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Cannabis Industry Prospects Brighten;Risks, Challenges Remain

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The future looks brighter every day for the cannabis industry.

From recent findings that cannabis components may lead to treatment or even prevention of coronavirus infection in lung cells to yesterday’s vote by the House of Representatives in favor of the Safe Banking Act, barricades to full legalization just keep falling.

This isn’t the first time the act – which would protect banks from federal penalties for doing business with cannabis-related businesses that comply with state laws – has made it through the House. It was first introduced in March 2019, and the House has approved it three times, only to have the Senate Banking Committee block its progress. But with the current Democrat majority, apparent bipartisan support, and growing public and state-government support for cannabis legalization, the fourth time just might be the charm.

Similar federal “safe harbor” legislation for the insurance industry – the Clarifying Law Around Insurance of Marijuana Act (CLAIM Act) – was introduced last month.

“More optimism”

The Drug Enforcement Agency characterizes cannabis as a Schedule I drug, defined as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Without legislative change, banks and insurers can’t do business with business without risking running afoul of federal drug laws.

“There’s more optimism now and an assumption that they’re going to work to pass some of these bills that have been in motion for a while now, but never hit the point of actually moving forward,” said Max Meade, cannabis insurance advisor at Brown & Brown Insurance. “I’m also seeing more conversations around working to bundle some of these bills that they’ve been talking about and do a larger cannabis reform.”

As states continue to decriminalize marijuana to different degrees, one of the biggest issues facing cannabis businesses is the 280E federal tax burden, which means cannabis businesses can’t expense the normal cost of goods or anything a normal business can during the course of operation, from utilities to payroll and rent. This means marijuana businesses often pay federal income tax rates in the 65–75 percent range, compared to 15-30 percent  for other businesses. They are taxed on their gross revenues, unlike all regular businesses, which pay tax only on income after their expenses.

The Small Business Tax Equity Act would provide an exception into the Internal Revenue Code to let cannabis operators – as long as they’re in compliance with state laws – make the same deductions as any other business.

Easier to operate

Passage of these laws would make it easier for cannabis-related businesses to operate. The CLAIM Act would let these businesses obtain insurance to cover the same risks of theft, damage, injury, loss, and liability as all other businesses.  

“There are upwards of 30 surplus lines carriers and several managing general underwriters that currently service the cannabis industry across many lines of coverage,” the National Law Review reports. “There also is a small handful of admitted carriers that operate in California, and most recently in Arizona.”

While market capacity for property, commercial general liability, product liability and workers’ compensation coverage has expanded – these policies remain more expensive than the same coverage purchased by similar companies in other industries. Passage of the CLAIM Act would open the doors for more insurers and should bring the cost of insuring marijuana-related businesses much less expensive.

THC persistence a challenge

But challenges will remain – particularly with respect to the workplace. When marijuana was illegal under both state and federal law, employers would typically prohibit employees or employment candidates from using marijuana off-duty as a condition of employment. But as states have begun to permit medical marijuana, things have gotten a bit hazier.

No state requires companies to accommodate on-duty marijuana use. As with recreational marijuana, no state that permits medical marijuana requires employers to accommodate on-duty marijuana use, possession, or impairment. States will often explicitly state that medical marijuana laws don’t affect an employer’s drug-free workplace policy.

Does workers compensation cover a workplace accident in which the injured employee tested positive for marijuana? Persistence of THC – the main psychoactive compound in marijuana – complicates this question, and state courts have differed on this issue, depending on the individual details of each case.

THC persistence also complicates issues around impaired driving.

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