Julian Stroleny and Christopher Pagan (J. Albert Diaz)
At the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, Julian Stroleny and Christopher Pagan routinely sent marijuana growers and those in possession of pot to jail—and wrestled with their guilt at night.
Now, the 29-year-old lawyers will be helping the same people they once prosecuted in their new private law practice, consulting with medical marijuana growers and entrepreneurs.
In mid-April, Stroleny and Pagan quit their public jobs and started a criminal defense law firm in downtown Miami called Pagan & Stroleny. While handling rape, animal cruelty and other criminal defense matters, the firm will carve out a specialty in medical marijuana consulting.
“Frankly, I was very happy at the state attorney’s office,” Stroleny said. “Coming out of law school, it’s one of the top jobs you can get in the country. I got wonderful trial experience. But we were both put in a position where we couldn’t afford to stay any longer.”
Stroleny and Pagan are part of a burgeoning niche in Florida and elsewhere focusing on the legal implications of liberalized marijuana laws. As Florida gears up for a November ballot measure that would legalize medical marijuana, and as marijuana bills move through the state Legislature, lawyers are wasting no time launching practices to help entrepreneurs hoping to start medical marijuana businesses—either farms, grow houses, dispensaries or franchises.
Miami lawyer Jeffrey Feiler is selling franchises for $75,000 and has a number of orders already. Other lawyers starting practices to help medical marijuana dispensers are Norm Kent of Kent & Cormican in Fort Lauderdale.
Stroleny and Pagan said their reason for launching the new firm was largely financial. However, they also want to help those in need of medical marijuana due to illness, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions.
Stroleny, a graduate of Florida International University College of Law, has $215,000 in college loans and was making $41,000 at the state attorney’s office. Pagan, a graduate of Syracuse University School of Law, has $177,000 in college loans and was making $46,000 a year as a prosecutor.
Stroleny said he came to the realization he had to leave the state attorney’s office and go into private practice after his father died suddenly in December. He had been financially subsidized by his family but knew that was no longer an option.
At roughly the same time, Pagan learned his girlfriend was pregnant and had the same financial epiphany.
The two friends looked at each other one day and said, “Let’s do this.”
“We had always gotten along, we knew we were capable of this, and we knew as prosecutors some people would see us as a dream team,” Stroleny said. “If I was starting a medical marijuana business, I’d probably want ex-prosecutors helping me saying you can do this, you can’t do this. It’s still a gray area and not defined yet, and you don’t want to make any mistakes.”
Stroleny had fulfilled only half of a three-year commitment to the state attorney’s office, but State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle waived the rest of it as a favor to him.
Pagan completed his three-year commitment in April.
A spokesman for Rundle’s office said she had no comment on the prosecutors’ resignations or their new practice.
After quitting their jobs, the duo leased office space in the White Building in downtown Miami and launched their website, www.pslaw.org. They did not consult with The Florida Bar about their plans.
The Bar has no rules on attorneys advising medical marijuana clients, although other bar associations are considering them. In Nevada, where medical marijuana just became legal, four city attorneys and the Nevada Bar Association have written to the Nevada Supreme Court asking for guidance on whether attorneys can ethically advise clients because state and federal drug laws conflict.
In addition to numerous criminal defense clients, Pagan and Stroleny are working with two major medical marijuana clients and have a retained a Tallahassee lobbyist for their cause.
“Those that wait until November will be too late,” Stroleny said. “We’re ahead of the game. We can get clients access to the licenses.”
Kent, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer, said he’s concerned about lawyers like Stroleny and Pagan with little or no business background jumping into the pot business “like it’s a gold rush.”
“I hope that people who ultimately engage individuals to be consultants will properly screen the qualifications and experience of their potential counselors,” Kent said. “While it’s free enterprise, I don’t know that these prosecutors who were prosecuting drug cases a couple weeks ago have a skill set in business consultations. It worries me how quickly people are stepping into this as a get-rich-quick scheme. There’s a wealth of experience that goes into this, and if you make a mistake your client is going to jail.”
The young lawyers are not only motivated by the cash they will earn. They also have strong feelings that medical marijuana should be legal.
“Marijuana is an untapped resource that should be available to the general public,” said Pagan, who formerly prosecuted drug trafficking and grow house operators. “Too many people are suffering from ailments, and it’s unfortunate that marijuana has been illegal.”
Knowing friends and family undergoing chemotherapy or suffering from multiple sclerosis or AIDS who would be helped by medical marijuana, Stroleny felt increasingly conflicted about his job.
“Because I’m forced to uphold the law and the constitution, my hands were bound,” Pagan said. He was able to get veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who were busted for pot possession into diversionary programs.
Pagan was also feeling a clash between his job and his personal views.
“The laws right now are harsh for grow houses,” he said. “They do a three-year mandatory minimum. Sometimes, the people prosecuted are just those who are watering the plants, Cubans and Haitians who need money or a place to stay.”
When asked whether they themselves have ever smoked pot, Stroleny and Pagan answer affirmatively.
“We all went to high school,” Pagan laughed.