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What It’s Like to Be a Weed Lawyer in Illinois

Bryna Dahlin (left) and Dina Rollman   Photo: Courtesy of Rollman & Dahlin

After Illinois last year joined the states offering medical marijuana, Dina Rollman and Bryna Dahlin left their jobs and formed Rollman & Dahlin, one of the first firms in Illinois to focus on the business end of cannabis law. The two tell Chicago about the challenges they face—including your bad pot puns.

What kinds of people are getting into the cannabis business?

Rollman: These people are entrepreneurial and take a problem-solving approach to a challenge such as this. It certainly can’t be someone who’s easily defeated. There are so many bumps in a new industry, and even more with marijuana still being federally illegal and state-legal.

Dahlin: This is not at all for the risk averse. I’ll tell you who we don’t see. We don’t see stoner stereotypes at all. [We see] professionals; well-educated people who take this very seriously.

Rollman: We also have met a lot of people involved in some way who have a parent or sibling looking for some type of therapeutic release from a condition. My dad has two qualifying conditions, and his long-term physicians would not write a recommendation for him to enter the program. The whole experience so far has given me a lot of sympathy for people turned down by doctors.

We need to figure out what it will take for doctors to be more compassionate and open-minded. It seems [the problem] stems from cannabis still being federally illegal. If [doctors] can’t get comfortable with this program, and they are the gatekeepers, the patients are out of luck and the program won’t succeed.

In what ways do marijuana businesses need legal help? Is it all just boring contract work and cutting through red tape?

Rollman: My role is daily guidance, and part of that is reviewing contracts. The rules are so specific.

One example is that there have been a lot of issues with the state contracting with a third-party software developer. [The state] contracted for software that will handle inventory tracking for all cultivation centers and dispensaries. But the dispensaries and cultivation centers had put in their own inventory-tracking systems, and an [interface] was needed to connect the systems. The state’s system is off the shelf and used in other states; it’s not made for Illinois. A “batch” in Illinois is defined by law [as] when you plant seeds or clones, but in this tracking system it’s when you harvest. So we have to work with the regulators on that. Inconsistent definitions between the software is a big deal. This is among the day-to-day issues.

Dahlin: My part is litigation. As this business grows and matures, it will have similar legal issues to other businesses: disputes between competitors, class action suits by plaintiffs, people who claim they were injured in some way by products. Injury can have very broad definition when filing a complaint. To certify a class is hard, but it still happens. Think of all the litigation with alcohol.

Another area I focus on is product labeling and advertising. There are a lot of regulations on what you can say, how products are packaged, warnings in place. Those differ from state to state in many instances. So I’m helping clients review labeling to make sure they aren’t violating the rules in place.

Why start a practice like this when the state program is as complex as it is?

Rollman: We’re bullish on future prospects in this area and how it will relate to law. It’s very appealing and empowering to take the lead here in a brand-new industry with brand-new laws, rather than waiting five years when someone else has already charted the path. You don’t often get an opportunity like this, and even more rarely in law.

How does the adverse interaction between state and federal medical marijuana laws affect interpreting the law and applying it to businesses?

Rollman: One of the biggest issues across the country is banking. Since cannabis is still federally illegal, no nationally chartered banks will get involved. Illinois does have some banks that are willing to take on cannabis businesses, but access is still limited. My clients have accounts, but it’s not easy.

There is an enormous amount of red tape to work through, and the fees are increased because banks feel the need to compensate for risk. It’s much further beyond the challenges that other businesses face.

Dahlin: I would say another big issue that greatly affects whether cannabis is seen as legitimate or not, which influences these issues, is that it’s still defined as a Schedule I controlled substance. It hasn’t been studied the way it should. We have federal rules in place about studying drugs, and researchers can’t perform proper studies because of that Schedule I designation. When that changes—and I believe it will—you’ll see a cascade of changes that follow.

Rollman: For some doctors, it makes it black and white. Federally illegal? No chance. Not going to write anything. But nowhere in the country have feds come after a doctor for writing a recommendation for medicinal cannabis. I get the fear, but it’s a huge challenge to get access for patients. A lot of people and conditions have been denied.

Another thing I see that is paramount is to have safe facilities. There are state regulations to follow, but no specific federal regulations. In Colorado and in Illinois, there are real efforts now to adopt standards at a level similar to federal standards for other fields. But doing that without communication from federal regulators is yet another major challenge that makes this different from other industries.

Any funny anecdotes from working in this area?

Rollman: We have heard every pot pun there is. I’d like to offer a reward to anyone who can come up with one we haven’t yet heard. We had some fun making our website, doing potential taglines. They are all so obvious I can’t call them funny.

Dahlin: Of course, our firm is located on Green Street, so we get that, too.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Dahlin: We both came from backgrounds where we often were the only women in the room. That’s not what we’re seeing here. We go to events and we see men and women together, not men working on one thing and women working on another. It’s a real spirit of equality that’s very exciting in the industry.

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