Missouri medical marijuana lawyers worry about discipline
JEFFERSON CITY — Attorneys who represent clients in the medical marijuana industry are concerned they might face discipline under a state Supreme Court directive that appears to put federal law in conflict with state law.
The directive, which took effect July 1, says attorneys cannot participate in — or advise clients how to participate in — acts that are illegal under federal law but legal under state law. Medical marijuana is illegal under federal law but was approved by Missouri voters in 2018.
Attorney Dan Viets, of Columbia, who represents medical marijuana clients, said he recently asked the state Supreme Court Advisory Committee whether he could be disciplined under the directive, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Viets said attorneys drafting the 2018 constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana anticipated the conflict and included protections in the amendment's text for attorneys working in the legal marijuana industry.
The Missouri amendment says, in part: "An attorney shall not be subject to disciplinary action by the state bar association or other professional licensing body for owning, operating, investing in, being employed by, contracting with, or providing legal assistance to prospective or licensed" medical cannabis businesses.
"I was very concerned," Viets said, adding the state Supreme Court's directive "appears to contradict the Missouri Constitution. ... I just don't understand how the court can do that."
The Supreme Court's ruling followed the filing of more than 800 lawsuits by medical marijuana entrepreneurs who had been denied business licenses by the state after a controversial application process.
Beth Riggert, spokeswoman for the Missouri Supreme Court, said the court would not comment on the order.
"Should the issue be raised in any case, it could come to the Court to decide, and it is inappropriate for the Court to comment on any pending or impending issues," she said.
Mike Wolff, former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, said the new directive "is really a way of saying 'watch it, watch it boys and girls, this doesn't necessarily get you off the hook.'"
"I'm not sure that they're going to take the position that the Missouri Constitution can diminish the authority of the court to discipline attorneys," he said. "It's a fascinating question because there are major law firms in (St. Louis) and around the state ... who have developed cannabis practices and are advertising themselves as being specialists."
Viets said the U.S. Congress needs to resolve the conflict.
"Congress needs to repeal federal prohibition," he said. "In the meantime, lawyers in Missouri face, I think, a very explicit threat of discipline."