Matt Zorn and Shane Pennington are lawyers that for the past 3 years have been at the bleeding edge of cannabis and drug policy litigation against the government. During this time, we’ve:

  • litigated cases to end the 50-year NIDA monopoly, obtaining one of four Schedule I marijuana cultivation licenses for our client.

  • uncovered a secret DOJ memo;

  • got a smokable hemp ban struck down as unconstitutional in Texas; and

  • got a federal judge to note that “in an appropriate case, the Drug Enforcement Administration may well be obliged to initiate a reclassification proceeding for marijuana, given the strength of” our arguments.

We’ve been recognized for this work in the pages of national media, such as NBC, Rolling Stone, the Wall Street Journal, and NPR. And we’ve done other things too, including other lawsuits against DEA, such as the Right to Try case that we helped brief and Matt argued. Behind the scenes, we counsel businesses and researchers on the ins-and-outs of federal and state drug law. You can read more about each us and why we do this below the line.

Our notepads are overflowing with discoveries, ideas, observations, and reactions about the law that don’t make it into our public filings. In this newsletter, we hope to share them as well offer thoughts and reactions on news, current events, lawsuits, legislation, and scholarship to contribute to an ongoing and vibrant conversation. Naturally, that discussion will often include identifying legal issues or policy points that we think are omitted, overlooked, or misunderstood. And we’re not going to hold much back.

This is a labor of love. Most of the litigation above—including nearly all our litigation against DEA—has been pro bono. And in that same spirit, most of the content we’ll publish here will be free as well.

But if you like our content and find it helpful, we’d ask that you consider helping us in one of two ways.

First, and most important, by sharing individual posts or our newsletter on social media, you can help us expand the conversation.

Second, you can become a paid subscriber at the cost of two lattes ($7) per month. In exchange, money we get from these subscriptions will be poured back into producing better content and expand the conversation in new, unexplored directions. For example, we might use the money to cover FOIA requests to seek interesting government documents relating to drug policy. Or, we might use use the money to pay $1,000 in copy fees to obtain and publish archival documents relating to the creation of the Controlled Substances Act in the 1960s from the Nixon Archives.


About Matt

Like many, my path into this space is a mix of personal tragedy, healing, and dumb luck.

Few courses at Columbia Law School held my attention during my tenure there as a law student between 2010 and 2012. A seminar entitled Drugs, Law, and Policy was a rare exception. I soaked up the reading that spanned from the inequities of drug prohibition to the deeper regulatory issues—and went beyond—plunging myself into the history, literature, and research. And I developed theories and arguments as to how, why, and where drug law went wrong and what could be done to fix it.

But I didn’t use my newly minted license to enter the field post-graduation. I studied for the New York bar exam, took a post-bar trip to the Amazon, and upon return, became a young litigator at a pre-eminent New York commercial law firm, aggressively chipping away at my six-figure law student debt. Less than one year into my career, I transitioned to IP litigation, which is still a major focus of my practice today.

A few months after that, the person I was dating had a recurrence of a childhood bone cancer. After 2½ years together, 18 months living together, and a hospital bedside wedding, she passed away in June 2015 when I was 28. Suffice to say, through that harrowing experience, I witnessed first-hand the need to develop not just new medicines for pain, trauma, and all sorts of other conditions—but to bust paradigms that too often favors opiates and antidepressants over more promising drugs and other substances. And from my days as a law student, I knew how current federal drug laws impeded that progression.

But I still didn’t enter a career in drug law. After a half-year more at my New York firm, in Spring 2016 I moved to Marshall, TX to clerk on the busiest patent docket in the land. And thereafter, I still didn’t enter a career in drug law. I remained in Texas and began practicing commercial litigation and intellectual property at the boutique law firm Yetter Coleman LLP.

My path to litigating drug policy issues of national import came two years later in March 2019 at SXSW in Austin. There, I met Dr. Sue Sisley, the president and founder of Scottsdale Research Institute, who gave a presentation as part of the first-year “cannabusiness” track. She described her struggles to do FDA clinical trials with real-world cannabis. Doing everything by the book, in 2016, she had use moldy cannabis provided by the University of Mississippi for her clinical trials investigating cannabis to treat vets with PTSD. Dr. Sisley then applied for her own license to cultivate marijuana in 2017, but DEA refused to process her application to cultivate marijuana. This was bureaucracy run by ideologues at its worst. So, at the end of the presentation, I offered to see if I could represent Dr. Sisley pro bono in a lawsuit to get her application processed.

From there, I consulted with my colleague Shane Pennington—an administrative law whiz—who at that time had no experience with drug policy litigation. Together, we saw a viable claim, took the case pro bono, and scored the first of several victories on behalf of SRI. Ultimately, after 2 years of assisting Dr. Sisley, Scottsdale Research Institute got the license she had applied for.

Since thrusting myself into cannabis/psychedelic space, I have encountered dynamic and passionate lawyers; novel and complex legal issues; and industry folks committed to bringing innovative and truly effective therapies and healing to those that most in need. And so, the work must continue.

About Shane

I grew up in deep East Texas as “the son of a preacher man,” and for the first twenty years of my life I intended to follow in my father’s footsteps. After a couple of college philosophy classes, however, I decided that I needed to go my own way. Struggling to find my next step, I asked friends and family for guidance. When nearly everyone agreed I should be a lawyer, I decided to give it a shot. Trouble was, I had no lawyers in my family and had never considered being one myself. So I showed up on my first day at the University of Texas School of Law knowing very little about the American legal system. I had no clue, for example, what a tort was or the difference between a trial and an appeal. As a result, each new class exposed me to complex ideas and problems I had never previously considered.

While I enjoyed many of those classes, there was one that I was dreading: Administrative Law. I was told that it was a “must-take” class, but I couldn’t understand why. From the course description, it sounded painfully boring: “Administrative agencies make policy, regulate, and adjudicate across issues ranging from natural resource management and environmental protection to public benefits and workplace safety. This course examines the constitutional and statutory framework surrounding the creation and operation of administrative agencies.” To my surprise, though, I found the material fascinating. In fact, by the time it was over, I knew I had found my calling. Not only is the subject immensely important on a practical level to virtually every aspect of life and business, but it is also theoretically rich and endlessly complex. I was hooked.

After law school, I clerked for three federal judges—then-Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and then-Chief Judge David B. Sentelle of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. All three clerkships exposed me to complex administrative-law cases, but my year with Judge Sentelle on the D.C. Circuit—“the second most important court” in the country—was especially administrative-law intensive. I loved every minute of it.

Since then, my practice has continued to focus primarily on administrative-law, initially as part of the Supreme Court and Appellate practice group at Baker Botts LLP and then later when I joined Matt at Yetter Coleman LLP. While I’ve enjoyed litigating regulatory issues in other industries (and still do), my collaboration with Matt to represent Dr. Sisley and Scottsdale Research Institute in challenging the federal government’s non-sensical approach to cannabis has been especially exciting and meaningful. The work is extraordinarily important to both public health and the rule of law, the legal issues are fascinating, and the opportunities to solve complex problems through creative, cutting-edge legal strategies are seemingly endless. For those reasons, I recently decided to join Vicente Sederberg LLP in New York to focus on these issues full-time.

In addition to litigation, I also counsel clients regarding federal drug law and am a regular commentator on administrative law issues for the Yale Journal on Regulation’s “Notice & Comment” blog and for the ABA’s Administrative and Regulatory Law News.

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Matt
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Shane Pennington
Admin law nerd