The cannabis industry appears to be next on the liability “hit list” under California’s notorious Proposition 65 statute. In June 2017, more than 700 Prop 65 notices were served on California cannabis businesses. Companies in this emerging market should start mitigating risk under Prop 65 now. Fortunately, lessons can be learned from the dietary supplement industry’s expensive Prop 65 battles over the past decade.

California’s Prop 65, also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, requires a warning on all products that contain chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm, even in amounts a fraction of what is deemed safe by federal standards. Prop 65 has caused havoc within the dietary supplement and herbal product markets over the past decade, led by a cottage industry of “bounty hunter” attorneys who have weaponized the statute, ostensibly in the public interest but in reality as a lucrative for-profit business. These bounty hunters are now turning their attention to cannabis. Though amendments to the statute were adopted in 2016 for the purpose of reducing this abuse, Prop 65 litigation will continue and cannabis companies must stay vigilant.

Many businesses faced with the necessity of using a Prop 65 warning have no concern with the impact that a warning may have on sales or with consumer confidence in the product. After all, who would look twice at a Prop 65 warning on motor oil or insect repellent? Like the dietary supplement industry before them, however, many cannabis businesses will resist including a warning that the product contains a chemical known to cause cancer or reproductive harm. Many cannabis products rely on the consumers’ belief that the product is harmless and even therapeutic. For many, this will be an important business decision that may give rise to expensive mistakes − a decision should be made with an understanding of the basis for Prop 65 liability and exposure.

What Is Prop 65 and What Does It Require?

Prop 65 was passed by California voters in 1986 after an aggressive lobbying campaign by environmental and public health activists. The stated purpose of Prop 65 was to improve public health. The general consensus, however, is that Prop 65 has placed an undue burden on California businesses while achieving no significant impact on public health over the past 30 years.

As noted above, Prop 65 requires a warning on all products that contain chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm. There are more than 900 such chemicals listed, and marijuana smoke has been included on the list since 2009.

For a warning to be acceptable under Prop 65, it must (1) clearly make known that the chemical involved is known to cause cancer and/or birth defects and/or other reproductive harm and (2) be given in such a way that it will effectively reach the person before he or she is exposed. The warnings must be “clear and reasonable,” meaning that the warning may not be diluted by other language. Various means of communicating the warning are allowed, including product-specific warnings on a posted sign or shelf, warnings on the product label or electronic warnings for internet purchases.

Important Exemptions

There are several important exemptions to Prop 65 that make a warning unnecessary. Businesses with nine or fewer employees are exempt from the statute. There also is an exemption involving chemicals that occur naturally in food. Lead, for example, will be considered naturally occurring only if it “is a natural constituent of a food” and is not added as a result of human activity such as pollution or poor manufacturing processes. The burden is on the company to prove the exemption, however, which is typically time-consuming and expensive.

Another important exemption is provided by “safe harbor” exposure levels for many chemicals on the Prop 65 list, below which no warning is required. The listed chemicals include additives or ingredients in pesticides, food, drugs and common household products. Most food contains at least some level of one or more of these substances. Prop 65 safe-harbor levels, however, are in many cases around 1,000 times lower than levels set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and World Health Organization (WHO). The exposure levels established by Prop 65 are often lower than what occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, grains and even drinking water.

For example, the Prop 65 limit for lead is 0.5 mcg / day, which is below the amount of lead naturally found in many fruits, vegetables and herbs grown in non-contaminated soil. By comparison, the FDA allows 75 mcg / day and the European Union allows 250 mcg / day for lead. The European Food Safety Authority estimates the average adult consumes around 50 micrograms per day, which is 100 times the Prop 65 limit. It is nearly impossible to manufacture herbal products, including cannabis, without trace amounts of lead. Therefore, despite the “naturally occurring” exemption, discussed above, it can be dangerous to simply assume that an herbal product, including cannabis, complies with safe-harbor levels.

Only about 300 of the more than 900 Prop 65 chemicals have specific safe-harbor levels. For those chemicals without a safe-harbor limit, the burden will be on the cannabis business to establish that the subject chemical is within a safe range. This typically requires expensive testing, the results of which may be open to multiple interpretations as to whether a warning is required.

Determining the Exposure Level

Determination of the “exposure level” also is an important consideration. Prop 65 focuses on the level of a chemical to which the consumer is actually exposed. Although a product may have a very low amount of a chemical on the Prop 65 schedule that is below the safe-harbor level, liability under the statute may nevertheless be triggered based on the recommended serving size. It is advisable for companies to work with a laboratory that specializes in Prop 65 testing to determine the cumulative exposure level in order to verify the recommended serving size.

Enforcement of Prop 65

Prop 65 is enforced through litigation brought by the government or by private attorneys that “act in the public interest.” It is the threat of these private lawsuits that causes such consternation among those targeted with Prop 65 liability. After a 60-day notice period, the attorney may file a civil suit against the offending company. Typically, the plaintiff will demand that the defendant provide warnings compliant with Prop 65, pay a penalty, and either recall products already sold or attempt to provide health hazard warnings to those who purchased the products.

Though purportedly brought in the public interest, it is the collection of penalties and attorneys’ fees that in reality drives this litigation. Prop 65 allows individuals who bring suit to recover 25 percent of the penalties awarded, which by statute is calculated at $2,500 per violation per day. Amendments made to Prop 65 in 2016 allow for certain voluntary actions by the defendant – reformulation of the product, for example – in lieu of penalties. The threat of paying the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees makes litigating Prop 65 cases potentially very expensive. The attorney is incentivized to drag out the litigation, and the longer the case goes on, the more difficult it becomes to resolve because of the mounting fees.

This framework has created a cottage industry of Prop 65 “bounty hunter” lawyers who affiliate with “public interest” organizations that bring these cases for profit. According to the California Attorney General, 760 settlements were reported in 2016 with total settlement payments of more than $30 million. Attorneys’ fees accounted for 72 percent of that amount. The 2016 amendments to the statute have attempted to address these abuses to some extent by requiring a showing that the public benefits derived from the settlement are “significant” and by requiring contemporaneous record keeping for fees and costs sought to be recovered. Prop 65 litigation nevertheless continues to burden many industries in California, now including the cannabis industry. For Prop 65 liability, prevention is certainly less costly than a cure.