Are we about to see more enforcement against unlicensed cannabis?
California Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced he is calling for the California National Guard to work with federal officials to target the California illicit market. Given the history of the war on drugs and the current federal laws imposing harsh criminal and civil sanctions for cannabis, the involvement of the National Guard and the federal government in a new crackdown is concerning. Governor Newsom’s announcement of this increased enforcement, however, comes amid growing frustration with perceived dysfunction in the state regulatory system and a persistent illicit market that crowds out regulated cannabis.
California has a thriving illicit market in cannabis, estimated by New Frontier Data to be valued at $3.7 billion last year. This is due to many factors, including California’s unregulated cannabis collectives and cooperatives that operated for years before licensing came, the slow speed at which state and local governments in California have issued licenses, the high taxes and burdensome regulations of the new licensing system, and the demand for California cannabis products throughout the country.
In a sense, the entire cannabis market is an illicit market, as cannabis remains illegal under federal law, which makes any inconsistent California state law allowing cannabis invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution. This federal illegality has caused most banks to refuse to do business with cannabis-linked companies, resulting in a largely cash business that is more difficult to track and regulate than it would be if banks were involved. Federal illegality also makes it so the entire interstate market is illegal and unregulated, though lucrative.
The California Bureau of Cannabis Control, tasked with regulating cannabis retail sales, has issued a few enforcement actions against some unlicensed dispensaries, but the efforts have been largely symbolic, against only a tiny fraction of the unlicensed operators. Los Angeles and other cities have also filed misdemeanor cases against unlicensed operators for violations of local licensing laws, but unlicensed dispensaries seem to pop back up faster than they are shut down.
In order for California’s regulatory project to succeed going forward, the state will need to convince more operators to move to the regulated market, through some combination of greater enforcement and lower taxes and regulatory burdens.
The large illicit market and slow roll-out of the licensing process have shaken the confidence of many people who are attempting to comply with California laws. Hopefully, state and local regulators will take advice from frustrated operators, learn from their mis-steps and continue to develop a functioning system. The state and local governments are trying to find the right regulatory balance. Over-regulation makes it so difficult and burdensome to comply that only rich people and companies with lots of resources can operate, and an expensive final product that leads many consumers to buy from the illicit market.
For now, many license holders are playing the long game, hoping the illicit market will shrink over time, and more consumers throughout the state (and eventually the country and world) join the regulated cannabis market. Governor Newsom says that he expects it may take at least five years to develop its complex regulatory system. If the state gets it right, this can be an industry that drives the state economy, creating more resources and jobs for everyone.
One approach that could be successful would be to offer a more simplified and inexpensive process to get new cannabis businesses up and running. More burdensome regulations and higher taxes could kick in only after businesses have gotten through the startup phase and adapted to the regulations. There could be a tiered or graduated system of compliance, taxes, and enforcement that is welcoming to new operators. Startup costs for new businesses are already very expensive, and high licensing expenses and a burdensome application process can dissuade many people from pursuing licenses who might otherwise want to follow the law. Lowering the tax rates in the beginning, while businesses get off the ground, could also encourage new entrants to the regulated market. Once businesses become established and there is a healthy regulated market, taxes could be increased to desired levels. The government has many tools available to help establish a functioning market. We are optimistic that the future is bright for the cannabis economy in California.
Cannabis attorney Raza Lawrence attended today’s special meeting of the Los Angeles Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations Committee. At the meeting, the discussion focused on three main points:
The City of LA is considering and discussing different possible ways to process Phase 3 applications, including a first-come first-served method, a lottery, a “merit-based” system, or some combination of these three methods.
It’s possible that the city will lower the percentage of a Tier 1 or Tier 2 social equity business that is required to be owned by the individual who satisfies the social equity criteria.
The DCR’s lack of funding, and the need for more funds in order to move forward and process all the applications from Phases 1, 2, and 3.
To help streamline the city's regulations and ameliorate the pressure that cannabis businesses currently face, the DCR released a report including a set of recommended amendments to the city’s cannabis procedures. The recommendations, as filed with the city, are as follows:
1. REQUEST the City Attorney, with the assistance of the Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR), to prepare and present an ordinance to amend Section 104 of Article 4 of Chapter X of the Los Angeles Municipal Code and the Rules and Regulations as necessary to:
a. Modify the definition of “owner” in conformance with state regulations, including clarifying that the meaning of “owner” does not apply to the managers, officers, directors, and equity-holders of the management company.
b. Allow DCR to grant Temporary Approval to a Phase 3 storefront retail license applicant after DCR recommends that the Commission issue the applicant a license.
c. Amend “Program Site Specific Conditions” from the Social Equity Applicant to allow for site specific conditions only as required by CEQA, public health and safety, or as necessary under a DCR, State of California, or City enforcement action in conformance with other sections of the rules and regulations.
d. Eliminate a Tier 2 applicant’s obligation to provide business, licensing, and compliance support to a Tier 1 applicant.
e. Require Tier 3 applicants with Temporary Approval to enter into a Social Equity Agreement within 60 days of the enactment of this ordinance or from the time of application, whichever is later.
f. Allow DCR to issue non-storefront retail licenses in the manner provided in LAMC Sec. 104.06(b) and exempt non-storefront retail license applicants from the community meeting requirement in LAMC Sec. 104.04.
g. Clarify that DCR may require an applicant to submit additional information documents after DCR deems an application complete as necessary to make a licensing decision.
h. Remove the requirement in Regulation No. 10 D. 4. that a retailer store all cannabis goods in a vault or safe during non-retail hours.
i. Revise Regulation No. 7 to provide that DCR shall process applications for licenses in a manner consistent with LAMC Section 104 and these Rules and Regulations.
j. Conform the City’s delivery regulations with state regulations with respect to operational requirements.
K. Allow DCR to enter into Social Equity Agreements with a Tier 3 applicant without Commission approval.
l. Clarify LAMC Section 104.20(i)(9) to state that after the term of a Social Equity Agreement is completed, a Tier 1 or Tier 2 Social Equity Applicant license holder may only transfer control or ownership of a License after first providing the other ownership interests in the business the right of first refusal to buy, at market-rate.
m. Clarify the definition of limited access areas to only include those areas required under the rules and regulations of the State of California.
n. Clarify that any applicant or landowner with evidence against them with respect to illegal cannabis activity at any time since January 1, 2018 will be banned from participation in Phase 3 retail and delivery processing.
2. INSTRUCT the DCR to report back at the next Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations Committee meeting with a further analysis of the recommendations for Phase 3 Storefront Retail processing and Non-storefront Retail processing, including consideration of a social equity applicant registry platform similar to the City of San Francisco.
3. INSTRUCT the DCR to suspend any Phase 3 processing until the enhanced Social Equity analysis for the San Fernando Valley, Boyle Heights, and Downtown Los Angeles is completed.
4. INSTRUCT the DCR to provide an updated map online within two weeks oft he Council action with respect to the current locations of all Phase 1 and Phase 2 applicants that have received local authorization, temporary approval, or any form of local and state licensure. This shall also include an online document with respect to undue concentration areas by community planning areas, and the capacity left for Phase 3 applicants.
5. INSTRUCT the Department of City Planning (DCP) to include amending the pending draft ordinances pertaining to cannabis in conformance with state regulations with respect to alleyway access, ingress, egress, and door location.
6. INSTRUCT the DCP to include amendments to the pending draft ordinances pertaining to cannabis in a similar manner to the City of Seattle, Washington in which two retail establishments may co-locate within 1,000 feet of each other, and the next retail establishment must be 1,000 feet away from both retail establishments.
7. INSTRUCT the City Clerk to hold Council File No. 14-0366-S5 open and active, including the DCR report on file, for further deliberations by the Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations Committee.
- Disconnecting DWP utility services to unlicensed businesses
- Issuing citations to certain employees working in unlicensed businesses
- -Sending cease and desist letters to businesses and landlords
- Requiring all licensed retailers to display an emblem so the public knows whether a given business is licensed
- Sending letters to creditors and contractors of unlicensed businesses
- Bringing civil and criminal cases against unlicensed businesses
2. Opportunity to Appeal Rejected Dispensary Permits
Applicants who applied in Phase 1 and were found to be ineligible based on failure to qualify as an Existing Medical Marijuana Dispensary were given a chance to appeal the written findings of the DCR. These parties were given an opportunity to present their points, with back-and-forth discussion on the points of the appeal with members of the commission.
Each Applicant appealing was allowed either have a single person present the appeal or to have multiple witnesses – each side was allowed to submit any documents up until a week before hearing, and given 10 minutes to present arguments and evidence. The DCR was then allowed to present its case and findings for 10 minutes. The hearing officer could grant either side more time if appropriate, and the applicant was allowed 5 minutes at the end of the session to address DCR’s comments, followed by discussion and questions.
The main issues in the appeal were whether the Applicant had a 2017 L050 BTRC or, if no 2017 BTRC, if the Applicant had a L050 2015 or 2016 BTRC and met all the pre-ICO requirements, including registering for the ICO in 2007. One applicant was rejected who met all the requirements other than registering for the ICO in 2007 (the City reviewed records of office of city clerk regarding who was on the ICO registry), even though the business had BTRCs from 2007 to 2015 and had been paying taxes all along.
One applicant claimed another applicant mis-used the applicant’s ICO filing, applying under it for priority registration even though he was not an officer or director of the ICO registered entity. However, it turned out the ICO registered entity had registered as a sole proprietor “doing business as” a name similar to the current applicant, and the current applicant corporation was just using a similar same name as the 2007 entity but had a different legal name and different tax history and was a separate legal entity.
There were disputes during the appeals involving BTRCs issued with different account numbers or different entities, BTRCs that had been erroneously issued for addresses outside LA and then closed out, and BTRCs issued to related entities that had failed to follow merger process with the city. As a rule, only the same business entity that meets the eligibility requirements is eligible for priority processing.
Parties found ineligible for priority processing were encouraged to re-apply in Phase 3 general licensing, anticipated to open in 2019. Going forward, the DCR will prioritize annual licensing for Phase 1 and 2 applicants first, then registration for social equity applicants, and then Phase 3 will open.
For more information on the cannabis licensing and social equity process in Los Angeles, keep checking this blog or reach out to our cannabis attorneys at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cannabidiol (CBD for short) is a naturally-occurring element of the cannabis plant that has recently exploded in popularity and availability. Like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD is believed to have therapeutic and medical benefits, but unlike THC, CBD has no intoxicating effects. Across the country, people can now find CBD products everywhere. But are they safe and legal?
Many products advertised as CBD are imported from other countries or produced in unregulated, unlicensed operations, with no verification that they are free from toxic compounds or that they even contain CBD. Even if the products contain “pure” CBD, knowledgeable experts contend that CBDs have little or no benefits when they are stripped from THC and other cannabinoids and compounds naturally occurring in the marijuana plant. CBDs appear to exhibit their medical and healing properties only when they are left combined with the other cannabinoids like THC, as they are found in nature.
CBD Production and Sales Remain a Federal Crime Without FDA Approval and a Doctor's Prescription
The law on CBD products is confusing, due to conflicts among local, state, federal, and international laws. Under the Supremacy Clause to the US Constitution, federal law controls to the extent it conflicts with state or local law. State law also controls to the extent it conflicts with city or county laws. Federal law in this area is moving, but it is not clear in what direction. Some predict the federal government will relinquish all regulation of CBDs and cannabis generally to the states, and keep a hands-off approach. Others expect the federal government to strictly regulate CBDs and cannabis as they do with prescription drugs through the FDA, leaving the states with little control. This approach was foreshadowed by the DEA’s recent memo announcing that drugs including CBD with THC content below 0.1% will be taken off of Schedule 1 of the controlled substances schedules, and moved to Schedule 5, which allows CBD products to be sold through traditional pharmacies with a doctor’s prescription so long as the particular product is first approved by the FDA. The order also disallows any importing or exporting of CBD products without a permit.
Under federal law, CBD with THC content above 0.1% remains classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, subject to severe criminal sanctions. The Rohrbacher-Farr amendment creates a limited exception, preventing the DOJ from prosecuting anyone in strict compliance with state medical marijuana laws (adult-use or recreational uses of CBD products may still be prosecuted).
Without Commercial Cannabis License, CBDs Are Banned in California Food Products
In California, the Department of Public Health recently issued a memo confirming that CBD products are not allowed in any food products in the state (unless the products are regulated as commercial cannabis edibles, which by definition contain THC levels of at least 0.3%). Thus, under state law, CBDs are allowed to be sold and ingested as long as they include THC, and are banned in food if they come from industrial hemp with little or no THC. The reason CBD products with no THC are banned by state law is that California incorporates federal law regarding food additives, dietary use products, food labeling, and good manufacturing practices for food. Currently, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has concluded that it is a prohibited act to introduce or deliver for introduction into interstate commerce any food (including any animal food or feed) to which THC or CBD has been added.
This is regardless of the source of the CBD – i.e., whether the CBD is derived from cannabis or industrial hemp. CBD used as a topical or smokeable product could arguably be allowed under either federal or state law as it may not be considered to be a food that is ingested.
Los Angeles Allows CBD Businesses Without a Cannabis License to Register for Business Tax Certificate to Engage in Commercial Activities
The City of Los Angeles recently issued a form for businesses seeking a Business Tax Registration Certificate to engage in commercial activities related to industrial hemp and/or CBD derived from industrial hemp in the City of Los Angeles. This form allows your business to pay local taxes, but it does not protect you from criminal prosecution under state or federal law. It likely also signals that enforcement of state CBD laws is not a high priority of the Los Angeles Police Department.
International Treaties Ban All Cannabis Extracts Including CBDs
In addition to local, state, and federal law, international treaties place obstacles to the sale of CBD products. The United Nations has had a series of International Drug Control Conventions (treaties of which the US and Canada are part), and while CBD is not specifically listed in the schedules of the Conventions, "extracts" of cannabis are apparently included within Schedule 1, meaning they are prohibited.
Given the controls required by the UN Conventions, the US would be unable to keep its obligations under the treaties if CBD products were de-controlled under federal law. The Federal Controlled Substances Act, moreover, indicates that scheduling decisions will be made in accordance with treaty obligations. For example, under section201(d)(I) of the CSA, if control of a substance is required under an international treaty or convention in effect on October 27, 1970, the Attorney General is required to impose controls on the substance by placing it under the schedule he deems most appropriate to carry out such obligations.
The World Health Organization Expert Committee on Drug Dependence is scheduled to review the UN’s classification of CBD, THC, and cannabis in general at its November 2018 meeting, which could lead to a change in the international treaty.
The result of all these different layers of law leave many confused. We expect that the laws will adapt over time to allow for open sales of CBD products, whether or not they also contain THC. For now, however, the law is full of problems for CBD products and cannabis in general, and we applaud those working to reform the laws for these products that are all around us.