As discussed in our January 5th blog post, the Cole Memorandum was rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on January 4th of this year.   The Cole Memorandum had served to formally announce the DOJ’s policy that it would not interfere with medicinal marijuana legalized under state law, despite marijuana’s continued illegality for all purposes under federal law. With the rescission of the Cole Memorandum, federal prosecutors are now free to determine to what extent they will enforce federal law against the state-legalized medical marijuana industry.

However, the effect of the change in policy reaches further than to just the cultivators, manufacturers and distributors of medicinal marijuana products. Pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act, not only is it illegal to manufacture, distribute or dispense marijuana for any purpose – but it is also illegal to aid someone in doing so. Therefore, the DOJ is now free to prosecute anyone “aiding” in a medical marijuana business, for example, giving legal advice.

Probably of greater practical concern to attorneys than criminal prosecution is the tremendous amount of uncertainty as to how the change in policy will impact the ethics surrounding the representation of medical marijuana clients. Most, if not all, states have ethical rules that specifically prohibit a lawyer from assisting a client in illegal conduct. These rules do not distinguish between conduct that is illegal under federal law but expressly permitted under state law.

New York Rule of Professional Conduct 1.2 provides that “[a] lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is illegal or fraudulent, except that the lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client.” While it is generally undisputed that an attorney may advise a client about what state law provides – for example, filing requirements – an attorney arguably would be violating the Rules of Professional Conduct by, for example, assisting a client in negotiating a marijuana distribution contract.

Ethics boards in some states, including New York, have used the Cole Memorandum as the decisive factor to conclude that providing legal advice related to legalized medical marijuana businesses does not violate ethics rules. To a lesser extent, some states, including New York, have also relied on the theory that state ethics rules are intended to promote state policy – and by approval of the state medicinal marijuana law, a state has expressed its state policy on the matter, yielding no ethical violation.

It remains to be seen what impact the rescission of the Cole Memorandum will have on the ethics opinions of various states that are based heavily upon the prior policy of federal non-enforcement. For now, we can still find comfort in the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment to the federal budget, which currently continues in effect until February 8 and maintains that federal funds (including those allocated to the DOJ) cannot be used to prevent states from “implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

Despite numerous states having legalized medical marijuana, and a handful of others having legalized marijuana for recreational use, it still remains impossible to obtain a U.S. federal trademark registration for marijuana products or related goods or services.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is the federal agency charged with granting U.S. patents and registering trademarks. The USPTO registers trademarks based on the commerce clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3) and registration is governed under various rules of practice and federal statutes.

The USPTO Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP) Section 907 explains that under Trademark Rule of Practice 2.69, “[u]se of a mark in commerce must be lawful use to be the basis for federal registration of the mark. . . . Generally, the USPTO presumes that an applicant’s use of the mark in commerce is lawful and does not inquire whether such use is lawful unless the record or other evidence shows a clear violation of law, such as the sale or transportation of a controlled substance.”

As we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, marijuana, whether used for medicinal or recreational purposes, is classified as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The CSA prohibits the manufacturing, distributing, dispensing or possession of certain controlled substances, including marijuana and marijuana-based products and services. In addition, the CSA makes it unlawful to sell, offer for sale or use any facility of interstate commerce to transport illegal substances, including marijuana.

As a result of the CSA, U.S. trademark applications related to marijuana or marijuana related goods and services will be refused registration under TMEP Section 907. TMEP Section 907 further provides that “[r]egardless of state law, the federal law provides no exception to the above-referenced provisions for marijuana for ‘medical use.’” Recent decisions issued by the USPTO continue to deny the federal registration of trademarks relating to marijuana and related goods and services despite the legality of such products and services under state law.

Trademarks that reference marijuana but that are used in commerce on lawful products, such as clothing, may be registered with the USPTO. For example, the trademark “MARIJUANAMAN” was registered by the USPTO as the mark will be used in connection with books about cannabis. Similarly, the trademark THE MARIJUANA COMPANY was approved in connection with the mark’s use on clothing.

Since federal registration is not permitted for trademarks that cover the sale or transportation of marijuana, such trademark applicants must rely on state trademark filings for the registration of their trademarks. This has become an important issue since so many states have now enacted legislation legalizing the medical – and in some cases, recreational – use of marijuana.

State trademark registrations are more limited in scope than federal trademark registrations as they don’t offer national protection or afford a registrant a presumption of ownership and validity of the underlying trademark on a national level. They are relatively inexpensive to obtain, however, and can afford the registrant at least certain benefits under state law. States like Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Colorado already allow for the registration of cannabis-related marks.

Nevada, for example, enacted legislation governing the use of names, logos, signs and advertisements by medical marijuana establishments. Pursuant to NAC 453A.402, any such names, logos, signs and advertisements must be approved by the Administrator of the Division of Public and Behavioral Health. In addition, Nevada has established guidelines which provide design guidelines for medical marijuana establishments. The guidelines specify, among other things, that the overall appearance of the mark or advertisement must not be appealing to minors; not contain cartoon-like figures or illustrations; not contain humor and must avoid script, decorative or gimmicky fonts. The use of of marijuana slang in the mark or advertisement, such as pot or weed, is also strictly prohibited.

Most recently, as of January 1st, 2018, customers may also register cannabis-related marks with the California Secretary of State. In order to register the mark California requires that (1) the mark be lawfully in use in commerce within California; and (2) the mark match the classification of goods and services adopted by the USPTO. To be lawfully using the mark in commerce within California requires that the registrant be licensed by California to provide the goods and services for which he or she is seeking protection and that such goods and services have already been sold to the public. Unlike registration of a trademark at a federal level, California does not have an intent-to-use trademark application. As such, the mark must be in use prior to registering the mark with the Secretary of State.

New York has not yet enacted any special legislation or guidelines relating to the registration of marijuana-related trademarks with the New York Secretary of State. That may soon change, however, as more and more states start to allow state registration of marks relating to marijuana and marijuana-related goods and services.