TAMPA — For decades, attorney Richard Blau focused his legal savvy on the high-stakes business of booze. Alcohol-industry law was an attorney's dream, full of unresolved questions and deep-pocketed players clawing their way to the top.
So when Florida's talk turned to marijuana, another storied pastime with its own dubious history, Blau's titan of a law firm, GrayRobinson, jumped at the opportunity. Blau now leads a special practice for clients wanting to capitalize on medical cannabis — and bend the laws to their advantage.
"The playbook is to get in and lend a hand in crafting those rules, so they read the way our clients want them to read," Blau said. "The powerful people are the ones to get in on the ground floor."
Months before the state's November vote to legalize medical marijuana, some of Florida's biggest law firms are already staking their claims to the lucrative legal minefield of the budding weed industry.
Orlando-based GrayRobinson, which employs 101 attorneys in Tampa Bay and nearly 300 across the state, will devote a core of its "regulated products" group to the nuances of marijuana law.
Attorneys with Holland & Knight, a prominent firm in Tampa with more than 1,000 lawyers across the world, last week released an alert for clients on the "legal landscape (and) complex marketplace for marijuana-related businesses."
And Akerman, the Miami-based corporate-law giant and largest law firm in the state, recently launched a "regulated substances task force" with nearly two dozen senior attorneys and public-policy professionals ready to advise, among others, cultivators, private-equity groups and dispensaries.
"The shifting interplay between state and federal laws presents new challenges and unprecedented opportunities for Akerman clients," managing partner Richard Spees said in a statement, "and we are positioned to help them capitalize."
Groups with ostensible legal ties have filed for Florida business licenses with names like Medical Marijuana Business Lawyers and the Cannabis Law Group, joining a wave of "ganjapreneurs" grabbing for a piece of industry profits.
But the introduction of these powerhouse firms ups the ante, helping squash the images of two-bit, Breaking Bad-style "Better Call Saul" legal operations and legitimizing what could be a landslide of million-dollar corporate disputes.
"We're not the 'pot lawyers.' This is not 'reefer madness.' It's 100 percent professional, 100 percent legitimate . . . and we take it 100 percent seriously," said Troy Kishbaugh, a health care specialist serving on GrayRobinson's regulated-products group. "We have a large health care base . . . and they want their patients to get the best care possible. And if medical marijuana happens to be part of that medical regimen, they want to make sure they're doing it right."
The state's biggest firms bolstered their practices this spring after Florida lawmakers passed a "Charlotte's Web" bill legalizing a non-high-producing cannabis strain used to treat cancer and epilepsy.
An even bigger fight comes in November, when voters could pass Amendment 2 and legalize weed for a much broader slate of medical uses. Its prospects seem increasingly upbeat: A Quinnipiac University poll last week found 88 percent of Florida voters support adult medical-cannabis use.
If the vote passes, Florida could follow California in becoming America's second-biggest medical-weed state, with around 400,000 patients spending an average of $3,000 a year, estimates from state regulators and a national cannabis-industry trade group show.
State regulators have several months to decide on the law's little details, leaving a huge window for "cannabusiness" interests pushing to find an unserved niche. The state Department of Health's Office of Compassionate Use, which is drafting the rules, discussed at a public hearing Friday a range of potential enterprises, from medical-cannabis testing to home delivery.
Lawyers wise to food and alcohol regulation are shoo-ins for the firms' legal-weed practices: Many of the rules facing Big Pot, attorneys argue, could look a lot like those governing Big Tobacco, Big Food and Big Booze.
Joining them are lawyers with a vast range of expertise:
• Health care experts to address hospital and physician groups on how to protect themselves while administering, storing and suggesting the use of a drug still illegal under federal law.
• Banking and financial gurus to advise on securing investment, handling money and saving on taxes in what has long been an all-cash business.
• Land use attorneys who can help resolve zoning and landlord disputes over where growers and distributors can operate from seed to sale.
• Even intellectual-property specialists with knowledge on how to protect and preserve cannabis companies' strains, brands and reputations, in much the same way consultants have long advised Budweiser or Marlboro.
For precedent, attorneys here are analyzing the legal laboratories of the 23 states, plus Washington D.C., that have legalized medical cannabis, and the two states, Washington and Colorado, that have okayed weed for personal use.
They also are following in the footsteps of nationwide firms versed in guiding the emerging trade. Seattle's Canna Law Group, launched by international law firm Harris Moure in 2011, proved "profitable almost instantly," partner Dan Harris told the Puget Sound Business Journal last year, adding, "We were shocked at the demand." One of the group's attorneys, a young University of Miami graduate, was voted "Marijuana Industry Attorney of the Year" in 2013 by Dope Magazine.
For the finer details, attorneys said, firms are following their clients' requests to lobby their way into influence. Litigation seems likely: A proposed rule limiting Florida's medical weed to five nurseries, chosen by lottery, has already stirred up legal wrath.
Attorneys have likened their legal timing to representing alcohol outfits near the sunset of prohibition, a potentially historical chance to mold law and make nice with the grateful captains of a new industry.
But GrayRobinson's Blau, whose practice group is taking on three new clients a week, stops short of supporting the "green rush" of small-time entrepreneurs. He compares the early days of legal Florida weed to that of the American gold rush, in which organized business interests, not excited ground troops, ended up with the most to gain.
"All those individual wannabe miners thought (they'd strike it rich) when they pushed forward to mine the Klondike … but very few emerged out of that with anything," Blau said. "In reality, it was the established gold-mining companies who took the ground, and made it their own."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected] Follow @drewharwell.