By Judge Steven I. Platt (Ret.)
If you think lawyers who are creative, indeed entrepreneurial, should be encouraged to ply their trade, and that emerging industries are fertile ground to do so, then you should give a shout-out to the rapidly expanding business of manufacturing, packaging, selling and distribution of cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes.
More and more states, including Maryland, are legalizing cannabis for multiple purposes. These jurisdictions are providing forums for the creation, development of new, and in some cases, eclectic business relationships. These include consulting agreements, distribution deals, partnerships, licensing relationships and even the co-authoring of “How-to Manuals.”
Like all other business dealings and organizations created for the purpose of developing new and different products for profit, the potential for disputes to arise between partners, competitors, and parties working together, one day and competing against each other the next, is present.
Due to the nature of the cannabis industry and its multiple levels and conflicting state and federal regulatory schemes, many individuals and businesses are choosing to use ADR instead of litigating when troubles or disputes arise. This is for a variety of reasons.
For one, there is a perception, or at least a concern, among the individuals and business organizations that are invested in this emerging industry as well as many of the lawyers and law firms who may represent them that judges and juries who don’t “like” them or “don’t like” what they do for historical and/or cultural reasons may “punish” them, i.e. not give them a fair hearing in their case. This perception can be effectively addressed by private mediation and/or arbitration by one or more Neutrals agreed upon by the parties and who hopefully have some knowledge of the industry.
This perception leads cannabis industry entrepreneurs to insert into their contracts, mandatory mediation and arbitration classes designed to avoid these negative possibilities.
Mediation, by its inherent nature, as well as, in certain situations, by statute, rule, or contract includes a confidentiality component. Confidentiality, as the state of Delaware found out the hard way, is prohibited in public dispute resolution forums, i.e. The Courts. Private Arbitration on the other hand, can be confidential if agreed upon and mandated accordingly by contract or by ADR provider rules.
Confidentiality is very important if the activity, or even part of the activity which is the subject of the dispute remains illegal under federal law even if it is legal in many states. This is the case with most of the activities associated with the cannabis industry. Evidence of this includes the refusal of most banks and other traditional financial institutions to finance the development of the industry and the companies which are forming within it. This reality is further evidenced by the refusal of colleges and universities to offer training for those who work in the medical marijuana industry. It is noteworthy that the most recent example of this trend was our own University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, acting on the advice of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office cancelling plans to offer training for those who work in the medical marijuana industry.
This development has necessitated medical marijuana industry entrepreneurs and workers to search elsewhere for education and training on everything from how to set up their business, to how to grow, store, transport, market and sell. Their product as well as bookkeeping of their business while staying within the law, i.e., not running afoul of conflicting federal and state regulations of their businesses. They have found, by process of elimination, that the only sources for that education and training are other individuals and companies located in states which legalized medical, and in some cases, recreational marijuana use in previous years. These individuals and companies alone have the education, background, and most importantly the experience to provide the education and training needed to establish and develop potentially profitable medical marijuana enterprises here.
The result has been that these new entrepreneurs and their businesses are negotiating and entering into consulting contracts with experienced individuals and companies in the medical marijuana industry in other states in order to obtain information and training. These contracts are not easily crafted and understood even by lawyers familiar with the industry.
The relationships created by the contracts between the consulting companies and those who avail themselves of their services to provide start-up training are often fraught with the risk of the disclosure of trade secrets, as well as the violation of covenants not to compete, etc. In turn, the contracts often have provisions drafted to minimize, if not eliminate, those risks.
They are not always successful which in turn creates conflicts which if not resolved quickly and efficiently can kill an emerging medical marijuana business before it gets started. The result has been mediation and arbitrations generated by the dispute resolution provisions in these consulting contracts.
I have been involved as both a Mediator and an Arbitrator in a number of these cases involving lawyers and parties from across the country. Intermingled with these is litigation usually filed in multiple federal courts in an attempt to either consolidate in a geographically convenient or perceived philosophically friendly forum the cases involving identical parties or 3rd parties spun off for tactical reasons from other parties. No end to this time-consuming and expensive as well as in many cases overlapping litigation, arbitrating and mediations is in sight.
Indeed, my favorite case and experience so far is the case in which the parties and counsel sought dismissal or transfer of a case in which I was the Chair of a 3-Arbitrator Panel. They first sought that relief from the U.S. District Court in D.C. which not only declined to dismiss or transfer our arbitration case, but instead ordered the parties to proceed before my panel in Maryland or D.C. The losing party then came to our panel requesting the same relief. When we realized that they were asking the panel to, in effect, reverse the U.S. District Court’s decision, my only comment on behalf of The Panel which accompanied our negative decision was—“I’d ask you what you are smoking-but we already know.”
This post is reprinted with permission from “A Pursuit of Justice,” a blog by Judge Steven I. Platt (Ret.) that focuses on the intersection of law, economics, politics and the development of public policy. Judge Platt currently owns and operates his own private Alternative Dispute Resolution Company, The Platt Group, Inc. through which several retired judges and experienced practitioners offer mediation, arbitration and neutral case evaluation services to business, governmental agencies and their lawyers mostly in complex litigation and disputes. Judge Platt’s experience and vocation make him an expert in conflict resolution particularly in complex disputes whether they are political, economic, legal, or as most often the case all of the above. Judge Platt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his website at www.theplattgroup.com.