Denver Post file

Marijuana Law 101: College weed classes a hot trend

University of Denver Sturm College of Law senior Madalyn McElwain said she was relieved to hear the school was offering the nation’s first class on representing marijuana clients.

The third-year lawyer-to-be wanted to practice in the intricate and quickly changing world of marijuana law, one that for years has ping-ponged between the criminal and civil sectors, but couldn’t talk about it.

“I had to keep my intent quiet because it still wasn’t seen as legitimate,” McElwain said. “But now, it’s like, ‘Yeah! I can talk about it now.’ It’s legitimate.”

McElwain joined about 35 other DU law students in the inaugural class, Representing the Marijuana Client, the first of its kind designed to train would-be lawyers to work directly with the cannabis industry.

The law school is among about six nationally to offer a class specific to the weed, although the first to take it head-on. Marijuana has long been part of law school curriculum but is typically relegated to classes that deal with national drug policy and criminal law.

And most that are offering marijuana-specific classes this semester are still keeping it to legal theory and policy.

“Very few lawyers don’t have questions about how marijuana law will impact their practice,” said DU law professor Sam Kamin, who considered the class a necessity, especially in Colorado, where recreational production, sale and consumption of pot is legal.

A patchwork of pot laws: Map breaking down state marijuana laws across the U.S.

University of Denver law professor Sam Kamin
University of Denver law professor Sam Kamin talks to students after class about marijuana federal law and Colorado statutes on Jan. 15, 2015, on the DU campus. (Brent Lewis, The Denver Post)

Kamin’s students — there’s a long waiting list to get into the class — aren’t just those interested in weed.

“I have one who is interested in the tax-law implications and another who is to be a criminal defense attorney. There are many perspectives here,” Kamin said. “To have a class about what the law is, the pitfalls of running that type of business and what it is for lawyers to have such a client are critical questions across the board.”

It’s not Oaksterdam University, the Oakland, Calif.-based site of America’s “first cannabis college,” as it promotes itself, which offered classes for careers in the medicinal cannabis industry, from horticulture to business management.

“Legalizing the conduct has made it a more complicated area of law,” Kamin said. “From the conflicts of state and federal law, to securities law, to ethics, it’s all in play.”

And it’s playing out across the country as more schools treat the matter with a greater air of legitimacy.

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Before allowing weed-related classes to sit alone in curriculum catalogues, professors dipped their toes into marijuana issues tangential to the classroom.

“It had been the attention in the war on drugs and the classes on drug policy and criminal justice,” said Douglas Berman, a professor at Ohio State University’s Mortiz College of Law, who taught the nation’s first marijuana-specific class in late 2013 and repeats it this semester.

Marijuana is illegal in Ohio.

“The dramatic turning point was the 2012 election (in Colorado) with the approval of recreational sales. It immediately exacerbated the legal tensions that were always there,” he said.

His class, Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, tracks national developments about business, banking and taxation, all of which “are changing as we speak,” Berman said.

At prestigious Harvard University Law School, a ground-breaking seminar, “Tax Planning for Marijuana Dealers,” was held in spring 2014, hosted by Benjamin Moses Leff, an associate professor at American University Washington College of Law.

MORE: How Harvard’s cleverly-named pot seminar inspired other professors

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