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By Nell Gluckman, The Am Law Daily
Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe announced a pro bono partnership Thursday with the Americans for Safe Access Foundation, a medical marijuana advocacy group, signifying to some that the push to make legal cannabis available to patients nationwide has gone mainstream.
Rene Kathawala of Orrick and Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access.
The Oakland, California-based nonprofit, which lobbies lawmakers on how to improve their states’ medical marijuana laws and seeks to educate patients on their rights, will work with Orrick lawyers to update a series of manuals on state medical marijuana laws. Eventually, Orrick hopes to coordinate a hotline for medical marijuana patients in need of legal advice that will involve other law firms.
“This partnership is a representation of where this advocacy is going,” said Americans for Safe Access executive director Steph Sherer. “That they see this as an issue that warrants this type of support” shows that the taboo around medical marijuana is diminishing, she added.
Americans for Safe Access (ASA) offers 23 state-specific manuals on cannabis laws for public defenders and patients using the drug, but Sherer said the manuals need to be updated as regulations change and new case law comes into play. There are now 41 states with medical marijuana laws on the books, so the nonprofit has 18 more manuals to write.
The organization currently operates a legal hotline, which gets a handful of calls a day. There are just over 2 million patients who have been prescribed medical marijuana and Sherer said those individuals often face legal issues, so ASA does not advertise the hotline out of a fear that it will be overwhelmed with inquiries.
Come fall, Orrick hopes to be operating a more robust hotline where firm lawyers will help connect patients with the appropriate legal counsel. Orrick, which in January brought back partner Melinda Haag, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California who oversaw a crackdown on the Golden State’s legal pot sector, is hoping to partner with other firms in working with ASA.
“I’m confident that at least there will be some firms out there that will be willing to do this,” said Orrick pro bono counsel Rene Kathawala in New York. At Orrick, Kathawala has received only supportive comments from within the firm since announcing the project. (He noted that was not the case when he announced a pro bono initiative for detainees at Guantanamo Bay.)
So far, three Orrick partners, two counsel and 10 associates have volunteered to help. Kathawala said he was drawn to the project because patients needing legal assistance tend to have low incomes and the lawyers can contribute several hours at a time, rather than devote an entire week to such work.
The idea of working with ASA originated last month at the organization’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. Orrick partner I. Neel Chatterjee, a prominent IP litigator in Silicon Valley, attended the festivities with his client, High Times correspondent and businesswoman Bianca Barnhill, who is on the nonprofit’s board. After hearing testimony from patients and the parents of young patients, he asked about how Orrick could help.
“This is something that major law firms and people who have a public voice need to get involved in because we these issues are deeply legitimate, but there’s just a historical stigma there,” said Chatterjee (pictured right).
Before getting the firm involved, he asked his brother, cardio pulmonologist Arjun Chatterjee, if what he’d been hearing about medical marijuana is true.
“He said, ‘Yes, the science is there, but there’s not as much science as people would like,’” Chatterjee said. He arranged for Sherer and Kathawala to meet.
“This is a partnership I’d been looking for—for a long time,” Sherer said. “When Neel said come meet with our pro bono counsel, I already had the proposal ready.”
Sherer had approached other firms and attorneys who were interested in helping, but never got a definitive commitment. This was not unusual for her. Since founding the ASA in 2002, Sherer said she has worked with dozens of attorneys, academics and medical professionals, but they often did not want their name on the work because medical marijuana was still considered a fringe movement.
“This is an exciting time where we are able to partner with law firms like Orrick,” added Sherer.
A major benchmark for ASA came in 2005 when the organization won a suit against the California Highway Patrol on behalf of six patients and caregivers who had their medical marijuana seized during traffic stops.
As a result, the California Highway Patrol changed its policy for confiscating medicine and ASA started a legal department with the $75,000 it was awarded in attorney fees, Sherer said.
Chatterjee said he expects a mixed response from other firms, but is firmly behind the ASA’s efforts.
“We’re going to be on the right side of history here,” he said.