Sonoma County activist-turned-attorney helps cannabis companies with permitting, licensing – North Bay Business Journal

Lauren Mendelsohn is a senior associate attorney at Omar Figueroa law firm in Sebastopol.

A medicinal user of cannabis, the 29-year-old East Coast native describes herself as an “activist at heart,” a characterization that fits well in representing the cannabis industry in the areas of permitting and licensing.

Mendelsohn has expanded her legal education in this discipline by becoming involved in drug policy reform as well as other social justice efforts. The North Bay Business Journal asked Mendelsohn about her career and issues related to the cannabis industry.

How long have you been a lawyer, and have you always wanted to be one?

I passed the bar exam in November 2016, so I’ve been a lawyer since then. I did not grow up wanting to go into this field.

In fact, for most of my life, I thought I would be a doctor. When I was in college, I became involved with grassroots organizing and policy reform efforts, beginning with an organization called Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and realized that being a lawyer would allow me to continue the advocacy work that I loved, whereas this would be much harder if I pursued a career in medicine.

How has your upbringing affected where you are today?

My parents really valued education and helped me establish a good work ethic even at a young age. They created a safe and comfortable environment for my sister and I and encouraged us to be ourselves, which I am very grateful for.

What firms have you worked for and for how long?

I began working for my current law firm right after I graduated from law school and took (and passed) the bar exam. So, I like to tell people that „I’ve been practicing cannabis law my entire career,” which is true. I spent some time interning at a mid-sized firm while I was a law student and assisted in the launch of their cannabis practice division.

Why did you pick a cannabis discipline?

Based on my activism experience, I knew I wanted to do something related to drug policy reform or social justice. I’m also not afraid or ashamed to say that I’m a medical cannabis patient — with cannabis, I’m able to keep my anxiety in check without using Xanax or other pharmaceuticals.

Coming from the East Coast, when I entered law school in 2013, I thought the only type of work cannabis lawyers did was criminal defense. However, I began learning about California’s medical cannabis system and saw that there was plenty of transactional work for attorneys serving cannabis businesses.

It just so happened that Proposition 64, which legalized cannabis for adult use in California, was approved by the voters right around the same time that I passed the bar exam.

What is the cannabis industry’s biggest obstacle, in particular, how it pertains to licensing?

Access to licenses in general is a huge issue statewide. Most of California’s counties and cities have banned some or all commercial cannabis activities, since the law gives each jurisdiction the right to decide how to regulate this industry within their borders and requires local approval in order to obtain a state license.

The demand for cannabis is high, but there aren’t enough licensed retailers and producers to overpower the illicit market. Taxes are a big part of why this is a challenge as well.

Also, in terms of licensing, a big issue right now is the transition from provisional to annual state licenses, which requires, among other things, compliance with CEQA. A bill pending in the state legislature, SB 59, would help by extending the regulators’ ability to issue provisional licenses for a few more years while this is all worked out in Sacramento.

Do you believe cannabis will be legal on a federal level sometime soon and why?

Yes, (I do) because there is now bipartisan public support for legalization, and a number of measures have been introduced in Congress to achieve this goal.

Why do you think it comes with a stigma?

(It does) because decades of propaganda can be an effective psychological tool.

To be honest, though, I think the stigma associated with using cannabis has been greatly reduced over the past decade or so, as more states and even other countries have moved to legalize medical and/or recreational cannabis use. Additionally, the mainstream popularity of CBD products, most of which are made from hemp, which is federally legal after passage of the Farm Bill and can be sold over-the-counter in regular stores, has led to a reduction in the stigma surrounding the cannabis plant and people who consume it.

Do you think it’s easier to help the cannabis industry in Sonoma County versus other jurisdictions, and if so, why?

Sonoma County has relatively decent rules on the books compared to many other counties across the state.

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