September 23, 2012

Ex-sheriff's crime-fighting experience helps in new job: defending the accused

Lawyer Mark Dion uses his problem-solving skills in legal conflicts arising from medical marijuana.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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The law enforcement mementos on the walls of Mark Dion’s Portland office are clues that he’s not a typical criminal defense lawyer. One specialty now: medical marijuana cases.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

"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:


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