A congressional committee held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss opportunities for small businesses in the marijuana industry and the unique financial challenges those companies face under federal cannabis prohibition.
The House Small Business Committee convened for a meeting titled “Unlocked Potential? Small Businesses in the Cannabis Industry.” It came as pressure mounts on Congress to free up financial services for state-legal marijuana businesses in order to increase transparency, mitigate public safety risks and protect banks from being penalized by federal regulators.
One area that the panel focused on was access to resources provided by the federal Small Business Administration (SBA), which includes low-interest loans for small businesses and guidance for entrepreneurs.
Watch the hearing below:
“Entrepreneurship and small business owners are essential to America’s ingenuity,” the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) said in testimony submitted to the committee. “These businesses enable economic development, provide high-quality jobs, and spur significant product innovation.”
“Addressing the challenges created by conflicting federal and state laws will allow state-compliant entities to operate in a fully regulated environment and encourage the expansion of regulated markets, increase consumer safety standards, reduce availability to minors and combat illegal trafficking throughout the country,” NCIA said.
In a memo detailing the issue in advance of the hearing, the committee said that the “current marijuana legalization movement presents new opportunities for entrepreneurship and business start-up in the cannabis industry.”
Not only are there opportunities for businesses that directly deal with marijuana such as cultivators and retailers but also for ancillary businesses such as “payment processors, accountants, insurance agents, agriculture-technology companies, technology companies developing apps, and countless more.”
Because the cannabis industry is in its formative stage, lawmakers have the chance to create policies designed to promote equity in the marketplace and ensure that communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition are given the tools to participate in the industry, the memo explains.
Consumer spending in the cannabis industry is expected to hit $23 billion by 2022. Today, the Committee will question experts on how we can help ensure that small businesses can fully participate in this emerging legal industry. pic.twitter.com/bAybUfCgiB
— House Committee on Small Business (@HouseSmallBiz) June 19, 2019
Access to capital is a primary concern that was addressed at the hearing. The panel said that revising SBA policy—which currently prohibits businesses that directly and indirectly work with marijuana from obtaining certain loans—would be a step in the right direction.
SBA issued a revised policy on its loan programs earlier this year, clarifying that while direct and indirect marijuana businesses are not eligible, hemp businesses can qualify for the loans since the crop was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. The new policy stipulates that “a business that grows, produces, processes, distributes or sells products made from hemp… is eligible.” That policy went into effect on April 1.
“SBA provides vital tools to the development and support of minority businesses and communities,” the Minority Cannabis Business Association’s Shanita Penny testified. “We believe access to SBA loans and services, with Congressional oversight, would help decrease the equity gap in the cannabis industry and keep cannabis revenues in the communities suffering the greatest economic and social harms of the War on Drugs.”
“SBA access is also critical to business owners dealing with a newly, regulated, constantly evolving industry. As more mature state programs course correct and improve regulations, small businesses are often left scrambling to remain compliant when packaging or labeling regulations change, businesses must either find new sources of capital to cover the cost of the changes or face significant fines for violations.”
The committee added in its memo that small marijuana businesses need assistance to “compete against well-financed conglomerates and other larger companies that have resources dedicated to locating and utilizing loopholes in laws.” And cannabis firms often incur “operating and pricing challenges” in addition to the lack of access to capital.
“In order to provide for inclusiveness within the legal industry, federal policy should strive to reduce roadblocks for qualified entrepreneurs in order to encourage participation from formerly disenfranchised populations,” NORML said in written testimony. “Particularly, in consideration for enterprising individuals who would benefit most from the critical resources that [SBA] provides for job creators around the country.”
Another issue that came up, which doesn’t get as much attention as banking issues in the industry, is the “challenge small business owners face is recruiting and retaining workers because the talent pool is unable to keep up.”
The committee noted that training and education for workers can be costly for small marijuana businesses, especially because it’s not traditionally a skillset that’s taught in universities or vocational schools.
“As increasingly more states legalize cannabis, it will be important for Congress and the agencies it oversees to work cooperatively to ease legislative and regulatory burdens on small businesses in states with legal cannabis,” the committee memo notes. “At the same time, the entrepreneurship opportunity the legitimate cannabis industry presents for entrepreneurs from traditionally underserved communities, including minorities and veterans, must be recognized.”
“However, small businesses in states with legal cannabis are currently struggling to fund and operate their businesses, due in part to conflicting federal and state guidance. Accordingly, this hearing will offer Members an opportunity to hear about the challenges faced by ‘ancillary’ or ‘indirect’ cannabis businesses, and how Congress can help remedy those challenges. Furthermore, the hearing will enable Members to explore ways to ensure a newly-legalized cannabis industry reflects our nation’s diversity, and is able to fairly compete with foreign and large companies.”
Other witnesses who appeared before the committee include Veterans Cannabis Coalition’s Eric Goepel and Dana Chaves, who is an executive at First Federal Bank and also chairs NCIA’s Banking Access Committee.
One of the most surprising pieces of testimony came from a representative of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. Paul Larkin, a senior legal research fellow with the organization who otherwise raised concerns about cannabis reform during the hearing, said that “if Congress were to legalize recreational marijuana use, it should require that states own and operate distribution facilities.” The comment raised eyebrows, leaving some wondering why a representative of a right-leaning institution like the Heritage Foundation would essentially float socializing the marijuana market.
Though there was not a specific piece of legislation that the committee discussed, a source told Marijuana Moment last month that there are plans to introduce a bill this summer to tackle the small business issues at hand. Committee Chair Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) signaled at the hearing that she’d lead that effort.
“Despite growing economic opportunities around legal cannabis, factors like federal law enforcement, conflicting rules among the states and our current banking regulations are hindering the ability for entrepreneurs and small business to fully engage in this new industry,” the congresswoman said. “I am currently working on legislation that will work to open some of the agency’s programs to businesses in areas where the industry is legal.”
ICYMI: In her opening statement at today’s hearing, Chairwoman @NydiaVelazquez spoke about the plight of small cannabis firms and the need for dialogue on how we can better support these entrepreneurs. pic.twitter.com/u1G1pIqizA
— House Committee on Small Business (@HouseSmallBiz) June 19, 2019
“The trend of legalization at the state level is not going to slow down, which will lead to more jobs in many sectors of our economy and we need to see what role the federal government can play,” she said.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), the panel’s ranking minority member, repeatedly pressed witnesses on whether they were aware of various harms of marijuana as shown by certain studies, though he seemed to acknowledge that pro-reform attitudes are winning the day.
“All the stuff that we’ve talked about here is inconsistent with federal law. It’s illegal if the law was enforced at the federal level,” he said. “And that’s something that I think probably the Congress ought to take it up and make a decision to let people know what they can do… I think we owe that to the public. And I don’t know which way the vote would go.”
I hear from farmers in #NY19 about the need for new industries & opportunities to counter the down farm economy. In @HouseSmallBiz, I asked what steps the FDA should take to make it easier for dairy farmers to work in the hemp industry & spur economic growth in rural communities. pic.twitter.com/Ug87sMY8TI
— Congressman Antonio Delgado (@repdelgado) June 19, 2019
“I’ve been around a long time. It seems like the older generation more feel that [marijuana should remain illegal],” Chabot said. “The younger generation seems to be just the opposite. And a lot of things have changed in the country in recent years, and that seems to be one of them.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nicole Fried also submitted written testimony for the hearing. She argued that “America’s emerging cannabis industry has the potential to lift up every community from coast to coast” and that “now is the time for Congress and our federal government to empower small businesses and embrace the economic revolution of cannabis that puts American jobs, families, and livelihoods first.”
Today, I shared this statement with Chair @NydiaVelazquez & Ranking Member @RepSteveChabot for @HouseSmallBiz hearing on cannabis industry.#Cannabis can create billions in economic potential and hundreds of thousands of jobs — that’s why we need Congress & federal govt onboard. pic.twitter.com/qeNTT2KCVq
— Commissioner Nikki Fried (@NikkiFriedFL) June 19, 2019
This congressional hearing is one of two focusing on marijuana policy that is scheduled for this week, with another concerning veterans and cannabis set for Thursday.
This story was updated to include quotes from the hearing and written testimony.
Three Federal Agencies Take Public Comments On Cannabis Topics
Three federal agencies—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—are now accepting comments from the public on cannabis-related topics such as hemp pesticides and the legal classification of marijuana globally.
In a notice published in the Federal Register last month, FDA said that it is seeking input on potential changes to the status of marijuana under international treaties.
EPA invited comments on applications for pesticides to be used on hemp, which comes months after the crop was federally legalized.
Meanwhile, people have the chance to share their perspective on a proposal DEA released last week that calls for the cultivation of more than three million grams of cannabis for research purposes next year. That 3.2 million gram quota would be 30 percent higher than this year’s. At the same time, DEA said its quota for prescription painkillers such as fentanyl and oxycodone would be decreased next year by more than 50 percent.
The comment period opened last week, and 25 people have weighed in at this point. Submissions received so far are primarily focused on DEA’s proposed reduction opioid production, with several chronic pain patients arguing that they will be negatively impacted. People can send comments on the cannabis and other drug quotas through October 15.
FDA initially made its request for input on cannabis’s global treaty status in March, but it was closed because an expected United Nations (UN) vote on a proposal to remove marijuana from the most strictly regulated category was postponed.
Last month, FDA said it was reopening the comment period until September 30, in anticipation that the UN will make a decision on the possible changes in the coming months. So far, a total of about 3,000 comments have been received, including those posted since August 29. The vast majority voice support for legalization, with many sharing personal anecdotes about the plant’s therapeutic benefits.
“Please lift the ban and prohibition of marijuana. Marijuana isn’t ruining the lives of countless Americans… America’s drug laws are doing that all by themselves via mass incarceration,” Zach Fowler wrote.
“I am 30 years old and suffer from a progressive neurologically condition that leaves me in constant debilitating pain along with a host of other symptoms. Without cannabis, I could not function enough to work for even care for my children,” Amanda Wood-Devore said. “Cannabis calms my pain, eases corresponding anxiety, and helps my constant nausea and vomiting.”
Alex Rol said that the “current marijuana laws are more destructive than protective.”
“We have seen extensive reports that cannabis can be used for medical purposes and many find its effects increase the ease of life,” he said. “While I understand the concern of those less familiar with cannabis on its legalization it simply isn’t right to incarcerate people for possession of a generally harmless substance.”
“I agree with the [World Health Organization] that cannabis should be removed from the Schedule 1 classification,” Michael Ochipa wrote, referring to a recommendation WHO released in February urging the rescheduling of marijuana and descheduling of CBD.
“Most of the research to date indicates that cannabis has a very positive risk/reward profile,” he wrote. “Side effects are lower, and medicinal benefits are greater than many over the counter drugs. It can also be grown easily at home making it more economical.”
Though it’s not clear how much stock FDA will put into personal stories of individuals who’ve benefited from marijuana in shaping the Trump administration’s position on scheduling changes, the volume of comments and consistency of support for legalization is significant. While there has been a focus on the medical potential of cannabis, several others emphasized the consequences of prohibition, particularly for communities of color.
If the United Nations does decide to adopt WHO’s recommendations, it wouldn’t mean that member nations would be free to legalize marijuana without technically violating the treaties. However, even under its current strict status, Canada and Uruguay have moved forward with legalization models, with Mexico expected to follow suit as early as next month.
Over at EPA, there hasn’t been quite as much interest from the public in submitting comments on pesticides applications for hemp. The agency announced last month that it was accepting input on 10 existing applications and said it hoped “this transparent and public process will bring hemp farmers and researchers increased regulatory clarity in time for next growing season.”
EPA said it’s not required to take public comment on the applications but is doing so “because of the potential significant interest from the public in these initial applications and in furtherance of being completely transparent about these applications.”
There may be significant interest from the public on hemp legalization generally, particularly among stakeholders who are eagerly awaiting federal regulations to unlock the crop’s potential, but that isn’t being reflected on the Federal Register notice page yet when it comes to pesticides. Only five people have commented on the proposal.
One person noted that the 10 pesticides under review contain almost the same ingredients and said “it really limits the ability of producers to manage pests and diseases.”
“I highly recommend expanding the list of compounds available to producers to increase the ability to suppress pests and diseases,” the anonymous commenter wrote. “There are many more bio-pesticides on the market that are safe for humans that specifically target agricultural pests.”
Another individual who said he and his partner are making a transition from growing cannabis in California to hemp in North Carolina wrote in support of the proposed pesticides.
“We have used the products under discussion with great effectiveness, especially the biological controls,” the person said. “Because hemp can be so susceptible to mold, fungus, and pests, it is imperative to have these tools to ensure a healthy and plentiful product.”
Finally, there was one comment in opposition to allowing any pesticides on hemp because, they wrote, “IT WILL JUST TURN IT IN TO POISON.”
EPA’s public comment closes on September 23. The agency did not say when decisions would be made about the applications, but it did state that it planned to give hemp farmers approval to use the tools before the 2020 planting season.
The fact that three separate federal agencies are now accepting comments on separate cannabis issues is another sign that the public has more opportunity than ever before to influence the government’s position on marijuana policy.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.
Bipartisan Lawmakers Circulate Letter Urging FDA To Back Off CBD Companies
A bipartisan pair of lawmakers are circulating a sign-on letter asking colleagues to join them in urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to back off companies that are selling CBD products in a responsible manner.
The “Dear Colleague” letter, which is being led by Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and James Comer (R-KY), emphasizes that hemp and CBD were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill and argues that the lack of regulations for such products is creating industry uncertainty that’s inhibiting economic opportunities.
The letter was first reported by the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, which is asking its supporters to encourage their representatives to sign on.
FDA has said it is in the process of developing rules for the non-intoxicating compound, including a potential alternative regulatory pathway allowing for CBD to be added to the food supply and as dietary supplements. That could take years, however, as former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has noted.
In the meantime, the agency is being selective about enforcement action against companies that make unsanctioned claims about their products while also maintaining that all businesses selling CBD food items are violating the law.
The lawmakers aren’t satisfied. They described FDA’s regulatory timeframe as “untenable,” particularly because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to release its rules for hemp “any day now,” and an official revealed this month that its draft regulations are currently undergoing final White House and Department of Justice review.
The members of Congress added that FDA’s current approach to CBD has “created significant regulatory and legal uncertainty for participants in this quickly evolving industry.”
“Given the widespread availability of CBD products, growing consumer demand, and the expected surge in the hemp farming in the near future, it’s critical that FDA act quickly to provide legal and regulatory clarity to support this new economic opportunity,” they wrote.
“Please join us in signing this bipartisan letter to Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless urging the agency to adopt a risk-based policy of enforcement discretion that targets bad actors while eliminating uncertainty for responsible industry stakeholders and consumers. Additionally, we are requesting that FDA to issue an interim final rule to regulate CBD as a dietary supplement and food additive.”
In the letter to Sharpless that Pingree and Comer are asking fellow lawmakers to sign, they laid out two requests for FDA.
First, the agency should “promptly issue guidance announcing a policy of enforcement discretion that maintains FDA’s current risk-based enforcement approach towards hemp-derived CBD products.” And second, it should “consider issuing an interim final rule, pending issuance of a permanent final rule, to establish a clear regulatory framework for CBD as a dietary supplement and food additive.”
The lawmakers added that they appreciate that FDA has pursued “enforcement actions against the worst offenders,” but that “it can do so while eliminating regulatory uncertainty for farmers, retailers, and consumers.”
“Without a formal enforcement discretion policy, anyone participating in the growing marketplace for legal hemp-derived products will continue to face significant legal and regulatory uncertainty,” they wrote.
Though issuing guidance on a “policy of enforcement discretion” wouldn’t be a codified law allowing companies to market CBD in the food supply, it would demonstrate to the industry that some protections are in place while FDA continues to navigate the rulemaking process.
Lawmakers have until Tuesday to sign the letter to FDA.
Read the Dear Colleague invitation and CBD letter to FDA below:
Photo by Kimzy Nanney.
Marijuana Banking Bill Will Get A Full House Floor Vote This Month
A bipartisan bill to protect banks that service marijuana businesses will get a House floor vote by the end of the month, the office of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) confirmed to Marijuana Moment on Friday.
House leadership announced the decision to Democratic lawmakers at a closed-door meeting on Thursday.
“Mr. Hoyer said at the Whip meeting yesterday that he intends to move it this month,” a Hoyer staffer said in an email. “We’re discussing it with Members, but it hasn’t been scheduled just yet.”
Prior to confirmation from Hoyer’s office, four sources initially described the development to Marijuana Moment, with some saying the vote would be made under suspension of the rules—a procedure that is generally reserved for non-controversial legislation.
Voting on suspension would require two-thirds of the chamber (290 members) to vote in favor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in order for it to pass. The bill, which cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March, currently has 206 cosponsors, including 26 Republicans.
No amendments would be allowed to be added on the floor under the suspension process.
Problems could arise if lawmakers aren’t able to rally additional votes from conservative members or if there’s pushback over the strategy from progressive lawmakers, though it is unlikely Democratic leadership would advance the bill if they didn’t believe they have the votes for passage.
While interest in resolving the banking issue is generally bipartisan, it’s within reason to assume that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle might have wanted the opportunity to offer provisions such as extending protections to hemp businesses or adding language promoting social equity policies. That said, it is possible that leadership could file an entirely new piece of legislation that is similar to the SAFE Banking Act but contains modified provisions negotiated with key members and use that as the vehicle for floor action.
Many expected cannabis banking legislation to receive a floor vote before the August recess, but that did not come to fruition.
In any case, the development comes as the Senate Banking Committee is also preparing to hold a vote on marijuana banking legislation, with Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) announcing on Thursday that his panel is “working to try to get a bill ready.” He didn’t offer a timeline, however, other than saying he hoped to advance the legislation by the end of the year.
While sources told Marijuana Moment that Hoyer made his decision to allow cannabis banking vote following an earlier Wednesday meeting on the issue, it is likely that building momentum in the GOP-controlled Senate added to pressure on the House to act so that Democrats wouldn’t be seen as lagging behind Republicans on cannabis reform, an issue the party has sought to take political ownership of.
Following Crapo’s statement on advancing the banking legislation, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, told Marijuana Moment that he welcomes the senator’s “commitment to resolve the banking conflicts that have been created by the misalignment in state and federal law on the issue of cannabis.”
“I remain focused on passing the SAFE Banking Act out of the House and look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate as they take up the SAFE Banking Act or work to develop and pass similar legislation,” he said.
Banking access is largely seen as one of the most achievable pieces of cannabis legislation that stands to pass this Congress. Advocates and reform-minded lawmakers view it as one of the first steps on the path toward ending federal marijuana prohibition.
“We are seeing the blueprint in action and moving forward on critical legislation to protect state legal cannabis banking,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment, referring to a memo he sent to House leadership last year outlining a committee-by-committee process for passing incremental cannabis bills leading up to major legislation to end federal prohibition. “Earlier this summer, the House passed protections for state and tribal cannabis laws. In the most cannabis friendly Congress in history, we need to keep up this momentum. There is still much to be done.”
There has been some disagreement within advocacy circles about whether it’s prudent to pass legislation viewed as primarily favorable to the industry before advancing comprehensive legislation that deschedules cannabis and takes steps to repair the harms of prohibition enforcement.
“It is our hope that after the successful passage of the SAFE Banking Act in the House, we will be able to advance legislation that ends the federal criminalization of cannabis once and for all,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Now is our time to demonstrate that marijuana law reform is both good policy and good politics.”
“We will not stop until otherwise law-abiding Americans are no longer discriminated against or criminalized due to the past or future choice to consume cannabis,” he said.
Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “delighted that the U.S. House of Representatives is on the brink of passing a landmark piece of cannabis policy legislation that modernizes our antiquated banking laws to reflect the will of the people.”
“This is welcomed and long overdue news for the over 200,000 employees that work in the industry, cannabis businesses, and for public safety in the communities in which we operate,” he said. “Once the SAFE Banking Act passes the U.S. House, we call on the U.S. Senate to move quickly to protect our businesses and our workers.”
Pressure has been building all year from stakeholders and policymakers alike to get the legislation passed. Endorsements aren’t just coming from reform groups, either; 50 state banking associations, the National Association of State Treasurers, the top financial regulators of 25 states, a majority of state attorneys general and bipartisan governors of 20 states have also voiced support for the SAFE Banking Act.
Earlier this month, the head of the American Bankers Association predicted that the bill would be passed in the House “as early as September.”
This story was updated to add comment from Perlmutter and Hoyer’s office.