After Colorado voters approved legal retail marijuana in 2012, attorney Zane Gilmer started getting this question from his banking clients: “Can we serve cannabis companies?”
It was — and still is — a difficult question to answer that involves anti-money-laundering laws, the Bank Secrecy Act and precious little federal guidance, among other things. Gilmer started advising financial institutions on cannabis issues when he was at Perkins Coie, and today at Stinson in Denver, the financial services and cannabis niche has “taken the forefront” of his practice.
“I found it to be sort of a fascinating area,” Gilmer said. From tax law to business litigation, lawyers who aren’t primarily cannabis lawyers have expanded their practices to serve cannabis businesses or help traditional businesses work with them. With 11 states having legalized recreational marijuana, it’s become more common to see a BigLaw website including “cannabis law” in its list of services, perhaps below bankruptcy and above corporate governance.
Law firms, some more quickly than others, have decided it makes sense for them to extend their legal services to the legal marijuana industry, Gilmer said.
“The cannabis companies happen to have some more complex legal issues given the dichotomy with federal law [and state legalization] that other businesses don’t have to face, but at the end of the day, they all have the same types of legal issues that they need lawyers to help with,” Gilmer said.
Law firms’ traditional clients, who, becoming more open-minded and wanting to serve or invest in the marijuana industry, have pressured firms to branch out into cannabis-related legal issues, Gilmer said. And some BigLaw firms that started doing cannabis work were reluctant to advertise it, he added, though that’s changing, too. “The full stigma hasn’t been lifted but, certainly, it’s been minimized.”