As the industry changes, so too does cannabis lawyering

Attorneys in most states still lack assurances that aiding federally illegal marijuana businesses won’t cost them their license

Have you ever noticed how many lawyers are crawling around nearly every cannabis conference you go to? Ever wonder why? As much as people love lawyer jokes, we owe a debt of gratitude to the counselors. The long march toward cannabis decriminalization has been facilitated by lawyers willing to push the limits right along with their clients. Just as the battle lines of decriminalization change, so too must the lawyering.

To this day, most of the states that have some form of legal cannabis lack any explicit opinion from the State Bar (the state agency that regulates attorneys) that a practitioner’s law license is not on the line for counselling clients on a subject that is still very much federally illegal. I practice in California, where the state legislature managed to pass a law affirmatively stating that state-legal commercial cannabis activity can be the lawful subject of a contract well before the State Bar came out with an opinion that California lawyers can counsel clients on issues that conflict with federal law. I had been litigating business disputes for cannabis businesses for a few years by the time the State Bar’s guidance came out. During that time of uncertainty, I had assured myself that my concentration as a litigator would somehow insulate me somewhat from any trouble with the Bar since I do not form cannabis businesses or advise on regulatory compliance. Thankfully, the worst backlash I’ve experienced has come from colleagues who make comments ranging from silly jokes to expressions of serious doubt about their own ability to or willingness to stand on the edge.

In 2016, my network connected me to the National Cannabis Bar Association, the first professional organization for attorneys serving the business needs of the cannabis industry. I will never forget the first time I walked into one of their events because I knew I had found my tribe. As it turns out, my tribe is a diverse group of brave souls who also had the chutzpah to not only use their expertise to push the movement forward but also to take time away from everything else they were doing to attend an event geared toward them. Those first conferences and continuing legal education events felt like an act of defiance at the hallowed legal institutions that trained us.

But laws do not change if we don’t push for change. The basic Supreme Court principle of stare decisis — “let the decision stand” — is meant to fall to changed circumstances. Well, as you already know, the circumstances are changing.

Over time, my relationship to my new tribe has also changed. I dove head-first into the National Cannabis Bar Association so that I could learn from those who had come before me and those who are pushing the line alongside me. Just a year before I handled my first cannabis business dispute, I had started a law firm with my mentor and another friend. We were, and still are, sophisticated civil litigators who focus on business, employment and real estate disputes. My personal favorites have always been partnership disputes, shareholder litigation, investor issues and real property problems. It turns out that the industry needed exactly what I had to offer, right when I was ready and able to offer it. I pitched to my partners that I had found a severely underserved niche and their only response was to make sure that our insurer was on board. My next call was to my insurance broker, who was already a step ahead of me and had been working with professional liability insurance products that would cover my work for the cannabis industry. Eureka, I had found it.

This issue of Marijuana Venture is dedicated to cannabis lawyering. If you are reading this, there is a high likelihood that you are an entrepreneurial spirit with a healthy risk tolerance. There is also a high probability that you understand on a very personal level the kind of work that I do. If you have not yet had the difficult experience of fighting with your business partners or investors, you can count yourself among the lucky — and I would also venture a guess that you have either had excellent counsel, are in denial or it simply hasn’t happened to you yet. The cannabis industry is not for the timid. From the lawyering perspective, we see many odd couples who succeed and many carefully engineered, “boy-band” types of operations fail. We see it all. It is my sincere hope and life’s mission that society embrace the important functions that lawyers fulfill.

In pursuit of my mission to change people’s minds about lawyers, I became the president of what is now the InterNational Cannabis Bar Association. We are the first worldwide professional organization for attorneys serving the business needs of the global cannabis industry. The main function of this association is quality education designed to elevate the level of services that we can provide to our clients. Many of our members are solo practitioners who have dedicated their careers to helping keep cannabis entrepreneurs out of jail, then had to morph their skills to learn business structure and regulatory compliance. Some of our other members are heads of worldwide law firms just now advertising their work in a space they had previously been silent about. We are drawing cannabis lawyering out into the light, for everyone’s benefit.

I am proud to lead the InterNational Cannabis Bar Association, and I love advocating for my clients to resolve their disputes. They say if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. I worked very hard to get where I am today. My interest in cannabis had always been out of personal affinity, then in college ignited by outrage over racial injustice, but never did I think that I would become the owner of a successful litigation law firm in San Francisco and serve as board president for the InterNational Cannabis Bar Association.

I am so thankful that I found a way to marry my passion with my profession. I suspect that you readers feel the same way, or you bought this publication hoping to align your dreams. To you, dear reader, I say dream on and hire a team of experts to help make your dream come true.

Katy Young

Katy Young represents both plaintiffs and defendants in business disputes and real estate claims, with a unique focus on matters for cannabis industry litigants. For cannabis businesses, she handles partnership disputes, securities issues, trademark infringement, and breach of contract matters, including leasing disputes and other real estate contracts. She is a Super Lawyer Rising Star for 2014- 2020 and President of the InterNational Cannabis Bar Association.

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