Given the billions of dollars of revenues, including tax dollars, generated by the industry, which are generated by cannabis companies and companies that provide services to the industry, cannabis banking is truly a public concern. The very laws that seek to create transparency as to the public fisc, such as the Bank Secrecy Act, have forced cannabis to be a cash business, which means not all of the cannabis dollars may be accounted for as in other industries, thereby undermining the objectives of those laws. The SAFE Banking Act would resolve those concerns by allowing core and ancillary companies to utilize all of the electronic banking, checking, payroll, and accounting functionality that businesses in all other industries enjoy. There is no question the passage of this legislation would provide a game-changing boost to the cannabis space.
Senators Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D) are introducing legislation that would legalize marijuana for adult recreational use in Pennsylvania. This is the first time a republican senator has backed such a bill. The proposed legislation will attempt to generate revenue for the commonwealth and to promote social equity by way of increasing the number of licenses to operate, imposing a 6% sales tax, and imposing a 10% excise tax that would go toward a Cannabis Business Development Fund to provide aid, grants, and technical assistance to businesses and individuals in areas that have been disproportionately impacted by criminal prosecution for cannabis violations. Expungement of cannabis crimes would also be available.
Laughlin’s pragmatic views may encourage his republican colleagues in PA’s legislature to join him. As Laughlin stated during a press conference: “Our proposal prioritizes safety and social equity. And furthermore, it will let Pennsylvania’s robust agricultural industry participate in marijuana cultivation.” And both Laughlin and Street encouraged PA legislators to keep pace with lawmakers in New Jersey and New York, stating in their co-sponsorship memo: “This year our neighbors in New Jersey have signed adult use marijuana into law and our neighbors in New York are likely to legalize. It is our duty to taxpayers to seize the initiative and legalize marijuana concurrently with bordering states. Failure to do so risks permanently ceding hundreds of millions of dollars of new tax revenue as well as thousands of jobs at a time when taxpayers can least afford it.”
During his confirmation hearing on February 22, 2021, Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland’s comments hearkened back to the Obama-era de-prioritization of enforcement against marijuana-related crimes under the Cole memorandum, stating: “This is a question of the prioritization of our resources and prosecutorial discretion… It does not seem to me a useful use of limited resources that we have, to be pursuing prosecutions in states that have legalized and that are regulating the use of marijuana, either medically or otherwise. I don’t think that’s a useful use.”
In addition, Garland explained that social justice warranted such deprioritizing, acknowledging that people of color are arrested for non-violent marijuana-related crimes at far greater rates than white people. According to Garland, the federal government should not be expending resources criminalizing non-violent marijuana related crimes, as doing so in the past “has disproportionately affected communities of color and damaged them after the original arrest because of the inability to get jobs.”
While proposed legislation such as the MORE Act and the SAFE Banking Act could provide greater certainty for the cannabis industry, until such time as laws like those are passed, the establishment of priorities regarding federal enforcement of state-legal cannabis would encourage greater participation in the cannabis industry, as the risks of federal enforcement would become more clear and thus easier to weigh against the rewards of entering the still emerging market. The DOJ has been largely hands off of the state-legal cannabis market since the Cole memorandum, even though it was rescinded by AG Session, but clarity from Merrick Garland would nonetheless be very well-received by industry participants.
Today, the House of Representatives passed the groundbreaking MORE Act – legalizing marijuana at the federal level. The bill passed by a vote of 228 to 164.
As we previously discussed in our November 10th and September 4th blog posts, the MORE Act (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 – H.R. 3884) legalizes marijuana and cannabis at the federal level, by removing them from the Controlled Substances Act and eliminates some cannabis criminal records.
While the bill represents a first step toward legalizing cannabis, states would need to adopt similar measures to fully decriminalize its use – currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized (or recently voted to legalize) cannabis for adult recreational use, and 35 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis.
The bill also makes other changes, including:
Replaces statutory references to marijuana and marihuana with cannabis,
Requires the Bureau of Labor Statistics to regularly publish demographic data on cannabis business owners and employees,
Establishes a trust fund to support various programs and services for individuals and businesses in communities impacted by the war on drugs,
Imposes a 5% tax on cannabis products and requires revenues to be deposited into the trust fund,
Makes Small Business Administration loans and services available to entities that are cannabis-related legitimate businesses or service providers,
Prohibits the denial of federal public benefits to a person on the basis of certain cannabis-related conduct or convictions,
Prohibits the denial of benefits and protections under immigration laws on the basis of a cannabis-related event (e.g., conduct or a conviction), and
Establishes a process to expunge convictions and conduct sentencing review hearings related to federal cannabis offenses.
While Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), the Vice President-Elect, introduced a counterpart bill (S.2227) in the U.S. Senate, its passage in the chamber is unlikely this Congress as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has declined to endorse the bill.
While this legislation is unlikely to pass the Senate this Congress, proponents of cannabis legalization have hailed the House vote as historic, and an important first step toward generating the momentum and support needed to favorably position the measure for future congressional consideration. And whether the measure would be approved by the next Congress likely depends on the outcome of the two Georgia Senate runoff elections scheduled for January 5, 2021. If both Democratic Senate candidates, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, win the runoffs, then the Democrats will control both the House and Senate, with Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.
However, it is unclear if President-Elect Joe Biden would sign the bill since he has proposed rescheduling cannabis as a schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts as opposed to removing it entirely from the list of scheduled substances. While Biden has expressed support for decriminalization of marijuana, expungement of prior cannabis use convictions, and legalizing cannabis use for medical purposes – he has said he wants to leave decisions regarding adult recreational use to the individual states. Nonetheless, marijuana legalization advocates believe this symbolic vote on the legislation could send a strong signal to the Biden administration that this is a Democratic priority.
Even though federal legalization may not be on the immediate horizon, the passage of the MORE Act in the House, and the legalization of adult-use and/or medical marijuana in five more states on November 3, 2020, could influence a Biden-appointed attorney general’s views on enforcement of marijuana related activities. While AG Sessions attempted to reverse the liberal Obama administration marijuana policies set forth in the Cole Memorandum, and AG Barr has reluctantly acknowledged that the Cole priorities have been relied on and should thus be followed, an AG appointed by Biden, given the current pro-legalization wave, Biden’s favoring of state’s rights on this issue, and Kamala Harris’s favoring of decriminalization, might endorse an approach consistent with, if not even more liberal than, the Cole priorities. Thus, while the appointment of AG Sessions sent shockwaves through the cannabis industry, market participants and those who have been standing on the sidelines eager to get on the field seem to have a lot to look forward to.
Voters in the five states where the legalization of marijuana was on the ballot voted in favor.
In the populous states of New Jersey and Arizona, voters legalized marijuana for recreational use by adults over the age of 21. Given New Jersey’s proximity to New York and Pennsylvania, where medical marijuana programs have been popular, legalization in New Jersey could have a domino effect in the northeast, especially considering the tax revenue that will be gained by New Jersey from New York and Pennsylvania residents who travel there every day for work, the Jersey shore and casinos, and other reasons.
Voters in South Dakota and Montana also voted to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, South Dakota voters also approved medical marijuana, and voters in Mississippi voted to legalize marijuana for medical purposes to treat 22 qualifying health conditions.
Duane Morris represented Devine Holdings LLC in a litigation arising out of Harvest Health and Recreation Inc.’s potential acquisition of Arizona-issued cannabis operator licenses. The litigation was resolved on mutually agreeable changes to the terms of the acquisition arrangement.
As a commercial litigator who has handled a broad range of claims in highly regulated industries over the past 20 years — particularly in complex matters such as class actions involving claims brought by consumers and shareholders — and given my experience spearheading the development of Duane Morris’ cannabis industry group, which has included providing regulatory and business advice to a number of businesses and individuals with cannabis-related interests, I have been expecting the maturing cannabis industry to eventually mirror other industries when it comes to using commercial litigation to resolve disputes between businesses and to address claims of injury allegedly experienced by aggreived consumers and shareholders. It appears the time has come. Now, as opposed to even just a few months ago, not a day goes by when the daily legal news outlets that report on litigation matters filed in federal and state courts around the country do not include matters pertaining to adult use marijuana, medical marijuana, and/or hemp.
Today alone, legal news outlets are reporting about a shareholder deriviative action being filed against the manufacturer of cannabinoid-containing transdermal patches, a maker of mobile hemp dryers suing a distributor for alledgedly stealing trade secrets, a publicly-traded company that owns cannabis brands being sued for breach of contract by an MSO arising out of a failed merger agreement. Claims like these are among the many product liability, stock-drop and securities fraud, tradmark infringement, FLSA, and employment litigation matters to be filed in 2020 relating to cannabis; not to mention the federal and state regulatory cannabis-related enforcement actions also commenced. Just as in other industries, COVID-19 is likely to spur litigation in the space because of strains on resources and performance caused by business disruptions and the slower economy. To be sure, the plaintiffs’ bar has cannabis on its radar.
Thus, now more than ever, it is critically important for cannabis businesses to implement the necessary compliance measures, including making sure appropriate insurance coverage, e.g. premises, products, and D&O, has been obtained, that could protect their businesses from the cost and disruption of commercial litigation. Likewise, cannabis-specific nuances, such as the enforceability of contracts and jurisdictional questions, require careful evaluation by experienced counsel advising plaintiffs and defendants who are considering filing, or who have been brought into, a commercial litigation.
Although the cannabis reform movement has made incredible strides over the past 25 years, our industry and the medicinal potential of the plant are still not recognized at the federal level. The COVID-19 pandemic is drastically altering our lives but difficult times are able to expose many truths, including the understanding that legalization and safe access to cannabis is critical, especially during a crisis.
Thankfully, many states already have come to the realization that cannabis, especially medicinal use, is not a luxury but a necessity. Although states are restricting access to public places and prohibiting gatherings, many governors have designated cannabis dispensaries as an “essential service.” […]
“Opponents of federal legalization are likely to argue the categorization was merely a natural extension of the law in states that have already legalized medical marijuana to treat certain conditions, and that the uniqueness of the COVID-19 situation limits the ‘essential’ designation to that very urgent and unprecedented fact pattern,” Seth Goldberg, attorney and partner at Duane Morris LLP told mg.
On August 26, 2019, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) issued a press release announcing “it is moving forward to facilitate and expand scientific and medical research for marijuana in the United States.” This announcement comes in the midst of a growing demand for marijuana for medical and scientific research. Several years ago, in an August 11, 2016, press release, DEA first announced its intention to “expand… the number of DEA-registered marijuana manufacturers” because “only one entity was authorized to produce marijuana to supply researchers in the United States: the University of Mississippi.” Since that announcement, 33 entities have applied to DEA for a marijuana manufacturer registration. However, the approval process was stalled during Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ term in office, and to date no new applications have been approved. Meanwhile, the number of entities registered by DEA to conduct research on marijuana, marijuana extracts or marijuana derivatives has jumped from 384 in January 2017 to 542 in January 2019. Thus, while demand for marijuana for research purposes has increased sharply, the number of suppliers has remained stagnant.
Just days after the NJ Senate and Assembly close in on expansion of medical use Cannabis, the New Jersey Department of Health (“Department”) published notice of a Request of Applications (“RFA”) for an additional 108 alternative treatment center (“ATC”) permits which authorize holders to cultivate, manufacture, and/or dispense medicinal marijuana. The Public Notice is available here, while the RFA is summarized below and available in full here.