Aaron Pelley: From Cannabis Activism to a Purpose-Driven Legal Practice
This article first appeared in Ganjapeneur
Because of prohibition, cannabis and the law have been forever intertwined. Prohibition ensured that any cannabis entrepreneur, whether they were operating before legalization or not, should have a lawyer on their side — and West coast-based Cultiva Law has been on the side of activists since its founding. One of the firm’s original attorneys, Aaron Pelley, spoke with Ganjapreneur about where it all started and how they’ve grown into a completely self-managed, people-first practice.
When Aaron started his private practice, he focused on helping medical cannabis patients. “I knew that if I was going to start my own firm that I just wanted to defend people that were committing the same kind of crimes that I could imagine committing myself,” he said. “Being a medical marijuana patient, I could get behind that.
“That ended up being the majority of my caseload for the better part of seven years — just defending medical marijuana patients or medical marijuana grows. I took a ton of pro-bono work on.” Aaron recalled noticing at one point while doing the books that 70% of their cases were pro-bono.
Many of his first cannabis cases were assigned through the Cannabis Defense Coalition. A few of those early cases gave him the final push into cannabis law. In one case, the police had taken a gram and metal pipe from an unhoused neighbor and medical patient, even after he provided proper documentation. Aaron demanded law enforcement return the property and got the cannabis returned to its rightful owner. He looks back on this case with pride because he helped someone who was often overlooked. He felt privileged to be both a criminal defense attorney and feel like “the good guy.”
“I woke up every morning thrilled to be doing what I was doing. Not many criminal defense lawyers get to wake up and feel like they’re wearing a white hat and they’re the good guy, and I really did. That was amazing for me, I feel very proud of that looking back on it,” said Aaron.
In a much more public case in 2009, Aaron argued for eleven pounds of police-confiscated medical cannabis to be released to its owners. The amount the patients carried was legal in California but not in Washington. Aaron proposed to the judge that the Sheriff’s department release the legal limit of cannabis to the patients each week until the property was returned in full — to his surprise, the judge agreed. In response, Kent, Washington’s police chief wrote an op-ed for The Seattle Times that essentially complained about having to comply with this order. The op-ed brought national coverage to Aaron’s practice and, with that momentum, he decided to jump fully into being a pot lawyer.
Before Washington’s adult-use laws, most of Cultiva’s clients were medical growers, patients, and dispensary owners. He still does a lot of work with cultivators and shop owners, defending and protecting licenses from revocation. He sees it as the same work he used to do: dealing with the government and agreeing on how to interpret the law. As his clients’ businesses grow, they need different services from his offices, and so Cultiva Law has naturally evolved.
Aaron began bringing lawyers onto the team with other areas of expertise in order to offer any law service that cannabis clients might need. “I couldn’t also be a complex civil litigator and a trademark attorney, and all the other things that companies needed,” Aaron said, “so I had to build that team around me who had those smarts. Because it’s cannabis, we are super lucky. People want to be a part of this.”
There are three main silos in each office. One silo focuses on the license defense work with the Attorney General, this is Aaron’s specialty. Another is the transactional group that assists in drawing up contracts, writing M&A agreements, and any other elements to buying, selling, or running a company. This group will sometimes also walk clients through the licensing process, guiding them through paperwork and approvals. Lastly, they have a team that steps in whenever clients need litigation. Court is expensive, so the litigation team works towards mediation or even arbitration, but clients do still take cases to court regularly.
The firm expands into new states the same way they grew their initial service offerings: organically. Cultiva’s clients eventually became interested in emerging markets in other states, so Aaron sought out talented lawyers there. Cultiva Law now operates in Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada with attorneys who live in the communities they serve. Each state market has its own culture that seeps into how people do business, so each lawyer is not only an expert in their field but is also well versed in the culture of the community. This is a small view of how Cultiva Law puts people before profits, with their first interest in best serving their clients. And when it comes to how the firm is run, Aaron said he is most interested in each attorney having the ability to maintain their work/life balance.
At Cultiva, they’ve created an environment that they want to work in. The way they practice law is unique because they made it up as they grew: the firm simply wants everyone to do their best. They are diverse in gender, race, and age, and the focus is not on thenumber of hours billed. Instead, the team focuses on how well they serve their clients and the outcome of each case. Vacation days are never counted, and everyone takes two weeks off at the end of the year. Also, there is no partnership track — instead, Cultiva operates laterally. When working a case, they will often speak between offices and, because of this, they are all involved in the democratic hiring process. Each office will interview new attorneys before they join the team. They do the same with new clients in each office, the firm has built itself up enough to choose whether or not they will take on new clients.
It is clear after speaking with Aaron that he is proud of how Cultiva Law has developed: “How rewarding to be there right at the tip of the spear when everything was changing and making that fight, I think that was probably the coolest part of my career. It still is now! To be able to walk into a grow where there’s enough plants that it would have put somebody away for life back when I first started practicing law, and now I’m helping them build their brand and take it to California or whatever we’re doing. Being a part of the cannabis industry during this time has been amazing.”
Aaron’s goal was always to expand to the four states where the firm is currently practicing and he’s happy to continue that work. Right now, the team is looking for more attorneys in Nevada to flesh out their practice there. When I asked him about plans for Cultiva’s future, he said he never publicly states his plans anymore because the journey with Cultiva Law has surprised him every step of the way.