“We’ve had technology start-ups and computers,” says Aleece Burgio ’15. “In the next decade or so, I’m convinced that marijuana is going to be the boom industry.”
An industry that needs a legal framework and guidance for its entrepreneurial growers, processors and retailers. That’s the substance of Burgio’s practice at the Buffalo office of Barclay Damon, where she heads the firm’s multidisciplinary cannabis practice team. And it’s the basis of the bridge course that she is co-teaching at the law school this month, called The Green Rush.
The course is co-taught by Lee Williams ’16, corporate counsel at the Dent Neurologic Institute, where she oversees the legal and compliance program for the Dent Cannabis Clinic. The Dent clinic has certified over 10,000 patients under New York’s medical marijuana program and performs some of the foremost research in the world on cannabis as a treatment for chronic conditions.
“Cannabis touches so many areas of the law,” says Williams. “Our goal is to expose law students to that reality and equip them to analyze each emerging issue. Overall, the recognition and enthusiasm from the law school and its students is really encouraging.”
Cannabis is a broad umbrella, Burgio explains, encompassing both recreational marijuana (legal in 11 states) and medical marijuana (available in 33 states), as well as hemp and the suddenly popular CBD products. The course, which has more than 40 registered students, covers the history of the plant, the science behind it, and how federal, state and local governments have sought to regulate its use and reap tax revenue from its sale.
“The war on drugs made it taboo to talk about marijuana,” says Burgio, whose first job out of law school was working for a boutique cannabis law firm in Portland, Oregon. “But now it’s a real business, it’s a career for a lot of lawyers, and it’s something that’s going to blossom. And in New York, we’re right on the edge.” Medical marijuana is already legally available in New York State; Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made the legalization of recreational use a legislative priority.
The course also addresses the science of cannabis and its inclusion on the federal government’s list of Schedule 1 prohibited drugs; looks at how various states, including New York, have managed their medical marijuana programs; and examines the growing push by states to legalize recreational use, with criminal law, regulation, revenue and social equity implications. Students will work in small groups for an end-of-term presentation on the factors underlying some states’ decision to legalize recreational marijuana use.
It’s a field that Burgio knows from experience. In Portland, she says, her firm worked with start-ups in a rapidly growing market. “We were super-busy,” she says. “We would work with a business starting up, getting their licenses, trying to get up and running, and then it might be merged or acquired, or it might go bankrupt – and all of that happened within a couple of years.” She continues that work at Barclay Damon with clients across the state - including in Buffalo, in a jurisdiction with plenty of room for the same kind of urgency she saw in Oregon.
And it’s a field, she says, that offers a lot of opportunity for newly minted lawyers. “This is a topic that not every generation wants to dive into and be the expert on,” Burgio says. “It gives you a foothold. There are a lot of things going on, and I think a lot of employers are looking to build that practice. If a young attorney offers to be the person who takes an interest in it, that really helps. There is opportunity for you to grow in New York as an attorney, and if you can stay on top of these ever-changing regulations, you can really do well.”