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NCIA Federal Policy Update: Q&A with Aaron Smith

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Justice Department rescinding the Cole Memo, the Omnibus bill including Leahy Amendment protections, a host of potential bills for federal cannabis policy change: a lot has been happening in Washington D.C. recently with respect to cannabis business. With the National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) Cannabis Business Summit in San Jose fast approaching, as well as the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days, we thought it would be a good time to hear what NCIA has been up to recently.

We sat down with Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of NCIA, to learn what the organization is working on right now and how we might be able to make some real federal policy changes for cannabis.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

CannabisIndustryJournal: With the Department of Justice rescinding the Cole Memo, working as a group to tackle federal policy reform is now more important than ever. Can you give us a 30,000-foot view of what NCIA is doing right now to help us work together as a group and affect policy change?

Aaron Smith: So our team in D.C. consists of three full-time staff members as well as lobbying consultants, who have been really focused on the appropriations process, which is the way we’ve been able to affect change in such a dysfunctional congress by affecting the budget and restricting law enforcement activities. The medical marijuana protections, formerly known as the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, [and now known as the Leahy Amendment] prevent the Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute state-legal medical marijuana businesses and patients. Going into the fiscal year, thankfully after a lot of hard work, we were able to include protections for medical marijuana, which just happened last week. Now we are really focused on the next year’s fiscal budget, working to hopefully expand those protections to cover all state-legal marijuana activity so the Department of Justice cannot go after all state-legal cannabis businesses, including those businesses in the recreational cannabis industry, which is certainly one of our priorities right now. As Congress starts to transition into fiscal year 2019 appropriations, the D.C. team is working with Capitol Hill staff and other cannabis groups in D.C. to ensure an organized, uniformed strategy through the appropriations process.

CIJ: What are some other priorities for NCIA in the House and Senate right now? What is NCIA focusing its resources on?

Smith: Another big issue for us is the 280E section of tax code, which prevents legal cannabis businesses from deducting normal business expenses. A lot of these businesses face upwards of a 70 percent effective tax rate. Working with our champions in Congress, we are working on reforms to 280E so we can make normal deductions and be treated fairly, just like any other legal business. The Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017 addresses this issue and has bipartisan support in the House and the Senate right now, and we are working to build more support for that. This bill currently has 43 cosponsors in the House.

The other big issue for us right now is banking reform, which is a very high priority for NCIA as it affects most of our members. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act of 2017 provides a “safe harbor” and additional protections for depository institutions who provide “financial product or service” to a covered business. This bill currently has 89 cosponsors in the House. NCIA’s D.C. team and lobbying consultants continue to push for cosponsors and support on these important bills.

CIJ: I saw that the Omnibus spending package includes Leahy Amendment protections for cannabis businesses through September. Would you consider that a win in your book? How are you working to maybe extend those protections?

Smith: It was a big win for us. It doesn’t always seem like it because it is really just maintaining the status quo, but we are up against an Attorney General lobbying congress to strip those protections and the house didn’t allow us to vote on it. But by including the Leahy Amendment in the budget we are not only protecting medical marijuana patients and businesses, but we sent a clear signal to Congress that the intention is not to go backwards. We have been playing some defense recently given the current administration’s policies. But we are working with our allies in congress to negotiate those protections for recreational businesses as well. Negotiations for that are just getting started now.

The fiscal year ends September 30th so the protections are in place for now, but Congress needs to pass another budget for the next fiscal year with those protections included. It’s hard to say when the vote will be, because they haven’t been passing budgets in a timely manner, but usually it’s in May or June, right around our Lobby Days. This is what we are focused on now, getting as many of these cannabis businesses and NCIA members out there to really show Congress what the legal industry looks like.

CIJ: NCIA is hosting the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days a little more than a month from now; do you have any goals for that event? Is there anything in particular you hope to accomplish there? How can cannabis businesses get involved?

Smith: The primary purpose of Lobby Days is to show members of Congress and their staff (many of whom have never had exposure to cannabis businesses) what a responsible industry really looks like. And it lets business owners come tell Congress how current policies and laws are affecting their business. It is great for the cause and helps change minds in DC.

Last year, we came out of Lobby Days with several new co-sponsors of cannabis legislation and we hope to get that again this year. It is a great opportunity to connect and network as well; some of the top people in the industry will be there.

What’s Happening on Capitol Hill? Part 4: Banking & Tax Reform

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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To round out our federal reform review, we look at the bills introduced into the 115th Congress that attempt to resolve the banking and taxation problems faced by state-legal cannabis businesses. As this is perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of the cannabis industry, any movement by the feds on these issues will be welcomed. As it turns out, there are four proposals currently pending for fixing the broken cannabis financial services system, with each proposal comprising a pair of House-Senate companion bills. We look at each pair in turn.

Group 1

S. 1156 – SAFE Act; or, Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act

HR. 2215 – SAFE Act; or, Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act

Policy: These SAFE Acts would prohibit federal prosecutors and federal regulators from preventing or disciplining in any way a depository institution simply because that depository institution serviced a cannabis-related business.

Impact: The impact of these bills would be widespread for both the cannabis industry and for financial service institutions looking to capitalize on the cannabis industry. For banks, the bills would remove all of the barrier-risks that are now keeping them out of the cannabis business. Currently, the feds have handed down policy guidance to banks stating that as long as they submit what are called “Suspicious Activity Reports, or “SARs” for cannabis-related accounts, and conduct their due diligence to ensure such accounts are complying with state law, then those banks will not be pursued by federal law enforcement. The problem with this guidance is that it is only policy, it is not law, and so it can change on as little as an administrative whim. The protection from cannabis business risk, most banks have determined, is therefore temporary at best and illusory at worst. Passage of the SAFE Act would instantly change all of that and initiate a banking bonanza. Banks will be racing to profit off of what is amounting to a newly minted billion dollar industry. Cannabis businesses will benefit greatly from all of this. Not only will they be able to stop operating strictly in cash and have access to all the traditional financial services that other businesses heavily rely on, but they will also be the beneficiaries of a highly competitive, and therefore affordable and efficient, cannabis banking market.

Procedural Status:

S. 1156

  • Introduced: May 17, 2017 by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

    Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
    Image: Medill DC, Flickr
  • Cosponsors: 3 Republicans, 7 Democrats, 1 Independent
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs

HR. 2215

  • Introduced: April 27, 2017 by Representative Ed Perlmutter (D-CO)
  • Cosponsors: 7 Republicans, 44 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Financial Services

Group 2

S777 – Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017

HR 1810 – Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017

Policy: These bills would carve out an exception to IRC 280E allowing cannabis businesses to deduct ordinary business expenses from their federally taxable revenues.

Impact: If enacted these bills will dramatically ease the tax burden for cannabis businesses. Currently, even when they are in perfect compliance with state law, cannabis businesses are not permitted to deduct ordinary business expenses. This means that net taxable revenues are, and are going to continue to be, substantially higher than net taxable revenues for businesses in any other industry. If enacted, profit margins—and therefore product quality, operational efficiency and innovation—are going to uptick across all states that have legalized.

Procedural Status:

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Image: JD Lasica, Flickr

S. 777

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: 1 Republican, 4 Democrats
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Finance

HR. 1810

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL)
  • Cosponsors: 10 Republicans, 24 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Ways and Means

Group 3

S. 780 – Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act of 2017

HR. 1824  Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act of 2017

Policy: These bills combine to accomplish what each of the foregoing pairs accomplish separately. IRC 280E would no longer apply to state-legal cannabis businesses, and banking would become available for them as well. Additionally, advertising prohibitions in the CSA and the Communications act of 1934 would be removed, with the one exception that advertisements inducing travel from a state where cannabis is not legal to a legal cannabis state would be prohibited. Under Title II of the acts, barriers to federal bankruptcy proceedings would be removed. These bills would also reform the CSA as it relates to criminal liability for individuals, criminal record expungement and medical research for institutions, all of which are noteworthy but neither of which directly impact the legal cannabis industry.

Impact: For the impact of IRC reform, see “Impact” section under S.777/HR.180. For the impact of banking reform, see “Impact” section under S.1156/HR/2215.

By leaving advertising guidelines completely up to the states, we would probably witness the easing of advertising restrictions by the states. Currently, states have tight advertising rules because, after protecting consumers, they do not want their state’s legal cannabis industry to draw attention from the feds in any way. That concern would become moot and we could see more advertising in and across legalized states. This would drive competition across larger markets, in terms of both product and service quality and branding/marketing strategy.

Access to federal bankruptcy proceedings would clarify the landscape for all potential financial scenarios in the lifecycle of cannabis businesses, which in turn will ease uncertainty concerns of potential investors. The bankruptcy provision, combined with the banking provisions will undoubtedly open access to capital for cannabis businesses looking to grow operations and market presence.

Procedural Status:

S. 780

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: None
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Finance

HR. 1824

Representative Earl Blumenaur (D-OR)
Photo: Bridget Baker, 92bridges.com
  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Earl Blumenaur (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: 0 Republicans, 8 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
      • Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law
      • Immigration and Border Security
    • Energy & Commerce
      • Health
    • Ways and Means
    • Financial Services
    • Natural Resources
      • Indian, Insular, and Alaskan Affairs
    • Education and the Workforce
    • Veterans’ Affairs
      • Health
    • Oversight and Government Reform

Group 4

S. 776 – Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act

HR. 1823 – Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act

Policy: Subchapters A and B of these bills would impose two additional federal tax requirements on cannabis businesses. The first would be an excise tax on all producers, beginning at a rate of 10%, and growing each year that a producer is in business to a cap of 25% at five years. The second tax would be an occupational tax of $1,000 per year, to be paid by the principals of any cannabis producer or warehouse proprietor. Significantly, these bills would also authorize the federal government to regulate operations in the industry.

Impact: The tax impact of these bills would be a straightforward additional tax that cannabis businesses would have to pay, on top of state and local taxes. The burden of additional taxes will inevitably impact profit margins, initial decisions on whether or not to enter the market and strategies for expansion and innovation. The impacts of federal authorization and regulatory requirements was discussed in the second article of the series, specifically under the “Impact” section of HR1841

Procedural Status:

S. 776

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: None
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Finance

HR. 1823

  • Introduced: March 30, 2017 by Representative Earl Blumenaur (D-OR)
  • Cosponsors: 0 Republicans, 8 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Ways and Means

KIND Financial Launches Canadian Payment Solution

By Aaron G. Biros
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KIND Financial, a technology and compliance software solutions provider in the cannabis industry, is launching a new e-commerce and payment processing platform in Canada. According to the press release, they are partnering with a Canadian bank to launch the KIND Seed to Payment platform, which is essentially an e-commerce gateway integrated with their compliance software, KIND’s RegTech platform.

David Dinenberg, founder and CEO of KIND Financial

David Dinenberg, founder and CEO of KIND Financial, says this is an approach to help alleviate the cannabis industry’s banking woes. “We’ve been very focused on a global vision and taking a strategic approach towards solving the cannabis industry’s largest problem – banking,” says Dinenberg. “Not only have we built a broad portfolio of finance and compliance solutions with a high-level of technical sophistication, but we’ve made a strong commitment to security and compliance, which is evident through our partnership with Microsoft.” A little over a year ago, they entered a partnership with Microsoft to utilize their cloud-based solutions for government traceability software.

According to the press release, the software has regulatory and security features built in, such as age and identity verification, which can help companies comply with security and chain of custody regulations. “Our mission is to ensure business and technological growth for all constituencies within the cannabis industry while ensuring full compliance with evolving regulations, and that’s why we’re thrilled to make these services available to our great neighbors in the north,” says Dinenberg. “We understand compliance will be a critical issue for some time to come, but with our solution, all providers and their partners can focus on the job at hand while keeping in line with regulatory mandates.”

KIND Financial has not done much work in Canada previously, but this could be a sign of a greater push for international expansion. “We’re excited to be working in a new country to boost the Canadian cannabis industry in a safe and regulated manner, and we look forward to expanding into other markets overseas,” says Dinenberg. The press release says the new platform is designed to work with different languages and foreign currencies, including the euro and Australian dollar, which could help Canadian producers enter emerging markets.

In addition to their announcement of the KIND Seed to Payment platform, the company also announced they will be rolling out a mobile payment system called KIND Pay, a digital payment option for consumers that will accept Visa and MasterCard. They anticipate that KIND Pay will launch before the end of this year.

PA Cannabis Banking Committee Announces Formation

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Hoban Law Group announced today the formation of a committee to address banking access issues for the Pennsylvania cannabis market. Steve Schain, Esq., nationally recognized consumer finance litigation, banking law and cannabis law expert practicing with national cannabis law firm Hoban Law Group, is the committee’s spokesman and chair.

Steve Schain, Esq. practicing at Hoban law Group and chairperson of the committee.
Steve Schain, Esq. chair and spokesperson of the committee.

Limited access to banking is an ongoing issue plaguing cannabis businesses due to its federally illegal status. According to Steve Schain, cannabis businesses across the country are forced to pay their vendors, utility bills, payroll, taxes and insurance in cash. “At any time, a dispensary or cultivation operation could have up to $200,000 in cash on site- not having a place to bank opens opportunities for criminal activity,” says Schain. It also presents operational issues for business owners like record keeping or even personal bank accounts getting shut down.

“All of those issues could mean less jobs, less economic activity and less tax revenue for the state,” says Schain. “Fully compliant operations should not have to deal with this.”

Schain formed the committee for a number of reasons, including “Setting the table and starting a dialogue. We want this to be scalable. In the past, the great flaws in banking efforts for cannabis were a lack of cohesion and operating credibility- we hope to approach it from a multi-disciplinary angle and change that,” says Schain.

State Senator Daylin Leach introduced the bill
State Senator Daylin Leach

The committee’s members include three PA politicians: Daylin Leach, State Senator of the 17th District, who introduced the bill that legalized medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, Derek Green, Philadelphia City Councilman and Mary Jo Daley, Representative of the 148th District. Tom Fleming, former assistant director of the Office of Compliance at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, is also a member of the committee.

A number of committee members are actively involved in the legal cannabis industry and cannabis banking initiatives. Sundie Seefried, a member of the committee, is the chief executive officer of Partner Colorado Credit Union, which is

Lindy Snider, advisor at Greenhouse Ventures and KIND Financial
Lindy Snider, advisor at Greenhouse Ventures and KIND Financial

currently handling over half of Colorado’s estimated billion-dollar cannabis banking market, according to Schain. Lindy Snider, founder and chief executive officer of LindiSkin, advisory board member of KIND Financial and Greenhouse Ventures, is also listed as a member of the committee.

“According to the treasury department, only 301 financial institutions have reported banking cannabis cash,” says Schain. “Few federally chartered banks or credit unions will work with cannabis businesses, but two states-Washington and Maine- have banking regulators sensitive to cannabis banking and we have found 36 banks and credit unions providing financial services to cannabis enterprises.”

The goal with forming this committee is to change that and create an environment where banking for cannabis businesses is much easier. “We plan on drafting a white paper with best practices on compliant and profitable banking on behalf of cannabis-related businesses and financial institutions,” says Schain.

Working from a banker’s perspective is the key here, says Schain. They want to create a working, compliant and profitable system for banks to do business with cannabis cash. One of the problems in the meantime is the high-risk nature of dealing with cannabis companies, leading to an inability to get insurance on those accounts. In the eyes of the federal government currently, conducting cannabis-related transactions may be deemed money laundering and highly illegal. “The real issue is with the federal government and I strongly suspect this is not an issue at the top of the Trump White House agenda.”