Matthew Young won't be spending any time in jail for growing medical marijuana, but he says each day continues to be a battle without the drug.
The State Attorney's Office has dropped all criminal charges against the New Port Richey man arrested last year along with his girlfriend for growing marijuana to treat a slew of illnesses, including posttraumatic stress disorder.
"That we're not going to be spending time in jail, it's huge," Young's girlfriend, Lynne Nesselroad said. "It's a big relief for everyone.
During his 1,600 days as a military contractor in Iraq, Young said he experienced numerous concussions from explosions, leaving him with brain injury, broken bones and PTSD. He also contracted HIV while working as a field medic and was diagnosed with AIDS about six years later, his attorney Shawn Gearhart said.
Young said he tried several medications to treat his nausea, bone pain and other symptoms, but none worked. He turned to medical marijuana, paying a Jacksonville lawyer nearly $800 to help him get a doctor to sign paperwork authorizing his right to grow and use cannabis. The drug immediately helped, he said.
"It calms everything," Young, 45, said. "Without cannabis my head is like a tornado and a hurricane all at the same time."
Young and Nesselroad were arrested in November 2014 when Pasco County sheriff's deputies found the cannabis plants growing in their home. They showed officials what they thought was certification that allowed them to grow pot for Young's medical use, but they faced criminal charges anyway.
The certification was provided by lawyer Ian Christensen, founder of Jacksonville-based Health Law Services, part of the IJC Law Group. The company tells its clients that patients with serious medical conditions have the right to use medical marijuana in Florida as long as a physician deems it "medically necessary" and orders its use. The company charges each client $799 for a doctor-approved identification card authorizing their use of the drug.
Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for the Sixth Judicial Circuit, said Christensen is drawing legal conclusions from specific wording in a court opinion upholding a medical-necessity defense. This defense is not recognized in all judicial districts, Bartlett said, and cannot protect people from being arrested.
"It's not legal in the state of Florida," Bartlett said. "There are no exceptions."
The Florida Bar confirmed that a grievance committee is currently reviewing an open complaint against Christensen concerning Young.
When Young and Nesselroad were arrested, Christensen offered to represent them in court, charging them $8,000.
In late March, a judge disqualified Christensen from representing the couple because of a direct conflict with the case.
"There's no way in the world that you can represent the defendant in this case," Circuit Court Judge Mary Handsel said. "He relied on your advice to grow the marijuana. That in, itself, can be a defense."
Then, on July 17, Bartlett dropped all charges against the couple. They were both cooperating witnesses in an ongoing investigation, Bartlett wrote.
"It was apparent to us that, but for this lawyer's advice, they wouldn't have been in that position at all," Bartlett said later. "These people have been punished enough."
In a hearing on Tuesday, Handsel ordered Christensen to begin repaying the $8,000 he charged the couple to represent them in court.
Christensen would not discuss Young's case, but told the Tampa Bay Times that his company continues to offer clients ID cards that he argues defends their right to use marijuana.
"I've altered ways I do things now because of this case," Christensen said.
His clients now sign a disclaimer clarifying that the authorization does not provide immunity against criminal charges. It's simply a doctor-signed notice to law enforcement.
Contact Samantha Schmidt at (813) 435-7308 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @schmidtsam7.