Attorney J. Blake Johnson has forged a formidable career representing Oklahoma’s medical marijuana industry.
By Matt DingerExtract: Introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a little bit about yourself.
J. Blake Johnson: Well, my name is Blake Johnson. I was born and raised in Oklahoma and I’ve spent my life here, save several years spent in the San Francisco Bay Area in between college and law school. I did my undergrad and J.D. at OU, and I’ve spent the last couple years building a really exciting cannabis law practice.
Extract: And you’ve been building that practice at a big and historic law firm that some might have been surprised to see get involved in the cannabis industry. What has that been like?
Johnson: I was a bit nervous about pitching it to the firm, but I had an advantage in that there is a lot of available data about the cannabis industry, given its relative maturity elsewhere. That data goes a long way toward piercing through the initial skepticism. And, look, it’s pretty simple: Cannabis is a highly regulated product at the center of a sophisticated industry. You need lawyers there.
Extract: Let’s back up just a bit. Tell us how you got into law in the first place. Was that always a passion?
Johnson: Honestly, the real passion was argument. I was a dedicated high school and college debater. That’s what I did in the Bay Area as well — I directed a nonprofit that builds debate teams in inner-city high schools.
Extract: And you were a pretty good debater right, right?
Johnson: I was the state champ in high school, and in college, my partner and I won a national championship. Our senior year — the year we won — the topic was about controversial Supreme Court cases. Anyway, a litigator kind of seemed to me like the closest thing to a professional debater, so that’s what I wanted to do. As it turns out, though, my cannabis practice has been mostly transactional; I don’t spend a lot of time arguing.
Extract: But you’ve done some litigation too. You’ve been in the news for that before.
Johnson: Yeah, I cut my teeth on some pretty intense litigation, mostly in the sports and entertainment industries and frequently involving trademark infringement matters, which translates well into the cannabis industry. Even in its infancy, Oklahoma’s medical-marijuana market is already seeing disputes over intellectual property. There will be a whole lot more of that.
Extract: Honestly, you don’t really look like a lawyer.
Extract: Does that ever create challenges for you?
Johnson: Not in the cannabis industry.
Extract: Let’s talk about that — you say your practice is largely transactional — what are the legal needs of the cannabis community like?
Johnson: At the same time, they’re like that of any other industry but also different because of conflicting federal and state law. So a big part of my practice involves counseling industry participants regarding legal and regulatory compliance. The law and related rules have been changing rapidly, so this is in pretty constant demand.
My typical client, though, might not have more than a dream. They know they want to grow marijuana, and they may even have a lot of experience doing so, but they usually have less experience starting and running a business. So for these folks, we usually start with basic entity formation and tax planning — the goal being to limit liability and protect assets. Especially in a mostly cash industry, we want to avoid the creation of a single Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pool full of money that pays all expenses and collects all the money. We also usually want to take precautions to separate the ownership of valuable assets from operations. Basically, we plan to reduce exposure as much as possible in an industry that involves more risk than the average one.
I’m also particularly focused on brand development. The clients I work closely with hear from me constantly about the importance of developing and protecting their intellectual property portfolio. It’s easily their most valuable asset.
Over the course of their life, cannabis companies experience the same challenges and need the same solutions as many other industries. They have employees and need assistance developing policies and handling other HR matters. They are constantly engaging in transactions governed by contracts that should be carefully drafted and reviewed to avoid expensive litigation. They make agreements with investors and partners that will determine some of the most important ways in which their businesses function. And occasionally, they get involved in disputes.
Extract: And I guess they need a lawyer for all of that.
Johnson: I’m obviously a little biased, but I’d say they need a good one, too.
Honestly, a big part of my job at this point — given how extensive my industry contacts have become — involves connecting clients with the right people. Whether it’s a player in the cannabis industry or something adjacent to it, I do my best to maintain relationships across the state and I always try to identify and create strategic partnerships. The industry is so new that it’s important to have someone like that on your team.
Extract: So what are your plans for this column in Extract? What should readers expect? Will this be something that non-lawyers will want to read?
Johnson: Well, I hope it can be informative and educational and, at least intermittently, entertaining. We’ll try to stay on top of important developments affecting industry participants and patients. We’ll try to recruit some diverse legal minds and perspectives and cover some topics that aren’t well-covered in other publicly available places. And our intention is definitely not primarily to educate lawyers — those are my competitors.
Extract: Will you be offering our readers legal advice?
Johnson: No. That’s irresponsible, and not only because our readers aren’t paying us.
Extract: Does any of this ever seem surreal to you?
Johnson: Sometimes, yeah, it’s like “Holy shit! I work almost fully in the marijuana industry and I’m a totally credible professional.” I can’t imagine if I could tell my 16-year-old self — my mother would have never been able to tolerate me.
Seeing people come out of the shadows and operate in the sunlight — it’s amazing. I imagine some of the most awesome changes for a lot of lifers are of the kind that most people wouldn’t even think about — like being able to tell your kid the truth about your job. I feel really fortunate to have been around for this moment.
Speaking of which, representing highly successful businesses that just months ago would have been criminal enterprises really illustrates how arbitrary the line that separates those can be. We need urgently to turn our attention to the fact that while millions of dollars are being made on legal marijuana in Oklahoma, there are still jail cells in this state populated by people convicted of marijuana-related crimes. So we have a lot of work to do still.
Previously published Read Extract.