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

By Laura A. Bianchi
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Laura Bianchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate Committee Votes to Keep Medical Cannabis Protections

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

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

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

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

 

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.