By Keith Coffman
DENVER, March 24 (Reuters) - Colorado lawyers who provide legal services to state-sanctioned medical and recreational marijuana businesses will not run afoul of attorney ethics regulations under a rule adopted on Monday by the state's highest court.
The decision could help marijuana entrepreneurs widen the number of attorneys they can rely upon to navigate the legal gray zone in Colorado for the drug, which remains illegal under federal law.
Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational marijuana use in voter initiatives in 2012, and a similar measure is on the ballot this summer in Alaska, while many more states allow medical marijuana. Retail cannabis stores opened in Colorado in January, and Washington is set to follow suit later this year.
But the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct had prohibited attorneys from aiding clients in any type of illegal activity, leaving questions about whether they could legitimately provide services to the pot industry.
The decision on Monday by the Colorado Supreme Court follows a request from the state bar association, which sought clarity for members who represent clients in the cannabis industry.
Lawyers in Colorado "may counsel clients regarding the validity, scope and meaning" of the state's marijuana laws and their implementation, according to the rule change signed by Chief Justice Nancy Rice of the Colorado Supreme Court.
"This gives attorneys unambiguous direction on what they can and cannot do," James Coyle, head of the state's Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, said in a phone interview.
Colorado is the first state to give attorneys guidance on marijuana-related law. Connecticut, Nevada, Rhode Island and Washington state have similar regulation changes that could be adopted in those states, he added.
The Colorado Bar Association also asked the state's high court to rule on the question of whether an attorney could face professional sanctions if they personally use marijuana, but the justices declined to address that issue, Coyle said.
The new rule permits lawyers to provide legal advice about Colorado's laws, rules, regulations and other provisions of legalized pot, but they must also inform clients about federal cannabis laws and policies, the rule change stated. (Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Ken Wills)