Manatt Expands National Cannabis Practice With New York State’s Top Regulator

Axel Bernabe’s leadership role in launching New York’s Office of Cannabis Management strengthens Manatt’s position as a national powerhouse at the intersection of health care, cannabis and policy

Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, a multidisciplinary, integrated professional services firm, today announced the addition of Partner Axel Bernabe to the Firm’s New York office. The architect of New York State’s cannabis market, Bernabe most recently served as the inaugural Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Director for the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), where he hired and managed the Office’s executive team, oversaw over 165 employees, and designed and implemented all regulations launching the new industry. At Manatt, Bernabe will tap into his experience—which also includes serving as Chief Health Counsel to Governor Andrew Cuomo for six years, where he led legal and policy developments in the State’s health portfolio—to provide consulting and legal counsel for entities looking to understand cannabis markets and implement cannabis programs at the national and international levels.

“Axel’s background working across the health care, cannabis and antitrust sectors throughout his career uniquely positions him to guide clients throughout the country across the sophisticated and highly regulated cannabis markets,” said Donna L. Wilson, Manatt’s CEO and Managing Partner. “He also brings many synergies to our existing platform as seen with his broader health care leadership, proven commitment to social and health equity, as well as his robust industry and regulatory knowledge, which are all hallmarks of Manatt.”

Bernabe will leverage decades of experience to advise industry participants on issues throughout the entire cannabis life cycle. This work will span the adult-use market, practitioners in the medical cannabis space, the CBD and other cannabinoids market, as well as cannabis-adjacent product and service providers. While at the OCM, Bernabe was responsible for standing up and leading all aspects of the Office’s initiatives as described in the 2021 Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which he previously drafted under Governor Cuomo, which also included establishing the State’s medical and hemp programs. As part of these efforts, Bernabe oversaw the implementation of all licensing, enforcement, economic development, clinical, policy and reinvestment goals of the medical, hemp and adult-use cannabis economy in the state of New York, which has quickly become a go-to road map for other markets looking to implement similar programs.

“As the cannabis, emerging therapeutics and broader health care industries continue to converge, there is an increasing need for integrated consulting and legal counsel to guide related companies throughout the maze of regulatory hurdles,” said Manatt Health Leader Bill Bernstein. “Axel’s impressive work leading health care policy for New York State—as well as developing and implementing all aspects of the State’s medical, hemp and adult-use cannabis programs—makes him an incredible addition to our teams, not just in New York City and Albany, but across the country.”

Leader of Manatt’s Cannabis and CBD practice Anita Famili added, “Manatt has helped establish the standards for how cannabis deals are done in the United States for nearly 15 years, and Axel’s arrival is an extension of our commitment to clients in this highly regulated and rapidly evolving industry. Respected by the industry at large, Axel is known for his practical leadership and focus on improving transparency within the sector, making him immensely valuable for clients across the country navigating the complex web of state and federal policies.”

While serving as Chief Health Counsel to Governor Cuomo, Bernabe provided strategic counsel and direction to the operations within the Executive Chamber and at the State Department of Health. He also led the team negotiating the health care component of the annual state budget, including managing the review of all new legislative and fiscal initiatives as well as driving all negotiations with the Senate and Assembly.

“Manatt’s history as one of the first national firms to offer comprehensive advisory services within the cannabis sector and its reputation within health care more generally make it the perfect next step for me as I look to help companies and governments effectively enter and thrive in the growing national and international cannabis markets,” said Bernabe. “Additionally, Manatt has a demonstrated commitment to advancing health equity, which was central to our policy road map in New York, so I look forward to collaborating with the Firm’s legal and consulting professionals to continue this important work.”

Bernabe is the latest addition to Manatt’s expanding roster of legal and consulting professionals across the Firm’s core practices, including Health Care (Edo Banach, Nicholas (Nick) Bath Jr., Dr. Troyen (Troy) A. Brennan, Eric Gold, Tracy A. Massel, Lauren Polak, Thomas (Tom) Robertson, Shelli Silver and Julia E. Smith); Litigation (Dylan Carson, Joan A. Lukey and Marty F. Murphy); Government and Regulatory (Wendy J. Greuel and Cassie M. Prugh); Privacy and Data Security (Paul H. Luehr); Land Use (Fernando Villa); Consumer Protection (Bezalel (Bez) Stern); and Intellectual Property Protection and Enforcement (Sherli Furst).

Bernabe received his LL.B. (J.D.) and B.C.L. from McGill University, magna cum laude, and his B.A. in political science and communications from the University of Ottawa.



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