Society’s Changing Perceptions of Marijuana Are Affecting the Legal Profession
Written by Chip LaFleur
Many lawyers that we speak to have practices built around criminal defense. Among those, defending those accused of possession or driving under the influence of marijuana has been highly profitable for many law firms. This week, Delaware’s Governor Jack Markell signed into law the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana (less than one ounce). What does that mean for the criminal defense lawyers who have built practices defending clients accused of marijuana possession or driving under the influence of marijuana? The landscape and scope of those practices is changing, and legal teams everywhere need to be ready as new local and state policies regarding marijuana possession and use are continually introduced and changed. This is the time to position yourself and your team as thought leaders and get ahead of the ever-changing legislation concerning the use and perception of marijuana in the United States.
Cannabis has had an eventful history in the United States. According to PBS and Frontline, from 1600 until after the Civil War, the production of hemp was encouraged. Primarily, it was – and still is in some cases – used in the manufacture of clothing, sails, rope, paper, and many other products. The criminalization of marijuana began in the 1930s as a reaction to an influx of Mexican immigrants after the Mexican Revolution. This influx of immigrants heightened fears during the Great Depression. According to PBS, “The drug became associated with the immigrants, and the fear and prejudice about the Spanish-speaking newcomers became associated with marijuana. Anti-drug campaigners warned against the encroaching ‘Marijuana Menace,’ and terrible crimes were attributed to marijuana and the Mexicans who used it.”
After decades of time and countless iterations of new legislation, Proposition 215 was passed by California voters in 1996; this sanctioned the medical consumption of marijuana. As of June 19, 2015, 23 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation to allow for the medical use of marijuana, and three states have even gone so far as to sanction its recreational use despite existing (and stricter) federal laws. Many other states are pushing for the legalization of marijuana – at least for medical usage. Across the country, major shifts in public opinion are occurring in regards to a drug that was once was connected to the disorder dubbed “reefer madness.”
Many law offices are scrambling to get ahead of this shift in the culture. Decriminalization means that the possession of small amounts of the drug will no longer be a crime in some localities; however, federal jurisdiction still extends to areas where marijuana is “legal.” All this indicates that the legal ramifications (and opportunities) are almost endless, especially given the ongoing federal involvement in dispensary crackdowns.
For example, on the business side, licensing with the intent to distribute requires a great deal of time and documentation. Those lawyers who practice business law in states like Massachusetts, Nevada, and Maine need to be at the forefront of this highly profitable industry. Criminal defense lawyers in firms of all sizes are obviously going to be affected, particularly since law enforcement agencies are making strides to adjust the ways in which they evaluate drivers who are determined to be under the influence of marijuana. Lawyers who focus on legislation will have the ongoing challenge of evaluating acceptable concentrations of the drug as well as how it should be consumed, regulated, and manufactured. With such cloudy waters around the issue and each state’s diverse legislation on this topic constantly in flux, it makes sense for local legal professionals to not only stay apprised of new developments, but also disseminate that information to the public.
What does all of this ultimately mean? Well, there is almost certainly going to be a lot of money to be made related to this multi-billion dollar industry, and it will pay huge dividends for those at the forefront of this emerging industry. Most obviously, particularly for criminal defense attorneys, it will be imperative to have strong messaging regarding the rights of those being accused of criminal activity associated with the possession of marijuana or driving under its influence. Those who are accused of any crime associated with marijuana are going to be searching for the right person to protect their legal rights, and potential clients’ opinions of you and your firm will undoubtedly be shaped by your stance on this issue regardless of your primary practice area(s).
As it stands, many lawyers and firms are getting ahead of this issue and positioning themselves to be leaders in this new industry. Discussion boards are full of information about penalization at the state and federal levels. This morning, I found a law office in Queens, New York that had outlined the course of action that the police need to take on a search and seizure. They had also outlined the type of crime and length of sentence by the amount of marijuana that was seized. This is the kind of information that potential clients will be searching for when they are in the situation of needing legal representation. Moving forward, it will be the job of law offices to make finding that kind of information easy and thus positioning their law firm as the right choice for representation.
Gorman, S. (2015, June 19) Delaware governor signs bill decriminalizing pot: Report. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/19/us-usa-marijuana-delaware-idUSKBN0OZ0BE20150619
Morgan, J. (2015, June 19) Florida medical marijuana supporters, Attorney John Morgan set eyes on 2016. ForThePeople. Retrieved from http://www.forthepeople.com/featured-news/john-morgan-and-medical-marijuana
Public Broadcasting Service. (2014). Marijuana timeline. Frontline. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html
Steinmetz, K. (2015, March 17) These five states could legalize marijuana in 2015. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/3748075/marijuana-legalization-2016/