What exactly does a pot lawyer do, anyway?

THIS IS THE QUESTION I have probably been asked the most since I started accepting marijuana clients and marketing to them. I tell people I do the same work that I do for my business, real estate, and entertainment clients—except in pot. I don't do any criminal work, but it's an interesting gig.

Like any enterprise, a pot business usually starts by incorporating with the state (usually as a limited liability company or a corporation) and choosing a federal tax status. On the tax issue, as a canna-lawyer I often confer with canna-accountants, whom I like very much. Because of the discriminatory way the IRS treats pot businesses, the accountant and I often recommend strategies we would seldom advise with non-pot businesses. This part is especially fun with clients who believe that the early part of the game is about market share, not just printing money.

Once the business is established, I generally end up drafting company documents. The documents are often complex for various reasons, mostly because of the convoluted rules as to who can own a pot business and to what extent. If the legislature did away with these rules, people would require fewer of my services. For some clients, I also endeavor to protect intellectual property in this early phase, notwithstanding the fact that federal trademarks are unavailable.

Real estate work is big right now in weed. Generally speaking, pot licenses are tied to particular locations, and pot entrepreneurs need to buy or rent property to operate. Commercial real estate transactions can be as simple as a standard lease, or more complex in the case of sale agreements, which tend to include promissory notes, trust deeds, and so on. Many of these documents require special language to deal with the fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I drug, federally.

Because there are so many rules about where pot businesses can be located, I do lots of local land-use work, dealing with friendly city and county planners statewide, inspecting maps and reading byzantine code. Many cities and counties are currently revising zoning regulations to address marijuana, and pragmatic clients pay me to monitor these developments. This involves testifying before commissions and councils, and explaining in a polite way that somebody could sue them if they don't do X and Y and Z.

And then there are the rules. There are lots and lots of rules for pot businesses—not only by statute, but also through the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, Oregon Health Authority, and local jurisdictions. The rules are constantly in flux and will be for a while, because legal pot is a very new thing. Like most pot lawyers I know, I talk compliance daily.

In all, being a pot lawyer is a good gig where things change fast and industry experience counts like dog years. The next phase will likely see an uptick in pot lawsuits, where companies sue over unfair laws or buckle under partnership beefs. That should be interesting, too.