State lawyering up to handle heavy load of marijuana-related lawsuits, license revocation hearings

As it fends off numerous lawsuits from businesses that missed out on potentially lucrative marijuana dispensary licenses, the Nevada attorney general’s office is staffing up with more lawyers focused exclusively on cannabis. 

Lawmakers authorized nearly $227,000 for two senior attorneys and a legal secretary on Thursday during an Interim Finance Committee meeting. Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford said a dozen ongoing lawsuits involving the state and at least eight forthcoming administrative hearings on potential license revocations created enough work for four full-time attorneys in the month of September alone.

“Cannabis is a new industry that will be regulated by a new state agency. The courts and regulatory bodies are still sorting through how it should be regulated,” Ford said. “The consequences of its failure are — and I don’t have to say this to you — too dire for us to run the risk of us not being able to properly represent it.”

The state has faced numerous lawsuits accusing the Nevada Department of Taxation of not playing fair when it awarded 61 highly coveted conditional dispensary licenses in December. In recent weeks, after news that foreign actors allegedly made illegal campaign contributions in hopes of entering Nevada’s marijuana market, Gov. Steve Sisolak convened a special task force “to root out potential corruption or criminal influences in Nevada’s marijuana marketplace.”

The attorneys will help as the Cannabis Compliance Board — a regulatory body that will assume oversight of the marijuana industry — gears up. Ford’s office is seeking attorneys with at least eight years working in the legal field because of “the level of complexity for this work,” and may need more in the future.

“Frankly, two senior DAGS will not be sufficient to staff this board when it becomes fully operational in July 2020,” said Jessica Adair, Ford’s chief of staff.

Ford’s office wanted staffing levels proportional to those working with the Nevada Gaming Control Board, which has a legal team of five attorneys. But Adair suggested the demands of the young, volatile world of marijuana — which remains illegal at the federal level — are exceptional.

“This industry is incredibly new. We’re not dealing with the same level of litigation and regulatory work that the gaming staff is working with now, now that that industry is set up and that board has been in place for decades,” Adair said. “So we may need additional staff in order to address the new industry needs.”

Money for the new staffers will come from an existing 15 percent tax on the wholesale value of marijuana.