In an egregious and unnecessary use of force, the doors to the warehouse of cannabis company Med-West in Kearney Mesa, an industrial neighborhood in San Diego, were busted apart by heavily armed police officers in tactical gear—a raid more appropriate for a SWAT team attempting a hostage rescue from weapon-wielding criminals. It was not the entrance required to serve a warrant to a businessman like James Slatic, who was operating his company within California cannabis law.
The story would be tragic enough if this had occurred in the ‘80s, when all cannabis business operated in a clandestine modus operandi, pre-dating the multi-billion-dollar tax-paying cannabis industry of today. But this happened in January of 2016, in a city with clear cannabis regulations that James Slatic and his business Med-West followed to the letter. Additionally, Slatic, as one of the founders of the California Cannabis Industry Association, and a friend of many California State and local politicians, had an insider’s view of the ever-changing cannabis industry legislation. California Assemblyman Rob Bonta, Slatic said, “couldn’t believe we were raided.” According to Slatic, an astonished Bonta told him, “I know you were covered by the law, because I wrote it.”
So why, in 2016, in a city embracing cannabis businesses present and future, would the San Diego Police mess with a businessman like James Slatic? He refers to himself as a poster child for compliance, saying, “I owned the building, paid for employee health insurance and paid taxes.” Slatic’s company Med-West was seemingly the future of cannabis—proof that things were changing in the industry for the better. But raids on companies such as the Santa Rosa-based Care by Design were a foreshadowing of Med-West’s fate.
Slatic would soon find out that, despite his good standing with the city, it was San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis who spearheaded the attack on his business. A drug warrior cut from the same cloth as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Dumanis has been horrible on cannabis policy, before and after 2004 laws were passed in California. Thankfully, she retired last month, receiving a rousing send-off billed as the “Bonnie Bash” from a group of cannabis activists. However, the damage Dumanis incurred during her tenure as DA cannot be undone.
Slatic surmises the district attorney’s office engaged in what he refers to as a “smash and grab.” With full legalization on the horizon, and recreational laws on the books for 2018, he believes this is a ploy to seize as much cash and property as they are able before it’s no longer possible.
The smash and grab that Med-West fell victim to included 30,000 cannabis oil cartridges, 800 infused chocolate bars, computers and $324,000 in cash, all taken from Med-West’s business property. And Slatic soon realized that the authorities had used federal asset forfeiture laws to seize $100,000 from his family’s personal banking accounts, including those belonging to his two daughters, both at college. “They took my kids’ college funds,” says a righteously infuriated Slatic.
With help from the non-profit Institute for Justice, Slatic won a civil case to get his family’s assets back. The District Attorney’s office was compelled to return the funds with interest. But just four days later, Slatic received another shocking surprise: felony charges related to the Med-West bust.
The felony complaint, which names Slatic, his attorney Jessica McElfresh, and several other Med-West employees, alleges that Med-West illegally manufactured hash oil, using dangerous and unlawful substances. Slatic claims they were within the law and maintains that Med-West was compliant with all regulations.
Slatic says that his current options to fight are limited due to the felony charges: “I went to jail, my business was destroyed. I was an industry pioneer, but now I am radioactive.” Even politician friends who have been supportive privately are loath to go on record to show support since it’s a law-enforcement issue which could affect their standing when seeking reelection.
When asked what a best-case scenario is now for the Med-West case, Slatic is blunt: “Best case is for the DA to read the law and realize that these are permitted substances, and we were running a completely legal business.” He warns that the war is not over. “You should be able to operate your business legally in compliance with the law, but unfortunately that’s not true.”
Trying to imagine a time in the future when he has put this behind him, Slatic is still amazingly optimistic for a man who has had his life shaken up in such an extreme way. “I still have eight years of experience in this business, and north of $10 million in revenue. I am a drug policy warrior—now it’s personal.” —Ben Berkowitz
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