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ESF Alumna Leads Cannabis Team for Law Firm

Sara Payne answers call for cannabis-focused counsel

Sara Payne

By Karen B. Moore

Sara Payne ('05, ES) is no stranger to jokes about her specialty in cannabis law at Barclay Damon LLP, in the firm's Syracuse office.

"People say they're going to 'reefer' cases to me, or I'm getting 'lost in the weeds,'" she said, and people have suggested meetings be held at 4:20, a decades-old term referring to smoking marijuana at 4:20 p.m.

But the issues she deals with are no joke.

Payne was named lead attorney for Barclay Damon's newly launched cannabis team. The members of this multidisciplinary team represent individuals and organizations participating in or impacted by legal cannabis operations. They deal with issues that involve labor, intellectual property, immigration, and environmental and business questions.

"Most areas of law are very specific, but cannabis isn't like that," she said. "It touches on all legal areas."

The firm has experienced a tremendous increase in demand for cannabis-focused counsel from their clients; not only people who want to become marijuana farmers or dispensary operators, but those who own or manage conventional businesses and need advice regarding employment, drug testing, immigration, land use, banking and insurance. "What we're finding is this is touching a huge percent of our client base whether they have any interest or intention of having a direct connection with the cannabis industry or not," said Payne.

Payne represented one of the original five registered organizations authorized to produce and distribute medical marijuana in New York state, and has assisted the company since its inception with all aspects of its operations.

"I was fortunate enough to be with [the client] at the beginning when no one in New York state knew anything about marijuana - certainly not in the legal way," said Payne. "I had this wonderful opportunity to get in on the ground floor and it has just taken off since."

Currently, 31 states and the District of Columbia have legal medical marijuana programs, and nine states and D.C. have legal recreational marijuana programs -more commonly referred to as "adult use," said Payne. As of Oct. 17, legal adult-use sales started in Canada.

The collective cannabis action in other northeastern states, in particular Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine and New Jersey, has "pushed our politicians to giving meaningful thought to an adult-use program in New York state," said Payne.

"It's an interesting issue with a lot of different constituencies coming out on different sides … but at the end of the day I think it's probably going to be a political inevitability. Probably more of a 'when,' not an 'if'," she said.

Payne is a contributing editor forCannabis Law Digest, and she's given 20 presentations this year, including "Legislative Developments in Medical Marijuana and Industrial Hemp in New York," a New York State Bar Association continuing legal education seminar. She's also a member of the New York State Bar Association Committee on Cannabis Law.

Payne took a self-described "non-linear" career path to law. She considered going to medical school and thought ESF's science curriculum would provide a solid foundation. "The hard sciences program is just phenomenal," she said. "It's a small community feel and the amount and breadth of expertise among faculty is incredible." While majoring in environmental science at ESF, Payne discovered an interest in the law.

"I was intrigued by what keeps our society functioning," Payne said.

"It's interesting to me, looking back, how all the steps along my path have sort of teed me up perfectly to add something meaningful to the legal landscape as we see developments in legalization of cannabis across the United States and Canada," she said.

"I think the middle ground is the right place to stay. Stay educated on all sides because I suspect, going forward, our next generation of young people are going to be impacted by legalized cannabis one way or another somewhere in their career," said Payne.