If you're interested in practicing law in the new and developing cannabis space, hold onto your legal briefs because being a cannabis lawyer means never having a dull moment.
Below, we dive into all things cannabis law so you can understand the complexities and rewards of being a cannabis lawyer, along with essential skills, salaries, and more.
What is a cannabis lawyer?
Since cannabis is both a social movement and a thriving nascent industry, being a “cannabis lawyer" doesn't involve a specific designation or practice in one specific area of law. “Cannabis lawyers should view cannabis as an overlay of the law," said Shoran Williams, General Counsel and Chief Regulatory Officer at Fluresh.
Cannabis lawyers may work in any number of different areas of law, from constitutional to criminal law to intellectual property law to virtually any area of business law, including taxation, mergers, acquisitions, or employment, among others.
In short: working as a cannabis lawyer involves expertise in a specific area or areas of law while also understanding how cannabis overlay impacts things.
Take real estate law as an example: “You'll first need to become an expert on that topic," explained Williams. “Then, consider the fact that cannabis remains — at least for the time being — federally illegal. If you're looking at a lease agreement, will this reality affect the terms the parties have agreed to? If a dispute arises, will the court have to interpret federal law? How will that impact your client's options?"
In addition to understanding how the federal status of cannabis impacts their practice, attorneys working in this space must intimately understand the regulatory frameworks of the state(s) within which they are practicing. In 2022, 21 states have legalized cannabis for adult use, while 37 states have medical programs, and each state has its own legal and regulatory frameworks governing them.
What does a cannabis business attorney do?
Many lawyers work on the industry side of cannabis, and they may do this in private practice at a firm that services cannabis clientele or as in-house counsel working directly for a cannabis company. Each provides different opportunities or experiences in which a lawyer can deepen their cannabis specialty.
Cailey Greenberg is the Lead Counsel for Cannabis at Boston Beer Company, where she works specifically on the company's cannabis-infused beverage line TeaPot. “As an in-house cannabis lawyer, my job is to make sure that everything that the company does as it relates to cannabis — manufacturing, selling, marketing — is done in a compliant manner," she explained. The scope of her position is wide and she gets to experience different areas of the law, such as corporate law, securities, regulatory law, and contract law, all through the lens of the cannabis industry. “I review everything that goes out the door, whether that be the product itself or a contract or a social media post."
Depending on the company's size and approach, in-house lawyers might hire outside law firms for help with litigation, regulatory issues, compliance, or other specialized needs. But working in-house and being fully immersed in a business's operations can provide excellent experience and insight as to what servicing the cannabis industry from a legal perspective looks like.
“You're kind of a jack of all trades," said Greta Brandt, licensed corporate attorney and President of The Flower Shop. “By immersing yourself as general counsel, it really lends itself to understanding the industry as a whole. It gets you one step further in really providing value added to an operator because you understand the business side of it, as well as the legal side."
Gabe Parton Lee is General Counsel at WYLD and WYLD CBD, a popular edible brand that specializes in gummies. He describes his role as a next-level Venn diagram that includes many different areas of law, including criminal law, agricultural law, and employment law, not to mention the growing business's goals and strategies. “Working in-house is trying to be a good business partner, making sure that we can create opportunities for the business [while also] playing by the book as it's being written," he explained. “That's how the cannabis industry is; the book's being written constantly. We have to play by it and then adjust to it as things change."
Navigating cannabis law
Cannabis lawyers can also support the industry by working for law firms of varying sizes and specialties. In fact, smaller criminal defense and civil litigation firms were among the first to service the legacy cannabis industry. As legal cannabis has expanded, these firms have expanded alongside them and often serve as models for newer markets in the east.
Adriana Kertzer is Founding Partner at New York-based Plant Medicine Law Group LLP and a board member for Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. Her firm was founded on a philosophy Kertzer describes as “West for East" due to its approach to bringing attorneys with deep experience in mature western markets to the newer and yet-to-be-launched markets in the eastern US. “I wanted my clients to have access to people who have been there, seen it, done that, and have an anecdote," she explained. Her team includes lawyers who have also worked as entrepreneurs in cannabis.
Cannabis businesses also need regulatory expertise across a wide variety of practice areas, allowing larger firms to create niche or even sector-specific teams for the industry.
“At Vicente Sederberg, most lawyers fall into one of two categories: regulatory or corporate," explained attorney Jennifer Cabrera. “Regulatory attorneys work with clients on licensing and ongoing regulatory compliance with state and local cannabis rules; corporate attorneys work with clients on business deals, such as raising money, buying or selling companies, adding or removing owners," she said. The firm is also able to harness the synergies that arise from the significant overlap between these practice areas. “Both corporate and regulatory attorneys need to understand regulations relating to ownership and control, for example."
As more cannabis companies go multi-state, some cannabis lawyers are differentiating by specializing in practice areas across multiple states. Since laws and regulations vary widely from state to state, and even within different jurisdictions in a state, bridging the gap for larger operators who are expanding is becoming an in-demand specialty.
In addition, cannabis lawyers may work for state regulatory agencies on the government side of the industry. Several lawyers we spoke to recommended this avenue as a good option for practicing lawyers looking to transition into the industry, or as a way for new lawyers to build solid industry foundations.
But how does one become a cannabis lawyer?
How to become a cannabis lawyer
Suppose you're a current or prospective law student interested in becoming a cannabis lawyer. In that case, there are more opportunities than ever to start gaining knowledge and expertise before you even pass the bar.
School, internships, or volunteer work
There are many law schools now offering coursework in cannabis, particularly in states with regulated adult-use markets. Many of these schools also have a cannabis law club, and if they don't then you can start one. “During law school, you can also research law clerk positions at firms that practice cannabis law to get more hands-on experience," suggested cannabis law co-chair Nick Richards with Greenspoon Marder LLP.
Don't discount the value of direct experience in the industry, either. “Volunteer, intern, or work for a cannabis company part-time while in school," advised Katie Rodrigues, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at NorCal Cannabis Company. “It always helps to build relationships and connections with folks that are currently working within the cannabis industry."
“Get educated! Virtually all major CLE platforms offer cannabis-related education," shared Lauren Rudick, Principal of Rudick Law Group.
Students can tap into the experience of lawyers already working in the space to help guide their choices while at school and when entering the field. “Try to connect with some cannabis lawyers and arrange informational interviews where you can learn more about the industry and what exactly about it you are interested in," advised Greenberg.
“Put in the effort to make connections and build trusting relationships with folks working in the cannabis industry," said Rodrigues. “Soak up as much knowledge and experience as you can, and always continue to add resources to your toolbox. Lastly, read. Read a lot. The industry is dynamic, fluid, and evolving, and it will be your job to stay on top of it and be prepared."
Find your niche
If you're already practicing law and interested in branching into cannabis, there is ample opportunity to forge your own path. Some lawyers we spoke to have taken a more generalist approach in servicing a full suite of business needs, while others have become very focused on a particular specialization. “The market is already sophisticated enough and robust enough that you can have a very specific niche," explained Kertzer.
Join organizations geared toward cannabis law
You can also join professional organizations geared towards cannabis lawyers, like the International Cannabis Bar Association (INCBA) for example, while exploring what resources your local bar association offers around cannabis law practice. In addition, subscribe to industry newsletters, join cannabis-related business organizations, attend industry-specific events and stay on top of changes to your local market(s).
Be humble and learn the history
With continued industry growth and expansion, good lawyers are needed more than ever, but cannabis is a unique industry with both a complicated legal status and an important historical and sociocultural significance that requires cultural sensitivity.
“If you have no experience representing clients in the industry, don't market yourself as a cannabis lawyer," said Justin Brandt, Partner at Bianchi & Brandt. “There are a lot of people in this industry who make themselves out to be experts, but unfortunately, many are just selling snake oil or trying to take advantage of someone else's lack of experience. Don't be that person — your reputation will follow you."
Kertzer refers to this phenomenon as “the cannabis slide" — when lawyers move into cannabis without taking a more holistic view of the industry. “If you slide into [cannabis], how do you do it responsibly?" she asked. “Recognize that any slide into any industry has to be culturally sensitive to the specific issues and politics of that space: social justice issues, the war on drugs and its impacts on Black and brown communities, and so on when it comes to cannabis. You can slide into any industry, but there is humility that's needed."
Essential skills of a good cannabis lawyer
Being an attorney in most industries or practice areas is demanding work, and the cannabis industry presents a variety of unique characteristics and challenges that require strong skills.
- Know the regulations inside and out: No matter your area of expertise or familiarity, time and again this was underscored as foundational. “All cannabis lawyers need to know the rules and regulations forwards and backward," said Brandt.
- Authenticity: Cannabis has deep roots in a variety of communities and a long history that is especially important for understanding the social, cultural, scientific, and commercial context of the plant today. If you're new to the cannabis space, this context is crucial. “It's important that attorneys come to the cannabis industry for the right reasons," said Rudick. “Whether it be restorative justice, patient advocacy, or something else other than the 'green rush' of potential money. Clients will ferret that out quickly."
- Being comfortable with ambiguity: When you're working in a brand new industry with brand new rules and regulations, you spend a lot of time in the gray area of the law. “Since there is not a lot of precedent in cannabis law, a lot of it is operating in the gray and making risk assessments and judgment calls," said Greenspan. The ability to absorb risk and ambiguity is essential.
- Creativity: “Being able to adapt, pivot quickly, and think outside of the box within a complex regulatory environment is imperative to support a cannabis business's needs," said Rodrigues. Lawyers have to walk a fine line in servicing their clients' needs and helping their businesses succeed while protecting them from unnecessary risk.“You don't want to be known as the 'no man,'" said Brandt. “Providing suggestions and opportunities for how to accomplish goals or objectives in other ways, I think, is probably one of the single most important aspects of being a lawyer in this industry."
- Versatility: “Become knowledgeable and experienced in many areas of the law, since a cannabis lawyer does not typically focus solely on one practice area," said Rodrigues. “Develop a strong understanding of all facets of a cannabis business from seed to sale ... The ability to offer your client advice in many areas of the law will be invaluable."
- Strong ethics: Whether you're working in-house or at a private firm, a strong ethical compass is a valuable tool in any legal toolkit. Conflicts can arise in many different contexts and facets of the lawyer/client/business dynamic. “I wish that more people were aware of the nuances of conflicts of interest that can crop up when the lawyer has an interest in your business," said Kertzer. Balancing the needs of a business and its strategic direction alongside the letter of the law can be challenging.
- Keeping an eye toward the future: “You can't just think about today or even next month," said Lee. “If you're thinking about just those two things, then you've already lost because you're so short-sighted. And because you don't see what's coming in the future, it forces you to make decisions that eventually will be bad."
The pros and cons of being a cannabis lawyer
The rapidly growing and evolving regulated cannabis industry keeps everyone on their toes, from master growers to weed marketers, bud trimmers, and budtenders — but the seemingly unending change in the industry is felt perhaps most by cannabis lawyers.
Almost everything everyone loved about practicing in the cannabis industry is also a source of frustration — depending on the day or the context.
It's a new and developing area of law
While legal cannabis might seem like old news to some, when put into perspective, it actually represents the culmination of decades of activism, a major societal shift in perception, and a change in political tides that is far from over.
“New things don't get legalized every day, so it gives us this huge opportunity to actually leave a real impact on the law that should hopefully last for the next 50 years or more," said Lee. “As things grow and change, yes, it's a source of frustration, but that's part of the fun of creating something new."
“The speed of change is rapid, which can be exciting," said Brandon Dorsky, a licensed attorney and the CEO of FruitSlabs. “But because it is still an evolving marketplace, the constant rate of change also requires consistent re-educating versus other arenas of law where changes move at a snail's pace."
Whether it be mature markets in the West or brand new markets in the eastern US, the development of law and regulation in cannabis is an iterative process. Lawyers are at the forefront of helping clients navigate the regulatory landscape and pivot when things inevitably change.
“I would say the biggest challenge for lawyers is that these regulations have not been tested," said April Arrasate, Executive Director of the CORE Cannabis Museum and Founder and CEO of SEED curated cannabis market. “You're encountering problems that are happening for the first time, both for the state and for you. So the rules are changing constantly, and you're sort of building the plane while flying it, as the saying goes."
The clientele and community
“What I enjoy the most about my practice are the clients," said Brandt. Most of the clientele at Bianchi & Brandt are long-term relationships, which they work hard to build and maintain. Plus, cannabis is an interesting, exciting, and trendy space. “Cannabis people are fun. It's like a breath of fresh air," said Kertzer.
Like any service-based job, there are setbacks — and challenging people to deal with. “The temperaments of cannabis entrepreneurs are not for everyone," said Kertzer. Business lawyers must often manage the expectations of clients in order to follow the letter of the law, and in a highly regulated industry, it becomes even harder to navigate that relationship. “There's a lot of passion, which can be really motivating, but it can also be challenging when you're trying to be practical in some ways," said Arrasate.
How much does a cannabis lawyer make?
There isn't a lot of salary data on cannabis lawyers since they operate in so many different areas of the law and in such varying roles.
If you're working at a private firm, salaries will vary widely depending on the size of the firm you're at and/or your specialty. “It varies widely based on the type of work you're doing and the market you're in," said Cabrera. “There are relatively few big law firms with strong cannabis departments who pay top-of-market salaries. Firms in LA, Chicago, and NY pay more than in smaller markets."
When it comes to in-house general counsel, the cannabis staffing agency CannaBizTeam reports a 2022 salary range of $154,300 to $203,200.
With continued growth in existing markets and new markets poised to legalize in the future, the cannabis industry needs good lawyers. While operating in such a newly legalized and highly regulated landscape presents its fair share of complexities, for those who enjoy a high level of intellectual demand and a fast-paced work environment, cannabis offers novel legal challenges unlike any other industry.
Practicing law in the cannabis space offers a unique opportunity to shape the legal foundations of a newly regulated market while also shaping the commercial space for the benefit of both businesses and consumers alike.