The Business of Cannabis: A New Frontier in the Legal Profession

By Preston Clark

In our ongoing interview series with innovative lawyers who find success off the beaten path, we dive into the uncharted waters of cannabis law. This week, The Law Insider connected with the leading Seattle-based (where else!) cannabis attorney, Hilary Bricken, of Canna Law Group, to explore this new niche in the legal industry.

What’s I-502 and why should lawyers pay attention?

I-502 decriminalizes certain amounts of cannabis for adults 21 and over under state law, and establishes a comprehensive regulatory licensing scheme, to be administered by the state’s Liquor Control Board, for producers, processors, and retailers of cannabis products. I-502 also amends state law to include a “green” per se DUI provision under which drivers can be arrested if caught driving with more than 5 nanograms of THC in their bloodstream. Various penalties apply depending upon the driver’s age.

Lawyers should be paying acute attention to I-502 because it’s going to create an entirely new industry under state law which means significant opportunities for attorneys to assist their clientele with business formation, license application, state law compliance, and various litigation. In my opinion, liquor lawyers and other industry/regulatory focused attorneys shouldn’t have any bumps in the road folding cannabis into their practice areas.

[pullquote]Lawyers should be paying acute attention to I-502 because it’s going to create an entirely new industry under state law which means significant opportunities for attorneys to assist their clientele with business formation, license application, state law compliance, and various litigation.[/pullquote]

 How did you get involved in cannabis law?

Our law firm is known for working in niche practice areas. We’re not afraid to take on cutting edge matters for our clients. Three years ago, a very talented criminal attorney, with a robust medical cannabis (MMJ) client base, came to our law firm, letting us know that he needed business attorneys to help those clients. Specifically, this criminal attorney let us know that his MMJ clientele were beginning to ask questions about corporate formation, contracts, and intellectual property. At that point, the criminal attorney knew that cannabis was taking on a more commercial character and that, as a result, he needed business lawyers (with some back bone) to help advise accordingly. He ultimately realized that most people wouldn’t go to their criminal lawyer for business formation, so we stepped in to advise and have done so ever since.

 As more states move toward legalization/non-criminalization, do you see cannabis law becoming big business for lawyers?

Absolutely. As long as local and state governments implement reasonable regulation and ensure that good, responsible actors enter the industry, as more states legalize/decriminalize (we’re already at 18 states!), lawyers should expect cannabis to be treated as a lucrative cash crop with corresponding issues. Eventually, Congress will take the reigns and, at a minimum, we’ll see national decriminalization. And, at that point, lawyers can ultimately expect cannabis to rise to the level of big alcohol and tobacco. In my opinion, it is only a matter of time.Hilary Bricken bio shot

What advice do you have for attorneys looking to break into this new branch of law?

Do not go it alone. You must equip yourself with experts in other market/practice areas (CPAs, real estate professionals, criminal attorneys, etc.). There are so many issues within the industry that no one attorney could go it alone. Also, expect to be creative. The clientele in this arena are immensely creative and they’ll expect no less from their counsel. Lastly, expect frustration; this is an infant industry still fighting somewhat of an uphill battle (though that’s dwindling, see WSJ article on public opinion in favor of cannabis). You’ll need to cultivate perseverance which, for certain types of attorneys, shouldn’t be an issue at all (especially if you went to law school to change or influence the world for the better).

Hilary Bricken helps cannabis companies of all sizes with their business law needs. Bricken is not a criminal defense attorney; her primary focus is helping cannabis businesses navigate the increasingly confusing and murky legal climate surrounding Washington state medical and recreational cannabis laws. She has represented clients struggling with a host of common problems in the industry, from business license denials, revocations, and injunctions to land-use disputes and moratoria on cannabis businesses. She also helps these companies with more routine business matters, like choosing the appropriate company entity, protecting their intellectual property, and drafting their contracts.

She has been involved in 280e tax reform and routinely participates in community education panels to inform industry participants about the current and changing cannabis laws in Washington state. Bricken works closely with lobbyists in Olympia, representing the Cannabis Business Group, a business trade organization focused on I-502 implementation. Bricken is also a member of the National Cannabis Industry Association. Hardly a week goes by where Bricken is not presenting a speech about cannabis to trade groups or other lawyers or talking with the media about the industry. In addition to her Washington state practice, Bricken is also licensed in California and plans on expanding her cannabis practice to The Golden State.

About Preston Clark

Preston Clark has been writing about legal tech since 2010. He's currently the CRO for a leading legal tech SaaS company in the San Francisco Bay Area. Preston was formerly in-house counsel for the University of Miami and a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central America. In his free time, Preston enjoys building world-class sales teams, reading about SaaS, playing pick-up basketball and planning adventures with his son.