On Thursday, March 8, 2018, Duane Morris hosted the Bay Area Women Grow Signature Networking Event in our San Francisco office. Our panel speakers included Duane Morris partner Jennifer Briggs Fisher, who specializes in providing regulatory and compliance advice to cannabis companies, and Nicole Elliott, the Director of the San Francisco Office of Cannabis. The panel was moderated by Women Grow Co-Founder Jazmin Hupp.
Our panel speakers addressed the cannabis business permitting process in San Francisco, the equity applicant program, requirements for licenses from the State of California, and legal and compliance considerations for cannabis businesses. It was a fantastic way to celebrate International Women’s Day!
Although, in making the above comments, Sessions was clear that marijuana was still illegal in the U.S., he appears to have drawn a box around those types of marijuana-related criminal activities on which federal prosecutors are focused. The above comments are not inconsistent with the Sessions memo of January 4, 2018, and may help clarify what prosecutorial discretion looks like under that memo. Based on the above comments, it would seem that activities conducted pursuant to state marijuana programs are not the types of activities on which federal prosecutors are focused.
On Tuesday, March 6, 2018, the Cannabis Control Commission (the “Commission”) unanimously agreed to final regulations for adult-use cannabis in the State of Massachusetts. These regulations have not yet been published, but the Commission indicates that they will “incorporate language approved at [today’s] meeting into the final regulations before filing them with the Secretary of State.” There are nine licensing categories, which are intended to meet the varying needs of the cannabis industry. The material departures from the draft regulations adopted in December 2017 include:
On-site consumption and delivery of cannabis are not yet permitted, but regulations for these activities are expected to be released within one year.
Dispensaries will have to reserve at least 35% of their inventory for medical cannabis patients if they are co-located with a registered marijuana dispensary.
Licensees growing cannabis will be limited to 100,000 square feet of canopy
Any person with drug trafficking convictions will be banned from the industry, except if such convictions are related to cannabis.
The Commission is still committed to authorizing legal sales of adult-use cannabis by July 1, 2018, but there could be delays from individual municipalities in the adoption of their own regulations and permits. In order to meet this goal, the Commission anticipates accepting adult-use license applications starting on April 1, 2018, and the first adult-use licenses being issued to cannabis establishments on June 1, 2018. Priority status will be given to Economic Empowerment Applicants (applicants from communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana-related crimes) and to licensees of Registered Marijuana Dispensaries (licensees of medical dispensaries), which is consistent with the draft regulations.
Another breakthrough for the cannabis space occurred on Tuesday, February 27, 2018, when Toronto-based Cronos Group Inc. began trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market. (MJN:CN). This marks the first listing of a company focused purely on cannabis on a major U.S. stock exchange. The listing of Cronos comes within two months of the memorandum issued by Attorney General Sessions that rescinded the federal government’s previous guidance regarding enforcement of state-lawful cannabis activities under the Cole Memorandum. That earlier guidance is credited with providing the cannabis space with a window of opportunity for the warp-speed growth the space has seen in recent years. The Sessions memo was intended to slow the growth of the cannabis space, especially with respect to the capital markets. The Nasdaq listing of Cronos suggests that 2018 could be another strong year for cannabis-related investments; 2017 was believed to have resulted in approximately $2 billion in cannabis-related investments in the U.S.
As the values of transactions in the cannabis industry grow, commercial litigation is certain to follow. One reason for this is that lawyers may be more inclined to represent clients on a contingency fee basis. Where the value of a cannabis transaction is small, the expense of litigation may not be worthwhile for an individual or business feeling cheated, and any settlement or judgment would likely not cover the costs of an attorneys’ contingency fee. However, where the value of a cannabis transaction is sufficiently high, say the upper six-figures or more, a lawyer may be more inclined to take the case for a contingency fee because the lawyer’s percentage of any recovery is likely to be greater than the costs the lawyer will incur in litigating the matter. A contingency fee arrangement may also be utilized to the advantage of a party that believes threatened or actual litigation might shift the leverage in negotiations and result in more attractive commercial terms.
A recently filed action captioned Silver v. High Street Capital et al., 2:18-cv-00020 (E.D. PA. 1/3/18), appears to result from the type of high value transaction that might warrant a contingency fee in a commercial litigation. The plaintiff, industry consultant Harris Silver alleges that, in connection with their bid to obtain a license to grow and process cannabis pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program, defendant High Street Capital and other defendants associated with High Street promised Silver a lucrative compensation package, including (a) $180,000 to prepare the license application; (b) a $150,000 cash bonus upon the granting of a license and a 4% non-dilutable equity stake in any licensee; and (c) a salaried position with the licensee. Silver claims that notwithstanding his work on the High Street application, for which a permit was granted, the High Street defendants never paid Silver the valuable consideration that was contingent on the permit being granted. Thus, based on a host of factual allegations detailing various communications he had with the High Street defendants, and other allegations detailing his efforts on their behalf, Harris asserted claims against the High Street defendants for breach of contract, common law fraud, promissory estoppel, unjust enrichment, securities fraud and civil conspiracy. Continue reading Contingency Fees and Commercial Litigation Hit the Cannabis Space→
Vermont’s Republican Governor, Phil Scott, reluctantly signed legislation today fully legalizing the adult use of cannabis in the Green Mountain State. This makes Vermont the ninth state (plus the District of Columbia) to have fully legalized cannabis. It is the third northeast state to legalize, along with Maine and Massachusetts.
The Governor had vetoed a previous bill but apparently had his issues addressed in the newly passed legislation. Commercial and private sales of cannabis will not be allowed, but individuals will be permitted to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and grow two mature plants in their home. Public use is not permitted, and no taxes will be collected by the state. Penalties for possession of larger amounts also will be adjusted.
Vermont’s action also represents the first state to legalize cannabis through legislation rather than voter referendum. It is expected that New Jersey soon will do the same under new Gov. Phil Murphy. Several other states are considering a similar path.
In his annual budget address yesterday, NY Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his plan to form a task force to study possible legalization of the adult use of cannabis in the Empire State. Currently the state permits the sale of cannabis only for medical reasons.
Less than a year ago, Cuomo referred to cannabis as a gateway drug and was widely perceived not to be supportive of legalization. Observers believe, however, that politics may be forcing his hand. Neighboring New Jersey’s new Governor Murphy has announced his intention to legalize adult use of cannabis there. In addition, a potential Republican opponent to Cuomo’s reelection this year has announced his support of legalization in New York.
Currently, while cannabis remains illegal under US federal law, eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use. More states are expected to approve legal sales later this year in the November elections. Others, like New Jersey, are considering legalization through legislation as opposed to voter referendum. As we know, California’s adult use program was launched to great fanfare on January 1 of this year.
New York, with nearly 20 million people, is the fourth largest US state. This creates the potential for a significant market for legal cannabis sales, state tax and tourism revenues and job creation. Legalization could be particularly helpful for New York’s struggling upstate region, which has not seen major job growth in the current economic recovery.
Forming a task force is a long way from legalization and the opening of cannabis stores in Times Square. Cuomo will center the proposed study within the NY Department of Health, which currently oversees the medical marijuana program. He is asking that the task force look at the economic and health impact of legalization.
As we get ready to stick a fork in 2017, the speculation has begun as to which US states might consider legalizing full adult use of cannabis next year. Many are betting on these five: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Nebraska. And of course New Jersey is expected to legalize adult use under new Governor-elect Phil Murphy. Certainly an interesting mix! Some don’t even have legal medical cannabis yet and would try to do both at the same time. Of these one would think Arizona, NJ and Florida, particular tourist destinations already, could really benefit from legalization.
Why does this matter? For several reasons. First, the steamroller that is the state legalization and growing public acceptance of adult use of cannabis is clearly strengthening. Second, knowing which states may be next creates business opportunities. For example, real estate speculators can buy up locations that might be useful for growing, processing or selling cannabis. In the absence of federal trademark registration being available, seeking state trademarks on potential brands in these upcoming locations also could be beneficial. Others like technology providers are working to ensure that states’ regulatory schemes are designed to accommodate their products.
We will learn shortly whether the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, preventing the spending of federal enforcement dollars against state legal medical cannabis businesses, will survive in the next budget bill. Some are challenging its renewal, but a strong bi-partisan effort to retain it has been building as well. As more states look to legalize cannabis, one hopes that the Feds will continue their prior mostly hands off approach from a regulatory perspective, despite the recent threatening tone of the Attorney General Jeff Sessions.