Marijuana laws have been enforced in a discriminatory manner against people of color in the United States. Despite similar usage rates across races, Black people are almost four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession nationwide.
Legalizing marijuana without addressing these past injustices risks reinforcing the decades of disproportionate harm communities of color have faced and endured. As a result, legalization advocates support reinvestment in the communities most harmed by discriminatory enforcement, and express procedures governing police interactions with those suspected of marijuana offenses.
Ohio’s Social Equity and Jobs Program
Issue 2 – the adult use marijuana legalization proposal passed by Ohio voters on November 7, 2023 – includes exactly these types of provisions in addition to provisions meant to ensure those groups that have been harmed disproportionately by prohibition are represented among Ohio’s marijuana license holders. Indeed, in implementing a Social Equity and Jobs Program (the “SEJP”), Issue 2 identifies several express policy justifications, including among them:
The SEJP will be funded by 36% of new tax revenue generated by adult use marijuana sales in Ohio. It will be administered by the Ohio Department of Development, which will adopt rules governing certification of individuals to participate in the SEJP. To participate, an applicant must show both social and economic disadvantage.
Economic disadvantage can be based on:
Social disadvantage can be based on:
The Department of Development is also charged with re-evaluating SEJP goals to ensure that the program is achieving its goals, and also to implement an outreach program to educate potential participants about the SEJP. R.C. 3780.19(B)(4)-(6). Finally, the Department must also create an “advisory group” which may develop and submit recommendations related to the SEJP to the Department R.C. 3780.19(F).
Social Equity Licensing
Issue 2 provides for the issuance of 50 new adult use dispensary licenses, as well as 40 new “Level III” cultivation licenses (authorized to develop 5,000 square feet of cultivation area) with a preference to SEJP participants. License preferences, however, must be based on “substantiated evidence that the preference is needed to address the goals” of the SEJP. R.C. 3780.19(E). This evidence is required so that the SEJP can survive legal scrutiny, the lack of which doomed the 15% set-aside for economically disadvantaged groups for medical marijuana licenses in Ohio several years ago.
The Department of Development must adopt a process to transfer a license from a SEJP participant to a non-SEJP participant, which process cannot undermine the goals of the SEJP. R.C. 3780.19(B)(7).
Issue 2 requires adult use license applications be made available to prospective applicants by the Department of Commerce before June 2024. If the Department takes longer than 3 months to act on such application, the applicant may file an action in court against the Department. If the applicant holds a corresponding certificate of operation for a medical marijuana license at the same location, then the applicant may also, if certain criteria are satisfied, begin operating under a temporary license while the license application is pending. R.C. 3780.28(B).
Social Equity Impact
The SEJP will be able to use the tax revenue generated by adult use sales to accomplish a wide range of goals designed to remedy the discriminatory effects of marijuana prohibition, including:
Some in Ohio’s legislature have criticized the SEJP, while other legislators have lauded Issue 2’s social equity provisions. As the Ohio General Assembly considers amendments to Issue 2, prospective SEJP applicants and social equity advocates should watch these developments closely.
If you have questions about Issue 2 and its social equity provisions, or if you are interested in applying for one of the new cultivation or dispensary licenses authorized by Issue 2, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Tom Haren or another member of Frantz Ward’s Cannabis Law Practice.
On Tuesday, November 7, Ohio voters passed Issue 2 by a sweeping 14-point margin to legalize marijuana for adult use in the Buckeye State. Ohio will now become the 24th state in the country to regulate adult use marijuana, and marks the tipping point where now more than 50% of citizens in the United States will live in a jurisdiction with regulated adult use sales.
Frantz Ward Cannabis Practice Chair Tom Haren, who served as the spokesperson to the Issue 2 campaign, said “marijuana is no longer a controversial issue. Ohioans demonstrated this by passing State Issue 2 in a landslide. Ohioans are being extremely clear on the future they want for our state: adult-use marijuana legal and regulated.”
Issue 2 will automatically become law on December 7, at which point possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana in plant form or up to 15 grams of marijuana in extract form will be decriminalized. The Ohio Department of Commerce, which already regulates Ohio’s medical marijuana program, will then begin its rulemaking process to implement adult use regulations within 9 months.
Here are the top things to know as Ohio implements its new adult use program:
Ohio legislators technically can modify Issue 2 once it becomes law. But, with a margin of victory this substantial, expectations are that legislators will be unable to make major changes or to repeal Issue 2.
If you are interested in acquiring licenses in Ohio’s adult use program, applying for one of the new social equity licenses, or if you have questions about expanding your current business now that Issue 2 has passed, please contact Tom Haren, Keenan Jones, or any other member of the Frantz Ward Cannabis Practice.
In a momentous announcement, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) has recommended that marijuana be rescheduled from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act (the “CSA”).
Schedule I is the most restricted tier under the CSA and includes heroin and, for now, marijuana. Substances on Schedule I are those found to have no currently accepted medical value and a high potential for abuse. Schedule III substances, on the other hand, are those found to have a potential for abuse less than Schedule I or II substances and can be obtained with a prescription. Examples include ketamine and anabolic steroids. HHS says it’s time for marijuana to be moved to Schedule III.
HHS shared its conclusions and recommendation with the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”), which has the ultimate authority to schedule, reschedule, or de-schedule substances under the CSA absent an act of Congress. The DEA confirmed receipt of the HHS recommendation and indicated it would now initiate its own review. President Biden directed federal agencies to review the current scheduling of marijuana under the CSA in October 2022, noting that marijuana is currently scheduled alongside heroin and LSD and on a more restrictive tier than fentanyl and methamphetamine. HHS Director Xavier Becerra had publicly stated that his department would conclude its review before the end of 2023.
This is a historic moment for advocates of marijuana reform and for those seeking an end to marijuana prohibition.
For now, however, uncertainty continues for marijuana businesses in state-legal markets. There is no timetable for the DEA to complete its review. The last time the DEA reviewed marijuana’s scheduling under the CSA, it took over two years, required input from the Food and Drug Administration, and ultimately resulted in marijuana remaining on Schedule I.
Even if the DEA reaches the same conclusion as HHS and marijuana is ultimately rescheduled as a Schedule III substance, marijuana regulated by the states will remain federally illegal. Twenty-three states have legalized adult-use marijuana. Fifteen more have legalized marijuana use only for medical purposes. Marijuana businesses in one of those states would continue to exist in limbo; they are legal and regulated by state law but federally illegal. Rescheduling may be a step toward federal decriminalization, but it is not the last stop.
Despite rescheduling marijuana to Schedule III does not amount to decriminalization, it may have tax benefits for marijuana businesses. Section 280E of the U.S. tax code prohibits deductions and credits for businesses trafficking in controlled substances, but this prohibition applies only to Schedule I and II drugs. Additionally, a change to Schedule III could result in greater access to financial services for state-legal operators, including access to more advantageous stock exchanges for publicly-traded companies.
If you have questions about how HHS’s recommendation to change marijuana to Schedule III under the CSA affects your marijuana business, please don’t hesitate to contact Keenan Jones, Tom Haren, or any other member of the Frantz Ward Cannabis Law and Policy team.
The cannabis industry shows no sign of slowing down as state lawmakers continue the push to legalize medical marijuana across the country. As February draws to a close, eight states are grappling with bills to create medical cannabis programs. Among those eight is North Carolina, where the proposed Senate Bill 3, titled the Compassionate Care Act (“CCA”), passed the full North Carolina Senate on March 1.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Sens. Bill Rabon and Michael Lee and Democrat Sen. Paul Lowe, proposes the legalization of medical cannabis use for patients diagnosed with one or more enumerated conditions. It would also authorize the Department of Health and Human Services and a Medical Cannabis Production Commission to evaluate applications and issue up to ten licenses.
Notably, the CCA does not differentiate between cultivators, processors, and dispensaries. Each licensee would be deemed a “supplier” and may operate both “production facilities” for the cultivation and processing of marijuana and up to eight dispensaries, or “medical cannabis centers.”
Compared to the “comprehensive” medical use programs adopted in other states, the CCA’s current text is limited. According to Senator Rabon, the legislative intent “is to only make changes to existing state law that are necessary to protect patients and their doctors from criminal and civil penalties.” The list of qualifying conditions is also limited; unlike Ohio, North Carolina would not permit patients suffering from chronic pain to obtain a marijuana certification. In fact, this version of the CCA only recognizes eleven qualified diagnoses that are not related to hospice or end-of-life care. However, unlike some states, the bill would permit smoking of medical marijuana by registered patients, with some restrictions.
While passage of the bill would be a well-earned win for medical marijuana advocates in North Carolina, cannabis business owners looking to develop a presence into the state should take care to familiarize themselves with the proposed bill. Seasoned owners and operators will recognize certain aspects, such as the creation of a seed-to-sale tracking system and a state registry of all qualified patients and caregivers. Other familiar provisions include an annual license renewal requirement, license caps, and the disqualification from licensure of individuals convicted of certain crimes.
However, license-seekers will want to pay close attention to the proposed bill’s license application requirements, which include:
Under the proposed text, suppliers would be required to begin cultivation within 120 days of licensure and begin the sale of cannabis and cannabis-infused products within 270 days of initiating cultivation. Suppliers would also pay a monthly fee to the Department in an amount equal to 10% of gross revenue. This 10% fee would likely represent the largest fee imposed on medical marijuana operators in any state market, and it remains to be seen if operators could be profitable with a fee of this size while still being prohibited from taking standard business deductions due to IRC 280E.
The Compassionate Care Act now moves to the North Carolina House of Representatives. While last year’s proposed medical use legislation died in the House, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore stated that he “would not be surprised at all” if the House votes in favor of passage this time around.
This article provides a brief overview of North Carolina’s Compassionate Care Act in its current state. The bill was amended several times during the Senate committee process, including amendments designed to ensure equitable distribution and access to medical cannabis centers in underserved counties. As is often the case with legislation, the House is likely to make additional changes to the proposed bill before it heads to the Governor’s desk.
If you are interested in pursuing a North Carolina medical marijuana license, or if you have questions about North Carolina’s Compassionate Care Act, please don’t hesitate to contact a Frantz Ward cannabis attorney.
With 2020 in the rearview mirror and much of the country suffering from election season fatigue, many people were not following yesterday’s special election in Georgia. However, with control of the United States Senate hanging in the balance, the results of the election have far reaching implications for a number of policy matters, including marijuana reform. Those implications are not limited to federal law – Ohio’s own marijuana laws are likely on the table.
On December 4, 2020, the House of Representatives passed the MORE Act, which would deschedule marijuana under federal law and implement other progressive marijuana reforms. That bill did not receive a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. However, then-Minority Leader Chuck Schumer promised that, if the Democrats were to retain the majority, he would do “everything” he could to end federal marijuana prohibition.
Yesterday, two Republican Senators faced off against two Democratic challengers in the state of Georgia’s special election. Multiple news outlets have already called one of the races for the Democratic challenger, Raphael Warnock. As of writing this post, challenger Jon Ossoff is leading incumbent senator David Perdue. If John Ossoff wins the race – which seems likely – then the United States Senate will be evenly between Republicans and Democrats, positioning Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to cast any required tiebreaking votes. Remember, she had previously committed in this past fall’s Vice Presidential Debate to decriminalize marijuana if elected.
If Democratic leaders follow through on their prior commitments to reform federal marijuana laws by descheduling marijuana, that could have an immediate impact here in Ohio. Pursuant to Revised Code section 3719.43, when a drug is removed from the federal list of controlled substances, such removal is “automatically effected” under Ohio law. In other words, the possession and sale of marijuana in Ohio would “automatically” be legal (and basically unregulated) outside of the medical marijuana control program.
This would put Ohio lawmakers in a precarious position. They would be faced with a choice to either adopt a legal framework for a new adult use marijuana program, or to pass a new law effectively re-prohibiting marijuana outside of the MMCP at a time when public support for adult use marijuana programs in Ohio is only growing.
And Ohio is not alone in facing this new reality. Numerous states are considering adopting adult use programs this year, including New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Virginia. Even Republican-leaning states like South Dakota and Montana are reckoning with ballot initiative results that legalized adult use marijuana in their own states.
If one thing is clear following these past elections, it is that 2021 seems could be the year that marijuana reform advocates have been waiting for.
Due to the unprecedented issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic, many different industries have had to change how they operate to comply with restrictive orders to help stop the spread of the virus. One of the industries that has been most affected by this virus is the Ohio medical marijuana industry. Thankfully, the Ohio Board of Pharmacy (“Board”) has issued guidance and temporary relief from some regulations to help the medical marijuana industry safely operate during this pandemic.
Orders Over the Telephone
On March 20, 2020, the Board issued guidance permitting patients and caregivers to place an order for the sale of marijuana through the telephone. The patient/caregiver must contact the dispensary and orders must be taken on the telephone system on the dispensary’s premises. When the patient/caregiver arrives, his/her photo identification and registry identification card must be verified when he/she arrives and at the point of sale terminal. Payments may not be accepted over the phone. Product not picked up by the close of business must be returned to the vault or safe.
Interestingly, some states, such as Michigan and Illinois, have begun allowing online ordering – though online orders are not yet permitted in Ohio. A copy of the Board’s telephone ordering guidance can be accessed here.
On March 23, 2020, the Board issued guidance permitting a patient to have up to three caregivers, and a caregiver to have up to three patients. Also, caregivers can now be linked to patients through either the patient’s physician, or by applying directly to the Board for patients who are already in the registry. Hopefully, this will grant patients greater access to caregivers when some caregivers may be quarantined or reluctant to leave their homes. A copy of this guidance and instructions for submitting the application directly to the Board can be accessed here.
On April 3, 2020, Ohio joined a growing list of states to temporarily permit sales to patients and caregivers outside the dispensary department. Transactions must occur on dispensary property, security personnel must be present, and transactions must occur within the coverage of one of the security cameras. The guidance specifically prohibits home or off-site delivery. If curb-side pickup works well and is safe, the Board may make this rule change permanent.
Interestingly, some states, such as Michigan and Maryland, are allowing delivery during the pandemic. Also, California permitted deliveries prior to the pandemic. Home delivery is a popular option in other states, especially during “Stay at Home” or other “Shelter in Place” orders. It is possible that the Board will re-evaluate its position relative to home delivery in future rule changes. The Board may review how home-delivery is working in other states and may being to permit it during the pandemic, which could lead to it becoming permanent. A copy of the curb-side pickup guidance can be accessed here.
Photo ID Requirements
On April 14, 2020, due to closures of BMVs throughout Ohio, the Board issued guidance permitting renewal of registrations and recommendations for patients and caregivers with identification that expired on or after February 1, 2020, so long as the document is legible and it is one of the forms of identifications permitted under Ohio Administrative Code § 3796:7-2-01. If the identification expired before February 1, 2020, patients can register with a birth certificate and one of the identifications permitted under Ohio Administrative Code § 3796:7-2-01. Dispensaries will be required to honor this form of identification. Patients will have 60 days after the rescission of this guidance to obtain valid photo identification.
Moreover, the guidance permits birth certificates as acceptable identification for minors or adults with legal guardians, and dispensaries will be required to accept this form of identification for these patients. Patients registering with birth certificates shall have 60 days after the rescission of this guidance to obtain valid photo identification.
Lastly, the guidance provides for alternative forms of identification for currently registered patients or caregivers who have lost their identification. One option is to present a birth certificate and a social security card. Another option is to provide a birth certificate or social security card, and either a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows the patient/caregiver’s name and address. This guidance can be accessed here.
90-Day Supply Resolution and Guidance
On April 17, 2020, the Board is establishing a new process to calculate a patient’s 90-day supply. Under the prior process, a patient could only purchase medical marijuana for the remaining days from the 90-day recommendation supply period. For example, if a patient had not purchased medical marijuana until day 40 of his/her 90-day supply period, the patient could only purchase up to 50-days-worth of supply.
Under the new process, the 90-day recommendation will now be divided into two 45-day fill periods. The first fill period begins when the patient receives the recommendation. Importantly, a patient may now purchase the entire 45-day supply of medical marijuana, regardless of when the purchase is made during the period. If the patient does not purchase the entire 45-day supply in the first period, the patient may not purchase more than a 45-day supply in the second fill period. A copy of this guidance can be accessed here.
Some of these changes will likely remain temporarily in place only during the pandemic, such as the relaxed photo identification requirements and caregiver registration requirements. However, for the other changes, the Board may review the efficacy of these new rules and make some permanent.
If you have questions about how the coronavirus is impacting the medical marijuana industry, please contact a member of Frantz Ward’s Cannabis Law and Policy team.
Legal cannabis is one of the fastest-growing markets in the United States. With eleven states permitting recreational use as of March 2020 and forty-seven states allowing some form of medicinal use, estimates project more than $23 billion in consumer spending on legal cannabis in the United States by 2022. Despite rapid state-level changes, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. The difficulties in navigating this legal landscape are especially prevalent in estate planning, and the presence of marijuana-based assets in an estate plan may have broad impacts on transfers, administration, and taxation.
These issues arise for clients, potential fiduciaries, and potential beneficiaries when an asset to be transferred or otherwise disposed of upon the death of an individual is related either directly or indirectly to marijuana. There are two general categories of assets at issue: assets owned by an individual or business that have direct contact with marijuana, such as cultivation manufacture/processing, or sale of marijuana, and assets owned by an individual or business that are related to marijuana such as manufacture or sale of products utilized in the production or consumption of marijuana, real estate upon which production is conducted, or a provider of ancillary services such as accounting, banking, or inventory management. The former requires a greater level of attention in structuring an estate plan.
Transferring Marijuana-based Assets
A preliminary consideration for marijuana-based assets is whether a testamentary instrument may legally transfer ownership. Owners of marijuana businesses should invest in establishing a clear business succession plan at the outset and should investigate buy-sell agreements, cross-purchase plans, or entity purchase plans. Careful planning on the front end may avoid some of the more difficult issues discussed below.
The next step is to determine if a beneficiary may take ownership of the asset. State laws vary on the restrictions preventing minors from possessing or owning such assets, either outright or in trust, and it is important to consider how a minor beneficiary may benefit from inherited assets without contravening those restrictions. Similarly, a beneficiary who has reached the age of majority may nonetheless be restricted in their ability to take ownership by virtue of a prior conviction for a disqualifying offense. As an added complication, each state has differing prerequisites and procedures for transferring ownership of a state-issued marijuana license. Ownership as well as control of marijuana businesses are both heavily scrutinized by state regulators, and many states place limitations on the timeframe in which ownership or control may be changed. The qualifications and application process to transfer an existing license or issue a new license may cause significant delays in the ability to transfer or may prevent transfer altogether. Again, a clear business succession plan can serve to avoid these pitfalls.
It is important to note that the laws of the decedent’s domicile prior to death will govern the transfer of assets by a decedent, but the laws of the beneficiary’s domicile will be applicable in determining whether or not they may take possession of the asset.
Administering Marijuana-based Assets
Another potential issue is whether a named fiduciary, such as the executor or administrator of an estate, property management agent, or trustee, is able and willing to serve. Given the uncertainty surrounding marijuana-based assets on the federal level, a fiduciary may be concerned about exposure to civil and criminal liability. While individuals may rely on the enforcement priorities outline in the Cole II memorandum issued August 2013 by the Department of Justice, a corporate fiduciary may decline its appointment. A fiduciary may also face challenges in working with financial institutions in light of the comprehensive requirements imposed by FinCEN in its 2014 guidance, including filing Suspicious Activity Reports and other onerous paperwork under its anti-money-laundering regulations. Because states closely regulate the control and operation of marijuana businesses, a fiduciary may face the same issues as a beneficiary in undergoing the application and approval process by the state’s regulatory authority.
From the fiduciary’s perspective, marijuana assets present other unique administration considerations. A fiduciary who is bound to invest in the same manner as a prudent investor under the Uniform Prudent Investor Act in over 40 states may find it challenging to assess marijuana investments given the uncertain degree of risk. Further, administering marijuana businesses presents unique income tax considerations. Under Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code, tax deductions and credits are not available to companies whose business consists of “trafficking in controlled substances.” 26 U.S.C. §280E. As a result, marijuana businesses are not allowed to take tax deductions on normal business expenses like employee salaries, rent, and utility bills, increasing their effective federal tax rate significantly.
Business and Estate Taxation of Marijuana-based Assets
Even though marijuana-based assets are illegal federally, the IRS can still demand payment of estate tax on any transferrable business assets connected with an illegal enterprise. The IRS has held that although an item may be illegal to own, an illicit market may nevertheless exist to measure the value of the property for estate tax purposes. Although the federal estate tax exemption remains high, marijuana-based assets have the potential for tremendous value due to the rapid growth of the industry in the United States.
Clients with assets that relate directly or indirectly to marijuana should give careful attention to the unique considerations for estate planning. Contact Frantz Ward’s Cannabis Law and Policy group to plan ahead for the transfer, administration, and taxation of marijuana-based assets.
Excerpt from article:
Tom Haren, partner at Ohio law firm Frantz Ward, sees the current regulatory trend a bit differently.
More permitting issues popping up
“I don’t know if they (regulators) are necessarily getting more assertive as much as the life cycle of the industry is now when these (licensing) issues are starting to crop up,” Haren said.
For example, he said, Ohio developed its medical marijuana regulations in 2016 and 2017, at a time when there were few publicly traded companies and little merger and acquisition activity.
“It was a different world,” Haren said.
Like many states, Ohio drafted strict ownership and license-transfer requirements, regulations that haven’t necessarily kept pace with industry realities.
Some states, for example, require clean criminal records for all owners of a business. That’s a requirement impossible to meet by publicly held companies with thousands of stockholders.
The reality is that the cannabis industry has evolved into one that reflects almost every industry, with fluid ownership, Haren noted.
“Some states don’t want licenses to be sold, but that’s not how business works, that’s not how markets work,” Haren said. “I think we really need to reevaluate how we treat the industry.”
“In my experience, companies are making every effort to comply with the rules,” Haren added. “No company wants to have to surrender licenses or get in trouble with the regulators.”
Despite the Buckeye State’s late start in the hemp industry, Ohio has quickly turned into a national trendsetter, becoming one of the first states to obtain USDA approval of its hemp program. With the Ohio Department of Agriculture expected to finalize its administrative rules in a matter of days, Ohioans could find themselves with the ability to be among the first to be licensed to produce hemp and hemp-derived products in 2020.
So, with that in mind, here’s what you need to know:
There are many more regulatory and practical issues to consider when operating a hemp business. If you have questions or would like to learn more about Ohio’s hemp industry, please do not hesitate to contact Tom Haren and the other Frantz Ward cannabis attorneys.
In recent years, courts across the country are sending mixed signals as to whether the “illegal contract” or “illegality” defense prevents the enforcement of cannabis contracts. The inconsistencies among courts present significant hurdles for investors and distributors who cannot be certain any contract will be enforced by a federal court. After what appears to be a pattern of enforcing such contracts, two recent cases may indicate a slowing of the momentum, or may be outliers from one federal court.
Specifically, for the second time in two months, a federal court in Seattle indicated it may be prohibited from enforcing a contract between cannabis companies based upon the illegality doctrine and the fact that marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law. In Left Coast Ventures v. Bill’s Nursery, No. 2:19-CV-1297-MJP, (W.D. Wash. October 31, 2019), the plaintiff asked the court to enforce a contract requiring Florida grower Bill’s Nursery to sell its marijuana distribution business to Left Coast Ventures. Bill’s Nursery moved to dismiss, claiming the contract terminated several years before Left Coast purported to exercise its option. After the parties completed briefing on the motion to dismiss, the court sua sponte issued an order to show cause, finding “the contract at issue may be unenforceable” under the Federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”). According to the court, it is precluded from awarding an ownership interest in a business that is illegal under federal law.
In response, Bill’s Nursery argued the court may not order an illegal act. Because the sale, distribution and cultivation of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, Left Coast’s claim for specific performance – which would effectively award an ownership interest in an illegal business – failed as a matter of law. Unsurprisingly, Left Coast disagreed, arguing (1) the majority of federal courts to consider the illegality defense under similar circumstances refused to dismiss on that ground, and (2) enforcing the contract does not mandate illegal conduct. According to Left Coast, it seeks both monetary damages and specific performance of an option agreement to purchase shares in Bill’s Nursery. The court has yet to render a decision.
The Left Coast case follows on the heels of a similar decision by the Western District of Washington in Polk v. Gontmakher, No. 2:18-CV-01434-RAJ, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146724, at *2 (W.D. Wash. Aug. 28, 2019). In that case, the plaintiff sued his former partner in a marijuana growing business, arguing he was entitled to an ownership interest as well as past and future profits. Treading lightly, the court held that federal law precluded enforcement of the agreement, because under the CSA, the production, distribution and sale of marijuana remains illegal. The court noted the “nuanced approach” in applying the illegality defense, acknowledging that it may have been permissible to award the plaintiff damages. However, because the complaint sought an ownership interest in the business, such a result would contravene federal law.
These recent decisions are squarely at odds with the general trend. In reality, federal courts are increasingly more willing to recognize cannabis related businesses – which are legal under the laws of several states – and enforce both the private and public obligations surrounding them. For example, in Street v. ACC Enters., Ltd. Liab. Co., No. 2:17-cv-00083-GMN-VCF, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167299, at *13-14 (D. Nev. Sep. 27, 2018), a case involving the breach of a multi-million dollar loan agreement to fund a cannabis cultivation facility, the court was able to “provide a remedy for Plaintiff that both complies with Nevada substantive law and does not conflict with federal law. This finding comes from the fact that several requirements of the First and Second Promissory Notes command the Defendants to use the loaned funds for solely legal acts.” Because the potential remedy did not mandate illegal activity, the court denied plaintiff’s motion to dismiss.
In Mann v. Gullickson, 2016 WL 6473215, at *9 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 2, 2016), the Northern District of California rejected an illegality defense on summary judgment in a breach of contract action involving medical cannabis-related businesses, holding that mandating payment for the business did not require the defendant to “possess, cultivate, or distribute marijuana, or to in any other way require her to violate the CSA.” Similarly, in Ginsburg v. ICC Holdings, LLC, 2017 WL 5467688, at *9 (N.D. Tex. Nov. 13, 2017), the Northern District of Texas rejected the illegality defense to a breach of contract action regarding loans for a medical cannabis business, explaining “federal courts do not take such a ‘black-and-white’ approach to enforceability.” Rather, courts must balance “the pros and cons of enforcement, taking into account the benefits of enforcement that lie in creating stability in contract relations and preserving reasonable expectations and the costs in forgoing the additional deterrence of behavior forbidden by the statute.”
Likewise, in Kenney v. Helix TCS, Inc., 939 F.3d 1106 (10th Cir. 2019), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a defendant could not escape its obligations under the Fair Labor Standards Act by relying on the illegality defense. In that case, Helix, a company that provides security to cannabis businesses, failed to pay its employee overtime as required by the FLSA. Helix moved to dismiss the claim, arguing that Kennedy was not entitled to protection under the FLSA because cannabis is illegal under the CSA. According to Helix, its employees assume the risk that they will be criminally sanctioned for their work and thus are denied the benefits of federal law. A three-judge panel disagreed, holding the FLSA indeed applies to cannabis businesses. The court stated that “employers are not excused from complying with federal laws just because their business practices are federally prohibited.” The court further noted that its holding was consistent with that of Greenwood v. Green Leaf Lab LLC, No. 3:17-cv-00415-PK, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125143, at *10 (D. Or. July 13, 2017), where the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon addressed precisely the same issue.
In sum, the differing approaches are largely based on the remedy requested by a cannabis plaintiff. While courts have been willing to enforce contracts seeking monetary damages, they are generally unwilling to grant specific performance if it would require the court to order that a plaintiff be permitted to engage in activity illegal under federal law. This distinction highlights the need for careful evaluation when drafting agreements, and thoughtful consideration from counsel when seeking to enforce them through litigation.
If you have questions about remedies when a cannabis contract is breached, please do not hesitate to contact a member of Frantz Ward’s Cannabis Law & Policy team.