In the weeds

Dina Rollman. - Michael R. Schmidt
Dina Rollman. —Photo by Michael R. Schmidt
September 2016
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

Despite its enduring controversy, medical cannabis is a relatively nascent industry: Half the country’s states and the District of Columbia have legalized it, but they are still working to create a stable industry around a substance that’s still controlled at the federal level.

After years of building a career as a trial attorney, Dina Rollman saw the potential of getting in on the legal side of the medical cannabis industry.

In early 2015, she founded Rollman Law Group, now Rollman & Dahlin — a commercial litigation firm that specializes in counseling and regulatory compliance in the cannabis industry.

Rollman also serves as chief compliance officer for Green Thumb Industries, a company that operates two medical cannabis cultivation centers and a retail dispensary in north suburban Mundelein.

As the medical cannabis market matures from startup status to a full industry — complete with the myriad legal issues that accompany it — Rollman, and attorneys like her, could one day be seen as a progenitor of a growing and far-reaching legal business. For now, much of her work is focused in Illinois, which currently has 21 cultivation centers and 60 dispensaries.

Rollman spoke with Chicago Lawyer about what it’s like to balance working in the cannabis industry with a more “traditional” law practice and the challenges her clients face in a country that hasn’t fully embraced legal marijuana use.

Chicago Lawyer: Why did you start practicing law?

Rollman: I didn’t think about practicing law until I finished college and went into the working world doing marketing for a financial services company. I had been an English major in college, and I realized I really liked writing. I wanted that to be part of my career going forward, but the challenge of being a lawyer and tackling interesting legal issues also appealed to me.

When I was in law school [at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law], I pictured working for the ACLU or some type of social justice organization. That wasn’t the path I took when I graduated, and it took me a while to get back to doing work that I feel has that social justice impact.

CL: How did you get involved in medical cannabis?

Rollman: A lot of things came together for me. When the legislature first passed the statute [Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act went into effect Jan. 1, 2014], there was a lot of media coverage, so I looked into it. I saw that there was the framework for an entirely new industry that never existed in Illinois; I knew right away that lawyers would be needed to help. I couldn’t remember any other time in my legal career where one law sort of created an industry overnight. I saw it as an opportunity to help legalize medical use of cannabis on a state level even though it remains federally illegal, which creates all kinds of issues.

CL: Issues including what?

Rollman: A big, front-burner issue is access to banking. These businesses are receiving lots of cash money at a retail dispensary level or cultivation level, but very few banks are willing to work with them because of the federal illegality. So you have huge amounts of cash being transported in each state with a medical or recreational program. Colorado had over a billion dollars’ revenue last year, and the large majority of that was cash. It’s a security risk that’s a huge concern to the industry and helping clients navigate that and find banks that will work with them is a challenge.

There’s also a big movement to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. That’s a model Colorado started, and they saw a hundred million dollars in tax revenue. The industry has created jobs and revenue that has gone to fund schools and infrastructure, and there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in crime. On a national level, there are a lot of interest groups looking to replicate that model.

CL: How do you balance your GTI [Green Thumb Industries] work with the rest of your practice?

Rollman: Before I opened my own firm, I spent 10 years at a litigation boutique called Sperling & Slater, where I became partner. I started specializing in cannabis law even as I was doing commercial litigation at that firm, and I still do both for Rollman & Dahlin. [My partner] Bryna [Dahlin] and I have 30 years of non-cannabis litigation experience, but we like to think of ourselves as pioneers in a new area of law that didn’t exist before.

CL: How have medical cannabis laws evolved in Illinois?

Rollman: In February 2015, [Gov. Bruce] Rauner awarded the licenses for medical cannabis operators. That was a critical point when we realized the industry would move forward. [Former Gov. Pat] Quinn signed medical marijuana legalization into law, but Rauner had said things that were critical of the laws, so we weren’t sure if he’d kill the program and licenses.

CL: What are some challenges medical cannabis businesses deal with?

Rollman: The landscape shifts on a daily basis. There are constant changes or the potential for changes on a federal level. There are always new bills introduced, and every time we get a new president or attorney general, it creates uncertainty around how things are going to evolve on a federal level.

On a state level, there are also constant changes — since [the law] actually went into effect, we’re on our third statewide director of the [medical marijuana] program. Change in [gubernatorial] administration brings with it not only personnel changes but policy changes. And there’s all the uncertainty that comes with startup businesses in a startup industry.

There’s no real infrastructure that exists and no playbook to look at, so the entire industry in Illinois is figuring it out as we go along. As a lawyer, I’m trying to give advice in the midst of a constantly shifting landscape.

CL: Do you personally have to deal with any stigma from your work?

Rollman: When I first started doing cannabis law, I did feel a little self-conscious, and I thought I might lose some of the respect I’d worked so hard to build as a litigator. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the reception from lawyers and other professionals has been very supportive because they understand very quickly that there’s a real need for legal advice when you’re dealing with a federally illegal substance.

That said … do I get a lot of jokes and puns related to the industry … ? Every day. When I get introduced at a party and people hear what I do, the first thing they ask is if I brought samples. People ask me if my clients pay me in product. Some people have the notion that my clients must all be dressed like hippies or Cheech and Chong, when, really, 100 percent of my clients are very professional; you’d never guess by looking at them that they’re involved in medical cannabis.

CL: What should the public understand about your industry?

Rollman: Illinois is a medical cannabis industry, and I’ll put the emphasis on “medical.” If you spend a day at one of the dispensaries in our state, what you’ll see is a parade of patients coming in that are suffering. This is not a recreational market that’s all about getting people high — many of them have pain that is a result of chemotherapy, Crohn’s disease or other conditions, and they’re just looking for relief.

There’s a massive opioid addiction problem in our country, and there are a lot of people taking them who don’t want to. They want a non-addictive alternative, and that’s what this industry is trying to provide. The stereotypes you see of marijuana purchasers on the Venice Beach boardwalk in California are a 180-degree difference from the patients you see coming into Illinois dispensaries. We’re trying to raise awareness to get the public comfortable thinking medical cannabis is a safe alternative to opioids. The less stigma there is around that, the more lives we can save from people having opioid overdoses.

Also, every legit study that has examined the “gateway theory” [that marijuana use leads to “harder” drug use] has refuted it. There are no more loud voices claiming that anymore, but you are seeing more states legalize medical marijuana as a response to the opioid crisis. So that should tell you it’s the opposite of a gateway drug.