June 21, 2010
The universe of marijuana laws may be devolving into chaos, but Bill McPike remains a mellow man. For 30 years, the Fresno, Calif., attorney has defended clients against pot charges and counseled entrepreneurs on setting up shop to legally grow and sell the substance that spawned a thousand slang terms.
But whatever its name over the years — Mary Jane, weed, wacky tobaccy — at no other point has the law been so unsettled. A collision of federal policy, state statutes, local ordinances and old-fashioned politics means more clients for McPike to defend and more uncertainty to navigate. Although U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said last year that federal prosecutors would back off cases involving medical marijuana usage, authorities in California and elsewhere recently have vowed to rein in what they see as an unwieldy industry of pot growers and consumers.
Added to the mix are a jumble of local ordinances drawing odd boundaries that can make it legal to sell marijuana on one side of the street and illegal on the other. “It creates a lot of problems,” said McPike, 59. A longtime member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, he regularly conducts seminars about conforming with California’s medical marijuana laws. Last month, he hit Burbank’s Holiday Inn to talk about what it takes to establish a medical marijuana business. It was an event organized by the California Medical Marijuana Club. The group’s Web site proclaims that “A friend with weed is a friend indeed.”
McPike also teaches courses on establishing a medical marijuana business through 420 College, the self-described premier medical marijuana school in California. For $250, students get training in opening a nonprofit marijuana business, transporting marijuana, cultivating it and cooking with it. Those who successfully complete the program receive “Bill McPike’s Cannabis Businessmen” certification.
Throughout his 30-year legal career, McPike has seen highs and lows in the support for reforming marijuana laws. But what’s going on now in his home state and elsewhere is unprecedented. In November, California voters will consider an initiative to legalize and tax marijuana.
The patchwork of laws has created plenty of confusion, McPike said, especially among those seeking to start a medical marijuana business. “They just go do it, with no forms to back them up, then the cops come across them and they’re in real trouble,” he said.
Fourteen states now allow the cultivation and use of marijuana for medical reasons. Besides California, they include Michigan, New Jersey and Colorado. Last month, the District of Columbia Council approved a law to allow people with HIV, glaucoma, cancer and other chronic diseases to buy medical marijuana from a small number of dispensaries in the city. Also last month, a group of about 100 medical-marijuana workers in California voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The group includes growers and sellers.
Amid the changes in the laws across the country, medical marijuana dispensaries have flourished, with the number of dispensaries in Los Angeles alone estimated at 1,000. In his announcement in March 2009, Holder indicated that government resources would go to catching illegal large-scale dealers and more violent drug-related crimes rather than raiding dispensaries.
But just as the federal government has demonstrated a laxer attitude, local authorities say the proliferation of dispensaries has spawned operations that supply pot for recreational, not medical, reasons. On June 7, the city of Los Angeles announced that it would seek to close 400 dispensaries there. The City Attorney’s Office said the crackdown affects unregistered dispensaries that opened after the implementation of a 2007 moratorium. Also on June 7, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter signed two bills to increase the oversight of medical marijuana in his state. At the time, Ritter cited the “chaotic proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries” as the reason for the change.
“There’s a lot of gray area,” said McPike, speaking from his home near Shaver Lake, Calif.
At one point in his career, he was defending 32 clients in 16 counties, he said. Many of his clients were prosecuted even though they had with them at the time of arrest documentation showing that the pounds of marijuana they possessed were for legitimate medical reasons, he said. McPike was able to get several of those cases dismissed by filing demurrers — an unusual move in criminal prosecutions. Instead of his clients pleading guilty or not guilty — typically the only two choices in a criminal case — his clients admitted the facts of the case and put the burden on the prosecution to show how it was illegal. “They couldn’t do it,” he said.
McPike grew up in Fresno, a community that he said was steeped in marijuana culture. He worked as a claims adjuster before graduating from Humphreys College Laurence Drivon School of Law in 1980 when he was 29. One of his law professors would become a client, he said.
Trevor Oppliger, a deputy district attorney in Fresno, said McPike knows his stuff. He and McPike crossed paths numerous times as opposing counsel when Oppliger was prosecuting drug cases. “He’s a grandfatherly type, if that makes sense,” Oppliger said. “His experience and knowledge are profound.”
Former Mendocino County deputy district attorney James Lee Nerli described McPike as a “mellow guy.” Now in private practice in Fair Oaks, Calif., Nerli worked opposite McPike on several marijuana cases. “He had plenty of clients. That’s for sure,” Nerli said.
McPike still represents a few individuals, but he spends most of his time consulting with people who want to open dispensaries. More and more of his work involves individuals outside California who want to either use or produce medical marijuana. To set up a storefront shop such as those allowed in California, it takes as little as $5,000, he said.
McPike is not alone in his line of work. Several solo practitioners and law firms, mostly in California, tout themselves as marijuana defense attorneys. For instance, Beverly Hills is home to Allison Margolin’s practice. The 2002 Harvard Law School graduate describes herself as “L.A.’s dopest attorney.” About 70% of her practice focuses on people who have run afoul of California’s medical marijuana laws. Since Holder’s announcement last year, more older, retiree types have gotten into the business, she said.
Then there’s Michael Kraut, also a Harvard-educated attorney, whose pot practice focuses exclusively on criminal defense. He does not assist with startups. He’s a former deputy district attorney in Los Angeles. His clients, he said, most often get in trouble with the law because they simply do not understand it.
McPike said he’s had a steady flow of clients and that it’s been relatively easy to grow his practice over the years by word of mouth. He’s never run a Yellow Pages advertisement.
“I get all kinds of people calling me. I don’t know how they find me,” he said. A few days ago, a gentleman who had recently received two heart stents contacted him to see about becoming part of the marijuana “clubs” that California allows. They are co-ops of sorts that permit medical marijuana users to grow and use their own product.
Later this month, McPike is headed to Los Angeles to conduct a seminar through 420 College. The curriculum includes how to start a marijuana delivery service for just $500.
McPike said he has learned that the best piece of advice for clients is to keep their mouths shut with authorities until they get an attorney. “The biggest mistake is the talk,” he said.