Connecticut Firms Not Weeding Out Marijuana Practices, Despite Legislative Setback

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The legislative session ended before Connecticut lawmakers considered a bill that would have legalized recreational marijuana use, but law firms eyeing that practice area remain optimistic.

Hartford firm Brown Paindiris & Scott, for instance, still sees enough opportunity to launch and maintain a venture in marijuana law. Despite limited medical marijuana use in the Nutmeg state, and at least another year’s wait before legislators again consider the possibility of recreational use becoming legal, two Brown Paindiris lawyers will continue to focus on that business line.

Two of the firm’s 21 attorneys—managing partner Nicholas Paindiris and associate Ian Butler—began working with clients Jan. 1, assisting with opening dispensaries and other business efforts. They say the possibility of marijuana legalization in 2019 will be an impetus for even more law firms to enter the practice.

“It would be simple supply and demand,” Butler said.

Larger firms have been hesitant to devote resources because of ongoing controversy surrounding marijuana legalization, but attorneys such as Butler point to skyrocketing revenue for entrepreneurs in markets with legalized recreational use. Despite a federal prohibition, for instance, the emerging industry generated about $9 billion in sales in 2017 in states with legalized recreational and medical use, according to cannabis industry tracker BDS Analytics.

Looking to stay ahead of the curve, Butler said the firm decided earlier this year to enter what could be a booming business for attorneys, especially with recreational use due to become legal in Massachusetts on July 1.

“We decided to go this route because medicinal marijuana is a new industry to Connecticut, and the legal changes in Massachusetts also played a role in our decision,” Butler said. “It’s coming to a neighboring state and it made us feel like something is on the horizon here.”

Butler said his firm has assisted three businesses in preparing applications for dispensaries related to medical marijuana in the state.

“Today, we only represent dispensaries because there has not been a wave of applications for producers of marijuana,” he told the Connecticut Law Tribune Wednesday.

But he expects that to change if Connecticut legislators pass the bill next year.

“If it becomes legal, it will involve all areas,” Butler said. “There would be more dispensaries looking for legal advice and producers too. They’d have legal needs like regulatory compliance and issues with licenses and contracts.”

Some pro-legalization groups believed legalization would take place in the state this year, especially with the appropriations committee voting 27-24 last month to approve the bill. But as polls show growing support among residents, supporters say legalization in 2019 is a real possibility.

Attorney and legislator Steve Stafstrom Jr., who favors recreational use of marijuana, said the right makeup in the Legislature could weigh in proponents’ favor.

Stafstrom, an associate with Pullman & Comley, represents Bridgeport in the Legislature. He pointed out the potential for a new governor, who might support legalization, while Gov. Dannel Malloy has spoken out against recreational use. Plus, Stafstrom said every incumbent lawmaker is up for re-election, and polls show about 70 percent of Connecticut residents approve legalization.

“The makeup of the legislature will be different,” he said. “I think if people are paying attention to the polls, they will see an overwhelming percentage of the residents want legalization.”

If legalization passes, Stafstrom said, “it will have an impact in the employee/employer context; it will certainly have an impact in criminal prosecution; and it will also likely have an impact on real estate development and the siting of land because there would likely be the opening of several marijuana distribution centers. It will definitely have an impact on the legal profession.”

Criminal defense attorney Hugh Keefe said the biggest change could involve a decline in drug-related charges from traffic stops.

“It will have the biggest effect [on] the pretext searches police make on people in cars,” said Keefe, a partner with Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante in New Haven. “It’s very common to read a police report where the investigating [officer] will stop a vehicle for a minor traffic offense and, when they ask the driver for their license and registration, they allegedly smell marijuana. It’s then off to the races for whoever has the weed.”

“If [marijuana] is legal and they smell marijuana, so what,” Keefe said. “Legalizing recreational marijuana will cut down on the number of illegal searches and seizures.”