As the number of cannabis workers and entrepreneurs balloons, so does the industry’s responsibility for creating an equitable marketplace — especially considering that the heavy price of prohibition has historically been paid most often by communities of color.
In this Q&A, we ask professor Alejandro Rodriguez about what inspired The Cannabis Law Clinic, the program’s strategies for educating and inspiring the next wave of cannabis entrepreneurs, and the program’s work to build a more equitable cannabis industry throughout California and beyond. We also hear about the pro-bono legal services the program provides to verified social equity applicants in the state, Alejandro’s plan to offer law education programs in California prisons, and more!
Scroll down to read the full interview.
Ganjapreneur: What is The Cannabis Law Clinic and when was it created?
Alejandro Rodriguez: The Cannabis Law Clinic is a hybrid externship course offered at Golden Gate University School of Law. The externship director, Allison Wang, gave us the opportunity in 2020 to develop the curriculum and we officially launched in January 2021. The Clinic is 14 weeks per semester and the law students have six weeks of course instruction where they learn about cannabis history, cannabis law, and cannabis compliance. The other eight weeks are for practical experience, law students are paired with social equity applicants and apply what they learned in the first six weeks of instruction.
How does teaching the law clinic work towards your goal to assist communities harmed by the drug war?
I think it works towards my goal to assist the communities impacted by the war on drugs because we only work with social equity applicants. Thankfully, we have partnered with the Office of Cannabis in San Francisco and we get a constant flow of equity applicants who need legal assistance. We teach our students from a social equity perspective and bring in attorneys from across the State/Country to speak to our students about social equity policy drafting, social equity lobbying, and social equity activism. In three semesters the Cannabis Law Clinic has given over 1,600 hours of pro-bono legal services to equity applicants across California.
Why did you choose to practice law in the cannabis space? What value do you hope to bring to the developing industry?
For me, being in the cannabis space was an easy decision because I love the plant. But, being from Texas and coming from a criminalized market to a recreational market I noticed significant disparities in who was getting rich off cannabis. So I thought I could help by leveling the playing field and assisting the communities that need it the most.
The value I hope to bring is to develop partnerships with cannabis businesses and law schools so we can focus on empowering future lawyers to impact their community through activist lawyering, policy efforts, and lawyer development.
Who can apply for the Cannabis Law Clinic Externship at Golden Gate University?
The clinic is currently available to all Golden Gate University Law Students and I am sure we would be willing to accept any law student who would want to partake in this groundbreaking work.
What will students take away from the learning opportunity?
Students walk away with the foundation of cannabis history, regulatory compliance, intellectual property, policy reform, and expunging records. These skills will allow them to be change-makers in their communities.
Where are you involved in making regulations for cannabis programs?
The Cannabis Law Clinic was happy to assist the City of Fort Bragg last semester in guiding them in drafting their cannabis ordinance.
Fort Bragg needed guidance and assistance in drafting their ordinance and we gladly researched, guided, and advised accordingly.
What was your main focus when building out this framework for the people of Fort Bragg?
We wanted to make sure that the City of Fort Bragg implemented a social equity program. Where individuals who were disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs would get priority in applying for a cannabis retail license. We also suggested educating the community on cannabis and removing the stigma. But ultimately, we wanted to bring cannabis to Fort Bragg’s downtown business sector; it would be great to see a City in the Emerald Triangle fully embrace cannabis.
How would building law education programs within the California prison system create positive societal change?
I think it would be powerful to build a pipeline for individuals who have been incarcerated for drug offenses to become attorneys. Incarceration has historically been used as a lever for disinvestment, specifically as it relates to legal education. There is nobody better equipped to learn the law than someone who has been impacted by it.
An individual’s experience with incarceration provides a lived experience which is an essential element to ensure our legal discipline takes the steps towards healing the effects of flawed legal processes, including, but not limited to, cash bail, disparate sentencing structures, prosecutorial discretion, unconstitutional arrest practices, the criminalization of drugs and drug-related crimes, and other regimes that have created mass incarceration.
What kind of program initiatives are you currently working on to bring legal education opportunities to California prisons?
I plan on administering the Law School Admissions Test within California State Prisons or bringing legal education from accredited law schools to California Prisons.
How do you assist social equity applicants as they enter the California cannabis industry?
We assist them in any step of the process they are in. Whether they need a record expunged, cannabis license application assistance, lease drafting/negotiation, storefront/non-store front retail compliance, and temporary event licensing.
Social equity applicants have criticized programs for pitting applicants against one another. How can social equity programs serve applicants without creating a competitive model?
Social equity programs need to assist applicants with funding, closing loopholes, and lowering taxes. Applicants need funding to cover start-up costs, closing loopholes so investors do not simply use applicants to obtain a license, and lowering taxes makes sure applicants pay their fair share. Currently, the way California and Federal taxes are structured impacts participation within the legal market. If the state or municipality/county eliminates cultivation taxes or excise taxes it incentivizes social equity applicants and does not exclude non-social equity business owners. If the feds do away with 280(e) for cannabis or allow deductions under the “ordinary and necessary” provision that applies to most businesses the participation in the legal market would rise. The current tax structure is too complex and it favors multi-state operators with in-house legal teams and accountants. Doing away with the taxes mentioned above simplifies the process and incentivizes small businesses.
Do you have any tips for social equity applicants considering partnerships with investors to ensure they aren’t used for a loophole license?
Always try to speak to an attorney or a consultant. Getting a second opinion on an offer is always a great idea.
Thank you, Alejandro, for answering these questions and for your important work. Find more info about The Cannabis Law Clinic and professor Rodriguez at GGU.edu.