Drugs

Florida Attorney Disbarred After Selling Fake Marijuana-Growing Certificates

Ian J. Christensen, a Florida attorney since 2013, was recently disbarred by the state after ruining multiple clients' lives.
Ian J. Christensen, a Florida attorney since 2013, was recently disbarred by the state after ruining multiple clients' lives. Photo by Conor Lawless / Flickr
Most attorneys don't deserve the bad rap their profession has gotten. But when a lawyer hires an unlicensed doctor to help sell fake marijuana certificates for $800 apiece that supposedly give people legal cover to grow weed, he has earned a bit of that ugly reputation. And once SWAT teams start kicking those clients' doors down and hauling them off to jail, it's probably time that lawyer lost his license.

Ian James Christensen was exactly that kind of attorney, according to police and prosecutors. Now the Florida Supreme Court has finally disbarred the Jacksonville-based lawyer for professional misconduct over the weed-licensing scheme.

According to the January Supreme Court order, Christensen spent years charging clients for truly awful legal counsel about how to grow pot in a state where recreational weed is very much still against the law. A few months after he was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2013, he opened the firm IJC Law Group.

"At the time, Respondent [Christensen] had no training in the area of medical marijuana," the Supreme Court's order reads. "Six months later, Respondent formed Health Law Services (HLS), and five months after that, incorporated Cannabinoid Therapy Institute (CTI)."

People desperately searching for medical-marijuana treatment centers in Florida on the internet would find HLS and CTI, pay $799 to be seen by a so-called doctor with no license or legal right to practice in the state, and were given patient ID cards and "Official Legal Certifications." Christensen's pitch was that these were essentially get-out-of-jail-free cards for anyone growing marijuana.    

But the lawyer's firm did all of this years before voters approved Amendment 2 to bring medical marijuana to Florida. The state only began creating a marijuana-use registry issuing legitimate ID cards last year.

A Florida Bar investigation found that the certifications Christensen sold supposedly showed police that these clients were allowed to possess, use, and even cultivate cannabis. Christensen would assure his clients that because of the medical necessity for marijuana that his services had demonstrated, they would be legally protected by citing that necessity as an "affirmative defense."     

"What Mr. Christensen did not tell his clients was that the 'affirmative defense' of medical necessity would not apply, if at all, until after the clients were arrested, charged, and prosecuted," the report notes. "Mr. Christensen also failed to tell his clients that his advice was inconsistent with federal law."

The scheme might seem so ridiculous it's almost funny, but for people whose illnesses and legal naiveté Christensen profited from, the results were disastrous. According to the report, "when law enforcement was shown Mr. Christensen’s paperwork, they laughed and said it was meaningless."

Four of his clients were arrested and tried for following his advice. Two of those clients, Marsha and Scott Yandell, later told the Daily Beast that their lives were destroyed by his bad advice. The Yandells paid for "official certificates" and a grow sign to indicate they could "legally" cultivate medical marijuana. Christensen even went to their house, saw the plants they were growing, and said they wouldn't have any problems.

About three months after the couple's initial consultation, the cops showed up to investigate after a 911 call. Christensen assured the Yandells he would speak to the department and straighten things out. He never did.

A month later, a SWAT team raided the couple's home. The Yandells reached a plea agreement of three years of probation, 100 hours of community service, and a $15,000 fine. Marsha Yandell lost the nursing license she'd had for 25 years, and Scott Yandell lost the engineering job he'd held for 15 years. Their landlord sued them for lost rent and damages to the house after the SWAT raid. They were ordered to pay more than $25,000.

Florida's standards for lawyer sanctions call for disbarment “when a lawyer’s course of conduct demonstrates that the lawyer does not understand the most fundamental legal doctrines or procedures, and the lawyer’s conduct causes injury or potential injury to a client.”

Christensen's scheme fit that description perfectly, the Supreme Court ruled. The former attorney didn't respond to a message seeking comment for this story. It's unclear whether he's still in Florida.
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Travis Cohen is a writer for Miami New Times and covers subjects ranging from arts and architecture to marijuana and monkeys with herpes. He graduated with honors from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor's degree in English in 2012 and began working with New Times shortly thereafter. He was born and raised in Miami.