Attorneys find new embrace of cannabis industry shaping their practices, journal reports

By Kerry Goff | Aug 29, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO – In the June issue of the California Bar Journal, reporter John Roemer discussed the growing cannabis industry and how industry supporters in the legal profession are laying the groundwork for the upcoming November elections that has recreational marijuana legalization on the ballot.

Criminal defense attorney J. Tony Serra is one of those people to intersect with marijuana and law, Roemer explained.

“Federal anti-drug laws haven’t changed, but today’s culture and the justice system have evolved,” Roemer said. “Once a rarity, Serra is at the forefront of the cannabis counsel vanguard, a growing set of buttoned-down lawyers advising a new wave of cannabis entrepreneurs grappling with the state’s marijuana regulation. A green gold rush is on, and other lawyers besides Serra have spotted opportunity.”

Other legal supporters include Patrick Goggin and Aaron Herzberg, who are both working to develop marijuana real estate and make sure growers and distributors follow the current laws, as well as any upcoming laws.

Roemer offered background on how more lawyers started to surface in favor of the cannabis industry when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a series of bills designed to regulate medical marijuana producers, distributors and retailers from “seed to sale” in October 2015.

“In response, the pot defense bar has expanded into a galaxy of full-service practitioners ready to aid cannabis clients with taxes, corporate transactions, licensing, land use and zoning problems, Proposition 65 environmental issues and the thickets of regulations enacted by local governments.” Roemer said.

Now, 24 states have legalized medical marijuana, and recreational use is legal in Colorado and Washington, and will likely to be on California’s November ballot.

Roemer also explained that firms like Farella Braun + Martel LLP located in San Francisco and originally a full-service firm for the wine industry, launched a cannabis practice group to serve as outside general counsel to marijuana industry businesses.

“The Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Ethics Opinion No. 527 similarly warns lawyers not to violate federal law but otherwise greenlights advice regarding a client’s compliance with California’s marijuana statutes. Last June, business attorneys announced they had established a National Cannabis Bar Association,” Roemer said.

With so much growth and acceptance, the industry has started to shape a lot of attorneys’ careers, like Patrick Goggin and Aaron Herzberg.

“The whole cannabis business is just shooting to the moon now,” Goggin said to Roemer. “The new statewide regs have almost completely transformed my practice.”

Despite the growing public and legal acceptance to the industry, the legal issues are complex and unsettled, Herzberg told Roemer.

“One issue is that federally regulated banks won’t touch pot money, so Herzberg’s company is involved in the alternative banking business,” Roemer said. “This vacuum has allowed his firm to use its expertise and access to capital to fill the needs of businesses with marijuana licenses.”

Serra further explained that marijuana’s journey towards legalization has already changed the industry, compromising some of what he found so positive about it in the beginning.

“I went to a cannabis business conference, and it was all capitalism,” he said. “I didn’t smell any pot at all.”

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