A man from a small York County town had his medical marijuana stolen and was getting no satisfaction from the local police, who were skeptical that a burglary had been committed. As a result, he couldn’t get his insurance company to cover the loss.
Enter Mark Dion, former cop, former sheriff, now criminal defense attorney. He was able to convince police that the theft was legitimate, clearing the way for his client to get compensation.
Medical marijuana has created a new legal frontier of conflicts and interpretations, as police try to enforce the law without running afoul of Department of Health and Human Services rules and other legal protections.
That has opened opportunities for attorneys like Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff and Portland deputy police chief. He’s carving out a specialty in medical marijuana cases as part of his overall work as a criminal defense lawyer.
Now that Dion represents folks similar to those he used to arrest and lock up, former colleagues sometimes roll their eyes at his change of allegiance.
“Some of them (officers) say, ‘Oh, you’ve gone to the dark side,’” Dion said in a recent interview. But some also have referred clients to him.
Dion, 57, spent 21 years in the Portland Police Department, experience that included heading up its bias crimes task force and community policing.
He was elected sheriff in 1998, running as an independent in a largely Democratic county. As sheriff, he oversaw the state’s largest jail — with as many as 400 inmates — in addition to the county’s law enforcement division. While he held the job, he took classes at the University of Maine School of Law — a practice that drew heat from critics who contended he was a part-time sheriff. He got his law degree in 2005.
In 2010, he opted not to run for re-election and joined with fellow University of Maine law school grad Jonathan Berry to form their own firm.
The two represent clients caught up in the web of conflicting state rules, laws and a public that remains divided on the issue of marijuana as medicine — even though it’s been legal since 1999.
Berry represents Safe Alternatives, which has the license to dispense medical marijuana in Aroostook County. When it opened in Frenchville, the small town swiftly passed a retroactive ordinance regulating dispensaries. The dispensary is challenging the ordinance in part because it usurps state oversight of medical marijuana.
Berry said Dion’s background often helps resolve problems before they go to court.
“He was a good law enforcement officer because he was pragmatic, a good chief executive in law enforcement because he was pragmatic,” Berry said. “He has what the world needs more of, which is pragmatism.”
Dion says representing criminal defendants isn’t contrary to police work. In fact, he says it isn’t that much different than the community policing he helped pioneer in Portland in the 1980s.
The essence of both jobs is problem-solving, he said.
Dion’s small office on India Street in Portland — an area he patrolled as a young officer — includes mementos from his earlier careers: a letter of commendation from President Clinton that followed a visit to the Parkside Community Policing Center by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, and an article in The New York Times about his proposal to give seized marijuana to medical patients who need it.
His police experience gives him insight into the real world of investigations and arrests, so when he reads an officer’s report, he can imagine what the scene was like.
“I can’t help but read it as a street officer might. I’ve been a detective. I can read between the lines. I know the playbook,” he said. He sees that as a strength.
“There are some really talented defense attorneys. They’ve never had to jump out of a cruiser or run up the stairs” to respond to a call, he said.
Cops’ supposed dislike for defense attorneys is overstated, said Jonathan Goodman, a former Portland officer who now works as a lawyer for the firm Troubh Heisler in Portland.
“That’s a perception that has evolved from TV and movies,” Goodman said. “I think you would find that most cops have really good working relationships with most defense attorneys and recognize, at the end of the day, we’re all trying to do the same job and that is have a safe society for everybody.”
Goodman said that even as an officer, he developed a sense of empathy for defendants, particularly when he was in the drug unit.
“It’s very easy to look at a story in the paper and say, ‘Wow that person’s a dirtbag.’ It’s different when you get to know the person and know their story,” he said.
Dion’s move to “the other side of the river” as he puts it, has been nowhere near as controversial as his decision in 1998 to support a law allowing the medical use of marijuana, breaking ranks with the vast majority of police in the state. Dion said then it was a heath issue, not a law enforcement issue, and he says now that voters backed him up.
Dion previously served on the board of Northeast Patients Group, a nonprofit that operates dispensaries that provide marijuana to patients, but he withdrew over the tension between federal and state law. Federal law treats marijuana as an illegal drug, regardless of state law, though federal authorities have backed off prosecuting those operating within state medical marijuana laws.
Dion said pulling out of the dispensary business also allows him to represent other dispensaries, caregivers and patients.
Local police departments are trying to find their way through the new marijuana laws.
Dion said his first step when defending a client involved in a dispute over medical marijuana rules is to ask for the department’s policy on medical marijuana. They typically don’t have one, he said.
“I think all patients want to know is that police contact will be consistent and predictable,” Dion said. “If we know how police will manage contacts, then we can advise our clients.”
Dion won election as a Democrat to the state House of Representatives in 2010, representing Portland’s North Deering and West Falmouth. He now has his sights set on a leadership position in his party. He says he’s running for House majority leader, which would require the Democrats to take control of the House from the Republicans.
Becoming an attorney is not a recipe for wealth or power, Dion says. Unlike past executive posts where he had staff and a host of officers to direct, he now has to rely on himself even for mundane tasks like answering the phone and sorting the mail.
He recalls showing up one Saturday to clean the office. Wearing blue jeans and a work shirt, he was bringing the trash out when a couple of clients of the nearby Milestone Shelter, drinking in an alcove, recognized him.
“They said ‘Hey sheriff! You a janitor now?’ He didn’t correct them, but instead reminded them to take their empties when they moved on.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: