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DA Drops Felony Charges Against Lawyer Who Defended Marijuana Businessman

Attorney Jessica McElfresh, whose prosecution attracted national attention, will not face felony charges if she complies with an agreement signed Monday to stay out of trouble for one year.

Jessica McElfresh is a San Diego lawyer experienced in cannabis law. / Photo courtesy of NBC7

This story has been updated.

The San Diego County district attorney’s office has agreed to drop felony charges against Jessica McElfresh, an attorney who represents marijuana businesses and whose case generated national attention.

McElfresh vowed to plead guilty in 12 months to violating San Diego municipal code, an infraction. An agreement signed Monday stipulates that she cannot violate any laws within that timeframe.

McElfresh declined to comment. Her attorney, Eugene Iredale, did not respond to an interview request.

The case sent shock waves through the legal establishment because of its potential implications for a central tenet of law — attorney-client privilege.

Michael Crowley, a criminal defense lawyer and member of the San Diego County Bar’s Ethics Committee, told VOSD last year that the case also drove home continued uncertainties surrounding the law and marijuana.

“It’s one thing to pass legislation, it’s another to implement it. That’s where attorneys come in,” he said. “They need to give opinions on what the law says without fear of being prospected by a DA who thinks they know the law. An attorney needs to feel that they can freely give advice on areas that are murky in the law. Because everybody’s just trying to figure it out.”

In January 2016, authorities raided a medical marijuana facility in Kearny Mesa run by James Slatic and his business partners. Prosecutors alleged that Slatic and others had planned to illegally manufacture and sell hash oil across the country — and that McElfresh had helped conceal the evidence during an April 2015 city inspection.

McElfresh tried to seal private communications that were captured on electronic devices swept up in the 2016 raid. Instead, a judge ordered the court to review those communications and release anything that could be considered incriminating.

In one email exchange, Slatic asked whether applying for a cultivation permit on the same property was “too thin a ‘veil.’”

McElfresh advised him against that. She said officials were already suspicious of his activities but noted that they’d done a “good job of giving them plausible deniability” that their facility “wasn’t a dispensary” in the typical sense.

Slatic has maintained that the email exchange was taken out of context. In court documents, Iredale has argued that a later search warrant on McElfresh’s home was overly broad, capturing medical records and files involving other clients.

Faced with 15 felony charges, Slatic struck a deal with the DA’s office in 2017, and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors. He also got hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash — taken through the state asset forfeiture law — back. One by one, the cases against his business partners were resolved.

But the case against McElfresh — which began with former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and concluded with the recently elected Summer Stephan — kept going. In the meantime, California voters approved Proposition 64 in November 2016, legalizing recreational marijuana. The DA’s office’s continued pursuit of the case led activists to complain that prosecutors were pursuing McElfresh with the same tenacity that ought to be reserved for pedophiles.

“Jess is clearly a good woman,” said Terrie Best, chair of the San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access, who’d organized supporters to attend even the most mundane hearings over the past 16 months.

“The resolution in this case, as represented by the public document filed in open court, properly balances the interests of justice, and provides accountability and fairness,” said Steve Walker, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, in a statement.

The agreement also stipulates that McElfresh must pay a $250 fine, go through a state bar ethics program and pass a professional responsibility exam, and complete 80 hours of community service.

Update: This post has been updated to include a statement from the district attorney’s office that was sent after this story initially published.

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