Perhaps it was inevitable, or perhaps it is a stroke of genius, but a coalition of attorneys has launched the National Cannabis Bar Association (NCBA) in order to help people navigate what has been called the “green rush.” Medical marijuana is legal in some form in 23 states, and recreational marijuana is legal in Washington, Colorado, Alaska, Washington D.C., and next month, Oregon. It is also likely that several other states will have marijuana measures on the ballot in 2015 and 2016, including California, where the NCBA leadership is located. California was the first state to adopt medical marijuana in 1996, but a 2010 effort to legalize it for recreational use failed, garnering 53.5 percent opposition. Much has changed in five years, however, as has been highlighted in the CNN series, “High Profits.” As the show illustrates, the business of legal marijuana can often be a tricky maze of unbeaten paths. Co-Founder and San Francisco-based intellectual property lawyer Shabnam Malek says“As more and more states decriminalize or legalize cannabis – and set up their own regulatory structures – the legal conditions cannabis industry clients and their attorneys face are likely to get even more complex before they get simpler.” The NCBA will begin recruiting new members at its first official gathering, hosting an event at the National Cannabis Industry Association’s Cannabis Business Summit and Expo in Denver on June 30, 2015. Membership is open to practicing attorneys, retired attorneys, paralegals, and law students and membership dues are $150 per year.
According to Malek, the idea of the organization originated through informal networking between attorneys as the push for legal cannabis has grown over the past several years. In addition to the progressive nature of the NCBA’s subject matter, the NCBA’s all-female leadership team is also noteworthy. Among several founders include Malek, the organization’s president and executive director, secretary, Lara Leslie DeCaro, and treasurer, Amanda Conley, all California law partners. The association also has originating members in New York, Washington, Florida, Colorado, and Oregon. The event in Denver is being sponsored byColorado law firm Vicente Sederberg, whose namesake became the first chair of the National Cannabis Industry Association in 2010. The NCBA will set up a network of specialized cannabis counselors and is hoping to create a national certification protocol for cannabis lawyers akin to the Better Business Bureau. The group will also set up workshops and seminars like the one in Colorado, focusing on intellectual property law, regulatory policy, as well as taxation issues. The NCBA is also attempting to validate the seminars to count towards continuing legal education credits.
Despite the groundbreaking advent of the NCBA, attorneys’ rallying in support of marijuana is not a new concept. Although the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded back in 1970 by a group of criminal defense lawyers, the non-profit has largely been considered a fringe organization until recently. The NCBA may be the evolution and normalization of these prior efforts. Many lawyers have been reluctant to represent marijuana clients out of fear of sanctions and Maine’s bar association has explicitly warned lawyers of potential violations of attorneys who advise their clients to break the law. Growing public support, changes in leadership of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and most importantly, a declaration last year from the Obama administration that federal authorities will not interfere with state marijuana laws have all led to an increasing interest among larger firms to become involved in the potentially lucrative sector. Some states, like California, have added marijuana law sub-sections to its legal code, and several law schools have begun to offer marijuana law seminars. It is likely the trend will continue, but with cannabis law being a state-by-state issue, it is likely that a patchwork regulatory system will continue to emerge among the different laws. Efforts by NCBA and even NORML to some degree, should work to help standardize, or at least navigate through this emerging legal specialty.
East Bay Express – David Downs
San Jose Mercury News – Tracey Kaplan
The Global Legal Post – Neasa MacErlean