On the White House lawn this morning, getting ready to leave for the G-7 summit in Canada, Pres. Trump made positive comments about the cannabis bill introduced yesterday by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). The STATES Act would allow states the freedom to legalize cannabis within their borders with no federal enforcement action permitted. The text of the Senate bill, just released, removes state legal cannabis from enforcement under the Controlled Substances Act.
On the lawn, the President said of the bill, “I probably will end up supporting that, yes.” He said, “We’re looking at it,” but also noted that he “really” supports Sen. Gardner. Of course the bill has to be passed by Congress before being sent to the President. The question is whether the process can be completed before the “silly season” of midterm elections brings most legislative activity to a stop. Trump promised to support a bill like this in exchange for Sen. Gardner resuming approval of judicial nominations, which he had stopped after Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era memo de-emphasizing federal enforcement against actors in cannabis legal states.
The House version of the bill was introduced this morning but text is not yet available. The initial sponsors will be Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), David Joyce (R-OH) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). The bill also appears to effectively repeal IRS Code Section 280E which prevents cannabis companies from deducting ordinary business expenses. It also removes activity by cannabis companies being assumed to be money laundering, which will hopefully help more banks to take cannabis companies as customers. Certainly a dramatic potential development.
Yesterday, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and Cory Gardner introduced bipartisan legislation that, if passed, would make the regulation of marijuana a state issue. Comments by Senator Gardner show public safety issues resulting from the dearth of banking providing services to the industry are a focus of the newly-proposed legislation. The Hill reports Gardner stating when introducing the legislation:
“This city of Denver, the state of Colorado, can collect taxes … they can take it to the bank,” Gardner said. “But if you’re in the business, if you work for the business, you can’t get a bank loan or set up a bank account because of the concern over the conflict between the state and federal law. We need to fix this public hypocrisy.”
It was widely reported on April 13, 2018, that President Trump promised to Senator Gardner that he would support a states’ rights approach to marijuana, which promise appears to have resulted in this proposed legislation. A lot has to happen before this bill reaches Trump, but if it does, a veto may be unlikely. Such states’ rights legislation could then pave the way for more banks to service the industry.
Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) today introduced the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act. While we have not seen the text yet, Sen. Warren has published a summary. The bill would amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) saying it no longer applies to anyone acting in compliance with state (or tribal) laws relating to the manufacture, production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration or delivery of cannabis. It also legalizes industrial hemp and removes it from the CSA. In addition to other provisions, the bill prohibits the distribution or sale of cannabis to anyone under 21 other than for medical purposes.
There are a number of pending bills promising various levels of cannabis legalization or decriminalization. This bill is important because it is the result of conversations between Sen. Gardner and the President. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the 2014 Cole Memo which de-emphasized cannabis enforcement against legal state actors, Sen. Gardner angrily stopped approving new judicial nominations. That led to Trump’s commitment to Gardner to support “states rights” legislation if brought to him. Advocates hope this bill has a chance to move quickly as a result.
While not listed in the summary, according to MJBizDaily, the bill also would repeal tax code Section 280E which prohibits cannabis companies from deducting their ordinary business expenses, and also would allow federally insured banks greater ease in accepting cannabis customers. Stay tuned!
While the Cole Priorities were in place, that guidance provided a clear path for banking cannabis industry participants adhering to the Cole Priorities. FinCen’s guidance is still in place, and banking cannabis is still possible, but confusion about how to do so without the Cole Priorities as guideposts has caused greater reluctance on the part of banks.
Enter proposed legislation in California, SB-930, which passed in the California Senate yesterday. Not a complete solution to the banking problem by a long shot, but progress nonetheless. If it becomes law SB-930, would result in the establishment of a California-chartered bank that would permit California cannabis industry participants to deposit the proceeds of their state-lawful cannabis activities, and would provide to them limited banking services that would allow for payment of taxes and vendors by check.
As reported in the Sacramento Business Journal, the Bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), characterized SB-930 as an attempt alleviate the public safety concerns resulting from the federal government’s current hands off approach to banking cannabis. As Herzog stated, “It’s not only impractical from an accounting perspective, but it also presents a tremendous public safety problem. This bill takes a limited approach to provide all parties with a safe and reliable way to move forward on this urgent issue.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has officially joined a rapidly growing number of US legislators calling for the federal decriminalization of cannabis. Last Friday, he tweeted: “THREAD: It’s official. Today, I am formally announcing my plan to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. It’s time we allow states, once and for all, to have the power to decide what works best for them.” Then later in the day he tweeted, “The time has come to decriminalize marijuana. My thinking – as well as the general population’s views – on the issue has evolved, and so I believe there’s no better time than the present to get this done.”
To be clear, Schumer is not suggesting full legalization, merely decriminalization. This could mean that while cannabis would still be illegal under federal law, possession would bring only a fine or the like, rather than jail. In a video attached to his tweet, he talked about how people of color have been disproportionately affected by incarceration for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
This follows an apparent historic agreement a week ago between President Trump and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) to move forward with legislation that would protect states’ rights with regard to cannabis. This could mean a permanent ban on federal enforcement of those complying with state cannabis laws. Many hope such a bill could address the challenges with banking in the industry, as well as IRS Code Section 280E, which prohibits the deductibility of business expenses of those in cannabis.
In addition, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced a bill to legalize industrial hemp. Finally, there are three pending bills in Congress which would fully deschedule and legalize cannabis nationwide, much like Canada appears to be on the verge of doing. It does indeed appear that things are moving rather quickly in the direction of dramatically improved federally legal status of cannabis.
In response to Executive Order No. 6, issued by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, the New Jersey Department of Health (the “Department”) reviewed certain elements of New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act and the implementation of the Medical Marijuana Program (“MMP”) (Executive Order 6 Report). …
The Department’s analysis resulted in the recommendation and approval of an immediate expansion to the MMP. The first stage of the expansion includes the addition of five conditions to the existing list of diagnoses for which medicinal marijuana can be prescribed. Patients with chronic pain related to Musculoskeletal Disorders, Migraines, Anxiety, chronic pain of Visceral Origin, and Tourette’s Syndrome are now eligible to participate in the MMP.
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.
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.
A potentially groundbreaking federal lawsuit brought last summer was dismissed by New York judge Alvin Hellerstein today. The case, brought by five plaintiffs including two children, two veterans and former NFL player Marvin Washington, all of whom use state legal medical cannabis, claimed that the Controlled Substances Act is unconstitutional as it relates to the plant.
The judge ruled that the plaintiffs should have first complied with administrative processes by filing a petition with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and that the case was not appropriate to bring to court. He was sympathetic to the plaintiffs, however, noting that “this decision should not be understood as a factual finding that marijuana lacks any medical use in the United States, for the authority to make that determination is vested in the administrative process.”
He did, however, rule that it was “not irrational” that the Government deemed cannabis dangerous enough to be listed as a Schedule I drug, as it did for heroin and LSD. Statements by former Nixon Administration officials in the 1990s that they knew they were lying about the drugs at the time of the CSA were not considered dispositive, since Congress passed the law.
News reports indicate that the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Mike Hiller, Joe Bondy and Lauren Rudick, may appeal the decision or ask the judge to reconsider. They claim that the petition process would be futile and that there is substantial evidence that the US government has taken actions supporting the notion that there is medical benefit to cannabis.
Duane Morris partner Seth Goldberg will be one of the presenters at a National Association of Surety Bond Producers Virtual Seminar, “Seeing Green? A look at Marijuana Law and Surety Bonds,” to be held on Wednesday, February 21, 2018 at 2:00 p.m. ET. For more information or to register, please visit the event website.