Today, Rachel Gillette is one of the leading cannabis attorneys in the nation. From modest roots she developed an entrepreneurial spirit and unique approach to business and law, and helped shape the legal cannabis industry into what it is today.
Throughout high school in Northern Virginia, Rachel worked at a bike shop selling mountain bikes and spent her weekends racing up and down the East Coast. At the shop, she learned her first lessons in business: how to communicate with others, good customer service, and the importance of loving what you do. “My job was truly an extension of my life then,” she remembers, “and most days didn’t feel like work at all.” Rachel was able to hone her racing skills, learn about bikes, and develop relationships outside of a typical high school peer group. She moonlighted as a shampoo girl at a hair salon (making $4.25 an hour) and her entrepreneurial spirit was ignited.
Rachel had two boys close in age in her early 20s, and as a single mother she recognized that in order to provide for her young family’s needs, she would have to think – and act – outside the box. “At the time, I was barely making a living wage cleaning houses and doing odd jobs,” she says. “I knew I had to change the game, so I set my sights high and went back to college at the same time my oldest son started kindergarten.” She graduated with a degree in political science at the age of 30, and then went straight to law school, scrimping and saving to pay her own way. She credits her children for sparking her hustle, a quality she’s carried with her ever since.
Rachel graduated from Quinnipiac School of Law in Connecticut and then relocated to Colorado and took a job in tax law. Soon after, the state began to license and regulate for-profit medical marijuana businesses, and Rachel saw the Department of Revenue start to involve itself in the industry by developing a new division to deal with enforcement (the since-named Marijuana Enforcement Division, or MED).
Intrigued by this new area of law and the first wave of cannabis legalization, Rachel reached out to a former college professor. “I asked what advice she would give me about entering the cannabis industry, and she basically told me: ‘don’t.’ So, I hung a shingle to help companies fill out their applications with the MED,” she shrugs.
As a solo practitioner, Rachel represented emerging marijuana and hemp businesses in Colorado with licensing and regulatory compliance, business law and transactions, contract drafting and review, civil litigation, corporate formation and tax matters, as well as audit representation. What’s more, she dove into the legalization process and served as the executive director at
Colorado NORML, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming marijuana laws and protecting marijuana consumers. She is a founding member of Women Grow and also was a founding member and served on the board of directors at the National Cannabis Bar Association.
In 2016, after six years of having her own practice, Rachel joined Greenspoon Marder LLP as a partner in the national cannabis practice. Today she is the chair of the firm’s Cannabis Law Group and leads a team of attorneys who specialize in cannabis-specific business issues in the U.S. and abroad. She is a widely recognized and sought-after resource for cannabis businesses and professionals, and has worked on a seemingly impossible number of matters over the past decade, from straightforward licensing matters to the most complex transactions. With a deep understanding of the tax issues affecting the industry, Rachel continues to fight against the “archaic” section 280E of the U.S. tax code, and has saved her clients millions of dollars through her counsel on tax-specific matters.
While much has changed in the industry since she began in 2010, one thing has not. Cannabis remains federally illegal and is classified as a Schedule I narcotic. “It’s a multibillion-dollar industry and the federal government cannot continue to ignore that it exists and use federal resources to enforce the law against the will of the people,” Rachel said. And although it still may take a few years, she’s confident the industry will eventually become legal at the federal level. “That makes it interesting from a legal perspective as we are literally blazing new trails,” she said. “I’ve been here since the earliest days of legalization in Colorado and I can’t wait until state licensed and legal marijuana businesses are fairly taxed and regulated, which won’t happen until federal legalization.”
Outside of the office, you can find Rachel at her home in Denver with her two Belgian Malinois, a highly intelligent dog breed that often work in police or other security roles. “The irony that I own dogs best known for sniffing out drugs is not lost on me,” Rachel grins. Clients are often surprised to know that Rachel plays SCRABBLE competitively, even traveling across the U.S. and to Canada to play in the National Championship tournament. “It keeps me sharp and uses different parts of my brain,” she said.
But that’s not even the most interesting thing about her. From a dreadlock phase to home births to cross country road trips, Rachel regales her friends and colleagues with stories from the past at every opportunity, and especially over sushi. Couple that with a career serving an industry born from the black market, and there’s no shortage of intriguing tales to tell. And as for the professor who told her to run away from cannabis altogether? “She actually saved my email and replied to it a few years ago, nearly 10 years after I initially sent it. She had seen me quoted in a national article about cannabis tax, and then Googled me. She was incredibly complimentary about my career trajectory, and it was amazing to see that conversation come full circle.” Life’s equivalent of a triple word score, it seems.
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