Spotlight | Alumni Profile
“When you try to enact protectionist barriers to the entry into the cannabis licensing scheme…ultimately, you’ll lose.”

Cultivating a Cannabis Law Practice

Joseph Bondy ’94

Joseph Bondy ’94 has gained international recognition not only for his criminal litigation work on behalf of high-profile clients—most recently, former Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas—but also for what Politico called his “chess-playing” legal tactics and the New York Times described as his “oratorical intensity.”

What drives him, though, is a desire to help others. Bondy often tells students in Cardozo School of Law’s annual Intensive Trial Advocacy Program, for which he is a faculty member, that it is crucial to find commonality with clients, as he did with Parnas, who was initially scoffed at but became a media hero for his role in the Donald Trump impeachment case.

“You’re dealing with people who are in pain or hurt and who are frequently on the fringe and have been put down and pushed and kept down,” Bondy said. “Being able to understand them and develop a trust relationship with your clients is the most important key to your success.”

Also dubbed one of the nation’s preeminent cannabis attorneys, he has helped innovate the practice of cannabis law while monitoring its evolution from criminal defense to a more complex mix of civil issues and business strategy. Bondy points to a 2015 case as a watershed moment: His client was convicted on marijuana trafficking charges in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York but received a 15-month sentence instead of a minimum of 10 years.

“We lost the trial but won the sentence, and that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Bondy said. “It was no longer worth it for the Southern District to commonly pursue these marijuana-only criminal matters.”

Other recent legal victories echo the same theme: A federal court granted a narcotics conspiracy client early termination of supervised release so that the man, a registered medical cannabis patient, could use medical cannabis—one of the first federal instances of such relief. Most recently, a federal judge allowed another of Bondy’s clients to consume medical marijuana while still on supervised release.

Bondy foresees a future in which cannabis will be “legal like lettuce,” meaning accessible and socially normalized as a product that “would be held to the same regulatory standards as anything else we ingest, but that anyone can grow or sell without requiring security guards or bureaucratic red tape.

“If you are trying to obstruct the flow of cannabis, you will always lose,” Bondy continued. “When you try to enact protectionist barriers to the entry into the cannabis licensing scheme—whether high costs of entry, or criteria such as having a criminal background or requirements for where you reside—ultimately, you’ll lose. Cannabis should be something that’s available to everybody so that we are not placing people into an illicit market, relegated to the shadows.”

Bondy has been a legal cannabis advocate since early adulthood and became a lifetime member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) after passing the bar; he now sits on its board of directors.

A Manhattan native, Bondy attended the Bronx High School of Science and earned a psychology degree from Columbia University. When his mother asked him what he planned to do next, he responded sarcastically that he would be a mob lawyer; without missing a beat, she told him to apply to Brooklyn Law School. He was accepted and found his fate sealed on multiple fronts. “I met my wife [Meeka Bondy ’94] on the first day of class—she was the first person I locked eyes on,” Bondy recalled. “I have an enormous place in my heart for Brooklyn Law School.”

An internship at the Federal Defenders of New York in the Eastern District prompted him to consider applying for a similar role at the Justice Department, but Bondy was put off by the application’s drug-use question—which covered cannabis.

“From that moment onward, I began to think more about who is excluded from what, because of their cannabis use,” Bondy said. “When I started to study the minutiae of the then-mandatory federal sentencing guidelines, including the mandatory minimums applying to various federal convictions, I became really interested, and cannabis was the most relatable vector. Everything else flowed from there.”

A believer in learning criminal defense litigation from masters, he found one in the late Robert Fogelnest, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Bondy had witnessed Fogelnest in action in court, and when they were both at a National Criminal Defense College event, Bondy seized the moment and asked to work with him.

Fogelnest’s response was curt: “Who are you? I don’t need associates; I do my own lawyering.” Bondy, at 28, was ultimately offered an office to rent in his mentor’s suite, understanding that he needed to bring his own clients and would likely have little overflow work in an office where the other lawyers were decades older. Bondy learned that Fogelnest’s gruffness masked kindness: he would “break you down, but then build you up,” Bondy recalled.

“At the end of this experience,” Fogelnest told him, “perhaps things will flip around, and you’ll be renting me an office and bringing me into cases for as little as you can pay.” They worked together until 2008, when Fogelnest retired. Bondy keeps a photo of his mentor, sporting long tousled hair, behind where his clients sit. He hopes to see a more inclusive reality for cannabis consumers in the wake of increasing legalization nationwide.

“I didn’t fight for legalization so that everyone could open a dispensary,” Bondy said. “My hope was that the next generation could be anything they want to be without suffering the criminal consequences and stigma of cannabis prohibition. And that is a big part of why, today, I immensely enjoy the smell of cannabis, redolent in the streets of New York, everywhere you go.”

—Teresa Novellino