Lawyer Said Their Weed Plants Were Legal—and It Landed Them in Jail
A couple’s attorney promised them they could grow medical marijuana in Florida. Then the SWAT team arrived.
Marsha Yandell was getting ready for lunch when a SWAT team appeared on her lawn and shouted over a bullhorn to smoke her out.
It was February 2015, and the former registered nurse tried to tell Florida cops that she had paperwork for her cannabis plants. The documents, she claimed, showed she and her hubby Scott were allowed to grow medical marijuana.
Yandell was tackled and zip-tied once she emerged, while her husband phoned their attorney from inside the house. The lawyer, Ian James Christensen, had legally greenlighted their home-grow operation and provided them with a patient ID card.
Scott, then an engineer, was cuffed and charged, too. The couple faced a slew of felonies, including manufacturing cannabis and possession of cannabis with intent to sell or deliver, and decades behind bars.
The Yandells lost their home and their jobs. They took a plea deal in return for $15,000 in fines, three years of probation, and 100 hours of community service, court records show.
Nine months after their arrests, Christensen closed his law firm. He eventually left Florida and faces a federal lawsuit by the Yandells accusing him of legal malpractice. (A default was entered against Christensen this month, after he failed to respond to the complaint.)
Last week, the 30-year-old one-time barrister was disbarred for falsely telling his sick clients they could possess, use, and grow cannabis. Christensen claimed cops couldn’t touch them as long as they had his “Official Legal Certification” and (phony) patient ID cards. At the time, medical marijuana wasn’t even legal in the Sunshine State.
Two other people—an Iraq War contractor with PTSD and his girlfriend—were arrested and prosecuted after following Christensen’s advice, a state bar investigation found.
Along with the “Official Legal Certification,” Christensen provided clients with “grow signs” they could post at their homes to announce they were cultivating medical marijuana, a Florida Supreme Court ruling stated.
In a Jan. 18 decision, the court ruled that Christensen erroneously advised his clients and gave them “legally meaningless” certifications “based on determinations made by a physician not licensed to practice medicine in the State of Florida.”
Christensen “continued to insist on the correctness of his clearly erroneous legal positions” even when facing disciplinary proceedings, the document states.
“We will not tolerate such misconduct by members of The Florida Bar,” the panel wrote in their decision.
Christensen’s attorney, D. Gray Thomas, released a statement suggesting his client never intended to harm anyone.
“A young lawyer thought at the time that he was serving his clients’ rights and best interests, and was advising them appropriately,” Thomas said. “He thought he was raising a valid position on their behalf supported by existing Florida legal precedent on the defense of medical necessity.”
In court papers, Thomas wrote that Christensen “opened his own solo firm, unmonitored by an experienced law firm or attorney.”
Christensen, in an affidavit, said, “...I am extremely remorseful for the harms caused to my clients based on my naive persistence and misplaced confidence in what I was doing harms which I did not intend.”
But Andrew Bonderud, an attorney for the Yandells, called Christensen a scam artist.
“He has demonstrated a level of intransigence and arrogance that is remarkable,” Bonderud told The Daily Beast. “He had lots of opportunities to be persuaded that what he was recommending was hazarding all of his clients, and he ignored them.
“It’s a level of recklessness that cannot be explained away by an innocent misunderstanding,” Bonderud added.
While Marsha Yandell is happy with the disbarment, she says her life is still in pieces. She and her spouse moved to Oregon for a fresh start, but her criminal record bars her from being employed as a nurse. “I don’t want this to ever happen to another vulnerable patient, ever again,” she told The Daily Beast.
Yandell was a registered nurse for 25 years and lost her license after pleading guilty to possession of cannabis with intent to sell and possession of paraphernalia. Her husband, an engineer for 15 years, also lost his job at Verizon, she says.
“We’re very educated people, however, we are not educated in law,” Yandell said.
Before she found Christensen’s firm, Yandell was suffering from fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression, and spinal stenosis. Desperate to ditch the daily pharmaceuticals she took to ease the pain, she attended a cannabis seminar and learned of Christensen’s business, Health Law Services (HLS).
Indeed, Christensen launched the IJC Law Group in July 2013, less than three months after being admitted to the bar. At the time, he had no training in the area of medical marijuana, the Florida Supreme Court found.
The attorney launched HLS in February 2014, and incorporated the Cannabinoid Therapy Institute five months later, court papers state.
Christensen charged HLS clients $799 a pop for a “medical necessity” evaluation. If his firm determined a need for weed, it would provide patients with the “Official Legal Certification” and a homemade ID card claiming the clients had a marijuana prescription.
The identification was not affiliated with any government agency.
HLS’ website erroneously claimed Florida’s medical necessity doctrine would protect patients from law enforcement if they could prove they used pot for medical reasons. “Therefore, 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,” the website stated.
Meanwhile, Christensen’s Facebook page boasted of being “the first law firm to develop a process to assist you TODAY so you may rest easy knowing you have a valid legal option to use this safe non-toxic medicine.”
He claimed to have a team of expert physicians, attorneys, and experienced marijuana professionals. Yet, according to the Yandells’ lawsuit, one of those experts claimed to be a lawyer but didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree.
The Yandells met Christensen in June 2014 and paid him $799 each after they received a “medical interview” by a doctor, whom they later learned wasn’t even licensed to practice in the state of Florida.
At the time, Marsha Yandell was desperate for a cure.
“I was eating 15 pills a day with every doctor in Jacksonville saying, ‘I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad, but there’s not a lot I can do,” Yandell said.
“When I met these people, and they told me they had a way out of that whole rat race that I was living… I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I will try anything,” Yandell recalls. “If somebody would have told me to scrape asphalt off the left side of the highway and eat it, I would have done that.”
The couple later showed Christensen their home cannabis plants, and the budding attorney allegedly restated that the operation was legal.
Christensen found ways to add validity to his practice by creating a website where law enforcement could search for and confirm whether patient ID cards were valid, Yandell told The Daily Beast.
She and her husband continued to cultivate marijuana until January 2015, when a former friend and HLS patient made a false 911 call about them, the lawsuit states. (Yandell said the pal was angry when she stopped growing his medicine for free. He allegedly told police he heard gunshots at the Yandell residence.)
According to the lawsuit, Christensen told the Yandells they had nothing to worry about and that his firm would contact the Saint Johns County Sheriff’s Office to discuss the couple’s marijuana operation. There is no record, however, that Christensen ever contacted the agency.
One month later, the SWAT team raided their home and seized their vehicles and other valuables.
The Yandells paid HLS $3,000 in cash, in addition to filing fees, to have Christensen represent them after their first arrest.
When cops busted the couple a second time in March 2015, they hired a new attorney. They pleaded guilty to avoid lengthy prison sentences, becoming “homeless, broke, convicted felons,” their complaint states.
Their landlord later won a $25,000 judgment against them for lost rent and damages to the home from the police raid.
The Yandells weren’t the only victims of Christensen’s alleged scheme, court papers filed in the disbarment case reveal.
In June 2014, Matthew Young and his girlfriend, Lynne Nesselroad, sought advice on Florida’s medical marijuana laws.
Christensen sent Young to his Cannabinoid Therapy Institute for an exam. Afterward, Christensen told Young he could grow and use weed for his medical conditions which include PTSD and brain injury.
Three months later, Christensen provided Young with a patient ID card and Nesselroad with a card identifying her as his “qualified caregiver.” Christensen was listed on both ID cards as their “Licensed Florida Counsel.”
In November 2014, Young and Nesselroad were arrested for trafficking marijuana and possession and manufacture of cannabis. Cops laughed when Young showed them Christensen’s paperwork, court papers state.
Christensen charged the couple $8,000 to defend them, but a judge disqualified him as their attorney because he was a witness in the case. When Young and Nesselroad tried to get a refund, Christensen allegedly told them the money was gone.
The State Attorney’s Office dropped all charges against the couple in July 2015, and they became cooperating witnesses in an ongoing investigation, the Tampa Bay Times reported. That month, a judge also ordered Christensen to repay the $8,000.
Young had spent 1,600 days in Iraq as a military contractor. His tour left him with broken bones, PTSD, and brain injury from concussions he sustained during explosions. His attorney, Shawn Gearhart, told the Times that he also contracted HIV while working as a field medic and was later diagnosed with AIDS.
“It calms everything,” Young told the Times. “Without cannabis my head is like a tornado and a hurricane all at the same time.”
According to the Times, state attorney Bruce Bartlett said that without Christensen’s guidance, Young and Nesselroad wouldn’t have faced their predicament. “These people have been punished enough,” Bartlett said.