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Posts Tagged ‘cannabis’

It’s A Business Not A Criminal Enterprise (Any Longer)

Posted on: December 17th, 2018

By: David Molinari

The operation of a commercial cannabis business presents a host of unique issues. Security is a concern when the business stores hundreds of thousands of dollars in “inventory” on site. Banking regulations present another problem requiring these enterprises to be a cash-based business; a requirement brought on by federal forfeiture laws if revenues are deposited into any federal banking institution insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Another aspect of operating a cannabis business: the smell. While state legislatures wrestle with how to balance the exercise of police powers with accepting tax revenues generated by a multi-billion-dollar industry, the day to day practical operation forces business and land owners to live and work next to one another; and where the relationship breaks down, neighboring business owners  turn to the courts.

For the cannabis industry, local regulations authorizing permits for operation are developed utilizing combinations of zoning and land use restrictions that have the potential, once a permit is issued, to provide some level of protection against neighboring business owners trying to impose common law remedies such as nuisance or trespass to control greater influx of traffic, odor and diminished land value.  Suits for nuisance or trespass may not allow a disgruntled neighboring land owner relief. The perceived lack of state remedies forces neighboring owners to try alternative jurisdiction and relief theories. In one instance, a neighboring commercial land owner decided to file a federal racketeering, influence and corrupt organization (RICO) civil suit seeking to close down the neighboring commercial cannabis business.

Although various states have enacted legislation legalizing medicinal and recreational cannabis, the fact remains that cannabis is a controlled federal substance, the possession or sale of which constitutes a federal crime.

Hope and Michael R. owned a neighboring commercial tract to Parker W’s cannabis cultivation business. The Hope and Michael claimed that Parker’s cannabis business inundated their neighboring property with the scent of cannabis as well as incessant noise from air conditioners.

Rather than attempting to enforce common law nuisance or trespass theories of relief, Hope and Michael filed a lawsuit based upon federal law and particularly that the product sold and cultivated is illegal under Federal Law; and such illegality had negative effects on the value of other neighboring parcels in the business park. They claimed the presence of the cannabis facility itself dropped the value of the land.

The case made it to trial where Parker argued that the business was legally zoned, housed in a business park that was commercial and agricultural. Other businesses in the park included an animal feed lot. Any scent or odor of cannabis was no different than the smell from an animal feed lot or a nearby landfill. The business itself was legal under state zoning and land use laws.

A federal jury rejected the claim that operation of a cannabis-based business in violation of federal law is inherently racketeering. As to the question of whether the operation of the cannabis business caused damage to neighboring land, the expert opinions presented by the parties actually showed the cannabis business resulted in an increase in the business park land values. One could argue under the Doctrine of Implied Findings, the jury found the smell of pot is preferable to animal feed or a landfill.

The cannabis industry, medicinal or recreational, may enjoy acceptance in a growing number of state legislatures. However, such acceptance in the legislature may not filter down to business to business levels. The economic impact of cannabis, including the influx of sales taxes to local economies as may negate the “stench” of marijuana in the halls of state senate and house chambers; but not to the neighboring small business owners that believe such an industry is only a business in which criminals or cartels profit. Neighboring business owners may not care about broader economic impact of sales taxes and look only to shelter their local investment in their business. The relationship among various commercial activities, be it manufacturing, technology or cannabis is an evolving process. The relationship among business owners will have its ups and downs and the cannabis industry will be subject to every variation of challenge at the local business to business level. Cannabis may be here to stay because of its commercial and economic impact being too great to ignore or confine. In the west, we now have emerging precedent that it is not a racketeering or corrupt business.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact David Molinari at [email protected].

The Cannabis Industry Takes Another Step Towards Mainstream

Posted on: November 12th, 2018

By: David Molinari

In 1996, the People of the State of California first passed an initiative to legalize medicinal cannabis. The legislature toyed with drafting the statutory framework regulating the medical cannabis industry. Finally, in 2014 the first “legal” medicinal dispensaries began to open throughout the state. The economic impact of medicinal cannabis was so significant that four years later recreational cannabis was overwhelmingly voted into existence. The cannabis industry has elbowed its way to the table claiming a seat alongside tech industry, manufacturing industry and agricultural industry. One tell-tale sign that the cannabis industry has taken steps toward mainstream, its “inventory” is an insurable commodity under a commercial property and general liability insurance policy.

Green Earth Wellness Center operated a retail medical marijuana business and an adjacent growing facility. Atain Specialty Insurance Company issued Green Earth a commercial property and general liability insurance policy. A wildfire broke out and advanced toward Green Earth’s business. Although the fire did not destroy the business, smoke and ash from the fire overwhelmed Green Earth’s ventilation system; causing damage to Green Earth’s marijuana plants. Green Earth made a claim under the policy for loss of its inventory due to the smoke and ash which Atain denied.

Separately, thieves entered Green Earth’s growing facility and stole some of the marijuana plants. Again, Green Earth made a claim under its policy and again Atain denied the claim. Green Earth eventually commenced an action for breach of contract and bad faith. Atain filed a Motion for Summary Judgment raising, among other issues, that in light of federal law and federal public policy, it was illegal for Atain to pay damages to marijuana plants and products. Atain argued that the application of an exclusionary provision in the policy for contraband or property in the course of an illegal transportation or trade requires that coverage be denied; even if the policy would otherwise have provided coverage.

The Court noted that the policy itself did not define the term “contraband.” The Court acknowledged application of federal law, particularly 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) that makes possession of marijuana for distribution a federal crime. However, the Court took note that such a federal prohibition has become more “nuanced” as an increasing number of states have enacted regulations for medicinal and recreational cannabis. Enforcement of the Controlled Substance Act in states that have enacted statutes regulating use and distribution is at times ambivalent and erratic. Other than pointing to the federal criminal statutes, Atain offered no evidence that the application of existing federal public policy would result in criminal enforcement against Green Earth. Atain also failed to assert Green Earth’s operations were in violation of state law.

In rejecting Atain’s public policy and illegality defense to coverage for inventory damage, the Court turned to the parties’ intention regarding coverage of Green Earth’s marijuana. The evidence suggested that the parties mutually intended to include coverage for the marijuana plants constituting Green Earth’s inventory. Atain drafted the medicinal marijuana dispensary supplemental application form that asked several questions about inventory: Such as, how much inventory is displayed to customers, how much inventory is kept on the premise during non-business hours and whether the inventory is stored in a locked safe. Before entering the policy, Atain knew Green Earth was operating a cannabis business. Atain knew or should have known at the time of the policy inception that federal law (at least nominally) prohibited such a business; but Atain nevertheless elected to issue the policy and collect premiums.  Atain never sought to disclaim coverage for Green Earth’s inventory before the claims were made. By issuing the policy and taking premiums, it was clear that the carrier would not raise the contraband exclusion to marijuana inventory.

The Court assumed Atain had legal counsel and obtained opinions and assurances from its own legal counsel before embarking on the business of insuring marijuana operations. The Court viewed the case as a breach of contract action. Atain, through its policy, made contractual promises and then breached them refusing to entertain Atain’s argument that the Court must declare the policy unenforceable as against public policy. It was irrelevant under the Court’s analysis that possession and sale of marijuana was a federal crime or that marijuana should under a public policy argument be determined an uninsurable commodity.

The lesson for insurers: the cannabis industry is an expanding multi-billion-dollar industry where entrepreneurs will spend money on insurance premiums to protect its investment and inventory. A carrier entering a policy knowing the insured’s business is cannabis very well may be obligated to cover claims or face the risk of damages for breaching the policy.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact David Molinari at [email protected].

Pass That Dutch: California Insurers Respond to Budding Cannabis Industry

Posted on: July 2nd, 2018

By: Kristin Ingulsrud

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones announced on June 4, 2018 his approval of the Cannabis Business Owners Policy (CannaBOP) in California.  The new CannaBOP program was designed for cannabis dispensaries, storage facilities, processors, manufacturers, distributors, and other related businesses.  The CannaBOP program includes property and liability coverage for qualifying businesses.

Other recent offerings by insurers to the California cannabis industry include the first commercial insurance from an admitted carrier in November 2017, the first surety bond program in February 2018, and the first coverage for commercial landlords and a product liability and product recall program in May.

In April, President Donald Trump seemingly called off Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s war on marijuana and promised to support legislation that would protect states that have legalized marijuana from a federal crackdown.  The unpredictability of the current administration in regards to federal enforcement is just one of the unique issues the legalized cannabis industry faces.

Commissioner Jones hosted a webinar in May, Weeding through the Unique Insurance needs of the Cannabis Industry with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners Center for Insurance Policy and Research.   “Cannabis businesses face various insurance gaps—which means cannabis customers, workers and business owners may not have access to insurance to help them recover if there are accidents, injuries, property damage, or any of the things commercial insurance typically covers,” said Jones.

Topics included the effects of conflicting state and federal law on insurance claims, policy exclusions and gaps in coverage.  The webinar also covered the future of the cannabis industry and new trends such as on-site consumption, cryptocurrency, and blockchain.

Commissioner Jones  held the nation’s first public hearing in October 2017 to identify insurance gaps faced by the cannabis industry as part of his ongoing initiative to encourage commercial insurers to offer tailored coverage.  Since that time, insurers in California continue to expand their offerings to the cannabis industry.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Kristin Ingulsrud at [email protected].

Puff, Puff, Veto!

Posted on: January 10th, 2018

By: Jason C. Dineros

This past Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama-era’s relaxations for federal prosecutors of marijuana enforcement. This comes only four days into California’s open recreational use market, and potentially halts what has grown into a niche legal practice as well as a concerted training effort among hospitality operators over the almost five years the federal enforcement relaxations have been in place.

The Obama Administration’s federal enforcement relaxations for marijuana use in 2013, brought with it the development of a viable market industry from what was previously looked upon as taboo—akin to “that stoner stage you went through in high school, but grew out of.” As start-ups were popping up wanting to be frontrunners in an industry that had as much anticipation as whiskey distilleries in the years that followed prohibition, so did the need for legal consultation and representation.  No longer was the idea of marijuana dispensaries becoming as common as corner liquor stores still a far too laughable dream (or overly paranoid nightmare, depending on your take); and concepts such as edible bakeries, “weed lounges,” and cannabis-friendly restaurants were likewise materializing into reality.

But how does an attorney provide advice regarding the sale and distribution of a product that is illegal under federal law, but for all intents and purposes, permitted in 29 different states? Well the fallback rule that developed under the Obama Administration’s relaxations, at least from an ethical perspective, was that providing legal services to the cannabis industry was permissible so long as it did not violate state law.  And with this came an influx in the practice of cannabis law in 29 of the 50 states.

Further expanding to the social aspect of recreational marijuana, while any experienced bartender has likely taught or learned how and when to cut off an overly-imbibed guest, what protocols are in place for training “budtenders”? And even more importantly, for hospitality operators engaged in operations across different states, how can there be any uniform standard operating procedures when what is a legally viable source of potential revenue in one state, can expose the business to significant fines and potential closure in another?  Simply put, until the states begin to react one way or another to Attorney General Sessions’ heightened federal enforcement regulations, the cannabis industry remains one of the most potentially lucrative, risky, and unnavigated industries still in its infancy among the entrepreneurs, attorneys, and hospitality operators involved.

For further information or for further inquiries involving professional liability, commercial liability, or hospitality law, you may contact Jason C. Dineros, the Chair of the Hospitality Law Practice Team of Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP, at [email protected].