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Legal cannabis is not just a budding industry for growers and sellers. A whole new line of business presents opportunities for a lot of other ancillary professionals: lawyers, accountants, real estate investors, bankers, and more.
But in Georgia, a state that is just now dipping a toe into the medical marijuana business, providing legal representation to weed entrepreneurs could mean professional consequences. That's because the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that lawyers are still open to disciplinary sanctions for getting involved in this newly legal business.
But lawyers are speaking out, warning that the court will not be able to harsh their buzz.
Georgia first legalized the use of low-THC medical marijuana oil for certain health conditions in 2015. However, the state is still setting up the regulatory framework to allow for a limited number of dispensaries to open. Lawyers are eager to get in the game and help these prospective businesses get off the ground.
But in a terse, unsigned opinion responding to a request from the State Bar of Georgia to amend the rules of professional conduct to allow lawyers to advise the new industry, the court was clear:
The Court understands the desire of some Georgia lawyers to assist Georgia's fledgling cannabis industry. But this Court has long prohibited Georgia lawyers from counseling and assisting clients in the commission of criminal acts. The passage of a Georgia statute purporting to permit and regulate conduct that constitutes federal crimes does not change that long-standing principle.
In short: Legalize it at the federal level, then get back to us. But in the meantime, possible violations for violating the rules of professional conduct mean reprimand, suspension, and disbarment. Georgia is now the fourth state, along with Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Mississippi, to not amend rules of professional conduct or issue advisory opinions allowing lawyers to advise cannabis companies.
Not really excited to turn down an excellent new business opportunity advising an industry subject to intense regulation, many lawyers are shrugging off the court's warning.
"I think this is going to become wallpaper," said Georgia Cannabis Trade Association co-founder and attorney Sanford Posner. "I would be surprised if attorneys who practice in this area don't print out this decision and hang it on their wall as a red badge of courage."
While Posner is daring the Georgia Supreme Court to take action, other cannabis industry veterans are worried about the ruling's effect.
Ian Stewart of L.A.-based Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker's cannabis and hemp law practice said the ruling could have a "chilling effect" on business and commercial lawyers who do work in transportation, product development, packaging, and other activities that aren't exclusive to cannabis.