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.”
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.
There is a great deal to be happy about with medical cannabis legalization in Germany. This is the first country that has mandated insurance coverage of the drug – at least at the federal legislative level.
However, as the government evaluates the finalists in the first tender bid for domestically grown and regulated cannabis, a real crisis is brewing for patients on the ground. And further one that the industry not only sees but is trying to respond to.
Spektrum Cannabis GmbH, formerly MedCann GmbH began trying to address this problem when they obtained the first import license for Canadian cannabis last year. They are also one of the apparent five finalists in the pending government bid to grow the plant domestically for medical purposes. According to Dr. Sebastian Schulz, head of communications for Spektrum, “Shortly after the new cannabis law was reformed we experienced a huge increase in demand from the side of patients. We had prepared for that. The German population is very curious about cannabis as a medicine and in general very open to natural remedies.”
People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowly. Much like Israel, the government has allowed a trickle of patients to have access to cannabis by jumping through multiple, time consuming hoops. The process of getting cannabis prescribed, much less getting a pharmacy to stock it, was difficult. Patients had to pay out of pocket – a monthly cost of about $1,700. While that is expensive by American standards, to Germans, this is unheard of. The vast majority of the population – 90% – is on public health insurance. That means that most Germans get medications for $12 a month, no matter what they are. Allegedly, German patients were supposed to get about 5oz a month for this price. At least that is what the law says.
People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowlyAs in other countries, no matter what Germans think about recreational reform, the clear majority of them at this point support medical use. And at this point, both legislatively and via the courts, the government has said and been required to provide the drug to Germans patients at low cost.
Unintended Effects & Consequences
Since the law went into effect in March of this year however, things have suddenly turned very dire for patients.
The handful of people who had the right to grow at home – established under lawsuits several years ago – were suddenly told they could no longer do so. They had to go to a doctor and regular pharmacy. Even regular patients in the system found that their insurance companies, allegedly now required to pay, are refusing to reimburse claims. Doctors who prescribed the drug were abruptly informed that they would be financially responsible for every patient’s drug cost for the next two years (about $50,000 per patient).
To add a final blow to an already dire situation, German pharmacies that carried the drug, then announced an additional fee. It is about $9 extra per gram, added at the pharmacy, pushing the price of legitimate cannabis north of $20 dollars per gram. This is justified as a “preparation fee.” Cannabis bud is technically marked as an “unprocessed drug.” This means the pharmacies can charge extra for “processing” the same. In reality this might be a little bud trimming. If that. The current distributors in the market already prep and pre-package the drug.
What this bodes for a future dominated by infused products, oils and concentrates is unclear. However the impact now is large, immediate and expensive in a country where patients also must still go to the pharmacy in person for all prescription drugs.
There is no mail order here, by federal law. Online pharmacies are a luxury for Auslanders.
At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow.While nobody has challenged this situation yet en masse, it is already a sore point not only for patients but across the industry. It means that an already expensive drug has gotten even more expensive. It also means that the government regulations are not working as planned.
At least not yet. For the large Canadian companies now coming into the market with multimillion-dollar investments already sunk in hard costs, Germany will be a loss-leader until the system sorts itself out.
According to Schulz, whose company is now in the thick of it, the new law is very vague. “Currently, there are almost no cannabis flowers available in German pharmacies because companies like us are not allowed to sell them,” says Schulz. “Various different regulatory demands come up that seemed to change on a monthly basis. We are ready to deliver even large amounts of cannabis for a market that might well explode soon – but we first need to overcome the regulatory nightmare that leads to the suffering of so many patients here these days.”
At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow. Black market costs for cannabis are about $10-15 a gram. In other words, exactly the situation the government was hoping to avoid.
What Is Causing The Situation?
The intended effect of the legislation was twofold, according to industry insiders: To legalize cannabis in such a way to meet a rising public demand and, in the face of a court decision, to limit the home grow movement. The latter of which, despite federal regulations, is thriving here. Germans like to grow things, and cannabis is a rewarding plant to nurture.
High attendance at the Mary Jane Grow Expo in Berlin in June is just one sign that the genie is out of this particular bottle. BfArM – the federal agency in charge of regulating narcotics and medical devices – cannot stuff it back.Patients are going back to the way things were
However home grow does not build a professional, high volume cannabis market, much less a highly regulated medical one make. The government also made clear that it is going to have strict inspections and quality controls, and will technically buy all the cannabis produced, per the terms of the bid application process.
However, it is not entirely clear when the government will start actually doing the buying. And why the buying has not started yet. If insurance companies are refusing to pay, this means the government is not reimbursing them. The same government, which has also agreed to do so, as of March 2017.
What Gives On Good Old German Efficiency?
On the streets, patients are going back to the way things were. Many are used to fighting for the only drug that makes them feel better. The euphoria in May, for example, has been replaced with weary acceptance that things might get a bit worse before they really improve.
That said, there is also a realization that more activism and lobbying are required on just about every front. If an extrapolation of data from say Colorado or California is applied to Germany, there are already at least a million eligible patients here, based on the qualifying conditions. The government is planning for an annual increase in medical patients of about 5-10,000 a year, including in the amount of cannabis they are planning on buying from the licensed producers they choose. The numbers, however, are already not matching.Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.
Added to this wrinkle is the other reality that is also looming, particularly now.
With one exception, all of the firms now apparently in contention as finalists for the German government bid will also be supplying a domestic market in Canada that is going rec next summer. One year, in other words, before the German companies even begin producing.
What Is The Upshot For Patients?
Guenther Weiglein is one of the five patients who sued for home grow rights in 2014. He is now suing again for the right to extend home grow privileges until the government figures out its process. He is not the only one. Earlier this year he was told he had to stop his home grow and integrate into the “mainstream” system. So far, he, along with other patients who are suing, including for insurance coverage, have not been able to get cannabis easily through the system, although they are starting to make progress.
Weiglein’s situation is made even more frustrating by the fluidity of the situation. As of late July, he had finally gotten agreement from his insurance company to cover the drug. But now he cannot find a doctor willing to accept the financial risk of prescribing it to him. And in the meantime he has no access to medication.
Talk to any group of advocates right now, and there is one ongoing story. Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.
And those that can’t afford it? They are out of luck. Some patients say a tragedy like someone dying will create the impetus to move this into public eye. A hunger strike here by a leading cannabis doctor earlier this summer has so far not had much impact on policy. There is a great deal of pessimism here, as promised change earlier this year has turned into a long and drawn out multiyear question mark.
If this sounds like a bubbling and untenable situation, especially before a national election, it is. The prospect of another four years of Angela Merkel does not bode well for fast cannabis reform.
That said, the German government is now in an interesting situation. The law has now clearly changed to say that sick Germans are allowed to use cannabis as a drug of choice for chronic diseases when all else fails. Further, the national government has bound the insurance industry to cover it. So far, every patient who has sued for coverage has won. That has not, however, moved the insurance industry altogether. Nor has it solved the problem with doctors prescribing the drug.
Many now ask what will? It is clear, however, that it will change. The question is when, how fast, and in what situations.
The problem will undoubtedly ease by 2019, when the first German crops are finally ready, although it will be far from completely solved.
The demand for medical cannabis in Florida might be growing steadily, with patient numbers soaring, but that doesn’t mean the market will grow accordingly. Due to hampering regulations and a lack of state guidance, the industry in Florida is tiny and patients have limited options for medical cannabis products.
A little more than three years ago, Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law, legalizing medical cannabis, but only for terminally ill patients and only for one strain, Charlotte’s Web. That stipulated a low-THC, concentrated oil form of cannabis. That bill also set up the licensing framework for what is now an extremely limited market.
In November of 2015, the Office of Compassionate Use, now called the Office of Medical Marijuana, issued licenses for five dispensaries. To get a license, applicants needed to meet a variety of absurd requirements. That included being a nursery in business for thirty years, growing a minimum of 400,000 plants at the time of applying, paying $300,000 in fees and a $5 million performance bond.
Fast forward to Election Day last year when voters passed Amendment 2 by a wide margin, amending the state’s constitution and legalizing medical cannabis for a broader scope of qualifying conditions. What hasn’t changed, however, is the old vertical licensing framework. Critics have dubbed this a “pay-to-play” market, with massive barriers to entry prohibiting small businesses from gaining market access.
David Kotler, Esq., attorney and partner at CohenKotler P.A., says we shouldn’t expect to see a viable market for years as a result of all this red tape. “Honestly the State of Florida, with their limited licenses and odd requirements to qualify for licensure have stunted what could be a good market both for businesses and patients,” says Kotler. “It has been an inefficient roll-out and is truly an embarrassment for the state, legislature and the Department of Health.” Kotler says he’s heard reports of extremely limited product selection, poor quality, as well as no dried flower being offered.
But the patients are pouring in by the thousands- on July 27th, the Office of Medical Marijuana reported 26,968 registered medical patients, with more than 10,000 patients signing up since June 7th. “Despite my belief that it would be a slow roll out, it appears the patient count is picking up,” says Kotler. “The elimination of the 90-day doctor-patient relationship will certainly help this.” He is referring to the reversal of a waiting period policy, where patients had to wait 90 days before receiving a medical cannabis certification. “But there still seems to be a backup with issuance of cards and poor guidance from the Department of Health leaving many doctors unsure of what they should be doing,” says Kotler. The rules and guidelines for physicians participating in the program are still not established, but the Florida Board of Medicine expects to vote on them this week, reports say.
With seven licensees right now and a total of ten licensees by October allowed to grow and distribute cannabis products, the question remains if that is enough to satisfy the growing number of patients. According to Matt Karnes, founder and managing partner of GreenWave Advisors, the state is adjusting by adding more licensees and allowing them to operate more dispensaries, potentially trying to sate that demand. “Both of these amendments will likely serve as a catalyst for revenue growth but could be tempered by a lack of physician participation (as we have seen in other states) in the medical marijuana program,” says Karnes. “For every incremental 100,000 patients who register in the Medical Marijuana program, four more licenses will be issued and existing licensees will be allowed to open another four dispensaries (current cap is 25). We do not expect an incremental 100,000 patients until sometime in 2021.” His firm’s market projections account for those increases and edibles now being sold, but still no dry flower allowed. They project total sales figures in the state to reach $712 million by 2021.
Those figures are contingent on the increase in registered patients and more licensees. If Florida’s vertical licensing model remains, it’s quite possible the state will see a cannabis shortage, much like Nevada during their opening month of adult use sales. “Instead of learning from so many states before it, Florida forged a path down the rabbit hole that may limit Florida’s potential until either a legislative change or a backlash at the polls in the form of an amendment bringing forth adult use,” says Kotler. In New York, that vertical licensing model arguably created a monopoly, with only a select few businesses controlling the entire market. That doesn’t foster market growth; it hurts quality, keeps prices high and prevents real competition. “We see how that worked out for New York,” says Kotler. “We cling to that despite what could be a large patient base with the potential to service tourists who wish to have reciprocity.”
Florida’s market could be a powerhouse for the state, with the potential to generate millions in tax revenue, create thousands of jobs and actually help patients get the medicine they need. But until the state ditches their conservative, closed-door approach, we won’t see the industry truly flourish. .
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.
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.
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.
Introduced on February 27, 2017 by Representative Thomas Garett (R-VA)
Cosponsors: 4 Republican, 11 Democrat, 1 At-Large
Referred to House Committees on:
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.
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.
Introduced on May 18, 2017 by Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO)
Cosponsors: 1 Republican
Referred to House Committees on:
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.
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.
Introduced on March 30, 2017 by Representative Jared Polis (D-CO)
Cosponsors: 1 Republican, 14 Democrat
Referred to House Committees on:
Energy and Commerce
Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry
Subcommittee on Federal Lands
Statute: Adds one sentence to the CSA that excludes its application to any person acting in compliance with State cannabis laws.
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.
Introduced on February 7, 2017 by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Cosponsors: 8 Republican, 12 Democrat, 2 At-Large
Referred to House Committees on:
Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations
Energy and Commerce
Subcommittee on Health
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.
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.
According to a press release published earlier this week, DB Labs achieved accreditation, becoming the first ISO 17025-accredited cannabis laboratory in Las Vegas. DB Labs received their accreditation with the help of Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc., an organization that provides third-party assessments to ISO/IEC 17025:2005. DB Labs was also the very first cannabis-testing lab in the state of Nevada.
According to Susan Bunce, president of DB Labs, ISO accreditation is one way the cannabis lab space is being standardized. “As the first cannabis-testing laboratory in Nevada, DB Labs has always taken patient safety very seriously and has always tried to raise the bar,” says Bunce. “The world of cannabis testing is often compared to the Wild West: each lab uses state regulations to set their standards, but it leaves a lot of room for subjective interpretations. The ISO accreditation removes the ambiguity and guarantees a consistent level of testing to users. We are proud to be a part of that.”
According to Tracy Szerszen, president and operations manager at Perry Johnson, ISO/IEC 17025:2005 is an international standard utilized to accredit testing laboratories. “This accreditation provides confidence to end-users that the test results they receive are reliable,” says Szerszen. “Laboratories achieving this accreditation have demonstrated their ability to adequately perform tests using appropriate equipment, environmental conditions and technical staff.” She says another requirement for that accreditation is a quality management system, which essentially helps manage operations and client needs. “Achieving this type of accreditation is quite challenging for laboratories especially with all of the new up-and-coming regulations, technologies and methods in the cannabis industry,” says Szerszen. “Laboratory testing is such a critical part of this industry and becoming accredited provides assurance that they are performing to the highest standard.”
As Szerszen points out, laboratory accreditation can provide a consumer that sense of confidence and trust in the product’s lab testing. “PJLA would like to commend DB Labs for achieving their ISO/IEC 17025:2005 accreditation and their commitment towards meeting the standard,” says Szerszen.
The news of their accreditation comes at an opportune time: With surging consumer demand at the outset of recreational sales, the state has raked in millions of dollars in sales within the first weekend. Recreational cannabis sales in Nevada began on July 1st, and a statewide cannabis product shortage recently led to Governor Sandoval issuing a statement of emergency, allowing more applications for distribution licenses to be considered.
Pennsylvania Medical Solutions, LLC (PAMS), won a license to grow medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, but some think the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PA DOH) should reconsider awarding that license. PAMS is a subsidiary of Vireo Health, which has medical cannabis licenses in New York and Minnesota, as well as quite the blemish on their business record. In December 2015, two former employees were accused of breaking state and federal laws by transporting cannabis oil from Minnesota to New York. Because of that history, some are questioning why exactly they were awarded the PA medical cannabis license.
In that school of thought is Chris Goldstein, a Philadelphia-based cannabis advocate and author of an article on Philly.com, which calls PAMS’ license into question. According to Goldstein, Vireo Health could lose their licenses in New York and Minnesota, and those former employees involved might even face federal prosecution. “On the surface it would seem that Vireo broke every rule in the book,” says Goldstein. “Not only could the company lose its permits in both of those states, but employees could face federal prosecution for interstate transport and distribution.” But does that previous wrongdoing by two former employees have any bearing on their application in PA? In Maryland, it did. According to The Baltimore Sun, concerns surrounding MaryMed’s parent company, Vireo Health, is the main reason why their permit to grow medical cannabis was revoked.
In response to some of those concerns about their PA license, Andrew Mangini, spokesman for Vireo Health, issued the following statement, which appeared in Goldstein’s article: “While we’re aware of allegations against two former employees of an affiliate, those individuals have never had a role in our application or in the management of PAMS,” says Mangini. “It’s also important to note that our Minnesota affiliate and our parent company Vireo Health have not been accused of any wrongdoing in connection with those allegations.”
Below is a timeline of events leading up to the PA DOH defending their decision to give PAMS a license:
December 2015: Two former employees of Minnesota Medical Solutions, a subsidiary of Vireo Health, transported a half-million dollars worth of cannabis oil from Minnesota to New York, violating state and federal laws.
February 9th, 2017: The two former employees were formally charged with crimes in Minnesota for illegally transporting cannabis across state lines.
February 20th-March 20th, 2017: PAMS submitted a license application to the PA DOH between these dates, listing their business state as Minnesota on the application.
May 2017: Maryland DOH suspended the licenses of MaryMed LLC, a subsidiary of Vireo Health, over concerns that the company did not provide information related to the Minnesota and New York licenses on their application, according to the Washington Post.
June 20th, 2017: PA DOH releases a list of license winners; PAMS was listed among winners for a cultivation license in Scranton.
June 26th, 2017: PA DOH officials defend their decision to award PAMS a license, according to a Philly.com article. That same day, The Baltimore Sun reported the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission revoked MaryMed, LLC their license, citing concerns about Vireo Health.
April Hutcheson, spokeswoman for the PA DOH, told Philly.com in June, “Remember, the permits are given to business entities, not people.” The point she is making refers to the charges being filed against former employees, not any of the businesses who hold medical cannabis licenses.
Steve Schain, Esq., an attorney with Hoban Law Group in Pennsylvania, has seen no objective evidence of anything wrongful in either PAMS’ application or the DOH’s processing of it. “Marijuana related businesses often have distinct, affiliated components and the Department of Health faces two critical issues,” says Schain.
“First, whether grow applicant PA Medical Solutions, LLC (PAMS) had a duty to disclose alleged wrongdoing on its application, failed to fulfill this duty and, if so, whether PAMS’ application should be amended, re-scored or disqualified. Second, as part of its ongoing license reporting requirements, whether grow licensee PAMS has any duty to disclose the alleged wrongdoing. The answer to much of this hinges on whether criminal or administrative charges were leveled against just Vireo Health’s former employees or also included the entity and whether these individuals or enterprise fell within Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Organization Permit Application definition of an “Applicant” (“individual or business applying for the permit”) or applicant’s “Principals, Financial Backers, Operators or Employees” of PAMS. Either way, it does not presently appear that the [PA] DOH missed anything.”
This does raise the question of whether or not Vireo Health is under investigation, which is yet to be determined. According to Goldstein in his Philly.com article, the Minnesota DOH declined to comment on Vireo Health and the New York DOH says the department’s investigation is ongoing. “The selection of a Vireo Health affiliate to grow and process medical cannabis in Pennsylvania has cast a serious shadow over the integrity of the program even before it has started,” says Goldstein.
In Maryland, the DOH revoked their license as a direct result of those former employees in Minnesota committing crimes, according to The Baltimore Sun. Commissioner Eric Sterling said there is “a reasonable likelihood of diversion of medical cannabis by the applicant.” So should Pennsylvania do the same? Do those crimes by former employees have any bearing on their application? This story raises a number of questions regarding applications for state licenses that are largely left unanswered. One thing we know for certain: each state handles applications very differently.
According to Todd Denkin, president of Digipath, that massive start hasn’t showed any signs of slowing. “I was in a dispensary yesterday and it was packed,” says Denkin. “There were 40 people in line and it was pouring rain outside.” He says the flow of customers to dispensaries hasn’t stopped since July 1st.
Because of that demand as well as the state’s testing requirements, Denkin is preparing to expand. “From a laboratory’s perspective, we expect a large increase in volume,” says Denkin. “Most of the medical cultivators we work with got their rec license as well so we’re working with a lot of the same clients and getting new clients on a regular basis.” Before the launch of recreational sales, DigiPath has been doing lab testing for medical cannabis for over two years.
Cindy Orser, PhD., chief science officer at Digipath, says they are on their way to receiving ISO 17025 accreditation via the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA). According to Orser, labs in Nevada must go out and do the sampling themselves, then bring the samples back to the lab for testing. The testing regulations overall seem relatively similar to what we’ve seen develop in other states with required pesticide testing and microbial screening. “We have a list of 24 pesticides, (two of them are plant growth regulators) that we monitor for,” says Orser. “We have specific allowable limits for that set of chemicals.” For microbial testing, Orser says they enumerate total aerobic count (TAC), total yeast and mold (TYM), pathogenic E. coli and Salmonella spp., enterobacteriaceae and bile-tolerant gram-negative, a subset of enterobacteria, as well as screening for mycotoxins. All of the testing in the state goes through just eleven laboratories, including DigiPath.
In preparing for expansion, they are looking at California in addition to other states. California released a set of draft regulations for lab testing in the spring, which many say is an example of regulatory overreach. “We still don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in California,” says Orser. “The draft regulations that have come out are so restrictive.” As Digipath looks toward expanding more in Nevada, California and other states, all eyes are on regulators proposing requirements for laboratory testing. “The future looks promising,” says Denkin.
This week, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) hosted their annual Cannabis Business Summit in Oakland, California amid some alarming news in Washington. On Monday, a letter written by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions back in early May made its way into the news, where he writes to Congress asking permission to prosecute medical cannabis businesses. The following day, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein spoke to the Congress Appropriations committee, saying that, “From a legal and scientific perspective, marijuana is an unlawful drug- it’s properly scheduled under Schedule 1.”
Those two statements identify the crystal-clear anti-cannabis stance of the two most senior-level officials at the Justice Department, a position that should alarm cannabis legalization advocates.
The former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, a prominent legalization advocate, gave a press conference at the NCIA event, where he gave reporters his thoughts on cannabis and drug legalization, the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. To be blunt, he called Sessions crazy and Trump destructive and ignorant.
“I don’t know what happened to this administration,” Fox told a room of reporters. “A large majority of US states have already approved the use of medical cannabis, which I think is a great thing,” says Fox. “The state of California by itself produces more marijuana than what we do in Mexico. There is a conflict between the frameworks of law… there is no consistency in public policy.” To be clear, the former Mexican president advocates legalizing all drugs, attributing the violence in Mexico to the failed War on Drugs. “I don’t think prohibition has worked and we [Mexico] have paid a huge price for that.”
Former Mexican president Fox’s focus on international politics during that press conference sheds some much-needed light on the violence and other externalities linked to organized crime and the black market drug trade. “We are going to stand firm against what is going on- it is not only the fate of the United States, it is the fate of the whole world,” says Fox. “It is a real shame for this nation in front of the world- we are all pissed off out there hearing this crazy tweeting and crazy public policies that has nothing to do with the soul of this nation… No nation can isolate [themselves] behind a wall and still succeed.”
According to a press release, the National Association of Cannabis Businesses (NACB) launches today, becoming the first self-regulatory organization (SRO) for the cannabis industry. With their mission to help compliance, transparency and growth of cannabis companies, they will lead member businesses in establishing voluntary national standards, addressing issues like advertising and financial integrity.
A team of experienced legal regulatory professionals will lead member businesses through a process of developing those standards. Andrew Kline, president of the NACB, was a senior advisor to Vice President and then-Senator Joseph Biden, served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the District of Columbia and in the Enforcement Bureau of the FCC. Their chief executive officer, Joshua Laterman, began working on NACB three years ago, but before that he had two decades of experience as general counsel at global financial and investment institutions. Doug Fischer, their chief legal officer and director of standards, spent the past nine years in cannabis law and financial regulation and enforcement at the law firm Cadwalader Wickersham and Taft.
According to the press release, SROs have proven to be effective in other industries at limiting government interference and overregulation, while preserving public safety. FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) is an example of an SRO that serves the financial industry. It is a non-governmental organization that helps regulate member brokerage firms and exchange markets, working to help their members stay compliant with regulations set by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Much like the rapid growth of the financial markets over the past 30 years, the cannabis industry is experiencing exponential growth while regulators try to keep up.
“The cannabis industry is on a historical growth trajectory that is expected to continue for years to come, but even the most established, well-run businesses recognize that the future favors the prepared,” says Josh Laterman, CEO of NACB. “As other industries have experienced with their SROs, establishing and committing to voluntary national standards will enable cannabis business owners to demonstrate impeccable business and compliance practices to consumers, regulators, banks and investors.”
According to Doug Fischer, chief legal officer and director of standards, they will focus on a variety of topics that align with the federal enforcement priorities. So these standards might not cover some of the product safety and quality aspects that ASTM International and FOCUS touch on, rather addressing issues like advertising, financial integrity, preventing diversion across state lines, prevention of youth use and corporate responsibility. Another important distinction to make is that an organization like ASTM International sets standards, but the NACB as an SRO is tasked with enforcing them as well.
“From our perspective, businesses have been having a hard time navigating the complex state regulations, particularly those operating in multiple states,” says Fischer. “That is further complicated by the current administration not solidifying their stance on recreational cannabis.” The Cole Memo put out under the Obama Administration set clear federal enforcement priorities, allowing cannabis businesses and states to identify ways to avoid federal government interference or prosecution.
The current administration has done nothing but fuel regulatory uncertainty. This is particularly important given this week’s news regarding the leaders at the Justice Department making inflammatory and threatening statements regarding legal medical cannabis. “It causes these businesses, who should be focused on their own day-to-day operations, instead focusing on complying with what they think the federal government wants and regulatory compliance with state regulations,” says Fischer. “We can help solve that problem by making it easier for companies to become compliant, not only with state regulations but federal guidance as well. This has been proven by other SROs, that if we set our own standards and abide by them, federal regulators might be guided by the industry’s self-policing in determining how to regulate the cannabis industry.” According to Andrew Kline, it could also provide a window of opportunity for better banking access.
The founder and CEO, Joshua Laterman, used to work in the banking industry and recognized the need for a cannabis industry SRO. “He saw an incredible opportunity in a projected $50 billion market by 2026, and as a former banker he saw the opportunity for banks to do business in the industry, but they don’t know who to trust,” says Kline. “Starting a self regulatory organization can help fill that void, allowing companies to identify and put a stamp of approval on a segment of the population that is uber-compliant, therefore giving banks a view into who they should and shouldn’t do business with.” While it won’t immediately resolve the many issues associated with cannabis businesses’ accounting, the NACB could be a major help to smaller businesses looking to prove their worth. “The important point here is that based on the experience of our team, we know what is important to the federal government, and we understand that members will be shaping standards with us, so we will also guide them to federal priorities,” says Kline.
Fischer says a self-regulatory organization is always driven by the industry and needs of the members, but they have the added unique challenge of working in a web of competing governmental interests. “Self-regulatory organizations can shape the future of regulation; we don’t know if or when federal prohibition will end, but if it does, the government is going to look at a variety of areas for regulations,” says Fischer. “We might be able to help shed light on our self-regulating nature and if we can demonstrate the best practices for specific areas, states and even the federal government could look to that, giving our members an advantage.” According to their press release, licensed cannabis growers, dispensaries or any other ancillary business may apply to become members. Some of the founding members include Buds & Roses, Etain, Green Dot Labs, Local Product of Colorado, Matrix NV, Mesa Organics, among others.
Those rules cover everything from sampling standard operating procedures to detection limits for pesticide analytes, which some say are absurdly strict as is. According to Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D, chief executive officer of The Werc Shop, a cannabis consulting firm located in Monrovia, CA, these rules will immediately raise prices. “The regulations are quite extensive and will undoubtedly drive the costs of patient medicine upward,” says Raber. “Regulations are not intended to be so detailed in these fashions, but are supposed to provide the floor and specific framework upon which operators can build best practices and differentiate themselves from others in a competitive market that drives prices downward.”
“Comparable guidance from other states operating today, and even federal regulations, are not nearly as specific in certain aspects,” says Raber. “While there are some very good parts to the current draft, and the bureau has certainly aimed to provide strong consumer protections, as they should, the idea of benzene even being mentioned or possibly permitted, or a completely cold transportation chain being required, and pesticide levels so low it pushes the limits of the most sophisticated and modern analytical equipment while going far past sensible EPA limits, strongly suggests there is work to be done to dial back the current position and make for far more workable and fully balanced regulations before they are fully finalized.”
It is important to note that nothing is set in stone yet. The bureau will hold four public hearings throughout the month of June for the lab testing rules. In addition to that, concerned stakeholders can send written comments through June 20th.
Dave Egerton, vice president of technical operations at CW Analytical, a cannabis-testing lab based in Oakland, is pleased they are finally regulating the market, but definitely plans on providing some feedback to change the rules a bit. “CW Analytical applauds the state’s efforts to regulate laboratories and the cannabis industry in general,” says Egerton. “…Many aspects of the proposed regulations for labs will make for a marked shift in the way our businesses operate, but the motivation behind them is well-intended.” His sentiment is consistent with many who operate cannabis laboratories and other stakeholders who see these proposed rules as overreach.
“Unfortunately, some of the regulations as written will create undo burden upon the industry and carry a strong probability of limiting supply to medical patients,” says Egerton. “During the current review period, CA laboratories will be providing feedback on some of the details within the law in order to streamline their quality assurance goals into a more tenable document that still protects patients.” That public comment period is a crucial part of the rulemaking process, as the rules will most likely change after cannabis laboratories’ voices are heard.