On November 17, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado announced an amendment to its Local Rules that arguably will preclude members of the U.S. District Court bar from representing marijuana-related businesses. The U.S. District Court has opted out of comment 14 to Rule 1.2( d) of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct, which allows Colorado attorneys to assist clients with conduct-permitted under the Colorado marijuana laws, but not under federal law.
Under the new amendment to Local Rule D.C.COLO.L.Atty.R. 2(b)(2), which takes effect on December 1, practitioners in the U.S. District Court will be permitted to advise clients regarding the “validity, scope, and meaning” of Colorado’s marijuana laws, but may not “assist a client in conduct that the lawyer reasonably believes is permitted by” such laws. The U.S. District Court’s distinction between advice concerning the interpretation of Colorado’s marijuana laws and assistance with “conduct” creates a significant split in the ethical rules applicable to state and federal practitioners in Colorado.
Rule 1.2(d) of Colorado’s Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits attorneys from “counsel[ing]clients to engage, or assist[ing] a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal. . . .” Colo. RPC 1.2( d). Because the sale, use, and possession of marijuana remain illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, Rule 1.2(d) on its face prohibits Colorado attorneys from counseling or assisting clients who seek to comply with the state’s laws on medical and recreational marijuana. On March 24, 2014, the Colorado Supreme Court adopted comment 14 by a 5-2 vote in an attempt to resolve this issue. Comment 14 expressly allows lawyers to “assist a client in conduct that the lawyer reasonably believes is permitted by [Colorado’s marijuana-related] constitutional provisions” and their implementing statutes and regulations. (Emphasis added.) The lawyer, however, must also “advise the client regarding related federal law and policy.”
As we wrote in our article that appeared in the October 20, 2014 issue of Law Week Colorado, the U.S. District Court typically adopts Colorado’s Rules of Professional Conduct. In some instances, however, the Court opts out of particular sections of rules or comments based upon its own views on attorney ethics. On November 17, 2014, the Court made good on its October 10, 2014 proposal to opt out of comment 14. This comes as no surprise. The federal bench is no doubt uneasy about permitting attorneys to facilitate conduct that, while legal under state law, conflicts with federal law.
The Court’s language taking exception to comment 14 states that the Court will not adopt the comment, “except that a lawyer may advise a client regarding the validity, scope, and meaning of [the medical and recreational marijuana provisions of the Colorado Constitution] and the statutes, regulations, orders, and other state or local provisions implementing them. . . .” (Emphasis added). The exception also mirrors the state requirement that practitioners “also advise the client regarding related federal law and policy.”
The U.S. District Court has therefore drawn a fine line between generally “advising” a client and “assisting a client in conduct.” Presumably, the federal court’s version of Rule 1.2 permits an attorney to explain Colorado’s marijuana laws, but requires the attorney to stop short of facilitating compliance with such laws because—under these circumstances—compliance with state law would, in many cases, result in commission of a federal crime.
The other comments to Rule 1.2 provide limited guidance: “There is a critical distinction between presenting an analysis of legal aspects of questionable conduct and recommending the means by which a crime or fraud might be committed with impunity,” and “the fact that a client uses advice in a course of action that is criminal or fraudulent” is not enough by itself to make a lawyer a party to an illegal course of action. RPC 1.2 cmt. 9 (emphasis added). But this critical barrier between appropriate and sanctionable counseling remains unclear. Another comment to Rule 1.2 states, for example, that “a lawyer must not participate in a transaction to effectuate criminal or fraudulent avoidance of tax liability.” RPC 1.2, cmt. 10 (emphasis added). It seems that, by analogy, an attorney’s participation in lease negotiations regarding a property that will house a marijuana grow operation would be prohibited under the U.S. District Court’s rules, as would an attorney’s review and recommendations regarding a license for marijuana retail sale. Such legal work could, at least in theory, result in disciplinary action against federal litigators.
The U.S. District Court’s decision to opt out of comment 14 gives rise to two major issues. First, it creates a rift between attorneys admitted to practice only before the Colorado state courts and those attorneys admitted to practice in the U.S. District Court. Second, it leaves those attorneys subject to the federal rules guessing about the critical point at which legal advice becomes the facilitation of conduct. In any event, members of both bars should be cognizant of these inconsistent ethical standards as attorneys encounter more and more clients interested in diving into Colorado’s growing marijuana industry.
Until this issue is resolved, federal practitioners should be conservative in rendering any legal advice in connection with marijuana. All attorneys practicing in Colorado should at least advise all clients as to the illegality of marijuana under federal law. Those admitted to the federal bar should also, at the very least, avoid (1) participating directly in conduct that could technically constitute a federal crime or (2) affirmatively advising or encouraging clients to take specific courses of action regarding the growth, use, possession, or sale of marijuana.