Medical marijuana – Page 3 – Florida Politics

Calling for ‘heart,’ lobbyist Nikki Fried announces possible run for Governor

Lawyer-lobbyist Nicole “Nikki” Fried, who specializes in medical marijuana issues, says she might run for Governor this year after coming to the conclusion the current field of Democratic candidates “need(s) a heart transplant.”

“Florida Democrats are tired of losing and are looking for a new voice: Someone different, someone who isn’t afraid to speak the truth and is willing to turn the political status quo on its head,” she said in a statement to Florida Politics Sunday.

“Someone has to fight for the millions of Floridians—especially our children—who can’t afford a lobbyist or a trip to Tallahassee,” she said. “We need to bring back a strong offensive playbook to a state party that has been stuck playing prevent defense for decades.

“The current field of candidates are just not cutting it—we need a heart transplant. Based on the overwhelming amount of support and encouragement I have received, I am seriously considering running and bringing my drive, my vision, and my unapologetic voice to the field.”

Fried founded the lobbying shop Igniting Florida in 2016 after leaving the Colodny Fass firm. Current clients are Florida’s Children First, San Felasco Nurseries, and the School Board of Broward County, according to registration reports.

In 2014, she received an award from The Florida Bar’s Legal Needs of Children Committee “for her leadership of the Florida’s Children First lobbying team,” according to her bio. Fried also has served on the Bar’s Standing Committee on the Legal Needs of Children.

The 40-year-old received her undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Florida, where she was student body president, and Hall of Fame and Blue Key member. Fried then got a master’s degree in political campaigning and law degree also from UF.

Howard Talenfeld, chair and president of Florida’s Children First, first met Fried when they worked together at Colodny Fass. 

“She absolutely has the commitment, concern, the knowledge of and connection to our youth and to children who are at risk,” he said. “I will say none of the candidates ever contacted us to ask what children need. She certainly was the first.”

Kelly Sullivan, a Jacksonville attorney who’s known Fried for the better part of two decades, called her “energetic, organized.”

“She has perseverance. She would be an excellent governor; she’s motivated, well spoken, and can marshal the energy to make a difference.”

Osceola County finds sweet spot for medical marijuana dispensaries

It may have taken 16 months, an attempt by the Florida Legislature to tie local authorities’ hands, and threats of a lawsuit, but the Osceola County Commission has found what many may consider the sweet spot in approving retail sales of medical marijuana.

As a result, one medical marijuana company gets exclusive rights to open stores in Osceola County, but just three of them.

On Monday the Osceola County Commission approved two measures that will allow three medical marijuana dispensaries in the county, one on U.S. 192 between Kissimmee and Celebration; one on U.S. 192 between Kissimmee and St. Cloud; and one on South John Young Parkway between Kissimmee and Poinciana; and then to ban any additional cannabis dispensaries in the county.

The medical marijuana business was awarded to San Felasco Nursery of Gainesville, which is also known as Grandiflora, and which is operating its medical marijuana retail business under the name The Green Solution, in association with a Colorado-based medical marijuana company of that name.

“I’m really happy to see Osceola County residents are going to have access to the medicine that a lot of them need, without having to go way out of their way to get it,” said Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer, who supported The Green Solution stores getting their certificates, and who nonetheless also voted for the countywide ban.

Elsewhere, throughout Florida, most cities and counties have struggled with their options on medical marijuana.

That’s because last summer the Florida Legislature restricted local options to essentially allowing as many medical marijuana stores as the market would bear, to go in anywhere that a pharmacy could be located; or to ban them entirely. Many local officials who knew they have Walgreens and CVSs around the corner from schools, churches, and prize tourist attractions, shuddered at the “anywhere” option. So many cities and counties voted to ban them, even though many of the same officials involved said they wouldn’t mind a small number of stores in carefully-chosen locations.

In Osceola County’s case, their first assessment was to provide for three or four stores countywide. They’re getting three.

“Things just seemed to work out,” said Osceola County spokesman Mark Pino.

Here’s how they worked out: In October 2016 the county commission approved a regulatory ordinance detailing how “medical marijuana treatment centers” would be approved for operation certificates. San Felasco applied and got preliminary county approval for three locations. Meanwhile, Florida voters approved Amendment 2 in November 2016, greatly expanding the state’s medical marijuana industry. So before The Green Solution certificates could be issued, Osceola County backtracked, and approved a temporary moratorium, buying time to see what the Florida Legislature would do about the new, expanded law. The legislature’s response was to pass the enabling legislation that included the all-or-nothing choice for counties and cities. The Green Solution threatened to sue Osceola County to get its already-approved certificates. Osceola settled.

On Monday the board of county commissioners approved the settlement with The Green Solution, and then approved a county-wide ban henceforth, under the state-mandated all-or-nothing provision.

“This is an equitable solution to this matter and gives us, as the local jurisdiction, the power to prevent an out-of-control proliferation of these facilities,” Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins, Jr. stated in a news release. “When voters approved Amendment 2, I don’t think they wanted dispensaries on every street corner in the community. This agreement and our ban cements this intent while allowing those who need this service the ability to access it.”

Rick Scott: Department of Health doing ‘everything it can’ on medical marijuana

Arguably the greatest evidence of a disconnect between Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration and the Florida Legislature can be found in the state’s medical marijuana program.

Tensions boiled over Monday in the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, which ensures that agencies write rules that line up with statutes passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor.

Committee chair Kevin Rader, a Democratic state Senator from Delray Beach, put the executive branch and beleaguered Office of Medical Marijuana head Christian Bax on blast.

Bax, who got his MBA in 2015 and who has no experience administering state programs, is seen by almost no one outside the executive branch as being the right fit for the job.

“They’ve had these (objections) for four months to look at, to work on, to talk about with our staff. It’s incompetence. This has never happened … in the 40 years this committee has been meeting,” Rader said.

With some believing that the Scott administration’s botched rollout of a medical marijuana program approved by 71 percent of Florida voters amounts to deliberate sabotage, Florida Politics asked Scott his thoughts.

He did not address Bax’s competency for his position in his remarks.

“With regard to Amendment 2,” Scott said, “the Department of Health is implementing Amendment 2.”

“Already over 1,000 doctors are registered and over 40,000 patients are registered,” Scott added. “They’re doing everything they can to streamline the process and work through this process.”

“As you all know, this is a new process and they’re working very hard,” Scott concluded.

Whether that answer will reassure critics in the Legislature and throughout the state remains to be seen.

Material from Florida Politics’ James Rosica was used in this post.

Medical marijuana regulator’s silence vexes lawmakers

Four times, lawmakers on Monday gave the state’s top medical marijuana regulator an opportunity to speak on their objections to rules and regulations on the drug.

Bax

And four times, Christian Bax said nothing because it wasn’t yet time to do so, he later explained.

“The department has 30 days in order to respond,” Bax, director of the Health Department‘s Office of Medical Marijuana Use, later told reporters.

“Our responses are a collaborative process between leadership, legal and policy,” he added. “We think it’s appropriate to give these objections the time and consideration they’re due … We’ll respond in good time.”

Bax did, however, give a brief presentation to members of the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, which ensures that agencies write rules that line up with statutes passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

The upshot: “We now understand the Legislature disagrees with us … we hear you (and) we plan on moving aggressively,” Bax told the panel.

It wasn’t enough for committee chair Kevin Rader, a Democratic state senator from Delray Beach: “They’ve had these (objections) for four months to look at, to work on, to talk about with our staff. It’s incompetence. This has never happened … in the 40 years this committee has been meeting.”

Lawmakers have been upset for months mainly over what they call the department’s slow-going in implementing medical marijuana under a 2016 constitutional amendment that voters passed by 71 percent. Lawmakers later approved and Gov. Rick Scott signed an implementing bill, which gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.

At Monday’s meeting, the committee formally approved 17 individual objections, ranging from the department’s issuing “contingent licenses” and requiring the submission of a $60,830 nonrefundable application fee, to its listing more than 40 distinct operations violations “with no standards or guidance … , thereby vesting unbridled discretion in the Department.”

Rader

The committee sent 15 letters to the department since October giving Health officials a heads-up as to concerns—to be met with no response, Rader said.

“We asked them, how did they come up with the rules they’re coming up with?” he told reporters. “Mr. Bax and his office must do something to move forward, to let the voters know, our constituents, the people in pain who want this.”

But Bax did go over efforts trying to regulate advertising and signage, edible products, and addressing the use of “solvents and gases” used in marijuana processing that could be toxic to humans. And he said the department has inspected over 100 medical marijuana treatment centers, some “multiple times.”

Ultimately, the committee can wag its collective finger but can’t enforce sanctions against the department, an executive branch agency that answers to Gov. Rick Scott.

Rader mentioned a budget-related proposal by Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican, to freeze salaries and benefits for the department’s brass, including Secretary and state Surgeon General Celeste Philip, until they get a move on.

Wouldn’t that do more harm than good in getting Health officials to do their job, Rader was asked.

“I think that’d be a good conversation (to have) with the Governor’s Office and their staff,” he said. “Because there’s incompetence going on.”

Added Taylor Patrick Biehl of the Medical Marijuana Business Association: “The question remains: How long will this be held up? Will the process be further delayed? We can only hope that the Department will heed the continued comments and frustration by both the Legislature and sick patients.”

The committee’s meeting packet is here. A Twitter thread during the meeting is here.

Updated 7:30 p.m. — Health Department spokeswoman Mara Gambineri sent the following statement:

“The Florida Department of Health’s priority continues to be ensuring patients have safe access to low-THC cannabis and medical marijuana, as determined by Florida voters and outlined by the Florida Legislature.

“We are proud of the progress we have made. Low-THC cannabis and medical marijuana has been and continues to be available for the more than 45,000 approved Florida patients. DOH has approved 27 dispensing locations, and delivery options from licensed MMTCs (medical marijuana treatment centers). There are also more than 1,000 qualified ordering physicians available to patients, and the processing time for identification cards continues to drop and is now down to under 30 days.

“Since July, DOH has licensed six additional MMTCs. This issue continues to be frequently litigated by special interests, but our focus will remain with Florida patients.”

Jason Brodeur to Health Dep’t: No pay till progress on marijuana

Rep. Jason Brodeur is telling the state’s top health officials to get to work on medical marijuana—or they won’t get paid.

Brodeur

The Sanford Republican has offered an amendment to the House’s 2018-19 budget proposal that would freeze more than $1.9 million in salaries and benefits for the Department of Health‘s brass, including Secretary and state Surgeon General Celeste Philip and other top officials.

They’ll get paid, Brodeur said, when the department’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use starts dealing with the backlog of applications for marijuana growing and dispensing licenses, and for state-issued patient ID cards, among other things.

“The Legislature has grown tired of hauling (Health officials) into meetings to ask why they are not executing their legislatively prescribed duties,” Brodeur—chair of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee—told Florida Politics on Wednesday.

“So now we are going to withhold salary and benefits until they respond to the 15 JAPC letters they have been sent since October 3, 2017,” he added, referring to the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee. Its mission is to “ensure that rules adopted by the executive branch agencies … stay within the authority specifically delegated by the Legislature.”

Lawmakers have been vexed for months over the department’s tortoise-like progress in implementing medical marijuana under a 2016 constitutional amendment that voters passed by 71 percent. Lawmakers later approved and Gov. Rick Scott signed an implementing bill, which gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.

Young

Sen. Dana Young, for example, upbraided chief marijuana regulator Christian Bax in an October meeting of the Senate Health Policy Committee.

Bax had explained that a plethora of lawsuits and administrative challenges, most over denied licenses, was slowing down the works.

“I’m not buying it that because there’s litigation out there you can’t fulfill your statutory duty to issue these licenses,” said Young, a Tampa Republican and the panel’s chair.

“I don’t think there is anyone in this room who would like to get these licenses out more than I do,” Bax said. “We want to move this process (forward) as quickly as possible.”

Young said, “Doesn’t it seem a bit complacent for you to simply throw your hands up and say, ‘Oh, we cannot issue. We’ve been sued’? You all get sued all the time … You have a duty under our state laws to issue these licenses.”

Brodeur on Wednesday also referred to coverage of Bax by POLITICO Florida and the Tallahassee Democrat.

“I read a few stories last year about Bax’s inexperience and resume and paid little mind, but the failure to make numerous deadlines has caused me to seriously question whether he has the ability to administer the job,” Brodeur said.

“The department is working diligently to respond to the many inquiries from JAPC,” Health Department spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said in an email. “We are scheduled to meet with (the committee) on Monday and hope to address their concerns so that we can all move forward in the best interest of Florida’s patients.”

Updated Thursday — Brodeur’s language was not reflected in the Senate’s budget proposal released this morning. In response, Brodeur tweeted, “I anticipate it will be a conference issue.” A request for comment has been sent to Senate Appropriations chair Rob Bradley.

Democrats’ guests to State of the Union include DACA recipient, medical marijuana patient, hurricane evacuees

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist is bringing a medical marijuana patient. U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch is bringing the wife of an American held hostage in Iran. U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel is bringing a trailblazing anti-sexual harassment advocate. U.S. Reps. Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy are bringing Puerto Rico evacuees. U.S. Rep. Val Demings is bringing a police officer who responded to the Pulse nightclub massacre.

As usual, a handful of members of Congress are using their guest tickets to the president’s State Of The Union Address to honor someone from their district they admire — and to maybe make a political statement. On Monday and Tuesday a few of them will be holding press conferences introducing their guests, offering their inspiring story, and promoting the political causes they personify.

Florida Politics surveyed Florida’s 27 members of Congress and two senators and got a handful of advance responses on guests being brought to President Donald Trump‘s first State Of The Union address. Almost all of the responses came from Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Ponte Vedra Beach Republican running for governor, is bringing his wife Casey Black DeSantis, his office said.

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson‘s office said she gave her guest ticket to Frankel.

Frankel is not yet saying exactly whom she’s bringing, but said on Friday it will be “a trailblazing anti-sexual harassment advocate” to be introduced on Monday.

Deutch, a Democrat from Boca Raton, is bringing Christine Levinson, wife of Bob Levinson, of Coral Springs, who has been missing in Iran for nearly 11 years, making him the longest-held hostage in American history.

Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat, is bringing Dani Hall of Clearwater, who was born with a birth defect impacting her lower spine, and who moved from powerful narcotics to medical marijuana, when she finally found relief.

Soto, an Orlando Democrat, will be introducing Claudia Sofía Báez Solá, 18, who was a college student at the University of Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria shut down that institution and most of the island, and who was sent, by her parents, and with her brother and grandmother, to live in Orlando while the parents continued to work to support them, living in a house with limited power.

Murphy, a Winter Park Democrat, is providing her ticket to Emmanuel Ortiz-Nazario, a 30-year-old from Puerto Rico who relocated with his wife and two young children to central Florida after Hurricane Maria.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, an Orlando Democrat, is bringing Orange County Police Officer Adam Gruler, who was the first on the scene at Pulse the morning of June 16, 2016, and his wife Jaimi Gruler. The couple has just adopted three elementary school-age siblings.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, is providing her pass to Brenda Irizarry, 43, who serves on Castor’s Task Force on Puerto Rico Recovery & Assistance. She was among many Tampa Bay-area Puerto Ricans who took immediate action the day after Hurricane Maria to mobilize relief efforts, collecting supplies to send to the island.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Weston, is bringing a DREAMer from her district, Nicholas Perez, a DACA recipient who is a Broward County businessman.

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat, is bringing Paul Tutwiler, executive director of the Northwest Jacksonville Community Development Corporation, which offers services to 25,000 Jacksonville residents in communities heavily damaged by Hurricane Irma.

Judge allows medical marijuana ‘no smoke’ case to go forward

What looks like a loss at first blush is a win for John Morgan in his legal effort to overturn the state’s ban on smoking medical marijuana.

A Tallahassee judge on Friday granted the state’s motion to dismiss as to People United for Medical Marijuana, the association-plaintiff, saying it didn’t have the legal standing to be in the case.

It’s the political committee behind the constitutional amendment on medicinal cannabis approved in 2016. Morgan, the Orlando attorney and entrepreneur known for his ubiquitous Morgan & Morgan law firm advertisements, championed the amendment’s passage.

But Circuit Judge Karen Gievers allowed the lawsuit to move forward for the three other patient-plaintiffs, who qualify to use the drug. (Her order is here.)

They are Diana Dodson of Levy County, a cancer patient; Roberto Pickering of Leon County, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder; and Catherine Jordan of Manatee County, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease. Jordan and her husband attended the hearing on the motion Thursday.

“This is a win for the patients; it specifically recognizes their rights,” plaintiffs’ attorney Jon Mills said in an interview. “I spoke to the Jordans and they are delighted. She’s a hero and I am glad to represent her.”

Gievers gave Mills 10 days to amend the complaint, which he said he “may or may not” do, now that the patient-plaintiffs won the day. 

The state has two weeks to file an answer to the complaint, including any affirmative defenses. A request for comment from the Department of Health, charged with regulating medical marijuana, is pending.

Last year, lawmakers approved and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law an implementing bill (SB 8-A) for the amendment that does not allow marijuana to be smoked.

The suit seeks a declaratory judgment that the smoking ban runs counter to the amendment’s language, which does not expressly permit medicinal cannabis to be smoked.

House Republican Leader Ray Rodrigues of Estero, who sponsored the implementing bill, has said “we don’t believe you smoke medicine.” Edibles and “vaping” are permitted, however.

Mills, arguing against the ban at Thursday’s hearing, said the amendment’s definition of marijuana includes the smokeable kind.

Updated at 6 p.m. — Morgan tweeted later on Friday, “This is a win for patients who are sick and who are dying. The Florida Legislature should save the taxpayers money and enact smoke NEXT week!! But then the pharmaceutical giants would not like that. #NoSmokeIsAJoke” 

In another tweet, he said, “Today was a GREAT day for patients’ rights. We will amend for this one plaintiff. This judge’s rulings today puts us one step closer to the right to smoke and to fight illness and death with dignity!! #NoSmokeIsAJoke”

Fate of medical marijuana smoking ban now with judge

An attorney arguing to overturn Florida’s ban on smoking medical marijuana says if a constitutional amendment doesn’t say it can’t be smoked, then lawmakers and regulators can’t stand in the way of patients who want to.

“If you’re the Legislature, why would you pick out smoking and say no? Because this (amendment) allows it,” attorney Jon Mills told reporters.

Circuit Judge Karen Gievers on Thursday held a hearing in Tallahassee on the state’s motion to dismiss the case, backed by Orlando attorney John Morgan. He championed the amendment’s passage in 2016. Morgan did not attend the hearing.

The judge did not immediately rule, saying she would get out a decision “as soon as possible.”

Last year, lawmakers approved and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law an implementing bill (SB 8-A) for the amendment that does not allow marijuana to be smoked.

But Mills, arguing against the ban, said the amendment’s definition of marijuana includes the smokeable kind. The text, however, does not expressly permit medicinal cannabis to be smoked.

Lawmakers “want to contradict the Constitution, which says you can” smoke, added Mills, retired dean of the University of Florida law school and a former state House Speaker (1986-88). “Why were they talking about it? Because they just didn’t want people to smoke.”

Deputy Solicitor General Rachel Nordby earlier had told Gievers if there’s no specific requirement in the amendment for smoking medical marijuana, then the state can regulate the use of the drug, including banning smoking.

Plaintiff Cathy Jordan of Manatee County, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease, also attended the hearing. Her husband told reporters she’s been treating herself by smoking marijuana for 20 years “under the radar.” Doctors even privately told her to do so, Robert Jordan said.

“The cannabis is keeping her alive. That’s what this all about,” he said. “Legislators shouldn’t be taking the place of doctors, telling us what we can and cannot do … She has to smoke; it keeps her lungs clear.”

Whatever the outcome of the case, Jordan said they’ll find smokeable marijuana “somewhere.”

“But she can’t go to jail,” he added. “It’ll kill her.”

Charlie Crist: Protecting Floridians access to medical marijuana issue of compassion

When Floridians went to the polls in 2016, more than just names were on the ballot.

Included was Amendment 2, amending our state constitution to legalize medical marijuana.

Amendment 2 received the support of 71 percent of voters – surpassing the 60 percent needed for passage. Do you know how hard it is to get more than 70 percent of the people to agree on anything these days? But Floridians understood that medical marijuana is vital to alleviating the pain and suffering caused by serious illness, affecting people in their families, their friends and neighbors.

That’s why it was so disturbing when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the U.S. Department of Justice would rescind policies enacted under the Obama administration that discouraged enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states like Florida that legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use. It is an attack on states’ rights, undermining the will of 6.5 million Floridians, and putting at risk the ability of sick children and adults to receive the medical care they need to get well and reduce suffering.

I strongly oppose this change, and I want to tell you why.

I’m blessed to represent my Pinellas County neighbors in a district that stretches from my hometown of St. Petersburg to the beautiful white sand beaches of Clearwater, where Dani Hall lives with her two sons.

I am honored that Dani will attend the State of the Union as my guest later this month, and for her to allow me to share her story.

Born with a birth defect impacting her lower spine, Dani has endured severe pain and multiple back surgeries over the course of her life. To deal with the pain, she was given narcotics. But they didn’t help, which led to more painkillers being prescribed – at one point she was on 14 different medications. As you can imagine, this left her feeling almost zombie-like, unable to function normally.

Her options with traditional pharmaceuticals exhausted, Dani decided to try medical marijuana. Her pain subsided. She came off all other medications. Just think about that.

Now, Dani can exercise and was able to return to work thanks to the relief medical marijuana provides her. A biologist by trade, with this new lifeline Dani is currently going back to school to become a teacher.

Dani did notice a side effect, however – a welcome one.

As someone on the Autism spectrum, Dani found that her symptoms of severe anxiety and sensory sensitivity were also alleviated.

Dani was hopeful that medical marijuana might be able to help her two sons, who are also on the spectrum. She began advocating Florida officials to legalize medical marijuana so it could be an option to help others in the way it changed her life.

It would be cruel for the Trump administration to take this legal option of healing away from Dani, her boys, and the hundreds of thousands of people – perhaps millions – that medical marijuana helps across the country.

As a person of faith, to me, this is an issue of compassion. The Bible teaches us to recognize the suffering of others and act to help, similar to the “Golden Rule” that I try to live by every day.

I call on Attorney General Sessions to remember the Golden Rule, act compassionately, and reverse course on this harmful policy change. The well-being of countless families just like Dani’s are at stake.

___

St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist represents Florida’s 13th Congressional District.

Bad pot advice leads to lawyer disbarment

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday disbarred a former Jacksonville lawyer who charged sick people nearly $800 for a “patient identification card” he claimed could keep them from getting arrested for having or growing marijuana.

Several of Ian Christensen’s clients were arrested and prosecuted after following the lawyer’s advice, according to court documents.

Doing business as “Health Law Services,” Christensen and Christopher Ralph charged patients $799 for services that included a visit with a doctor, legal services and documents, as well as the ID card, which was not sanctioned by any government agency.

Critics interviewed by The News Service of Florida in 2014 accused the duo of running a scam. Christensen stopped practicing law in 2015 and no longer lives in Florida, according to an affidavit filed with the court last year.

The justices’ disbarment of Christensen was a far harsher penalty than a two-year suspension recommended by Florida Bar lawyer Carlos Alberto Leon, who served as a referee in the case spawned by a complaint about Christensen filed in June 2016.

According to Thursday’s order immediately disbarring Christensen, several of his clients were arrested and prosecuted after following his advice. In at least three instances, Christensen provided clients with a “grow sign” to post outside their homes indicating they were cultivating marijuana, according to court records.

St. Johns County residents Scott and Marsha Yandell suffered life-altering consequences after following Christensen’s advice, the records show.

In January 2015, police responded to a 911 call at the Yandell’s residence, which had a “grow sign” posted outside. The next day, the Yandells asked Christensen if they needed to dismantle their grow operation, but the lawyer told them they “had nothing to worry about” and that he or someone from the office would contact law enforcement, according to court records.

The following month, a SWAT team raided the Yandells’ home, and they were arrested and charged with manufacture of cannabis, possession of cannabis with intent to sell or deliver, possession of a place or structure for trafficking or manufacturing a controlled substance, and trafficking in cannabis in excess of 25 pounds.

The Yandells’ home, valuables, and vehicles were seized and detained for forfeiture, according to court documents. The Duval County couple hired a new attorney and accepted plea deals of three years’ probation, a $15,000 fine, and 100 hours of community service.

Marsha Yandell, who had been a nurse for 25 years, lost her nursing license and her husband lost his engineering job of 15 years. In addition, their landlord obtained a judgment against them in excess of $25,000 for damages to the home during the raid and lost rent.

In rejecting the referee’s recommendation, the Supreme Court found that disbarment “is the appropriate sanction.”

“The most prominent features of respondent’s misconduct are incompetence and extremely serious harm to clients,” the court wrote.

In a document filed in August, Christensen blamed his wrongdoing on being “inexperienced, young and naïve in the advice he gave and the positions he took in dealing with individuals already involved with marijuana.”

Christensen opened a solo legal practice just three months after being admitted to the Florida Bar in 2013. Shortly afterward, he and colleague Ralph launched “Health Law Services,” which focused on giving legal advice about medical marijuana. Months later, Christensen incorporated “Cannabinoid Therapy Institute,” or CTI. Ralph, who was not a lawyer, was CTI’s director, as well as the “legal administrator and consultant” for Health Law Services, according to court documents.

Christensen referred clients for medical exams at CTI, and the patients would receive “Official Legal Certification” and an identification card if a doctor found it was medically necessary for the clients to use marijuana. Three of the clients found out that the doctor they saw was not licensed to practice medicine in Florida, according to Thursday’s order.

Christensen “advised his clients that they had, and his clients believed, that based on Florida law, the clients had a right to possess, use, and grow cannabis due to medical necessity and that they were protected by the affirmative defense of medical necessity,” the Supreme Court wrote. “The lawyer did not tell his clients that this affirmative defense would not apply, if at all, until after the clients were arrested, charged, and prosecuted.”

Lawyers familiar with the medical necessity defense told the News Service it has been used successfully on rare occasions and that its use is left up to the discretion of a prosecutor or judge.

“Respondent erroneously advised his clients and provided them with legally meaningless ‘Official Legal Certifications’ purportedly authorizing them to grow and use marijuana, based on determinations made by a physician not licensed to practice medicine in the State of Florida,” the court wrote.

Christensen “continued to insist on the correctness of his clearly erroneous legal positions” during criminal proceedings pertaining to his clients and during his disciplinary proceedings, “until he was ordered to show cause to this (Supreme) Court why he should not be disbarred,” the court wrote.

“We will not tolerate such misconduct by members of The Florida Bar,” the justices concluded.

In the August document, Christensen’s lawyer, D. Gray Thomas, argued that his client’s misconduct was not “motivated by greed or bad intent, but rather by naïve, youthful, unmentored overconfidence.”

And, Thomas wrote, Christensen’s medical marijuana-focused practice took place as laws about the issue were evolving.

“The current state of laws poses ongoing legal tensions, as well as ethical tension and ambiguity, for practicing attorneys,” Thomas argued.

But Leon, the referee, rejected Christensen’s defense, saying “none of these contentions is worthy of belief.”

“Mr. Christensen makes these protestations at this late juncture only to prevent potential enhanced discipline and not as the result of any epiphany or genuine remorse,” Leon wrote in a response filed in August.

While marijuana laws are evolving, “no specific training or experience is required to distinguish what is evidently right from what is evidently wrong,” Leon wrote.

“Quite simply, advising clients to grow their own marijuana based on a fake doctor’s advice is wrong and cannot now be said to be subject to interpretation based on the evolution of medical marijuana law,” he added.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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