California Attorney Charged With Felonies for Defending Canna-Business
The outcome of this case could have a chilling effect on lawyers representing the cannabis industry.
Published on June 7, 2017

A California lawyer has been charged with multiple felonies after helping a medical marijuana business win an asset forfeiture case against the San Diego County District Attorney. Several cannabis attorneys have suggested that these charges were filed in retaliation against the attorney's recent victory.

In January of 2016, police raided the home and business offices of James Slatic, who ran a legally licensed medical marijuana distribution business. The DA's office froze the bank accounts of Slatic and all of his family members, but failed to file criminal charges against any of them. Slatic hired Jessica McElfresh to help him fight to have his assets returned, and this May a Superior Court judge ordered the DA to return over $100,000 to the business owner.

Less than a month after the ruling, McElfresh was charged with conspiracy to commit a crime, obstruction of justice, and manufacturing a controlled substance by District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who just lost the asset forfeiture case to McElfresh's client. The DA's office alleged that the attorney helped Slatic cover up an illegal cannabis concentrate manufacturing operation.

“This is clearly a vindictive prosecution arising from the court’s order that they return the seized funds,” said San Francisco-based attorney Henry Wykowski. “As bad as that is in and of itself, this is clearly calculated to send a chill to the attorneys that defend cannabis businesses, that they can become targets.”

Leland Berger, an Oregon-based attorney and member of the National Cannabis Bar Association (NCBA), said that “the prosecution coming, following her successful obtaining the return of funds . . . gives the impression that the prosecution is retaliatory.”

In a statement, the NCBA said that it was “gravely concerned about the chilling effects that the handling of this case may have on attorneys serving cannabis industry clients, possibly resulting in the inability for this new industry to access competent legal services.”

Several cannabis attorneys have spoken out in support of McElfresh. “An attack on any of us is an attack on all of us,” Berger said. “The entire cannabis community, and especially the cannabis bar, should stand up on her behalf,” Wykowski said. “I’ve already told her that whatever I can do, I will do. This is just not proper.”

The case against McElfresh could be dismissed, but could also go to trial. However, Wykowski said that he couldn't imagine “an impartial jury convicting” McElfresh. “I would hope that a jury would see, in Jessica’s case, that she was merely fulfilling her ethical obligation to represent her client, and that’s not a crime.”

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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