Pitt alum offers legal advice for cannabis industry

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Pitt alum offers legal advice for cannabis industry

Sarah Carlins is a Pitt alum that offers legal advice to people and groups in the marijuana industry. Courtesy photo from Sarah Carlins.

Sarah Carlins is a Pitt alum that offers legal advice to people and groups in the marijuana industry. Courtesy photo from Sarah Carlins.

Sarah Carlins is a Pitt alum that offers legal advice to people and groups in the marijuana industry. Courtesy photo from Sarah Carlins.

Sarah Carlins is a Pitt alum that offers legal advice to people and groups in the marijuana industry. Courtesy photo from Sarah Carlins.

By Rebecca Peters / Staff Writer

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Pitt alumna Sarah Carlins is making Pennsylvania a little greener, one court case at a time.

As chair of Houston Harbaugh’s Health Care Law Department in Pittsburgh, Carlins provides legal counsel and representation to business owners, patients, employees and shareholders in the medical cannabis industry a growing business due to recent legislation. Senate Bill 3, which Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law last April, allows patients who are under a physician’s care to use medical marijuana for the treatment of a serious medical condition, such as autism, cancer or Crohn’s disease.

“The fact that medical marijuana was recently legalized in Pennsylvania means that yes, there is now new ‘law’ to interpret and abide — in the form of new regulations, for example,” Carlins said.

Houston Harbaugh’s Health Care Law Department has seven lawyers, including Carlins, working with different sectors of medical cannabis: labor, employment, real estate, health care and corporate.

Health care law deals with changes in regulation and insurance protocols for physician groups and business counsel for hospitals and institutions, among other legal needs. In connection to medical marijuana, health care law applies to dispensaries, growers and laboratories.

These groups, in addition to medical marijuana distributors, also need to make sure they are compliant with the Pennsylvania labor laws as well as with Pennsylvania real estate code. This is where the labor and employment sector of the law department comes in.

Farms, production companies and dispensaries function like any other business entity in Pennsylvania, so their corporate legal needs are similar, such as managing shareholders to investors.

At Houston Harbaugh, Carlins — who received a law degree, an MBA and a master’s degree in International Affairs from Pitt — is in charge of each sector. Two months ago, she began working for the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, a trade group that provides educational monthly meetings about civic engagement, professional development, lobbying and industry partnerships. She helps coordinate communication between PAMCS members and health care lawyers while serving as a medical and research adviser for the company.

After three separate graduate programs, Carlins found purpose in social policy and social justice cases. The human interest angle in health care law compels Carlins more than tax law, she said.

“There are moms of desperately ill kids who didn’t have medical treatment options that other pediatric organizations did [until Senate Bill 3 passed],” Carlins said. “As a mom, that resonates with your heart and immediately pulls you.”

Tom Perko, president of PAMCS, said the company hired Carlins as counsel when he was filing PAMCS as a business entity to ensure he was following state and federal laws. After the filing, Perko hired Carlins as general counsel, given her background in health care law.

“Having counsel that can navigate this space and has experience in health practice and law is a very suitable component of what we need,” Perko, 33, said.

To alleviate their symptoms, patients ingest cannabidiol oil, which is an extract from the marijuana plant that does not provide a high. Since the oil is ingested, it needs to be regulated agriculturally and manufacturally to protect from impurities or contaminants. This is where health law comes into play, Perko said.

“We need an education platform for medical professionals, community leaders, industry professionals and anyone who can consume [medical cannabis] or knows someone [who does],” Perko said.

PAMCS, which has offices in Carnegie and Harrisburg, hosts monthly educational events that reach out to all stakeholders in the medical cannabis process

For Carlins, the educational and outreach component of the organization was key.

“[Medical cannabis] is an uncharted area,” she said. “It’s really so easy to get behind, especially when you think about how the legislation got passed in PA.”

Even in states that have legalized or decriminalized cannabis, education and legal support is still needed. Daniel Perlman, a criminal defense attorney from Los Angeles said as a criminal defense attorney, he encountered drug cases — including marijuana possession, sales, trafficking and cultivating — despite the state legalizing marijuana in 2016.

According to Perlman, marijuana defense lawyers go through the same bar processes as any other kind of lawyer — they specialize in their area of interest later after passing the exam.

“Under most state’s licensing of lawyers, being admitted to the bar gives an attorney permission to practice any kind of law,” he said.

According to Perlman, a lawyer’s schooling doesn’t stop once they pass their bar exam — if they want to specialize in working with marijuana, they must go to conferences and seminars to learn about what it means to be a marijuana defense lawyer.

“Outside of trial practice seminars, law schools don’t usually provide specific classes on defense work,” he said. The American Bar Association requires legal education seminars and help lawyers stay up to date with medical cannabis policy in their state.

In reaction to recent medical developments, Pitt’s law school offered LAW 5503: Federalism and Health Policy Seminar for the fall semester, covering the legalization of medical marijuana, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.  

According to Pitt Law’s website, the seminar discussed how “the interrelationship between the constitutional structure of federal and state governments and the piecemeal development of the U.S. health care system leads to fractured methods of regulating that system.”

While understanding the consequences of new policy is important, providing counsel to businesses remains relatively the same, Carlins said — law as usual.

“It simply adds another area in which we will do what we already do as lawyers: guide and counsel clients on how to comply with the law and do business best within those parameters,” Carlins said.

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