David Feuerstein
David Feuerstein ()

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced legislation late last week that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana north of the border. The measure, should it pass as expected in Canada’s Parliament, which is controlled by Trudeau’s Liberal Party, would make Canada the second nation after Uruguay to legalize the cannabis plant as a consumer product.

Feuerstein Kulick, a five-lawyer boutique in New York set up a year ago this month by former Herrick, Feinstein partner David Feuerstein and ex-Greenburg Traurig associate Mitch Kulick, has already seen a spike in interest from clients seeking to invest in the Canadian marijuana market as part of a broader change in attitude towards legal weed.

“I think the public overwhelming favors legalized marijuana,” Feuerstein said this week.

Though still not federally legal, the public perception surrounding marijuana is pushing toward more mainstream acceptance. In a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, 57 percent of Americans said there were in favor or making marijuana legal, while 37 percent said it should remain illegal. A decade ago those numbers were reversed, with 32 percent favoring legalization, and 60 percent being opposed.

In the late 1980s, Douglas Ginsburg, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine after being forced to withdraw his name from consideration for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court after it was discovered that he had smoked marijuana as a college student and several other occasions while an assistant professor at Harvard Law School in the 1970s. (Ginsburg is no relation to current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)

But the push towards widespread legalization of marijuana continues.

Four states—California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada—passed measures in November to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. In total, 26 states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books legalizing the use of marijuana in some form. That has helped grow an industry that generated $6.7 billion in sales last year, while creating a new market for legal services. Many law firms, including Feuerstein Kulick, are now trying to snatch up some of that new business.

Fox Rothschild, which brought on a four-partner team from Nixon Peabody in Chicago two years ago to handle some regulated marijuana work, spoke with Bloomberg Big Law Business this week about its cannabis practice. Boston-based Foley Hoag formed a cannabis group earlier this year following a ballot measure in Massachusetts legalizing recreational marijuana use. And Florida’s Greenspoon Marder recently expanded its regulated industries expertise to the West Coast by bolting on a pro-pot shop in Portland, Oregon.

Feuerstein Kulick’s Feuerstein, once named a “Rising Star” by the New York Law Journal, said the increased competition is a good sign for his firm.

“We’re happy to see it,” Feuerstein said of Big Law’s entrance into the marijuana space. “It sort of justifies our belief that this sector is going to be a growth sector.”

When Feuerstein partnered up with Kulick, a former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer who served as general counsel to cannabis testing and analytics firm Steep Hill Labs Inc., to launch Feuerstein Kulick in April 2016, the new firm was one of the first to dip into the legal cannabis sector in New York.

Since then Feuerstein’s shop has been working with a variety of clients—from advertising and technology companies to dispensaries and cannabis growers—to stake their claim to a portion of a multibillion-dollar market.

“The cannabis industry is going to be a growing industry, both literally and figuratively, and we wanted to get into it early,” Feuerstein said.

But running a law firm around a business that is still illegal in almost half the country brings with it challenges.

“Even in states where it’s been legalized, there are many business and industry players that have just started,” Feuerstein said, likening the legal weed movement to the dot.com sector in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “Anyone with an idea could raise the money, but the question was could they execute.”

President Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. attorney general, former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, sent a chill through many marijuana advocates given Sessions’ stated opposition to legalization. And a tangle of state ethics rules has also given pause to some firms wary about taking on clients in certain jurisdictions where marijuana laws have not yet changed with the times.

Nonetheless, the National Cannabis Bar Association—now including members from roughly a dozen Am Law 200 firms—officially opened its doors in 2015 to assist firms like Feuerstein Kulick looking for guidance in an evolving industry. Just as the marijuana industry expands, so has Feuerstein Kulick’s book of business, an indication to its co-founder that helping clients specializing in the sticky green might now yield actual greenbacks.

“I happen to think that we’re on the right side of history here, much like people who were anti-Prohibition back in the early part of the 19th century,” Feuerstein said. “I just think that the time has come.”

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