How do businesses run smoothly and legally when conducting operations permissible by state law, but are federally criminal? No this isn’t an introduction to a Martin Scorsese film. This is the reality of the cannabis industry.
Legalized in some form across 29 states, marijuana requires counsel in abiding by state business laws like any other industry. But there’s a small problem for lawyers, like the ones in Pennsylvania—they could face imprisonment, disbarment, or other harsh penalties for involving themselves with marijuana.
Still that hasn’t stopped many big-name Philadelphia firms from entering the cannabis space, despite the uncertainty. Firms like Duane Morris, Fox Rothschild, and Cozen O’Connor have recently set up marijuana practices, as Pennsylvania prepares to make medical marijuana available by early 2018.
Joseph C. Bedwick, partner at Cozen O’Connor, discussed the worry of the Trump administration, who has openly opposed marijuana. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “At any moment, theoretically, they can say, ‘We’re going to crack down on this.’”
The dilemma has initiated a cautious approach by Philadelphia lawyers. The Associated Press summarized the compromise made between counsel and state as such:
[A]lthough Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed the law legalizing medical marijuana in April 2016, attorneys had also been technically barred from offering advice to cannabis businesses under state law. After being petitioned, the Disciplinary Board of the state Supreme Court issued an opinion that state attorneys could counsel clients about the Pennsylvania law, but only if they made clear the consequences they might face for violating federal laws.
State attorneys are optimistic federal authorities won’t be busting down doors anytime soon. They’re also hedging their bets that marijuana will become federally legal within the coming years.
As Steven Schain of the Hoban Law Group told the Inquirer, “Sizzle aside, marijuana remains 100 percent illegal under federal law. Any real cannabis lawyer is exposed to massive federal and civil prosecution. But we’re willing to take the risk.”