Why I Am a Cannabis Lawyer
Why am I a cannabis lawyer?
My professional journey with cannabis began when I was diagnosed with cancer ten years ago. On the morning of my diagnosis I had a painless but somewhat awkward sonogram examination of my testicles. My doctor recommended a sonogram because the round of antibiotics he prescribed did not have any discernible effect on a lump that appeared a few weeks earlier.
While getting dressed after the exam, I jokingly asked the mousy sonogram technician whether she found a malignant tumor. I did not ask the question to elicit a serious response. It was a lame attempt to redirect the awkwardness I felt getting dressed in front of her and to dispel the lingering vulnerability of the exam. Since I did not give serious consideration to the prospect of having cancer, I expected to receive a lighthearted response. Instead, I caught the sonogram tech off guard. She adopted an overly formal persona, told me my doctor would be calling shortly, and left the room without answering my question. In retrospect, her bedside manner seems inversely proportional to her skills with a sonogram machine.
Within the hour, my doctor called. After informing me that I had testicular cancer, he said he would refer me to the best oncologist in town. I called my wife, Ashley, told her I had cancer, and said I was going for a long walk. I turned off my phone and walked out the door. I have no memory of the rest of the day. Ashley, who was living in a different city at the time, vividly remembers the experience, including not being able to get in touch with me after our call.
Despite all the details of my diagnosis, this story is not about cancer, as I have been in remission for over nine years. This story is about how my experience with cannabis during chemotherapy transformed my life and my career. Although chemo eliminated my cancer, I found the experience to be everything I expected: painful, nauseating, appetite suppressing, energy draining, anxiety producing, and generally demoralizing. All of these side effects were managed with a fistful of medications, most of which had their own adverse effects and did not provide much help.
At the time of my diagnosis, I had been using cannabis off and on for almost twenty years. Despite this history, I did not consider incorporating it into my treatment out of a misplaced concern that using cannabis as a medical aid would amount to using an illness as an excuse to get high. Frankly, I did not consider cannabis to be medicine at the time. I assumed that the medical marijuana movement was a “Trojan Horse” for legalization. To be clear, I thought that cannabis use should be lawful, but my belief was informed by vague notions of civil liberty, not medical necessity.
Then on a particularly difficult day, when I was feeling miserable and had been in bed all day, I decided to get up and smoke cannabis with my brother. I figured I had nothing to lose, and I was in need of a diversion. My experience was stunning and remarkable. Within minutes I felt significantly better. I had an appetite for the first time in days. My flu-like aches disappeared, and my nausea subsided. Certainly, I was not 100% better, but I felt well enough to spend a pleasant evening talking with my brother, enjoying our shared passion for music, and eating spicy Indian food. That night I slept well enough to regain some lost energy. Had I not used cannabis that evening, I would have remained in bed, refused food, and tossed and turned in agony. My energy levels would have continued their steep decline, and I would have been worse off for the next treatment.
Cannabis helped me through chemotherapy, and I resolved during the course of my treatment to advocate professionally for its legalization on both medical and civil liberties grounds. (I have since come to understand the deep implications that cannabis legalization has for social justice, particularly for communities of color that have been disproportionately targeted for using it.) Although it took some time to make the shift in my law practice, the cannabis law seed took root as I recovered from cancer.
What is a cannabis attorney?
In some respects, the term “cannabis attorney” is meaningless. Attorneys do not usually identify by virtue of the industry or products they serve. For instance, you don’t hear much about airline, sports, or coffee attorneys. Rather, attorneys tend to identify with the specific areas of law in which they practice, such as securities, tax, divorce, labor, criminal, bankruptcy, etc. There are notable exceptions, such as construction and tobacco. There are even alcohol attorneys. (This is in addition to alcoholic attorneys, an entirely different issue.)
“Cannabis attorney” can mean any number of things. People often incorrectly assume that I am a criminal lawyer who represents people charged with marijuana crimes. Although I have not practiced criminal law since I was a young lawyer, I typically get lots of calls from people who have been busted at a concert whenever a cannabis friendly band passes through town. Of course, I always take care to refer them to good criminal attorneys.
The best way to describe my practice is that I am a business lawyer who focuses my work in the cannabis industry. I provide strategic advice to help clients comply with regulations, draft legal memos, prepare and negotiate contracts, structure domestic and international transactions, and set up, merge, acquire, and dissolve closely held companies. In short, I help clients address legal issues that affect their cannabis businesses. My firm also focuses on intellectual property.
Can a business attorney be a cannabis advocate and vice-versa?
In addition to my legal background, which includes litigating commercial and tax disputes in bankruptcy court, and my general passion for the plant, I am drawn to represent businesses in the cannabis industry because it is the best vehicle for me to be a cannabis advocate. Although most people do not typically think of business lawyers as activists, important advocacy occurs during the daily decisions I help clients make as they navigate a rapidly evolving industry. By representing cannabis businesses, I participate in normalizing activities that have been, and in some instances remain, stigmatized. My business law practice regularly presents me with opportunities to shape the practices and, consequently, the policies, of the emerging cannabis industry. Conducting business necessarily places my clients on the “front lines” of the reform movement, and we often encounter novel issues, the resolution of which can impact the industry at large.
Practicing business law is a way for me to advocate for cannabis reform. But what about the converse? Does being an advocate negatively impact my ability to represent clients?
Business lawyers must be objective, and it is fair to ask if this quality is compromised by assuming the role of advocate. In other words, does one’s zeal for a cause cloud the critical judgment and analysis necessary to serve a particular client? In my experience, the answer is no. In fact, having a certain amount of enthusiasm for cannabis and its legalization is important, and perhaps even necessary, to effectively represent clients in the industry. While advocating for my clients in business matters, my work necessarily extends to the industry at large. Helping a company conduct business in the cannabis industry normalizes and expands the industry as a whole.
Where do we go from here?
During my cannabis law journey, I have been fortunate to meet and represent inspiring people and participate meaningfully in this emerging industry for which I have a passion. I have gone from feeling nervous about “coming out” as a cannabis lawyer years ago to seeing cannabis law practice groups form in law firms around the world. I have spoken with a number of smart law school students who are eager to enter the cannabis law field, some of whom are starting serious cannabis organizations at their universities and pursuing bold agendas.
Additionally, I am particularly interested in how cannabis will serve social justice. I am working on a criminal expungement and voting initiatives program to aid communities negatively impacted by the drug war.
As the cannabis industry grows, it will create jobs, provide us with sustainable products, and offer us better medical care. I am more passionate and excited about cannabis now than I was on the evening I realized that it is more than an amusement. As the saying goes, we are at the beginning of the beginning. I look forward to continuing the journey, and I hope to see you on the road.
Special thanks to Ashley for her wicked editorial skills and, of course, for her unflagging support over the years.
October 28, 2019
Rod Kight is an attorney who represents lawful cannabis businesses. He speaks at cannabis conferences across the country, drafts and presents cannabis legislation to foreign governments, is regularly quoted on cannabis matters in the media, and maintains the Kight on Cannabis legal blog, where he discusses legal issues affecting the cannabis industry. You can contact him here.