It’s easy to forget now, but there was a time not long ago when running a medical cannabis collective in California could be a very risky business. As a young attorney in 2008, Meital Manzuri didn’t know much about cannabis. But in those days of DEA raids on collectives and prosecution of patients, of erratic local regulations and haphazard crackdowns, she saw a glaring need. Many other lawyers wouldn’t even take medical cannabis cases, for fear of prosecution themselves. “I was getting a lot of clients who were being ill-advised by people who weren’t lawyers on how they should operate their business. And a lot of them were kind of set up for failure,” said Manzuri, 35, Managing Partner of Manzuri Law Firm. “I realized there was this void for knowledgeable advice on the business side to protect my clients in a preventative fashion so if they ended up in court they had their defense ready to go.”
The struggle is still real today. As California plods into the murky waters of cannabis regulation and adult recreational use, she and business partner Alexa Steinberg, 29, have emerged as two of the most prominent legal and educational advocates in the industry, two energetic young lawyers who aren’t afraid to stand up to the old drug war lords. Because, experience has taught, the War on Drugs, so entrenched in this country for decades, isn’t going down without a fight.
A True Believer
The Steele Smith case made Manzuri a true believer. She had worked on other medical cannabis cases, had traveled to Amsterdam and experienced the cannabis coffee houses and had even begun to enjoy the herb herself. She opened her own practice six years ago to focus on cannabis. “I didn’t believe these people should be facing jail times and mandatory minimums in federal prison for a plant. The more I worked as lawyer in the industry, the more passionate I got about cannabis, as I thought about how many people it helped medically and how many peoples’ lives were ruined by the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act,” she said.
“I always want to fight for the person who doesn’t necessarily have a voice. A lot of my clients are very good people but they’re not lawyers. I’ve seen police and prosecutors really take advantage of that lack of education and not asserting their rights and that’s the kind of thing that really gets my blood pumping and drives me to do what I do.”
Smith, her client, was charged with cultivating nearly 1,300 plants for his Los Angeles-area collective. Here was a compassionate man trying to help people, a man who gave out free wheelchairs, facing 10 years in federal prison. For the first time in California, she convinced a federal judge to allow her client to present a medical cannabis defense. Smith eventually pleaded guilty but was sentenced to time already served.
“That was a pivotal moment, when I realized how, from a legal perspective, how interesting the issues are, because they span from constitutional to business to corporation . . . And from a personal perspective, how much we needed to help people,” she said.
“I’ve always been an advocate at heart; helping people and really resolving this social justice issue became a passion.”
She also achieved her share of acquittals. She recalls one case in Pomona when the judge called her to the bench, telling her, “It’s going to be on you when these people go to jail. Marijuana cases lose. You need to plead it out.” It took the jury just 45 minutes to acquit her client. It was, for her, “such a great, small, big moment.”
An Educational Mission
Manzuri began teaching at places like Oaksterdam University and offering free seminars. The DEA continued to raid collectives and grow operations, seizing everything and all the cash and many times never charging anyone with a crime. If collective owners, growers and patients could be taught how to comply with local officials and regulations, maybe such troubles could be prevented.
“I’ve always been an advocate at heart, helping people and really resolving this social justice issue became a passion.”
She hired Steinberg in 2014 as her associate attorney. It was an eye-opening experience for her. “I was really one of those people who still had that vision of what mainstream America looks at and envisions in their minds when they think of cannabis. They think of Rastafarians. They think of somebody completely stoned on their couch,” said Steinberg. “Once I became immersed in this world I was seeing professionals who were involved in this industry . . . and my idea of what this industry was completely turned on its head, and I began to see the incredible things going on with this industry and that it really is an industry itself and not what mainstream America thinks it is.”
Along with teaching seminars, the attorneys have printed brochures of patients’ rights, handed out in collectives. They wrote a book about legalization in California. They developed a comprehensive website, legally-blunt.com, about “navigating the weeds of cannabis justice.”
Federal medical cannabis prosecutions have dwindled in California, due to turnover among federal prosecutors and a more hands-off policy by the U.S. government in California and elsewhere. But enforcement on the local level is still a patchwork in California, where it only takes one police chief or district attorney to seize a crop and throw someone in jail. For example, they still get a surprising number of criminal cases out of San Diego.
As California implements the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, to finally regulate the industry comprehensively, and as voters look poised to approve recreational cannabis use, the legal hoops ahead for those in the industry are uncertain.
Be sure these two attorneys, with years of experience navigating the murky waters of medical cannabis law, are poised to help guide the way.
“What motivates me is the reaction when people hear what we do and the reaction our clients give us when we do something for them and for their cause. Each and every one of our clients is an advocate.”
“What motivates me is the reaction when people hear what we do and the reaction our clients give us when we do something for them and for their cause. Each and every one of our clients is an advocate,” said Steinberg.
Meital says, “I always want to fight for the person who doesn’t necessarily have a voice. A lot of my clients are very good people but they’re not lawyers. I’ve seen police and prosecutors really take advantage of that lack of education and not asserting their rights and that’s the kind of thing that really gets my blood pumping and drives me to do what I do.”
“And we love the plant. We have a lot of fun.”