“We have a constitutional right to alter our consciousness,” says Allison Margolin.
That’s what Margolin argued in her admissions essay to Harvard Law. After graduating in 2002, Margolin returned to Los Angeles to become “L.A.’s Dopest Attorney” (quite possibly the world’s most memorable tagline). Now a partner at Margolin & Lawrence in Beverly Hills, Margolin is one of California’s—if not the nation’s—premiere marijuana lawyers.
In this interview, Margolin discusses how prohibition violates free thought, predicts that marijuana will be legalized for recreational use nationwide within a handful of years, and clues us in to her personal favorite strain of (medical) marijuana.
In your Harvard Law admissions essay you argued that we have a “constitutional right to alter our consciousness.” What was the main thrust of your argument?
The thesis challenged the basis for the Controlled Substances Act. I argued that the Act is unconstitutional in two main ways: One, it violates the right to free thought. And free thought underlies the principles of the First Amendment. Two, the classification scheme (like the list of Schedule I drugs) has no rational basis in the context of addiction medicine.
But aren’t many drugs, like heroin, said to be extremely addictive? And there are those who argue that marijuana, though a “soft drug,” can also be addictive.
Addiction isn’t just about the drug itself and how strong it is. It also has a lot to do with the emotional state of the experimenter. For example, a very small percentage of Vietnam vets stayed heroin addicts when they returned stateside. This is because they were in a different setting and much different psychological state.
In other words, physical addiction is only one part of the story.
So do you feel that the constitutional right to alter our consciousness applies to hard drugs as well as soft?
Yes. I believe that prohibitions against the use of any drug violates our inalienable right to free thought under the First Amendment. It also violates the Ninth Amendment against the expansion of government power over rights retained by the people. In short, prohibition violates our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
California ballot initiatives have gone back and forth on pot for some years now. Is a ballot initiative a legitimate tool in the fight to end marijuana prohibition?
A ballot initiative is a great way to end marijuana prohibition. The only challenge is making sure it clearly defines what conduct is okay. If it doesn’t do this clearly enough, the feds will do as they’ve done in California and take advantage of any loopholes and vagueness that they can, in order to prosecute people.
In Colorado and Washington, we have seen the feds recede. But here, in California, the U.S. Attorneys admittedly go after all marijuana dispensaries. This is because the law (even the amended law written by the state Senate) is poorly written. It’s not obvious what conduct is allowed and what is proscribed.
So have the feds continued to raid medical-marijuana grow houses in California or has that eased off at all?
The feds have continued to raid grow houses. I’ve seen no change, other than plea offers getting worse here in L.A. on the federal level. And they’re extremely arbitrary.
Do you see the feds as the greatest threat to marijuana legalization? If not, what is?
No, not the feds, but the pharmaceutical industry. And the politicians the industry lobbies. This is the greatest threat to decriminalization. I fear that even if marijuana is rescheduled, the pharmaceutical industry will continue to advocate “felonization” of those who are outside their control.
Look into your crystal ball: Do you see the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in California’s future, following in the footsteps of Washington and Colorado?
I see the legalization of marijuana for recreational use nationally within a few years.
Do you see any holdout states?
Every state has a pro-legalization movement, but I do see states with a large number of dry counties (or dry cities and towns) in terms of alcohol, as holdouts. Any state that has dry counties will be reluctant.
Have you represented individuals suffering from chronic or terminal disease like cancer or HIV? Can you describe what they go through on a daily basis? How does marijuana prohibition impact their daily lives?
I have represented people with terminal diseases and HIV who are helped by marijuana. Marijuana prohibition forces them to go to the street to acquire their medicine, something people should not have to do. Marijuana has been shown to potentially have regressive effects on the reproduction of HIV, is an anti-nausea, and is extremely excellent for improving state-of-mind and dealing with situations by taking a step back, as opposed to dealing with situations in an overly-emotional way (like when you’re drunk).
Do you advocate on a policy level? Do you consult on legislation or ballot initiatives?
My firm is registered as a federal lobbyist and I have incorporated a 501(c)(3) and (c)(4), but haven’t begun any fundraising yet. It’s called Advocates for Healing America, aimed at decriminalizing drugs and freeing those incarcerated for drug offenses.
So I’m available as a lobbyist on the federal level. Just waiting for someone to ask…
What’s your definition of the War on Drugs?
My definition of the War on Drugs is the criminalization of people for altering their consciousness through a non-caloric substance.
I hear you’re open about your own personal (medical) marijuana use. What’s your favorite strain and why?
My favorite strain is anything grown by someone I know, and smoked in good company.
Paper or paperless office?
The California state bar wouldn’t really, at this point anyway, permit a totally paperless office. This is because files have to be kept for seven years. But we do scan a lot of paperwork and try to store paperless as much as possible. It’s hard to get away from the habit of editing on paper, though.
What do you bring with you to court?
My client’s file and the CEB handbook on criminal law. That book is a savior.
What do you do for fun?
Hang out with my human daughter, my dog and cat “sons,” BBQ with my boyfriend and the people who work in my office. When I’ve got time, I do yoga, hiking, and swimming.
How can Lawyerist readers get in touch with you?
One Final Question
What does it take to succeed as a criminal defense lawyer?
To succeed as a criminal defense lawyer—that’s a strange riddle.
Being good is not enough.
You have to be able to project that you’re good, but without being arrogant. But then, sometimes the arrogant sh*tty lawyers get business that you should get. I can’t say I’ve solved this one yet. That’s because the business aspect (which allows you to survive and help more people) is almost as important as the legal skills.
One thing’s for sure: You have to “see” the result for it to happen. In other words, you have to see that you can win in order to do it. And, by having that state of mind, my office has pulled off some amazing victories for freedom and justice.