UPDATE: The Criminal Case Against a San Diego Marijuana Attorney has Settled
Back in September 2017, I blogged about the criminal case against a San Diego marijuana law attorney, Jessica McElfresh, and her client, Med West.
The case began in January 2016, when San Diego officials raided Med West, a medical marijuana dispensary. The county suspected Med West had been illegally manufacturing concentrated cannabis oil. But the case later expanded to include McElfresh when the San Diego District Attorney accused her (and Med West employees) of obstructing the county’s investigation into the dispensary’s operations. For more details on the case, read my original post here, which also has links to the complaint and other sources.
Over the last several months, there have been at least two notable developments in the case.
First, back in November 2017, the owner of Med West (James Slatic) and the four other Med West employees charged in the case pled guilty to two misdemeanor charges: (1) delaying/obstructing a police officer; and (2) the illegal possession of marijuana for sale. In return, the DA agreed to drop the remaining 15, far more serious, felony charges against these five defendants. See here. Under the plea deal, Slatic received 1 year of probation and was fined $1,000. In a separate deal announced the following month, the DA also agreed to return to Slatic all but $35,000 of roughly $300,000 that had been seized from Med West during the county’s investigation. See here.
This left McElfresh as the lone remaining defendant in the case. But on July 23, 2018, in a second notable development, McElfresh reached her own deal with the San Diego DA: a deferred prosecution agreement. McElfresh-Deferred-Prosecution-Agreement
Under the terms of this agreement, McElfresh agreed to take an ethics course, (re)pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE – an ethics exam all prospective attorneys must take when they first sit for the bar), perform 80 hours of community service, and not commit any crimes for the next twelve months. If McElfresh completes all of these tasks, the DA will drop the most serious charges against her and McElfresh will plead guilty to an infraction—namely, that she “knowingly facilitated the use of a premises without a required permit” in violation of San Diego Municipal Code section 121.0302(a). This is a very minor charge (like a traffic violation), especially in comparison to the charges McElfresh had faced under the original complaint. The violation appears to trigger a fairly small fine of $250.
As I noted in my original post, the charges against McElfresh had raised alarms in the legal community. Some believed that the charges would deter lawyers from representing marijuana clients, at least in conservative areas like San Diego.
I’m skeptical the charges against McElfresh ever had much of a chilling impact on legal representation of marijuana businesses in San Diego (or elsewhere). For one thing, McElfresh’s case was very unusual; as far as I am aware, she remains the only attorney ever charged in connection with representing a state-licensed marijuana client (in California or elsewhere). In addition, even if one believes McElfresh to be innocent, it’s hard to say the county’s complaint against her was baseless. After all, the complaint cited evidence at least suggesting that her representation of Med West had crossed the line into obstruction of justice.
Nonetheless, the recent settlement of the case should help put to rest any lingering concerns about representation of marijuana clients. While the settlement does not let McElfresh completely off the hook (see the terms above), it will enable her to avoid a criminal conviction in the case and (presumably) to continue to practice law.
For more on the McElfresh case, see the latest coverage in the Voice of San Diego, DA Drops Felony Charges Against Lawyer Who Defended Marijuana Businessman.