On September 12th, M&L partner Raza Lawrence participated in a roundtable discussion with a group of attorneys in Downtown LA regarding alternative dispute resolution in cannabis law. This is a growing field becoming more and more important for people operating or starting a cannabis business. Starting a new cannabis business can be complicated, lengthy, and expensive, often including multiple investors, loans, licenses, employees, asset purchases, and phases of construction. As people adapt to the new licensed and regulated system, they are forming new companies and making large investments, and want to have ways to make sure their investment is protected and any disputes are resolved efficiently and fairly.
Now, commercial cannabis operators in California need both local and state licenses, and to comply with detailed local and state regulations. In Los Angeles, the structure and procedure of licensing is complicated further by the social equity program requiring many dispensary licenses to be majority-owned by social equity candidates who meet certain qualifications based on their history of living in certain parts of the city, being arrested for cannabis crimes, and being low income. In addition, cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution licenses in Los Angeles remain tied to “priority” applicants who can show a history of operating in the City, further complicating the business structures.
Disputes and problems inevitably arise when starting any business, even with the most careful plans. This is especially true with California’s complicated and changing cannabis laws, and the continued conflict with federal law. Until recently, California did not regulate or license commercial cannabis businesses. Instead, there was an affirmative defense to the criminal laws to people who operated as nonprofit medical marijuana collectives, jointly owned by all members. Collectives and medical marijuana operators were frequently arrested and prosecuted even when they tried to do things the right way, and laws were vague and unpredictably enforced. People tended to keep few if any records, because they did not want to keep evidence of criminal activity. Many cannabis businesses today are continuations or offshoots of these earlier, unregulated businesses, and have some disputes and growing pains when trying to adapt to the new laws.
People in the cannabis industry have traditionally shied away from courts , preferring to resolve disputes through informal means. That is because what happens in court becomes public record, and testimony and evidence presented in court could incriminate people for violating state or federal criminal laws, or even lead to asset forfeiture. For licensed operators, testifying in court continues to incriminate them under federal law. Distributing cannabis remains illegal under federal law, a felony with potential long jail sentences and asset forfeiture. While there are legal protections against prosecutions for state-licensed medical cannabis operators, the federal law complicates the legal landscape, making court results unpredictable. It can be difficult to even enforce a cannabis-related contract in court, given the federal illegality. Under the US constitution, federal law controls over state law when there is any conflict in the laws, including in the area of cannabis. In addition, many judges and courts start out biased against cannabis, having prosecuted and convicted cannabis defendants with felony charges for years.
Today, as people try to get their companies off the ground and adapt to the new legal regime, they need efficient and effective ways to resolve their inevitable problems and challenges. Court cases are expensive and take a long time. Arbitration and mediation can be much faster and cheaper, and a way to avoid potentially biased and uninformed judges. For all these reasons, we recommend that parties include alternative dispute resolutions in their contracts, requiring the parties to submit any disputes to mediation or arbitration and bypass the traditional court system. This way, parties can select someone they trust to resolve their dispute, using a transparent process agreed to by everyone.
Our law firm has helped numerous people and businesses resolve disputes relating to commercial cannabis. If you have a dispute involving your business, or are looking for ways to avoid them, you can contact our firm for help you find a solution.