To successfully work in Washington’s regulatory cannabis industry, you need to understand the overlapping levels of laws and rules that are in the state’s regulatory arsenal. State statutes in RCW 69.50 set forth the boundaries of the regulatory system. State regulations in WAC 314-55 fill in the details of that regulatory system. Then there are official Liquor and Cannabis Board guidance documents, administrative cases, and court cases that formally interpret those statutes and rules. But there is yet another tier of rulemaking that is harder to see. This tier houses all the unwritten, often changing policies and interpretations of the LCB. If you aren’t aware of these unwritten rules, you can get yourself into a lot of trouble, including potentially losing your license — even if you think you’ve done everything by the book.
For example, did you know that the LCB has two different enforcement policies with regard to its “minor frequenting” violation? If a marijuana retailer does not check ID at its door, here’s the order of events. The minor enters the retail store and attempts to make a purchase. The store employee checks ID and sees that the minor is underage and asks the minor to leave without completing a sale. There is no violation. However, take this same set of circumstances and add an additional security ID check at the front door, in addition to the ID check at point of sale. In that circumstance, if the ID check at the front door misses spotting the date on the ID card but the minor is still turned away at the secondary ID check at point of sale, the retailer has committed a violation. If a retail business is going to have an outside security check, it has a different, stricter standard for what constitutes a rules violation than if it doesn’t have that security check. Regardless of whether that policy is bad (it is), you can’t find it anywhere in the LCB’s rules or in case law interpreting those rules.
In another example, the LCB has generally held that a financial contribution to a licensed business creates a financier relationship the entails a full criminal background check on the financier and a disclosure by the financier to the LCB of all that financier’s assets, debts, etc., all under penalty of perjury. On the other hand, if that same financier wanted instead to invest just in real estate and equipment and lease that equipment to a licensed marijuana business, no LCB disclosure or background check is required. All of that is reasonably reflected in the rules as written. However, the LCB also has a twist on that policy. If a marijuana business owner also wants to co-own the real property that is leased to the marijuana business, any other financiers or owners of that real property are considered as financiers or owners of the underlying marijuana business. Even if a property were purchased a year before the marijuana license was issued, a lender that holds a deed of trust on property that is owned by an individual that leases it to that individual’s marijuana business is considered a financier. Again, this policy is not reflected at all in any statute or regulation.
We deal all the time with people who are unwittingly violating written regulations. As a layperson in a regulated industry, it is your responsibility to know those rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. When companies get into trouble because of violations of the unwritten rules, however, they don’t have real notice that what they are doing is contrary to LCB policy. And it allows the LCB to implement policies without being subject to the state’s mandatory notice and comment period for new rules. I don’t think that the LCB does this on purpose — the notice and comment period creates delays and can be taxing to work through. But there are enough tools in the LCB’s belt (emergency rules, interim policies, formal guidance documents, etc.), that any time we see the unwritten rules in practice, we need to push back. Lately, we’ve been doing that a lot around here.