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District Attorney Is 'Changing Focus' on Marijuana Enforcement

In allowing a high-profile marijuana case to plead down to two misdemeanors, interim District Attorney Summer Stephan revealed that she might be making a big shift when it comes the the city’s approach to enforcement.

Summer Stephan / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan made an interesting public statement about cannabis this week, via a spokeswoman.

It was in a Union-Tribune story about a startling plea agreement in the case of James Slatic, an entrepreneur and legal marijuana pioneer.

Slatic had permits for his Kearny Mesa marijuana business but law enforcement raided and seized his property. He waited a year and a half and wondered if charges would come. The moment he got some of his money back, the district attorney charged him with illegal manufacturing and other crimes.

On Monday he woke up facing 15 felony charges but went to bed with only two misdemeanors, a $1,000 fine and a year of probation. Another chapter of his personal suspense story was over.

That’s an interesting story itself. But what caught my attention was the district attorney’s explanation for why it happened.

“This settlement takes into account the changing focus of the new district attorney administration, which allows companies to apply for a state license to legally sell marijuana,” spokeswoman Tanya Sierra said in a statement.

You don’t say. The community of advocates for access to cannabis and legalization saw former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis as especially harsh. She at times claimed the reputation was undeserved, especially when she ran for mayor in 2012.

Stephan declined to talk about a changing focus on marijuana and whether she’s intentionally distancing herself from Dumanis until after the Slatic case is completely wrapped up.

The first test may come with Slatic. The DA still has a civil action against his business, Med-West. About $350,000 of assets from the business are still being held.

Slatic says that if there really has been a change, perhaps the DA will give that money back.

And the case against Slatic’s lawyer, Jessica McElfresh, has not been dropped.

Her case has attracted attention from lawyers across the country because the DA was pushing to gain access to her communications not just with Slatic but with potentially all her clients. It was a remarkable potential incursion on attorney-client privilege.

Slatic said he’s cautiously optimistic about the DA’s changing focus.

“One can always hope. And the bar is set rather low,” he said.

Phil Rath, a lobbyist who represents most of the permitted dispensaries in San Diego, also took note of the quote from the district attorney’s office.

“We’re encouraged to hear that the district attorney is interested in what the laws passed by the voters and Legislature say and wants to follow those. Sometimes there’s a temptation to lean in a different direction,” he said.

Rath said it was good to see that Stephan recognizes the legality of their facilities and the distinction between places that are not permitted.

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