It's no stretch to say that Clifton Black is one of the fundamental reasons medical marijuana has been successful in Colorado Springs.
As a defense attorney who's lobbied on behalf of the industry since City Council first considered banning dispensaries in October 2009, Black's been everywhere: hosting informational meetings on state legislation, helping craft licensing recommendations to the city, and trying to keep the pioneers out of prison.
"The thing that I like most about medical marijuana, my biggest interest, is just the historical perspective," the 48-year-old says over lunch at MacKenzie's Chop House, which sits just below Black & Graham, the five-attorney firm Black co-owns with partner Carl Graham. (Black eats at the restaurant so much that he pulls out a pair of punch cards full of holes at the end of the meal.)
"You look back at prohibition of alcohol, and the speakeasies, and that 75 percent of the adult American public were drinking alcohol: Society was opposed to alcohol prohibition. And at first — most people don't know this — there was actually medicinal whiskey during Prohibition."
With the advent of Amendment 64, the parallels are clear. But despite a body of work that has fellow defense attorney Sarah Christensen calling him "the local expert on medical marijuana cases," Black's straightforward regarding the leisure side: "I wouldn't want any of my clients to be the guinea-pig to test what the federal reaction is going to be when commercial recreation businesses open up," he says adamantly. "I think it's just too much of a risk to take."
Instead, the father of four would rather work on behalf of people like Bob Crouse, an aging leukemia sufferer and MMJ patient who was acquitted of cultivation and distribution at trial, but had to fight to have his cannabis given back by the Colorado Springs Police Department. Black represented him pro bono, winning that follow-up case in November, and has since been named co-counsel, with attorney Charles Houghton, on a civil suit filed against the city on Crouse's behalf for damage done to the evidence while in police care.
"To me, [Bob] is the essence of why we allowed medical marijuana," the attorney says. "He is the exact person in mind when the ballot initiative was written."
But before Black was Medical-Marijuana Man, he was the blue-eyed, blond-haired youngest of seven growing up in the Rustic Hills neighborhood. His dad taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School, and his mom worked in real estate. A product of Colorado Springs School District 11, including Mitchell High School, Black says he wishes he'd been "a more serious student."
"Grade school, junior high, high school: I was doing a lot of fighting and getting in trouble and creating headaches for my parents," he says. Later, he clarifies: "I don't think we got in trouble because of our parents, but just the environment we were in and the poor decisions we made."
Black's tendency to worry over the impact his words might have is a common theme in our interactions. He's cautious, tending to revise and tone down prior comments, with a great mind for remembering chronological details. But he's hardly risk-averse, as evidenced by one of his first business ventures: buying a failing moving company, three days after his 21st birthday. He eventually revived and sold it, then moved to Glenwood Springs for a year to work and ski all day. (He still hits the slopes around 20 times a season.)
After years spent at Pikes Peak Community College, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the University of Missouri School of Law, Black's now the founder of one of the larger law firms in the city. As we leave the restaurant, he jokes that he needs to avoid a certain table — it's full of attorneys who just watched a co-worker defect to Black's firm.
'Fair and reasonable'
But in reality, the man has seen great success in a competitive field. Even 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May, the most inflammatory figure in the Springs' marijuana scene, offered kind words for Black, saying, "In my dealings with Cliff, I've always found him to be fair and reasonable, and he always approaches things in a responsible manner."
To wit, just listen to what he considered when deciding whether to take up with MMJ.
"'Do I want to go into this niche business — exciting from a historical point of view, something new that no other attorney does?' I mean, there was a lot of draw to it at that level," says Black. "But I didn't want to be dealing with clients, advising them on medical marijuana and then having them get arrested at a later date by the federal government even though they were in compliance with Colorado law.
"And then I had this serious concern as a father, as a family man: Do I want to be known as the medical-marijuana attorney in town, and what kind of impact is that going to be on my children?
"[So] I resolved that issue internally: Basically, if I advise people, I'm not telling them to do this business; I'm not telling them to not do this business. I'm telling them what the laws are."