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.”
Canopy Growth Says GW Pharma Infringed On CBD Extraction Patent In Federal Lawsuit
Two of the biggest players in the marijuana space are heading to federal court over a dispute related to an alleged violation of a patent for a cannabis extraction method.
Canopy Growth Corporation, a Canadian-based marijuana company, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against GW Pharmaceuticals, a UK-based firm that produces the Food and Drug Administration-approved cannabis-derived anti-seizure medication Epidiolex.
The legal action came on the same day that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a new patent to Canopy that gives it broad and exclusive rights to a process of extracting cannabinoids from plant material in the U.S. That issuance is giving Canopy more leverage to pursue litigation and potentially receive damages from GW if the suit plays out in its favor.
Canopy’s original patent—which was issued in 2014 (and initially filed as an international patent application in 2001)—was more narrow and gave companies like GW leeway to adopt their own extraction practices that fall outside the scope of the patent.
That’s not the case anymore, and if the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas sides with the plaintiffs, it could have far-reaching implications for the marijuana industry.
Canopy is claiming that GW’s infringement of a patented extraction method “has been and continues to be willful and deliberate.” Because of this infringement, “Canopy has suffered and continues to suffer damages and irreparable harm,” the suit says.
The looming issue for the industry is that, unless GW is able to prove that the patent is invalid, that could mean Canopy would have exclusive rights to an extraction process that is widely used across the market—leaving any company that relies on this method at risk of litigation.
Canopy’s exclusive rights won’t last indefinitely, of course. The newly issued patent that is the basis of its latest iteration is set to expire in a little under a year and a half. But even in that timeframe, Canopy could profit immensely from exclusivity and it could have a chilling effect on competitors in the interim.
“It really could be a major threat to the extraction industry. Once they know about [the patent], companies might be considered to be willfully infringing the patent, which can potentially triple damages if they are sued,” Larry Sandell, a patent attorney and litigator with Mei & Mark LLP, told Marijuana Moment. “Although there are steps that can be taken to reduce infringement liability risks, CO2 extractors may essentially have this anvil hanging over their head as the business continues on—at least until the patent expires or someone succeeds in knocking it out.”
It remains to be seen whether Canopy will pursue litigation against other companies that use the extraction process. GW is one of the biggest players, as the pharmaceutical firm that earned the first U.S. federal approval for a cannabis-derived medication.
“The lawsuit asserts that GW manufactures CBD—the active pharmaceutical ingredient in Epidiolex, GW’s leading cannabinoid product—using Canopy Growth’s patented CO2-based extraction process,” Phil Shaer, chief legal officer at Canopy Growth, told Marijuana Moment. “We have no interest in restricting access to Epidiolex, but the company should be fairly compensated for GW’s use of our intellectual property.“
A spokesperson for GW told Marijuana Moment that the company “is aware of the patent infringement lawsuit filed by Canopy Growth.”
“As a policy, we do not comment on any pending litigation except to say that based on our preliminary review of the complaint, we are confident in our position and will vigorously defend against this lawsuit,” they said.
One possibility would be for Canopy to license out its extraction method to other businesses that produce cannabis products.
But that’s not likely to sit well with others in the burgeoning industry. And it could be the case that GW or other companies will challenge the legitimacy of the very patent in question in court.
On a symbolic level, all of this speaks to the growing pains of a corporatizing industry—a fear expressed by some advocates as the market has expanded. And how it shakes out in this case could, at least in the short-term, be of significant consequence to cannabis businesses throughout the country.
Read Canopy’s new patent and suit against GW over a cannabis extraction process below:
Photo by Kimzy Nanney.
State Of Montana Launches Online Hemp Marketplace To Connect Buyers And Sellers
Say you’re a Montana farmer who has planted acres of industrial hemp. As harvest nears, you’re looking to offload it. Where do you go to find a buyer?
Montana’s Department of Agriculture says it has the answer.
The state this week announced the launch of an online “Hemp Marketplace,” unveiling an online portal meant to connect the hemp farmers with buyers in search of seeds, fiber and derivatives such as cannabidiol, or CBD.
“The Hemp Marketplace concept originated from the same idea as the department’s Hay Hotline,” the Agriculture Department says on its website, “only instead of hay and pasture, the online tool connects buyers and sellers of hemp and hemp derivatives.”
Listings are free of charge.
Montana farmers have embraced industrial hemp since the state legalized its production under a federal pilot program. The first legal crop was planted in 2017, and in recent years the state has led the country in terms of space dedicated to the plant. In 2018, for example, licensed farmers in Montana grew more acreage of hemp than any other U.S. state. While other states have since eclipsed the state’s hemp production—the crop became broadly federally legal through the 2018 Farm Bill—Montana remains an industry leader.
But to make revenue, farmers have to be able to sell their crop. That’s where the new hemp marketplace comes in. The online portal is essentially a sophisticated bulletin board for buyers and sellers, split into “Hemp for Sale” and “Hemp to Buy” categories.
“With hemp being a relatively new crop grown in Montana, the department recognizes that these markets are still developing,” Department of Agriculture Director Ben Thomas said in a statement. “The Hemp Marketplace was designed to help facilitate connections between buyers and sellers. I’m looking forward to seeing how the marketplace will continue to advance the industry.”
Listings include what type of products are on offer (or being sought), whether a given crop is organic and even whether laboratory testing data is available. The portal also organizes products into one of four varieties based on whether the hemp seeds have been certified by regulators. None of the products may contain more than 0.3 percent THC—the upper limit for what qualifies as hemp under both state and federal law.
Meanwhile, Montana voters are set to decide on Tuesday whether the state will legalize hemp’s more infamous cousin, high-THC marijuana. According to a poll released this week, passage looks likely: The survey, conducted by Montana State University at Billings, found that 54 percent of likely voters plan to support legal cannabis on the ballot. Another 38 percent said they were opposed, while 7 percent remained undecided.
At the federal level, officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration are still working to revise rules around marijuana and hemp to reflect Congress’s move to legalize hemp broadly in 2018. While the public comment on the proposals closed earlier this month, nine members of Congress cautioned the agency against adopting its proposed changes, warning some could put hemp producers at risk of criminal liability. Already a number of arrests and seizures have been made by law enforcement officers confused whether products were legal hemp or illicit marijuana.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), meanwhile, has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which closed again this month.
USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak
Missouri Launches Medical Marijuana Sales At State’s First Dispensaries
Less than two years after Missouri voters approved a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana, dispensaries made the state’s first cannabis sales to patients on Saturday.
N’Bliss Cannabis opened the doors of two separate St. Louis County locations, in Ellisville and Manchester.
I was honored to watch Larry, a cancer survivor, and his wife Sue, an RN, make the state’s first legal medical cannabis purchase this morning in St Louis. @mocanntrade @NewApproachMO pic.twitter.com/rCudrkdbfI
— Jack Cardetti (@jackcardetti) October 17, 2020
“Missouri patients have always been our north star as we work to implement the state’s medical marijuana program,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said in a press release. “We greatly appreciate how hard everyone has worked so that patients can begin accessing a safe and well-regulated program.”
Officials have touted the speed with which they have gotten the voter-approved cannabis program off the ground, saying it is “one of the fastest implementations of a medical marijuana program in the United States.”
“A tremendous amount of work has occurred by the licensed facilities and our team to get us to this point, and we continue to hear from more facilities that they are ready or almost ready for their commencement inspection,” Lyndall Fraker, director of the Section for Medical Marijuana Regulation, said in a press release. “We look forward to seeing these facilities open their doors to serve patients and caregivers.”
— Mo Health & Sr Srvcs (@HealthyLivingMo) October 17, 2020
The impending launch of sales on Saturday was first announced by the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association on Friday and reported by The Springfield News-Leader.
The wait is finally over! Tomorrow morning at 9am @NBlissCannabis will open the doors to their Ellisville and Manchester locations for the first medical marijuana sales in Missouri! Congrats to the whole N'Bliss team! The #MOMMJ industry is up and running! pic.twitter.com/wyZIcoyLBv
— MoCannTrade (@mocanntrade) October 16, 2020
The state, which has so far licensed 192 dispensaries and expects most of them to open their doors by the end of the year, posted an interactive map that tracks the status of approved medical marijuana businesses.
For months, regulators have been caught up in lawsuits and appeals challenging their licensing decisions, with revenues that would otherwise go to supporting veteran services instead being allocated to covering legal costs.
Missouri isn’t the only state to see medical cannabis sales launch this weekend. Virginia’s first medical marijuana dispensary also held its grand opening on Saturday.
Meanwhile, recreational sales of marijuana rolled out in Maine last week—four years after voters there approved a legalization ballot measure.