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San Diego DA’s Exit is a Celebration for All, Especially Cannabis Advocates

Outgoing San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis speaks to Mitch Dubick during a fundraiser in La Jolla on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. (Gregory Bull/AP)

SAN DIEGO — Friday was the last day in office for San Diego’s tough-on-crime district attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, known during her 14-year tenure for toughening sex offender laws and targeting cannabis businesses.

In the manner of top law enforcement and elected officials, Dumanis was feted with a “walk out”—she strode out the Hall of Justice, along a path of uniformed officers, and into a vintage police car to cruise into her next life chapter. The ritual exit was accompanied by supporters’ hoots and whistles.

But their salutes were no match for the celebratory tunes played by a nearby jazz band and the noise of around 50 protestors flanking it. Rather than honoring Dumanis’ career, the protestors were expressing a different sentiment: good riddance!

“We’re all glad to see her go.”
Gretchen Burns Bergman, medical cannabis advocate

The protest, called the Bonnie Bash, was organized by the San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a medical cannabis advocacy organization. The invitation sent to media and the public proclaimed that “Bonnie has been cruel to patients and her leaving is a happy occasion we want to celebrate with you! … Let’s show Bonnie’s fierce fight the door!”

Attendees, many wearing green beads around their necks, held signs bearing the word “DUMEXIT” and slogans such as “Goodbye Bonnie, Hello Justice” and “Bonnie the Buzz-Kill Bully.”

“Dumanis has been ruthless over the years in attacking and harassing the legal cannabis community,” said Gretchen Burns Bergman, a medical cannabis advocate who attended the protest. “We’re all glad to see her go.”

Dumanis, 65, is well known for her hard-line approach to prosecuting cannabis entrepreneurs (arguably with little success). The Massachusetts-born Republican first won election to become the San Diego County’s top prosecutor in 2003. She got her start in public life as a court clerk who studied law at night. She eventually obtained a seat as a municipal judge, then a superior court judge who oversaw drug court cases.
In the largely Republican county, Dumanis won re-election as DA three times—twice without challengers. But in January she announced that she wouldn’t seek re-election. Her resignation comes a year before the end of her current term, which will be carried out by Summer Stephan as interim DA. Dumanis hasn’t said whether she intends to remain in public life.

Police and protestors outside San Diego’s Hall of Justice. (Chase Scheinbaum for Leafly)

In the days presiding over drug cases, Dumanis was already rigorous in punishing drug offenders, said Bergman, who was a state chairperson for California’s Proposition 36. That successful ballot initiative, which passed in 2000, required non-violent drug offenders to enter drug rehabilitation rather than spend time behind bars.

“She claims she believes in addiction treatment, but when you look at her actions you see it’s not true,” Bergman said. “She was opposed to treatment instead of incarceration.”

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In her tenure as district attorney, Dumanis adopted a harsh view of state-legal cannabis that won her praise—and derision—as among the toughest prosecutors in the country. Most recently, she headed up a raid of a San Diego dispensary that made national headlines for its use of asset forfeiture that critics have called excessive. In that case, involving a cannabis distributor called Med-West, law enforcement seized more than $300,000 in cash and property from the business, along with an additional $100,000 from personal bank accounts belonging to business owner James Slatic, his wife, and step-daughters.

Despite the seeming urgency of the military-style raid, Dumanis’ office didn’t press charges for over a year. A criminal complaint was filed only after a judge ordered prosecutors to return the money from the personal bank accounts, raising complaints from critics that the charges appeared retaliatory. In the ongoing criminal case, Slatic has professed innocence and his intention to fight the charges.

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Surprising many observers, Dumanis also pressed criminal charges against Slatic’s lawyer, San Diego cannabis attorney Jessica McElfresh. McElfresh also denies wrongdoing and has vowed to fight the charges, which accuse her of conspiring to conceal illegal cannabis extraction from investigators.

Before attending Friday’s Bonnie Bash, many protesters went to a hearing in McElfresh’s case  to show support. (The hearing itself was mostly uneventful, with the bulk of proceedings rescheduled to a later date.)

Rich Hertz, Bonnie Bash attendee, shared his own story of being raided. The San Diego resident said he was growing marijuana plants within the boundaries of the law but was arrested by authorities anyway.

“She attacks people like me even though I was breaking no laws,” Hertz said. Despite Dumanis lobbing several felony charges against Hertz, he said, he pleaded guilty only to a misdemeanor.

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“She knows she can’t convict us so she lies,” he said.

Diane Goldstein, another Bonnie Bash attendee, is a former lieutenant of the Redondo Beach Police Department. Nowadays she sits on the board of directors for Law Enforcement Action Partnership, an organization that advocates for cannabis legalization and other harm-reduction policies. She says Dumanis’ focus on cannabis did little besides fuel a losing war against an issue on which American voters have largely agreed.

“She’s continued to pursue criminal cases that have wasted fiscal resources,” Goldstein said, pointing to legal actions like those against Hertz and Slatic. “What a waste of time, money, and taxpayer resources.”