The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) may finally be noticing that its current treatment of “true party of interest” violations is neither just nor sustainable. During an extended conversation at its monthly executive management team meeting in June, the WSLCB discussed potentially adopting a hidden ownership amnesty program. Basically, any existing businesses that had mistakenly created a true party of interest relationship would have a limited time to come forward and declare any owners or other true parties of interest in licensed marijuana businesses that had not been disclosed and vetted in the past. The licensee would then be able to get the person vetted, though some penalty other than license cancellation would potentially still be on the table.
The details are not set, and the WSLCB executive team is going to continue meeting and discussing the issue over the coming months. For those licensees in the middle of investigations or regulatory hearings with the WSLCB, there’s not much hope to pull from this. Even if the WSLCB moved with lightning speed to adopt something, the agency was clear that it would not avail anyone currently undergoing a formal investigation or violation hearing.
That the WSLCB is discussing the topic of leniency at all indicates that they are cognizant of problems with current regulations and enforcement, though their idea of an amnesty or leniency program won’t do anything to solve the underlying issues. The foremost issue right now is that the timing of getting financing approved doesn’t work. The WSLCB currently demands that all money contributed to a licensed business be approved prior to it being spent on behalf of the business. The approval process for capital can take months, even if the capital contributors have already been approved as owners or financiers of the business in the past. But the types of emergencies that require short-term capital infusions tend not to wait months for regulators to approve. Businesses are forced to violate a rule by either having current owners contribute new capital or having outsiders provide financing prior to getting WSLCB approval.
There are plenty of solutions to the financier predicament that the WSLCB could adopt. They could allow for after-the-fact vetting of certain types of loans. They could modernize and streamline their financial approval process. They could keep the exact same system and just hire more people so that new funds could get investigated and cleared immediately. Any move to temporarily allow for relaxed penalties for regulatory violators to come forward isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the same problem will continue again and again. Academically speaking, the WSLCB is applying an over-inclusive rule to business actions that range from willfully criminal to entirely benign. This over-inclusive application of the law “makes regulatory unreasonableness not an occasional weakness but a pervasive problem.”
The WSLCB’s current investigative and enforcement strategy feels targeted at unlucky businesses that have made mistakes. This is part of why their trigger-happy nature regarding license cancellation is so frustrating. Two of the cancellation cases that my law firm is currently working on have come because of voluntary disclosure of information by a licensee. There certainly are bad actors in the marijuana industry that are intentionally defrauding the WSCLB and may well have ties to organized crime, but the WSLCB seems to leave those businesses alone. It is tough, challenging work to investigate illegal activity when the actors are working hard to cover up the illegal activity. It is much easier to go after the low-hanging fruit of licensees that are fully transparent about their activities.
Fundamentally, the WSLCB underestimates the deterrent effect of large monetary fines and underestimates the huge collateral damage that business shutdowns can create. If the WSLCB wants to create real compliance, it is going to need to make some more drastic changes than temporary amnesty/leniency programs.