First published in The Record, April 23, 2018
Lawyers for marijuana? Ha! The joke’s on you.
Marijuana. Say it again. Marijuana. Does the word make you flinch or giggle? It is a funny-sounding word, after all, and it looks funny here, written out like this. Marijuana is one of those words that sound funnier the more times you repeat them. Marijuana, marijuana, marijuana.
Now say this, out loud please: I would like to invest all my savings in a company that grows marijuana by the truckload.
I mean, come on. That’s funny, right? What's the setup to THAT punchline? “So a guy walks into a bar smoking a joint, see, and he says to the bartender …”
Now, here's the really funny part. If you happen to be someone whom people in the legal profession call a “high-net-worth individual,” you can walk into the Cole Schotz law firm on 54th Street in Manhattan, where office rents are no joke whatsoever and the people who pay those rents arenot screwing around in any shape or fashion, and you can tell Jordan A. Fisch or Marc P. Press you would like to invest one or two million dollars in a company that grows marijuana by the truckload.
Messrs. Fisch and Press will not laugh. Rather, they will clear their schedules for you. They will ask if you’d like to sit in a creamy leather chair in their glass-walled conference room on the 19th floor and whetheryou’d like some coffee, maybe a sandwich.
And then they will listen very intently to whatever you feel like saying next.
Who’s laughing now?
“We represent and advise a number of investor groups, licensees and ancillary companies that provide services and products to the cannabis industry,” Fisch said last week. “It’s just a business. And in this case they’re selling cannabis instead of vitamins.”
Politicians in New Jersey have been saying things lately about marijuana. State legislators have introduced bills to legalizethe drug. Phil Murphy, in his first budget speech as governor, established Jan. 1, 2019, as his target to begin open, no-questions-asked sales of marijuana to adults.
In the first year, Murphy projects that taxes on marijuana sales will earn New Jersey $80 million.
“Legalization will allow us to reinvest in our communities — especially the urban neighborhoods hardest hit by the misguided War on Drugs — in their economic development,” Murphy saidin the speech.
The discussion has grown more serious among legal marijuana’s opponents, too. Democrats in the Legislature hit the brakes first, embarking on a study scheduled to take months. Some African-American leaders, including state Sen. Ron Rice, D-Newark, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, say they’ll try to kill the effort entirely.
“It will devastate the African-American community,” Bishop Jethro James of Newark’s Paradise Baptist Church told legislators last month. “It will devastate any chance of our children having a future.”
Now consider these two attorneys, Fisch and Press, with their conference room one block from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and offices in Hackensack, Delaware, Maryland, Florida and Texas. Theirs is a quite-serious business, ranked by U.S. News & World Report as among the best bankruptcy and litigation firms in the country.
Both men remember when pot was fun. As teenagers and young men, Press and Fisch attended Grateful Dead concerts.
“I went to their concerts in the ’70s!” said Press.
In the intervening years, Press graduated from Duke University Law School in 1983 and settled with his family in West Caldwell. Fisch grew up in Livingston, in Essex County, graduated from University of Miami Law School in 1995, and lives in Manhattan. Together they built successful practices helping small- and mid-sized companies meet a panoply of legal requirements such as drafting incorporation documents, mapping out corporate structures and complying with local zoning laws.
“People think cannabis will be the cool industry with all the cool people,” said Chris Davis, executive director of the National Cannabis Bar Association. “Instead, it’s every boring profession you could possibly think of. It’s lawyers, accountants, tax people, insurance people. It’s people in suits who do a job that is not considered super interesting.”
Happily, marijuana entrepreneurs looking to expand into New Jersey currently find themselves in need of precisely these boring skills.
Forget noodling to a nine-minute guitar riff by Jerry Garcia. Today, this is how Press and Fisch have fun.
“The fun in the process for me is that I tend to be the person running these deals,” Press said. “There’s been a demand from our clients, who are investors. So we pulled together a group to be able to meet the needs.”
Did you catch it? That thing Press said about “demand”? Oh, yes. Let the Legislature huff and dither. Let journalists make dumb jokes about tensions in Trenton going sky-high. (Rimshot!)
Meanwhile, a bunch of rich people, including some who made their fortunes selling legalized cannabis in other states, are looking seriously to invest in marijuana in New Jersey.
“There’s private equity standing in the wings,” Press said. “I mean funds with pools of capital they want to deploy.”
Want to know what maybe isn’t so serious? Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ move to crack down on people in the marijuana business. In January the Justice Department rescinded the Obama administration’s marijuana enforcement policy, leaving federal prosecutors to decide whether to arrest and prosecute people involved withmarijuana companies, which are legal in some form in 30 states plus the District of Columbia.
Whatever New Jersey politicians decide, selling marijuana will remain a violation of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, which places marijuana in the same prosecution category as methamphetamine.
“If you need to sleep real well every night, this is not the field for you,” Sam Kamin, a professor of marijuana policy law at the University of Denver, said of lawyers who represent cannabis clients. “It’s a very small risk of a catastrophic result. You could lose your law license. You could be forced to forfeit your assets.”
Press and Fisch are notconcerned.
“I’m not losing sleep over the fact that we are counseling people about the law of a state as it relates to the cannabis industry,” Fisch said. “I don’t perceive what we’re doing to be illegal.”
Far from hiding their decision to create a group of seven Hackensack-based lawyers to focus on marijuana law, Fisch and Press told journalists about it in a press release. They told their friends. They started a blog on the Cole Schotz website about the marijuana industry, including one recent post encouraging cannabis entrepreneurs to explore tax deductions and government subsidies to offset electricity costs at indoor marijuana grow facilities.
You know. Like any serious company would.
“Zoning regulations, real estate, construction, tax, environmental law, corporate governance. These companies will need legal advice in all of these matters,” Fisch said. “Maybe we’ll help write the employee handbook.”