Chernis Law Group

Michael Chernis


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Michael Chernis is hailed as one of California’s foremost experts in both federal and California laws relating to cannabis and the growing legal cannabis industry.

He works efficiently and intelligently to deliver the best possible solutions for clients struggling to understand and navigate a very nascent industry that’s subject to sometimes confusing — and conflicting — laws and regulations.

Michael’s insightful writing and sharp presentations come from his work ethic, rigorous attention to detail, and the unique complexities of each situation. The result? Excellent outcomes for his clients.

"I am very hard on myself in terms of preparing and knowing my case and its facts," Michael says. “I also care very deeply about my clients and getting them the best result possible. With that, and because I know the case law in this area, I believe I have all the tools necessary to produce for my clients."

Michael represents medical marijuana clients seeking to form collectives; existing stores and mobile dispensaries; patients and doctors; manufacturers and cultivators, landlords and others seeking to do business with such collectives. His clients range from established brands to start-ups.

He also represents individuals and businesses in civil litigation with municipalities arising from such activities, and in criminal matters when charged with violating federal or state MMJ laws.

Fifteen years of litigating white collar crime and civil cases with big New York law firms sharpened his skills, including frequent forays against the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other prosecuting agencies.

"It’s necessary to rip apart every case and look at it on its own set of facts, look at the client as an individual and try to figure out what you have to work with.” Michael says. "Only then can you begin to craft a pathway, which must remain somewhat flexible depending on how things evolve, including facts."

Experience in both criminal and civil defense is vital when going against a system where a civil violation can suddenly become criminal — perhaps even a federal case.

"I bridge two worlds, the criminal and the civil world," Michael says. "I know how to work with prosecutors and I think that’s another perspective that’s invaluable. Other lawyers tend to give business advice in a vacuum, not understanding the criminal consequences."

This translates into powerful strategies for MMJ business clients. Because he has defended such issues in court at the highest level, Michael can identify soft issues in setting up contracts, working through the maze of municipal requirements and the best ways to start a legal cannabis business from ground zero.

The industry’s increased profitability brings with it a much greater potential to run afoul of the law or slip out of compliance in a way that a potential client might never imagine. For instance, although California MMJ laws are not applicable in federal court, Michael has successfully used a client’s compliance with those laws to persuade federal prosecutors not to file criminal charges.

"There are always gray areas where businesses are operating without knowing where the lines are drawn. Most business areas have matured, so that 90 percent of the questions have been resolved,” Michael says. “But in this immature industry, there are many uncertainties to be navigated, which are both challenging and interesting."

Bringing business law to the "Cannabiz"

Michael received his juris doctorate from Fordham University School of Law in 1994, where he was a member of the Fordham Law Review. He graduated from Brandeis University with a B.A. in Political Science in 1989.

After law school he joined the New York office of the preeminent Jones Day law firm as an Associate in the litigation group. Jones Day attracted Michael because of its international practice as well as the firm’s white collar crime practice, led by a former federal prosecutor who took on some of the most celebrated Wall Street defendants.

Michael honed his skills with mentors who were former federal prosecutors and among the best in the business. His case load centered around defending Fortune 500 companies such as Westinghouse, Bear Stearns, Experian and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, to name a few. Michael also defended broker-dealers in SEC regulatory matters.

Six years later, Michael joined Schulte Roth & Zabel, a New York-based firm known for its litigation and hedge fund practice. Michael continued to defend individuals and large corporations in complex commercial litigation and white collar criminal cases. Michael also had the opportunity to work with its hedge fund lawyers on private equity transactions, asset sales and leveraged buy-outs, as well as litigation related to hedge fund investments.

In 2002, he helped achieve dismissal of a $1 billion lawsuit for Kaydon Corp. based on a challenge to the plaintiff’s expert methodology, known as a Daubert challenge.

Other cases included defending a multi-billion dollar hedge fund accused of illegal “market timing” and “late trading” of mutual funds based on a complex time arbitrage method, and a pro bono victory of New York prison inmate Darryl Phelps, who sued over health problems resulting from receiving a diet of essentially bread and water during two weeks in solitary confinement.

And Michael led the team that  filed a pro-bono lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA on behalf of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims left languishing without any federal relief. That case stoked Michael’s desire to represent individuals rather than large entities and to engage in cases with different stakes.

So in 2006 he joined the premier white collar criminal defense firm Hafetz & Necheles in New York, where for more than two years he worked on several high profile cases involving executives from AIG, KPMG and other large institutions. That work included representation of a client in a federal investigation based in Los Angeles, and stimulated Michael’s desire to move West for a change in lifestyle and new professional challenges.

Michael arrived in Los Angeles in 2008 and soon thereafter opened a West Coast office for a New York based law firm. It became his entre into medical marijuana litigation and, leveraging his New York white collar and business law experience, he soon developed a stellar reputation in the rapidly-evolving area of Cannabis law.

After partnering for three years with entertainment and intellectual property lawyer Anthony Abner at Abner Chernis, in 2014 Michael formed Chernis Law Group P.C., specializing in the marijuana industry and representing business owners, corporations and individuals in regulatory issues, civil cases and criminal defense.

His is one of the most important voices helping to shape cannabis law in California.

For instance, much confusion remains from California’s recent Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, which authorizes State-issued licenses for cultivation, dispensaries, transporters, labs, manufacturers, and distributors. Cities and counties were given the ultimate authority on whether to issue the licenses required to do business.

In response, Michael helped found the L.A. Cannabis Task Force, where he is Policy Director. The organization seeks to create local licensing opportunities for new cannabis businesses and create a new ordinance in Los Angeles to replace the highly flawed policies underlying Proposition D.

Michael regularly writes and lectures on the subject of MMJ regulation. He also co-authored the chapter entitled "Criminal Activities" in Neighbor Disputes: Law and Litigation (CEB), first published in 2013 by the California State Bar’s continuing education division. In it he analyzes the criminal consequences of MMJ and other drug activities, and the remedies available to landlords and neighbors seeking to challenge such activities.

He also has substantial experience in federal criminal defense. An expert on the United States Sentencing Guidelines, he brings this strength with him to the Criminal Justice Act Panel, a program which provides experienced counsel to low income offenders at no cost. The Panel members are selected by the Court and consists of some of the most experienced federal defense attorneys. Michael has worked on the Panel in Los Angeles since 2011 and in that time handled more than 50 federal felony cases for such crimes as drug offenses and RICO Act violations.


  • J.D., Fordham University School of Law
  • B.A., Political Science, Brandeis University
  • Bar Admissions

  • California
  • New York
  • Arizona
  • Memberships

  • California State Bar Association (litigation and criminal defense sections)
  • National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys
  • Lawyers Committee for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
  • Los Angeles County Bar Association (litigation and criminal defense sections)
  • Santa Monica Bar Association
  • National Cannabis Bar Association
  • California Public Defenders Association
  • L.A. Cannabis Task Force (Policy Director)