When Mark Zekulin was in law school a decade ago, his current job would have seemed unimaginable. As president and general counsel at Tweed, a two-year-old company that grows and sells medical marijuana to patients across the country, he’s basically a legal drug dealer. Precedent sits down with the 35-year-old to find out what on earth a marijuana lawyer does all day.
Why does Tweed need an in-house lawyer?
For two reasons. One, the regulations around growing medical marijuana are intense. Our facilities have to be secure. And like any pharmaceutical product, we need the ability to do recalls and we have to test our product to make sure it’s safe.
And the second reason?
We sell a controlled substance, so we can’t advertise. So it makes sense to have a lawyer who can direct the marketing strategy, because we need to think carefully about what we’re allowed to do. We have to find creative ways to make sure doctors and patients choose us for their medicine.
What marketing ideas have you come up with?
I run a call centre that patients can contact to learn about our product. And we have a team of pharmaceutical reps that meet with doctors to educate them about our product. I also talk to the media. We can’t control what they write, but hopefully a few readers do a bit of research and realize this medicine helps people. Then they might say, ‘Gee, maybe this is right for my uncle. I should tell him to go talk to his doctor.’
So, like plenty of in-house lawyers, you get to make both legal and business decisions. Do you like that?
Absolutely. I truly get to wear a bunch of different hats.
What do you spend most of your time on?
Lots of meetings. We’ve grown from five employees to more than 70 in two years, so there’s a lot to coordinate. It can be overwhelming, but that’s also what makes it a lot of fun.
Is it hard to be known as the weed lawyer?
When I first got going, I was worried about the stigma. But those barriers are being knocked down. When I talk to my grandma, I’m not sure she buys into the concept, but when I talk to a group of people out at dinner, I don’t sense any stigma. People are just fascinated to learn more.
The high road
It only took Mark Zekulin six years to find his dream job. What follows is a year-by- year breakdown of his one-of-a-kind career path:
2008: After finishing his articles at what was then Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP (now Dentons), in Ottawa, the University of Ottawa law grad spends two years as a policy advisor to Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.
2010: He enrolls in the Master of Laws program at the University of Cambridge — just for fun.
2011: Zekulin heads to Toronto to work on Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s successful re-election campaign.
2012: Zekulin starts at Cassidy Levy Kent LLP, an international-trade firm in Ottawa.
2013, summer: He quits without securing another job. “I loved the firm, but couldn’t see myself there in 20 years.” He spends four months networking.
2013, fall: Zekulin lunches with Bruce Linton, CEO and chairman of the newly founded Tweed, who needs a lawyer to navigate the thorny regulations of the cannabis sector. Zekulin is rapt and quickly joins as employee number five.
2015: After nearly two years as general counsel, Zekulin nabs a second job title: president of the entire company.