The Balboa Avenue Cooperative marijuana dispensary in San Diego, alternatively known as the “Tree House Balboa.” / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Federal authorities accused Salam Razuki, a prominent San Diego property owner and marijuana investor, of plotting with two of his associates to kidnap and murder a business partner in Mexico.

Razuki was arrested Friday, and by Monday the allegations of a criminal conspiracy had left members of San Diego’s marijuana industry stunned. They’ve tried hard since the passage of Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana statewide, to shed the industry’s image of lawlessness.

The heads of most major marijuana trade groups in San Diego declined to talk about what Razuki’s arrest means for the industry at large. It’s likely to reflect poorly on them all, giving ammunition to the region’s band of traveling prohibitionists, who continue to lobby city councils against the creation of new marijuana markets.

As it is, the public safety concerns raised by the opponents of legalization have not come to fruition. Very few crimes were reported in San Diego’s legal marijuana dispensaries during the first half of 2016, and the notable instances of violence have occurred among illegal dispensaries, which are unregulated.

Earlier this summer, Razuki sued his business partner, Ninus Malan, for control of several legal marijuana businesses in San Diego, including the Balboa Avenue Cooperative. The Kearny Mesa dispensary’s ownership has been in dispute for more than a year, leading to multiple lawsuits.

Razuki has said he put up the capital for the Balboa Avenue Cooperative and its related marijuana businesses — including distribution, manufacturing and cultivation companies — but kept his name off the state and local applications because he wanted to avoid scrutiny by officials. His lawsuit inadvertently exposed a loophole that allows certain types of financiers in the marijuana industry to remain in the shadows. State regulators have since moved to fix that.

The court filings between Razuki and Malan have sounded increasingly bitter in recent weeks. Malan filed a restraining order in August, alleging that Razuki and his associates had been stealing his mail and had hired gang members to intimidate him.

“I have information of possible life threats,” Malan wrote, and provided a photograph to the court showing spray paint on front a restaurant that Malan managed. It read, “snitch.”

Until then, the dispute had seemed bitter but still professional. Now it’s taken a dark turn.

A criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court Southern District of California alleges that Razuki and two of his associates, Sylvia Gonzales and Elizabeth Juarez, met at various points in October and November with a confidential FBI informant to sketch out plans for getting Malan into Tijuana, where he’d disappear for good.

Federal prosecutors say on Nov. 5, Gonzales told the informant that Razuki had $44 million tied up in marijuana businesses and the civil dispute with Malan was costing them both money. Several days later, according to prosecutors, Juarez and Gonzales agreed that the murder should be done in Mexico, before Thanksgiving, and they took a photo together to commemorate the moment.

The following day, prosecutors allege, the informant met with all three of the defendants, and Gonzales went across the street to the Goldn Bloom dispensary — another legal marijuana business with financial ties to Razuki — and came back with $1,000 cash as a deposit for the hit. The dispensary’s managers did not return a request for comment Monday.

Prosecutors went on to allege in legal filings that Gonzales wrote down the addresses for two businesses that Malan frequents, and later helped the informant identify Malan as he left a court hearing downtown.

The FBI spoke to Malan on Thursday, the same day that the informant paid a visit to Razuki and allegedly informed him that the job was complete. When the informant asked Razuki whether he wanted to see some proof, he responded, according to the complaint, “No, I’m okay with it. I don’t want to see it.”

Gonzales and Razuki were arrested late last week and denied any involvement in a criminal conspiracy. Juarez, on the other hand, told prosecutors, according to the complaint, that she didn’t think the group’s conversations about kidnapping and murder were serious — that they weren’t intending to follow through.

Civil and criminal attorneys for Razuki declined to comment. The criminal complaint notes that he’s been an FBI informant himself since May 2014, but it’s unclear what kind of information he’d been providing to federal authorities.

Another of his associates, Tony Avila-Martin, who attended Razuki’s arraignment Monday, said the whole incident appears to have been a joke, taken out of context.

“Salam is a businessperson who puts God first,” he said. “I’ve known him for two years and he’s never once asked me to do a violent thing.”

Razuki has been on the radar of local officials for years. A blighted strip mall he owns in Lincoln Park has been rife with code and construction problems. In 2017, the city intervened by filing misdemeanor criminal charges, and Razuki pleaded guilty to a single count.

Malan didn’t respond to messages Monday.

The news of Razuki’s arrest comes at a high point for the legal industry in Southern California and beyond. President Donald Trump forced out U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a move that was greeted warmly by people in the marijuana industry because Sessions considers marijuana a dangerous drug that “good people” avoid.

Sessions’ departure has relieved investors who were looking and waiting from the outside, said Sam Humeid, president of the San Diego Cannabis Delivery Alliance. “The gold rush is in full swing again,” he said.

But in San Diego, Humeid fears, the charges against Razuki and his associates could harm the prospects for reform. He and others have argued that the legal industry in San Diego meets the definition of an oligarchy, concentrating permits in the hands of a lucky few who can find the financial backing.

Making the case for a larger legal industry — for the City Council to expand the number of dispensaries and businesses citywide — is probably going to be harder now, Humeid said.

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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