Some lawyers specialize in criminal law, some in family law, some in corporate law. Now, attorneys in Oregon whose practice includes marijuana business clients have their own specialty.
The Oregon State Bar has created a Cannabis Law Section to “assist lawyers in navigating this growing area of state and federal law,” according to a news release Tuesday. The cannabis section, whose organizers spent more than a year gathering support, already has 71 members, according to the state bar. Oregon is No. 3 behind Colorado and Michigan in recognizing a cannabis legal specialty.
Attorney Michael Hughes, of Bend, a criminal lawyer with a background in hemp production and agricultural law, is on the section executive committee. Jennifer Clifton, also a Bend attorney with a practice in corporate, real estate and tax law, is a section member. Last year she renamed her practice Clifton Cannabis Law.
“It’s been an overwhelming response,” she said Wednesday. “I can’t keep up.”
Clifton, who is also licensed to practice in California, said she signs up two or three new clients each week. Finding attorneys to join her practice is difficult, due in part to overall demand for corporate lawyers but also because some are turned off by the risk attached to providing legal services to cannabis businesses. Federal law still regards marijuana as an illegal drug.
Clifton said she sees the emerging legal cannabis sector in Oregon and California as an opportunity.
“I’m a little bit more comfortable taking that level of risk,” Clifton said. “This is a ripe platform for an entrepreneur to provide solutions.”
Cannabis businesses have the same legal needs as any other enterprise, from setting up agreements among partners, creating the business framework, navigating local land-use laws and staying in compliance with state laws on everything from pesticide application to product packaging.
Plus, because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, marijuana businesses face further complications in banking, taxation and other areas.
“Every aspect of this business has some degree of risk,” Clifton said.
Oregon voters in November 2014 approved Measure 91, which legalized adult-use recreational marijuana, but Hughes said he’s been active in the field for a long time. Hughes went to law school, he said, in part to study agricultural law in order to help cannabis businesses.
“Ag law is similar to cannabis law — it covers a wide range of topics,” he said, from contracts to real estate. The Cannabis Law Section lists 17 separate topics of interest to its members.
Oregon does not certify lawyers as specialists in a field, Hughes said. Creating a law section within the bar means giving lawyers opportunities to network, communicate with one another on emerging issues and schedule continuing legal eduction, he said. The bar has 42 sections for other legal specialties, from aviation law to Indian law to taxation.
Portland attorney Leland Berger, founding chairman of the cannabis section, and long an advocate for change in marijuana laws, said his experience with the subject came mostly from working in criminal defense. As Oregon transitioned to legal marijuana, Berger became aware of his unfamiliarity with a host of legal topics, which motivated him to take part in the drive to create a legal community around cannabis, he said.
“I’m 61 years old and creating a Cannabis Law Section,” he said. “I’m just fortunate to be able to live long enough to do this.”
Berger said he was one of three attorneys gathering signatures over the past 1½ years on a petition to create the section; eventually 100 signed and the section was approved in September. During the same period, he said, the Oregon State Bar amended its rules of professional conduct to allow lawyers to counsel clients in marijuana businesses.
“Once that happened, it made lawyers who were not comfortable practicing in this area, comfortable practicing in this area,” Berger said.
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