There's a law firm in Jacksonville, Florida, telling patients in bold green letters on its website that it's already legal to use marijuana as a medicine with a doctor's permission. The firm even claims clients can also grow it for themselves.
"If you or a loved one are suffering, are in need of medical cannabis or want to learn more about your rights, contact us today." the message on Health Law Services' website reads.
But lawyers, pot activists, and law enforcement officers all disagree, suggesting the firm is somewhere between a ruse and a straight-up scam. As of this month, 23 states allow for some form of marijuana usage. Florida is not one of them.
Marijuana is a Schedule I drug in America, and possession of it is still a crime in Florida, as of this writing. The Florida Legislature passed a law last June allowing the use of low-THC marijuana called Charlotte's Web, but the new rules are narrow, and definitely don't allow for self-cultivation, as Health Law Services suggests.
John Morgan, a famous Florida lawyer who spent upwards of $3 million of his own money to get medicinal marijuana on last November's ballot—it did not pass—told the local press that Health Law Service's claims are "so bizarre it's like up there with aliens arriving and Elvis is still alive."
The firm is run by a lawyer named Ian Christensen and another guy named Christopher Ralph, who calls himself a legal administrator and consultant. Ralph's biography on the firm's website says he is a member of the American Bar Association, but according to ABA communications manager Priscilla Totten, Ralph is not a member.
Christensen at least, was admitted to the Florida Bar on April 27, 2013. A spokesperson for the Bar said they are investigating his claims, but could not elaborate except to say the process is ongoing.
Christensen has a brief criminal history in Florida, including an arrest on charges of driving under the influence. On February 20 of last year, he was pulled over while allegedly driving 67 MPH in a 45 zone, according to an arrest report by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. An officer wrote that Christensen's eyes were watery and bloodshot, his speech was slurred, and that he smelled strongly of alcohol. He spent the night and jail and was released the next day. He pleaded no contest, adjudication was withheld, and the charge was reduced to reckless driving.
Christensen's firm did not reply to numerous phone calls, emails, or a tweet requesting a comment.
The firm's case is that weed is already legal in Florida—and has been for decades—for severely ill patients, and that said patients can cultivate their own medicine. This is based on a 1991 Florida court ruling involving a couple from Bay County named Kenneth and Barbara Jenks. From that, the medical necessity defense was established.
According to Health Law Services' website:
Florida's medical necessity doctrine is built upon Florida's common law defense of necessity, as outlined in Fla. Stat. 2.01. The purpose of the Doctrine is to prevent innocent patients from having to be arrested and prove in a court of law that they are using cannabis for medical purposes. Therefore, if a patient can prove to a law enforcement officer that cannabis is the safest medication available to treat their diagnosed condition, they are NOT subject to arrest.
In practice, this doesn't work so well.
Matthew Mark Young and Lynne Nesselroad, former clients of Christensen, were arrested on three felony counts of possession and trafficking charges (each), on November 4, 2014. According to a Pasco County Sheriff's Office arrest report, a deputy went to the couple's house for a "knock and talk" after smelling marijuana on two separate occasions.
Young was angry. He told deputies he had the right to grow and use. He let them inside so he could show them paperwork that granted him "legal immunity." He gave them a letter, signed by Christensen, and a card with his picture on it. Both documents, the report said, suggested Young could use marijuana.
"Matthew did not provide me with, nor did I locate any documentation from the State of Florida or a doctor giving him the legal right to grow and/or possess marijuana for his alleged medical condition," the deputy's report read.
Officers seized 41 plants weighing 41 pounds from a room with fans and lights and electrical ballasts. In court, a judge told Christensen he couldn't represent Young because it would be a conflict of interest—Young's defense was essentially, "My lawyer told me I could do it," and Christensen might therefore be called as a witness.
Shawn Gearhart, Young's new lawyer, said in a phone interview that Christensen charged Young $8,000 to represent him in court. "When he was disqualified," Gearhart added, "(Christensen) refused to refund any of the fees."
Gearhart said Health Law Services typically bills $800 for their services. Here's how it works: A prospective client can go to the firm's website and download forms and request medical transcripts. Then they're sent to a doctor, who makes a recommendation that it's better for the client to use marijuana than other types of medicine, due to numerous factors such as side effects and efficacy rates.
"They give them an ID card that says, unequivocally, that Health Law Services—and specifically (Christensen)—has done the research and said they can use it," Gearhart said.
The problem, Gearhart argues, is that Christensen is presenting this defense as an absolute defense and not an affirmative one. The latter means a judge has to decide if the defense can even be used in court.
Regardless, it will not stop an arrest.
Though the medical necessity defense has been around for decades, it was only successfully used in a criminal trial this year by pro-pot lawyer Michael Minardi. Minardi also represents two of Christensen's former clients, Scott and Marsha Yandell. The Yandells say they were convinced by Christensen that it was OK to grow and use their own weed. They also paid for the card and paperwork.
The couple, from St. John's County, were also arrested.
St. John's County Sheriff's office said its job is to enforce the law, not argue it. Commander Chuck Mulligan explained deputies found marijuana at the Yandells' residence and made an arrest.
"Marijuana is not currently legal in the state of Florida," he said.
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