Eighteen Things to Consider in the Cannabis Debate
Advocates on both (all?) sides of the cannabis, marijuana, and hemp debates are looking for fast and sure solutions to whatever problems they feel are most pressing, whether decriminalization, descheduling cannabis, rescheduling cannabis, righting past societal and racial wrongs, etc. Whether it is the proposed STATES Act or the SAFE Banking Act, some advocates suggest that Congressional action will quickly and easily solve many of the issues around accessibility, safety, access to banking, etc.
But is it that simple?
Today, the cannabis and financial services industries, local, county and state governments, and law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, are all in limbo, waiting for Congress to pass, and the President to enact, federal legislation that will pave the way for regulations and regulatory guidance that will truly open up banking services to cannabis related businesses. But it will take time, as there is always “regulatory lag” between new legislation being passed, regulations being written, and regulatory guidance being published. And then it takes even longer for financial institutions to implement those regulatory changes: to build programs, write policies, implement new technologies, etc. So even if Congress acted today, all of the cannabis industry actors won’t have a clear path forward for (at least) a couple of years. Until then, many of those actors – notably financial institutions looking to provide safe and effective banking services to the industry – will manage the risks through luck and chance, not knowing whether, how, or when financial regulators or prosecutors could pounce on them for failing to do perfectly that which they didn’t know they had to do.
What must be done? Until there are legislative changes, the federal banking regulators need to provide more current, clearer guidance for banks and credit unions. It has been more than five years since FinCEN issued its Valentine’s Day 2014 guidance, and none of the banking and credit union regulators have formally opined on it or provided written guidance. What has been said about the Guidance?
- The Courts: I’m aware of one federal court judge who has commented on the FinCEN guidance. In a December 28, 2015 hearing in the Fourth Corner Credit Union v Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City case (District Court of Colorado, 15CV01633), Judge Brooke Jackson responded to a statement by the credit union’s lawyer that the FinCEN guidance “authorized financial institutions to serve marijuana related businesses” by saying: “No, it didn’t do that, did it? … It seems to me that the DOJ and guideline people are just saying, well, maybe we can put our head in the sand and this will go away.” (Transcript of hearing, page 3). And later in the same hearing, Judge Jackson stated: “But in [the credit union’s] brief, in black and white, you say the FinCEN guidance authorizes banks to serve marijuana related businesses. I don’t agree with you. I don’t think it does.” (Transcript, page 63).
- Federal Reserve: in a June 17, 2018 press conference, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is reported (by MarketWatch) to have said: “This is a very difficult area, because many state laws permit the use of marijuana and federal law still doesn’t. So it puts federally-chartered banks in a very difficult situation … it puts the supervisor in a very, very difficult position. Of course, our mandate has nothing to do with marijuana … We just would love to see it clarified, I think.”
- OCC: on January 17, 2019, OCC Comptroller Joseph Otting told reporters that Congress has “to act at the national level to legalize marijuana if they want those entities involved in that business to utilize the US banking system” and that he “hopes for resolution to marijuana banking issues in 2020” (quoting a PoliticoPro tweet).
Unless and until the financial services industry gets clear, unequivocal, consistent, written laws, regulations, and guidance from Congress, Treasury, and Justice to provide banking services to marijuana-related businesses, it will and should do what it is currently doing – balancing the undue risks against the insufficient rewards – and continue to stand on the sidelines while our communities, veterans, patients, doctors, caregivers, and others suffer.
But even with Congressional action, what issues could remain that need to be dealt with? Below are some observations on some issues to consider as these debates continue and, to some degree, are resolved.
Observations on the Current Environment:
- Lotteries, casinos, pawnshops, liquor stores are all examples of legalized vices that have been found to disproportionally harm, or at least not appropriately benefit, lower income and communities of color. Despite efforts to prefer local, minority, and women-run businesses, most local, county, and state regimes are becoming dominated by large, interstate (international) corporations. More action needs to be taken to understand the problems that have arisen with lotteries, casinos, pawnshops, and liquor stores … to understand whether and how cannabis production, manufacturing, processing, and distribution can result in similar problems, and then to prevent those problems. Let’s learn from what we know and be better for it.
- Cannabis and cannabis products are sold as either medicinal products or non-medicinal. Other products that are sold both as a “medicine” and as a non-medicine include toothpaste and tooth whiteners, deodorant and antiperspirant, and suntan lotion and sunscreen. But all of those products are first approved as either foods, drugs, or cosmetics. Currently, the same or similar products (cannabis flower, tinctures, edibles, lotions) are sold as non-approved adult-use products (and are taxed accordingly) or as non-approved medicinal products (and generally not taxed at all or as much). That creates confusion and opportunities for mischief.
- The medicinal cannabis industry does not appear to uniformly adhere to the “under the care of a physician” or “legitimate or bona fide physician/patient relationship” standards in all states’ medical/medicinal marijuana regimes. A simple review of online applications for, and customer reviews of, medicinal cannabis cards suggests that an online form and quick video chat “in ten minutes or less!” isn’t a true physician patient relationship.
- The 6-plant personal grow is a legacy of the California cooperative environment and may not be appropriate in a go-forward regime. Six plants – up to 99 for Colorado and California medicinal cannabis – can produce as many as 30 joints a day (or up to 1,800 for 99 plants). Some argue that is excessive and goes against all the other strict production, labeling, and distribution laws and regulations otherwise in place. Home grows are a major concern of the DEA.
- Ownership and control of marijuana-related businesses: there are too many definitions, no central database (such as the Nationwide Multistate Licensing System for money transmitters and other state-licensed businesses).
- Has there been a balanced look at whether the license fees and taxes actually cover the direct and indirect governmental costs, let alone any societal harms, that are a result of the cannabis regime?
- Everyone is focused on federal criminal laws around narcotics, but there have been virtually almost no convictions for true marijuana possession in the last ten years at the federal level. It is a state issue. Solving criminal law issues (including the expungement of past convictions) at the federal level doesn’t address the criminal law issues.
- The current production FAR exceeds demand in some states. Oregon’s supply of recreational marijuana is estimated to be 6.5 years (per the OLCC’s 2019 Recreational Marijuana Supply and Demand Legislative Report), and California has reported that as much as 11 million of the 13 million pounds of cannabis produced in California is diverted and not taxed. The states’ failure to address over-production (notably California and Oregon) could result in a federal crackdown.
- The last four Surgeons General have all said that there needs to be more clinical trials. Clinical trials take time.
- Continuing noncompliance is occurring in the industry. For example, the Oregon Liquor & Cannabis Commission reported on April 18, 2019 of “significant noncompliance by marijuana licensees failing to abide by the state’s laws and rules”.
- The current FinCEN guidance is not sustainable. Read literally – which is how any guidance or regulation is read when it is being used to sanction a bank – the guidance is impossible to follow in a commercially reasonable manner when the risks of noncompliance are unknown. I have advocated that any Marijuana Related Business (MRB) regulations and guidance should mirror the Money Services Business (MSB) regulations and guidance.
Observations on the Proposed “Quick Fix” Solutions
Some advocates for Congressional action are suggesting that rescheduling or descheduling cannabis and passing a SAFE Banking Act or STATES Act will resolve many of the issues currently facing the cannabis industry. These suggestions are probably accurate, but certainly incomplete. It will take years, and many more steps, before the major issues are known and addressed. Some observations:
- Rescheduling Cannabis – if cannabis is rescheduled, to which schedule? If moved to Schedule III or lower, what about the US treaty commitments enshrined in law? Do doctor “recommendations” become “prescriptions” and require specific and DEA/FDA-approved dosage, duration, means of delivery, and FAERS-like reporting? And if rescheduled, what about DEA registration, inspection, Suspicious Order Reporting, etc., for growers, manufacturers, and distributors?
- Descheduling Cannabis – if descheduled, FDA approval would still be required (as for hemp), whether for medicinal use or as an additive to food. Also, the same foreign treaty issues (three UN conventions/treaties) apply as for rescheduling.
- Other Federal Laws – in addition to changes to the Controlled Substances Act in Title 21 of the US Code, many other laws would also need to be amended or rescinded, including those in Title 8 (Aliens and Immigration), Title 12 (Banks and Banking), Title 18 (Crimes and Criminal Procedure), Title 21 (Food and Drugs), Title 26 (Income Tax), Title 31 (Money and Finance), and Title 50 (War, for sanctions-related laws).
- Once federal legislation is enacted, it will take months/years for federal regulations, and years for regulatory guidelines, guidance, policy manuals to be revised. Also, for medical cannabis, it will take years for clinical studies then FDA/DEA approvals of new drugs.
- Federal Legalization brings federal taxation – like alcohol and tobacco. Depending on tax rates, the black market will thrive and survive.
- Interstate distribution – another area that hasn’t had much attention, but will require thoughtful and collaborative solutions. Which leads to:
- Amazon, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco – or combinations of them. Is there any way to stop them from taking over the production, manufacturing, and distribution of cannabis?
Conclusion and Path Forward
First and foremost, there has to be a chance in the level of discourse. Like in the political arena, there appears to be a polarization of opinion so that neither side in the cannabis debate is prepared to even listen to, let alone compromise with, the other. I’ve seen examples of advocates for expunging all marijuana possession convictions employ ad hominin attacks on anyone who suggests that not all marijuana convictions are the same, and each should be looked at carefully. I’ve seen examples of advocates for preventing any medicinal uses of marijuana until full FDA approvals are in hand employ those same ad hominin attacks on anyone who suggests that, even without FDA approval, there are situations where compassion and common sense dictate medicinal uses of marijuana. Even my list of seventeen “observations” will no doubt elicit scorn, ridicule, condemnation, and name-calling. So be it.
Those most passionate are often the most vocal, and grab the most headlines, and those most passionate are sometimes the ones that aren’t listening to anyone who doesn’t share their passion. But there are also many – probably most – of the people along the spectrum of opinion that are not only willing to listen to all sides of an issue, but recognize there are many sides to an issue, and that solutions aren’t simple, and consequences are many. There are many strong advocates on both sides of the various marijuana/cannabis debates: let’s have those debates. Let’s put all of the possible issues on the table. Let’s have the courage to listen to those that present those issues and try to understand their perspectives and concerns. And let’s have the courage to compromise to get to solutions that at least do the least harm.