As California’s legislative session drew to a close this week, lawmakers approved measures to reform marijuana taxes, expand industry access to banking and launch a state-regulated appellation program to help identify where cannabis is grown. A hotly contested proposal to regulate hemp and CBD, however, failed to make the cut.
The handful of successful bills, some of which weren’t decided until the legislature’s final hours Monday night, now head to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) desk. With his signature, they’ll shape the next phase of one of the nation’s most dynamic marijuana markets.
Most of the changes are more modest than industry advocates had hoped for when the year began, said Amy Jenkins, a lobbyist and senior policy director for the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA).
“We at CCIA were looking at this as a potentially transformative year,” she told Marijuana Moment in an interview on Tuesday, with many businesses hoping the state would consolidate a number of regulatory departments. “All of that really came to a halt in March, with the COVID pandemic and need to essentially shelter in place and mostly shut down business as usual.”
“We went from, as an industry, talking about these really exciting, transformative reform concepts to really post-pandemic preservation,” she added.
Perhaps the biggest victory for the industry in 2020, Jenkins said, had nothing to do with the legislature at all: As the pandemic set in, regulators deemed the marijuana industry essential, allowing businesses to continue operating. “Really progressive areas, like San Francisco, were poised to shut down,” she said. “I think a lot of people discount the significance of that.”
Some of the newly passed bills that will make their way to Newsom’s desk, such as those involving banking and appellations, result from years-long efforts by advocates. Others, such as tax and testing changes, represent more mechanical adjustments to the market.
Here’s a quick rundown of the measures passed by lawmakers:
Senate Bill 67 would help establish a long-awaited appellation program to allow producers to designate the physical origin of their marijuana, much like how wine regions are regulated. It would also prevent companies from misrepresenting where cannabis is grown, for example by misleadingly using the popular names of Humboldt or Mendocino counties in advertising and labeling. Under the bill, marijuana must be grown—either indoors or outdoors—in a designated city or county in order to qualify to use that name.
“People were really excited about this bill, because I think it solved two issues,” Jenkins said. “From the craft, sun-grown cultivator’s perspective, this kind of preserved the integrity of terroir, which is something that is really really meaningful to them, factoring in the sun and the soil and the topography.” At the same time, she said, it allows growers in regions less conducive to outdoor cultivation—Jenkins pointed to Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley as examples—to still represent and capitalize on their respective regions.
“I was so pleased to see this bill pass last night and that it’s heading to the governor’s desk,” Jenkins said Tuesday. “All indications are that he’ll sign it.”
California marijuana businesses have been complaining about taxes, which in parts of the state are among the highest in the nation, since the plant first became legal. While reforms in Assembly Bill 1872 are more restrained than many in the industry had pushed for, Jenkins at CCIA still describes them as a win. Among other changes, the bill essentially freezes potential increases on tax rates on marijuana, which lawmakers have said is an acknowledgement of the pandemic’s financial effects—and the fact that cannabis businesses don’t qualify for federal relief.
“We thought it was important to give these companies tax certainty over this next year because they are not getting much of the relief that other small businesses are getting through the federal government,” Assemblymember Phil Ting (D), chair of the chamber’s Budget Committee, said in an interview with Cannabis Wire.
Another thorny industry issue has been access to financial services. Many big banks, being federally regulated, have avoided working with marijuana operators due to cumbersome regulations about doing business with clients engaged in what remains federally illegal activity. While California lawmakers can’t change the federal landscape, Assembly Bill 1525 removes state penalties for working with marijuana clients.
“This bill would provide that an entity, as defined, that receives deposits, extends credit, conducts fund transfers, transports cash or financial instruments, or provides other financial services, including public accounting, as provided, does not commit a crime under any California law solely by virtue of the fact that the person receiving the benefit of any of those services engages in commercial cannabis activity as a licensee,” a Legislative Counsel Digest description of the bill says.
Advocates are hopeful the bill’s adoption by California lawmakers will send a message to Congress about the need for federal reform. Beyond that symbolic support, Jenkins at CCIA said the bill’s passage is meant to reassure financial institutions that work or are considering doing work with the marijuana industry.
“We talked to the banking community, and they said they wanted this and needed this,” Jenkins said. “If that bill can serve to encourage more banks to bank the industry, then that was something we wanted to take very seriously.”
On the federal level, talks about marijuana banking are ongoing. A vote on federal descheduling expected this month could open the door to financial services for the entire legal industry if the bill is enacted into law. The House passed a standalone cannabis banking measure last year and included the reform in its latest version of a federal COVID relief bill, but so far the Senate has not adopted the change.
Lawmakers sent along a few product-testing tweaks for the governor’s approval, including a measure that would allow manufacturers to submit unpackaged product—rather than a product in its final retail packaging—to testing labs. Industry advocates said the change will remove a needless expense for producers, making state-mandated testing more affordable. Another bill would require more precise measurement of THC content in edibles, while a third would allow state-licensed cannabis testing labs to provide testing services to local law enforcement or prosecuting agencies. That law enforcement work wouldn’t be considered “commercial cannabis activity” overseen by the Bureau of Cannabis Control.
Hemp CBD Regs Fall Short
One widely anticipated piece of legislation that didn’t clear the finish line this legislative session had to do with hemp-derived CBD. For the second consecutive year, an effort to pass a bill that would regulate hemp CBD in food, beverages, cosmetics and dietary supplements was scuttled at the last minute as stakeholders failed to reach an agreement before the legislative deadline. A proposal still being hammered out in the session’s final weeks would have finally regulated CBD in food and beverages, which have been sold for years amid legal uncertainty.
A pervasive sticking point, however, was the draft versions’ proposed ban on CBD products intended for smoking and vaping. Jenkins said she and CCIA repeatedly attempted to strike smoking and vaping products from the suggested ban, though she acknowledged the matter is a “controversial issue” from both a political and industry standpoint.
Another industry group, the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, was frank in its disappointment about the failure to cross the finish line. “This weekend, our political system let us down,” the organization said in an email newsletter. “Due to intra-party fights that had nothing to do with our legislation, the state Senate leadership refused to allow a vote on our legislative language.”
While legislation action will have to wait for future sessions, Jenkins at CCIA said, work on the proposal is expected to continue with urgency. “The conversation is not going away,” she said, “and I think there’s going to be additional stakeholder discussions that will inevitably occur throughout the fall.”
All in all, Jenkins said, California’s 2020 legislative session was one of “modest wins” for the industry, which isn’t too bad given COVID’s abrupt halt to regularly scheduled programming. “We went from about 36 bills down to about ten. That was the lowest number of bills I’ve seen since I’ve become a cannabis lobbyist” in 2015, she said.
Still, Jenkins said, the results are heartening in terms of signaling the normalization of an industry long regarded as politically taboo. Of the bills that passed, she noted, many sailed through on unanimous or near-unanimous votes.
“I think that’s a great testament to everything the industry has been doing to educate the legislature,” she said. “They passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support, and I think that is something that we shouldn’t overlook. It’s a testament to how far we’ve come.”
Illinois Gets More Tax Revenue From Marijuana Than Alcohol, State Says
Illinois took in more tax dollars from marijuana than alcohol for the first time last quarter, according to the state Department of Revenue.
From January to March, Illinois generated about $86,537,000 in adult-use marijuana tax revenue, compared to $72,281,000 from liquor sales.
Those following the cannabis market in Illinois might not be entirely surprised, as the state has consistently been reporting record-breaking sales, even amid the pandemic. In March alone, adults spent $109,149,355 on recreational cannabis products—the largest single month of sales since retailers opened shop.
It was in February that monthly cannabis revenues first overtook those from alcohol, a trend that continued into March.
If the trend keeps up, Illinois could see more than $1 billion in adult-use marijuana sales in 2021. Last year, the state sold about $670 million in cannabis and took in $205.4 million in tax revenue.
Officials have emphasized that the tax dollars from all of these sales are being put to good use. For example, the state announced in January that it is distributing $31.5 million in grants funded by marijuana tax dollars to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
The funds are part of the state’s Restore, Reinvest, and Renew (R3) program, which was established under Illinois’s adult-use cannabis legalization law. It requires 25 percent of marijuana tax dollars to be put in that fund and used to provide disadvantaged people with services such as legal aid, youth development, community reentry and financial support.
Awarding the new grant money is not all that Illinois is doing to promote social equity and repair the harms of cannabis criminalization. Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) announced in December that his office had processed more than 500,000 expungements and pardons for people with low-level cannabis convictions on their records.
Relatedly, a state-funded initiative was recently established to help residents with marijuana convictions get legal aid and other services to have their records expunged.
But promoting social equity in the state’s cannabis industry hasn’t been smooth sailing. The state has faced criticism from advocates and lawsuits from marijuana business applicants who feel officials haven’t done enough to ensure diversity among business owners in the industry.
Colorado Marijuana Sales Reached $167 Million In February
Colorado’s overall cannabis sales for the first two months of 2021 are $78 million higher than those for January and February of 2020.
By Robert Davis, The Center Square
Total marijuana sales in Colorado reached $167 million in February, the state’s revenue department announced on Friday.
The total represents a $20 million decline in sales from the previous month. However, Colorado’s overall sales for the first two months of 2021 remain $78 million above the pace set between January and February of 2020.
Marijuana sales are calculated by adding the total sales for both medical and recreational marijuana sales in Colorado’s 64 counties.
Denver County led all others in total recreational sales with over $38 million. Arapahoe and Adams counties followed suit with $13 million and $11 million in recreational sales, respectively.
Denver also led the way in medical marijuana sales, bringing in a total of $14 million. El Paso County was a close second, reaping over $10 million in medical sales.
Sales are not automatically accounted for in the state’s accounting system. This means the Department of Revenue (CDOR) relies on each county to report their sales before reporting the total. In effect, marijuana sales are reported one month behind tax and fee revenue totals.
Meanwhile, Colorado collected over $33 million in tax revenue in March. This total represents both taxes levied from medical and recreational marijuana sales, as well as license and application fees.
Between February and March, state tax revenue from marijuana sales declined 4 percent, according to CDOR data.
Tax revenue comes from a 2.9 percent state sales tax on marijuana sold in stores, a 15 percent state retail marijuana sales tax, and a 15 percent state retail marijuana excise tax on wholesale sales or transfers of retail marijuana.
Uber Will ‘Absolutely’ Explore Marijuana Deliveries When Federal Prohibition Ends, CEO Says
The CEO of Uber said on Monday that the ride share company will “absolutely” explore adding marijuana deliveries to its services when federal prohibition ends.
Dara Khosrowshahi was asked about the prospect of expanding his business to include cannabis deliveries during an interview with CNBC. He said while the company remains focused on grocery and alcohol deliveries, in addition to its core ridesharing service, that’s certainly in the cards if marijuana is federally legalized.
Uber is interested in “the types of deliveries that a high percentage of consumers are going to want delivered fast into their home and are quite frequent,” he said. “We think, obviously, food, grocery, pharmacy and alcohol are part of that category,” but cannabis also holds potential.
“When the road is clear for cannabis when federal laws come into play, we’re absolutely going to take a look at it,” Khosrowshahi said. “But right now with grocery, with food, with alcohol, et cetera, we see so much opportunity out there and we’re going to focus on the opportunity at hand.”
Could you get your weed delivered through Uber? CEO Dara Khosrowshahi discusses the potential business strategy: "When the road is clear for cannabis and federal laws come into play, we're absolutely going to look at it." (via @CNBCTechCheck) https://t.co/6VM454ugka pic.twitter.com/bRjpv7vvhU
— CNBC (@CNBC) April 12, 2021
The tech executive was specially asked about the possible expansion into the cannabis market in light of legalization recently being enacted in New York. And if polling from that state is any indication, Uber would see the demand for deliveries that it’s looking for, as 53 percent of New Yorkers said in a survey that they would favor having that option available to consumers.
But for now, the CEO said the business is keeping its eyes on current expansions, which includes its recent acquisition of the alcohol delivery service Drizly. That company did launch an ancillary cannabis delivery service called Lantern—but following the Uber deal, it announced that the two entities would be separated, with Lantern operating independently as a private company.
Of course, as a national corporation, Uber is also making a risk assessment given the ongoing ban on cannabis at the federal level. But a policy change to that end could come sooner than later.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has said that a bill to legalize marijuana that he’s been working on with Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) will be released “shortly.”
On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) has similarly signaled that his cannabis descheduling bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—will be reintroduced this session. That proposal passed the House last year but did not advance in the Senate.
With Democrats in control of both chambers and the White House this session, there’s renewed hope among advocates that the days of prohibition are soon to be over. Still, questions remain about President Joe Biden’s role in the reform, as he opposes adult-use legalization and his press secretary said last month that his position “has not changed” to that end.
In any case, Uber’s apparent interest in participating in the market once those federal barriers are lifted is another sign of the industry’s potential. That said, many advocates have expressed that small businesses—particularly those operated by people most impacted by cannabis criminalization—should be prioritized in any legalization legislation over large companies.