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Labor and Employment Issues

On Thursday, March 30, the Cannabis team at Husch Blackwell will host a cannabis seminar highlighting OSHA safety regulations. In January of 2017, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released the “Guide to Worker Safety and Health in the Marijuana Industry.” This seminar will take a deeper look at this document and discuss OSHA safety regulations that affect your business. For more details, please read more here.

A favorable ruling from the Ninth Circuit in United States v. McIntosh is a reassuring win for the medical marijuana industry.  This federal case concluded that § 542 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act prohibits DOJ from spending money on actions that prevent medical marijuana states giving practical effect to their state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

What does this mean?

It’s a nice reassurance for medical marijuana businesses, their employees and patients acting in compliance with state rules. It is also likely to dissuade the DOJ from taking similar actions in the near future and provides a valuable precedent to certain defendants so long as the current prohibition on DOJ enforcement spending remains in effect. However, Congress can change the spending prohibition at any time.

The footnote of the case reaffirms that marijuana is still federally illegal and does not provide immunity from prosecution for federal marijuana offenses.   The footnote is below:

[Footnote 5: The prior observation should also serve as a warning. To be clear, § 542 does not provide immunity from prosecution for federal marijuana offenses. The CSA prohibits the manufacture, distribution, and possession of marijuana. Anyone in any state who possesses, distributes, or manufactures marijuana for medical or recreational purposes (or attempts or conspires to do so) is committing a federal crime. The federal government can prosecute such offenses for up to five years after they occur.

Congress currently restricts the government from spending certain funds to prosecute certain individuals. But Congress could restore funding tomorrow, a year from now, or four years from now, and the government could then prosecute individuals who committed offenses while the government lacked funding. Moreover, a new president will be elected soon, and a new administration could shift enforcement priorities to place greater emphasis on prosecuting marijuana offenses.

Nor does does any state law “legalize” possession, distribution, or manufacture of marijuana. Under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, state laws cannot permit what federal law prohibits. Thus, while the CSA remains in effect, states cannot actually authorize the manufacture, distribution, or possession of marijuana. Such activity remains prohibited by federal law.]

Finally, this ruling also only covers “medical marijuana” and not “recreational marijuana.”  As I have stated before, this does not prevent the DOJ from using funds for enforcement actions against recreational marijuana businesses.

On June 10, 2016, Governor Hickenlooper signed bill 16-040 which removes the Colorado two year residency requirement to obtain a marijuana business owner license, ultimately easing the burden for prospective out-of-state investors to become owners. The Colorado General Assembly’s intent in creating this bill was to provide marijuana businesses with the economic capabilities to grow their operations and remain competitive in the marijuana marketplace. Below is a quick review of Colorado’s history of licensing requirements for marijuana business owners, and a summary of the licensing requirements after the enactment of this new law.

Changes to the Requirements for Owners of a Licensed Marijuana Business

Colorado’s marijuana laws have been notoriously opposed to allowing out-of-state residents to own Colorado marijuana businesses. Until recently, Colorado required prospective marijuana business owners to be a two year resident of Colorado prior to their license application. Ultimately, prospective out-of-state investors, who did not meet this requirement and could not own a stake in the business, were deterred from investing. Over time, the Colorado General Assembly has become more tolerant of out-of-state investors, evidenced by the creation of a new class of ownership called Permitted Economic Interest (“PEI”). The PEI allowed out-of-state investors a formalized process for investing in cannabis businesses—— through convertible notes or options to purchase equity of a licensed marijuana business—— while still requiring Colorado residency for two years for marijuana business ownership.

However, prospective out-of-state investors are no longer required to be Colorado residents for two years before applying for a marijuana business owner license. The Colorado General Assembly, with the enactment of this new bill 16-040, has created a new distinction of ownership: Direct Beneficial Interest Owner.  A Direct Beneficial Interest Owner is an individual or closely held business entity that owns equity shares of stock in a marijuana business. The requirements for an individual are: Colorado residency for one year prior to the date of the license application; or United States citizenship prior to the date of the license application. Before applying for this new type of ownership, prospective out-of-state investors must first request a finding of suitability from the State Licensing Authority, . If the investor receives a suitability confirmation then he or she may apply to become a Direct Beneficial Interest Owner. For a closely held business entity, the new law requires that it must consist entirely of United States citizens prior to the date on the license application.

This new bill places certain restrictions on marijuana businesses in relation to Direct Beneficial Interest Owners. Marijuana businesses can be comprised of an unlimited number of Direct Beneficial Interest Owners who have been Colorado residents for at least one year prior to the license application. But, marijuana businesses comprised of one or more than one Direct Beneficial Interest Owner Direct Beneficial Interest Owners, who lack one year of Colorado residency prior to the date on the license application, must have at least one officer who meets the requirement of Colorado residency for one year. Further, bill 16-040 restricts marijuana businesses from being made up of more than fifteen Direct Beneficial Interest Owners, when the business consists of one or more Direct Beneficial Interest Owners who do not meet the requirement of Colorado residency for one year. These limits aren’t set in stone going forward as the MED may increase the number of allowable Direct Beneficial Interest Owners above fifteen if the increase is supported by: developments in state and federal financial regulations, market conditions, and the business’s ability to access legitimate sources of capital.

Marijuana businesses may also include Qualified Institutional Investors who own 30% or less of the business, Bill 16-040 defines an institutional investor as:

  • A Bank
  • An Insurance Company
  • An Investment Company
  • An Investment Adviser
  • Collective Trust Funds
  • An Employee Benefit Plan or Pension Fund
  • A State or Federal Government Pension Plan
  • Any other entity identified by the MED

However, the MED has the right to conduct an initial background check on any prospective investor.

What does this mean?

Colorado has clearly made the right step in permitting outside investment into the state regulated marijuana industry.  While the regulations implementing them are yet to be adopted (i.e. does an institutional investor or its owners/officers/directors need to be background checked, fingerprinted, etc.) there is a path for out of state investors as well as regulated funds or banks to be able to participate.  As always, the devil will be in the details and we will not know how this will be implemented until the regulations are finalized and adopted later this year.

President Obama approved the 2016 federal budget and it contained a prohibition that none of the funds made available to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to any of the States that have state-legal medical marijuana programs, to prevent any of them from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

In addition, the 2016 federal budget also prohibits the use of any funds made available to any agency that might be used in contravention of the Agricultural Act of 2014 or prohibit the transportation, processing, sale, or use of industrial hemp that is grown or cultivated in accordance with the Agricultural Act of 2014, within or outside the state in which industrial hemp is grown or cultivated.

What does this mean to you?

Medical Marijuana – Similar to the 2015 Federal Budget, this prohibition only covers “medical marijuana” and not “recreational marijuana.”  As I have stated before, this does not prevent the Department of Justice from using funds to prevent recreational marijuana programs from implementing laws.  While this is a continued step in the right direction, the prohibition does not extend to state-legal recreational marijuana.

Industrial Hemp – This is also a positive step for the industrial hemp industry for those operating under the Agricultural Act of 2014.  This will allow the continued cultivation of industrial hemp for purposes of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research.  However, this does not allow industrial hemp to be sold for commercial purposes.  For a State like Colorado, that allows the commercialization of industrial hemp.  You should contact your legal counsel to discuss the implications prior to selling any products.

This ruling is a definitive win for medical marijuana business that are operating consistent with state regulations.  The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to last year’s spending bill lists the states that have medical marijuana laws, and mandates that the DOJ is barred from using federal funds to “prevent such State from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

“The DEA, however, didn’t see it that way. In a leaked memo, the Justice Department contended that the amendment only prevents actions against actual states — not against the individuals or businesses or business that actually carry out marijuana laws. In their interpretation, the bill still allowed them to pursue criminal and civil actions against medical marijuana businesses and the patients who patronized them.”

The ruling could discourage the Department of Justice from creative interpretations of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment going forward, which should let medical marijuana businesses and their patients in 23 states breathe a sigh of relief.”

The Washington Post

What does this mean for you?

I view this as a big step forward for state-legal medical cannabis businesses.  Note that the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment only covers “medical marijuana” and not recreational marijuana.  However, striking down any creative interpretations of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment will pave the way for the new bills introduced by the Senate and House that account for recreational marijuana.  While not yet law, these bills are a positive step towards a regulated cannabis market.