The specialty keeps them busy as legal issues arise over what's allowed
Jeffrey Lake is a veteran lawyer whose law practice focused on real estate, mortgage lending and construction defect cases.
Lance Rogers worked on a variety of criminal cases before finding a niche in one area. Michael Cindrich used to work for the District Attorney’s Office before quitting to start his own practice. And after graduating from law school in 2008, Kimberly Simms set up her new law practice determined to focus on one emerging area of law.
What do these lawyers have in common?
They have become part of an informal medical marijuana bar in San Diego — lawyers who work almost exclusively on civil and criminal cases dealing with the often contentious and complex issues surrounding the legal use of cannabis as medicine.
They do it in a county that has a reputation for taking one of the hardest lines against medical marijuana use in the state. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has aggressively pursued cases against members of cooperative or collectives, contending they were illegally engaged in drug sales and not in compliance with the state law that voters approved in 1996 to allow the use of pot with a doctor’s prescription.
The city of San Diego’s code enforcement officers also have been methodically going to medical marijuana outlets and citing them for zoning violations, at the same time that city leaders are fashioning new regulations for the pot dispensaries, Lake said.
He represents more than 70 collectives and cooperatives in the county, assisting them with the civil side of the law: how to legally set up such entities, deal with zoning and leasing issues, and help clients who are trying to navigate different rules from city to city.
Some cities have a moratorium on opening medical marijuana outlets. Other governments, including the county, restrict them to certain areas, Lake said.
He also is active in the policy issues surrounding medical marijuana.
“It’s legally challenging, because this is a new area of the law,” he said. “There is not very much case law on a lot of these issues yet, and it’s an emerging field.”
That sentiment of working in largely uncharted legal territory was echoed by the other attorneys. Kimberly Simms graduated from law school in San Diego in 2008 and now works exclusively on medical marijuana cases. She said she was drawn to the field because she sees medical marijuana use as a civil-rights issue and was intrigued by the combination of law and politics.
“The political push and pull over medical marijuana, and how that interacts with our laws, is fascinating,” Simms said.
While use of medical marijuana is allowed under California law, it is prohibited under federal law. That conflict is just one of several areas of uncertainty and confusion among patients, caregivers and cooperatives that the lawyers have to grapple with.
Cindrich said the first thing he tells clients in his practice is that marijuana is illegal under federal law. But then he warns them that dealing with cities and the county won’t be easy either.
“My other advice is that the city of San Diego is not currently receptive to new dispensaries opening up, so this most likely will be a headache for you,” he said. “But if you feel strongly about this, and you are in it for the rights reasons — to help patients, and not just to make money — this could be for you.”
Cindrich worked for the District Attorney’s Office in San Diego for a year or so when he graduated from law school in 2006. He did not work on any medical marijuana cases, but when he decided to start his own practice he became intrigued by the issue.
Now he represents patients, caregivers and members of cooperatives who are being targeted by his former employer, who he says is making it unnecessarily difficult for patients.
“The DA’s Office here is taking an extremely narrow view of the medical marijuana law,” he said. “Attorneys in other parts of the state are aware of that and realize how difficult the legal environment is in San Diego for medical marijuana.”
The District Attorney’s Office does not have a special unit or designated prosecutor devoted to medical marijuana cases, said Deputy District Attorney Steve Walter, the assistant chief of the narcotics section. Cases are assigned to a variety of prosecutors.
As for taking a narrow view of the law, Walter said the office pursues cases only when they have determined a law has been broken. “It’s fair to say,” he added, ”our office’s belief is, if you are selling marijuana, that is illegal.”
The medical marijuana law allows possession and cultivation under certain circumstances for qualified patients. State guidelines say collectives or cooperatives should be nonprofit and can’t sell to nonmembers.
Last week, a medical marijuana prosecution began that is being closely watched in San Diego Superior Court. Jovan Jackson, who won an acquittal from a jury last year on charges he was illegally selling the drug from the Answerdam cooperative in Kearny Mesa, is again on trial on charges stemming from a second raid on the cooperative.
Rogers represented Jackson in his first case and is doing so again. His task may be made more difficult because Judge Howard Shore ruled that Jackson could not raise the medical marijuana defense.
Three months ago, Rogers decided to leave the law firm he was working at and open a practice devoted only to medical marijuana cases like Jackson’s. With debate over marijuana use heating up, he said it was important that people who use pot for medicine have lawyers who know the nuances and intricacies of the law.
By Greg Moran