N.Y. bar says lawyers can handle pot work, and smoke (some) too

REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa

July 12 - Following New York State's decision to legalize adult use of marijuana this year, its voluntary state bar association says attorneys can partake, too.

In an ethics opinion issued Thursday, the New York State Bar Association said New York lawyers can advise cannabis clients in compliance with the state's recreational marijuana law, even though the drug remains illegal at the federal level.

"Without the aid of lawyers, the recreational marijuana regulatory system would, in our view, likely break down or grind to a halt," the opinion said.

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The state bar association also said lawyers can accept ownership stakes in a cannabis business as payment, and can smoke or consume marijuana recreationally. Lawyers can also grow marijuana, subject to state limits, the state bar added.

Lawyers must still abstain from excessive use of the drug, the opinion said, just as alcohol abuse could run afoul of ethics rules.

"Nothing we say here connotes approval of such excessive use or establishes a protective shield for a lawyer who is facing disciplinary charges, malpractice claims, or other adverse consequences arising out of marijuana use," the state bar association wrote in its opinion.

Even though cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, the state bar association cited actions taken by Congress as well as comments by former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr that he wouldn't target state legal marijuana businesses. However, if the federal government's stance on marijuana were to change, the state bar said it would have to modify its stance.

The New York ethics opinion highlights the varied regulations lawyers must negotiate as a result of cannabis still being illegal at the federal law.

Last month, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that lawyers can be sanctioned for advising manufacturers and sellers of marijuana oil, which is legal in Georgia for limited medical use under state law.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the New York State Bar Association does not have direct regulatory authority over New York attorneys, who are regulated by the state's court system.

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David Thomas reports on the business of law, including law firm strategy, hiring, mergers and litigation. He is based out of Chicago. He can be reached at d.thomas@thomsonreuters.com and on Twitter @DaveThomas5150.