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Pot Legalization Brings 'The Resistance' to San Diego's Top Law Enforcement Races

The Democratic candidates for San Diego County's two law enforcement positions are promising to accommodate legal marijuana markets in unincorporated communities — even if it means confronting the federal government.

Geneviéve Jones-Wright speaks to the progressive People Over Profits group at Border X Brewing on Jan. 31, 2018. / Vito Di Stefano

Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a public defender running for San Diego County District Attorney, was fielding questions from fellow progressives in the back of a Barrio Logan bar last week when the conversation shifted from police accountability to pot.

The Department of Justice recently rescinded rules protecting the country’s legal marijuana markets, emphasizing the return of mandatory minimum punishments, which prevents judges from using discretion in sentencing.

In response, San Diego’s interim U.S. Attorney issued a statement in support of the move, saying it would allow his office to uphold laws enacted by Congress using “long-established prosecutorial priorities to carry out our mission” of combating crime and stemming “the rising tide of the drug crisis.”

Now a man in the audience wanted to know what, as the county’s top law enforcement official, Jones-Wright would do to protect the region’s legal industry and consumers from potential federal interference.

“Resist,” she said, as applause filled the night air.

She is one of two progressive challengers in this year’s major law enforcement races who are attempting to tap into anti-Trump feelings, leveraging their chances at getting elected, and enacting criminal justice reforms, in a traditionally conservative place.

When it comes to marijuana, the difference between Jones-Wright and her opponent, District Attorney Summer Stephan, is partly a matter of style. Both say they’d uphold state and local marijuana laws and respect the will of the people. But they have drastically different visions for how they would interact with the federal government.

Once the bar patio settled, Jones-Wright told the crowd that “mandatory minimums” was code for “a war on black and brown people” who are incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates. Although the DOJ can entice local agencies to cooperate by dangling civil asset forfeiture money, she said, “district attorneys have no obligation to aid federal authorities,” and when it came to marijuana — or immigration — she would do no such thing.

Proposition 64 gave Californians the right to grow and trade in marijuana with restrictions. But it also gave municipalities the ability to opt of the state’s retail and supply-chain systems. That solidified marijuana as an ongoing political issue in 2018 in local communities.

Activists and other members are the marijuana industry are paying special attention to the district attorney’s and sheriff’s races. The county’s top law enforcement officials don’t write the rules, but they wield significant influence over how those policies are shaped and executed — which in turn shapes the legal and economic environments where regular citizens and businesses operate.

Look no further than the San Diego County Board of Supervisor’s 3-2 decision last year to ban marijuana in unincorporated areas and sunset existing medical outlets. Sheriff Bill Gore, who’s up for re-election, advised the supervisors that legal marijuana would pose a danger to public safety.

But Dave Myers, a sheriff’s commander who’s running against his boss, said whatever danger existed in unincorporated communities has been made worse by a lack of clear rules for storing and transporting cash and marijuana products. Today, dispensaries are popping up quicker than deputies can shut them down, and some of those illegal operations, according to Myers, have been found with meth and other hard drugs.

“He doesn’t want to admit it,” Myers said of his opponent, “but he’s literally created that — a massive influx of illegal dispensaries because he’s unwilling to engage the community.”

Attempts to reach Gore for comment were unsuccessful.

Arguing that the county’s priorities are lopsided, Myers offered a 2017 SANDAG report suggesting the gateway drug for most local heroin users is not weed — it’s pharmaceutical painkillers. Thirty percent of local arrestees said they’d abused prescription opiates before trying heroin, and 80 percent of those said they’d switched to heroin as a substitute.

Yet there are more people assigned to marijuana enforcement than opioids, Myers said.

Lieutenant Karen Stubkjaer, a spokesperson for the department, said three deputies and one sergeant are attached to a seven-person marijuana task force, and one detective is assigned to investigating prescription-related violations.

“The severity of opioid related incidents has not been occurring in San Diego as other parts of the country; and we commit our resources in response to that,” she wrote in an email. “Our largest concern continues to be methamphetamine.” But, she noted, “All of our narcotic investigators are trained and do handle opioid investigations when we have them.”

Ultimately, decisions to file charges fall on prosecutors, who interpret the law and have their own resources to prioritize.

San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan’s handling of a high-profile marijuana case last year has suggested she’s departing from the hardline established by her predecessor, Bonnie Dumanis, who’s now running for supervisors. Stephan struck a plea deal with James Slatic, who was accused of planning to illegally manufacture and sell hash oil across the country, that included probation. She also moved to return the lion’s share of money that was seized during a raid of his company’s facility.

Stephan has, however, kept going the case against Jessica McElfresh, alleging that Slatic’s attorney helped conceal evidence of criminal behavior and seeking, in the process, to review communications with McElfresh’s other clients. The case has sent chills through legal circles and garnered national attention because of the potential implications it carries for attorney-client privilege.

The prosecution also continues to shock leading members of the San Diego marijuana industry, some of whom hired McElfresh for legal advice.

During a brief interview on Friday, Stephan stressed that, as a county prosecutor, her job is to remain faithful to state law, and that’s exactly what she’s done on marijuana matters. She cited the nearly 700 felony cases that her office has helped drop or reduce over the last year.

By abolishing several pot-related crimes, Prop 64 allowed people to retroactively change their records. Local prosecutors, according to Stephan’s office, sent a list of qualifying cases — about 50 people were in custody or on probation — to the Public Defender’s Office, which then petitioned the court.

Jones-Wright has criticized Stephan for meeting with the interim U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman on the same day he signaled support for tougher marijuana enforcement. Stephan said the topic of marijuana came up, but each is responsible to uphold their respective laws.

“Part of what makes this region one of the safest in the state is because we talk to each other like grown-ups and collaborate and join efforts when needed,” she said, citing human and drug trafficking operations. “My federal partners have a lot to do with that, because of the way its transported by cartels across our borders.”

If the U.S Attorney’s Office decides to crack down on San Diego’s legal marijuana markets, it’s not entirely clear how the local district attorney could prevent the federal government from dragging growers or distributors or shop owners into federal court.

The Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment prevents the DOJ from spending funds to interfere with state medical cannabis laws, and it has been approved every year since 2014 in the omnibus spending bill. There’s no guarantee it’ll remain in place for long.

When asked what resistance against federal enforcement would mean in practice, Jones-Wright highlighted San Diego County’s 57 percent “yes” vote on Prop 64, and said her job would be to honor and defend that law from outside interference. She then called the Trump administration racist, sexist and classist, and said it had no business telling the people of California how to govern themselves.

Jones-Wright then gave a visual demonstration of what she meant. She held up a middle finger.

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