Tag Archives: policy

Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights for Cannabis Put to Test in Federal Court

By Dr. Travis Bliss
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A number of cannabis businesses have pursued federal intellectual property protection for their cannabis-related innovations, such as U.S. patents that protect novel cannabis plant varieties, growing methods, extraction methods, etc. Enforcement of such federal IP rights requires that the IP owner file suit in federal court asserting those rights against another cannabis company. However, given that cannabis is still illegal under federal law, the industry is uncertain about whether a federal court will actually enforce cannabis-related IP rights. This question might be answered soon.

The potential impact of this case goes way beyond the two parties involvedOrochem Technologies, Inc. filed a lawsuit in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois on September 27, 2017, seeking to assert and enforce trade secret rights against Whole Hemp Company, LLC. According to the complaint, Orochem is a biotechnology company that uses proprietary separation methods to extract and purify cannabidiol (CBD) from industrial hemp in a way that produces a solvent-free and THC-free CBD product in commercially viable quantities.

The complaint goes on to say that Whole Hemp Company, which does business as Folium Biosciences, is a producer of CBD from industrial hemp and that Folium engaged Orochem to produce a THC-free CBD product for it. According to the allegations in the complaint, Folium used that engagement to gain access to and discover the details of Orochem’s trade secret method of extracting CBD so that it could take the process and use it at their facility.

The complaint provides a detailed story of the events that allegedly transpired, which eventually led to an Orochem employee with knowledge of the Orochem process leaving and secretly starting to work for Folium, where he allegedly helped Folium establish a CBD production line that uses Orochem’s trade secret process. When Orochem learned of these alleged transgressions, it filed the lawsuit, claiming that Folium (and the specific employee) had misappropriated its trade secret processes for extracting and purifying CBD.

While the particular facts of this case are both interesting and instructive for companies operating in the cannabis industry, the potential impact of this case goes way beyond the two parties involved.

If it moves forward, this case will likely provide a first glimpse into the willingness of federal courts to enforce IP rights that relate to cannabis. Orochem is asserting a violation of federal IP rights established under the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) and is asserting those rights in federal district court. As a result, the federal district court judge will first need to decide whether a federal court can enforce federal IP rights when the underlying intellectual property relates to cannabis.

If the court ultimately enforces these federal trade secret rights, it could be a strong indication that other federal IP rights, such as patent rights, would also be enforceable in federal court. Since the outcome of this case will likely have a far reaching and long lasting impact on how the cannabis industry approaches and deals with intellectual property, it’s a case worth watching.

What’s Happening on Capitol Hill? Part 3: The Medical Bills

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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This article continues the bill-by-bill review begun in the August 1st article on cannabis reform legislation proposed in the 115th Congress. In the next article and final piece in this series, we will examine the banking and tax reform bills related to cannabis.

Medical Cannabis Reform Bills 

S. 1008 – Therapeutic Hemp Medical Act of 2017

HR. 2273 – Charlotte’s Web Medical Access Act of 2017

Policy: These bills would amend the CSA to end federal prohibition over all CBD products and all hemp plants with THC content levels of below 0.3%. In other words, people and businesses would be free to grow hemp and/or manufacture CBD products without any fear of federal prosecution. These products would most likely then fall under the regulation of other federal and/or state agencies, but the bills do not specify what agencies they might be or what controls might be put in place.

Impact: The impacts from these bills nationwide have the potential to be massive. Hemp is a plant that can be put to highly effective use in many different industries, from textiles and construction to foodstuffs and seafaring. The efficiency of its growth and the breadth of its utility will make it a highly valuable commodity and a competitor with many other raw materials. For state-legal cannabis businesses, the legalization of CBD and hemp at the federal level could fundamentally change the market for those products. States that legalized cannabis already have provisions in place dealing with hemp and CBD—sometimes alongside their cannabis laws, sometimes handled by a separate state agency—and they could either leave those as they are or open up those markets to interstate activity. In states that have not legalized, CBD and hemp are typically included in the state’s definition of cannabis, and therefore they will remain illegal under state law unless further action is taken. Most likely, if federal prohibition ends on hemp and CBD, state prohibition will follow suit. Because legalization at the federal level will allow for interstate commerce in hemp and CBD, expect the emergence of a nationwide market, driven by online sales and interstate marketing, and developing independently from a cannabis industry still constrained to in-state activities.

Procedural Status:

Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

S. 1008

  • Introduced: May 2, 2017 by Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO)
  • Cosponsors: 7 Republican, 4 Democrat
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Judiciary

 HR. 2273

  • Introduced: May 1, 2017 by Representative Scott Perry (R-PA)
  • Cosponsors: 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health
    • Financial Services

S. 1276 – Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act

Policy: This bill would accomplish two objectives: First, it would open channels for researchers to access and experiment with cannabis and cannabis extracts. Second, it would initiate the process at the end of which the Attorney General must make a determination as to which Schedule of the CSA is most appropriate for cannabidiol (CBD).

Impact: The impact on this legislation to state-legal cannabis businesses is rather remote—in both time and practice. The research access provisions will certainly create an uptick in medical and psychological research activity, the outcomes of which will add to our knowledge of how consuming cannabis in different forms and amounts effects the brain and body. This type of government-regulated research takes many years to process and complete, as both bureaucratic and scientific standards must be met. As for initiating the re/de-scheduling review process for CBD, this is a direct response to the 2016 denial by the DEA to re/de-schedule cannabis. That determination, published in the Federal Registrar on August 12, 2016, was made following a comprehensive study of the medical benefits and harms of cannabis conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although such an in-depth study and its resulting negative determination pronounced so recently would normally rule out the chances of success for another re/de-scheduling attempt so soon after, the DEA did leave the door open with its statement that it “did not focus its evaluation on particular strains of marijuana or components or derivatives of marijuana.” It is just this door that S. 1276 seeks to exploit. By focusing the re/de-scheduling process on CBD specifically, the presumption is that the outcome of the scientific CBD studies would have a far better chance at satisfying the re/de-scheduling criteria set forth in the CSA. If such a determination was made, then the impact would come in two potential varieties. One, CBD would be rescheduled and become available for medical use according to FDA rules applicable to other prescription drugs. Two, CBD would be descheduled and would fall under the prerogative of the states, in which case the above analysis for S. 1008 and HR. 2273 would pertain.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
Photo: Daniel Torok

Procedural Status:

S. 1276

  • Introduced: May 25, 2017 by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
  • Cosponsors: 3 Republican, 2 Democrat
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Judiciary

S. 1374 – Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act of 2017

HR. 2920 – Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act of 2017

HR. 715 – Compassionate Access Act of 2017

HR. 714 – Legitimate Use of Medical Marijuana Act (LUMMA) of 2017

Policy: All four of these bills would make an exception to the CSA for state medical cannabis laws. Federal prohibition, in other words, would end for medical cannabis in those states that have legalized, and it would be left to those states to devise how it would be regulated. In states that have not legalized, both state and federal prohibition would remain. The companion CARERS Acts in the House and Senate, along with HR. 714, would also amend FDA rules to widen access to cannabis for research purposes.

Impact: The impact of these bills on the rules for state-legal medical cannabis businesses would be relatively minor in terms of functionality. This is so because they leave not only the determination to legalize up to the states, but they leave the design of the regulatory system up to the states as well. In other areas, however, big changes will be seen that benefit the industry: banking will open up for state medical businesses, and so will the opportunity to write-off ordinary business expenses. Investment risks over legality will end, making for easier access to capital. Questions about contract enforcement and risks of federal prosecution will become moot, and when state regulatory bodies make decisions on how to govern the industry, they will no longer have to concern themselves with U.S. DOJ enforcement and/or prosecutorial policies. Enactment of any of these bills would be a big win for medical cannabis.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) Photo: David Shinbone, Flickr

Procedural Status:

S. 1374

  • Introduced: June 15, 2017 by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)
  • Cosponsors: None
  • Referred to Senate Committee on:
    • Judiciary

HR. 2920

  • Introduced: June 15, 2017 by Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN)
  • Cosponsors: 1 Republicans
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health
    • Veterans’ Affairs
      • Subcommittee on Health

HR. 715

  • Introduced: January 27, 2017 by Representative Morgan H. Griffith (R-VA)
  • Cosponsors: 2 Republicans, 1 Democrat
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations

HR. 714

  • Introduced: January 27, 2017 by Representative Morgan H. Griffith
  • Cosponsors: 1 Democrat
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

HR. 2020 – To Provide for the Rescheduling of Marijuana into Schedule III of the CSA

Policy: As its wordy title indicates, this bill would bypass the schedule review process and by legislative fiat move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III of the CSA.

Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL)

Impact: Businesses handling drugs in Schedule III must register with the DEA and comply with DEA record keeping and security requirements. Doctors would be permitted to prescribe cannabis products. Importing/exporting will become available by permit, which would bring state businesses into competition with foreign cannabis firms. The biggest impact will be that cannabis sold pursuant to federal law will have to undergo the FDA’s New Drug Application process conducted by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, the largest of the FDA’s five centers. This includes clinical testing and a comprehensive chemical/pharmacological review. The drug would then be subject to FDA regulation for marketing and labelling. For states that wanted to maintain their legal medical cannabis systems, a conflict would remain because cannabis cultivators and dispensaries could operate in compliance with state law while simultaneously failing to meet new FDA and DEA requirements. States will then have a choice: bring state laws into line with federal laws, creating all of the advantages of federal legality discussed above, yet causing major disruptions to the industry; or retain the status quo, allowing the industry to grow as is with all of the in-state advantages but without the advantages of federal legalization. This all would of course leave behind recreational cannabis which would remain in the legal gray zone.

  • Introduced: April 4, 2017 by Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL)
  • Cosponsors:
  • Referred to House Committee on:
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health
    • Judiciary

HR. 331 – States’ Medical Marijuana Property Right Protection Act

Policy: Section 881(a)(7) of the CSA subjects to federal forfeiture all property involved with cannabis activities. This bill would make an exception to that provision for all property in compliance with state medical cannabis laws.

Impact: Although not legalizing medical cannabis, this bill would be a strong step in the direction of legitimizing state-legal medical cannabis businesses. As a result of the property forfeiture clause of the CSA, two impediments faced by the medical cannabis industry is that investors are hesitant to invest and land lords are hesitant to lease or otherwise engage the medical cannabis market. By eliminating the risk of such property loss due to the federal-state conflict, this bill would have the very welcomed impact of easing access to capital and expanding opportunities for land use.

  • Introduced: January31, 2017 by Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA)
  • Cosponsors:
  • Referred to the House Committee on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council Launches Education Program

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC) is an interesting nonprofit that recently launched an educational campaign, called Consume Responsibly Massachusetts. For many cannabis advocates who watched their states legalize the drug, consumer education is a very important part of moving forward. As states across the East Coast implement regulatory frameworks for the cannabis industry, there is a sense of urgency to make sure the rules are right the first time, and that cannabis businesses become responsible stewards of their new market.

In the wake of pesticide recalls in the west and related public health concerns, the issues surrounding consumer safety and how states protect that are now front and center. “The purpose of Consume Responsibly Massachusetts is to keep adult-consumers informed of their rights in the state,” says Jefferson. “It’s also an ongoing effort to bring consumers into the world of cannabis politics and science.”

The MRCC’s mission is to help protect the safety of recreational cannabis consumers by bridging the information gap between businesses, legislators and communities. “We work at the state and local level advocating for sensible recreational marijuana policy and regulations,” reads a press release. According to Kamani Jefferson, president of the MRCC, bridging that gap requires a lot of community engagement. “I was a field organizer on the Campaign to Tax and Regulate Marijuana here in Massachusetts so this is extremely important to me,” says Jefferson. “MRCC participated in this year’s Cambridge 5K Freedom Run.” He says getting out in the community like this is one of many ways to help provide educational opportunities, help promote local cannabis businesses and get rid of the “lazy stoner stigma.”

Kamani Jefferson, president of the MRCC

For the MRCC, the issue of craft cannabis is a significant part of the organization’s philosophy, in addition to product safety and others. “Craft Cannabis will benefit the consumer in an entirely new way,” says Jefferson. “Members of the community will have a chance to provide products and directly affect the economy.” Because local owners tend to be more involved in their towns, Jefferson says residents will get to make more of an impact than nonlocal owners. And he’s right- small, local businesses contribute substantially more to local economies and communities than large companies. Between 1993 and 2013, small businesses created roughly 63% of all new jobs in the United States. With the new cannabis market comes a promising opportunity for local economies.

“The Massachusetts cannabis industry is developing and growing fast,” says Jefferson. “Aside from the medical marijuana production sites, the new recreational marijuana law grants production participation in the regulated recreational marijuana industry to farmers, in the form of craft marijuana cultivator cooperative systems.” While he thinks this is a good opportunity for small businesses and communities alike to gain a foothold in the market, Jefferson is hesitant to endorse Massachusetts’ regulatory policies. “A lack of regulatory oversight from the CCC [Cannabis Control Commission] places the cannabis industry in a vulnerable position,” says Jefferson. “If we want clear, consistent standards for clean and safe products prioritized, then we need consistent testing data.” Jefferson is arguing for more regulatory oversight for safety issues, such as contaminant testing. This is one of a handful of issues they are pressing for sensible cannabis policy in Massachusetts.

Here are some of the issues they support:

  • Local Cannabis: Equitable licensing for small and medium sized local businesses from members of the community.
  • Quality Control: Access to a variety of clean and safe cannabis products in retail dispensaries, tested for harmful contaminants, mold, pesticides and fungicides.
  • Responsible + Safe Consumption: Access to educational materials about proper dosage, methods of ingestion, quality analysis, understanding product labels and general cannabis information.
  • High Potency Flowers, Edibles, & Concentrates: Access, non-restriction to high potency marijuana products of all forms.
  • Home Grow: Ability to grow at least 6 plants per person, 12 per household as stated in Question 4.
  • Social Use: The ability to consume in designated establishments outside of the household.
  • Expungement: Sentence commutation and record expungement for convictions involving non-violent marijuana charges that are now legal.
  • Research: University supported biological, behavioral and cognitive marijuana research to further our understanding and capabilities of the cannabis plant.

What’s Happening on Capitol Hill? Part 2: A Bill-By-Bill Review

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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Since the first session of the 115th Congress convened on January 3, 2017, twenty-four cannabis reform bills have been introduced, fifteen in the House and nine in the Senate. All of them address in varying ways the puzzles that have emerged as more and more states legalize cannabis in the face of federal prohibition. Some are narrow, some are broad, some are for medical cannabis only, some for recreational too, some have more bipartisan support than others, but all indicate in some manner the direction federal reform will eventually take.

H.R.1227 – Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017

Understanding the content and status of these bills and what they would mean for the industry if/when they are enacted, will help stakeholders anticipate changes that we know are bound to drop, and therefore be better prepared to adapt to them when they do.

Generally lacking in the journalism on cannabis is coverage and analysis of federal proposals deep enough to provide a useable understanding of the policies they stand to codify. As CIJ is dedicated to providing just such useable information to industry-insiders, this bill-by-bill review fills the gap.

All twenty-four bills fit rather neatly into one of three categories: De-scheduling/State Control Reform, Medical Cannabis Reform and Banking/Tax Reform. This second article in the series will look at the first category, and the next article will wrap up the last two.

De-Scheduling/State Control Reform

HR 1227 – Ending Marijuana Federal Prohibition Act of 2017

Policy: The bill proposes two major changes to the CSA. The first is to strike cannabis from the statute, essentially leaving the regulation or prohibition of it up to each state. The second is to insert into the CSA a provision that makes it a federal offense to transport cannabis from one state to another in any way that violates state law. In other words, if a state wished to continue prohibiting cannabis, it would be both a federal and state crime for anyone to transport cannabis into that state. Likewise, if a state wished to legalize and regulate cannabis, but wanted to prevent out-of-state cannabis from entering, the transportation provision would permit that state to do so.

Impact: Industries in states that have already legalized cannabis will structurally remain the same. Banking will open up for these state businesses, and so will the opportunity to write-off ordinary business expenses. Questions about contract enforcement and risks of federal prosecution will become moot, and when state regulatory bodies make decisions on how to govern the industry, they will no longer have to concern themselves with U.S. DOJ enforcement and/or prosecutorial policies. The big potential change will be seen if two or more contiguous states that have legalized cannabis decide to permit transport of the drug between their states. Markets will expand, opening access to new customers and challenges from new competitors. Licensees may also have the option to venue shop, and we could see states themselves competing with one another to attract cannabis business with the carrot of favorable regulations.

Representative Thomas Garett (R-VA)
Photo: C-SPAN

One possible pitfall to keep in mind is that this legislation could violate something in constitutional law known as the Dormant Commerce Clause—a topic CIJ will cover should it surface.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on February 27, 2017 by Representative Thomas Garett (R-VA)
  • Cosponsors: 4 Republican, 11 Democrat, 1 At-Large
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

HR 2528 – Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act of 2017

Policy: This bill would add to the CSA a provision specifically declaring no congressional intent to preempt state cannabis laws.

Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO)
Photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund, Flickr

Impact: HR 2528 would rule out the potential for a judicial resolution to the federalism controversy. Most legal challenges to state legalization regimes have relied on a theory of Supremacy Clause preemption. Most notably was the 2014 case initiated by Oklahoma and Nebraska against Colorado, which you can find broken down here. Although the Supreme Court denied to hear that case, the issue is outstanding and remains an important factor, if not the central factor, in cannabis cases currently pending in federal court. Under this reform, state cannabis laws would be safe from invalidation, but it is less clear whether a mere anti-preemption clause would strip the federal government of its other powers under the CSA, or alter in any way the current status of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance. Questions arising under such uncertainty would likely have to go through long and hotly contested litigation before we have concrete answers. So although this proposal would resolve the ticklish issue of preemption, it leaves unaddressed the many other conundrums posed by federal-state divergence.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on May 18, 2017 by Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO)
  • Cosponsors: 1 Republican
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

HR 1841 – Regulate Marihuana Like Alcohol Act

Policy: This bill sets to accomplish a number of different reforms: remove cannabis from CSA; allow for import and export except into states that wish to prohibit cannabis altogether and/or prohibit its importation into the state; decriminalize cannabis use on national forest land; require a permit from the Secretary of the Treasury to import cannabis and to engage in any cannabis business activity; mandate businesses that obtain a Treasury permit to also comply with all State laws (so if state wants to continue to prohibit, they may); share jurisdiction over the administration and enforcement of the new federal laws between the DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tabaco, Firearms and Explosives which is to be renamed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana, Firearms and Explosives.

Representative Jared Polis (D-CO)
Photo: Joshua Lawton, Flickr

Impact: If enacted, this bill will have many of the same impacts as the abovementioned HR 1227- Ending Marijuana Federal Prohibition Act of 2017. The IMPACT section for that bill will also pertain to this bill, with the following exception: by requiring a permit to operate a cannabis business from the Department of Treasury, the bill would add a layer of regulation on top of state law. Treasury Permits would be conditioned on permitees complying “with all other Federal laws relating to production, sale and consumption of marijuana.” Although §302 of the bill limits Treasury’s discretion in denying applications to only certain, enumerated disqualifying factors, the “other Federal laws” the bill refers to could embody any number of policy and jurisdictional preferences either enacted by the Congress or promulgated by the executive agencies charged with administration. At the current stage of speculation the best we can say is that descheduling cannabis under this bill would be a benefit to the industry, but out of all of the present proposals the provisions authorizing federal regulation present the greatest uncertainty for the shape the future of the industry might take.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on March 30, 2017 by Representative Jared Polis (D-CO)
  • Cosponsors: 1 Republican, 14 Democrat
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
    • Energy and Commerce
    • Ways and Means
    • Agriculture
      • Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry
    • Natural Resources
      • Subcommittee on Federal Lands

HR 975

Statute: Adds one sentence to the CSA that excludes its application to any person acting in compliance with State cannabis laws.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Impact: The bill would have the same impact as the above HR 1227 – Ending Marijuana Federal Prohibition Act of 2017, with the only exception that the transportation provision in HR 1227 makes it clear that states will be permitted to prohibit the importation of cannabis from other states if they want to. This bill, without speaking directly to the matter of interstate importation, could leave the question open-ended until resolved through judicial interpretation.

Procedural Status:

  • Introduced on February 7, 2017 by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
  • Cosponsors: 8 Republican, 12 Democrat, 2 At-Large
  • Referred to House Committees on:
    • Judiciary
      • Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
    • Energy and Commerce
      • Subcommittee on Health

Legislative Update

On Tuesday, August 1st, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the twenty-fourth cannabis reform bill. The bill has yet to be assigned a number or referred to committee, but it is called the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017, and makes some interesting contributions to the lineup of reform proposals.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Photo: Nick Fisher, Flickr

For legalization purposes, the bill both removes cannabis from the CSA and removes prohibitions on importing and exporting. The above analysis for descheduling and import/export would apply to Booker’s bill in the same way. The interesting twist thrown in is how criminal and racial justice objectives are linked to incentives for states to legalize. The ultimate decision to legalize or not in a given state will continue to be the prerogative of each state, but the catch is that if a state does not legalize cannabis and the number of arrests for cannabis offenses in that state disproportionately impacts minority or low-income citizens, then the federal government will pull funding it provides to that state for criminal justice-related programs. This could push more states who would otherwise not legalize onto the reform bandwagon. Such states will have to pit how much they value federal funds against how much they value criminalizing cannabis. If the former outweighs the latter, policy logic will dictate that they legalize. Updates on this bill, and movement on any others, will be tracked by CIJ.

For the next piece in this series, we will review the bills currently pending in Congress that cover medical cannabis reform and banking/tax reform. Stay tuned for the latest on what’s happening around Capitol Hill and in federal cannabis policy circles.

What Does The Constitution Have To Say About Cannabis Legalization?

By Brian Blumenfeld, J.D., M.A.
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With the Trump Administration sending mixed signals on legal cannabis, and with Congress beginning to ramp up efforts for reform, in order for industry stakeholders to best understand where we are headed, it will be helpful to remember how we got here. As readers may be aware, the current status of federal cannabis law can be traced back to the legislative prong of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs. His Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) made it a federal crime for anyone to use or possess any amount of marijuana anywhere in the U.S. Current federal cannabis policy, on the other hand, complicates the matter, and can be traced back to a memorandum issued in 2013 by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. The Cole Memo instructed U.S. attorneys general in states that have legalized marijuana to use their limited resources in prosecuting CSA offenses only if they violated specific federal enforcement priorities. The highest of these priorities include diverting legal marijuana business revenues to illegal drug operations, transporting marijuana over state lines, making marijuana accessible to minors, and growing marijuana on federal lands. The problem is that the Cole Memo is only a policy, it is not law; and so not only can the current administration unilaterally change it whenever it wants, but state-legal cannabis businesses, their employees and customers are breaking federal law every single day!

Former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole
Photo: Shane T. McCoy

This is a very unusual situation to be in for both the states and the feds, and it raises two basic constitutional questions: What gives the feds the right to make cannabis illegal everywhere in the U.S.? And how can states simply defy the prohibition?

The first question was in fact answered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 when two California women (Diane Monson and Angel Raich), both with very serious illnesses, sued the federal government for confiscating their state-legal medical cannabis. The feds defended their actions by claiming that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause gave them the authority to march into California, march into the homes of these women, and enforce the CSA. Diane and Angel argued that the Commerce Clause only gives the feds the authority over interstate commerce; and since their cannabis was grown by themselves, used by themselves, never bought or sold, or transported out of the state, it was therefore wholly intrastate cannabis and had nothing at all to do with interstate commerce. The Court sided with the feds, ruling that even though the cannabis was intrastate, when you take all intrastate cannabis activity like that and add it together, it will have a substantial impact on the interstate cannabis market. Because of that connection it was ‘necessary and proper’ for the feds to enact the CSA and enforce it anywhere in the country they wanted. Although there is still much debate over this ruling, it remains the law of the land to this day.

United States Constitution
Photo: National Archive

Fast forward to 2014. The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado claiming that by legalizing marijuana, Colorado was violating federal law under the CSA. Because federal law overrides state law when they conflict, then Colorado’s cannabis laws must be struck down, or so they argued. In response Colorado took a very interesting position that built on the hard realities of the cannabis market. It is best to explain it in four parts. First, they cited the fact that the federal government lacked the resources to enforce the CSA, a claim which the feds have admitted to themselves. Second, Colorado pointed to a constitutional doctrine called ‘anti-commandeering’, which says that they have no obligation to criminalize cannabis at all. If the feds want to make it a federal crime, that is one thing; but that does not mean CO must make it a state crime as well. Third, Colorado said that by regulating cannabis as extensively and strictly as they have done, they are reducing the amount of cannabis activity compared to not regulating it at all. Taken together, this means that because Colorado does not have to criminalize cannabis, and because the federal government cannot enforce their own criminalization, then Colorado is actually helping out the feds by regulating the drug instead of allowing for a free-for-all under state law.

The Congressional Cannabis Caucus Announced

In March of 2016 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in full or issue an opinion, which had the effect of giving a default victory to Colorado. Among political and legal commentators the speculation is that enough justices on the Court either agreed with the logic of Colorado’s position or wanted to wait for this federal-state controversy to be worked out by Congress. Because it was only a default victory, the constitutional status of the legal cannabis industry remains on unprecedented and unstable ground. The Controlled Substances Act has not yet been found to preempt state law, so cannabis businesses are still able to operate legally in their state. But because the CSA still applies to everyone, they do so at the whim of the Trump Administration’s policy preferences. The confusion that this presents has put cannabis businesses in many difficult situations, and it serves as the legal backdrop for such familiar problems as access to banking and contract enforcement.

Currently, legislative and judicial fixes are in motion. Related cannabis litigation is pending in federal court at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. And a Cannabis Caucus has formed in the U.S. Congress to address the shortcomings of the CSA. In the coming articles we will explore both of these routes to reform, the likelihoods of various possible outcomes, and the impact they will have on the legal cannabis industry.


Editor’s Note: For readers interested in learning more about this topic click here for Brian’s research article published by the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law

Congress Passes Budget With Protections for Medical Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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On May 1st, Congress reached a bipartisan deal to keep the government open and funded through September 30th, 2017. Congress approved the appropriations bill that sets the government’s spending with an important section in it relating to cannabis. Section 537 on page 230 states that the Department of Justice cannot use funds to interfere with states’ legal medical cannabis programs.

The bill uses similar language to The Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, a bill that was originally introduced in 2013 to prevent the Department of Justice from spending money on enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in states with legal medical cannabis programs. This new appropriations bill, with the language in section 537, effectively achieves the same thing. “None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to any of the States of… to prevent any of them from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana,” reads the bill. The language includes a mention of the 40 or so states and territories with some form of medical cannabis program, legislation or bill.

The language of section 537 (second half)

This means that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is relatively powerless to go on a sort of ‘crackdown’ on medical cannabis programs. Given Sessions’ previous comments and general views on cannabis, this should put cannabis industry stakeholders at ease for the time being. Of course, this budget is only for the 2017 fiscal year, so come September, the same or similar language needs to be included in the next appropriations bill. With Jeff Sessions’ task force still investigating federal cannabis policy, it is still very possible we could get a clear policy decision in the near future.

“We are encouraged that the Federal Government and NIDA are recognizing the true and powerful medical benefits that cannabis provides, especially in the war against devastating opiate-based drug addiction, abuse and death,” says Sally Vander Veer, President of Medicine Man Denver. “We have seen anecdotal evidence of this as reported by our patients/customers (and the beneficial effects of cannabis in numerous other conditions) since we opened our doors in 2010. Our hope is that this acknowledgment will open the door to additional research, eventually leading to legal and safe access to cannabis medicine for all Americans.”

The following section also includes a protection of industrial hemp research, as defined in the Agricultural Act of 2014, which basically means universities and institutions can research it. SEC. 538. “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used in contravention of section 7606 (‘‘Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research’’) of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (Public Law 113–79) by the Department of Justice or the Drug Enforcement Administration.” With all of the uncertainty and inconsistent comments coming out of the Trump administration, at least we have a sense of security in the medical cannabis community through the summer.

Homeland Security Sec. Kelly Says Marijuana is a Gateway Drug

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to The Washington Examiner, Department of Homeland Security secretary John Kelly said that marijuana is a gateway drug during a speech at George Washington University on Tuesday. “And let me be clear about marijuana. It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs,” says Kelly. “[U.S. Customs & Border Protection] will continue to search for marijuana at sea, air and land ports of entry and when found take similar appropriate action.” The DEA recently dropped any mention of the gateway drug theory. Many argue it is a myth propagated by drug war stalwarts and even the National Institute on Drug Abuse won’t call it a gateway drug anymore.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly
Photo: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

During a crime committee meeting this morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions mentioned a link between the illegal marijuana trade and cartel violence. “We have quite a bit of marijuana being imported by the cartels from Mexico- this is definitely a cartel-sponsored event,” says Sessions. According to The Washington Times, Sessions mentioned violence involving marijuana distribution in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., where cannabis is legal. “So it remains a significant international criminal organization, the marijuana network,” says Sessions. This is not the first time the Attorney General has suggested a link between the plant and violence. Back in February, Sessions claimed that legal cannabis has led to an increase in violence.

The statements made this morning are the latest in a series of contradictory and uncertain messages on federal cannabis policy by the Trump administration. “DHS personnel will continue to investigate marijuana’s illegal pathways along the network into the U.S., its distribution within the homeland, and will arrest those involved in the drug trade according to federal law,” says secretary Kelly. That message, however, contradicts statements he made earlier in the week.

During a Sunday interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” secretary Kelly told Chuck Todd “marijuana is not a factor in the drug war.” In that interview, he went on to add that methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine are the real culprits they are after, noting the high death tolls associated with the drugs and connection to organized crime in Mexico. The Trump administration still has not issued a clear, consistent position on federal cannabis policy.

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.

Bipartisan Cannabis Reform Effort Unveiled in Congress

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) executive director Aaron Smith, seven measures were introduced today at the Capitol, covering a variety of issues that, if signed into law, would ease many of the legal implications on the federal level affecting cannabis businesses in legal states currently.

In a very important development, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, joined Rep. Earl Blumenauer as a lead sponsor of the 280E tax reform bill. According to an NCIA press release, that bill is The Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017 and was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO).

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

That bill gives cannabis businesses in legal states the opportunity to take business deductions like any other legal business. Right now cannabis businesses cannot deduct any expenses related to sales, given its Schedule I status. “Cannabis businesses aren’t asking for tax breaks or special treatment,” says Smith. “They are just asking to be taxed like any other legitimate business.”

Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act in the House, which would put cannabis in the section of code that regulates intoxicating liquors, essentially giving the ATF oversight authority. “The flurry of bills on the Hill today are a reflection of the growing support for cannabis policy reform nationally,” says Smith. “State-legal cannabis businesses have added tens of thousands of jobs, supplanted criminal markets, and generated tens of millions in new tax revenue. States are clearly realizing the benefits of regulating marijuana and we are glad to see a growing number of federal policy makers are taking notice.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Photo: Michael Campbell, Flickr

Sen. Wyden and Rep. Blumenauer introduced The Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap (RAMP) Act, which addresses banking and tax fairness for businesses, civil forfeiture, and drug testing for federal employees. Both Blumenauer and Wyden represent Oregonians, who could benefit tremendously if it becomes legislation. Rep. Blumenauer also introduced The Marijuana Tax Revenue Act, which would put a federal excise tax of initially 10% on cannabis sales, then rising to 25% after five years, according to the NCIA press release.

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.