On August 15, 2018, Constellation Brands, which owns popular beer, wine and spirits products, such as Corona, Robert Mondavi and High West, announced it is investing $4 billion in Canopy Growth, which is one of the leading investors in the global legal cannabis market. The announcement boosted Cannabis market stocks in the US and Canada, and is likely to catch the eye of big alcohol, big tobacco, big pharma and larger consumer products companies that have been interested in entering the growing legal marijuana markets. More and more companies once-hesitant about doing so are finding that good counsel can help them navigate the regulatory hurdles that might otherwise stand in the way of profiting from this exciting market.
Just weeks after Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo) introduced bi-partisan legislation to make marijuana lawful under a state’s marijuana laws also lawful under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced legislation removing marijuana from the CSA altogether on Wednesday, June 27. Schumer’s bill also comes just one day after Oklahoman’s passed legislation legalizing medical marijuana in their traditionally red state, and one day before the U.S. Senate passed legislation legalizing hemp for all purposes, including extracts from hemp, such as cannabidiol.
By removing from the purview of the CSA, state-legal cannabis and proceeds derived therefrom, the Warren/Gardner legislation, if passed, would likely have the effect of nationwide legalization, but state operators and consumers would still need to be concerned about marijuana’s Schedule 1 status under the CSA, whereas the Schumer bill, if passed, would eliminate those concerns by removing marijuana from the CSA.
In speaking at the Georgetown Law Center on March 10, 2018, AG Sessions said the following: “We’re not going to be able, even if we desire, to take over state enforcement of routine cases that might occur. Federal agents are highly paid, highly trained. They work on cases involving cartels, international organizations, major distribution networks, large amounts of cash. They deal with criminal organizations, RICO type cases, and we’re not out there prosecuting those types of cases everyday.”
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.
With the election of Phil Murphy as New Jersey Governor in 2017, the possibility of New Jersey becoming one of the next states to pass recreational marijuana legislation became very real, as this was among the issues key to Murphy’s campaign.
On Tuesday, January 9, 2018, less than one week after AG Sessions issued guidance to all US Attorneys rescinding Obama-era policies deprioritizing the federal prosecution of state-lawful cannabis-related activities, that possibility became more of a likelihood, as New Jersey Sen. Nicholas Scutari introduced Senate Bill 830, which would allow for the cultivation, sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes in New Jersey by those 21 and older.
The legislation proposes adults would be permitted to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused products in solids, 72 ounces in liquid form, 7 grams of concentrate and up to six immature plants, and establishes a sales tax on marijuana that would rise incrementally from 7 percent to 25 percent over five years.
With New Jersey’s large population, and proximity to Manhattan and Philadelphia, the recreational cannabis market in New Jersey will likely dwarf most other states that have legalized adult-use.
On January 1, 2018, hundreds of California residents lined up outside just licensed cannabis retail dispensaries to purchase newly legal recreational marijuana. The founder of Buddy’s dispensary in San Jose, which holds one of California’s first recreational marijuana licenses, described it as the busiest day in the dispensary’s history. The California cannabis industry is projected to reach profits of $3.7 billion dollars in 2018 alone. Projections indicate there could be up to 4 million consumers of recreational marijuana in California. This huge opportunity has many new entrepreneurs, including celebrities like Mike Tyson, pursuing the cannabis business.
Under the new law, Californians over the age of 21 can now possess up to an ounce of marijuana, eight grams of marijuana concentrate, and grow up to six plants at home for their personal use. While public consumption is still banned, the new framework gives recreational users new flexibility. Those on the business side of recreational cannabis, however, still have a lot to consider before diving into this new market.
This is especially true given the news today that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is rescinding an Obama-era directive discouraging enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states where cannabis is legal. We will know more about how this decision will impact the California market after the announcement is officially made by AG Sessions later today. For now, we will provide an update on the first week of recreational cannabis sales in California.
Articles appearing this week in the LA Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among other recent articles, highlight the horrors of the opioid crisis and the need for research into cannabis as a possible solution. While the federal government warns about the spiraling toll of the opioid epidemic, it refuses to grant the applications of world-renowned scientists at major universities and research centers seeking to explore the ways in which the well-documented therapeutic properties of cannabis can alleviate the pain and suffering – physical, emotional and financial – being caused by opioid abuse. There is no shortage of deep pockets willing to fund the research, and US-based scientists are ready, willing and able to get to work, yet the federal government refuses to depart from its antiquated “reefer madness” established in the early 20th Century. 2018 should be the year the federal government stops blocking cannabis research so that scientists can determine if and how cannabis can stem the opioid crisis. Fingers crossed!
Exciting times in Pennsylvania!! After (i) medical marijuana was legalized in PA in April 2016, (ii) the PA government received more than 900 applications for permits to grow, process and/or dispense in March 2017, and (iii) 12 permits were awarded to grow/process and 27 permits were award to dispense in June 2017, the first grower/processor has been approved to operate, meaning marijuana will now be lawfully grown in PA.
Attend any of the conferences or trade shows springing up in the emerging legalized recreational and medical marijuana space, and one thing you’ll notice is an absence of racial diversity. Why?
There are a number of possible explanations for the comparatively low number of minorities participating in the space, including, high start-up costs and restricted access to capital, especially given the reluctance of commercial banks to enter the fray, and limited political ties in a highly politicized system. Those reasons alone could be creating barriers for minorities to enter the market as owners and investors. Continue reading Racial Discrimination in the Legal Cannabis Space: New Industry, Same Old Story???
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.
Last week, in a both exciting and sobering press release, Canada announced a plan to fully “legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access” to cannabis in the Great White North. The release starts bluntly: “The current approach to cannabis does not work.”
The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau clearly favors both medical and recreational cannabis legalization. They retain strong concerns, however, about the ease with which teenagers are able to obtain marijuana, as well as alcohol and drug-impaired driving. Thus, their new plan, dubbed the Cannabis Act, will strengthen penalties for impaired driving and selling marijuana to minors.
The hope, as indicated in the press release, is to work with the legislature to implement full cannabis legalization by July 2018. A surprising number of great things were invented or developed in Canada: peanut butter, the egg carton, IMAX, the walkie-talkie, the baggage tag and even insulin. Maybe we can follow the lead of our friends to the North and move towards removal of federal restrictions in the US as well, because doing so would eliminate a good deal of confusion regarding applicable federal and state laws, which has inhibited the US cannabis industry. US cannabis industry participants are certainly urged to retain counsel with expertise in navigating the complex regulatory structure here.