The Neighborhood “Gangbusters”: Avoiding RICO Cannabis Lawsuits

RICO cannabis landlord
RICO suits are not just busting up gangs these days.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a federal Nixon-era law originally intended to combat drug cartels and organized crime. Among other features, it allows average citizens claiming a loss in property value to bring suit for triple damages plus attorney’s fees against any “person” or “enterprise” that has a part in any neighboring “racketeering activity” which includes—you guessed it—“dealing in a controlled substance.” Currently, federal law continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance—meaning it has no medicinal value, and is supposedly more dangerous than methamphetamine, methadone, hydromorphone, and oxycodone, among other things.

RICO has been read broadly enough by its patrons to include operators, as well as landlords, lenders, and even government licensing agencies and customers, as co-conspirators in licensed cannabis operations, meaning angry neighbors have found their deliverance when it comes to trying to shut down state-legal cannabis businesses. The painful irony of all this is that anyone with an aversion to cannabis in a state where voters democratically decided to legalize it has unique power to be an American Gangbuster because of an almost-half-century-old relic of the federal War on Drugs; yet, meanwhile, companies that would be investing in local communities are looking north to do five-billion-dollar Canadian Blockbusters. The bottom line is that as long as federal law remains unchanged, it does not matter how state voters decide to govern themselves, or even how sensibly the federal government decides to enforce federal laws prohibiting cannabis. RICO provides a private right of action for any would-be provocateurs that can plausibly claim they have been damaged by a neighboring cannabis business.

So how can landlords and tenants approach this issue when designing a cannabis tenancy? The short answer is that RICO will continue to be a real issue for as long as federal law allows it to be, but the parties can take some proactive measures in drafting the lease to mitigate that threat:

Build in an early termination option for third-party lawsuits. Just as the lease can include early termination options for a variety of cannabis-specific occurrences, it can provide an opportunity for one or both parties to address an undismissed third-party lawsuit by terminating the tenancy. This can include RICO actions as well as standard nuisance actions, which often have longer legs than RICO lawsuits. It can also include indemnification obligations if, e.g., the tenant causes the problem by failing to comply with the lease terms, or if the landlord misrepresents neighborhood sentiment (more on that below).

Vet the neighbors. Just as a tenant would analyze the zoning laws applicable to a proposed use, a cannabis tenant should take some time to see what the neighborhood is all about. Does the community support the use? How are the neighboring areas zoned? Is there any kind of history of bad actors in this space that’s left a bad taste? The tenant will have to make sure the site isn’t within any prohibited buffer zones of schools or youth centers as part of its state license application anyway, and what better opportunity to get to know your potential neighbors? Even some casual exploring is better than nothing, and can save loads of trouble down the road. Depending on how the parties negotiate the lease, it can include, e.g., landlord warranties of no known neighbor objections after diligent inquiries, or a term that puts the responsibility on the tenant to figure out how the use would go over in the community.

Tighten up those compliance obligations. Compliance with state and local law is the key to avoiding enforcement actions, and is equally important when it comes to neighbor relations. State regulations contain strict requirements about security protocols, waste management, hours of operation, and product transportation. Local rules will typically dictate things like parking requirements, odor management, and noise. The stronger and more specific the lease is with regard to complying with these various rules, the better chance you will have that the tenant (i) knows them, and (ii) follows them. Simply indemnifying yourself in the lease makes little difference if you end up losing an otherwise good tenant because they were uninformed.

Research the local politics and get to know local law enforcement. California’s cannabis regulatory regime is unique in that local jurisdictions are still king when it comes to who gets to operate and where. And we’ve already seen a repeat of what’s happened in other states that have legalized: jurisdictions sometimes change their minds and declare previously allowed cannabis operations to be non-conforming uses. Having your finger on the community pulse and knowing the level of support for your local cannabis ordinance when it passed is going to put you in a better position to know whether your cannabis tenant or your cannabis operation is more likely to be a welcome neighborhood feature or a walking lawsuit.

For more on California cannabis leasing, check out the following:

Author: 
Daniel Dersham
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