The Greening of New York

As promised, though just under the wire, I am following up to write more about one of the stories I didn’t write about in July, the issuance of N.Y. State Bar Ass’n Committee on Prof’l Ethics Op. 1225.

One of the downsides of publicly announcing you will write about something in the future is the risk that other folks will do it sooner and better. I understand that two of my favorite legal ethics sites have done so, but I’ve made the personal sacrifice to not read any of those folks until I can manage to commit my own thoughts into the ether.

So, let’s start with where we left off… Op. 1225 gives the ethical “green”light to lawyers both to advise businesses on how to comply with New York’s new law legalizing marijuana for recreational use and to personally use marijuana and grow the limited amounts authorized for personal use.

In getting to that conclusion, the NY Committee wasn’t starting from scratch but building on a foundation it had established in earlier opinions addressing a lawyer’s ability to provide advice to clients at an earlier time when New York only had legalized marijuana for medical use.

This opinion is noteworthy still, however, for several reasons.

First, I believe this to be the first ethics opinion clearly stating that a lawyer in a jurisdiction where recreational marijuana has been made legal can partake just as any other citizen of the state and that prohibitions in the ethics rules on personal conduct that is illegal should not change the outcome despite the fact that use of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. (I could be wrong about it being the first, but my memory is that other jurisdictions that have been willing to say that a lawyer can advise a client about the kind of business have still been unwilling to take the next logical step and say that the lawyer can partake.) It also makes the point that the now near full decade of federal forbearance on attempting to enforce federal law prohibiting marijuana use in states where it has been legalized could provide a lawyer with a good faith argument that no valid obligation exists to comply with the federal law in the face of the state legislative action.

On that front, however, it is worth knowing that the persuasiveness of the rationale likely could turn on what is the exact language of any particular jurisdiction’s version of Rule 8.4(b), the language of its accompanying comments, and what the ruling body considers to impact a lawyer’s “fitness.” For that matter, opening the door to the defiance of federal law by lawyers based on a claimed good faith belief of no valid obligation can itself be the stuff of slippery slopes.

Second, this opinion offers a very thorough explanation of why Rule 1.2(d) simply should not be interpreted in a fashion that would prohibit lawyers from offering businesses the assistance they would need to navigate the commercial endeavors that will be allowed. And it does so without feeling like any revision to the rule or comment is needed unlike some other jurisdictions have approached matters. A fundamental truth about the modern United States is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to navigate any regulated business without the assistance of lawyers.

More generally, in a complex regulatory system where cultivation, distribution, possession, sale and use of a product are tightly regulated, legal advice and guidance has immense value. Without the aid of lawyers, the recreational marijuana regulatory system would, in our view, likely break down or grind to a halt. The participation of attorneys thus secures the benefits of the Recreational Marijuana Law for the public at large, as well promotes the interests of the private and public sector clients more directly involved in the law’s implementation.

Unlike New York’s common sense acknowledgement of the overall public good, the Georgia Supreme Court just issued guidance turning a blind-eye to those concepts and declaring that lawyers that help clients do business in selling medical marijuana oil, despite that being legal, can be sanction for violations of the disciplinary rules because of the illegality under federal law.

Third, in delving into the attorney’s other question about accepting an equity interest in a marijuana business client, the committee opinion provides excellent guidance that would be useful for any attorney addressing the question with respect to any business client — an analysis of Rule 1.8 regarding business transactions and Rule 1.7 regarding conflicts of interest– which is a nice change of pace.

Now, off to go read the other folks, possibly better takes…

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