As a co-founder of both the Oregon State Bar’s Cannabis Law Section and the National (now InterNational) Cannabis Bar Association, I’ve found the inability for either organization to advocate for legislative changes — beyond those changes which deal with the “practice of law — to be incredibly disappointing. I’ve been an attorney and cannabis law reform advocate since the mid-1990s, and while NORML then and now is doing the most and best work toward ending federal prohibition, the NORML Legal Committee continues to prioritize making sure people whose connection with cannabis gets them sideways with law enforcement have access to the highest quality legal representation.
But my interest in legalization was primarily motivated by not wanting to stand next to a client being sentenced because of a plant ever again.
I had thought that state legalization, here in Oregon and elsewhere, would hasten that day. So far, not so much. What it has accomplished is to create a robust industry. So, while I can’t go to Walgreens and buy some WalVapePens, I can go to an overregulated cannabis retail store and buy one there.
While helping draft Oregon’s adult-use initiative, I knew that the focus on expanding freedom would be narrow and that, initially, cannabis attorneys would be acting as midwives for the birthing of this new industry. However, I believed then and continue to believe now that the cannabis industry can be the portal to the freedom all longtime cannabis law reform advocates dream of. But what needs to happen to get us from here to there?
The task is not complicated. Cannabis businesses need to be good corporate citizens. We need to go beyond merely normalizing cannabis and change not only perceptions and opinions, but also underlying beliefs about cannabis businesses.
For example, cannabis retailers can and should not only offer discounts to veterans, but in times of great income inequality, should make sure that there is a food bank collection barrel in the store. Working up the chain, processors, where permitted under state law, ought to process at a deeply discounted rate for medical cannabis patients and their providers. And growers should plant a row of vegetables and bring that harvest to the local food bank in a cloth sack with a drawing of a cannabis leaf on it, so everyone knows where it came from.
Within our tripartite governmental structure, cannabis law reform advocates know that change in this context means legislative change — either at the Legislature or, where available, through the initiative process in which the people act as a co-equal branch of the Legislature.
What can lawyers do? We can and should form political action committees to advocate for specific legislative changes, then support those who support these changes and oppose those who don’t.
Forming a PAC is easier than forming an LLC. The hard part is the contributions and expenditures reporting requirement, but there are companies that do that as their work.
By the time you read this, I will have started one here in Oregon, and if you are a lawyer in an adult use or medical legal state, I write to encourage you do to so as well.
Leland R. Berger is the founder of Oregon CannaBusiness Compliance Counsel, LLC. He lives and works in Portland, Oregon, and practices statewide. He has received lifetime achievement awards from the Oregon Cannabis Industry Association, the NORML Legal Committee and the Oregon State Bar’s Cannabis Law Section.