DENVER — Colorado attorneys can advise marijuana businesses on how to navigate the industry's legal complexities without fear of punishment, the state's Supreme Court said Monday.
The rule change lets lawyers work with marijuana businesses as long as they believe those clients are abiding by state law. Colorado legalized recreational sales of the drug in January, but they remain illegal federally. The court said attorneys who help pot businesses must also advise them about federal marijuana law and policy.
Colorado's supreme court is the first to offer such guidance to attorneys, said James Coyle, who heads the state's Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. Washington, Nevada and Connecticut have similar proposals before their high courts, and legal communities in other states are also grappling with similar questions about whether attorneys should get in trouble for offering pot-related legal advice.
The Colorado Bar Association last year said lawyers could be punished for working with marijuana businesses, since state ethics rules forbid them from helping clients break the law. Although no lawyer had ever been sanctioned solely for giving such counsel, the court's rule change offers needed guidance on the issue, Coyle said.
"Just like any other emerging industry, these clients need representation," he said. "These clients need help in navigating these different nuances that are created by the regulations that could be considered in violation of federal law."
While the new rule is a step forward, some larger firms remain hesitant to represent marijuana businesses, not knowing how the federal government will respond, said attorney Craig Small, a board member for the Colorado chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
"I'll happily accept the business they don't want," said another Denver attorney, Robert Corry, who has represented marijuana dispensaries and patients for years. "I've got over 100 clients that are sellers of marijuana, and I've never believed that I've done anything wrong. Lawyers have been indelibly linked with this from the beginning. Without attorneys, this business probably wouldn't exist."