Interview With Cannabis Lawyer Jodie Cheng

Jodie Cheng is the Founder of JWC Legal, a legal practice that focuses on complex intellectual property issues, particularly as they pertain to the growing cannabis industry.  

Thanks to the War on Drugs, cannabis use has been historically relegated to the shadows, and users have had to turn to black-market dealers in back-alleys to get their bud. Now, as the stigma and regulations surrounding cannabis begin to dissolve, more and more players are entering the legal cannabis space, hoping to jump aboard the Green Rush and become a part of the post-prohibition era.

Though navigating the bourgeoning cannabis space isn't easy, particularly given the amount of uncertainty that surrounds the industry; whether it be the murky laws around banking, the schism between federal and state legality, and the FDA's ominous remarks about the CBD space.

This is why one lawyer has decided to utilize their legal expertise to help those within cannabis space, and clear away the smoke that surrounds the industry at large. That Lawyer is Jodie Cheng.

Going Solo

In her career, Jodie Cheng achieved what many can only aspire to. Having worked her way up at a large international law firm in California, Jodie worked high-profile cases and earned her keep as a respected lawyer.

Though simply climbing rungs on a legal ladder wasn't the end-goal for Jodie, who wanted more "more flexibility" with the kind of clients" she could represent.

The previous law firm I worked at was billing out at more than a thousand dollars an hour. Any sort of emerging industry cannot afford something like that.Jodie Cheng, Founder of JWC Legal

In order to serve clients who mightn't have the resources to afford high-end legal fees, Jodie left her previous firm and founded JWC Legal in 2017.

"I had started it just to provide the same top-quality legal counsel to startups and emerging industries that, frankly, just need more legal help."

Immediately, when one thinks of California in 2017, and emerging industries, it's hard not to think about the cannabis industry. Cannabis was made legal in California at the end of 2016, and in that regard, there was no better time to work in the space than when JWC Legal entered the fray. The cannabis experiment had just begun and many people lacked the legal acumen to navigate the new space.

However, becoming a lawyer focused upon cannabis was never Jodie's intention.

"Honestly, I never had a concerted effort to be specifically a cannabis attorney. When I started my own law firm, I was just looking for a platform that has more flexibility, and could serve a wider group of people."

Initially, JWC legal was busy working on large cases such as representing Qualcomm in their global litigation case against Apple and representing household names such as Facebook, the NFL, and General Motors.

And though Jodie didn't seek out the cannabis industry initially, the momentum surrounding marijuana was accelerating in California at the time, and quickly, the industry found her.

"Through work, I started to meet more people who would hear, "Oh, okay, you do intellectual property. Can I protect my cannabis brand in this way? Can I get a patent on that? How do I build value for my company if we're either hoping to stick with the company or even later find investors or even sell the brand? And so I began by helping just a few people, who began to tell other people that were interested and it just grew from word of mouth. It's kind of amazing. I think a substantial portion of my practice now is in the cannabis industry, definitely more than 50%."

A Budding Legal System

The cannabis space, even in 2020, remains very much in its infancy. There's very little precedent when it comes to court cases and litigation, and in the U.S., there are different shades of legality between states. For even the best of business owners, this can be quite tricky to navigate.

"IP Litigation is very, very early for cannabis companies. They're not suing each other over patents as often as some other industries. So most of the work that I do for cannabis companies is more on the consulting, advising, strategy side – to make sure that they're preparing intellectual property rights correctly or just strategizing their brand and their company and protecting it appropriately."

Whether it be figuring out the legal ramifications of naming your cannabis strain 'Coca-cola,' or making sure that your cannabis pet product won't get you into a legal battle, Jodie brings her expertise to often much smaller players within the cannabis space.

"Basically, any time a company has something that they believe sets them apart from their competitors, whether it's a brand, a process, packaging or a specific formula, they would need to talk to an IP attorney with some familiarity in cannabis to see first of all can I have those rights to that Intellectual Property. We then do a 'freedom to operate,' which is an analysis to determine whether they are violating anybody else's intellectual property."

According to Jodie, the wave of cannabis legalization in the U.S. in recent years has brought with it an influx of budding entrepreneurs who want their very first business to be in cannabis. This phenomenon, she explains, is due to the large learning curve that comes with entering the industry. This sees her working with many farmers, and those with a genuine passion for cannabis, far more often than business owners from foreign fields.

"You have to get the right growers then you have to figure out extraction of it and then you have to work through the thicket of cannabis-specific regulations especially if you're anywhere in the United States, you've got to figure out it's federally illegal but my state is allowing it but maybe this city doesn't, voted against it, all sorts of tax issues. So there's that kind of barrier to entry that, it's just kind of like a complicated industry to get into."

"Then, it can be hard to network within cannabis because I think a lot of cannabis industry participants like to keep their network pretty focused on people that are legitimately interested in cannabis instead of just trying to come in, get money and leave. I think there's some personal type hesitation to open up your network to somebody who's coming in from another industry."

A Flowering Future

In her line of work, Jodie gains a unique perspective on the growth of the cannabis industry, seeing not only the types of people entering the industry but also the number of patents being placed upon unique cannabis products – a metric which few will be privy to.

"I'm seeing a lot of big companies taking out a lot of patents. So there are probably a couple of pharmaceutical companies that own let's just say the majority of full cannabis patents. And in addition, I've seen a remarkable rise in cannabis patent applications just in the last two, three years."

Using her interaction with business owners, in addition to paying attention to patents, Jodie says she is "very optimistic" about the future of cannabis.

"I think that we're going to have to get to federal legalization at some point, I don't know that it's going to happen in 2020 as some seem to think it will, but I think that we will continue to make incremental steps toward all-out cannabis legalization in the United States. A majority of people now favour cannabis legalization, and in states where it is legal, we're seeing massive tax revenue and job creation. The purse is powerful, I think that will lead the push towards legalization."

Even in her daily life, Jodie notices this changing of the cannabis tides simply while driving around.

"In California, we've got tons of billboards for dispensaries. If you've ever been to Las Vegas, almost every other billboard is for a weed dispensary."

And in order to truly grasp where the cannabis industry will head in the future, Jodie looks toward the past, and the precedent set by analogous industries like Alcohol and Tobacco. In this regard, Jodie believes that the best brand in the cannabis space will win.

"There are only a finite number of ways that you can have cannabis bought like a formula. Much of this is going to be focused on creating a brand that consumers like and trust whether it's the form factor of the product or good marketing. There's going to be a huge emphasis on branding. This is what we've seen with both the alcohol and tobacco industries."

To learn more about JWC Legal, visit their site here.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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