust tourist market and are seeking to open shops in high-traffic, popular areas. However, for Prop. D dispensaries, they’re likely going to have to wait on that real estate grab because of the BTRC issue–if you relocate before filing your Measure M application, and your new location fails to match the location listed on your old BTRCs, the DCR isn’t likely to recognize your City license application as valid. So, waiting to re-locate is probably wisest according to our communications with the DCR.
  3. Ownership Changes: Lots of existing Prop. D dispensaries have had massive “ownership” and management disputes over their storefronts. Even more are looking to take on new owners or “sell” all of the business to new buyers looking to cash in on L.A. cannabis. However, just like changing entities and re-location, any changes to ownership that don’t match up with past BTRCs or manager disclosures probably won’t be recognized by the DCR.

Fear not, though: all of the above changes will be doable eventually, just probably not before the March 4th filing deadline for existing dispensaries.

We should note that the City has not made clear whether businesses will be able to make the foregoing changes while waiting for their actual City license (post receipt of Temporary Approval), after they are granted the City license, or upon renewal of that license. In turn, where City and state commercial cannabis licenses are not transferable, if existing L.A. dispensaries want to apply for their state temporary and/or annual licenses as for-profits with new owners, at new locations, they’re going to have to wait on the City of L.A. to acknowledge those moves, or they’ll face jumping through the same administrative hoops with the state.

Posted on

Employee Handbooks for Cannabis Businesses

Cannabis_plant_from_De_historia..._Wellcome_L0051246-320x197.jpg

employment cannabis marijuana
One of the most important books your cannabis company can have is an employee handbook.

The cannabis industry continues to grow. Each year we see additional states legalize recreational marijuana. Along with more legalized weed, comes more cannabis employees. And more employees means more employment litigation.

We recently hosted a litigation webinar where I spoke about employment litigation and ways to protect your marijuana business. One of the tools I mentioned was documentation. When it comes to that, one of the most important documents your cannabis business can have is an employee handbook. This is true whether you have one employee or 100.

An employee handbook plays many roles. This post will discuss some of the more important reasons to have a comprehensive employee handbook.

Communication and Orientation

An employee handbook serves as an important communication tool between employees and employers. A well drafted employee handbook will contain a mission statement, along with the values, goals, and expectations of the company and its employees. This communicates a sense of belonging to employees and provides them with an understanding of the goal they are working towards achieving.

The handbook will also communicate the benefits to which employees are entitled as cannabis business workers (free pot is not one of them). A good handbook will explain to employees can question about company benefits. This will save you time as an employer because you won’t have to answer the same questions over and over.

Guidelines and Expectations

One important aspect of an employee handbook is that it creates a uniform set of rules for employees. Employees need to know what is expected of them and when. Employee handbooks should cover everything from attendance requirements to dress requirements and drug use policies. Handbooks should also lay out discipline that can be expected if these policies are violated.

Employee handbooks should provide guidance to employees when problems arise. The employee will know who to talk to and, if properly drafted, supervisors will know how to handle situations.

Legal Protection for Employers

The most important aspect—at least from a lawyer’s point of view—is the legal protections a well drafted employee handbook can provide. In most states, employer employee relationships are “at will”, meaning the relationship can be terminated at any point by either party, as long as there is no discrimination at play. An employee handbook makes it clear that the relationship is “at will” and that other agreements cannot change that relationship.

Employee handbooks also provide the basis for defense in a harassment claim. As previously discussed,  a valid defense to harassment claims if proof of an anti-harassment policy and a complaint procedure. Employee handbooks should outline both a policy and a complaint procedure.

Handbooks also provide protection in wrongful termination cases. Wrongful termination is a broad term used to describe cases brought by former employees against employers alleging the employee was terminated for some illegal reason—for example, discrimination. An employee handbook laying out attendance requirements can be used to show that an employee was terminated for violating a clear policy rather than for other, illegal, reasons. If an employer does not have a clear policy, it will be hard to prove the employee violated any such policy.

Employee handbooks can also serve as means to inform employees of required information. Both state and federal laws require employees be informed of their rights under certain acts such as Family Medical Leave Act. Every employee handbook should have an acknowledgement page to be signed by the employee, proving they were provided with the information.

Employee handbooks are not “one size fits all.” Each cannabis business is unique and has a different mission and goal. Further, employment laws are state specific and at times, location specific. There are many drawbacks to pulling a generic employee handbook from the web. A specialist familiar with the state and local laws should draft or review handbook, or the handbook could become a liability rather than an asset.

Handbooks should also be reviewed and revised at least once every two years. Many states, including California and Oregon, have seen an uptick in state employment regulations offering more protections to employees as of late. Laws change quickly and it could mean your employee handbook is out of date and non-compliant if it is not updated frequently.

Posted on

California Sales Tax: Good News for Cultivators!

tractor-3071977_1920-John-Deere-320x260.jpg

california tax marijuana
Your standard CDTFA qualified cannabis tractor.

California cannabis businesses are now acquiring temporary permits to enter the new cannabis marketplace made possible under MAURSCA. As part of that process, all cannabis businesses have been introduced to the California Department of Fee and Tax Administration (“CDTFA”), the agency tasked with administering the new cannabis cultivation taxes and sales tax.

The CDTFA administers sales tax exemptions on purchases of certain farm equipment and agriculture products. These exemptions are available to cultivators, processors and manufacturers. California sales tax rates are high – ranging from 7.25% to 10.25% of the sales price. Sales tax savings go directly to the bottom-line and a business could save up to $1,025 on every $10,000 invested in eligible supplies and equipment.

This post provides a quick outline of California sales tax exemptions available to cultivators. A second post will cover licensed processors and manufactures.

Seeds and Plants

The sale of seeds and plants are exempt from sales tax so long as the purchaser uses those seeds and plants to create products sold in the regular course of business. Plants include “cuttings of every variety”. Consequently, a cultivator should be able to purchase clones and plants exempt from sales tax. To document the exemption, a cultivator must give a seller an exemption certificate.

Fertilizers

The sale of certain fertilizers is exempt from sales tax so long as the fertilizer is applied to land or in “foliar application” where the products of such plants (i.e., cannabis) are sold in the regular course of business. Only very specific types of fertilizers and nutrients qualify and the definitions are highly technical. For example, “commercial fertilizer”  and “agricultural minerals” qualify. These substances generally contain combinations of nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash under 5%. On the other hand, “packaged soil amendments” (i.e., hay, straw, peat moss) do not qualify. To document the exemption, a cultivator must give a seller an exemption certificate.

Farm Equipment and Machinery

As a rule, the sale of farm equipment and machinery is taxable. However, the purchase of certain farm equipment and machinery is partially exempt from sales tax. The partial exemption is currently 5% of the sales price. For example, the sales tax rate on the purchase of eligible equipment in Arcata is 3.5% (8.5%-5.0%); resulting in a $500 savings on the purchase of $10,000 worth of equipment.

Three requirements must be met to take the credit. The first and most problematic requirement, is that the purchaser’s business must fall within specific federal SIC codes.  SIC codes are created by the federal government to track statistical information on U.S. businesses. Because cannabis is illegal under federal law, no specific SIC code is currently available for the sale of consumable cannabis. Nonetheless, a cultivator may argue that their business operation meets this requirement because it is included in the general farm category of SIC 0191.

The second requirement is that the equipment should be used at least 50% or more in harvesting agricultural product. The third, requirement is that the equipment should be farm equipment and machinery as defined under regulations. The regulations broadly define farm equipment and machinery. The CDTFA has identified the following equipment as qualifying for the exemption:

  • Planting equipment;
  • Trimming Tools;
  • Drying racks and trays;
  • Grow tents and lights;
  • Environmental controls;
  • Hydroponic equipment;
  • Irrigation equipment;
  • Hand tools;
  • Repair and replacement parts;
  • Wind machines.

Vehicles that are designed to be used exclusively on roads and highways, such as pick-up trucks, do not qualify. To document the exemption, a cultivator must give a seller an exemption certificate, Form CDTFA-230-D.

Buildings for Raising Plants

Certain buildings are considered farm equipment for purposes of the farm equipment and machinery exemption discussed above. Generally, they must be single purpose structures and do not include structures used for storage or administrative purposes.  The buildings must:

  • Be specifically designed for commercially raising plants;
  • Used exclusively for that purpose.

For example, a greenhouse would generally qualify. To document the exemption, a cultivator must give the seller an exemption certificate, Form CDTFA 230-D.

Solar Power Facilities

A business that otherwise qualifies for the farm equipment partial exemption, may purchase certain solar equipment at the reduced sales tax rate.

In general, solar power equipment used at least 50% in the production of cannabis would qualify for the farm equipment and machinery partial exemption. Solar power equipment may qualify even if the equipment is tied to the local power grid.

For example, a solar facility producing a total 1000 kw of electricity per year would qualify so long as at least 500 kw per year was used to power the cultivator’s farm equipment and machinery. Note that in this example, the cultivator could sell on the open market the excess 500kw of electricity. Potentially, the cultivator can deduct on its federal income tax return all expenses related to this separate power distribution business.

Diesel Fuel Used in Farming

The purchase of diesel fuel is generally subject to sales tax; however, a partial exemption from sales tax of 5.0% applies to the purchases of diesel fuel used in farming activity or in transporting product to a manufacturer or a distributor. The computation for this sales tax exemption is the same as for the exemption for farm machinery and equipment. To obtain the partial exemption, a cultivator must present to the seller an exemption certificate, Form CDTFA-230-G.

Furthermore, California imposes a $0.36 per gallon excise tax the sale of diesel fuel. However, a cultivator may purchase diesel fuel used to power farm equipment exempt from the diesel fuel excise tax. To obtain the exemption, a cultivator must present to the seller an exemption certificate, Form CDTFA-608 REV.

Liquid Propane Gas Used in Farming

Sales of liquid propane gas used to operate machinery used in farming or harvesting are fully exempt from sales tax. To obtain the full exemption, a cultivator must present to the seller an exemption certificate, Form CDTFA 230-N REV.

Conclusion

As cultivators make capital investments in their cannabis operations, they have an opportunity reduce the amount of sales tax they pay on their purchase of certain consumables and high-ticket items. These exemptions provide bottom-line savings; however, the CDTFA strictly enforces compliance in this area. Accordingly, cultivators should keep meticulous books and records and ensure that they issue completed exemption certificates on these purchases, and check in with a qualified CPA or tax lawyer with any questions.

Posted on

Cannabis Oversupply Presents a Challenge to Regulators

5892802537_1cc5d7d827_b-320x240.jpg

Properly managing marijuana supply is the single most challenging aspect of state-level marijuana regulation. In an op-ed published January 12th in the Oregonian, Billy Williams, U.S. Attorney for the federal district that encompasses Oregon wrote about what he calls Oregon’s “massive overproduction problem.” According to Williams, postal agents in Oregon seized 2,644 pounds of marijuana in outbound parcels in 2017 alone. Decreasing wholesale prices in Washington and Colorado indicate oversupply as well based on the inverse correlation between supply and price. We hear anecdotes in Washington all the time from marijuana producers that are finding it more and more challenging to survive with the current market prices.

If this were any other market, data points indicating falling prices and oversupply would be wholly unremarkable. Free markets tend to find an equilibrium point between supply and demand that support relatively stable wholesale and retail prices. Free markets also tend to self-correct, if given the opportunity to do so. If businesses in a market are all extremely profitable, new firms are induced to enter the market. The entry of those new firms tends to increase competition and decrease profits across the board, signaling to other would-be market participants not to enter. Similarly, if things are not going well and competitors exit the market, surviving businesses are given a little bit more room to maneuver and succeed.

cannabis marijuana supply
Managing cannabis supply is a tightrope for state regulators.

But standard markets differ from cannabis markets. They have a longer history from which to draw conclusions and base expectations. The legal cannabis markets in Washington and Colorado didn’t really start until 2014. It is challenging to determine what effects outside forces have on those markets when there isn’t historical data to draw on. How elastic are cannabis markets– meaning, how price-sensitive are they? We are learning a lot now, but the cannabis data we have pales in comparison to, for example, the alcohol market with data going back to prohibition.

The cannabis market’s short life span can also explain why market participants often act differently than one might expect. People investing in the cannabis market see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something. Whether it’s the original dotcom bubble, bitcoin, or marijuana, new markets create hope of potentially boundless returns. Because of that hope, firms tend to stick around longer than one might expect — you don’t want to be the person that exited the industry right before it took off and made everyone in it a billion dollars.

And that hope is part of the reason that oversupply issues exist in legal marijuana states. Oversupply by itself wouldn’t be a problem if not for cannabis’s federal illegality. Because even in the cannabis market, forces will eventually correct oversupply and get us to equilibrium. Companies aren’t going to stay in business losing money year after year into eternity. But whereas other markets get the benefit of time to find that equilibrium, cannabis oversupply issues bring threats of federal enforcement. If there is too much supply in the legal market, the incentives remain for certain unscrupulous and desperate cannabis businesses to cut their losses and sell their overage in the black market.

Which brings us back to state regulations. If we could have had Eric Holder as attorney general for ten more years, the Department of Justice may have understood that legal cannabis markets need time to adjust, and that the adjustment period would be occasionally rocky. But under Jeff Sessions and the U.S. Attorneys that share his views, these periods of market adjustment provide ample opportunity to criticize state cannabis programs and claim that federal law enforcement is necessary due to black market leakage.

Ending the cannabis black market is the one shared goal that prohibitionists and legalization proponents have in common. No one thinks that empowering an underground illegal cannabis market is a good idea. But if states move too far in controlling supply because they are worried about black market leakage inviting in federal law enforcement, legal cannabis prices will rise too high within those states. And those high prices will incentivize black markets to continue selling outside the eye of any state regulatory system.

This tightrope is why managing supply is such a tough nut to crack for state regulators. If U.S. Attorneys and the Department of Justice really want to see the end of cannabis sales in black markets, though, they will provide room for the legal markets to stabilize and find their natural supply, demand, and price points on their own.

Posted on

California Cannabis Countdown: Culver City

Culvercity-5044804355_12843d66a2_o-320x213.jpg

culver city california cannabis marijuana
Adult use cannabis stores, coming soon.

On December 11, 2017, Culver City Council voted to approve an ordinance that allows for the establishment of medicinal and recreational commercial cannabis businesses. Culver City becomes the fourth city in Los Angeles (including West Hollywood, Los Angeles, and Maywood) to implement a framework for regulating both medical and adult-use cannabis.

Since January 1 and the legalization of adult-use cannabis in California, clients have been asking us constantly about licensing their businesses. As we have explained time and again, getting local approval is paramount before getting a state license.

Here is how the rest of Los Angeles County currently looks:

  • The City of Los Angeles is only accepting Prop M Priority Applications until at least March 4, 2018. The city has stated that applications for the general public probably will not be available until mid-2018.
  • West Hollywood has been processing applications, but the city is known for having high rents and minimal property space.
  • Maywood is one of the smallest incorporated cities in Los Angeles County. Although they allow commercial cannabis businesses, there is not a lot of space to establish one.

Culver City expects to have an application process open soon, sometime during the first quarter of 2018. The ordinance allows for the establishment of storefront retail, delivery only retail, manufacturing, distribution, laboratory testing, and indoor commercial cultivation. There will be limits placed on the number of permits issued for each type of business, so it will be important to be ready once the application process opens. The city expects that getting a storefront retail business permit will be competitive.

The ordinance additionally lays out strict standards for business permits. A commercial cannabis business permit is not transferable to other persons, projects, or locations. Businesses will not be able to relocate unless approved by the City Council. The ordinance also sets forth rules for changing ownership and changing the form of the entity. These types of things will be important to get organized before applying for a commercial cannabis business permit in Culver City.

Located in the heart of West LA and easily accessible by many major freeways, Culver City offers a great alternative to those seeking business licenses in the City of Los Angeles. Anyone interested should continue to monitor closely, and be ready to move quickly.

Posted on

California Announces End Date for Collectives and Cooperatives

Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die-320x231.jpg

california cannabis marijuana
Roll up that California collective and get a license.

This week, the Bureau of Cannabis Control (the “BCC”) announced that as of January 9, 2019, Section 11362.775 of the Health and Safety Code (the “Code”) will no longer be in effect. The BCC notice ends the popular collective and cooperative models of cannabis cultivation, manufacturing and distribution in California. These models were promulgated through the use of “creative” legal advice in order to take advantage of the Compassionate Use Act’s multiple loopholes and ambiguities, and usually involved patients joining a “closed loop” membership system (sometimes a formal corporate entity and sometimes not) to receive medical cannabis from other patients in the collective who grow or process it for them.

California’s transition into a regulated commercial cannabis system left many operators, particularly those with non-profit mutual benefit corporations structured as collectives or cooperatives, uncertain as to just how much time they have left to operate. We’ve encountered some operators who, for a variety of reasons including the time and expense of the process, or their inability to comply with local zoning requirements at their current location, are reluctant to abandon the collective model in favor of receiving a state license under MAUCRSA.

Unfortunately, these operators will have no choice but to join the regulated system, and there are a laundry list of reasons why it makes sense to do that sooner rather than later. Given the recent dismantling of the federal government’s former cannabis enforcement framework, operators will be opening themselves up to much greater risk if they are choosing to operate outside of the state’s licensing framework. U.S. Attorneys now have full discretion to determine to what extent they can and should enforce federal law in the context of marijuana crimes, and we would be willing to bet that California’s U.S. Attorneys won’t be turning a blind eye to cannabis businesses that continue to operate in contravention of local law, or without a state license.

Following the implementation of MAUCRSA, qualified patients and their caregivers may continue to operate with limited criminal immunity without a state license, so long as: (1) the patients and caregivers operate in full compliance with state law, and (2) the local government does not prohibit the activity. See, H&S Code sections 11362.5, 11362.765, 11362.77, and 11362.7. But as we stated above, immunities for medical cannabis collectives (i.e., non-profit mutual benefit corporations, non-profit corporations, non-profit cooperatives, etc.) will expire on January 9th of next year.

And although MAUCRSA expressly exempts qualified patients and caregivers from licensure requirements, it does not allow qualified patients, their caregivers, or cannabis businesses to conduct commercial cannabis activity without a license. Any collective currently engaging in commercial cannabis activity that exceeds the strict qualified patient and primary caregiver limits is in violation of MAUCRSA and is operating illegally.

As a reminder, to be immune from prosecution under the Compassionate Use Act and MAUCRSA, a primary caregiver (or a collective) must operate within the following confines when acting without a state license:

  1. Cultivation, possession, storage, manufacture, transportation, donation, or provision of cannabis must be exclusively for the personal medical purposes of no more than five specified qualified patients for whom the caregiver is the primary caregiver. (B&P section 26033(b));
  2. The caregiver cannot receive remuneration for these activities other than for actual expenses, including reasonable compensation incurred for services provided to an eligible qualified patient or person with an identification card to enable that person to use cannabis, or for payment for out-of-pocket expenses incurred in providing those services. (B&P section 26033(b), H&S Code section 11362.765(c));
  3. The caregiver cannot possess more than eight ounces of dried cannabis per qualified patient unless a physician’s recommendation or local guidelines allow amounts in excess of this limit. (H&S Code section 11362.77(a)-(c)); and
  4. The caregiver cannot maintain more than six mature or twelve immature cannabis plants per qualified patient unless a physician’s recommendation or local guidelines allow amounts in excess of this limit. (H&S Code section 11362.77(a)-(c)).

In addition, everyone, including collectives and caregivers, must still comply with applicable local law. And collectives and cooperatives that opt not to apply for a state license right away will be limited in their ability to distribute their product. The bottom line is that commercial cannabis activity is only permitted among licensees, and once a business entity or individual receives and active temporary license or a full license from the state, they must immediately cease doing business with non-licensed entities, or they risk losing their license. See B&P section 26053(a). And for those licensees looking to “have their cake and eat it too” by obtaining a state license while maintaining a collective or cooperative, keeping that non-licensed entity will put the state license at risk.

With local license caps quickly being reached, stringent legal limitations on collectives and cooperatives, and an uncertain federal enforcement landscape, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of integrating into the regulated state system as soon as possible. Holding on to the collective model through the next year will make that transition much more difficult, and perhaps even impossible.

Posted on

New Oregon Cannabis Rules: Part 3 – Canopy Size Changes

cannabis-2773112_1920-320x213.jpg


The OLCC has made some changes to canopy sizes that seem to target outdoor growers.

In the two previous entries in this series (here and here), we discussed the packet of rules amendments recently adopted by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (“OLCC”) to implement the many cannabis bills passed by Oregon last year. Specifically, we discussed a new rule allowing Marijuana Promotional Events, and a small amendment to the definition of “financial interest” that will have a big impact. Today we want to talk about some important changes to canopy sizes.

Before discussing the specific changes, it is important to note that these rules amendments were adopted in an uncertain time in Oregon’s recreational market. As we have noted before, prices for outdoor flower appear to be falling quickly and many producers have contacted our office about the possibility of pushing the OLCC to limit producer licenses, or enact a moratorium on new licenses. (Note: As of January 8, there were 896 active producer licensees in Oregon, with about 1,000 more in the queue). The reality is that the OLCC does not have statutory authority to either limit licenses or enact a moratorium. Only the legislature can make this kind of change, and we think that it is unlikely that it will be considered in the upcoming short session. Unlimited licenses will be the law of the land for the foreseeable future.

While the OLCC may not be able to limit licenses, it does have the authority to set canopy sizes, i.e. the size of the allowed cultivation area for each producer tier. Obviously, while existing producers may favor a moratorium on new licenses, they certainly don’t want a reduction in canopy sizes. From this point of view, the new rules are a bit of a mixed bag.

Previously, the OLCC’s rules allowed for an unlimited number of immature plants on each grow site. The canopy areas designated for each producer were for mature plants only. For example, a micro-tier I producer could have up to 625 square feet of mature plants and an unlimited number of immature plants. Many outdoor grow operations maximize yield by ensuring that they have a constant supply of near-mature plants ready to replant in their canopy area after each harvest. The new rules will put a damper on this strategy.

Specifically, the recent amendments create a new distinction between mature and immature canopies. Mature canopy sizes are identical to the previous rule, but can now contain both mature and immature plants. The new immature canopies are significantly smaller than the correlated mature canopy for outdoor producers. Here is the new breakdown:

Mature Canopies – Indoor (same as previous rule)

  • Micro tier I: Up to 625 square feet.
  • Micro tier II: 626 to 1,250 square feet.
  • Tier I: 1,251 to 5,000 square feet.
  • Tier II: 5,001 to 10,000 square feet.

Mature Canopies – Outdoor (same as previous rule)

  • Micro tier I: Up to 2,500 square feet.
  • Micro tier II: 2,501 to 5000 square feet.
  • Tier 1: 5,001 to 20,000 square feet.
  • Tier II: 20,001 to 40,000 square feet.

Immature Canopies – Indoor or Outdoor

  • 625 square feet for Micro tier I producers.
  • 1,250 square feet for Micro tier II producers.
  • 5,000 square feet for Tier I producers.
  • 10,000 square feet for Tier II producers.

Remember that outdoor producers could previously have as many immature plants on a site as they could fit. This change drastically reduces that number. However, producers should keep in mind that “if immature plants are grown on racks or shelving within the immature canopy, only the footprint of the area containing the immature plants will be used to calculate the immature canopy.” OAR 845-025-2040. So grow vertically!

It is also worth noting that the rules amendments implement a further restriction on all production canopies. All producers that renew after April 1, 2018 will be limited to 20 total canopy areas, and each canopy area must be separated by a physical boundary (a wall), or at least eight feet of open space.

While it remains to be seen whether this amendment will have any effect on Oregon’s supply glut, it seems certain that the legislature won’t be considering the issue anytime soon.

Posted on

MLK Day: Cannabis and Civil Rights

MLK.jpg

Happy MLK Day!

For our international readers, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is an American federal holiday marking the birthday of its eponymous civil rights hero. Dr. King was the chief spokesperson for nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights Movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, four years after the passage of one of the great U.S. laws of the 20th century, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His death also came two years prior to one of the 20th century’s most controversial and insidious laws, the Federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA).

mlk marijuana cannabis
Don’t forget that cannabis is a civil rights issue.

As cannabis business lawyers, we write about cannabis law topics every day of the year on this blog, but we seldom address pure social issues. When it comes to cannabis, however, it is sometimes difficult to separate law and policy. This is because the federal prohibition of marijuana in the United States has had a racially disparate impact on non-white individuals, especially black and Latino Americans. That should come as no surprise to anyone: It is well documented that former president Richard Nixon wanted to link marijuana use and its negative effects to African Americans and hippies, who he perceived to be his enemies, when he signed the CSA.

That was almost 50 years ago, but in a way, not much has changed. Although the Trump Administration has instated policies that make it more difficult to track drug arrests, publicly available FBI data reveals that 1,572,579 marijuana-related arrests occurred in 2016, comprising 42% of all reported U.S. drug arrests. This is 10,000 more marijuana arrests than were made in 2015. Thus, marijuana arrests are increasing, even as more states legalize possession and sale of the plant. It is profoundly regrettable that non-white individuals are arrested for marijuana crimes on a grossly disproportionate basis to whites, today and historically, despite lower levels of consumption overall. Most arrests are made for simple possession of small amounts of pot, and are made at the state and local level.

As far as federal enforcement and policy, both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation operate under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which is headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Mr. Sessions has a long and well-documented history of fervent opposition to marijuana. Since his confirmation in January of 2017, Sessions has made various attempts to strengthen the hand of federal agencies in prosecution of marijuana-related crimes. Most of these attempts are either aggressively or latently anti-civil rights. These attempts include:

  • reversing a DOJ policy to combat draconian federal sentences for drug-related convictions (which affect blacks and Latinos disproportionately);
  • reversing a DOJ policy phasing out federal private prisons (which impound blacks and Latinos disproportionately);
  • calling for an inquiry into the link between marijuana and violent crime (likely to target blacks and Latinos disproportionately);
  • reinstating the controversial and legally problematic police tool of asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize property of individuals who have been suspected of, but not charged with, crimes (in violation of everyone’s civil rights, but to affect blacks and Latinos disproportionately);
  • petitioning Congress for funds to prosecute the retrograde War on Drugs, including recreational and medical marijuana (still more racially disparate impact);
  • importuning state governors with “serious questions” about their state cannabis programs, in an apparent effort to challenge the legitimacy of those programs (latently problematic); and
  • ripping up the Cole Memo, which gave some cover to marijuana businesses.

Jeff Sessions has been dogged by allegations of racism throughout his career, and his fusillade of anti-civil rights actions begs the question: If a racist were in charge of criminal justice for the United States, what would he do? The answer is literally everything listed above. Unfortunately, there may be more to come.

The War on Drugs started out as a war on minority groups, and not much has changed in 50 years. If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, it is almost certain that he would be advocating for an end to the War on Drugs, starting with removal of marijuana from Schedule I of the CSA. Until that happens, and in honor of Dr. King, here are some ways you can pitch in to reverse the racist, immoral and counterproductive state of federal law with respect to cannabis:

  • demand that your Senator co-sponsor to the Marijuana Justice Act;
  • demand that other public officials in your state finally step up to de- or reschedule marijuana as relates to the CSA;
  • support organizations across the political spectrum, from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), with respect to their efforts to end federal prohibition;
  • support trade groups like the Minority Cannabis Business Association, which promote diversity in the cannabis industry; and
  • support and advocate for city and state programs that aim to help disadvantaged communities cash in on marijuana legalization.

Dr. King died 50 years ago, but his legacy continues to resonate and expand. On this day honoring one of our greatest leaders, it is important to remember all of the reasons we strive to put an end to prohibition, including the most important ones.

Posted on

Sessions Made His Move, Now What?

37022031603_446fe5cd41_b-320x228.jpg

sessions marijuana cannabis
The worst.

If your New Year’s resolution was to stop paying attention to the news you may have missed that last Thursday U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally rescinded the Cole Memo – which we covered here and here. By rescinding the Cole Memo, Sessions, whose outdated and prohibitionist stance on cannabis is well documented, has sown uncertainty in the states that have legalized cannabis use. This is especially true for the states that have legalized and are regulating adult-use cannabis businesses and individual rights.

To some extent, cannabis businesses are already feeling the effect of this new and uncertain landscape. But in following up on his antiquated stance on cannabis, did Sessions overplay his hand? Will this be a Pyrrhic victory for the prohibitionist crowd? With recent polls showing that 64% of Americans support legalizing cannabis (even 51% of Republicans support legalization) Sessions might have done cannabis proponents a favor by bringing the federal government’s stance into the national spotlight. So the next question everyone’s got to be asking themselves is “what do we do now?”

The most pressing thing that we can do is get Congress to extend the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment (“RBA”) and include adult-use cannabis into its provisions. We covered the RBA a couple of weeks ago but in case you missed it, here’s the Cliffs Notes version: the RBA is a federal budgetary provision that prohibits the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with the implementation of a state’s medical cannabis laws. The RBA has proven to be a valuable protection for medical cannabis businesses as evidenced by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in U.S. v McIntosh. In McIntosh, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the DOJ could not use funds to go after medical cannabis businesses that were operating in compliance with their medical cannabis state laws.

The RBA provides medical cannabis businesses with some protective certainty (at least for those states under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction), but moving forward there are two glaring concerns: 1) the RBA only applies to medical cannabis businesses; and 2) since the RBA is a budgetary provision it needs to be included in the federal budget and that budget is set to expire on January 19! The likelihood of a Republican led congress including adult-use cannabis into the RBA prior to January 19th is pretty slim, but if Republican Senators like Corey Gardner and Lisa Murkowski are serious about protecting their respective states’ residents, they will need to hold Trump and Sessions’ feet to the fire.

Legally compliant cannabis businesses have always had to deal with a level on uncertainty and risk when it comes to federal government but there’s been one industry that’s remained afraid to openly engage with cannabis businesses: the banking industry. Many observers feel that Sessions’ main goal is to slow the growth and investment in the cannabis industry by keeping cannabis businesses from obtaining bank accounts. If you want to know what a cannabis business owner has to do find proper banking, take a look at this recent piece in the New York Times Magazine where my colleague in our Seattle office, Robert McVay, was interviewed. Cannabis businesses had a difficult enough time finding banking options when the Cole Memo was in place and that won’t get easier any time soon.

To be sure, Sessions has taken an odd and extremely hypocritical stance. He fancies himself a states right guy (when convenient) and a law and order guy (always), but he would rather have cannabis businesses dealing in cash, placing everyone at greater risk. It’s time that our elected officials make access to banking for the billion dollar state-legal cannabis industry a priority. Making sure cannabis businesses have access to banking services will only increase compliance, since cannabis business that continued to operate in cash-only would immediately be flagged by regulators as suspicious. To that end, we all need to press our regulators to support the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (“SAFE Banking Act”). The SAFE Banking Act would prohibit a federal banking regulator from penalizing a banking instituting from providing services to a cannabis business. The SAFE Banking Act was introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and currently has twelve co-sponsors (8 Democrats, 3 Republicans, and Bernie).

In the House of Representatives there’s the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act (“RSMA”) that was introduced by Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) which would amend the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) so that its provisions would not apply to a person acting in compliance with a state’s cannabis laws. The RSMA is basically an attempt to codify the Cole Memo it had twenty-four sponsors prior to Sessions revocation of the Cole Memo -it now has thirty-seven!

It’s also time to gather support for the Marijuana Justice Act (“MJA”) that was introduced in the Senate by Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) on August 01, 2017. The goal of Mr. Booker’s bill is to remove marijuana from the CSA and end the federal government’s criminalization of cannabis. As of this writing only one other Senator has co-sponsored the MJA, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). While the Cole Memo was still in place a number of senators probably didn’t fell the necessity to co-sponsor the MJA, so it will be interesting to see if that calculus will change under the new landscape.

Those of us that live in California can expect that our state government will push back against this federal encroachment against the will of Californians – as California hasn’t been afraid to take the Trump administration head on. Other states have also sued the Trump administration and although states exerting their rights are a good thing, cannabis rights (personal and commercial) will ultimately be decided on the federal level. Sessions has made his position on cannabis clear, it’s now up to Congress to speak for the people.