Jewish attorney to teach Pitt’s first ‘Cannabis in the Law’ course
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Jewish attorney to teach Pitt’s first ‘Cannabis in the Law’ course

“I don’t think you can say any longer, ‘As a lawyer, I’m not going to interact with the cannabis industry.’”

Pennsylvania has a habit.

More than 740,000 patients and caregivers have registered to receive medical marijuana since it was legalized by the state in 2016, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Board. That number represents more than $4.8 billion in sales and more than 56 million products dispensed in the state.

The selling of marijuana is big business, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Some states, like Colorado and New Jersey, have already decriminalized the purchase of marijuana for personal use, and Pennsylvania lawmakers have discussed the possibility of legalizing recreational use of cannabis here. In fact, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has advocated for a change to the law — which is noteworthy because he is campaigning to be the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.

While the debate about whether the decriminalization of marijuana will continue, one thing is clear: There will be a bevy of new legal issues with which the next generation of business owners and lawyers will have to grapple.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Law has joined with Leech Tishman partner Michael Sampson to offer an inaugural “Cannabis in the Law” course to be taught next fall.

Sampson has represented businesses in the cannabis industry over the last decade, and he thinks it’s an interesting area of the law.

“In particular,” he noted, “because cannabis is still federally illegal. There’s a myriad of complex, unique and cutting-edge legal questions out there.”

The new course is needed, Sampson explained, because at one time there was an attempt to wall off the cannabis industry. That is no longer possible, he said.

“I don’t think you can say any longer, ‘As a lawyer, I’m not going to interact with the cannabis industry.’”

New lawyers, he said, will need to understand the unique challenges.

Sampson said that while several universities are offering courses related to the marijuana industry, they tend to remain in the agricultural departments. Pitt, though, has stepped to the forefront by exploring the interesting and challenging legal issues inherent in the industry, he said.

Several themes have and will continue to develop as the industry matures, Sampson explained, noting regulations that vary from state to state; the intersection of state and federal law; the issue of whether universities can or will accept funding from cannabis companies; and collective bargaining by athletes over marijuana usage in professional sports.

That’s before taxation and federal banking issues are even considered, he said.

Sampson, who joined Leech Tishman to help reconstitute its insurance coverage practice and grow its cannabis practice, said it’s a misnomer to think that there is such a thing as a “cannabis lawyer,” pointing out that it’s a multibillion-dollar, complicated industry that touches a variety of other industries and legal fields.

For example, he said, a lawyer may be negotiating a lease for retail space for a cannabis dispensary. As part of the lease, the landlord may want to reserve the right to enter the property and inspect it.

“That makes sense if you have a candy store,” he said, “but the ability of a landlord to enter into any part of a cannabis dispensary may not be permitted under state law.”

Another important developing legal issue, Sampson said, might be how a state business handles a possible recall. Normally, that would be the Federal Drug Administration’s responsibility, but since cannabis is still illegal federally, that isn’t an option.

The cannabis business is a great model when considering more generic legal issues covered in a specific application, Sampson said.

“A contract is a contract is a contract but what type of protections can you put into the contract so that the other side or court may not feign surprise down the road and get out of it because it deals with cannabis which is an illegal substance,” he said.

Teaching at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law has provided Sampson, a native Pittsburgher, the opportunity to return to his roots. His father, who died in 2020, was a statistics professor at Pitt for 40 years.

“I had a fabulous relationship with my dad,” Sampson said. “I really wanted to pick up the phone and point out that we’re both professors.”

Sampson attended Community Day School before Taylor Allderdice High School and the University of Virginia, where he earned a minor in religious studies. After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, he served as the assistant director of legal affairs for the Anti-Defamation League and spent time in both New York and Washington, D.C. It was his wife — not a Pittsburgher by birth — who suggested moving back to Pittsburgh in 2003.

His oldest child, who is now at Allderdice, attended CDS, and his youngest child is a student there now. Sampson’s family is affiliated with Congregation Dor Hadash.

The “Cannabis in the Law” course is full, and Sampson is anxious to begin teaching.

“I’m just excited to get started,” he said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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