Our cannabis regulatory lawyers are in the midst of a few different administrative cases right now dealing with violations of marijuana regulations. In Washington State, the Liquor and Cannabis Board treats its regulatory mandates as “strict liability” rules. This means the onus is on the cannabis business to comply, and a business that violates a regulatory mandate is liable even if it did absolutely everything it could have done to prevent the violation. This sort of strict liability for violating cannabis-focused regulations is fairly common across the country and is just another example of how cannabis businesses even in cannabis-legal states are treated differently from other businesses.
The theory behind strict liability for regulatory violations is that businesses are best positioned to make sure violations do not occur. Businesses need to pony up as many resources as it takes to prevent violations. This strict liability is opposed to a negligence standard, where if the business is found to have acted with reasonable care to comply with the rules, it would not be found liable.
The problem with strict liability, however, is that it can be unfair to businesses that try to have reasonable compliance programs but still slip up. There is no way to prevent employees from flouting the rules from time to time. It happens at every regulated business throughout the country. Employees often see compliance measures as a hindrance to getting their jobs done, and they look for workarounds. But in a strict liability system, a business whose employee violates a compliance program is treated the same as a business that didn’t have any compliance program at all. There is a certain unfairness to that.
The goal of any regulatory agency should be for businesses to have maximum compliance, and the best way to do that is to encourage self-policing. This is why most federal agencies have dedicated programs for regulatory compliance, self-policing, and self-reporting, where penalties against businesses are greatly reduced or even waived if the business follows certain compliance steps.
Washington State voters mandated the State implement this sort of favoritism for liquor merchants “that try” when it passed Initiative 1183, privatizing liquor sales. Under that program, Washington liquor sellers that implement specific best practices to avoid selling liquor to minors will face reduced and deferred penalties if they accidentally make such a sale. Regulatory partnerships like this benefit businesses by giving them guidelines on how to operate and they also benefit the public as a whole as they will lead to fewer overall sales to minors because businesses are so incentivized to implement effective programs.
For marijuana in Washington, the best that cannabis businesses can rely on are that the regulations allow the Liquor and Cannabis Board to reduce penalties if a cannabis business with violations can demonstrate that its business policies and/or practices will reduce the risk of future violations. And though mitigation like this is helpful, it is not the same as a standardized compliance program responsible companies can join to get across the board penalty mitigation.
Marijuana businesses should band together to demand such a “voluntary” compliance program. As everyone knows, regulatory costs for cannabis businesses are high, and even the most compliant cannabis company will have employee slip-ups or regulatory misunderstandings from time to time. The competitive aspect is also key; so long as cannabis compliance program guidelines are not set across the board, businesses will try to comply with the rules at the lowest cost, to the detriment of the compliance programs. Setting up minimum compliance guidelines will allow participating cannabis businesses to know their competitors are either on the same playing field as they are, or that they are risking harsher penalties for not being part of the voluntary compliance program. It’s a win-win for compliant cannabis businesses and for the state. Yet no matter what sort of state-law program to which your cannabis business is subject, it pays to constantly self-audit your company to work towards full compliance. See Understanding and Managing Cannabis Legal Compliance and Cannabis Compliance Audits.
What are you seeing out there? What are your thoughts on all of this?