In June 2020, John W. Elias, a prosecutor in the United States Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, testified to the U.S. House Committee Judiciary that investigations of cannabis mergers were pursued based on Attorney General William Barr’s personal dislike for the cannabis industry rather than legitimate antitrust issues. Specifically, Elias testified, among other things, that since March 2019, the Antitrust Division has conducted ten investigations of mergers in the cannabis industry. Further, Elias testified that, “While these were nominally antitrust investigations, and used antitrust investigative authorities, they were not bona fide antitrust investigations.” Elias went on to state that, with respect to a proposed $682 million merger between two cannabis companies, MedMen and PharmaCann, career staff in the Antitrust Division initially examined the transaction to determine whether there should be no investigation, a brief investigation or a full investigation. Upon conclusion of its review, career staff determined that “the cannabis industry appeared to be fragmented with many market participants in the states that had legalized the product.” Accordingly, staff concluded that the proposed combination between MedMen and PharmaCann was “unlikely to raise any significant competitive concerns.”
To assert a federal antitrust claim, a plaintiff must have standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution and must also have suffered an injury of the type the antitrust laws were intended to prevent and that flows from that which makes defendants acts unlawful. Brunswick Corp. v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, Inc., 429 U.S. 477, 489 (1977). The Brunswick standard generally benefits consumers who have paid artificially high prices as a result of a defendant’s anticompetitive conduct, or a competitor of a defendant that abused its market power to compete unfairly.
The federal antitrust laws, including the Brunswick standard, are one of the many protections intended to keep competitors on an even playing field and striving to beat one another by offering the optimal combination of quality and price to consumers, and to protect consumers from overreaching and opportunistic manufacturers that use nefarious means to impose a price they would be otherwise unable to charge. These laws have been critical in shaping industries.
However, it may be that the federal antitrust laws are among the federal laws unavailable to cannabis industry participants, as the federal antitrust laws are limited to commerce “among the states,” i.e., interstate commerce. Because cannabis is still prohibited under the Controlled Substances Act, its legal manufacture and distribution is generally limited to intrastate activities. Thus, competition for legal cannabis is, by and large, necessarily intrastate. Fortunately, most states have antitrust laws that mirror federal antitrust laws, and borrow from the federal judicial precedent they have generated. However, as a general matter, the federal courts and federal judges are more experienced than the state courts in the complex economics underlying most antirust matters.
For the burgeoning cannabis industry, this may be yet another problem arising out of the federal prohibition of cannabis. It means that consumers of cannabis products, such as cannabis, vapes, edibles, and possibly ancillary flower-touching products, may not be protected from inflated prices resulting from anticompetitive conduct, such as price-fixing agreements or agreements to allocate markets, and competitors for those products may not be able to ensure a level playing field with the largest companies, allowing the powerful companies to take advantage of their position by inflating prices.
The bottom line is that as the cannabis industry continues its growth at breakneck speed, manufacturers of cannabis, cannabis-infused, and cannabis-related products, may be tempted to engage in the types of anticompetitive conduct the federal antitrust laws are best able to correct, with the help of experienced federal judges, and consumers of those products may unfortunately be exposed to artificially inflated price increases flowing from such conduct left unchecked. While not all cannabis manufacturers or cannabis-related products are limited to competing in a single state, the bulk are.
To this point, the role the federal antitrust laws (or state for that matter) can play in shaping the cannabis industry has not been tested. That day may be on the horizon, however, as some companies continue to grow into industry giants, while others struggle to compete. Cannabis space participants, especially the larger players, should be aware of the compliance measures taken in other industries to protect themselves from the possibility of antitrust claims brought by their competitors or consumers.