Nine months after a joint drug task force raided a medical marijuana business in San Diego and seized hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product, equipment, cash and $100,000 from the founder's family members' bank accounts, the Institute for Justice, a non-profit law firm that represents clients pro bono, is representing the entrepreneur in an effort to get the family's seized money back from the San Diego District Attorney's office.
As with many civil asset forfeiture cases, which collects tens of millions of dollars each year from alleged criminals, no charges have been filed against James Slatic, who found the now shuttered medical marijuana concentrates company Med-West Distribution in San Diego.
Wesley Hottot, the lead attorney on Slatic's case for the Institute for Justice, says civil asset forfeiture laws allow for what he calls "policing for profit." He'll represent the Slatic in a hearing on Nov. 14.
"This is a cash grab from an innocent family while California is on the cusp of legalizing marijuana for recreational use," says Hottot. "I am not aware of any other civil asset forfeiture case like this. I know other abuses of civil forfeiture, but I have never seen that the alleged sins of the father can lead to the bankruptcy of an entire family."
Hottot say the law on the books in California requires law enforcement to find a direct connection between any alleged crime and money being seized. It does not allow the government to seize every penny from a family based on the mere suspicion that one family member did something illegal, which is what he says happened with the Slatic and his family.
As California residents get ready to vote on a ballot measure asking if the state should legalize recreational marijuana for adults on election day, Slatic's case is important. (Arizona, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada will also vote on recreational ballot initiatives and Florida, North Dakota, Arkansas and Montana will vote for medical marijuana.) In California, medical marijuana has been legal since 1996 with the passage of Proposition 215, but the industry remained a gray market because the law was vague; the law did not cover every sector of the industry and each city could adopt its own unique rules or ban the industry.
Last year, three bills were passed that collectively make up the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA), legislation that spells out rules, requirements and licensing guidelines for all aspects of the industry, including concentrate manufacturers and refiners. The act went into effect on January 1, 2016, but the specifics are still being written and state licenses will not be issued until 2018. Many industry entrepreneurs feel that this two-year gap leaves businesses vulnerable to law enforcement until the state starts giving out licenses. Even after that happens, federal and local task forces can still use asset forfeiture laws to raid companies and seize assets until marijuana is legalized federally. (A recent reform in California law, which will go into effect in January, will force authorities to convict a person of a crime before seizing assets under $40,000.)
On Nov. 14, Hottot will argue that Detective Mark Carlson, a cross-sworn officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the San Diego Police Department who seized the Slatic's family assets, did not have probable cause to freeze and seize the $100,693.85 across Slatic's bank account, his wife's and their two daughters' bank accounts. He will also argue that Carlson did not prove that the money in the family member's accounts was connected to any illegal enterprise. Hottot says he hopes the judge will order the return of the family members' monies.
As for the money related to Med-West, a total of $325,570 in cash, Slatic will have to wait for another hearing.
Almost a year after 28 federal and local drug agents raided Med-West Distribution in San Diego and seized thousands of dollars worth of product and equipment and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, the company founder has still not been charged with a crime.
Days after the January 28, 2016 raid, a judge gave permission to a detective on the San Diego joint narcotics task force to use civil asset forfeiture laws to freeze Med-West founder James Slatic's bank accounts and the accounts of his wife and two daughters. The warrant alleged the money was proceeds of an illegal drug enterprise, but since the authorities used civil asset forfeiture, they did not have to charge and convict Slatic before seizing his family's assets. The burden of proof is on Slatic to prove he is not an illegal drug dealer if he wants his money back.
Med-West, which supplied medical marijuana dispensaries with THC vaporizers and edibles and supplied other marijuana brands with white labeled products, was forced out of business after the raid and asset seizure. Slatic's company, which had its warehouse across the street from a Mercedez-Benz dealership and was respected throughout the industry, was operating under California's medical marijuana laws and was registered with the city of San Diego. Before the raid, Slatic had hosted local law enforcement officials to see what the company was doing and he paid federal, state and local taxes.
Over the last year, California drug agents have raided at least five other THC concentrate companies and instead of charging the founders with a crime, the authorities used civil asset forfeiture to seize money and equipment. As the days of prohibition are numbered, these tactics have left many with the impression that the authorities are making hay while the sun shines.
The San Diego District Attorney's office would not comment on Slatic's case except that Slatic is still under review for potential criminal charges. Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for San Diego County DA Bonnie Dumanis, explains how the DA's office uses asset forfeiture laws:
"The primary mission of the asset forfeiture program is to enhance public safety by removing the proceeds of crime and other assets relied upon by criminals to perpetuate their criminal activity," Sierra says.
But Slatic, who has not been convicted of a crime, says he believes the DA's office is having trouble re-calibrating its behavior as marijuana laws evolve.
"Powerful forces are unhappy about legalization of cannabis, and they're not taking it lightly," Slatic told Inc. in July. "Medical marijuana is legal in California whether the DA likes it or not."
Hottot says Med-West was not extracting THC from marijuana, as the police allege. Hottot says Slatic bought concentrate wholesale and refined the concentrate. The January raid was approved by a judge because cops alleged that Slatic was breaking a health and safety code violation against extracting cannabis with a "volatile chemical." The methods Med-West used to refine the product are techniques used widely in the food industry. Hottot says if the authorities thought a food company has doing something illegal against food and safety regulations they would send in the appropriate government agency and tell the company needed to fix the situation in 10 days. But since Med-West refined THC concentrate, the government's reaction was to send in nearly 30 agents with guns drawn, Hottot says.
"It shocks and saddens me that the DA's office can ruin a family and a business in an instant based of vague claims that a businessman is doing something illegal," Hottot continues. "Civil forfeiture turns the American principle of you are innocent until proven guilty on its head. It should not be easier to take someone's money than it is to convict them of a crime."