On December 27, 2018, the Northern District of California dismissed a civil RICO claim brought against the owners and operators of a Sonoma County cannabis growing operation and the operation’s landlord. See Bokaie v. Green Earth Coffee LLC, 3:18-cv-05244-JST, 2018 WL 6813212 (N.D. Calif. Dec. 27, 2018). The lawsuit was filed by neighbors who alleged that the operation’s “skunk-like stench” interfered with the enjoyment of their property and drove down their property values. The Bokaie court found that such alleged harms did not constitute a “RICO injury,” and thus dismissed plaintiffs’ claim (albeit without prejudice, allowing 30 days to amend).
The Bokaie case is part of a growing trend of RICO lawsuits filed in legalized states—to date, roughly a dozen have been filed in California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Oregon—that seek to exploit the tension between state law and the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). RICO defines “racketeering activity” to include CSA violations, and a civil lawsuit can proceed upon allegations that an enterprise’s pattern of racketeering activity caused damage to the plaintiffs’ business or property. 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961(1), 1962(c), 1964(c). RICO’s civil remedy provision awards prevailing plaintiffs triple damages and attorneys’ fees, id. § 1964(c), thus giving “not in my backyard” plaintiffs and their attorneys a powerful tool against their neighbors. By alleging that the smell of cannabis interferes with the enjoyment of their property and drives down their property value, plaintiffs in these cases are effectively elevating common law nuisance claims into federal RICO lawsuits.
You may have read a piece by CLR on Duane Morris’ approach to the national cannabis market late last year.
They are running ahead of their competitors and continue to do so.
They are one of the few firms in the Am Law 200 to have taken up the challenge presented by this de-centralized and sometime rather chaotic corner of the American economy.
Seth Goldberg, based in Philadelphia, practices in business and litigation with a particular emphasis in highly regulated industries such as healthcare and Pharma, saw the opportunities in cannabis and hemp early on in the game and has developed a multidisciplinary cannabis practice drawing across a wealth of experience in the firm.
The practice now comprises 48 attorneys, of whom a good 30 or so are partners.
They are taking the sector seriously and here at CLR we’re surprised that more in the top echelons still aren’t doing the same. …
It’s a question we posed to Seth during our hour long conversation and he concurred that he was equally surprised at the lack of cannabis / hemp practice development at the larger firms on the eastern seaboard.
On April 5, 2018, Phase 2 of the PA Department of Health’s permitting for commercial medical marijuana cultivation and dispensary operations will begin.
13 Grower/Processor permits will be available, two in each of the six DOH regions, and the 13th going to the highest scorer. 23 Dispensary permits will be available, nine in Region 1, three in Regions 2 and 3, two in Regions 4 and 6, and four in Region 5. Applications will be available online at www.medicalmarijuana.pa.gov on April 5, and the submission deadline will be May 17.
In June 2017, 12 Grower/Processor and 27 Dispensary permits were granted. According to April Hutcheson of DOH:
25,573 patients have registered to participate in the PA program;
9,020 patient certifications have issued;
7,000 of those patients have purchased their ID cards;
6,683 patients have bought medical marijuana in a PA dispensary;
866 physicians have been registered to participate in the program; and
473 of the registered physicians have been approved.
Given the very real possibility that PA will approve the use of dry flower products, i.e., smoking and edibles, this summer, the PA market is positioned for strong performance over the next few years.
Duane Morris partner Seth Goldberg is quoted in the New York Law Journal article, “Medical Marijuana Business Banking Remains Difficult.” Mr. Goldberg discusses how banking is a major hurdle for the legal medical marijuana business.
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.
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→
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.
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!
Although a member of the family of cannabis sativa that includes marijuana, hemp does not contain levels of THC that produce psychoactive effects, so it is regulated differently than marijuana. Whereas growing, processing, distributing and consuming marijuana are still federally prohibited under the Controlled Substances Act, industrial hemp has seen a revival around the U.S. because its growth, processing and distribution for research purposes is permitted under the 2014 Federal Farm Bill.
Importantly, the expansion of Pennsylvania’s industrial hemp program, and the industrial hemp programs in other states that traditionally raised large tobacco crops, may be helpful to local economies that have been impacted by declines in tobacco growth.
There are more than 25,000 products and/or uses derived from industrial hemp. Research under the PA program includes, among other things, planting methods, such as seed variety trials, fiber or seed yields, optimum fertility levels, pest management; harvesting techniques or product marketing options; or conservation, remediation or biofuel.