As discussed in our January 5th blog post, the Cole Memorandum was rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on January 4th of this year.   The Cole Memorandum had served to formally announce the DOJ’s policy that it would not interfere with medicinal marijuana legalized under state law, despite marijuana’s continued illegality for all purposes under federal law. With the rescission of the Cole Memorandum, federal prosecutors are now free to determine to what extent they will enforce federal law against the state-legalized medical marijuana industry.

However, the effect of the change in policy reaches further than to just the cultivators, manufacturers and distributors of medicinal marijuana products. Pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act, not only is it illegal to manufacture, distribute or dispense marijuana for any purpose – but it is also illegal to aid someone in doing so. Therefore, the DOJ is now free to prosecute anyone “aiding” in a medical marijuana business, for example, giving legal advice.

Probably of greater practical concern to attorneys than criminal prosecution is the tremendous amount of uncertainty as to how the change in policy will impact the ethics surrounding the representation of medical marijuana clients. Most, if not all, states have ethical rules that specifically prohibit a lawyer from assisting a client in illegal conduct. These rules do not distinguish between conduct that is illegal under federal law but expressly permitted under state law.

New York Rule of Professional Conduct 1.2 provides that “[a] lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is illegal or fraudulent, except that the lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client.” While it is generally undisputed that an attorney may advise a client about what state law provides – for example, filing requirements – an attorney arguably would be violating the Rules of Professional Conduct by, for example, assisting a client in negotiating a marijuana distribution contract.

Ethics boards in some states, including New York, have used the Cole Memorandum as the decisive factor to conclude that providing legal advice related to legalized medical marijuana businesses does not violate ethics rules. To a lesser extent, some states, including New York, have also relied on the theory that state ethics rules are intended to promote state policy – and by approval of the state medicinal marijuana law, a state has expressed its state policy on the matter, yielding no ethical violation.

It remains to be seen what impact the rescission of the Cole Memorandum will have on the ethics opinions of various states that are based heavily upon the prior policy of federal non-enforcement. For now, we can still find comfort in the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment to the federal budget, which currently continues in effect until February 8 and maintains that federal funds (including those allocated to the DOJ) cannot be used to prevent states from “implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.”