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Q&A with Adam Smith, Executive Director of the Craft Cannabis Alliance

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Craft Cannabis Alliance is a values-driven industry association whose mission is to define, promote, and celebrate authentic Oregon craft cannabis. Though it has only recently launched, it already counts many of Oregon’s most important local brands among its members, and looks poised to help lead a craft cannabis movement both within the industry and among consumers.

When recreational cannabis was originally legalized in Oregon, according to the Portland Mercury, there were residency requirements for obtaining a license, but in 2016 those rules were removed. In the wake of that decision, Adam J. Smith, founder and executive director of the Craft Cannabis Alliance, saw the prospect, and, increasingly, the reality of out-of-state businesses with deep pockets buying up local cannabis businesses, expanding out of state brands into the market, or financing new brands here. It was quickly apparent to Smith that the big money threatened to overwhelm the market, push Oregon-owned companies off of shelves and eventually dominate Oregon’s much-anticipated export market.  In May, drawing on his experience as an organizer and drug policy reform advocate, as well as several years working in with Oregon craft industries, he launched the Craft Cannabis Alliance.

Adam Smith, founder & executive director of the Craft Cannabis Alliance

Smith has a long history of taking aim boldly at seemingly implacable interests. In 1998, Smith launched the Higher Education Act Reform Campaign (HEA Campaign), which successfully won back the right to federal financial aid for students with drug convictions. That campaign led to the founding of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, now the world’s largest student-led drug policy reform organization, active in more than 40 states and 26 countries. Since then, he has participated in a number of public policy and civic engagement campaigns and organizations, serving on the  founding boards of the League of Young Voters and the Oregon Bus Project. He’s also written for dozens of publications on drug policy.

The Craft Cannabis Alliance is a membership-based industry association of cannabis businesses with like-minded values, who believe that cannabis is, in fact, Oregon’s next great craft industry.  And they want to make sure that means something.  We sat down with Smith to learn more about his organization and why he wants to fight big cannabis.

CannabisIndustryJournal: How exactly do you define craft cannabis?

Adam Smith: In the beer industry, the Brewers Association defines a craft producer as one who produces fewer than 6 million barrels per year, and is not more than 25% owned by a larger brewer.  And that’s fine for beer, but with cannabis just emerging from its own prohibition, there are broader concerns that we believe a craft industry needs to be responsive to.  So we’re less concerned with the size of a company’s production than how it’s producing that product, and how it’s contributing to communities and a healthy industry.

Here in Oregon, there’s a core of the cannabis industry that cares deeply about people, place, planet, and plant. As someone who has spent considerable time writing about and organizing around ending the drug war, it is important to me that cannabis’ first foray into the post-prohibitionist world is not only successful, but that it reflects a shared set of values.  When I started talking with people in the industry who take their values seriously, I asked a lot of questions. I wanted to go from “we know it when we see it” to something that could be defined and therefore legitimately promoted.  Pretty soon, it became clear that there were six major areas of agreement.

  1. Clean product
  2. Sustainable methods
  3. Ethical employment practices
  4. Substantial local ownership
  5. Community engagement
  6. Meaningful participation in the movement to end the disastrous drug war.

The first three requirements, clean, sustainable, and ethical employment practices, are pretty obvious core values for craft producers, and we believe for many Oregon consumers as well.

Substantial local ownership, particularly in a place like Oregon, is an essential component of what the Alliance is trying to organize and represent. We grow some of the finest cannabis in the world in Oregon, and while we’re a small market, we know that eventually, probably sooner than most people realize, the federal walls will come down and we’ll be able to export our products to other states and internationally.  At that point, Oregon will be home to a multi-billion dollar industry. The question then, is who will own that?

We are already seeing big out of state and international companies and investment groups buying up brands or starting their own brands here.  With tens of millions of dollars behind them, they have the marketing and distribution muscle to push locally owned companies, even those producing superior product, off of shelves.  And if foreign-owned companies are dominating shelf space here when those federal walls crumble, those are the companies that will own the export market, and who will ultimately own the Oregon Cannabis brand globally.  And if that happens, we will never buy it back.

Southern Oregon, in particular, is a region that has seen little economic growth since the waning of the timber industry.  The communities there have a huge stake in how this plays out.  Will the cannabis industry build wealth, and economies, and institutions here? Or will Oregon become a low-wage factory for out of state and international corporations.

Beyond local ownership, community engagement is another important component of craft cannabis. The industry, which still faces PR challenges, many of them well earned, needs ambassadors who can demonstrate what a healthy cannabis industry looks like, and who will build the relationships and the credibility necessary to gain the loyal support of their neighbors, local media, and public officials.

Finally, participation in the anti-drug war movement, beyond the self interest of simply opening up the next market, is a must. This industry stands atop a mountain of eighty years of ruined lives and destroyed communities. If you are in the industry, and you are not looking for ways to support drug policy reform, you are profiteering, plain and simple.  The drug war is teetering on the brink of the dustbin of history, but it is not over yet.  The very existence of a legalized industry is the product of decades of work by many, many individuals, most of whom will never earn a dime from the end of prohibition, and never intended to. We view a healthy legal cannabis market as an important platform for social progress on this front, and we are going to use it.  

CIJ: Doesn’t capitalism guarantee that the big money will win out? That striving to maintain one’s values in the face of competition that is laser-focused on profits above all else is inefficient and doomed to failure?

Adam: Believe me, when your name is Adam Smith, you spend a lot of time thinking about capitalism.  Let’s be clear, our members are committed to profits. We just don’t believe that nihilism is going to be a profitable strategy in Oregon cannabis, nor should it be.  Our goal is to monetize our values by offering a win-win proposition to consumers, opinion makers, political leaders, and everyone else who will benefit from a visionary, responsible, and successful Oregon industry feeding into the local economy.

The choice is not between capitalism and something else.  It is between an extractive model of capitalism and a value-adding model of capitalism. Between an industry that seeks to bleed value from the earth, and communities, and employees, and consumers, and one that adds value to everything it touches at every level while producing the best cannabis in the world.  

In the end, consumers are the key.  If we can be the coolest thing happening in Oregon cannabis, if we can bring consumers into this movement, we will succeed.  There’s simply no reason for Oregonians to be buying cannabis grown by a Canadian bank account, even if it’s physically produced here.  That is SO not cool.  And what’s cool in Oregon will be what’s cool and in demand nationally and internationally as we are able to expand the reach of the legal Oregon industry.

We believe that offering the world’s best cannabis, grown responsibly, by Oregonians who are actually committed to the environment, to their communities, and to social justice is a going to be a powerful marketing proposition here.  More powerful than having a famous person on your label or weak attempts at greenwashing.  

Within the authentic Oregon craft universe will be super high-end products, as well as more value-oriented offerings, and everything in between. We’re going to make it easy for Oregonians to recognize and support the kind of industry that we’d all like to see here.

CIJ: Why do you think this could be successful in Oregon? Is the industry receptive to this idea?

Adam: Not only the industry, but the media, elected officials, and most importantly, we believe, consumers.

Oregon sees itself, not unjustifiably, as the birthplace of the craft movement in America. Our craft beer, artisan wine, and craft distilling industries are world-class by any standard, and are very well supported locally.  Include in that list our local food scene and the myriad artisans of all stripes who ply their trades in the region, and it’s pretty obvious that there will be strong support for a values-driven, locally owned cannabis industry.

Craft is about people making something they love, as well as they possibly can, for themselves and their friends, and to share with others who will love it too.   It’s not a coincidence that those products tend also to be of the highest quality.  

The key, as I’ve mentioned, is for craft cannabis is to build a partnership with consumers. Let them know who we are, and what we are trying to build, which is an authentic, and authentically Oregon craft cannabis movement.

There are quite a lot of people in the Oregon industry who share this vision, including many of the best and most important brands in the state. The are people who got into cannabis for the right reasons, with a craftsperson’s dedication to quality and mindfulness on all fronts.  To truly be a craftsperson is not only to make an exceptional product, but also to be cognizant of the historical and social context of your craft, with a respect for what has come before, and a commitment to setting an example for those who will follow.

Those are our people, and they are well represented in the industry here.  Our goal is to organize them and help insure a path to their success.

CIJ: Tell us about how you are educating the industry, consumers and political leaders.

Adam: Well, we launched at the end of May, from the stage at the Cultivation Classic, which highlights and honors the best cannabis in Oregon, grown sustainably and regeneratively. That was a great opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to the part of the industry that we’re targeting, and we were very grateful to Jeremy Plumb of Farma, who is also an Alliance member, and who puts on that incredible event, for that stage.

Right now, we are still a manageable group, size-wise, and we are doing a lot of personal networking in the industry, seeking out the right people to join us.  It’s been a lot of “who do we like and trust, who is making great product?”  As a long-time organizer, I believe in starting out by putting together the strongest possible group of leaders who are also good people and fun to work with.  I’d say that that’s going very well, since we have just an incredible group, who I am honored to stand beside.  Over the past several weeks, as we have started to be a bit outward facing, we have had more and more folks in the industry reaching out to us, rather than the other way around. So we’re in a great spot to grow.

On the political side, we really launched the project at the very end of the most recent state legislative session, and so we purposely did not engage that process this year. But over the past several months, we have been seeking out and introducing ourselves to key public officials.  Their response has been extremely positive.  Here we are, a group of companies who are substantially locally owned, and committed to being transparent and accountable to the health of our employees, our communities, and our state.  In an industry that is still very chaotic, and not well organized, with plenty of shady players, I think that they see us as a compelling partner going forward.    

CIJ: Some of these standards seem pretty difficult to quantify. How do you expect to judge new member businesses?

Adam: Well, in the areas of clean product, sustainable methods, and ethical employment practices, we will adopt standards being developed and promulgated by third-party certification efforts such as Resource Innovation Institute (energy, water, carbon footprint) and the Cannabis Certification Council (“organic” and fair labor standards).  There are others as well, some that exist, things like Clean Green, and some that are still in development.  We are beginning to meet with these folks to gauge where they are, and to give input on their standard-setting processes. In the end, hopefully within the next year as more third-party standards come online, we will choose which of those standards to adopt or accept.  

Community engagement and anti-drug war participation will be things that we undertake as an alliance, as well as providing support for our members to do these things individually behind their brands

As for “substantial local ownership” we are already discussing the parameters of what that means.  Certainly, here in Oregon, there is a need for outside capital.  We are not going to fund a robust industry, especially one that is prepared to take advantage of the coming interstate and international markets, with all local funding.

That said, there is a huge difference between having an out of state partner who owns a piece of a local business, and having an out of state or international corporate overlord with a 90-100%  ownership stake.  And the distinction is important for the future of the industry and for Oregon’s economy.  

The temptation is to set the bar at 50% in-state ownership. But what if you are a large cannabis brand, selling in four or five or six states, that is 35% or 40% Oregon-owned?  That would likely meet the definition of “substantial.”  It is a difficult line to draw, in some sense, but not impossible.  As we move forward, we will develop guidelines on this, and we will have a membership committee that can look at an individual company and say “yes, you are substantially Oregon-owned” or “not you are not” as well as a process in place to insure fairness in that decision.  Right now, every cannabis company in the Alliance is majority Oregon-owned, and I would expect that to continue except in very rare cases.

CIJ: One of your standards for membership requires participation in the movement to end the drug war. Some might see this as a given, but could you shed some light on this?

Adam: As I mentioned earlier, we see reform movement participation as a moral imperative, and since a lot of my background is in drug policy reform, it’s important to me personally.  As an alliance, we hope to partner with organizations like Students for Sensible Drug Policy and NORML, and within the industry with groups like the Minority Cannabis Business Association to both advocate for broad drug policy reform,  and hopefully to provide opportunities and support for communities that have been most negatively affected by Prohibition.  We believe that those of us participating in the legal, regulated cannabis market have both a responsibility and an opportunity to use our voices to point out the difference between the chaos, corruption, and violence of prohibition, and the the sanity, humanity, and opportunity of a post-prohibitionist world.

Soapbox

Cannabis Business Owners: How To Legalize It!

By Kay Smythe
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If you have never heard of the terms social capital or social homophily, you are not alone. To many in the cannabis space, these terms are quite foreign to them, but as we’ll find out, also quite crucial to them.

That’s okay. You’re not a social scientist, human geographer, macro nor micro sociologist, so why would you? However, I can guarantee that your life has been influenced by these two sociological paradigms, and if you’re a working member of the cannabis industry, these are the two theories that could result in your business failing, you ending up in jail or even bankrupt.

Don’t like capitalism? Tough.Let’s talk in layman’s terms.

Social capital: this wonderful theory can, in its essence, be described as the science behind “street cred.” Social capital refers to the lived social networks and relationships that you are a member of. Examples include: family, friendship groups, work colleagues, et cetera.

Social homophily: this even more excellent theory decides your social groups before they solidify. Homophily is the ability of the individual to only associate, and subsequently bond with, those that have similar interests, passions…

Together, these two theories work together to first decide upon your social groups (homophily), and subsequently lead to the building of tighter social networks (capital).

So, how does this relate to cannabis?

Unfortunately, like any other billion-dollar industry, cannabis will eternally depend on politics, the economy and men in suits. For want of a more succinct phrase, the cannabis industry depends on capitalism. Why? Because it’s a business, just like any other, and businesses live and die by whom you’re friends with.

Don’t like capitalism? Tough.

Herein lies the issue with the big players leading the cannabis industry: you guys play horribly with the people that control your fate.

The easiest way to normalize a trend is to have all of the most important people in the world doing itCannabis is still federally illegal, and the general belief is that it has remained this way because the United States government does not yet have a big enough reason to legalize it. Ask any left-leaning sociologist, economist, or political scientist and they’ll tell you the honest truth: the people who run the cannabis industry do not have any influence over bankers, oil tycoons, major industry leaders, or any of the men in suits that you need to be friends with to get anything done in this country.

Think of it like this: the argument for the legalization of cannabis in Europe centers around alcohol. If you were walking home one night and you cut through an alleyway, who would you rather bump into: a drunk looking for a fight, or a stoner looking for a box of chocolate cookies? It’s a logical argument that plays to both the lowest common denominator, and the highest ranks of British government.

The thing is though; as we discussed in my last piece, cannabis is normalized across Western Europe, and so we don’t have the same issues as the United States.

In the United States, the sensible person wouldn’t walk down the alleyway in the first place. Therefore, we have to first normalize cannabis with normal Americans, and then look to legalize.

The easiest way to normalize a trend is to have all of the most important people in the world doing it. However, the cannabis industry is wrought with incompetence that consistently marginalizes the space from societal norms, which is precisely why cannabis is still illegal, and why you’re killing your future business endeavors before they’ve begun.

The End Goal

I was recently told that I didn’t know enough slang to write for a cannabis company. Firstly, I had actually taken all of the slang terms from another member of the company (which was just plain embarrassing for the wannabe industry leader, but I wasn’t surprised – I mean, this is what I do), and secondly, can we all please read the article I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how using slang is one of the most detrimental moves that the cannabis consistently makes that further reduces legalization efforts.

Put on a suit, talk to your local councilman, pay your taxesDo you see HSBC or Chase using slang in their advertising campaigns?

What major political leaders have you seen trying to create divisions between them and those not “cool” enough to be in their gang?

I have no evidence to back this up, but I’m fairly confident that the Koch brothers have never used a skateboard as a consistent mode of transportation to or from work.

As a macro and micro sociologist, I can’t stress this enough: if you want your business to become legitimate, then you have to stop being legit. Most folks in the cannabis industry don’t want to be friends with big bankers, oil tycoons and billionaire businessmen, but creating such an inherent divide between the cannabis business and the rest of the working world ensures that our children will still go to jail in more than half of US states just for smoking a joint.

Time to Swallow Your Pride?

If you are reading this, and are currently an active member or leader in the cannabis industry, then please put your version of ‘street cred’ to the side. Your actions are the reason that most of your businesses fail, the reason you get robbed and don’t have the law on your side, why we have such huge numbers of minority men in our prisons, and more importantly its the reason that the rest of the real world sees you as irresponsible potheads, and not the innovators you could be.

You have the tools to make one of the biggest political changes for two-thousand years, so why not grow up, take one for the team, and have you and your business’s legacy revolve around the good you did for your fellow man, not as the ‘cool kid.’

Social homophily: You and the big business world want the same thing- legalization. Even Monsanto is getting in on the cannabis game, and I’d rather work for them and see actual change than sit in a room full of men smoking at their desks while they sell cannabis from a dark, illegal dispensary.

Social capital: Unfortunately, the big business world wins here. Put on a suit, talk to your local councilman, pay your taxes, realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you, but it will if you play by their rules. You can still be a weekend hippy, but stop doing it in public. The world isn’t ready… yet.

Supreme Court Denies Challenge to Colorado’s Cannabis Laws: Industry Outlooks

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Supreme Court shut down a lawsuit on Monday brought by two states against Colorado for its recreational cannabis laws. Nebraska and Oklahoma brought the case to the Supreme Court, claiming that the recreational cannabis industry in Colorado is responsible for the illegal exportation of cannabis outside of Colorado. “Colorado has facilitated purchase of marijuana by residents of neighboring states by issuing licenses to an unusually high number of marijuana retailers perched on Colorado’s borders,” the two states told the court in a supplemental brief.

In that brief, the two states argue that Colorado’s cannabis industry led to more cannabis illegally crossing state lines. They argue because of that influx of cannabis, they spend more on law enforcement and state resources, which is a detriment to their citizens. The Supreme Court did not provide an explanation for why they refused to hear the case.

Many view this as a big win for the legal cannabis industry. “The Supreme Court has protected the will of the people today and I believe the court has demonstrated that it understands legal cannabis is a fundamental right,” says Andy Williams, president of Medicine Man, the largest cannabis dispensary in Denver.

Still others see this simply as business as usual. “While I’m pleased to see the Court reject the challenge to Colorado’s cannabis law, this decision isn’t really a win for cannabis advocates- it only maintains the status quo,” says Aaron Herzberg, partner and general counsel at CalCann Holdings, a medical cannabis holding company specializing in real estate and licensing. “We are struggling with diversion in California, so hopefully states will continue to be on track to create a more regulated and taxed environment where cannabis can be manufactured and sold through channels where it is safe and tested,” continues Herzberg.

Adam Koh, chief cultivation officer at Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C), warns that the Court’s denial to hear the case is not necessarily an affirmation of state’s cannabis programs. “It is evident that some diversion is taking place, which of course is against the provisions of the Cole Memorandum,” says Koh. “In order to avoid being implicated in such activities, legally licensed cannabis businesses in Colorado should not take the SCOTUS decision as a signal to relax, but should instead work to make sure that inventory control and record-keeping protocols are in place and even exceed the standards required in state regulations.”

The fact alone that Nebraska and Oklahoma even brought the case to the Supreme Court means that diversion is a major issue facing the cannabis industry. “Only by going above and beyond in terms of compliance will this controversial industry make itself credible in the eyes of its detractors,” says Koh. Some cannabis industry leaders take it upon themselves to help guide rule makers in crafting standards.

Lezli Engelking, founder of the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS), believes the Cole Memo is currently the best guidance for states and business owners to follow by the federal government in regards to cannabis. “Gaping holes in cannabis regulations are glaringly identified via the pesticide issues and recalls recently,” says Engelking. “These issues showcase each state being in violation of the Cole Memo’s expectation that they will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that address the threat to public safety, public health, and other law enforcement interests.”

The Supreme Court’s denial of the two states’ challenge to Colorado’s cannabis legislation suggests the federal government’s intentional avoidance of involvement in current state cannabis issues. The government’s inaction does not, however, indicate their support.

Marijuana Matters

Time to Litigate: The Defense That Helps the Client but Hurts the Industry

By David C. Kotler, Esq.
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From time to time, lawyers that service the cannabis industry find themselves representing a client with a litigation matter. By anecdotal evidence, it appears that there is an up-tick in cannabis related litigation over the past year and a half, mostly in circumstances where respective promises made have not been lived up to or those who have invested money are seeking its return. Perhaps a partnership formed within the last few years is simply becoming unraveled.

In the world of litigation, we see defenses, or what are known as affirmative defenses, may be filed in response to a particular lawsuit or claim. One such affirmative defense often utilized in litigation is that a particular contract or agreement may be void based on illegality or void as against public policy.

In fact, this particular grounds for dismissal was at issue in a case in Maricopa County, Arizona wherein a judge in April of 2011 dismissed a lawsuit seeking enforcement of a loan agreement where two Arizona business people loaned $250,000.00 each to a Colorado-based medical marijuana dispensary. The agreement in that case specifically stated that the loan was for “a retail medical marijuana sales and growth center.” Colorado had the foresight in 2013 to legislate against this type of defense when their general assembly passed a law indicating “a contract is not void or voidable as against public policy if it pertains to lawful activities authorized by” Colorado’s constitutional and statutory cannabis law.

The issue becomes germane in emerging states wherein the legislatures and courts have not been dealing with cannabis related matters for any length of time. This is particularly true and ripe for problems in states such as Illinois and Massachusetts that have recently moved forward with cannabis programs and experienced an influx of out of state consultants and companies looking to partner with and work with local residents for licensure purposes. In Florida alone, there have been at least three lawsuits in the past year dealing with cannabis related civil disputes.

To my knowledge, none of those disputes were defended upon, nor did the court address, the legality of the underlying subject matter. However, the question arises whether the lawyer’s obligation to their client necessitates raising this as a defense, for instance, to an action for non-payment of a promissory note for a loan to fund cannabis related business. If the lawyer practices and seeks clients in the industry and hopes to move the industry forward in a positive manner, is it incumbent upon the lawyer to assist the client by making the best legal argument or protect the industry and greater good? As an aside, the answer is to zealously represent the client. Potentially, an adverse ruling in a particular jurisdiction could ultimately affect enforceability of cannabis related agreements in that jurisdiction. It is possible that having a court ruling, even if it is a trial level court within the jurisdiction, at least provides some precedent and a basis for the industry moving forward in that particular jurisdiction. If the ruling is unfavorable like the Arizona precedent mentioned earlier, perhaps planning for jurisdiction and venue to be in more favorable environs is key to document drafting on the front end. For investors, knowing the enforceability of their agreements in a particular jurisdiction could mean the difference between investing in a venture in a particular state or not.

Ultimately, I believe that as advocates, we must do whatever is in our power to protect the client even if it means testing the legal bounds by making an argument that at first blush may hurt the industry. However, having courts develop precedent by which the industry can govern itself in business dealings is important and takes away uncertainty, which in turn allows for good decision-making on the front end. Hopefully, in the near future this will be moot as the federal government moves forward to take actions that provide more certainty and uniformity in dealings within the cannabis space.