All posts by DuaneMorris3

Neville Bilimoria Quoted on FDA Rules in Cannabis Era

Duane Morris partner Neville M. Bilimoria is quoted in the Law360 article, “CBD Rules In Limbo As FDA Grapples With New Cannabis Era.”

Hemp may have been legalized less than a year ago, but CBD derived from it is already on its way to becoming a multibillion-dollar industry. However, sales of everything from CBD gummies to lattes are occurring in a legal gray area as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration struggles with regulating the largely unstudied ingredient. […]

“This is a watershed year for the FDA and its coming to grips with the increasing demand from the consumer public over marijuana, cannabis, CBD, hemp. It’s trying to catch up to what the consumers are touting as being therapeutic uses for CBD and THC,” Mr. Bilimoria said. “It’s basically saying, ‘Wait, everybody slow down. We’re the FDA. We rely on science before we can approve any uses and regulate any uses of cannabis or CBD.'” […]

Mr. Bilimoria said he can’t blame the FDA for “taking it slow,” but said doing so is frustrating when CBD is already all over store shelves. […]

To read the full article, visit the Law360 website (subscription required).

Michigan Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Prohibiting State’s Emergency Ban of Flavored Nicotine Products From Taking Effect

By Joe Pangaro, Associate, and Jessica Linse, Law Clerk, Duane Morris LLP

On September 18, 2019, Michigan became one of the first states to impose a ban on flavored e-cigarettes. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (“MDHHS”) issued emergency regulations that stated, in part, that a retailer shall not “[s]ell, offer for sale, give, transport, or otherwise distribute, nor possess with intent to sell, give, or otherwise distribute a flavored nicotine vapor product.” The ban went into effect immediately upon the release of the emergency regulations and was supposed to last for six months.

Shortly thereafter a local vape shop owner filed suit in state court against MDHHS, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and the State of Michigan seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the emergency rules from going into effect.  See Marc Slis, et al. v. State of Michigan et at., Nos. 19-000152-MZ, 19-000154-MZ (Mich. Ct. Cl., Oct. 15, 2019). At the preliminary injunction hearing, one plaintiff testified the emergency rules forced him to “shutter[] his business and that his customers have been obtaining their flavored vaping products from Wisconsin.”  Id. at 7. Another presented evidence that the emergency rules “ban plaintiff from using its tradename and branding.” Id. The court found both harms constituted “irreparable harm” necessary for preliminary injunction.

The court also found the Plaintiffs established a likelihood of success on the merits of their claims, because the MDHHS rules were procedurally invalid under Michigan law. Id. at 8.  Specifically, an agency must comply with standard procedures for the promulgation of new rules except in “emergency” situations, and the Court did not find there was a “genuine emergency” that warranted circumventing the standard rule-making process with respect to flavored nicotine vaping. “The plaintiffs have convinced the Court that defendants’ proffered reasons for the emergency declaration have fallen short.  It is not enough under [Michigan law] for DHHS to merely identify a problem.”  Id. at 10.

The court also considered the potential harm to the public that would result from allowing the ban to be enacted. After recognizing “compelling interests on both sides of the issue,” the court cited witnesses for the Plaintiffs that testified about their improved health after switching from traditional tobacco products to e-cigarettes. “Thus, plaintiffs have presented evidence that at least some segment of the population will be harmed by the vaping ban.” Id. at 14. Ultimately, after carefully weighing all factors pertinent to granting a preliminary injunction, the court concluded the Plaintiffs carried their burden, and issued a preliminary injunction preventing Michigan’s emergency rules from going into effect.

The Michigan ban of flavored e-cigarettes is significant because many other states around the country have since enacted similar bans, either through emergency regulation or executive order. These states include Rhode Island, Oregon, New York, Washington, Missouri and Montana, and the city of Los Angeles.  Each of these bans may face similar challenges in the near future, and this court’s decision to block the emergency rules, which is in line with another recent ruling by a District Court in Indiana, indicate that such challenges may be successful.

Duane Morris Named One of America’s Top Trusted Corporate Law Firms

Duane Morris has been named one of America’s Top Trusted Corporate Law Firms by Forbes.

The publication writes:

More than 13 million attorneys practice at more than 400,000 law firms in the U.S., according to the American Bar Association, and those firms are becoming increasingly specialized. … Many firms have been expanding into new areas of law necessitated by the emergence of technologies such as blockchain and of state laws legalizing cannabis use. …

[Duane Morris] has a growing and strong focus on the legal cannabis industry, partnering with the American Trade Association of Cannabis and Hemp and representing cannabis companies in one of the first public cannabis industry mergers, a $640 million deal.

For more information, visit the Forbes website.

Duane Morris Partner Jennifer Briggs Fisher Quoted in CNBC Article, “Underbanked Cannabis Industry Struggles to Finance Double-digit Growth, Leaving Business Owners Empty-handed”

Harmony Dispensary, a medical marijuana cultivator and dispensary in Secaucus, New Jersey, has a Zen-looking shopfront with light green walls, clean glass shelves showcasing various offerings, and a line of modern-looking cannabis-related products — a pipe, herb grinder and stash jar — all emblazoned with the Harmony logo.

Since its opening in 2018, the dispensary has serviced thousands of customers, but it has struggled to hold on to a bank account. “We approached six institutions to support our banking needs and were eventually dumped from all three that agreed to work with us,” Shaya Brodchandel, chief executive of Harmony Dispensary, said. In each case, Harmony received no warning from the banks, just a check in the mail, forcing them to scramble for solutions to pay suppliers, bills, staff and conduct general business.

[…]

“Cannabis is already a risky environment, and you face additional risk when engaging in new solutions that are brought into the market and not necessarily backed by solid financial institutions,” said Jennifer Briggs Fisher, partner at Duane Morris in San Francisco, who leads the firm’s cannabis industry group.

[…]

To read the full article, visit the CNBC website.

SAFE Banking Act Passes the House – Cannabis Banking May Soon Be Reality

By Joseph J. Pangaro, Justin M. L. Stern, David E. Landau, Seth A. Goldberg and Michael S. Zullo

On Wednesday evening, September 25, by a vote of 321 to 103, the United States House of Representatives took a meaningful step toward easing federal restrictions that have limited the access of cannabis businesses to banking services notwithstanding the growth of the cannabis industry by passing the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (“SAFE Banking Act”). The public safety concerns resulting from the dearth of cannabis banking has led dozens of state Attorneys General, the American Banking Association, and numerous other voices to urge the passage of legislation like the SAFE Banking Act so that the U.S. cannabis industry, which now exceeds $10 billion in annual sales revenues, not to mention hundreds of millions in state tax revenues, will benefit from the same banking services – checking accounts, payroll, and credit cards, to name a few – that are common to virtually all other U.S. businesses.  Passage of the SAFE Banking Act in the Senate would be liberating for the cannabis industry, as banking services will stimulate even more growth and better business practices, while eliminating the overhang of public safety concerns relating to large cash transactions.  Below is: (i) a brief summary of the history leading to this point; (ii) the key provisions of the SAFE Banking Act of 2019; and (iii) a preview of what comes next.

History of Marijuana Regulation and Banking Implications

  • Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”):[1] Marijuana is a federally unlawful Schedule I drug under the CSA, 21 U.S.C. § at § 841(a), and direct and indirect (conspiracy and aiding abetting) violations carry stiff criminal and civil penalties, including forfeiture. at §§  841(b), 853.
  •  Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and Money Laundering Control Act (“MLCA”): The BSA and MLCA obligate banks to root out financial transactions involving “unlawful” activities and thus banks must comply with BSA reporting requirements for suspicious transactions and must have robust customer diligence and MLCA programs.
  • 2014 FinCEN[2] Guidance: In an effort to stimulate cannabis banking, FinCEN issued Guidance in 2014 that clarified BSA expectations of financial institutions by describing how financial institutions can provide services to cannabis businesses consistent with their BSA obligations. This Guidance included stringent customer due diligence obligations and a special category of suspicious activity reporting (SAR) for marijuana-related businesses. The 2014 Guidance created three types of marijuana SAR filings: (i) “Marijuana Limited”; (ii) “Marijuana Priority”; and (iii) “Marijuana Termination.”

Reluctant Banking and Public Safety Concerns

Notwithstanding FinCen’s Guidance, the CSA, the Bank Secrecy Act, and the MLCA have presented significant obstacles for banks interested in providing their services to cannabis companies that “touch the flower” and even companies that provide ancillary services to the cannabis industry. Most financial institutions, including commercial banks, investment banks, and insurance companies, have avoided the core and ancillary cannabis companies.  For example, FinCen last reported that as of March 2019, only 633 of the 8,700 FDIC insured or supervised financial institutions are servicing marijuana-related business.

This widespread abstention has had a significant impact on the cannabis industry. An overwhelming portion of the $10 billion plus cannabis industry is comprised of cash transactions — purchases are made in cash, employees are paid in cash, accounts payable, including rent and other bills are paid in cash, even state taxes are paid in cash. Cannabis businesses may not have checking accounts or payroll services, cannot process credit cards, and are forced to find private lenders at high interest rates.

Public safety is at risk due to the volume of cannabis cash that is going untracked by the U.S. banking system.  There is an increased risk of theft, and there have even been claims for ransom and violent crimes. Businesses may not carry enough insurance for their premises and products. Accurate record-keeping, accounting, and the calculation and payment of state and local taxes is challenged. Most importantly, the transparency objectives of the BSA are undermined, as cannabis companies often engage in corporate structuring intended to provide some access to banking, even if not directly. In addition, it is widely understood that some FDIC banks simply turn a blind eye, and provide services to cannabis businesses without reporting.

Key SAFE Banking Act Provisions

Although the SAFE Banking Act contains numerous important provisions, below are three of the most significant.

SAR Filings

The SAFE Banking Act does not do away with the requirement to file SARs. However, it does mandate that FinCEN issue revised guidance concerning SAR filings that “is consistent with the purpose and intent of the SAFE Banking Act of 2019 and does not significantly inhibit the provision of financial services to a cannabis-related legitimate business or service provider in a State.”

Protections for Financial Institutions

Further, the SAFE Banking Act would protect financial institutions against adverse actions by federal banking regulators—such as limiting or terminating the insurance provided under the Federal Deposit Insurance Act or the Federal Credit Union Act—taken solely on the basis of the financial institutions’ provision of banking services to cannabis businesses operating in accordance with state law or their service providers. The bill also prohibits regulators from discouraging institutions from providing financial services to such businesses or from incentivizing banks or credit unions to refuse, terminate, or downgrade accounts held by those engaged in the cannabis industry (such as owners or employees of cannabis businesses). Similarly, the bill provides that banks or other financial institutions providing financial services to legitimate cannabis businesses in states or jurisdictions where the cannabis business is lawfully operating will not, because of their dealings with such cannabis businesses, be held liable under federal law either for providing the financial services or for investing income derived from the provision of such services. The result of these protections is that financial institutions would, under the SAFE Banking Act, be able and thus more willing to provide cannabis businesses with routine services that companies in other industries take for granted, i.e., the processing of credit card transactions, the maintenance of operating and payroll checking accounts, etc.

Protections for Ancillary Businesses

The bill also provides protections for so-called “ancillary” businesses; under the SAFE Banking Act, receipt of money by a legitimate business or service provider, through a transaction with a cannabis business, would not on that basis result in the ancillary business’ violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957, concerning transactions involving the proceeds of illegal activity. This protection would extend to ancillary business service providers such as accountants, lawyers, bankers, and landlords, as well as to sellers of goods or services to cannabis businesses, such as cable and internet providers.

Conclusions – What to Expect

Having passed the House, the bill now moves to the Senate where, despite its bipartisan support, its fate is unclear. Senator McConnell, the Senate Majority leader who was instrumental in the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, has not shown much interest in the bill yet. Yet Senator Crapo, Chairman of the Banking Committee, however, has hinted he may be interested in the legislation. Given the strong vote count with which the House passed the bill, pressure may start to mount for Senate action, particularly in light of the broad based coalition that came together to pass the House bill. The Senate should have the very real public safety concerns resulting from the dearth of cannabis banking in plain view when it votes.

[1] 21 U.S.C. § 801 et. seq.

[2] Financial Crimes Enforcement Network

FTC Warning Letters and Reports of Vaping-Related Illnesses Hit Cannabis Industry

The past week has shown the challenges that the cannabis industry supply chain—manufacturers, processors, distributors and dispensaries—faces, as regulators target claims relating to the health benefits of CBD and media outlets report, without any scientific evidence, that cannabis vaping may be linked to lung illnesses, and, as of the issuing of this Alert, the Trump administration is reported to be poised to ban flavored nicotine vaping. These kinds of issues could spur claims against cannabis industry participants for consumer fraud, personal injury and products liability, and heighten the scrutiny of cannabis products by federal and state regulators.

On September 10, 2019, the Federal Trade Commission announced that it had sent warning letters to three unidentified businesses “that sell oils, tinctures, capsules, ‘gummies,’ and creams” containing hemp-derived CBD, concerning health-related claims about the benefits of their CBD products. Although the FTC did not release the warning letters or identify the recipients, the FTC’s press release announcing the warning letters explained that the letters were issued to reinforce that “it is illegal to advertise that a product can prevent, treat, or cure human disease without competent and reliable scientific evidence to support such claims.”

View the full Alert on the Duane Morris LLP website.