31 August 2016
Ian Christensen’s law firm told couples like the Yandells that if they medically needed marijuana, he could get them a doctor’s certificate that would protect them from arrest, according to Scott and Marsha Yandell’s lawsuit.
After Christensen told the Yandells they could legally use marijuana, they faced criminal prosecution in St. Johns County in 2015 for manufacturing, possessing with intent to sell and trafficking cannabis. They eventually settled the case, agreeing to 3 years probation, a $15,000 fine, and 100 hours of community service. Marsha Yandell also lost her nursing license. They now live in Oregon, where the state allows marijuana.
Christensen also faces Florida Bar complaints from former clients, including the Yandells. In his written response to the complaint, he said he informed the Yandells that the certification could only be used as a defense after arrest, but his law firm’s website specifically said, “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.” But this is not true.
A grievance committee found probable cause for the complaints against Christensen, and those complaints are now pending before the Florida Supreme Court.
Christensen denied the lawsuit’s claims, saying he didn’t profit off his business and that he always warned clients about the risks of arrest. “I never told people they could not be arrested, but there were plenty of instances where they were not arrested.”
In 2014, Christensen opposed a constitutional amendment to make medical marijuana legal because, he argued, growing and using marijuana was already legal. He argued this even as people were being arrested for growing and using marijuana.
Public records show Christensen even contacted the Florida Sheriff’s Association about his unique view of the law, citing an appellate case where medical necessity was successful. That case, the Florida Sheriff’s Association told him, was “factually unique,” and it involved “highly unusual circumstances.”
The “medical necessity” defense comes from a case where pot alleviated severe nausea caused by AIDS in a couple. An appellate court overturned the couple’s conviction for cultivating marijuana and of possession of drug paraphernalia. The ruling, upheld by the state Supreme Court, gave three elements that remain the criteria for a “medical necessity” defense. Defendants must prove they didn’t cause their medical need, like shooting themselves; they must prove they couldn’t use a “less offensive alternative;” they must prove “the evil sought to be avoided was more heinous than the unlawful act perpetrated to avoid it.”
However each of those defenses can only be asserted after someone is arrested, not before, as the Yandells said Christensen told them.
The Yandells’ lawsuit accuses Christensen of racketeering, or systematically profiting off illegal activity.
His firm offered clients like the Yandells a license to grow and use marijuana for $800. He hooked the Yandells up with a Chaksau Sharma, a first-year resident in North Dakota who did not have a Florida medical license but who Christensen called a doctor nonetheless. Christensen’s law firm also hired Christopher Ralph, who the firm identified as a member of the American Bar Association. Except Ralph didn’t have a law degree or even a bachelor’s degree, according to the lawsuit. Though the American Bar Association said in 2015 that Ralph was not a member, he said Monday that he was up until December 2014. The lawsuit says Ralph identified himself as a Washington, D.C., lawyer.
Ralph called the lawsuit a “conspiracy” that is “just nuts,” and he said the Yandells were arrested because they didn’t truly need the marijuana for medical reasons — even though they had one of the firm’s patient ID cards. If they truly had needed marijuana for medical reasons, he said, they would not have been arrested. “People just need to understand there’s two sides to this story or to any of these stories. One person who engaged in unlawful behavior should not affect people who have a legitimate medical need for something.”
Marsha Yandell said she suffered from fibromyalgia. They felt so passionately about the work Christensen was doing that they said they even paid for someone else’s certification because that person couldn’t afford it.
Scott Yandell said he’s equally frustrated with Christensen as the cops who arrested him. “I identified myself as a medical patient, and they didn’t care they treated us as criminals. Nothing went down like Chris and Ian said.” He said he doesn’t understand why police haven’t arrested Christensen for telling people medical marijuana is legal.
The Yandells’ new attorney, Andrew Bonderud, said Christensen preyed upon sick people looking for hope.
“It sounded like he started off with good and pure intentions, but in the midst of their advocacy, they started abusing the trust of the clients and using people like the Yandells as guinea pigs to see what would happen. Let’s take this medical necessity idea and give it a run.”
Instead, Bonderud said, Christensen should’ve told people who felt they needed medical marijuana to just move to Colorado.