Daily News

HOLYOKE — PeoplesBank announced its final total for 2023 philanthropic grants to area nonprofits and causes was $1.6 million, for a cumulative total of $14 million over the past decade.

“Community support, whether it be financial support or volunteer efforts from our associates, is in our DNA and is a large part of both the mission of the bank and a competitive differentiator for us, both in serving our customers and communities and also in attracting and retaining associates who want to be part of an organization with such a commitment,” explained Brian Canina, president and COO of PeoplesBank. “We are a mutual bank, chartered to serve our customers and the communities they live in. As a mutual bank, we do not have stockholders who would divert profits. Therefore, we are able to significantly support nonprofits and other community causes.”

Canina added that, as a large regional employer whose values include community service, PeoplesBank is able to increase its support to the community and social-service organizations through volunteerism. “We have a lot of talent in our organization, and because of that, we have a significant presence on area nonprofit boards of directors. We also look for opportunities to roll up our sleeves and serve, and we spend thousands of hours each year doing that.”

The $1.6 million was donated to more than 550 area nonprofits, making the average grant just under $3,000. With a philosophy of giving a little to a lot of groups, PeoplesBank is able to support a wide variety of causes, although most are within the bank’s funding focus areas of housing, food insecurity, literacy, economic development, and social services.

More information on PeoplesBank corporate responsibility and how to apply for a donation, including a link to the 2024 grant application, can be found at www.bankatpeoples.com/community.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Peter Ruffini was installed as the 2024 president of the Realtor Assooc. of Pioneer Valley (RAPV), a nonprofit trade association with more than 1,800 members. The 108th annual installation of officers and directors was held on Jan. 11 at Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow.

A Realtor since 1996, Ruffini is the broker/owner of RE/MAX Connections and has made a long-term commitment to RAPV and the Realtor family. Since 2021, he has served on the local board of directors at RAPV, including as secretary in 2022 and treasurer in 2023. He is involved in several committees at the association, including the government affairs, mediator & ombudsman, professional standards, bylaws & policy task force, and finance. The RAPV named him Realtor of the Year in 2015 and 2021.

Ruffini served as president of the Massachusetts Assoc. of Realtors (MAR) in 2014. In addition to serving in leadership, he has been a member of the MAR board of directors since 2006. He received the MAR Private Property Rights Award in 2019 and the MAR Milton H. Shaw Distinguished Service Award in 2020. He also currently serves as chair of the Massachusetts Board of Registration for Real Estate Brokers and Salespersons and holds 11 professional designations and certifications.

The following individuals were installed as 2024 officers: Sue Drumm of Coldwell Banker Realty as president-elect, Brenda Cuoco of Brenda Cuoco & Associates Real Estate Brokerage as treasurer, and Lori Beth Betterton of LAER Realty Partners as immediate past president. Directors include Carrie Blair of Keller Williams Realty, Shawn Bowman of Trademark Real Estate, Janise Fitzpatrick of Jones Group Realtors, Judy Nevarez of BHH Realty Professionals, Kelly Page of Trademark Real Estate, Erica Swallow of Coldwell Banker Realty – Western MA, Jennifer Tetreault of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Realty Professionals, Don Thompson of NextHome Elite Realty, and Vinny Walsh of Coldwell Banker Realty – Western MA.

Daily News

Victor Rodriguez Sr.

GREENFIELD — Greenfield Cooperative Bank (GCB) announced the appointment of Victor Rodriguez Sr. as assistant vice president, mortgage loan officer. In this role, he intends to leverage his extensive experience and expertise to guide borrowers through the homeownership journey with personalized care and local market knowledge. He will be based at the bank’s South Hadley branch.

“We are excited to welcome Victor to the GCB team,” said Tony Worden, president and CEO. “His proven track record of success, deep understanding of the mortgage industry, and commitment to personalized service make him an invaluable asset to our bank and our community. We are confident that Victor will play a key role in helping our neighbors achieve their dreams of homeownership.”

Rodriguez brings more than 20 years of banking experience. Throughout his career, he has earned accolades such as the 2022 Realtor Affiliate of the Year from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley. Rodriguez’s passion for mortgage lending extends beyond client transactions, as evidenced by his recent role as a guest speaker at the NEFMA fall conference, where he presented on the topic “Opportunities Await: Developing a Diverse Mortgage Customer Source.”

“Victor’s passion for fostering diversity in homeownership is deeply impressive. His NEFMA presentation clearly demonstrated his commitment to expanding access to mortgage opportunities for underserved communities,” said Jane Wolfe, executive vice president of Residential Lending. “We fully expect Victor to become a leading voice in this area, not only within our bank, but across the region.”

Daily News

HOLYOKE — A check presentation will take place on Thursday, Jan. 25 at 2:30 p.m. at the Gary Rome Hyundai dealership located at 150 Whiting Farms Road in Holyoke. Two donations will be made from Hyundai Hope on Wheels: $10,000 to LukeStronger Inc. of South Hadley and $10,000 to Each Moment We’re Alive of West Springfield. Representatives from both organizations will be present to accept their checks.

“At Gary Rome Hyundai, we believe in leading by example and pride ourselves on doing the next right thing. As a Hyundai Hope on Wheels board member for the Eastern Region, I am committed to making a positive impact by supporting local organizations in their fight against childhood cancer,” Gary Rome said. “We are dedicated to striking out cancer and providing hope to those affected by it.”

Hyundai Hope on Wheels, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by Hyundai Motor America and its more than 820 U.S. dealers, celebrates its 25th anniversary in its longstanding fight against childhood cancer. Launched in 1998, the organization is one of the longest-running corporate social-responsibility efforts in the automotive industry. In honor of this milestone, Hyundai Hope on Wheels announced plans to award $25 million in research grants this year, its largest donation in a single year, bringing its total giving to $225 million since its inception.

Each Moment We’re Alive was launched by Sheridan Murphy in 2015 after her second bout with breast cancer. She then realized that reaching out, rather than blocking out, was the best chance for survival. Since then, she has helped organize support groups and workshops with a focus on emotional and spiritual health. Sheridan has since expanded her network to help families with all types of cancer, including pediatric cancer.

LukeStronger Inc. is a local 501(c)(3) nonprofit providing assistance to local families dealing with pediatric cancer so that parents can spend time with their children. LukeStronger originated when Luke Bradley, a then 10-year-old boy from South Hadley, relapsed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Local residents rallied to support his family with, among other things, a benefit golf tournament. Complications and another unforeseen relapse kept Luke at Boston Children’s Hospital for 15 months. He underwent a bone-marrow transplant in December 2017 and is doing well today.

Knowing firsthand the financial struggle, Bradley’s family created a nonprofit to help other families by continuing the golf-tournament tradition. Together with friends, in its short history, LukeStronger has helped seven local families fill in the income gap caused by pediatric cancer. All profits go to the family. LukeStronger does not expect repayment.


Breathing Easier

Frank Dailey shows off some equipment used to grind cannabis.

Frank Dailey shows off some equipment used to grind cannabis.


From his background in plant management and chemical engineering, Frank Dailey said, he understands the risks involved in manufacturing anything, let alone a product with so little research available in the realm of workplace safety.

So, when asked to take part in a National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) evaluation of the cannabis grinding process at Boston Bud Factory, the Holyoke business Dailey owns, he was enthusiastic about it.

The study was first slated to take place at Trulieve in Holyoke, where an employee died in January 2022. The 27-year-old production technician suffered a fatal asthma attack while working at the indoor cannabis cultivation and processing facility. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), the death occurred seven months after she started employment at the facility and three months after she began working as a flower technician, which involved processing and handling whole and ground cannabis flower buds.

Boston Bud Factory was contacted by Danny Stair, a local industry advocate and former Trulieve employee, who was concerned the study was in jeopardy following Trulieve’s departure from the Massachusetts market last year. So Dailey contacted NIOSH directly and volunteered his operations for the study.

“We put up signs when we’re grinding; we notify everybody. It can be a hazardous process. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be,” Dailey told BusinessWest. “We have to take into account allergens. Employees have allergic reactions processing some strains. It’s random; there’s no rhyme or reason.”

While he doesn’t know exactly what precautions were taken at Trulieve, “what I do know is that it’s common in the industry for large corporations to short personal protective equipment when the money’s tight. They need to pay for inventory. We’re answering to the money train in this industry, and it seems like it’s a common thing throughout the industry, that employees’ safety is not being looked out for.”

Dailey said Boston Bud Factory has already implemented strict PPE procedures when grinding cannabis due to possible employee reactions to dust, but still has concerns about whether the PPE was adequate, and he wants to be part of developing a wider body of knowledge that may become the basis for mandated workplace health regulations.

“People are talking about tax revenues and other issues in cannabis, but you don’t hear people talking about the effort the industry is making to keep their workers safe. Workers shouldn’t have to unionize and take extreme measures to implement safety in the workplace.”

“We know how dangerous dust is in other industries. Dust in foundries has caused explosions. Dust in factories has caused fires. As for cannabis dust, this is just the beginning of the employee exposure. As the industry grows, more and more dust is created.”

One of his employees with specific sensitivity concerns actually wears not only a Tyvek suit with a particulate mask, but also gloves duct-taped to the sleeves so the dust doesn’t get up the sleeves.

“These are techniques from the pharmaceutical industry that are easy to implement if someone is paying attention and has proper safety protocols in place,” he explained. “People are talking about tax revenues and other issues in cannabis, but you don’t hear people talking about the effort the industry is making to keep their workers safe. Workers shouldn’t have to unionize and take extreme measures to implement safety in the workplace.”

During the on-site visit, NIOSH will set up airborne particulate monitoring during the grinding process to see what the exposure is and how many airborne particulates employees are subject to.

“We use dust masks, basically particulate masks, and that should be enough in most cases. We’re not talking chemical fumes; it’s simply airborne particulates,” Dailey said. “But we need to know whether we need to go to N95 or a higher level to make sure enough particulates are captured.”

Historically, he added, a lot of cannabis manufacturing has been done underground, where employee safety isn’t paramount.

“We’re one of the smallest operations in Massachusetts; we’re fighting for survival,” he added. “But we need to do something to set some standards in this emerging industry.”



Statewide Investigation

Also in the wake of the death at Trulieve, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) recently released an investigative report outlining additional steps the cannabis industry should take to prevent work-related asthma and sent a bulletin to healthcare providers in the Commonwealth urging vigilance in identifying work-related asthma among workers in that industry. The bulletin reminds providers that they are mandated to report cases of work-related asthma and other respiratory diseases to DPH.

While the Holyoke death is the only known asthma death in the U.S. cannabis industry, other cases of non-fatal respiratory disease among Massachusetts cannabis workers have been reported. According to DPH, cannabis-industry workers can be routinely exposed to numerous occupational respiratory hazards, including cannabis dust, mold, volatile organic compounds, pollen, bacterial endotoxins, pesticides, soil components, and cleaning disinfectants, which can cause and/or exacerbate chronic diseases, like asthma, if not addressed.

Massachusetts has more than 500 licensed cannabis industry employers providing jobs to more than 22,000 workers.

“The legalized cannabis industry in Massachusetts is relatively new, and the impact on the health and safety of workers demands our careful attention,” Public Health Commissioner Dr. Robert Goldstein noted in a statement. “As this workforce continues to expand, it will require all of us working together — state and federal agencies, regulators, healthcare providers, and the cannabis industry — to improve working conditions for these employees. At DPH, we will continue to identify and follow up on these cases using our long-standing public-health surveillance system for work-related respiratory disease and continue to work with our partners on documenting cases, building evidence around workplace hazards, and on intervention and policy.”

“The legalized cannabis industry in Massachusetts is relatively new, and the impact on the health and safety of workers demands our careful attention.”

According to DPH, work-related asthma is underrecognized in part because symptoms and industry and occupation data are not routinely collected. Yet, about 17% of new-onset adult asthma cases are related to workplace exposures. In Massachusetts, an estimated 200,000 adults have work-related asthma, according to data from DPH’s Occupational Health Surveillance Program.

In its bulletin, DPH urged healthcare providers to:

• Ask patients with new or worsening respiratory or allergic symptoms what they do for work and how it affects their health;

• Perform diagnostic testing, such as allergy testing, pulmonary imaging, and/or spirometry;

• Recommend workplace changes to avoid further exposure; and

• Report cases of work-related asthma and other work-related respiratory diseases to DPH, as required by law.

To improve worker safety, the investigative report recommended that employers:

• Assess and control hazardous materials in the workplace, including asthmagens;

• Ensure that all workers are properly trained about hazardous materials in the workplace;

• Develop and implement a comprehensive safety and health program that addresses hazard recognition, avoidance of unsafe conditions, and proper use of equipment; and

• Implement a medical surveillance program to monitor the health of their workers.

The report also noted that equipment manufacturers should adopt and implement the concept of ‘prevention through design’ to identify potential hazards associated with equipment and then eliminate these hazards through design changes; and that industry licensing agencies in Massachusetts should consider how they can further support the health and safety of cannabis-industry workers.

“Levels of exposure to cannabis dust at work are much higher than what is present during recreational use,” said Emily Sparer-Fine, director of DPH’s Occupational Health Surveillance Program. “Work processes that include grinding and concentrating an allergen need to be better controlled. It is critical for employers to assess and control exposure to hazardous materials, including the respiratory hazards found in the cannabis-processing facilities, such as cannabis dust.”


The Effort Continues

All this is gratifying to Dailey, who thanked Stair for ensuring that the NIOSH Study was completed, advocating for the safety cannabis-industry employees, and helping prevent future injuries or deaths. Dailey claimed that larger cannabis companies are prioritizing profits and growth over workplace safety, so it is important that advocates and smaller companies step up to take the lead in setting industry standards to ensure workplace safety.

“We are proud to be one of the first companies to prioritize worker safety over profits. Boston Bud Factory has said from the start that we didn’t want to be one of the big guys, and we still stand by that wholeheartedly,” he added. “We hope that the NIOSH safety evaluation will help determine industry standards that could help to ensure worker safety in this emerging and rapidly growing industry. Worker safety should always take precedence over profits, no matter how large the company is.”

Banking and Financial Services

Lending Perspective


Tom Senecal has been president, CEO, and chairman of PeoplesBank since 2016, and moving forward, he’s shedding the ‘president’ part of that title. But that doesn’t mean he’s slowing down.

“It’s more of a transition of the daily responsibilities,” he said, explaining why Brian Canina has been promoted to president and chief operating officer, and Hayes Murray has been promoted to executive vice president, chief financial officer, and treasurer, taking on some of Canina’s former duties.

“I reassigned to Brian three or four different responsibilities, but when you look at both of us, it’s still a lot on both our plates,” said Senecal, who retains his CEO and chairman titles. “This is a recognition of Brian’s success and talent and the timing of the growth that we’re going through. And quite frankly, the operational side of things needs more daily attention. And Brian really has the fortitude, the wherewithal, the work ethic, and the strategy to execute all the daily operational things. So it just made sense at this point in time to transition those responsibilities.”

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“This is a recognition of Brian’s success and talent and the timing of the growth that we’re going through.”

After working together for almost 15 years — Canina as CFO and controller, Senecal as president and CEO — it just made sense to reward Canina for him efforts, Senecal added, “and, quite frankly, to make sure that we have our eyes on the ball as we continue to grow.”

Canina said he has prepared for this transition over the past year or two, operating in more than just a CFO role, and more like a COO, driving strategic initiatives and monitoring and managing the strategic plan of the bank along with Senecal.

“That will continue to be a focus of mine going forward, taking more responsibility away from Tom in terms of administratively managing the strategic plan and working with him as he identifies other strategies that he’s working on,” Canina explained. “So it’s not really a significant change; it’s something that we’ve been working toward, and with the size of the bank and how we’ve grown, it was a good timing to make this more formal change.”

The leadership changes will provide Senecal with more opportunities to plan and manage the growth and revenue activities of the bank, including retail operations, consumer lending, small business, municipals, and commercial and industrial divisions. Canina will continue to be responsible for finance, facilities, PeoplesWealth, the Business Solutions Group, and information technology. In his new role, he will also be responsible for human resources, marketing, and corporate responsibility.

“I’ve kind of shed some meeting responsibilities and a few of the operational responsibilities, but my focus is on growth,” Senecal said. “We have both an organic strategy of growing the bank by opening branches, and also non-organic opportunities. We’re constantly having conversations with other banks, and we will never be bought or sold, but we are looking at opportunities with other banks that might want to partner with PeoplesBank.”

Connecticut in particular continues to present growth opportunities. After adding branches in East Granby and Suffield through acquisition, then expanding the bank’s branch footprint into South Windsor and West Hartford, the bank’s board of directors has approved plans to open banking centers in Glastonbury and Avon, in addition to seeking other opportunities for future expansion.

Brian Canina

Brian Canina

“It’s something that we’ve been working toward, and with the size of the bank and how we’ve grown, it was a good timing to make this more formal change.”

“Our commercial-lending business has been extremely successful in the Connecticut market,” Senecal noted. “We’ve hired some commercial lenders and residential lenders in the Connecticut market. We’ve always had a large presence on the commercial side, but since we’ve developed the retail side, it has brought us some synergies in the relationships with those commercial customers, bringing them in as retail customers as well. It’s been hugely successful.”

Canina agreed. “We’re at a very important time right now to really continue pushing the growth of People’sBank down into Connecticut and looking into other areas to grow. That’s what we’re really focused on, and I feel confident we’re going to have a lot of success.”


Soaring Assets

The numbers tell the story of PeoplesBank’s recent upward trajectory.

“When I took over as president and CEO in 2016, we were a $1.8 billion bank,” Senecal told BusinessWest. “We ended 2023 just shy of $4.1 billion. So we’ve more than doubled in those seven years.”

The bank also boasts more than 300 employees and operates 20 banking centers across Massachusetts and Connecticut, with an additional five locations when its headquarters, ATM, and VideoBankerITM locations are included, he noted. “That’s quite a bit of recent growth, which is a credit to the hard work of our entire team.”

Over the past couple years, PeoplesBank also began partnering with Zynlo, a digital bank, Senecal said. “That is starting to really take off. When we talk about growth, traditionally, brick and mortar has been our main source of banking growth. With the digital bank, that has taken on a whole different perspective.

“We’ve got different lines of business, and we’re starting a personal banking division of the bank,” he added. “We have the PeoplesWealth division. Those weren’t in existence a few years ago, so these different banking channels are really what’s driving some of our growth.”

Other expansion opportunities exist because of the merger-and-acquisition environment among large banks and how that disrupts a marketplace, Canina said, citing as one example M&T Bank’s acquisition of People’s United Bank. “That acquisition opens up opportunities for us to jump in on the disruption down in the Connecticut market and, in some cases, Western Massachusetts as well, but mostly down in the Connecticut market, which is why we have our sights set on organic growth down there.”

Opportunities will also arise from banks that aren’t faring as well as PeoplesBank, he said, due partly to the compression on interest margins coupled with increased costs for human resources and compliance, as well as coming regulatory changes.

“Some of these smaller banks are really going to be challenged,” Canina explained. “And I think that we’re at a size — more than $4 billion in assets — where we’re in a very good position to partner with another bank that’s smaller and having challenges, so I think there’s going to be opportunity there for us.”

Of course, PeoplesBank continues to grapple with those same headwinds, he added.

“The challenges right now are coming from the interest-rate environment, where the margins have really compressed from the short-term rates coming up and long-term rates coming up a bit, but not as much as the short end of the curve. So we’re paying deposits on the short end and then lending out on the long end, and there’s not a big spread there. It makes it challenging, not just for us, but for all banks.

“At the same time, a lot of the pandemic deposits that came in have started to flow out; people started spending more money, and they have the ability to to move deposits anywhere they want very easily,” Canina continued. “So the industry has been challenged with managing the interest-rate environment and maintaining deposit levels, and I see that continuing into 2024. Depending on what happens with interest rates, it’s not likely going to let up until we see the short end start to come down. And then we’ll face some different challenges when that happens, because most likely there will be some potential recessionary concerns.”

On the residential side in particular, Senecal added, “I think it’s tough for every bank these days, even though interest rates have come down a little bit from their all-time highs in the last 20 years or so. But there’s no inventory. So, even though interest rates are high, what we’re seeing is, when something comes on the market, it sells, and it’s financed. It’s just that the inventory is so low. And that will be a challenge heading into 2024 for almost all banks.”


Hometown Focus

As he broadens his responsibilities in dealing with these issues and working with Senecal and other bank leaders on growth strategies, Canina added that he aims to continue — and grow — PeoplesBank’s commitment to the communities it serves, noting that the bank’s charitable giving continues to be a strength, with almost $6 million donated over the past three years alone, and more than $11 million over the past 10 years.

“I think what really separates us from the larger regional banks and the national banks — we’re so invested in the communities that we’re banking with, and even though we’re contributing the amount of dollars we are back to the community, we’re still paying interest rates that are competitive with any other bank out there.”

Meanwhile, employees donate thousands of hours of volunteer service to area nonprofits and charitable causes, he noted. “More than half of our bank is on a nonprofit board of some sort, and the amount of volunteer hours is very strong; that’s something that all of our employees hold near and dear to them and really keeps them engaged.”

Banking and Financial Services

A Matter of Survival


When asked what it takes to thrive in the cannabis business these days, Meg Sanders paused before noting that ‘thrive’ is the wrong word.

“I think thriving is part two. Right now, surviving is really the topic of the day. That’s what we need to be looking at,” said Sanders, CEO of Canna Provisions, which operates dispensaries in Holyoke and Lee.

And it’s not just because of the heightened competition that has arisen, both within Massachusetts and from across state lines, though that factor has caused some shops to close, with others likely to follow, as the market begins to settle, eventually determining how many dispensaries is too many.

No, that development has only exacerbated one of the key challenges for cannabis entrepreneurs: the fact that the drug is federally illegal, which makes financing thorny, normal business activities difficult, and the tax environment severe, to say the least.

“Our accounting bill is probably super elevated from a normal business. Our legal bill is probably way larger than a normal business because there are just so many T’s to cross and so many I’s to dot. And that’s just part of it,” Sanders said before detailing issues with access to financial services and lending. “What if we could get SBA loans? What if we could apply for federal grants? I mean, there’s so much money out there that a small business should be eligible for, but we can’t do any of that because we’re federally illegal.”

Meg Sanders

“What if we could get SBA loans? What if we could apply for federal grants? I mean, there’s so much money out there that a small business should be eligible for, but we can’t do any of that because we’re federally illegal.”

With that in mind, a coalition of U.S. cannabis operators and investors filed a lawsuit late last year against U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. The coalition asserts that the federal government has no basis for enforcing the Controlled Substances Act against intrastate, state-regulated cannabis operations. The plaintiffs include Canna Provisions; Gyasi Sellers, CEO and founder of Treevit; and Wiseacre Farm, all of which are independent operators in Massachusetts that claim to have suffered significant harm and business challenges due to federal prohibition.

Verano Holdings is also named as a plaintiff, while foundational supporters of the suit include Ascend Wellness Holdings, TerrAscend, and Green Thumb Industries, as well as Eminence Capital and Poseidon Investment Management.

The lawsuit seeks to confirm the rights of Massachusetts and other states to regulate cannabis within their borders, and to limit the federal government’s power to regulate commerce.

The Controlled Substance Act bars the production, distribution, and possession of marijuana, regardless of whether those activities cross state lines or, as in the case of the plaintiffs’ businesses, are intrastate. According to the lawsuit, “this unjustified and unconstitutional prohibition on intrastate cannabis harms plaintiffs and hinders the efforts of states to provide patients and adults with access to strictly regulated and tested cannabis.”

“The purpose of the lawsuit is to basically challenge the constitutionality of the Controlled Substance Act on intrastate activity. Basically, the suit alleges that the federal government has no say what happens within state borders,” Sanders told BusinessWest. “I wasn’t aware of this lawsuit until somebody recommended me to be part of it. So we had substantial meetings with our legal team and our board about this particular issue, and we all felt like there’s something here, and that this is an important way to approach it.”


Tough Environment

Cannabis banking has softened somewhat in Massachusetts, Sanders was quick to note. “I would say Massachusetts is probably one of the friendliest banking states in the United States as far as cannabis. We have a lot of very thoughtful, kind, smart bankers out there that are trying to service the industry. And that’s great; we have checking accounts, we have saving accounts, some of us are able to do debit-card acceptance. But we can’t take credit cards. I can’t get a business loan. Equipment loans are out there, but they’re at a really high interest rate. And also, I can’t get access to normal payroll services. So I can’t work with an ADP or a Paychex or some of the big guys that are really good at what they do.

“If you’re signing up to be in cannabis, you’re signing up for all of these headaches. This is the nature of the beast. And it’s not negotiable; those are the facts. This is what we have to deal with every single day. And it’s really, really hard.”

The lawsuit also takes aim at what’s known in the IRS tax code as Section 280E, which originated from a 1981 court case in which a convicted cocaine trafficker asserted his right under federal tax law to deduct ordinary business expenses. In 1982, Congress created 280E to prevent other drug dealers from following suit.

So, while state-legal cannabis businesses are allowed to deduct the cost of goods sold when paying taxes, they can not take other deductions normal to most non-cannabis businesses — salaries, health insurance, utilities, maintenance, and much more. “So I have an effective tax rate of 73%,” Sanders said.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Controlled Substance Act’s cannabis prohibitions.

But, according to a press release announcing the new lawsuit, “a critical factor in that decision, Gonzales v. Raich, was that the federal government intended to ‘eradicate’ the market for cannabis nationwide. The court concluded that the federal goal of eliminating commerce in cannabis, combined with the assumption in 2005 that intrastate marijuana could not be differentiated from interstate cannabis, justified the Controlled Substances Act’s prohibitions on intrastate cannabis. Neither of those facts, however, are true today. In the 18 years since Gonzales, Congress and the executive branch have abandoned any intent to ‘eradicate’ cannabis, and numerous states have developed regulatory programs for legal marijuana that is not fungible with, and is readily distinguished from, illicit cannabis.”

Indeed, the plaintiffs note, today, 38 states and Washington D.C. have medical or adult-use cannabis programs with significant regulatory oversight, requiring compliance with stringent regulations aimed at protecting patients, customers, and the public, including video surveillance and seed-to-sale tracking.

“Absent the relief sought in this lawsuit, plaintiffs and other state-regulated cannabis operators will continue to suffer severe harms,” the release notes. “State-regulated cannabis businesses are deemed illegal under the CSA; their everyday activities are considered federal crimes. As a result, they are cut off from numerous federal programs and protections (including small-business loans), they are subject to discriminatory tax penalties, and many organizations — including banks and credit-card processors — refuse to do business with them, rather than risk being deemed conspirators, aiders and abettors, or money launderers.

“The result is that many cannabis businesses are suffering, people are losing their jobs, and individual wealth is being destroyed,” the statement continues. “In addition, social-equity licensees harmed by the war on drugs and who were supposed to have equal access to the industry do not have the same benefits as otherwise situated business owners to start a business and build their wealth.”


Appetite for Change?

Sanders sees this lawsuit as a kind of parallel track to other ongoing efforts to disentangle federal and state laws, thereby easing the cost of business in the cannabis industry, with many hoping Congress steps in at some point and removes cannabis from the Schedule 1 list of controlled substances.

“There are a lot of legislators that really support and see cannabis as an industry for their constituents and understand that jobs are being created and there’s a lot of revenue. And, bottom line, their voters want to buy weed from a regulated dispensary,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s what we see every single day. We still have more people coming in. And what voters are telling legislators is they want safe access to cannabis.”

At the same time, Sanders understands that Congress has many competing priorities, and that they struggle to come together in a bipartisan way on any issue.

“Until politicians see voters saying, ‘well, because you’re negative on cannabis, we’re not going to vote for you,’ I don’t think you’re going to see a change. I mean, that’s their business. Their business is to get votes. As voters, we want legalization, but there are so many other things that are separating us as a country, and those are way more important, probably, in the eyes of legislators.”