Medical Marijuana Prompts Plan To Alter Ethics Rules

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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The state Department of Consumer Protection in late January approved four permits for companies that want to grow medical marijuana. At the same time, state bar officials are moving closer to addressing the ethical concerns of lawyers who represent potential growers and distributors.

Under the Connecticut Palliative Use of Marijuana Act, approved companies can grow and sell marijuana in the state for treatment of pain in patients with cancer, AIDS, Parkinson's disease and a host of other illnesses.

With the social stigma attached to anything drug-related, and because marijuana is considered an illegal controlled substance under federal law, many lawyers have raised concerns that representing a licensed marijuana distributor in, say a zoning matter, could result in an ethics complaint and possible discipline. Ethics rules prohibit lawyers from involvement in any activity that violates any law. .

A proposal by the Connecticut Bar Association's ethics committee is seeking to ever-so-slightly amend the Rules of Professional Conduct to provide lawyers with some protection.

"The Department of Justice has issued a letter indicating it has no present indication to prosecute federal charges against people who are following state law, but that's a letter, that's not a congressional act," said John Logan, who chairs the state bar's ethics committee. "We felt that proposing a change to the rules is the best option."

Logan's committee last year issued an informal opinion on the ethics of representing marijuana businesses, an opinion that stopped short of saying such representations would be allowed once a growing or distribution operation was up and running.

In its opinion, the committee concluded that "lawyers may advise clients of the requirements of the Connecticut Palliative Marijuana Act. Lawyers may not assist clients in conduct that is in violation of federal criminal law. Lawyers should carefully assess where the line is between those functions and not cross it."

Logan said that opinion raised a key question that must be answered.

"What lawyers need to know, of course, is where the line is," he said.

In its rule change proposal, the ethics committee said it is seeking to ease the tension between Connecticut's new medical marijuana laws and the federal law that still classifies marijuana as an illegal controlled substance.

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