Arizona State Bar Association Says Arizona Attorneys Can Represent Arizona Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

Today the State Bar of Arizona’s Committee on the Rules of Professional Conduct issued Ethics Rule 11-01 in which it said the following:

A lawyer may ethically counsel or assist a client in legal matters expressly permissible under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (“Act”), despite the fact that such conduct potentially may violate applicable federal law.  Lawyers may do so only if: (1) at the time the advice or assistance is provided, no court decisions have held that the provisions of the Act relating to the client’s proposed course of conduct are preempted, void or otherwise invalid; (2) the lawyer reasonably concludes that the client’s activities or proposed activities comply fully with state law requirements; and (3) the lawyer advises the client regarding possible federal law implications of the proposed conduct if the lawyer is qualified to do so, or recommends that the client seek other legal counsel regarding those issues and appropriately limits the scope of the representation.

NOTE: This opinion is limited to the specific facts discussed herein. Because the opinion is based on the Act as currently in effect, subsequent legislative or court action regarding the Act could affect the conclusions expressed herein.


In the 2010 general election, Arizona voters approved Proposition 203, titled “Arizona Medical Marijuana Act” (“Act”), which legalized medical marijuana for use by people with certain “chronic or debilitating” diseases.  The proposition amended Title 36 of the Arizona Revised Statutes by adding §§ 36-2801 through -2819 and also amended A.R.S. § 43-1201.  Arizona became the 16th jurisdiction (15 states and the District of Columbia) to adopt a medical-marijuana law.

Despite the adoption of Arizona’s Act, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) of the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) continues to make the manufacture, distribution or possession with intent to distribute marijuana illegal.

In an October 19, 2009, memorandum (“DOJ Memorandum”), the U.S. Department of Justice advised that it would be a better use of federal resources to not prosecute under federal law patients and their caregivers who are in “clear and unambiguous compliance” with state medical-marijuana laws.  The DOJ Memorandum indicates that federal prosecutors still will look at cases involving patients and caregivers, however, if they involve factors such as unlawful possession or use of a firearm, sales to minors, evidence of money-laundering activity, ties to other criminal enterprises, violence, or amounts of marijuana inconsistent with purported compliance with state or local law.

Although characterizing patients and their caregivers as low priorities, the DOJ Memorandum does not characterize commercial enterprises the same way.  In fact, the DOJ Memorandum says that the “prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority” of the DOJ. [1]

The DOJ Memorandum explains that the DOJ’s position is based on “resource allocation and federal priorities” and

does not “legalize” marijuana or provide a legal defense to a violation of federal law, nor is it intended to create any privileges, benefits, or rights, substantive or procedural, enforceable by any individual, party or witness in any administrative, civil, or criminal matter.  Nor does clear and unambiguous compliance with state law or the absence of one or all of the above factors create a legal defense to a violation of the Controlled Substances Act.  Rather, this memorandum is intended solely as a guide to the exercise of investigative and prosecutorial discretion. (more…)