Attorneys begin to specialize in marijuana law

Denver attorney Tae Darnell talks to convention-goers Saturday at the Colorado Cannabis Convention in Denver. He was one of several attorneys on site who provided legal advice on marijuana issues.

DENVER — Starting a new business requires more that just an entrepreneurial spirit; it mandates business owners to know something more than just the industry they’re in.

Starting a new business related to medical marijuana also requires some risks most business owners don’t have to worry about. That’s partly why there were numerous attorneys on hand at the Colorado Cannabis Convention this weekend, a first-of-its-kind event in the state that attracted thousands of people.

“Nobody could have predicted any of this 10 years ago when we passed the amendment,” said Denver attorney Robert Corry, one of several lawyers who are learning to specialize in this new area of the law. “The government has taken notice of us, and they’re trying to regulate this industry out of business.”

The amendment Corry referred to is known among lawyers as Article 18, Section 14 of the Colorado Constitution. That law came about in 2000 when voters approved Amendment 20, which legalized the use of medical marijuana for persons suffering from debilitating medical conditions.

For the first eight years the law was in place, medical marijuana patients happily went on their way getting the needed referrals from physicians that allowed them or a designated caregiver to grow up to six plants for their personal use.

Then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced last year that the Justice Department no longer would prosecute the handful of dispensaries that started to crop up in California and elsewhere in the nation, reversing policies of the Bush administration.

As a result, the entire landscape changed not only for the medical marijuana businesses, but also for the law.

Holder’s announcement led to an explosion of dispensaries around Colorado. Only a handful of attorneys were practiced enough in the law to help them, but that’s now changing, Denver attorney Tae Darnell said. Darnell dispenses legal advice to dispensaries and marijuana-growing operations, and he’s teaching other lawyers how to as well.

“You have to remember that this still is against federal law,” Darnell said during a panel discussion at the weekend convention. “You have to tread carefully.”

When dispensaries started to proliferate around Denver and the state, Darnell and his law partner, Drew Gottlieb, started to get tons of calls from dispensaries asking about their legal rights. And they’re not alone.

More than half a dozen attorneys on hand at the Denver convention not only are beginning to specialize in marijuana law, but they’re also advocating for it.

With Corry’s help, Denver criminal attorney Brian Vicente started one of many marijuana advocacy groups. That group, Sensible Colorado, is pushing for legislation to regulate the industry in a way that allows the free market, and not the government, to decide which dispensaries will survive and which will go away.

Vicente said those groups are generally happy with the direction the regulation is headed in the Colorado Legislature, but not everything with it is hunky-dory.

He and Corry support provisions in House Bill 1284 that would require the dispensaries to be licensed with the state, but they don’t like what would happen to smaller operations, caregivers that would be limited to five patients each.

Limiting the number of places patients can get the marijuana they need not only would put some out of business, but it would increase the cost as well, the two men said.

“The bottom line is: We need more dispensaries,” Corry said. “The only way to reduce prices is to increase supply.”

That kind of legal and lobbying advice is crucial to the marijuana industry winning legitimacy, said Mark Lerner, publisher of Kush magazine, the main sponsor of the convention.

As a result, Lerner said he’s creating a new Colorado Cannabis Foundation and seeding it with $10,000 “to help fund these advocacy groups and these lawyers.”


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