Legalized medical marijuana is coming to Massachusetts next year, and along with it is coming a wide variety of business opportunities — including legal work.
A law firm in Colorado, where medical marijuana is already legal, has opened an office in Medford in hopes of representing clients in the medical marijuana industry in this state.
To get a sense of the type of work it expects to do, WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Brian Vicente, a founding partner of the Denver law firm Vicente Sederberg, and asked him to describe his legal niche.
Brian Vicente: We think there's a really great opportunity to help spread the safe access model where patients can access medical marijuana from storefronts instead of street corners or alleys, and we'd like to see that work in Massachusetts.
Sacha Pfeiffer: Is medical marijuana something that has become a legal specialty? I mean, I've never heard of a medical marijuana specialty at law school, for example.
It's an emerging area of law. There are 18 states, including Massachusetts, that have passed medical marijuana laws, and I think it's safe to say we're going to see more states coming on board in the future. So our law firm currently is sort of one-of-a-kind. We employ about six attorneys that work full-time on medical marijuana compliance law and issues related to that. But I think it's really a new and emerging and exciting field to practice in.
What would be an example of one of your clients?
Some of those could just be someone who wants to become a medical marijuana patient, wants to know the rules related to that so they don't step out of line. But often we'll see people that are interested in starting a business, and that would be to serve patients. We see people that come out of traditional businesses — restaurateurs or folks that work in retail, etcetera — that want to open a medical marijuana store. There's a large number of regulations that they need to follow, both at the state and local level. And we help them find a facility that complies with those rules, and we focus very intensely on the actual state medical marijuana laws and how to follow those to a T. And then, of course, there's federal law, which people need to be aware of. Medical marijuana is still illegal federally, even though it's legal in 18 states.
So anyone that's thinking about becoming a patient or opening a business really needs to know what are the possible ramifications of this and how can I follow these laws as closely as possible.
In fact, I believe you're holding a seminar [Thursday night] in Cambridge. What are some of the issues you'll be covering at that?
It'll really be a best practices seminar in terms of what we've seen has worked in Colorado, both for business owners and for patients. Medical marijuana patients often face some degree of stigma, sometimes from law enforcement or community members. So we try to teach them methods to minimize negative interactions. And then we'll be touching on some of the kind of business basics that folks need to understand before they throw their hat in the ring.
You've referred to these medical marijuana dispensaries as stores but, at least in Massachusetts, by law only registered patients can get drugs there, and they'll have tight security. So "stores" sounds like an overly expansive description.
Well, it's just a way for people to wrap their heads around it. As you know, we've had 80-plus years of marijuana prohibition in our country. And now states like Massachusetts are taking steps toward allowing the retail sale in tightly controlled atmospheres, but nonetheless the retail sale of medical marijuana to qualifying patients.
What do you say to those people who are concerned that no matter how much regulation and security there is, some of these operations could lead to more illegal drug activity?
I think it's unlikely that there will be significant illegal drug activity taking place from these stores. At the end of the day, what we're going to have is very intensive security at all of these dispensaries in terms of cameras, etcetera. So they'll be sort of on par with a bank in terms of the security in place. So I think it's unlikely that people will then try to rob them or redistribute the medical marijuana. Of course, if that does occur, that is 100 percent illegal.
You mentioned federal law. And in many states where medical marijuana is legal, the DEA and U.S. attorneys have raided dispensaries or cracked down in other ways. What do you anticipate happening here in Massachusetts on that front?
To be clear, medical marijuana is illegal federally, despite the fact there's numerous states that have medical marijuana laws. What we've found in places like Colorado, and I believe will happen in Massachusetts, is if people act in accordance with that clear state law, then the federal government has sent a message that they are not interested in prosecuting people that are following the medical marijuana law. Now, the second people step outside of that law — redistributing or selling across state line — that's when the federal government gets interested.
So it's our prediction the federal government will probably go pretty hands-off and allow this vote of the people to be meaningful for Massachusetts.
This program aired on November 29, 2012.