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Laura Bianchi
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Jeff Sessions’ Latest Moves Should be a Wake-Up Call for the Cannabis Industry

By Laura A. Bianchi
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Laura Bianchi

The legal cannabis industry was recently rocked to its core by the announcement that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be rescinding the so-called “Cole memo” and several other Obama-era legal directives suggesting the federal government would leave state-by-state cannabis reforms more or less alone. Suddenly, it seemed the entire cannabis movement was in jeopardy. Laws legalizing medical and recreational cannabis could be at risk. A booming industry predicted to be worth $50 billion annually by 2026 could instead be going down in flames.

Here’s the good news: As a business transactions attorney who’s been working in the cannabis industry for eight years, I don’t see any cause for panic. The Cole memo and the other directives the Justice Department are rescinding were not laws, orders or even legal precedents – they were simply legal guidance, and murky at that. The memos provided guidance to federal prosecutors regarding cannabis enforcement under federal law, suggesting that federal prosecutors not focus resources on state-legal cannabis operations that weren’t interfering with other federal priorities, such as preventing the distribution of cannabis to minors and preventing revenue from the sales from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels. Yes, federal prosecutors could take Sessions’ recent moves to mean it’s open season on medical and recreational cannabis businesses. But with medical cannabis programs of one form or another up and running in 29 states and Washington D.C., and recreational cannabis now legal in eight states and Washington D.C., dismantling the entire legal cannabis industry would require a Herculean federal effort that would come at the expense of a cornerstone of the Republican Party now in power: The vital importance of states’ rights.The best way to stay on top of those rules? Form relationships with your state program regulators

In other words, I don’t see the termination of the Cole memos as the end of the nascent cannabis industry. But I do think the development should be a wake-up call for all those people in the cannabis industry who have been playing fast and loose with their business operations. After all, if federal prosecutors do decide to make examples of certain cannabis operations, they’re going start with those who are not operating within the confines of the applicable state rules and regulations.  Any business that smells even slightly of tax evasion, interstate trafficking or the allocation of cannabis-derived revenue to benefit a criminal enterprise will end up at the top of that target list.

So how should well-meaning cannabis operators stay off the feds’ radar? Simple: Follow all the rules.

Unless you want orange to be your new black, you can’t afford to be sloppy with your business structure and financial records.For starters, you need a CPA who’s not just at the top of their game, but who also understands the very specific – and potentially debilitating – nuances of cannabis-specific tax liabilities. That’s because thanks to a quirk in the tax code called IRS section 280E, cannabis companies are utterly unique in that they are not allowed to deduct expenses from their business income, save for the costs of goods sold. You want an accountant who thoroughly grasps this issue, so they can help you plan for and (to the extent possible) minimize your tax liability. And you want to address such matters before you start to realize positive revenue, so you’re ready to handle an effective tax rate that can be upwards of 70 percent. Last I checked, the IRS doesn’t consider “But I can’t afford to pay my taxes!” a valid excuse.

Along the same lines, you need a business corporate attorney who’s well-versed in the world of cannabis. That’s because while it might seem exciting to jump headlong into the cannabis green rush, you’re not going to get very far if you don’t deal with the boring stuff first. I’m talking about start-up financing strategies, business contracts and agreements, profit and loss forecasts, cash-flow analysis, and long-term financial plans. Properly structuring your business from the get-go isn’t just important if you ever plan to seek capital or sell your business. It’s also necessary if you want to keep the feds happy. In other industries, regulators might cut first-time business owners some slack. Not so in cannabis. Unless you want orange to be your new black, you can’t afford to be sloppy with your business structure and financial records.

Jeff Sessions and Eric Holder
AG Jeff Sessions (left), the man responsible for the recent uptick in worries

Finally, make sure you’re playing by all the cannabis rules, regulations and requirements of your state and jurisdiction. While this suggestion might seem like a no-brainer, far too often cannabis brands hire hotshots from Fortune 500 companies who don’t know anything about cannabis regulations and how they apply to their business.

The best way to stay on top of those rules? Form relationships with your state program regulators. Here in Arizona, I am in constant contact with our regulators discussing nuances and new business concepts for which the rules are unclear, convoluted or simply silent. Working with the enforcers might not come naturally to many folks in the cannabis business, but we’re dealing with a new and evolving industry where there’s little or no business, regulatory or judicial precedent. We’re all in this together.

It’s exciting to be at the bleeding edge of a bold and booming new industry like cannabis, but to do so safely and legally, cannabis industry pioneers need to make sure they’re striking the right balance between daring innovation and sensible business security.

We shouldn’t expect Jeff Sessions to launch a new army of prohibition agents around the country to kick down doors of cannabis businesses. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea for cannabis entrepreneurs to start acting like he might.

Jeff Sessions and Eric Holder

Jeff Sessions Rescinds Cole Memo

By Aaron G. Biros
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Jeff Sessions and Eric Holder

According to The Associated Press, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo today, an Obama-era policy barring Department of Justice officials from going after state-legal cannabis businesses. This move comes just after California, the nation’s most populous state, legalized adult use sales of cannabis. Previously, the Cole Memo has served as a kind of stopgap for states to conduct legal cannabis markets, giving them peace of mind that the federal government wouldn’t interfere.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Ushering in 2018 with a bang, California’s cannabis businesses finally celebrated their new market launch on New Year’s Day. Even CNN rang in the New Year with copious amounts of cannabis, sending journalist Randi Kaye to Denver where she was passed joints and even donned a gas mask bong.

One fifth of the entire United States population now live in states where adult use cannabis sales are legal. A majority of states in the country have some form of cannabis legalization law on the books.

According to The Associated Press, AG Sessions’ new policy will leave it up to federal prosecutors to determine how they wish to enforce federal law and the controlled substances act. Sessions has been historically conflicted with federal policy surrounding legal cannabis and has repeatedly expressed his disdain for the drug.

But his back and forth on policy directives has been largely symbolic until now. In January last year, Sessions said he would uphold federal law but expressed openness to ending the conflict between state and federal laws. In February of last year, he tied legal cannabis to violence in a press conference where he alluded to greater enforcement. But flip-flopping again in March of last year, he said the Cole Memo is valid and appropriate after a speech.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO)
Image: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

The Trump Administration’s confusing and often-unclear stance on cannabis has only fueled more speculation, worries and fear that cannabis businesses are no longer safe from federal prosecution.

The cannabis industry and politicians around the country were quick to respond to the AG’s new policy shift. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said he would be holding up DoJ nominees, “until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.” The Cannabis Control Commission of Massachusetts, the regulatory body tasked with overseeing the state’s legal cannabis industry, says “nothing has changed” and that it will continue their work to legalize and regulate the cannabis industry.

Steve Schain, Esq. practicing at the Hoban law Group

Steve Schain, Esq., an attorney with Hoban Law Group, a prominent cannabis law firm, says this only fuels the confusion. “With Jeff Sessions threatening to singlehandedly crush $7.2 billion legalized marijuana industry spanning 30 states, generating millions in taxes and providing tens of thousands of jobs, much confusion abounds,” says Schain. “While unclear if merely a ‘knee jerk reaction’ to California program’s launch breadth of coverage, unless and until the United States Department of Justice provides an official statement, publication, or other specific information, neither legalized marijuana’s current status – nor the Federal Government lack of Congressional mandate or funds to derail state programs – has changed.”

Omar Figueroa, a well-known California cannabis attorney, urges clients and friends to start getting informed. “Which district is your ‘commercial cannabis activity’ operation(s) located? Who is the US Attorney for that district? What is that US Attorney’s cannabis policy? The answers to these questions just became extremely important. Please contact us for legal advice and representation.”

Advocates and activists were also very quick to condemn Sessions’ move, including Matthew Schweich, interim executive director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). “This extremely misguided action will enable a federal crackdown on states’ rights with regard to marijuana policy,” says Schweich. “Attorney General Sessions has decided to use the power of the federal government to attack the ability of states to decide their own laws. A majority of Americans support legalization, and Sessions has simply decided to ignore their views. In the states where marijuana is legal, voters approved those legalization policies at the ballot box. This is a direct attack on the will of the people.”

National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Executive Director Aaron Smith gave the following statement in a press release:

“This news from the Department of Justice is disturbing, especially in light of the fact that 73% of voters oppose federal interference with state cannabis laws. But, the rescinding of this memo does not necessarily mean that any major change in enforcement policy is on the horizon. This has been, and still will be, a matter of prosecutorial discretion. We therefore hope that Department of Justice officials, including U.S. Attorneys, will continue to uphold President Trump’s campaign promise to not interfere with state cannabis programs, which have been overwhelmingly successful in undercutting the criminal market.

In addition to safely regulating the production and sale of cannabis, state-based cannabis programs have created tens of thousands of jobs and generated more than a billion dollars in state and local tax revenue to date. Any significant change in federal enforcement policy will result in higher unemployment and will take funds away from education and other beneficial programs. Those revenues will instead go back to drug cartels and other criminal actors.”

Could this move be a genuine policy shift that will cause a crackdown on the legal cannabis industry? One action that could prevent the DoJ’s ability to target cannabis businesses relies on a Senate vote passing the Leahy Amendment as part of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill. That amendment would prevent the DoJ from using resources to go after state-legal medical cannabis laws, but does not exactly protect companies operating under adult use and recreational laws.

Is it possible that this is just the Trump Administration moving public eyes away from the bombshell revelations in Michael Wolff’s book and Trump’s feud with Steve Bannon? The current administration has a history of creating headlines amidst unrelated controversy, deflecting a public relations crisis from the public eye.

Senate Committee Votes to Keep Medical Cannabis Protections

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the amendment to continue protecting state-legal medical cannabis markets from the Department of Justice. The amendment, previously known as the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, prevents the DOJ from using funds to target medical cannabis operations, patients and businesses in states where it is legal.

Every time Congress reviews the budget, this amendment needs to be included to keep protecting the medical cannabis community. While the rider still needs to make it through the final version of the appropriations bill, it is a big win for the status quo.

According to Aaron Smith, executive director and co-founder of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), this indicates that Congress is resisting Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ calls to end the protections. In a letter sent back in May, Sessions urged the Senate on both sides of the aisle to stop protecting medical cannabis.

Many see this morning’s vote as Congress standing up to Jeff Sessions, and standing up for medical cannabis patients. In a letter to NCIA members, Smith says that a lot of work still needs to be done, but this is an important first step. “This is not the end of the story. There are still many steps to go before a new budget is finalized,” says Smith. “But this is an important indicator that our allies in Congress are standing up for us, even in the face of DOJ opposition.” In an official NCIA statement, Smith acknowledges the hurdles that still face the amendment. “Now it’s time for the House to do the same,” says Smith. “Patients deserve access to care, states deserve respect, and members of the House deserve the opportunity to vote on amendments like this that have the strong support of their constituents.” Bipartisan support like this in Congress is needed to prevent the current administration and the DEA from meddling in states with legal medical cannabis.

 

DoJ Task Force Moves to Review Federal Cannabis Policy

By Aaron G. Biros
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In a memo sent throughout the Department of Justice on April 5th, attorney general Jeff Sessions outlines the establishment of the Department’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. That task force, largely focused on violent crime, is supposed to find ways that federal prosecutors can more effectively reduce illegal immigration, violent crimes and gun violence.

The task force is made up of subcommittees, according to the memo, and one of them is focused on reviewing federal cannabis policy. “Task Force subcommittees will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities,” the memo reads. “Another subcommittee will explore our use of asset forfeiture and make recommendations on any improvements needed to legal authorities, policies, and training to most effectively attack the financial infrastructure of criminal organizations.” Those existing policies that Sessions refers to in the memo could very well be the 2013 Cole Memorandum, an Obama administration decree that essentially set up a framework for states with legal cannabis laws to avoid federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.

In the past, Sessions has said he thinks the Cole Memo is valid, but remains skeptical of medical cannabis. In the last several months, comments made by Sessions and White House press secretary Sean Spicer have sparked outrage and growing fears among stakeholders in the cannabis industry, including major business players and state lawmakers. As a general feeling of uncertainty surrounding federal cannabis policy grows, many are looking for a safe haven, which could mean looking to markets outside of the U.S., like Canada, for example.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Washington State’s former Attorney General Rob McKenna, Washington State’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Moran, and Maryland’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Kay Winfree recently went on the record identifying the BioTrack THC traceability system as fully compliant with the Cole Memo. “The key to meeting the requirements of the Cole Memorandum is ‘both the existence of a strong and effective state regulatory system, and an operation’s compliance with that system’,” says the former attorney general and chief deputy attorneys general in a press release. “As described above, Washington State has a robust, comprehensive regulatory scheme that controls the entire marijuana supply chain.

The email sent to Colorado prosecutor Michael Melito

The flagship component of this regulatory scheme is the WSLCB’s seed to sale inventory system, the BioTrackTHC Traceability System.” Those commendations from a former attorney general could provide some solace to business operating with the seed-to-sale traceability software.

Still though, worries in the industry are fueled by speculation and a general lack of clarity from the Trump Administration and the Department of Justice. In an email obtained by an open records request and first reported by the International Business Times, a DEA supervisor asked a Colorado prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office about a number of cannabis-related prosecutions. The DEA supervisor asked for the state docket numbers of a handful of cases, including one involving cannabis being shipped out of state, according to The Denver Post. “Some of our intel people are trying to track down info regarding some of DEA’s better marijuana investigations for the new administration,” reads the email. “Hopefully it will lead to some positive changes.” So far, only speculations have emerged pertaining to its significance or lack thereof and what this could possibly mean for the future of federal cannabis policy.

AG Sessions Ties Legal Cannabis to Violence, States React

By Aaron G. Biros
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At the Department of Justice on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters he believes cannabis use is unhealthy and leads to more violence, according to Politico. “I don’t think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot,” Sessions told reporters. “I believe it’s an unhealthy practice and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago.” Those comments come a week after press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that the opioid crisis is tied to recreational cannabis use and seemed to hint that President Trump is okay with legal medical cannabis, but that the administration might not approve of recreational cannabis.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

During a press conference last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters “I do believe you will see greater enforcement of it,” referring to the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act on recreational cannabis. He went on to make the distinction between medical and recreational use clear, while deferring to the Department of Justice, saying they will be looking further into the matter.

Much like press secretary Spicer incorrectly tied legal cannabis to the opioid crisis, Attorney General Sessions incorrectly tied legal cannabis to an increase in violence. “We’re seeing real violence around that,” says Sessions. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.” He did not discuss who those experts were or how he came to that conclusion. There are a number of studies refuting his claims, suggesting no causal link between legal cannabis and violence, with one study even suggesting a reduction in violent crimes after legalizing cannabis.

WH press secretary Sean Spicer during a press conference Image via Youtube
WH press secretary Sean Spicer during a press conference
Image via Youtube

Sessions has not mentioned any specific policy actions that he would take on the enforcement of federal law. “We’re going to look at it. … And try to adopt responsible policies,” says Sessions. Jeff Sessions making these comments should come as no surprise as he expressed his disdain for cannabis a number of times and has been known to be a Drug War stalwart. President Trump promised during his campaign that he supports medical cannabis and the matter should be left up to the states. These recent comments by his newly appointed press secretary and attorney general suggest the administration may not honor that campaign promise.

Politicians in states that have legalized cannabis were quick to condemn the comments and uphold this as an issue of states’ rights. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper told reporters legal cannabis is in their state’s constitution and he intends to uphold the will of the voters. Oregon State Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend) said in a press release, “I hope the new President and Attorney General keep their hands off Oregon’s marijuana law.” Regulators in Nevada have also said they plan to move forward with implementing legal recreational cannabis regulations, despite any federal actions or comments. Bob Ferguson, Washington State attorney general told the Associated Press, “We will resist any efforts to thwart the will of the voters in Washington,” and has requested a meeting with Sessions to discuss his policies. California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom wrote a letter to President Trump telling him not to follow through on those threats of greater enforcement. “The government must not strip the legal and publicly supported industry of its business and hand it back to drug cartels and criminals,” Newsom wrote to Trump. “Dealers don’t card kids. I urge you and your administration to work in partnership with California and the other eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana for adult use in a way that will let us enforce our state laws that protect the public and our children, while targeting the bad actors.”

At this time, it remains unclear exactly how the Trump administration will address federal cannabis policy, but these vague and ominous statements from top federal officials continue to raise eyebrows in the cannabis industry. Until President Trump comes out with a clear stance on legal cannabis, those in the cannabis industry fear a federal crackdown on legal recreational cannabis is looming.

Jeff Sessions’ Stance on Cannabis: Uphold Federal Law

By Aaron G. Biros
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President-elect Donald Trump nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for Attorney General back in November. For Sessions to become a member of the cabinet and head of the Department of Justice, the Senate must approve the nomination during a confirmation hearing, taking place today in Washington D.C.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

According to CNN’s coverage of the events, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) mentioned the Obama Administration’s tolerance of states with legal cannabis. “There are federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana, the sale of marijuana, the production of marijuana, that apply regardless of whether a state has independently criminalized the drug,” says Senator Lee. He then asks if Obama’s actions were indicative of a breach of “the understanding that we [Congress] are the lawmaking body.”

Sessions replied to that by saying that as federal law stands, cannabis is illegal. He says if keeping cannabis illegal is “not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.” He adds that it’s not the AG’s job to enforce or not enforce certain laws. “We should do our job and enforce laws as effectively as we’re able,” says Sessions.

In April of 2016 according to USA Today, Sen. Jeff Sessions was quoted saying “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Sessions has a history of making inflammatory remarks, including racist statements. He has also previously mentioned his proud support for the War on Drugs.

aaronsmithncia
Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

Sessions’ comments during the exchange today shed some much-needed light on his stance toward legal cannabis. National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) executive director Aaron Smith issued a statement on Sessions’ comments made today. In the statement, Smith sounds optimistic regarding Sessions’ comments. “In today’s hearing, Sen. Sessions indicated that the Justice Department’s current guidelines for marijuana policy enforcement are ‘truly valuable’ in setting departmental priorities,” says Smith. “That belief, along with the support for state sovereignty on cannabis policy expressed by President-elect Trump and his team, should lead Sen. Sessions to maintain the current federal policy of respect for state-legal, regulated cannabis programs if he is confirmed as Attorney General.”

“Sen. Sessions also highlighted the conflict created by a Congress that has failed to reflect the will of the voters on cannabis policy,” says Smith. “Voters in 28 states, representing approximately 60% of the nation’s population, have now chosen some form of legal, regulated cannabis program. National polling shows that 60% of Americans believe cannabis should be legalized. It’s time for federal lawmakers to represent the clear choices of their constituents.” Given the Republican support for state sovereignty and Sessions’ comments on Congressional lawmaking, Smith is hopeful that if Sessions becomes the new Attorney General, he will respect states with legal cannabis programs.