As California’s legislative session drew to a close this week, lawmakers approved measures to reform marijuana taxes, expand industry access to banking and launch a state-regulated appellation program to help identify where cannabis is grown. A hotly contested proposal to regulate hemp and CBD, however, failed to make the cut.
The handful of successful bills, some of which weren’t decided until the legislature’s final hours Monday night, now head to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) desk. With his signature, they’ll shape the next phase of one of the nation’s most dynamic marijuana markets.
Most of the changes are more modest than industry advocates had hoped for when the year began, said Amy Jenkins, a lobbyist and senior policy director for the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA).
“We at CCIA were looking at this as a potentially transformative year,” she told Marijuana Moment in an interview on Tuesday, with many businesses hoping the state would consolidate a number of regulatory departments. “All of that really came to a halt in March, with the COVID pandemic and need to essentially shelter in place and mostly shut down business as usual.”
“We went from, as an industry, talking about these really exciting, transformative reform concepts to really post-pandemic preservation,” she added.
Perhaps the biggest victory for the industry in 2020, Jenkins said, had nothing to do with the legislature at all: As the pandemic set in, regulators deemed the marijuana industry essential, allowing businesses to continue operating. “Really progressive areas, like San Francisco, were poised to shut down,” she said. “I think a lot of people discount the significance of that.”
Some of the newly passed bills that will make their way to Newsom’s desk, such as those involving banking and appellations, result from years-long efforts by advocates. Others, such as tax and testing changes, represent more mechanical adjustments to the market.
Here’s a quick rundown of the measures passed by lawmakers:
Senate Bill 67 would help establish a long-awaited appellation program to allow producers to designate the physical origin of their marijuana, much like how wine regions are regulated. It would also prevent companies from misrepresenting where cannabis is grown, for example by misleadingly using the popular names of Humboldt or Mendocino counties in advertising and labeling. Under the bill, marijuana must be grown—either indoors or outdoors—in a designated city or county in order to qualify to use that name.
“People were really excited about this bill, because I think it solved two issues,” Jenkins said. “From the craft, sun-grown cultivator’s perspective, this kind of preserved the integrity of terroir, which is something that is really really meaningful to them, factoring in the sun and the soil and the topography.” At the same time, she said, it allows growers in regions less conducive to outdoor cultivation—Jenkins pointed to Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley as examples—to still represent and capitalize on their respective regions.
“I was so pleased to see this bill pass last night and that it’s heading to the governor’s desk,” Jenkins said Tuesday. “All indications are that he’ll sign it.”
California marijuana businesses have been complaining about taxes, which in parts of the state are among the highest in the nation, since the plant first became legal. While reforms in Assembly Bill 1872 are more restrained than many in the industry had pushed for, Jenkins at CCIA still describes them as a win. Among other changes, the bill essentially freezes potential increases on tax rates on marijuana, which lawmakers have said is an acknowledgement of the pandemic’s financial effects—and the fact that cannabis businesses don’t qualify for federal relief.
“We thought it was important to give these companies tax certainty over this next year because they are not getting much of the relief that other small businesses are getting through the federal government,” Assemblymember Phil Ting (D), chair of the chamber’s Budget Committee, said in an interview with Cannabis Wire.
Another thorny industry issue has been access to financial services. Many big banks, being federally regulated, have avoided working with marijuana operators due to cumbersome regulations about doing business with clients engaged in what remains federally illegal activity. While California lawmakers can’t change the federal landscape, Assembly Bill 1525 removes state penalties for working with marijuana clients.
“This bill would provide that an entity, as defined, that receives deposits, extends credit, conducts fund transfers, transports cash or financial instruments, or provides other financial services, including public accounting, as provided, does not commit a crime under any California law solely by virtue of the fact that the person receiving the benefit of any of those services engages in commercial cannabis activity as a licensee,” a Legislative Counsel Digest description of the bill says.
Advocates are hopeful the bill’s adoption by California lawmakers will send a message to Congress about the need for federal reform. Beyond that symbolic support, Jenkins at CCIA said the bill’s passage is meant to reassure financial institutions that work or are considering doing work with the marijuana industry.
“We talked to the banking community, and they said they wanted this and needed this,” Jenkins said. “If that bill can serve to encourage more banks to bank the industry, then that was something we wanted to take very seriously.”
On the federal level, talks about marijuana banking are ongoing. A vote on federal descheduling expected this month could open the door to financial services for the entire legal industry if the bill is enacted into law. The House passed a standalone cannabis banking measure last year and included the reform in its latest version of a federal COVID relief bill, but so far the Senate has not adopted the change.
Lawmakers sent along a few product-testing tweaks for the governor’s approval, including a measure that would allow manufacturers to submit unpackaged product—rather than a product in its final retail packaging—to testing labs. Industry advocates said the change will remove a needless expense for producers, making state-mandated testing more affordable. Another bill would require more precise measurement of THC content in edibles, while a third would allow state-licensed cannabis testing labs to provide testing services to local law enforcement or prosecuting agencies. That law enforcement work wouldn’t be considered “commercial cannabis activity” overseen by the Bureau of Cannabis Control.
Hemp CBD Regs Fall Short
One widely anticipated piece of legislation that didn’t clear the finish line this legislative session had to do with hemp-derived CBD. For the second consecutive year, an effort to pass a bill that would regulate hemp CBD in food, beverages, cosmetics and dietary supplements was scuttled at the last minute as stakeholders failed to reach an agreement before the legislative deadline. A proposal still being hammered out in the session’s final weeks would have finally regulated CBD in food and beverages, which have been sold for years amid legal uncertainty.
A pervasive sticking point, however, was the draft versions’ proposed ban on CBD products intended for smoking and vaping. Jenkins said she and CCIA repeatedly attempted to strike smoking and vaping products from the suggested ban, though she acknowledged the matter is a “controversial issue” from both a political and industry standpoint.
Another industry group, the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, was frank in its disappointment about the failure to cross the finish line. “This weekend, our political system let us down,” the organization said in an email newsletter. “Due to intra-party fights that had nothing to do with our legislation, the state Senate leadership refused to allow a vote on our legislative language.”
While legislation action will have to wait for future sessions, Jenkins at CCIA said, work on the proposal is expected to continue with urgency. “The conversation is not going away,” she said, “and I think there’s going to be additional stakeholder discussions that will inevitably occur throughout the fall.”
All in all, Jenkins said, California’s 2020 legislative session was one of “modest wins” for the industry, which isn’t too bad given COVID’s abrupt halt to regularly scheduled programming. “We went from about 36 bills down to about ten. That was the lowest number of bills I’ve seen since I’ve become a cannabis lobbyist” in 2015, she said.
Still, Jenkins said, the results are heartening in terms of signaling the normalization of an industry long regarded as politically taboo. Of the bills that passed, she noted, many sailed through on unanimous or near-unanimous votes.
“I think that’s a great testament to everything the industry has been doing to educate the legislature,” she said. “They passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support, and I think that is something that we shouldn’t overlook. It’s a testament to how far we’ve come.”
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