This story was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Marijuana Venture, on sale now online at a store near you.
Partner | Hiller PC | New York City, New York
Regular readers of Marijuana Venture probably recognize Lauren Rudick as a frequent contributor of legal columns to the magazine, but they probably don’t know much about her work behind the scenes.
In addition to being an accomplished attorney, she’s a staunch advocate for medical cannabis with industry experience on both the East and West coasts. Her law firm, Hiller PC, along with several other lawyers, are in the process of suing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration on behalf of multiple plaintiffs in what could be the most important marijuana-related court case in history.
If the lawsuit is successful, cannabis would be removed from the federal government’s schedule of controlled substances.
Over the summer, Rudick was a guest on the “In the Know 420” podcast hosted by well-known criminal defense attorney Joseph Bondy to talk all things cannabis and give listeners — and now Marijuana Venture readers — a glimpse into her background and what makes her a woman to watch in 2018.
Joseph Bondy: Through the year, I have become increasingly impressed with your legal acumen and your knowledge of the whole subject matter and what appears to be your tentacular reach.
Lauren Rudick: Thank you. It has been sort of an explosive year of growth. I can’t lie. My practice grew from about 15% cannabis to 110% cannabis, almost overnight.
JB: Where were you born and where did you go to college?
LR: That’s a loaded question. I was born in Southern California. I was in Laguna for about six years before my family moved to Westport, Connecticut, but my father stayed in California, so we were somewhat of a bicoastal family for several years. We stayed in Westport right up until I graduated from high school, at which time we sold the house and moved to the east end of Long Island, which is where I now go home to.
I went to undergraduate at Bucknell in Central Pennsylvania and then moved to New York City for law school. I attended New York Law School and graduated in 2004.
JB: And unbeknownst to many people, you have a certain special talent: You play instruments.
LR: I do play instruments. Not as much anymore, but I was a music major in college. I played violin, I played piano and I used to sing. I definitely come from a musical family and it’s very important to me.
JB: You graduate law school in 2004, and there’s no cannabis industry to speak of, so what do you do when you get out of law school?
LR: I wasn’t a cannabis lawyer right away. I came to cannabis through unfortunate circumstances, through my mother’s end-of-life care about five years after I graduated from law school. But being in New York, I represent a lot of investors. There is a lot of investment activity happening here in New York and there’s a lot of tech activity happening here in New York. So we’re able to sort of support the businesses as they grow out in the western United States and now very soon Massachusetts, Maine and hopefully very soon New York and New Jersey.
JB: I think the thing that opens your eyes to cannabis has to do with your mom. Is that right?
LR: I definitely came at this from a patient advocacy perspective. I lost my mother to a rare form of pancreatic cancer. We were very fortunate at the time to be living in the great state of California, where they have been treating cancer with medical cannabis as a frontline course of treatment.
JB: What year was this?
LR: This was 2009; pre-Cole Memorandum. My family had moved to California, where my sister was also a fellow at the University of Southern California. There was an excellent team of experts there, and of course there was access to medical cannabis and there was no question that we were going to use it.
I was her registered caregiver. You have to go through a very similar registration process as patients and agree to follow the regulations, whatever they may be. There are very strict guidelines with respect to how much you can purchase at a time, how you can deliver it, who you may give it to, how many patients you may be a caregiver for.
JB: Were you cultivating cannabis?
LR: We were not. You work with these collectives in Southern California. At the time, they’re all organized as nonprofit organizations and they’re allowed to grow a certain number of plants based on how many patients have registered with them. We were very lucky, we found a small dispensary with an owner who really appreciated my mother’s very sensitive medical condition because his mother also passed from some sort of gastric cancer — which is probably one of the most cruel of all cancers. So his commitment to clean medicine was very important.
JB: Did your mom benefit from the use of cannabis?
LR: Absolutely. She never liked to be high. She never took drugs, even when she would go to the dentist, for example, but there was a very big difference from when she would be practically doubled over in pain and almost unable to move, and then a nice, speedy sativa would just get her off the couch and cleaning the house or going to yoga, smiling, eating. It was a huge difference. But it was a challenge because we didn’t quite have as many delivery systems back then as we do now. There was no vaping. There was no oil, no tinctures. It was just these sweet edibles.
You sort of had to experiment. There wasn’t much known about dosing. She really didn’t want to be high, so she really would have benefited from some of the high-CBD strains that are being bred.
JB: At some point, having had real, hands-on experience touching the flower in the context of a medical relationship, you came back to New York and you resume working at a law firm. Was there a shift in your practice area?
LR: Not immediately. There was no medical cannabis in New York at the time, so we just sort of sat on it and kept an eye on it, followed closely with the policy organizations, Marijuana Policy Project and NORML and just watched the industry grow out West, knowing that we were going to somehow play a part. Then, flash forward to 2014, when Compassionate Care was enacted in New York, my then-boss — now partner — and I sort of looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s represent medical cannabis businesses and patients and physicians, industry players.’
JB: What do you do as firm that puts a footprint in the cannabis industry?
LR: I have a great relationship with my existing clients. My investing clients were already putting money into risky endeavors such as media and tech and they knew me and saw this liberalization happening, and they just turned to me and said, ‘Hey, Lauren, we were thinking about putting money into cannabis. Can you help us do it?’ At the time there really wasn’t anyone else doing it in terms of developing due diligence and figuring out how to structure these transactions. There’s absolutely no reliable metric that we can base a valuation on, so it was really an opportunity.
It was a huge responsibility, but we accepted the challenge and just started doing it. I started going to trade shows. I met the folks at Marijuana Venture at the Marijuana Business Daily trade show in Las Vegas, which was huge when I got that writing gig, and then I think doors really opened for me when I attended the Women Grow Leadership Summit in Denver the following February (2016). I attended that summit curious as to whether I would be a member and I left knowing that I had a lot more to offer that organization other than membership, and I soon thereafter became their lawyer and representing one of the largest trade associations and the business really opened up a lot of doors.
JB: What are you working on now (aside from the federal lawsuit)?
LR: So many different projects. I even put my litigation hat back on a little bit. I do a lot of work for Women Grow. I do a lot of work for ancillary businesses that don’t touch the plant, like childproof packaging. I represent AssurePak. I represent Love and Marij, which is a website that is dedicated to cannabis-themed weddings. And then I represent Mission Pennsylvania, which is the proud winner of a dispensary permit in Pennsylvania. They’re going to be located in Lehigh Valley. That is our first location and we’ll probably choose two more locations as the law allows.
JB: Was that a complex process?
LR: Yes. In 2016, really as soon as we found out Pennsylvania was in play, people who knew me said they wanted to start putting teams together and looking for places to put their money.
JB: Was that the only application your firm filed?
LR: We had other clients looking to invest, but not necessarily have a controlling interest, so this was the only client that we had in Region 2 that was actively going through the application process. It was a whirlwind in terms of raising capital and putting the team together. Your team is so important. You’re only as strong as your weakest link.
JB: For the state to properly implement a medical marijuana program, you want licensees who are properly financed and can deliver medicine to patients. On the other side of the fence, you hear that the high cost of entry into this market forecloses a lot of people, in particular people of color, from successfully receiving licenses. Is that true?
LR: Yes. I firmly believe in an open competition model, somewhat similar to what they have in Oregon. I think open competition will determine who’s best. It will establish the players who are deserving of funding.
In Oregon, it’s regulated like alcohol. The people who are there first certainly got a benefit, but it’s open to anybody who wants to compete. You apply for a license, just like you would a liquor license. Of course, you’re subject to distance requirements. Land use and zoning, in effect, put caps on the numbers of operators that can exist in a given territory.
JB: Don’t they have the same problem with people of color entering the industry, because they don’t have the land, infrastructure and access to capital?
LR: Businesses need to commit to diverse workforces. It’s very important. Our Pennsylvania application committed a certain amount of equity to support those sorts of initiatives. I think that there are certain regulatory enactments that require businesses to consider diversity. For example, in Oakland, 50% of those business licenses are going to be awarded to minority players who are most disproportionately affected by the failed War on Drugs.
You’re seeing this across the board. In Pennsylvania, diversity and community impact constituted more than 20% of an applicant’s total score. In Massachusetts, you need support from the local community. You need to really show that you’re going to be a benefit there.
I think that the people who are in the business for the right reasons, the ones who came to it with an eye for patient advocacy or they came to it with an eye for social Justice reform, are really going to last in this industry because we cannot forget the people who came before us. Patients paved the way for adult-use and there’s no way that we should capitalize on this business, leaving behind all of those who were incarcerated.
JB: I think we need to have some legal protections in place sometime soon. I think the Cole Memo is this perilous read upon which to hang a multibillion-dollar industry. To that end, what can a person do?
LR: Call your elected official. Change hearts and minds. Even if your representatives are supportive, they may not have all the education they need to convince their naysaying peers. Show up at you state capitol.
We have to stop treating people who use cannabis like junkies or criminals. It’s time to shift the dialogue. It’s amazing how little education our elected officials have about this topic.
This interview is an excerpt from Joseph Bondy’s “In the Know 420” podcast and republished with permission. Bondy is a New York-based criminal defense attorney and cannabis advocate. He is a life member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the legal committee for NORML. Over the past 22 years, he has represented hundreds of people at every stage of criminal litigation, winning numerous dismissals, acquittals, reduced sentences and appellate reversals. He is also an avid gardener and Shaolin kung fu practitioner.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The full podcast can be found at the website: talkradio.nyc/shows/in-the-know-420.