An Unexpected Success

Advocating for Cannabis in the Shadow of the “Just Say No” Era

Attorney Emily Burns grew up in the “Just Say No” era and her mother worked on then-first lady Nancy Reagan’s campaign to rid the country and its youth of drugs. Her mother’s viewpoint, however, did not color Burns’ views. She saw a future in cannabis law, recognized the need to help shape a new field of law in the medical cannabis industry, and seized the opportunity.  In a few short years, she has become a leading legal mind in the medical cannabis arena and a go-to resource for the industry.

Burns’ path to her current career began in law school, when she signed up for a cannabis law and policy course out of sheer curiosity. With her mother a staunch advocate for a drug-free America, Burns says, “I’m probably the last person you’d think would get involved in the cannabis industry. What I learned, however, led me to understand that cannabis legalization for medicinal purposes was necessary.”

That truth became apparent several times in Burns’ life. First in law school, later as a practicing attorney, and more recently when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She says that as she helped her mom through cancer treatment, she talked to physicians across the country about medical cannabis to help treat her pain. Many were advocates for the plant-based medicine. Yet, because of the social stigma, her mother decided against using cannabis to help her through treatment.

“Even though cannabis could have helped my mom, she just could not bring herself to use it. And that’s sad because she and others limit themselves in their medical treatment,” says Burns. “We have a long way to go to help people overcome the social stigma and fear of using cannabis as medicine.”

Blazing the Trail

Some call Burns a trailblazer, and she’s okay with that moniker. “It’s really important to me to be able to shape and develop this new field of law. The opportunity to interpret and apply the law in a novel way drew me to the complexity of the cannabis industry,” she explains.

Paving the way for medical cannabis law has been exciting for Burns. Her career has included a fellowship at the University of Maryland School of Law Legal Resource Center for Public Health Policy, and work as an attorney and cannabis legal advisor at a leading Mid-Atlantic law firm. In all of her roles, Burns incorporates her work in politics, public policy, criminal justice, and social advocacy with the business side of cannabis law. Today you can find Burns leading her own legal consulting business, Legally Burns, LLC. “It’s a chance to combine everything I love to do in my work,” she says.

Setting the Stage for Women

Burns embraces the fact that becoming one of the first women in cannabis law was a way to become a pioneer in this legal field and set precedent. “I was taught in law school that you should question everything. The medical cannabis industry allows me the opportunity to not just assess the legal issues, but also to be a woman leader in this field of law.”

She sees that the majority of the equity being poured into the medical cannabis industry is going to male-owned cannabis businesses. She also knows there is tremendous potential for women business owners but hears from women across the country who are unable to find funding. “Women and minorities are already at a disadvantage in business. But in this industry, there isn’t a way to get in without liquid capital. And we’re seeing this liquid capital invested into companies owned by less diverse groups,” she observes.

“Women should have the same opportunities as any other business owners,” she adds, pointing to state laws that will mandate diversity and an application process that helps under-represented groups, including women and minorities, make their mark in the cannabis field.

Women in cannabis are starting to grab the reins, she notes proudly, highlighting a new project called The Initiative, a cannabis accelerator that provides support and funding resources to female-owned cannabis businesses. Burns has found that connecting with other like-minded women, building strong relationships, and creating partnerships with people she trusts is often the key to women’s success in the industry.

A Passionate Legal Voice Speaks Out

Burns continues to help shape the new field of cannabis law in Maryland. She’s been an advocate and speaker on legal policy, regulations, and the public health aspects of cannabis legalization. While still in law school, she worked on a first-of-its-kind case book on cannabis law and policy issues covering everything from banking and financial legal issues to regulation on the state level and FDA approval of cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals. She has advised the Department of Agriculture, landlords, business leaders and other stakeholders on state cannabis regulations. She has also focused on the business side of medical cannabis regulations, consulting with companies on compliance, pursuing zoning approvals, drafting FDA compliance disclaimer language, and advising on the medical cannabis application process.

Today, Burns continues to focus on the business side of law, concentrating on the growers, processors, and dispensaries who need regulatory compliance advice and general business representation. She also sees a growing need for greater understanding of the banking and financial side of things, a need she’s eager to fill.

She says, “I left big law firm so that I could serve a more diverse range of stakeholder groups and individuals in cannabis. There’s a lot of interest from other attorneys and businesses who need guidance on cannabis legal matters. I enjoy serving as an industry educator and public speaker.”