Cannabis Reform in America: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”


Winston Churchill –

Any Fast and Clean Solutions Will Be Slow and Sloppy to Implement

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. 

History tells us that changes take place over many years

An abbreviated timeline of cannabis in America makes us appreciate that any changes do, in fact, take many years to come about. I’ve broken this timeline or history into six periods.

1600s – 1919 – Hemp is part of the culture

  • Hemp farming
  • 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act re opiates, coca

1919 – 1933 – Prohibition

  • 1919 – 18th Amendment brought in Prohibition – exception for 200 gallons of house-made wine, and physicians could prescribe whiskey. Note the parallels with cannabis, where many states allow home grows and medicinal cannabis.
  • 1930 – creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (became the DEA in July 1973). First Commissioner Harry Anslinger (Commissioner 1930 – 1962), then US Representative to the UN Narcotics Commission 1962-1964. Anslinger wrote “The Protectors” in 1964 which included: “marijuana is taken by musicians. And I’m not speaking about good musicians, but the jazz type.”
  • By 1931, 29 states outlawed marijuana use
  • 1933 – 21st Amendment ended Prohibition

1933 – 1970 – Criminalizing of Cannabis

  • 1937 – Marihuana Tax Act (note the spelling of marihuana: this is the way it has been spelled in all federal laws and the US Sentencing Guidelines. The act was overturned in 1969 in a US Supreme Court case (Timothy) Leary v US as a violation of the 5th Amendment because in order to get a tax stamp you had to incriminate yourself; repealed in 1970 by the Controlled Substances Act
  • 1952 – Boggs Act: mandatory sentences for drug possession, and for marihuana, 2 years
  • 1961 – UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (one of three UN treaties on narcotics, the others in 1971 and 1988). US is a signatory. Cannabis must be either a Schedule I or II drug per 21 USC 811(d)(1). Affirmed in NORML v DEA, 559 F3d 735, 751 (DC Cir 1977)
  • 1970 – Foreign Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, PL 91-508 (October 26, 1970)
  • 1970 – Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention & Control Act of 1970, PL 91-513 (October 27, 1970). Title II is the Controlled Substances Act. Five schedules of drugs based on potential for abuse, accepted medical use, and safety and potential for psychological or physical addiction:

Schedule  Potential for Abuse  Accepted Medical Use  Potential for Addiction

       I                      High                               None                              High

      II                      High                               Yes                                 High

      III                     Potential                       Yes                          Moderate/Low

      IV                     Low                                Yes                                 Low

      V                       Low/Little                     Yes                            Little/None

1970 – 1996 – The War on Drugs

  • 1970 – National Commission on Marihuana & Drug Abuse (Schafer Commission) created by President Nixon (actually, it was created by PL 91-513 Title II, section 601). Nixon’s intent was to get support for the temporary scheduling of marijuana onto Schedule I by AG John Mitchell.
  • 1972 – Schafer Commission Report released, arguing for decriminalization of marijuana possession and removal of marijuana from Schedule I. Title of report: “Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding”
  • 1972 – NORML petitioned the Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs to reschedule marijuana. BNDD, then the DEA, didn’t hear the petition until 1986, and rejected the request in 1989.
  • 1973 – Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession (< 1 ounce). Between 1973 and 1978, 13 more states followed
  • 1982 – Tax Equity & Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 added section 280E to the Internal Revenue Code. Prior to this, criminals could write off normal business expenses in determining the federal income tax on illegal proceeds. Section 280E restricted what a person or business could write off to only cost of goods sold, not operating or other expenses.
  • 1984 – Reagan’s War on Drugs – included the passage of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984
  • 1986 – Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, PL 99-570 (October 27, 1986). Brought in sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimums, 3 strikes. Total of 15 titles, including Title I, the Anti-Drug Enforcement Act, which had 15 sub-titles, including sub-title H, the Money Laundering Control Act (MLCA), which criminalized money laundering.

1996 – 2012 – The Beginning of  Decriminalization and Medicinal Use

  • 1996 – California Proposition 215 led to the Compassionate Use Act – first state to adopt medical marijuana law
  • 2000 – Conant v Walters, 309 F3d 629 (9th Circuit) affirmed a physician’s right to recommend, but not prescribe, marijuana
  • 2001 – US v Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, 532 US 483 – US Supreme Court rejected the medical necessity defense to CSA crimes notwithstanding the medical marijuana possession was legal under state law
  • 2001 – Congress petitioned the DEA to reschedule marijuana to Schedule II. Fifteen years later, in August 2016, the petition was denied by the US Department of Health & Human Services re “more research is needed”
  • 2005 – Gonzales v Raich, 545 US 1 – US Supreme Court held that the Commerce Clause grants the federal government jurisdiction over intrastate marijuana production, distribution, and use
  • 2009 – Ogden Memo (October 19) Subject: “Investigations and Prosecutions in States Authorizing the Medical Use of Marijuana”. By this time, 13 states had medical marijuana regimes. The memo mentioned patients and caregivers, warned against for-profit, commercial enterprises. Listed seven indicators of “federal interest” including firearms, violence, minors, money laundering, and organized crime.
  • 2011 – Cole Memo (June). Subject: “Guidance Regarding the Ogden Memo in Jurisdictions Seeking to Authorize Marijuana for Medical Use”. Repeated the Ogden language and warned against large-scale cultivation.

2012 – Present – Adult-Use Begins

  • 2012 – November: Washington and Colorado voter propositions approve adult-use marijuana (states 1 and 2)
  • 2013 – Cole Memo (Cole II – August 23). Press release specifically called out Washington and Colorado. Subject: “Guidance Regarding Marijuana Enforcement”. The accompanying press release specifically mentioned Colorado and Washington, which had passed the first adult-use laws. Set out 8 priorities: Preventing distribution to minors; Preventing revenue from marijuana going to criminal enterprises, gangs, cartels; Preventing interstate diversion; Preventing marijuana businesses from being covers for other illegal activities; Preventing violence, use of firearms, in cultivation and distribution; Preventing drugged driving and exacerbation of other public health consequences; Preventing growing of marijuana on public lands; and Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.
  • 2014 – Cole Memo (Cole III – February 14) and FinCEN Guidance, also February 14th. Cole III Subject: “Guidance Regarding Marijuana Related Financial Crimes”. Repeated Cole II, but noted that Cole II “did not specifically address what, if any, impact it would have on certain financial crimes for which marijuana-related conduct is a predicate.”The FinCEN (Treasury) Guidance had a Subject: “BSA Expectations Regarding Marijuana-Related Businesses” and “clarifies how financial institutions can provide services to marijuana-related businesses consistent with their BSA obligations.” Repeated 8 priorities from Cole III. Set out 23 red flags. Required FIs to file three types of marijuana Suspicious Activity Reports: Marijuana Limited for all activity that doesn’t violate state law of any of the priorities; Marijuana Priority for all activity that either violates state law or one or more of the priorities; and Marijuana Termination for all activity that either violates state law or one or more of the priorities and the FI is going to or has exited the MRB relationship.
  • 2014 – November: Washington, DC, Alaska, and Oregon approve adult-use marijuana (States 3 and 4, DC)
  • 2014 – Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment to the Omnibus Federal Spending Bill, prohibiting the DOJ from using appropriated funds to target state legal medical marijuana programs (similar amendments in every federal spending bill since)
  • 2016 – November: California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Maine (states 5 to 8) approve adult-use marijuana
  • 2018 – January 4th AG Sessions memo.  Subject: “Marijuana Enforcement”. Three paragraphs and one page. Paragraph 1 indicated that the CSA carries significant penalties and can form the basis for other crimes including money laundering and BSA violations. Paragraph 2 provided that prosecutorial direction and discretion is set out in the US Attorney’s Manual. Paragraph 3 provided that specific memos on marijuana were unnecessary and therefore rescinded.

    Bottom Line: Treasury’s 2014 Guidance has resulted in ~50 banks and credit unions, out of more than 11,000, knowingly and actively banking marijuana related businesses. And former AG Jeff Sessions didn’t really rescind anything. Marijuana businesses and those financial institutions that provide banking services to them, do so at their own peril.

  • 2018 – November: Vermont and Michigan approve adult-use marijuana (states 9 and 10 plus DC)
  • 2019 – January: SAFE Banking Act introduced in Congress
  • 2019 – January: STATES Act introduced in Congress

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.

Eleven Things to Consider in the Cannabis Debate

  1. Lotteries, casinos, and 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 financed by (white) male-dominated venture capitalists and private equity. More action needs to be taken to understand the problems that have arisen with lotteries, casinos, and liquor stores (and pawnshops) 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!” without any true follow-up isn’t a true physician patient relationship. And it has always seemed odd to me that a physician would recommend a medicine to a patient by telling them “here’s approval to buy as much of this medicine as you want, in whatever amount and strength you want, in any form you want, for a year.”  And then that patient gets his advice from a 20-something year old budtender, not an educated and licensed pharmacist. That’s essentially what a recommendation for medicinal cannabis is. It just doesn’t seem responsible to me. Some enhancements to this process are overdue.
  4. The 6-plant personal grow is a legacy of the California cooperative environment and may not be appropriate in a go-forward regime (apparently Illinois has recognized this, and its pending bill only allows limited home grows for medicinal cannabis patients). 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.
  5. 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). Those drafting cannabis laws and regulations should look at what the federal government did with money services businesses (MSBs) in Title IV of the Riegle Community Development and Consumer Protection Act of 1994. Title IV, known as the Money Laundering Suppression Act of 1994, called for uniform state licensing and regulation of MSBs, and a national registry of MSBs, while leaving authority over MSBs to those states with effective regulation and enforcement regimes. Not a bad model for marijuana related businesses (MRBs).
  6. 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?
  7. 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 (90%+ of the few thousand federal marijuana possession convictions are along the southern border, and the average weight of marijuana for those possession cases is over 40 pounds). It is a state issue. Solving criminal law issues (including the expungement of past convictions) at the federal level doesn’t address the real criminal law issues.
  8. 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.
  9. The last four Surgeons General have all said that there needs to be more clinical trials. Clinical trials take time.
  10. 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”.
  11. 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.

Seven 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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 or treaties) apply as for rescheduling.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. Federal Legalization brings federal taxation – like alcohol and tobacco. Depending on tax rates, the black market will thrive and survive.
  6. Interstate distribution – another area that hasn’t had much attention, but will require thoughtful and collaborative solutions. Which leads to:
  7. 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 change 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 eighteen things to consider and 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.

© 2019 – All rights reserved. No further distribution or use of this article is permitted without the express written approval of James Richards