Pubdate: Sun, 23 Sep 2012
Source: Maine Sunday Telegram (ME)
Copyright: MaineToday Media, Inc.
Author: David Hench


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

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

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

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

"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

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

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

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.
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