Lawyers advising companies in Georgia’s fledgling medical marijuana industry could face disciplinary sanctions following a recent ruling by the state’s Supreme Court.
Although the sale of medical marijuana oil has been legalized in Georgia, it is still a crime under federal law, the court said. The decision could be devastating in a highly regulated industry that relies on legal assistance.
Medical marijuana companies and their attorneys say they will overcome or resist the court order.
“I think this is going to be wallpaper,” said Sanford Posner, an attorney and co-founder of the Georgia Cannabis Trade Association. “I would be surprised if lawyers who work in this area don’t print out this decision and hang it on their wall as a red badge of courage.”
Possible penalties for lawyers who have violated the code of ethics include reprimands, suspensions and even dismissal.
Approximately 70 applicants are waiting for the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission to issue licenses to six companies. You are allowed to grow and manufacture medical marijuana oil that cannot contain more than 5% THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high.
These companies have one year to start operating. Anyone can open five pharmacies to care for registered patients suffering from conditions such as seizures, terminal cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
Medical marijuana oil companies need lawyers to make sure they are complying with Georgia’s laws, said Kevin Quirk, CEO of Harvest Connect, one of the companies that have applied for a state license. But he said he didn’t need lawyers to run his business.
“We know how to provide quality products to patients in Georgia without having to involve attorneys,” Quirk said. “Personally, I don’t think it will affect us very much.”
Some states have changed their rules
It’s about Georgia’s code of ethics for lawyers. It states that a lawyer cannot advise a client to behave that the lawyer knows is criminal.
That creates an ethical dilemma for Georgia medical marijuana attorneys, as federal law classifies marijuana as a List 1 drug. Anyone who has sold enough of them can face a crime and face jail time.
To resolve potential issues, the State Bar of Georgia asked the Supreme Court of Georgia to pass an amendment granting exemptions to attorneys who assist clients in areas that are allowed under Georgian law but might be criminal under another law .
In its motion, the State Bar noted that the medical marijuana industry is highly regulated, affecting dozens of areas of law.
“It is certainly in the public interest that lawyers are involved,” said the prosecutor’s file. “Aside from the benefits for Georgian companies looking to get involved in the cannabis business, lawyers can ensure that the industry is regulated as lawmakers intended. “
Of the more than 40 states that have legalized the use of medical marijuana, about half changed their rules to allow lawyers to advise clients in the cannabis industry. Others have issued expert opinions approving an exemption, the bar said.
Georgia is now the fourth state to oppose an exception, alongside Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Mississippi, according to court records.
“This opinion creates a dilemma”
In their unanimous, unsigned statement, the Supreme Court justices said they understand the desire of some Georgia attorneys to help the fledgling cannabis industry.
“But this court has long banned Georgia attorneys from advising and assisting clients in the commission of crimes,” the opinion said. “The passage of a Georgian law that purports to allow and regulate behavior that is a federal crime does nothing to change this longstanding principle.”
The court found that the prosecution’s request was not limited to conduct related to medical marijuana oil. “In fact, the proposed change is fairly broad and could well apply to a variety of behaviors that constitute a crime under federal law that simply has no further state criminal sanctions,” the court said.
Paula Frederick, General Counsel of the State Bar, declined to comment.
Its former chief executive Jeff Davis, who worked at the state bar at the time the change was formulated, said the organization was merely looking for a “safe haven” that would allow lawyers to provide much-needed advice to medical marijuana companies.
“That opinion creates a dilemma for lawyers who have advised or are trying to advise Georgian companies trying to comply with state law,” said Davis. “By subjecting lawyers to disciplinary sanctions, it can potentially create a situation where these companies cannot seek legal advice.”
Companies would also have a tough time getting foreign attorneys to help them in Georgia, Davis added. That’s because many of them don’t have a license to practice medicine and even if they do, they have to adhere to the same professional rules, he said.
State Representative Micah Gravley said the goal of Georgian law is to provide safe and laboratory-tested oil to those who need it.
“We wanted to do it legally, and we got it right,” said Gravley, a Douglasville Republican who sponsored bills for medical marijuana oil. “We’ve debated this in the halls of our Capitol and changed the law here in Georgia. It seems like we’re running into roadblocks after roadblocks if we are just trying to help people in need.”