There is no question that cannabis law is here to stay. Whether it is growing, shipping, manufacturing, selling, or consuming, the legal cannabis industry needs legal guidance at every step of the way. And cannabis lawyers are stepping up to fill that role.
The Birth Of Cannabis Lawyers
Many lawyers in states with legal weed have simply added cannabis law to the mix of what they already practice. This often occurs when a state passes new legislation. In that scenario, lawyers step in to fill the needs of new cannabis patients, consumers, and businesses.
For many lawyers, adding cannabis law is a smooth transition. That’s because the cannabis industry naturally spans across several other fields and industries.
“Marijuana law, like entertainment law, is an amalgamation of other practice areas, including business law, administrative law, intellectual property, criminal law, employment law and tax law,” explained lawyer Neil Juneja.
So for example, criminal defense lawyers working in a state that decriminalizes or legalizes weed may now add cannabis defense to the list of services they provide. Similarly, business or tax lawyers may expand their practices to include cannabis businesses.
A quick glance at NORML’s list of cannabis lawyers shows that this is exactly what’s happening. Every lawyer on the list works at some level with the cannabis space. But very few focus exclusively on cannabis law.
The Rise Of Cannabis Law Specialists
But this general approach to cannabis law is beginning to change. Law schools and lawyers are beginning to focus solely on weed. For example, a 2014 article in The Wall Street Journal described the rise of cannabis courses at law schools around the country.
Similarly, an article published by International Business Times in 2015 showed that cannabis law classes were becoming more specialized.
For example, some law schools offered courses that focused on defending medical marijuana patients. Others were geared more toward advising cannabis businesses.
This, along with the spread of legalization, has led many lawyers to specialize solely in cannabis law. Take for example the Canna Law Group. This company includes lawyers that operate across multiple states. They all focus on advising cannabis businesses.
Similarly, practices like the Cannabis Law Group are showing up in weed-legal states. This group focuses exclusively on helping medical marijuana businesses and patients.
Cannabis Lawyers Face Uncertainty
But there is one potential hitch in all this. Cannabis lawyers are sometimes stuck in the tension between state and federal laws. Even though 26 states plus Washington, D.C. have some form of legalized weed, it’s still illegal at the federal level. And this can create problems for cannabis lawyers.
In fact, The American Bar Association Journal recently wrote about these problems. Citing a ruling in Ohio, the ABA suggested that cannabis lawyers who advise clients to break federal laws might be in violation of ethics rules.
But the article quickly added: “There does not appear to be an active movement to start punishing lawyers working in the marijuana field.”
Cannabis lawyers have mostly gone unpunished thanks to the Cole Memo. In 2013, then-deputy attorney general James Cole issued a memo about cannabis law. In essence, he said that federal agents should not interfere with cannabis activity that follows state laws.
The Final Hit
As long as the Cole Memo is upheld, cannabis lawyers can safely advise and represent clients involved with legal weed. But it is unclear what will happen under Trump’s administration.
Earlier this year, White House press secretary Sean Spicer hinted at a federal crackdown. He said there could be “greater enforcement” of federal weed laws.
A short time later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke out against cannabis. He said weed is “only slightly less awful” than heroin. He also said that medical marijuana “had been hyped, maybe too much.”
But Sessions also hinted that he might uphold the Cole Memo. “The Cole memorandum set up some policies under President Obama’s Department of Justice . . . much of which I think is valid,” he said.
So how will all this affect cannabis lawyers? David B. Axelrod, a lawyer who spoke with the ABA, said cannabis lawyers should be fine.
With more “states permitting the . . . use of marijuana in some form,” he said, “the train has left the station. It’s too late for the federal government” to enforce weed laws.
If that is true, then we can expect to see even more cannabis lawyers setting up shop as the legal cannabis industry continues to expand.