One of the most notable trends of the most recent election was the explosion of laws legalizing recreational and medical marijuana across the nation. In fact, while only 8 states currently allow recreational use, the majority of states have legalized the use of marijuana in one form or another. This explosion has caused a chain reaction, a matching eruption of businesses prepared to sell marijuana products wherever it is legal.
One of the largest of these companies is Dixie Brands, an enormous Colorado-based business. Dixie Brands, founded in 2010, currently has branches operating in Arizona, Colorado, California in Nevada. They have in the news recently for their desire to spread nationwide with planned expansions to Maryland, Oregon, and Washington.
However, operating and expanding as an operation in the business of selling a product that is federally illegal is understandably extremely complicated. Not only does each state have its own notably different set of laws on how a business must operate but federal law bars marijuana companies from a number of things most businesses would consider necessary to operate. In fact, the majority of the growth of the industry is predicated off the hands off approach of the federal government under the Obama administration.
Marijuana Businesses Under President Obama
In August of 2013, the Obama administration issued a memo stating that it would not interfere with legal cannabis business so long as they operated in states with fully fleshed out regulatory regimes for such businesses such as Colorado. In December 2014, President Obama signed a bill into effect which limited how the Justice Department could stop states from putting their own rules into effect when it comes to marijuana. In a recent interview, President Obama went so far as to say that he believes that marijuana should be treated as a health issue in same vein as cigarettes and alcohol. He went out of his way in the same interview to note that polls show that the majority of people who voted for President-elect Trump feel the same way.
What They Might Face Under President Trump
These comments come after Trump has picked Sen. Jeff Sessions as his top choice for U.S. Attorney General–a particularly controversial pick. Senator Sessions was nominated for a position as a federal judge by President Reagan in 1986. However, a Republican led Senate Judiciary Committee refused to appoint him after a number of racist comments and opinions came to light. Senator Sessions referred to the NAACP as “un-American,” repeatedly called the African-American Assistant United States Attorney Thomas Figures “boy,” and–perhaps most relevant for the state of marijuana law across the country–said that he thought the KKK were good people “until I learned they smoked pot.” While President-elect Trump has previously supported a hands-off approach to marijuana, his pick of Senator Sessions for U.S. Attorney General certainly points in a different direction–much to the chagrin of companies like Dixie Brands. Senator Sessions is, as you can probably tell from his statements about the KKK, extremely outspoken in his opposition towards marijuana as a whole. Senator Sessions has stated that “one of [President Obama’s] great failures …is his lax treatment and comments around marijuana.” He has been quoted as saying “We need grownups in Washington to say, ‘Marijuana is not the kind of thing to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, and that it’s a real danger.'” He has even gone so far as to say “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
All of this points to a potential change in stance from the incoming administration; the kind of change in stance that could be catastrophic for a business like Dixie Brands and the entire industry they belong to. So what exactly are the legal obstacles currently facing businesses based around marijuana products and how can a firmer line on marijuana make things even worse for these businesses?
The Legal Roadblocks of Selling Legalized Marijuana
First and foremost, the obvious elephant in the room. Marijuana is federally illegal. Federal law supersedes state law when the two conflict. Thus, so long as marijuana remains criminal at the federal level the entire business could come crashing down in a matter of months or weeks with just a few changes to enforcement and federal laws. Supreme Court cases have shown that even personal use or cultivation of marijuana within a single state has sufficient impact on the nation as a whole to allow for enforcement of federal laws despite contrary state law. The bill signed by President Obama protecting such state laws from interference could be easily overturned by a conservative Congress with the mind to do it. If the choice of Senator Sessions as U.S. Attorney General signals an administration in line with his way of thinking, action such as this may well be in our future.
So, to say that the marijuana business is on shaky ground is a bit of an understatement. However, businesses such as Dixie Brands are used to operating on shaky grounds. The nature of their business has always involved some level of legal headaches in areas such as intellectual property, forming binding contracts and advertising. However, there are some legal issues that are even more fundamentally problematic for companies selling marijuana products.
Legal Transportation of Marijuana
One of the biggest of these headaches is that federal law makes it illegal to transport marijuana across state lines–interstate commerce is generally the realm of the federal government and the federal government says marijuana is illegal. The federal government can even prosecute people transporting marijuana from one legal state to another. The penalties for a violation of these rules are hefty–up to five years in prison or fines of up to $250,000.
This is especially relevant now that the entire block of states along the west coast all have legalized marijuana. In a normal franchise, standardizing providers and shipping equivalent quality goods to all your branches is standard practice. However, this is illegal for marijuana companies and requires these companies to find a different legal provider of marijuana in every state they operate in. While some states have made it clear that enforcing these laws at their borders is not high on their priority list for single persons, this doesn’t necessarily apply for a larger business shipping large quantities and doesn’t prevent federal operatives from intervening.
What About Banking for Marijuana Businesses?
Another common issue facing businesses selling marijuana products is banking. The fact that marijuana is, once again, illegal at a federal level has made most banks very hesitant to accept any money from a marijuana-related business. The problem is that this money is essentially earned through committing a federal crime and banks are fearful they may lose their required FDIC and NCUA insurance as both of these are provided by the federal government. Even worse, by working with a business like Dixie Brands a bank could face a lawsuit brought by the federal government.
Back in February of 2014, a division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury known as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has created guidelines under which a bank may safely work with a marijuana-related company. These rules made it so that banks could work with companies selling marijuana so long as they file frequent Suspicious Activity Reports proving that the people they work with aren’t committing fraud or laundering money. However, while the rules made it technically legal to work with a company marijuana products, they also make it so expensive and time consuming to do so that no bank actually chooses to take FinCEN up on the offer. What’s more, these guidelines are not actually binding law but merely recommendations. This means that a change in position from the federal government, such as the one that looks to be on the horizon, would leave any bank following the FinCEN guidelines hung out to dry in a potential legal crackdown.
This issue has led to two things. First, the marijuana industry is primarily a cash industry with all the problems that brings with it. The interstate nature of credit cards, electronic payments, electronic transfers, PayPal and similar services tender all these payment methods unavailable to marijuana-related businesses. There are stories of owners of marijuana-related businesses coming to pay their taxes with sacks and sacks of cash like a Scrooge McDuck cartoon. Second, states have been forced to try and design their own internal banking services to help regulate the businesses they seek to tax. Some of these, such as the newest regulations out of California, will only be taking effect later this year.
Is This the End of Expanding Marijuana-Related Businesses?
There is, unquestionably, an enormous amount of tax revenue to be made and jobs that could be created through legalized and regulated marijuana in the U.S. However, the stance of those the incoming administration has chosen to represent them is not a friendly one to legalization. There are certainly arguments in favor of this side of the argument as well–difficulty of enforcement, difficulty in proving current intoxication, etc. However, as it stands the public opinions of the incoming Trump administration are incongruent. President-elect Trump himself has been publically supportive of the growing marijuana industry. The man he has chosen to weigh in most influentially on the current laws of the federal government, however, has a diametrically opposed position. The marijuana industry is, and has been, an incredibly profitable house of cards–we’ll have to wait and see if the Trump administration chooses to blow it over.