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Cannabis Regulatory Round-Up – SAFE Act, STATES Act, New York, New Jersey and more


The legal, legislative, and regulatory landscape of cannabis in North America is dynamic and if there has been one constant since pioneering states implemented a legal ‘seed-to-sale’ adult-use market in 2014, it is change. And it is unrelenting.

To help cannabis entrepreneurs and investors keep up with the fast pace of change in the cannabis industry we will be providing monthly summaries of the latest regulatory and legislative news to provide a snapshot of latest happenings while also highlighting matters of interest looking forward.

This month the focus is on prominent federal legislative activity (e.g. the SAFE Act and the STATES Act), state legalization measures (e.g. NJ, NY, IL, and others), and two bills in Colorado that have the potential to attract out-of-state investment to that market.

Changes in federal cannabis legislation

With control of the House of Representatives being transferred to the Democratic party, several bills that have the potential to profoundly impact the cannabis landscape have advanced in Congress.  For example, the last week of March saw the House Financial Services Committee move forward the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to a full House vote, reportedly “within weeks.” Following the momentum of the House bill, U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) have introduced the companion bill in the Senate.

The latest SAFE iteration addresses the cannabis banking crisis and includes amendments that offer protection to insurance companies and other financial services companies.

The banking issue is long-standing and predates even the implementation of recreational cannabis in the US. The lack of straight forward access to fundamental banking services for the cannabis industry creates a multitude of challenges, most notably the operational and financial difficulties of a multi-billion-dollar industry operating almost entirely in cash. This has obvious implications for public safety and potential diversion to the black market, among other concerns.

The inability to access banking services is often identified as a major hindrance to market entry for large and well-resourced corporations and removal of this barrier could herald a seismic shift in investment into the cannabis industry. At time of writing the House Bill had 152 cosponsors, including 12 Republicans, whereas the Senate bill has 20 co-sponsors.

Adding further momentum to the SAFE bill, last week Last week,  Secretary Steve Mnuchin offered his support for a legislative fix for the banking issues facing the cannabis industry. “There is not a Treasury solution to this. There is not a regulator solution to this,” he said. “If this is something that Congress wants to look at on a bipartisan basis, I’d encourage you to do this."

Another potentially substantial piece of legislation is the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act), which aims to reduce conflict between federal and state laws as they relate to cannabis. The STATES Act is a potential gamechanger for the cannabis industry, allowing legal certainty for companies seeking to operate in dozens of jurisdictions across the US.

Although this legislation stalled in December, it was reintroduced on April 4th, alongside other measures, which include:

  • the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act that would effectively legalize marijuana at the federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act.
  • The Marijuana Justice Act of 2019

The extent to which these bills have bipartisan support may be crucial if they are move beyond the House.

Four steps forward and two steps back in state legalization efforts

It has been a mixed month in terms of advancing cannabis legalization measures at the state level. On the one hand, there has been progress in multiple states, such as Connecticut, Illinois, and New Hampshire. While on the other hand there was a couple of snags holding up the implementation of recreational markets in New Jersey and New York.

Recent adult-use cannabis legalization headlines include:

  • The New Jersey cannabis legalization bill was pulled due to lack of support although Gov. Murphey (D) reportedly stated he remained committed to getting the bill passed.
  • New York dropped cannabis legalization from its budget bill where it was viewed as more likely to pass, however, regulators remain optimistic of progress later in the year. The New York City Council also voted to ban cannabis testing for job applicants.
  • A General Law Committee in the Connecticut Legislature approved a bill that would legalize an adult-use cannabis market in the state.
  • In New Hampshire, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a vote on the floor on legislation that would legalize an adult-use cannabis market.
  • A bill to legalize retail cannabis in Illinois was introduced and passed to a subcommittee for further consideration.
  • Governor of Guam signed a bill legalizing cannabis, becoming the first US territory to do so.

Despite the hiccups outlined above, there is a clear trend towards legal cannabis across the US. Moreover, several states took steps towards expansion or liberalization of their medical cannabis markets. Certainly in the long term, the outlook is optimistic for the cannabis industry on a number of fronts.

Back to the future as Colorado looks to position itself as an investment hub for cannabis

When Colorado became the first state to implement an adult-us cannabis framework in 2014, out of state investment was restricted. This allowed the state to build upon its existing medical cannabis market.

The understandable caution has since been questioned, however, and a Bill offering more flexibility in investment passed both the Colorado House and Senate in 2018, only for then Gov. Hickenlooper to veto it. In 2019, a replacement Bill was introduced and has recently passed its third reading in the House unamended.

As an established market with mature regulations and market stability, Colorado has low-risk potential when compared to emerging markets in other states – although competition is likely to be strong, with ever-thinning margins as prices continue to drop in the state.

Out-of-state investors exploring options in Colorado may be interested in acquiring social consumption licenses in Denver, or seek opportunities for market expansion in the delivery segment of the market. If passed, HB19-1234 would allow licensed dispensaries to offer these services for the first time.

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