How cannabis lawyer Paul Josephson scored a front-row seat to a $13B piece of infrastructure
Published in 2022 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine on March 17, 2022
If you’re looking for Paul Josephson, check the least likely place for legal precedent—like the ever-evolving world of cannabis law.
“In that space, every legal principle needs to be reexamined, thanks to the federal illegality,” Josephson says. “Take bankruptcy. Because of the illegality, cannabis companies can’t go into bankruptcy court. When you’re striking deals, you’ve got to reconsider, from every angle, how you structure it when those courtroom doors are not even open to you.”
Josephson came to cannabis law after learning state contracts and licensing skills from mentor Clive Cummis, who died in 2010.
Thanks to Cummis’ deep infrastructure work, Josephson spent the ’90s as outside counsel for the New Jersey Turnpike. Then like Cummis, Josephson got into political law, and has spent the last two decades representing gubernatorial campaigns. And when Gov. Phil Murphy pushed legalizing weed, Josephson says he was already in the right place at the right time.
“When medical marijuana came along in 2009, I represented some applicants in the initial round of licensing, but the real catalyst was when Duane Morris decided years ago to be one of the first AmLaw 100 firms to openly represent plant-touching businesses, like growers and sellers,” Josephson says. “It’s a challenging complication, but we had progressive leadership.”
Josephson’s core work is representing multistate operators in the medical market. But now that recreational use is legal in the state, Josephson anticipates the nuanced work necessary for his clients to break into that market, too. “It’s a busy time,” he says.
He’s also busy with another legal challenge—this one, 20 years in the making.
When Gov. Jim McGreevey was elected in 2002, he tapped Josephson as chief of authorities, a position tasked with overseeing the governor’s interest in agencies like the New Jersey Turnpike, The Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Transit.
“One of McGreevey’s big initiatives was having transportation fixed—inspection, E-ZPass, all of it,” says Josephson.
The crown jewel of the plan was a new rail tunnel into New York—the ARC project. From 2002 to 2009, Josephson says there was a major investment in time and effort on part of New York, New Jersey and Amtrak, until Gov. Chris Christie pulled the plug in 2010 because he thought it was a bad deal for New Jersey.
Amtrak kept the plans alive under a new name: The Gateway Project. And When Gov. Murphy was elected, he resurrected the state’s involvement. “The biggest piece was the new New York tunnel, but also fixing our current rail tunnel, which is older than The Titanic,” says Josephson, who was brought back into the fold due an “intimate knowledge” of bi-state agencies and multistate RFPs. He quickly ran into an interesting legal problem.
“We realized we needed to create a completely new entity that could take on Gateway because it was so massive,” he says. “Duane Morris and I were selected to create and serve as counsel for this thing, which was initially a nonprofit formed by New York, New Jersey and Amtrak. It was an unusual nonprofit for which there wasn’t much precedent. It’s very bespoke work.”
The nonprofit only lasted until the Trump administration. “We had the nonprofit to pursue the project and get funding, but Trump’s administration said, ‘You can’t have a nonprofit receive billions of dollars,’” Josephson says. “‘It has to be an actual government entity.’”
So it was back to the drawing board. This time, a bi-state government agency called The Gateway Development Commission was formed. The commission and its board involve several firms and attorneys—“very much a team effort,” Josephson says. “It’s kind of like a bi-state authority with New Jersey and New York, but also not; made more unique because we let Amtrak in, which is its own political animal.”
With a price of $13 billion, Josephson knew the project wasn’t going to be an easy sell.
“The best news New Jersey and New York got was that ‘Amtrak Joe’ was elected president,” he says. “Unlike the former president, who I thought acted foolishly as a former New York real estate developer who couldn’t see the value in this infrastructure, Biden has sent this full-speed ahead, with bills being passed to free up federal dollars. I’ve been with this project for 20 years, and I’ve always said, one way or another, we’re going to get this thing built. Now it looks like we might break ground in the next year.”
Early in his career, Josephson had considered a job with the Department of Transportation. Does he regret not taking it?
“I often wondered, ‘Should I be a D.C. attorney or a New Jersey attorney?” Josephson says. “I had a conversation with Bob Bauer before he was counsel to [President Barack] Obama, and he said, ‘Do good stuff at home. D.C. isn’t going anywhere,’” Josephson says. “He was right. Being able to be on the ground here and see stuff get done … my kids that were born when I was in state government are now starting to drive and see things we did 10 to 20 years ago. It’s the coolest thing in the world.”